William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet


By Kyle R. Walker

  • “A magnificent work.” — Standard Examiner
  • “This comprehensive treatment will serve as the definitive biography for years to come; it will certainly be difficult to improve upon.” Association for Mormon Letters 
  • “Walker has further solidified his position as the leading expert on the Smith family.” —  Juvenile Instructor
  • “An important addition to the growing literature on the rise of Mormonism.” — BYU Studies Quarterly

2016 Best Biography Award, John Whitmer Historical Association

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Book Description:

Younger brother of Joseph Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Church Patriarch for a time, William Smith had tumultuous yet devoted relationships with Joseph, his fellow members of the Twelve, and the LDS and RLDS (Community of Christ) churches. Walker's imposing biography examines not only William's complex life in detail, but also sheds additional light on the family dynamics of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith, as well as the turbulent intersections between the LDS and RLDS churches. William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet is a vital contribution to Mormon history in both the LDS and RLDS traditions.

AuthorCast Interview with the Author:

Comprehensive Table of Contents:



1. Uncle Jesse
2. Yankee Childhood
3. The Angel and the Plates
4. Conversion
5. Life in “the Ohio”: Missions, Marriage, and Ministry
6. In the Shadow of a Prophet
7. A Season in Zion, 1836–39
8. Newspaper Editor and Illinois Legislator, 1840–43
9. President of the Eastern Branches,1843–45
10. Return to Nauvoo
11. Time of Reckoning
12. Disgruntled Patriarch
13. Apostle to Apostate
14. “Ho! For Voree”: Strangite Apostle and Patriarch
15. Church-Building: Quest for Ecclesiastical Station
16. Expansion and Collapse
17. A Time of Transition
18. Civil War Soldier
19. The “Brighamites”
20. The “Josephites”
21. Final Years

App. A. Wives and Children of William B. Smith

Civil Wives and Children
Plural Wives

App. B. “The Elders’ Pocket Companion” By William Smith


Comprehensive Anthologies and Institutions Abbreviated in Citations
Main Entries


Q&A with the Author:


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.


Praise for William B. Smith:

“Bullseye! Kyle Walker’s biography of Joseph Smith Jr.’s lesser known younger brother William is right on target. It weaves a narrative that is searching, balanced, and comprehensive. Walker puts this former Mormon apostle solidly within a Smith family setting, and he hits the mark for anyone interested in Joseph Smith and his family. Walker’s biography will become essential reading on leadership dynamics within Mormonism after Joseph Smith’s death.”
— Mark Staker, author of the award-winning Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations

“This perceptive biography on William, the last remaining Smith brother, provides a thorough timeline of his life’s journey and elucidates how his insatiable discontent eventually tempered the once irascible young man into a seasoned patriarch loved by those who knew him.”
— Erin B. Metcalfe, president (2014–15) John Whitmer Historical Association

“Handsome, tall, eloquent, and charismatic, William Smith, Joseph Smith's last surviving brother, seemed well positioned to step into his prophet-brother's leadership shoes. Instead, he spent the decade after the martyrdom trying and failing to establish himself as the leader of a significant movement, repeatedly dabbling in polygamy, and repeatedly destroying instead of building relationships. Kyle Walker, approaching this gifted but turbulent man from a family dynamics perspective, gives him full credit for his achievement but also laments his insecurity, temper, and feeling of entitlement that so severely limited his achievement.”
— Lavina Fielding Anderson, Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir

“I suspect that this comprehensive treatment will serve as the definitive biography for years to come; it will certainly be difficult to improve upon. 
— Joe Steve Swick III, Association for Mormon Letters 

“The new biography of Smith ... is a magnificent work. Through extensive research, Walker has compiled a detailed biography that highlights not only the many dysfunctions that hampered Joseph’s younger brother, but spotlights his talents, and provides a poignancy, particularly in his later years, that makes you admire and root for the younger brother who was tossed from the main LDS Church a year-plus after Joseph’s death.”
— Doug Gibson, Standard Examiner

“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.”
— Steve Flemming, Juvenile Instructor

Walker’s biography is an important addition to the growing literature on the rise of Mormonism in the nineteenth century and the Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith family.
Richard Neitzel HolzapfelBYU Studies Quarterly

About the Author:

Kyle R. Walker received his PhD. In Marriage and Family Therapy from Brigham Young University. He is the author or editor of two books (United by Faith: The Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith Family and The Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith Family: A Family Process Analysis of a Nineteenth-Century Household), as well as numerous articles on Mormon history. He currently is a faculty member at BYU-Idaho, where he works in the Counseling Center. He and his wife Daylene are the parents of five children.

More Information:

653 pages
ISBN: 978-1-58958-503-4 (paperback) 978-1-58958-504-1 (hardcover)
Published June 2015

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