Arnold K. Garr, “Joseph Smith: Man of Forgiveness,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 127–136.
Joseph Smith: Man of Forgiveness
Arnold K. Garr was assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University when this was published.
On the afternoon of 2 July 1839, the Prophet Joseph Smith spoke with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a few of the Seventies, who were about to depart on their historic mission to Great Britain, giving them counsel on numerous topics, including forgiveness. He admonished them to “Ever keep in exercise the principle of mercy, and be ready to forgive our brother on the first intimation of repentance, and asking forgiveness; and should we even forgive our brother, or even our enemy, before he repent or ask forgiveness, our heavenly Father would be equally as merciful unto us” (History of the Church 3:383; hereafter HC).
History has certainly confirmed the fact that on numerous occasions Joseph Smith practiced what he preached about forgiveness. Few, if any, in the history of the Church have been betrayed as frequently or as grievously as Joseph Smith. Yet, if an offender would sincerely repent, the Prophet would readily forgive—even when the offense had been severe. Some of the most impressive examples of this trait are revealed by case studies of Joseph’s interaction with three different men: Sylvester Smith, William B. Smith, and William Wines Phelps.
Sylvester Smith was baptized soon after the Church was organized and was ordained a high priest by Oliver Cowdery on 25 October 1831. He was active in missionary work and was called to the ministry by a revelation received on 25 January 1834 (see D&C 75:32). When the first high council was organized in Kirtland, Ohio, on 17 February 1834, Sylvester was chosen as one of its members. Soon he became a member of Zion’s Camp, the Mormon military expedition of about 200 volunteers that marched from Ohio to Missouri to help the Saints redeem the lands they had lost in Jackson County during the Missouri persecutions. But during that march, Sylvester “manifested a quarrelsome spirit, and rebelled on several occasions against Joseph the Prophet” (Jenson 1:191).
For example, on the evening of 17 May, there was a disagreement between Sylvester and some of the others of the camp, and the Prophet was called to settle the dispute. Joseph Smith found that he and some of the other brethren had a rebellious attitude. It seemed, however, that Sylvester’s demeanor was more extreme than that of the others. Joseph tried to calm him, but Sylvester continued to threaten the harmony of the expedition. That night the Prophet announced to the whole camp that unless there were a substantial change in many men’s attitudes, they would soon meet with “misfortunes, difficulties and hindrances,” and promised “‘you will know it before you leave this place’” (HC 2:68).
Joseph’s prophecy proved correct: the next morning, the company found every horse in the camp so lame “that [they] could scarcely lead them a few rods to water.” Upon hearing of their horses’ incapacity, Joseph promised that those who quickly repented of their discontent would have their mounts restored immediately. Most of the men followed the Prophet’s counsel, and by noon “the horses were as nimble as ever, with the exception of one of Sylvester Smith’s, which soon afterwards died” (HC 2:68–69). The malcontents accepted this incident as a clear indication of the holy power wielded by the Prophet; they were sufficiently frightened that few of them dared complain for the space of several days.
However, the problems arose again on 5 June 1934. We might refer to this as “the dog and fife incident.” The camp had just crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri. Sylvester Smith’s company was the last to cross the river. While waiting on the eastern bank, Levi Hancock, a 31-year-old convert, had whittled a small fife from a sweet elder branch. When they crossed the river, Sylvester lined his men up single-file, intending to enter the camp and impress the rest of the brethren with their military precision. They proudly made their entrance, marching to the music of Hancock’s fife. Unfortunately, the music excited Joseph’s dog, and it barked and ran at the men as they approached the camp. No real harm arose from the incident, but harsh words were exchanged. Sylvester was “enraged . . . to the extent that he used much abusive language to Joseph, threatening the dog’s life” (Smith 21–22; Kimball 6:788).
