Question: What caused William Law to apostatize from the Church and turn against Joseph Smith?

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Question: What caused William Law to apostatize from the Church and turn against Joseph Smith?

William Law in 1836: "I assure you I have found [Joseph Smith] honest and honourable in all our transactions which have been very considerable"

A Canadian, William Law joined the Church in 1836 and moved to Nauvoo in 1839. After having lived near Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, William wrote to a friend:

I have carefully watched his movements since I have been here, and I assure you I have found him honest and honourable in all our transactions which have been very considerable. I believe he is an honest upright man, and as to his follies let who ever is guiltless throw the first stone at him, I shant do it.[1]

William Law in 1844: "I cannot fellowship the abominations which I verily know are practiced by this man [Joseph]"

8 January 1844
William Law released as Second Counselor in the First Presidency; Joseph Smith noted that William “was injuring him by telling evil of him…” William considered his release to be “illegal,” since he had been called “by revelation,” but wrote “I cannot fellowship the abominations which I verily know are practiced by this man [Joseph], consequently I am glad to be free from him."[2]


One of William’s key concerns seems to have revolved around plural marriage

His non-member son, Richard, later recounted:

About the year 1842, he was present at an interview between his father and the Prophet Joseph. The topic under discussion was the doctrine of plural marriage. William Law, with his arms around the neck of the Prophet, was pleading with him to withdraw the doctrine of plural marriage, which he had at that time commenced to teach to some of the brethren, Mr. Law predicting that if Joseph would abandon the doctrine, 'Mormonism' would, in fifty or one hundred years, dominate the Christian world. Mr. Law pleaded for this with Joseph with tears streaming from his eyes. The Prophet was also in tears, but he informed the gentleman that he could not withdraw the doctrine, for God had commanded him to teach it, and condemnation would come upon him if he was not obedient to the commandment.

During the discussion, Joseph was deeply affected. Mr. Richard S. Law says the interview was a most touching one, and was riveted upon his mind in a manner that has kept it fresh and distinct in his memory, as if it had occurred but yesterday.

Mr. Law also says, that he has no doubt that Joseph believed he had received the doctrine of plural marriage from the Lord. The Prophet's manner being exceedingly earnest, so much so, that Mr. Law was convinced that the Prophet was perfectly sincere in his declaration.[3]

William Law was excommunicated

18 April 1844
William Law excommunicated. Austin Cowles of the Nauvoo high council, James Blakeslee, Charles G. Foster, and Francis M. Higbee joined him in leaving the Church, and he was supported in his opposition to Joseph by his brother Wilson.[4] They announced the formation of a ‘reform’ Church based upon Joseph’s teachings up to 1838, with William as president.

William even decided that Joseph Smith’s opposition to Missouri (and the treatment the Saints had received there) was “unChristian"!

The hostile spirit and conduct manifested by Joseph Smith, and many of his associates towards Missouri . . . are decidedly at variance with the true spirit of Christianity, and should not be encouraged by any people, much less by those professing to be the ministers of the gospel of peace.[5]

Williams had financial quarrels with Joseph

William had economic quarrels with Joseph, and was probably too fond of his own financial state, rather than helping the poor of the Church. William and his brother Wilson had bought the higher land on the outskirts of Nauvoo; the Church (through Joseph) owned the land in the river bottom. Joseph declared that new arrivals should purchase lands from the Church (this was in part an effort to help liquidate the Church’s debts), but William objected to this plan as prejudicial to his own financial interests.[6]

Hyrum presented Law and his wife with the revelation on plural marriage, which affected Law greatly

William was probably also troubled by the death of his wife and daughter even after Church leaders had prayed for them. Hyrum presented Law and his wife with the revelation on plural marriage. Long after the fact, William reported his reaction:

Hyrum gave it [the revelation] to me in his office, told me to take it home and read it, and then be careful with it, and bring it back again…[My wife Jane] and I were just turned upside down by it…We did not know what to do.[7]

Law ultimately called Joseph a "demon"

It is not clear whether Jane and William Law were ever sealed. Alexander Neibaur and Hyrum Smith both reported that Joseph told William he could not seal him to Jane because the Lord forbade it; Neibaur indicated that this was because William was “a Adulterous person.”[8] There is no evidence of this other than Neibaur's statement however.

In the clash that followed, William began “casting the first stone,” at Joseph’s supposed failings, and the man which he had once admired as honourable and without cause for complaint became, in his newspaper, a “demon,” a power-mad tyrant, a seducer, and someone who contributed to the early death of young women.

Notes

  1. William Law to Isaac Russell, 29 November 1840, Archives Division, Church Historical Department, Salt Lake City, Utah, as cited in Lyndon W. Cook, William Law (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Co., 1994), 11; cited by Susan Easton Black, Who’s Who in the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1997), 173.
  2. William Law, "Record of Doings at Nauvoo in 1844" (William Law's Nauvoo diary), as cited in Lyndon W. Cook, William Law (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Co., 1994), 46; cited by Susan Easton Black, Who’s Who in the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1997), 176.
  3. Joseph W. McMurrin, "An Interesting Testimony / Mr. Law’s Testimony," Improvement Era (May 1903), 507–510.
  4. Wilson may or may not have been a member. He was not a member when he came to Nauvoo, but is later mentioned as having been “excommunicated.” We have no record of his baptism.
  5. Nauvoo Expositor, “Resolution 4”, (7 June 1844): 2; cited in Lyndon W. Cook, "William Law, Nauvoo Dissenter," Brigham Young University Studies 22 no. 1 (Fall 1982), 47–72.
  6. Cook, "Nauvoo Dissenter."
  7. Dr. W. Wyl interview with William Law in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, 30 March 1887, published in The Salt Lake Daily Tribune, 31 July 1887, 6; cited by Cook, "Nauvoo Dissenter"
  8. See Cook, "Nauvoo Dissenter."