Section 55: William Wines Phelps
Apparently, some time during the conference of elders in June 3-5, 1831, a man arrived among them from Canandaigua, New York with his family. He told Joseph in essence, “I’d be an easy man to convert. Teach me your gospel and tell me what to do.” He had first heard of the Book of Mormon in March 1830 when he read an announcement that the book was about to come off the press. He later met Parley P. Pratt, who sold him a copy. He read the book and was moved by it.
This was William Wines Phelps—one of the most colorful and competent men in our church history. He was born in New Jersey and was almost fourteen years older than the Prophet. He was thirty-nine years of age when he joined the Church. In his professional life in New York, he had edited and published a newspaper and had been active in politics.
According to the Far West Record, W. W. Phelps (see verse 2) and A. Sidney Gilbert (see D&C 53:3) were ordained elders by Joseph Smith on June 6, 1831, together with several others. It follows that sections 53 and 55, which accompanied those ordinations, ought to be dated together sometime on or before June 6. Since section 54 deals with events that probably took place after June 6, it is likely that section 55 is out of its correct chronological order, belonging properly with section 53 and prior to section 54.
In this section the Lord commands Brother Phelps to be baptized, to be ordained an elder, and to go to Missouri in the presidential party with Joseph Smith and others. In section 55 he is also commanded to assist Oliver Cowdery in running the church’s first printing press and to write textbooks for the education of the children of the saints. In 1831 public schools were scarce on the frontier, and Joseph felt the need to provide schools for their children. The Church would also need scriptures for the members, tracts for their missionaries, and newspapers to communicate the news of the Church and the teachings of its leaders.
After arriving in Missouri, he founded and published the Evening and Morning Star, the first monthly magazine devoted to the interests of the Church and published by the Church. The first edition was published at Independence in June 1832. He was in the process of publishing the Book of Commandments when interrupted by a mob that destroyed the press in July of 1833, but the following December another printing office was established in Kirtland, and the publication of the Star resumed there.
In his lifetime, Phelps composed several hymns popular among the saints, including “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain,” “O God, the Eternal Father,” “Now Let us Rejoice,” “Redeemer of Israel,” and “Earth with Her Ten Thousand Flowers.” He also wrote “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning” and “The Earth Was Once a Garden Place” for the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. Following the martyrdom of the Prophet, Brother Phelps wrote “Praise to the Man” as a tribute to Joseph.
W.W. Phelps’s career in the Church was a bit tempestuous. He is the only man to be excommunicated on three different occasions, and each time he came back to the Church. He died faithful in the Church at the age of 80 in Salt Lake City.
1 Behold, thus saith the Lord unto you, my servant William, yea, even the Lord of the whole earth, thou art called and chosen; and after thou hast been baptized by water, which if you do with an eye single to my glory, you shall have a remission of your sins and a reception of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands;
verse 1 “with an eye single to my glory” Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote:
Through the natural eyes men see the light which guides them in their physical existence, through their spiritual eyes, [they see] the spiritual light which leads to eternal life. As long as the natural eyes are unimpaired, men can see and be guided by the light of day; and as long as the spiritual eyes are single to the glory of God—that is, as long as they are undimmed by sin and are focused solely on righteousness—men can view and understand the things of the Spirit. But if apostasy enters and the spiritual light turns to darkness, “how great is that darkness!” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:240).
For a discussion of the concept of light see The Concept of Light in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 1 chapter 15.
Here on earth, we are constantly torn between things of the world and things of the Spirit. Though it might seem ideal and desirable, we do not have the luxury of giving ourselves wholly to things of the Spirit, since things of the world are good and necessary for our existence here. The secret is to keep them in proper perspective—to be “in” the world but not “of” the world. Our ultimate and primary loyalty must be to the things of the Spirit—we must keep our eye single to the glory of God. Man cannot worship both God and mammon (Matthew 6:24).
2 And then thou shalt be ordained by the hand of my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., to be an elder unto this church, to preach repentance and remission of sins by way of baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.
verse 2 As mentioned above, Brother Phelps ordination to the office of elder took place on June 6, 1831.
3 And on whomsoever you shall lay your hands, if they are contrite before me,
you shall have power to give the Holy Spirit.
4 And again, you shall be ordained to assist my servant Oliver Cowdery to do the work of printing, and of selecting and writing books for schools in this church, that little children also may receive instruction before me as is pleasing unto me.
verse 4 “you shall be ordained to assist my servant Oliver Cowdery to do the work of printing” Oliver Cowdery, the second elder of the Church, had remained in Missouri since arriving there six months earlier as head of the Lamanite mission. As the second elder, Oliver was also the effective head of the Church in Missouri, and
W.W. Phelps was called to assist Oliver there by doing the work of writing, editing, and publishing. Brother Phelps’s calling was so important to the Church, however, that a short time later the Lord will instruct Oliver to assist W. W. Phelps to make certain that he has the resources necessary to complete his calling (see D&C 57:13).
See also the introductory commentary for this section.
“selecting and writing books for schools” Brother Phelps was largely unsuccessful in completing this part of his calling. A year later, in June 1832, Phelps wrote in the first edition of The Evening and Morning Star: “Those appointed to select and prepare books for the use of schools, will attend to that subject, as soon as more weighty matters are finished.”
5 And again, verily I say unto you, for this cause you shall take your journey with my servants Joseph Smith, Jun., and Sidney Rigdon, that you may be planted in the land of your inheritance to do this work.
verse 5 “take your journey” Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, William W. Phelps,
A. S. Gilbert, and others left Kirtland about two weeks later, on June 19, 1831 to travel to Missouri.
6 And again, let my servant Joseph Coe also take his journey with them. The residue shall be made known hereafter, even as I will. Amen.
verse 6 “let my servant Joseph Coe also take his journey with them” Joseph Coe had recently been baptized and ordained. He made the trip to Missouri as commanded and returned to Kirtland. He served in various callings there, worked to build the Kirtland Temple, and participated in the laying of its cornerstone. He helped in the securing of the Egyptian mummies and their papyri in 1835. He became dissatisfied with the Church in 1837, however, and was excommunicated in December 1838. When the Church moved on to Missouri and Illinois, Joseph Coe remained behind in Kirtland.
“the residue shall be made known hereafter” The rest of the Lord’s instructions will be made known later (compare D&C 57:16).
- Michael J. Preece