Joseph Smith Forgives W.W. Phelps
by W. Jeffrey Marsh
from "Generosity in Forgiving Others,"
Lessons from the Life and Teachings
of the Prophet Joseph Smith


Joseph extended forgiveness to one who had betrayed his trust.

W.W. Phelps had apostatized and signed an affidavit which was used to incarcerate Joseph in Liberty Jail.

With great feelings of remorse for what he had done he earnestly desired to repent. Two members of the Quorum of the Twelve recommended this brother write Joseph a letter of apology and ask for forgiveness.

He wrote:
“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.”
Joseph’s response is filled with forgiveness and effused with hope for brighter future relations:
“DEAR BROTHER PHELPS: I must say that it is with no ordinary feelings I endeavor to write a few lines to you in answer to yours. It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior….one with whom we had oft taken sweet counsel together, and enjoyed many refreshing seasons from the Lord - had it been an enemy, we could have borne it.

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.’ Yours as ever, JOSEPH SMITH, JUN.”
Commenting on this incident, Elder B. H. Roberts noted,
“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.”
Brother Phelps was a gifted poet. Many of the hymns penned by Phelps are beloved LDS favorites today, and one of them, "The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning," is sung at the dedication of every temple. Phelps’ poems would probably never have become hymns had Joseph not extended his forgiveness and friendship.

Because Joseph forgave him, Brother Phelps rejoined the Saints at Nauvoo. Four years later, he was asked to delivery the eulogy in a memorial service in honor of his forgiving friend. Phelps recited a poem he had written as a tribute to Joseph, the martyred Prophet. The poem has since served as a lasting memorial to the greatness of the Prophet Joseph Smith: “Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah. Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.”

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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