The next morning, the confrontation resumed with the same intensity of the night before. The Prophet spoke to the camp, explaining his intention to demonstrate the foolishness that the men displayed when bickering with each other. He said that the attitude of some members of the expedition was that, “If a dog bites me I will kill him—if any man insults me, I will kill him—if any man injures me I will injure him,” and that this was the same spirit that fosters “division and bloodshed throughout the world” (Smith 22). Unfortunately, Sylvester was just returning from feeding the horses and heard only the last part of Joseph’s speech. He assumed that the prophet was ridiculing him in front of the men and swore that, despite what anyone might think, “if that dog bites me I’ll kill him” (Smith 22; Kimball 6:789). Joseph replied that Sylvester was possessed by an evil spirit and that unless he repented the “day should come when a dog would bite him, and gnaw his flesh and he would not be able to resist it.” Sylvester’s anger continued to heighten as he accused Joseph of “prophecying lies in the name of the Lord” (Smith 22).
For about a week and a half after this incident, Sylvester was able to control his temper. Then, 17 June saw another flare-up as a rumor circulated that a “party of men were gathered together on the Missouri river with the intention of attacking [them] that night” (HC 2:100). It was almost dusk and the men were weary and wanted to stop near a stand of timber and pitch their tents. The Prophet decided that because of the possibility of a hostile attack it would be better to hike eight or ten miles out into the prairie before camping, to spoil any enemy’s element of surprise.
Lyman Wight, who was general of the camp, objected to marching the men onto the prairie, where firewood and water would likely be scarce. At this critical juncture, Sylvester Smith entered the conflict. Standing defiantly in the middle of the road and facing the column as it prepared to march, he shouted, “‘Are you following your general or some other man?’” His actions incited murmuring among the men, and twenty of them spent the night in the timber with Wight and Sylvester. The rest of the expedition walked into the prairie and camped out of sight of the forest. The next morning when Wight’s group rejoined the camp, Joseph chastised them for staying behind and for disobeying his counsel. Wight promised “he would stand by [Joseph] forever, and never forsake [him] again.” Unfortunately, the Prophet reported, Sylvester “manifested very refractory feelings” (HC 2:100–01). This was the last major incident between Joseph and Sylvester during the Zion’s Camp march. However, after the camp was dissolved and the participants returned to Ohio, Sylvester Smith resumed his venomous attacks on the Prophet.
In August 1834, a rumor spread through the Church suggesting that Joseph Smith had behaved improperly during Zion’s Camp. Investigations soon exposed Sylvester Smith as the propagator of the rumor. On 11 August 1834, a council of high priests and elders was convened to ascertain the truth about the Prophet’s conduct. After a lengthy inquiry, members of the council concluded that Sylvester’s charges were false and recommended that an article be published in the Evening and Morning Star stating that Joseph had “acted in every respect in an honorable and proper manner.” The officials of the meeting appointed three men to write the article; Sylvester Smith volunteered to write a confession of his false charges to accompany the article (HC 2:142–44).
Unfortunately, this meeting did not end Sylvester’s rebellion. On 16 August 1834, the Prophet wrote to some of the Church leaders in Missouri, noting Sylvester’s insubordination: “I was met in the face and eyes,” he declared, with charges worthy of the “author of lies himself; and the cry was Tyrant! Pope—King—Usurper—Abuser of men . . . False Prophet—Prophesying lies in the name of the Lord—Taking consecrated monies” (HC 2:147–50).
On Saturday, 23 August 1834, members of the council met again, this time to consider the resolutions on the matter which had been written by a three-man committee. After hearing the resolution, Sylvester refused to abide by the decision of the council and insisted on justifying his conduct. After an emotional debate, members of the council unanimously resolved to censure Sylvester, stating that “except a humble confession be made to [the] council, he stands rebuked, and disqualified to act further in his office in the Church, until he make proper satisfaction or till a trial before the Bishop, assisted by twelve High Priests can be had” (HC 2:147–50).
