Q&A with William B. Smith Author Kyle Walker May 20 2015
by Kyle R. Walker
Approx. 650 pages
Paperback $39.95 (ISBN: 978-1-58958-503-4)
Hardback $69.95 (ISBN 978-1-58958-504-1)
Q: What prompted your interest in William B. Smith as a biography subject?
Kyle:I have been researching extensively on the Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith family for many years, and William has always fascinated me. Perhaps it is because of my training as a marriage and family therapist that his life has intrigued me so much. I enjoy researching and studying about family dynamics in a historical context. I was also drawn to this subject because of the vast surviving letters and sources that I knew would help to reconstruct his life. Besides his autobiography that he published in 1883, there are literally hundreds of his letters that have survived. After his break with Brigham Young in September 1845, he affiliated with a host of noted dissidents, and attempted to form his own offshoot of Mormonism. All of these interactions provide rich material from which to reconstruct his life.
Q: There have been full length biographies of several prominent Mormon figures over the years, but we had to wait until 2015 to get the first full length treatment of William Smith, the Prophet's younger brother, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Church Patriarch. Do you think there a specific reason for this?
Kyle: I think it was because both the LDS and RLDS Churches tried to distance themselves from William. The LDS Church distanced themselves because he left the Church, taking to the press with his remonstrations, and tried to interfere with many of their pursuits, including their efforts for statehood. The RLDS Church chose to distance themselves from William after his death because of his previous involvement with polygamy. For these reasons, his life has largely been left in the shadows.
Q: What were some of the more difficult challenges you encountered in researching and writing this volume? Is there anything specific to the subject matter or Mormon history that presented difficulties?
Kyle: The most difficult thing was sifting through the sources to try and glean insights into William’s challenging personality. While I tried not “diagnose the dead,” I think the reader will be able to identify some of William’s core insecurities that drove his behavior, as well as his impulsive temper which led to extensive conflict in his relationships. Sorting out his form of plural marriage and documenting his wives was also a challenge.
Q: How might LDS readers specifically benefit from this biography of Smith?
Kyle: I think they will gain a greater appreciation for William’s contributions to both Mormon and our nation’s history. He was a member of the original Quorum of the Twelve, converting hundreds to the faith, edited two Church-sponsored newspapers (The Wasp and The Prophet), and served as Church Patriarch. In addition, he served in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1842-43, defending Nauvoo’s controversial charter. He also served as a Union soldier in the Civil War in 1864-65.
Q: How does Smith's story contribute to our understanding of the dynamics of the Joseph and Lucy Smith family?
Kyle: I think they will gain a greater appreciation for the first family of Mormonism, and some of the challenges they experienced in raising and dealing with William’s difficult personality. I think studying his life allows for a new perspective in understanding the Smith family, most especially after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum. As the only surviving male member of that family after the summer of 1845, William’s perspectives and behavior had a profound influence on surviving family members.
Q: Tell us a little about William's relationship with Joseph Smith.
Kyle: His relationship with Joseph Smith was actually more positive than most people think. Despite their fist-fight that occurred in 1835, they had a close and supportive relationship. William struggled with being a subordinate in all his relationships, and it was, at times, also difficult for him to defer to his brother’s judgment as both President of the Church and as an older sibling. Joseph continually supported William in his calling as an apostle, even when other members of the Twelve did not. There were times when Hyrum and Joseph intervened on his behalf in order to bring reconciliation between William and the rest of the Twelve.
Q: Smith was an apostle at the time of his brother Joseph's death, but he was excommunicated from the Church soon after. What prompted this seemingly drastic turn of events?
A: Well, I basically dedicate four chapters of the book trying to explain why he broke with the Twelve. It was a gradual and complex process, but he ultimately felt like he should hold a loftier position in the Church’s governing councils, similar to the one Hyrum held before his death. He also felt that it was his prerogative to utilize the sealing power without authorization. It was something the remainder of the Twelve were unwilling to allow.
Q: We know that William Smith eventually affiliated with the Reorganized Church (now the Community of Christ), led by his nephew, Joseph Smith III. Did William have any significant influence in church affairs?
Kyle: While William continually shared his views through letter-writing, which Joseph III often published in the Saints’ Herald newspaper, Joseph III astutely kept him at a distance from any real governing authority. But that did not prevent William from regularly petitioning his nephew for a more prominent role in the RLDS Church hierarchy.
Q: Did Smith have any substantial contact with the LDS Church during this time and before the end of his of his life?
Kyle: Yes. He petitioned to be reinstated in the LDS Church at least six times after he broke with Brigham Young’s leadership. However, he was unwilling to make the concessions that Orson Hyde (representing the Twelve) stipulated. His petitions to LDS leaders were often laced with requests for financial support, and always with the demand that he be reappointed as an apostle and as Church patriarch. He wrote to Brigham Young each year from 1854-1856 desiring reconciliation. Probably because of William’s continued demands, Young did not reply to any of these letters. Smith was rebaptized in 1860 by a traveling LDS missionary without the Twelve’s authorization, but that was short-lived. He shortly afterward turned to the RLDS Church.