Kyle R. Walker, William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2015. xiv, 639 pp. Photographs, two appendices, notes, sources, index; ISBN 978-58958-505-1.
Kyle Walker has further solidified his position as the leading expert on the Smith family with this extensive biography of Joseph Smith’s troubled younger brother, William. In meticulous detail, Walker describes William’s life as one full of conflict: with his brother Joseph and other church leaders during Joseph’s lifetime, with other claimants to leadership after Joseph death, with William’s own followers when William made his own claim, and with William’s numerous wives almost all of whom left him. As one-time follower Edmund Briggs declared, “Everybody that knew William Smith, and worked with him, rejected him” (409).
Walker begins the book with a description of uncle Jesse Smith, the cantankerous family member that threatened to get an ax if anyone said anything about the Book of Mormon. Walker wonders if there was an inherited family trait that would explain William short temper, his refusal to compromise or let things go, and his perpetual self-focus.
William was appointed to be one of the first members of the twelve, “contrary to our feelings and judgment,” Oliver Cowdery later wrote, “and to our deep mortification ever since” (100). Cowdery said that he and David Whitmer consented to appoint William (the three witnesses were called to call the Twelve) because Joseph made the request, but Joseph himself fell into conflict with William shortly thereafter, which resulted in William punching Joseph in the face (114-15).
Joseph continually worked at smoothing things over with his younger brother, but the conflicts continued. Things got really bad during a mission to the northeastern United States when William engaged in arranging polygamous marriages to himself and a close group of followers. Joseph wanted such actions closely regulated and such ended up causing major conflict in Boston (Chapter Nine).
Things completely fell apart for William and the Twelve after Joseph’s death; William not only rode openly with his plural wives in his carriage but also made a speech openly declaring the doctrine. More conflict ensued before William was excommunicated in October 1845.
William then set about trying to ingratiate himself with other Mormon factions, before he attempted to lead his own church. William did so on the premise of family succession and the denunciation of polygamy. Such a tenet was ironic since William had had several plural wives and proved his undoing when a close follower sought to test him by asking William in a letter what his views were on the subject. William’s movement fell apart when he affirmed that he really did believe in the practice (385).
The loss of his movement highlighted another major theme of the book: William’s struggle to support himself outside of receiving church funds. With the collapse of his following, William was desperate enough to write to Brigham Young and the Twelve. Young never wrote back (William had worked very hard to thwart Utah statehood by informing congress that the Mormons there were practicing polygamy) and Orson Hyde told William, “I can recommend to you no better way to get help of a pecuniary nature then the course I took when in a similar condition of your own. I Bought me a Good ax and went to chopping cord wood. A course of this kind will prove to the church that Conscience and principle and not want have induced your return to the church” (480).
William would later enlist in the Union Army and was supported by an army pension the rest of his life. William did join the RLDS church and received some funds from them, but Joseph Smith III kept William at arm’s length and refused to reappoint him as patriarch.
The book’s strength, its meticulous detail, often becomes a weakness as it often feels too detailed; the book would have been stronger if it were more concise. At one point, however, the book seems not to have been detailed enough. Though Walker cites John Hardy’s Startling Developments of Crim. Con.! Or the Two Mormon Apostles Exposed in Practicing the Spiritual Wife System (1844) when discussing William’s troubled time among the northeastern branches, he left out a lot of the detail. William’s problem wasn’t just that he was engaging in plural marriages (though that was a major concern) but it was the manner in which he did so and how he responded when members of the branch called out William’s actions.
Hardy’s pamphlet cites a number of grievances against William, including one “Sister S.” who testified that when Smith was staying with her and her husband and she went to his room to get his laundry, “He saw me and asked me to come to bed. I refused.” Sister S. said William continued to proposition her in the following days, which she continued to refused “telling him if all he wanted of my friendship was to gratify his carnal desire, I wanted nothing to do with him; he said he cared not for any one’s friendship or love, unless he could gratify his desires” (10).
When Sister S. and many other women testified to similar things, Hardy said William had “trouble of disposing of the remaining testimony” so “he made a bold push, and one witness was a prostitute! The other the same, and insane! in the bargain, and they all were liars; and they were among those that were attempting to seduce the handsome, beautiful, genteel, lovely, and virtuous William Smith!” (10-11). William and George J. Adams (who was involved in similar activities) then “threatened all that dared vote against them with excommunication.” The congregation then excommunicated Hardy by a vote of 75 to 25 (10-11).
William was likely engaged in such activities throughout the eastern branches and statements from church leaders support Hardy’s claims: in 1845 the Times and Seasons declared of William’s actions, “Wounded virtue has not been healed, and might require a balm” (316), Orson Hyde wrote William the same year, “I know what you [have] done in the east” (466), and Jedediah Grant declared in 1856 that William’s marital practices “would make [women] wretched and miserable, would debauch and degrade them” (292). Again, Walker quotes Hardy’s pamphlet but leaves out these details. So while I do recommend the book and praise Walker’s meticulous research on the topic, I was left wondering why he left these details out.