W.W. Phelps is one of the best known leaders in early Mormon history that wasn’t an apostle. Dr. Bruce Van Orden is the author of We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout, a biography of WW Phelps. I knew that Phelps was a newspaper editor prior to joining the Church, but I was surprised to learn that he was arrested and jailed before he was even baptized due to his friendliness to the Book of Mormon. Bruce will tell us more.
Bruce: [Phelps] got interested in the Book of Mormon, as he heard about it. He lived in Canandaigua. His newspaper was the Ontario Phoenix and Canandaigua was only 12 miles away from Palmyra. All the newspaper editors knew each other, and he knew of what was happening in Palmyra and he knew about the Book of Mormon. He went and obtained several copies of the Book of Mormon, and sold some of them in his bookstore of his printing office. He had gotten so interested in it, and went about the vicinity, inquiring more about the background of Joseph Smith and the origins of the Book of Mormon. Because of that, businessmen who were supporting his newspaper got annoyed, and they took out charges against at W.W. Phelps, for indebtedness. [At that time,] still in the state of New York, a person could be jailed for indebtedness, and he was jailed for 30 days. He ended up writing to various newspapers in upstate New York about his plight and that exposed what was going on and so he was let out. But, he decided at that point, he had already been converted in his heart to the Book of Mormon, and he decided at that point that he would resign his editorship, which was a major undertaking. And then [he would] go to Kirtland where he knew the Latter-day Saints had began to gather and [he would] say, “I’m with you. I’m here to do God’s will. Use me as you will.”
GT: It’s surprising to me that, that he was jailed even before he became Mormon. I guess we can still use that term, right?
Bruce: [Yes, we can use that term,] because he used it and Joseph Smith used it. They refer to the movement as Mormonism. W.W. Phelps was the main writer and he used the term all the time. So you bet I’m going to use Mormon and Mormonism.
Phelps was part of some of the most important events in early Mormonism. Check out our conversation….