Five days later, on 28 August 1834, Sylvester appeared before the Church’s highest court to answer the charges against him. After two days of testimony, the court upheld the Prophet Joseph Smith. Sylvester then spoke, claiming that he had been slandered by Joseph’s public chastisement. Bishop Newel K. Whitney stated that Sylvester had failed to prove his charges against the Prophet, and in order to remain a member of the Church, he would have to publicly acknowledge that his charges against Joseph were false. The court thus found that Sylvester had willfully lied “to injure President Smith’s standing in the Church,” and that he had abused the former councils which “sat upon this case” by refusing to abide by their decision (HC 2:159).
At last, on 28 October 1834, two months after the court was held, Sylvester Smith wrote a sincere letter of apology which was published in the Messenger and Advocate. A portion of his apology reads:
It is no more than just that I should confess my faults by saying unto all people . . . that the things that I accused Brother Smith of were without foundation; as most clearly proven, by the evidence which was called, to my satisfaction. . . . I am now perfectly satisfied that the errors of which I accused him before the council, did not exist, and were never committed by him; and my contrition has been and still continues to be deep, because I admitted thoughts in to my heart which were not right concerning him; and because that I have been the means of giving rise to reports which have gone abroad, censuring the conduct of Brother Joseph Smith, Jun,. which reports are without foundation. And I hope that this disclosure of the truth, written by my own hand, and sent abroad into the world, through the medium of the Messenger and Advocate, will put a final end to all evil reports and censurings which have sprung out of anything that I have said or done. (HC 2:160)
With this letter, Sylvester ended five months of disparaging attacks against the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Just four months later, on 28 February 1835, Joseph organized the First Quorum of the Seventy. Without exception, every man called to serve in that Quorum had been a member of Zion’s Camp. Surprisingly, one of the men called to serve as a President of the Quorum was Sylvester Smith, who just six months before had publicly accused the Prophet of being a tyrant, an abuser of men, a false prophet; of prophesying lies in the name of the Lord and taking consecrated monies (HC 2:201–04). Despite these earlier accusations, Joseph called Sylvester to be a General Authority in the Church. This is just one of the many incidents in the Prophet’s life which demonstrates his forgiving and magnanimous nature.
The second case study is that of the Prophet’s own brother, William Smith, born 13 March 1811, at Royalton, Windsor County, Vermont. The fifth son of Joseph, Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith, William served missions for the Church and was ordained one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on 15 February 1835, in Kirtland, Ohio (Jenson 1:86–87). On numerous occasions William manifested a spirit of rebellion which was a great source of concern to his Prophet-brother and other members of his family. One of these occasions took place on Wednesday, 16 December 1835.
The Prophet Joseph had gone to William’s home to participate in a debate. When the debate concluded, a decision was made to discontinue further debates. William opposed the measure and wanted to propose another motion on the subject. When his question did not carry, he became enraged and physically attacked Joseph and others. William beat Joseph so savagely that he was unable to sit down or rise up without help. William was finally restrained, and Joseph soon returned to his own home. The Prophet later wrote that the incident cause him to be “grieved beyond measure.” Then he resolved that he could only “pray God to forgive [William], inasmuch as he repents of his wickedness, and humbles himself before the Lord” (HC 2:334–35).
Two days after the incident, on Friday, 18 December, Joseph received a letter from William begging his forgiveness.
When I reflect upon the injury I have done you, I must confess that I do not know what I have been about. I feel sorry for what I have done, and humbly ask your forgiveness. I have not confidence as yet to come and see you, for I feel ashamed of what I have done; and as I feel now, I feel as though all the confessions that I could make, verbally or by writing, would not be sufficient to atone for the transgression. Be this as it may, I am willing to make all the restitution you shall require. If I can stay in the Church as a member, I will try to make all the satisfaction possible.
