The last years of William B. Smith a mix of persistent hope and pity
In 1878, William B. Smith, brother to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, apostle to the LDS Church in his early 20s, and briefly LDS Church patriarch in his mid-30s, was essentially forgotten. The most volatile member of the Smith family had not only been kicked out of the Utah Mormon church, he had been tossed from several other offshoots of post-Nauvoo Mormonism. He had even failed as a Baptist preacher. As 1878 began, there was one option left for Smith, now 66. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headed by his nephew, Joseph Smith III, was preparing a conference in Plano, Ill.
As Paul M. Edwards relates in the Dialogue magazine article “William B. Smith: The Persistent “Pretender,” (here) Smith III, who recognized his uncle’s value as a link to his father’s early church history, visited William. The pair discussed William’s proposed acceptance into the RLDS Church. At first, William demanded that he be inserted in the RLDS Quorum of the 12 Apostles. He also wanted to “be received into the Reorganization on the basis of his former membership.”
Smith III never seriously considered having his uncle be an apostle, but he was OK with William’s previous LDS affiliation qualifying him for membership into the RLDS church. As it was, William B. Smith was accepted into the church as a high priest. William’s official position with the RLDS was as a missionary in Hamilton, Mo. As mentioned, his value was reminiscing of his time with his more-famous late brother. However, the old “lost apostle” hadn’t yet lost his ambition. If he couldn’t be an apostle, William hoped he could become the RLDS Church patriarch. His rationale was that he had been the final “legitimate” patriarch with the Mormon church before its move to Utah.
Edwards includes this letter William wrote to the Saints Herald, an RLDS publication, saying: “that this office of Patriarch is an office that belongs in the Church of Christ; and that whosoever is appointed to fill the place left by the death of Hyrum Smith will hold the right to the same presiding authority. ... Joseph, inherited the patriarchate by lineal descent from Jacob who was the father of the twelve patriarchs; and from father Joseph Smith, the patriarchal office was given, as the revelation of 1841 declares, by blessing and by right, for such is the order of this evangelical priesthood handed down from father to son. ... It is the duty of the First Presidency to select and ordain the Patriarch, that is to fill the space left vacant by the death of Hyrum Smith.” (1881, 82)
A key problem with William’s effort is that the RLDS Church, at that time, had little use for the office of church patriarch. Edwards includes the comment of then-RLDS apostle Jason Briggs, who called the office of patriarch “a ‘wart upon the ecclesiastical tree, unknown in the Bible, or Book of Mormon.’” In fact, as Edwards adds, Briggs wanted to eradicate the office. Joseph Smith III put off William’s request to be church patriarch. Later, he learned that his uncle was considering writing a biography of Joseph Smith. At that time, the RLDS Church, and Smith III, were actively trying to preserve the fiction that Joseph Smith had not practiced polygamy, and that it was an invention of the Utah Mormons.
In Edwards’ article is this excerpt from an 1882 letter to William Smith from his nephew: “I have long been engaged in removing from father’s memory and from the early church, the stigma and blame thrown upon him because of polygamy, and have at last lived to see the cloud rapidly lifting. And would not consent to see further blame attached, by blunder now. Therefore uncle, bear in mind our standing today before the world as defenders of Mormonism from Polygamy, and go ahead with your personal recollections of Joseph and Hyrum.”
In the letter, Joseph Smith III instructed his elderly uncle to only remember admirable things about Joseph and Hyrum Smith, meaning again, no mention of polygamy. Also, he mentions the possibility of William making money on the book “if the right sort of enterprising men got hold of it.”
As William Smith entered the final years of his life, money became his main goal. In 1891, at the age of 80, living in Osterdock, Iowa, with his wife, on a military pension of $84 a year, he began a correspondence with RLDS bishop, and apostle, William Kelly. Smith, too feeble to maintain ambitions of high ecclesiastical office, merely wanted to make ends meet. Again, these pleas from William were put off, although occasionally stipends of money would be sent to him.
The letters from William Smith include resentment that his requests for additional funds are largely ignored. In late 1891, asking for $8 a month remittance, Edwards notes some of the arguments he used: “William ... asked: Who helped remove the tar from Joseph Smith? Who stood guard for long hours to protect Joseph Smith’s life? Who was driven from his home and forced to move from place to place in the name of the church, sleeping on the ground and in tents, to do the work of the Lord in Iowa and Illinois? He closed the letter by telling Bishop Kelly that ‘I think it due me that you place a salary on my family of eight dollars per month.’”
Writing to Kelly in late 1892, William again criticized the RLDS Church for not having a patriarch: “Then there is the patriarchal office the seed of which was sown in the church among all the prophets, a seed that was planted ... in the church of 1830. ... My nephew is lame on some of these points, the Church under him is not yet perfect in organization ...”
A month before William Smith died on Nov. 18, 1893, Joseph Smith III asked his uncle for more “evidence” that polygamy was a creation of the Utah Mormons. William dutifully obliged, saying that the polygamy taught in Nauvoo was of “the Brigham party,” comprised of apostates.
The last years of William B. Smith were those of an old man who had sown his oats and was in pasture. A man who had more than once behaved like a rake and a thug was toothless. His unrealized desire to become RLDS patriarch was a compromise from earlier higher desires. The condescending deference paid William by his nephew probably met his needs, if not his wants. It is a pitiful, but not unhappy end for the brother of the prophet. After William’s death, the RLDS ordained a patriarch.