W.W. Phelps was one of the best writers in Mormonism. It should come as no surprise that he assisted Joseph Smith in the First Vision account. Dr. Bruce Van Orden gives more details.
Bruce: Officially, Joseph Smith became the editor [of the TImes & Season] for eight months in 1842. But the problem is Joseph Smith never even went to the printing office, except a few times at night to check on newspapers about what they were saying about him, that it come in from the east. Remember, all newspaper offices got newspapers from all over the country, that was just part of the arrangement in those days. He wanted to check about what they were saying about him. He did not play a role in the day-to-day functioning of the editing of the Times and Seasons.
Bruce: I came to the conclusion based on internal evidence and writing styles, and some of the historical evidence that comes from the journals, that Phelps was running the day-to-day operations, then, of the printing of the newspaper. John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff were involved, but, they didn’t do any of the writing. Woodruff did entirely the business operations, and John Taylor was sick some of the time and doing other assignments. He wasn’t even there to run the newspaper, although he was kind of the assistant editor under Joseph Smith. This is the shocking thing that I came up with. It shocked me that that Phelps was actually doing the writing for The Times and Seasons, particularly making sure the content was what he wanted, in the Times and Seasons. Around this time, John Wentworth, a major newspaper editor in Chicago, asked Joseph Smith, if he might produce a history of the Latter-day Saints. The title was Church History. In a letter, Joseph Smith supposedly put together this history. It’s multi page. It was not ever published by Wentworth, but it was published in the Times and Seasons at the upstart of Joseph Smith’s editorship, official editorship of the Times and Seasons. The Wentworth letter includes the First Vision story, the first published story in Joseph Smith’s name. The official 1838 edition had not come out in published form, yet. So, this was the first one.
GT: Oh, I didn’t realize that.
Bruce: It came out later in the Times and Seasons, as part of the official history as Phelps put together, Joseph Smith’s History. He called it that in the Times and Seasons, but this was the first published version by Joseph Smith. However, preceding this version, were printed accounts of the First Vision by both Orson Pratt in Scotland and Orson Hyde in continental Europe, where they described what happened in the First Vision. It’s obvious that some of the same language used by Pratt and Hyde was used in the Wentworth letter account, 1842 account. It’s very obvious to me and it even comes out in the Joseph Smith papers project, that Phelps was Joseph Smith’s assistant in putting together this Wentworth letter. It’s a lengthy history of the Church for those 12 years, including all of the problems in Missouri. It’s obvious that Phelps wrote that part, because he was part of what happened in Jackson County and Clay County and Far West. Joseph wasn’t part of any of that, and it’s in Phelps’ language, his rhetorical style.
We’ll also talk about the elevation of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles in 1841, that superseded the role of the High Council.
Bruce: But, when he arrived in Nauvoo, and Don Carlos Smith, had passed away and the editorship of the Times and Seasons fell into the hands of Ebenezer Robinson, who had been a Danite with Sidney Rigdon back in Missouri. He [Ebenezer] now was doing some things that were not pleasing to Joseph Smith and the Twelve. By this time, the Twelve had come back from their mission in Britain and had been instated as leadership over the entire Church by mid-1841. The Twelve were under the First Presidency, over the whole Church. That did happen.
GT: Okay, There was still a High Council, though.
Bruce: A high council, but it was a stake. It was a stake high council, in Nauvoo. There were other stakes. There were several stakes of Zion at that stage of the game.
GT: So essentially, the apostles did take up supremacy over the High Council.
Bruce: Yes. Now, some people argue that William Marks, the president of the high council in Nauvoo had equal authority to the Twelve. He maybe thought he did, but in the succession crisis, he played a role, that’s true. But we now can see that Joseph Smith had placed the Twelve Apostles under the First Presidency and used them in authoritative ways for the rest of his life, from 1841 through 1844, for three years. The Twelve did play a huge role.
We also talk about Phelps role in the Succession Crisis. Check out our conversation….