I know I’ve been down on William W. Phelps recently. That doesn’t cover my full assessment of the man – what would my Church sound like without “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning” and “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain” and “Praise to the Man” and “Now Let Us Rejoice” and “Redeemer of Israel” and “O, God the Eternal Father” and “Come All Ye Saints Who Dwell on Earth” and so very many more favorite hymns flowing from his pen? And as a people we’d be the poorer without the example of friendship and complete forgiveness (on both sides) after the breach between Phelps and Joseph Smith was healed, with the resulting couplet, “’Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, for friends at first, are friends again at last.” His contributions to the printing of news and history and doctrine and scripture of the Church put us all in his debt.
There is little doubt, though, that Phelps suffered from dementia of some kind during his later years. That was not his fault, of course, nor does it cast the slightest shadow on his earlier contributions. Even in his declining years, he was able to recall facts of early Church history that, for example, helped us identify the real men behind the “unusual names” that used to appear in a few sections of the Doctrine and Covenants.He never lost his way with words, even when his poetry ceased to be usable by the Church: The following “poem,” a writing which he called “a flight of mind” and which was labeled in Brigham Young’s office as “scurrility, mistaken for wit,” has an undeniably arresting rhythm and vocabulary, yet conveys little meaning beyond a mean-spiritedness directed toward men who, over the years, had lost their positions for challenging the leadership of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
The Apostates’ New Names
By the King’s Jester.
Did you ever see the punkies*
That are hatch’d from Mormon flunkies,+
With a face as firm as monkies:
In the cause of Baalzebub?
They’re the nincumpoops of Nimrod: –
Yea, the real spawn of Devils: –
And they all swim together
In the venom of the damn’d.
There was William E. McLelin,
Like an old “Rotten Melon,”
With the bighead, badly swelling,
When he sever’d from the Twelve. [Chorus
Tis “the serpent” bites keenest,
When his body looks the greenest;
So was Lyman Johnson meanest,
When he turn’d away from God. [Cho.
Lyman Wight, “the Wild Ram,” wonder’d,
When the God of heaven thunder’d,
So the foolish Mormon blunder’d
Down the precipice below. [Cho
T.B. Marsh, “the spotted Lizzard,”
Gave his wife a double gizzard,
When the “Streppings” came to izzard,
And the fools both quit the faith. [Cho
John F. Boynton, was “an Adder”
Full of poison from his Fadder,
At the foot of Mesmer’s ladder,
In the Luciferan school. [Cho
G.M. Hinkle, what a creature!
He was truly: – “pumpkin Eater” –
Hardly sense to sit and teter
On a knotty hemlock rail. [Cho
La! and Baneemy, “the gander,”
With his Wild Geese does wander,
In the dismal swamp yonder,
Cause the “Iron goose” won’t lay. [Cho
But “the Ghost” is Gladden Bishop,
Who always throws a wish up,
Just to hold the Devil’s dish up,
When old granny’s making Sop. [Cho
* small gnats
+ McLilin, Hinkle, Gladen Bishop &c.