P.S.—Do not cast me off for what I have done, but strive to save me in the Church as a member. I do repent of what I have done to you and ask your forgiveness. I consider the transgression, the other evening, of no small magnitude; but it is done, and I cannot help it now. I know, Brother Joseph, you are always willing to forgive; but I sometimes think, when I reflect upon the many injuries I have done you, I feel as though confession was hardly sufficient. But have mercy on me this once, and I will try to do so no more. (HC 2:339–40)
In your letter you ask my forgiveness, which I readily grant. . . . I freely forgive you, and you know my unshaken and unchangeable disposition. . . . And now may God have mercy upon my father’s house; may God take away enmity from between me and thee; and may all blessings be restored, and the past forgotten forever. (HC 2:342–43)
After this interchange of letter, William displayed a humble spirit for a time, but his rebellious nature reappeared in contrast with the prophet’s consistent, forgiving ways.
William Wines Phelps
The final case study concerns William Wines Phelps, who was born on 17 February 1792, at Hanover, New Jersey. He received an excellent education in his youth, and prior to joining the Church had been a newspaper editor. At one time he aspired to be a candidate for lieutenant governor of New York. After he joined the Church, he became a devoted aide to Joseph Smith and he soon settled with the Saints in Missouri. He became a member of the first stake presidency organized there (Jenson 3:692).
Unfortunately, he became embroiled in a controversy over the alleged misuse of funds intended for the Far West Temple and became a bitter enemy of the Church. In November 1838, he signed an affidavit against Joseph which was instrumental in causing the Prophet to be incarcerated in Liberty Jail for four months (Bowen 91–93; Mormons 2:331–33, 336–37). Phelps was excommunicated on 17 March 1839 (HC 3:284). Shortly thereafter he wrote a letter to John P. Greene concerning the sale of some real estate that was owned by members of the Church. This correspondence prompted Joseph Smith to write Phelps a letter on 22 May 1839, stating:
We shall be glad if you can make a living by minding your own affairs . . . and as we consider that we have already experienced much over-officiousness at your hands . . . we now request, once and for all, that you will avoid all interference in our business or affairs from this time henceforth and forever. Amen. (HC 3:358–59)
While Phelps was out of the Church, he suffered spiritually and economically. In a state of misery and poverty, he met Elders Orson Hyde and John E. Page, who were serving missions in Dayton, Ohio. They recommended that he write Joseph Smith and ask for forgiveness. On 29 June 1840, William penned:
I am as the prodigal son . . . I have seen the folly of my way, and I tremble at the gulf I have passed . . . I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it, and I want to be saved if my friends will help me . . . I have done wrong and I am sorry. The beam is in my own eye . . . I ask forgiveness . . . I want your fellowship; if you cannot grant that, grant me your peace and friendship, for we are brethren, and our communion used to be sweet. (HC 4:163–64)
On 22 July 1840, the Prophet wrote back to Phelps:
It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior—the cup of gall, already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us. . . . “Had it been an enemy, we could have borne it.” . . . However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive, for which we thank the Lord. . . . Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal. . . . “Come on dear brother, since the war is past, for friends at first, are friends again at last.” (HC 4:163–64)
It seems appropriate to cite B. H. Roberts’ observation of this incident: “When the great offense of Elder William W. Phelps is taken in to account . . . this letter is remarkable. The Prophet’s frank forgiveness of his erring brother . . . exhibits a broad mindedness and generosity that can come only from a great soul.” Elder Roberts further asserts, “one of the surest evidences of Joseph Smith’s greatness of mind and of the inspiration of God upon him is to be seen in his treatment of those who had fallen but were willing to and did repent of their sins. His capacity to forgive under these circumstances seemed boundless” (HC 4:162–63fn).
Joseph Smith’s life is a great example of forgiveness. Although he was accused of being a false prophet by Sylvester Smith, physically assaulted by his brother William, and unjustly incarcerated in part because of the false testimony of W. W. Phelps, he rose above these afflictions and freely forgave the offenders. We Latter-day Saints today would do well to forgive as the Prophet Joseph Smith did.
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Jenson, Andrew. Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia. 4 vols. Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson History, 1901.
Kimball, Heber C. “Extracts from H. C. Kimball’s Journal.” Times and Seasons (1 Feb 1845) 6:787–90.
Mormons in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Etc. 1831–1848. 8 vols. Special Collections. Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young Univ.
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