Had Frederick G. Williams apostatized when Joseph Smith died?
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“Had Frederick G. Williams apostatized when Joseph Smith died?” Ensign, Jan. 1980, 48–49

Some sources say that Frederick G. Williams of the original First Presidency had apostatized when Joseph Smith died. But other sources say otherwise. What are the facts?

Nancy Cox, great-great granddaughter of Frederick G. Williams, Bountiful Eighth Ward, Utah Although Frederick G. Williams was dropped from his position in the First Presidency and later excommunicated, he was reinstated in the Church and died on 10 October 1842 in Quincy, Illinois, nearly two years before the Prophet’s martyrdom, a faithful member in good standing, “true to the Church and his brethren” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History, 26th ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973, p. 245). His wife, his son and daughter-in-law, and his two grandchildren emigrated to Utah with the Saints, and the Williams family is still represented by faithful, active members today.

However, there is a great deal of confusion about Dr. Williams’s motives and actions, and persistent misunderstandings have probably been inevitable. For instance, a man named Williams helped drive the Saints from Missouri and another took part in the martyrdoms at Carthage, but neither was related to Dr. Williams, despite the conjectures of some.

Several sources report that President Williams apostatized after the collapse of the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company in May 1837. Lucy Mack Smith reported that President Williams, also a justice of the peace, refused the Prophet a search warrant to regain funds embezzled by Warren Parrish and, as a result, was dropped from the First Presidency and was replaced by Oliver Cowdery in his civil position. (See B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:409.)

However, the Prophet’s account indicates that he obtained the desired warrant “too late” and does not mention any action taken against President Williams (see Roberts, 1:408–9). In fact, Oliver Cowdery served as justice of the peace at the same time as President Williams; and instead of one replacing the other, both resigned at nearly the same time and were replaced at the same election. (See Kirtland Township Trustees’ Minutes and Poll Book, 1817–1838, pp. 153, 155, 157.)

Obviously President Williams didn’t leave the Church then, but some residue of bad feeling may have remained, since, at the conference four months later in September, the membership was not unanimous in sustaining him to the First Presidency. The next summer (July 1838) in Far West, the Lord gave a revelation published in History of the Church, 3:46n, informing W. W. Phelps and Frederick G. Williams that “in consequence of their transgressions their former standing has been taken away from them” and instructing them to do missionary work. Dr. Williams was dropped from the First Presidency at this point, but a letter written the same year affirms his loyalty and commitment to the Church.

The excommunication did not occur until the following year when Dr. Williams was excommunicated at a conference presided over by Brigham Young since Joseph Smith was in Liberty Jail. Dr. Williams was not present for the action. Six other men were named along with him as having left “the Saints in time of peril, persecution and dangers, and acting against the interest of the Church” (History of the Church, 3:282). He was rebaptized the next year, April 1840, and the mystery behind this excommunication has never been illuminated.

According to family history, the Prophet had asked Dr. Williams, with whom he apparently always remained on close terms, to examine a tract of land in Burlington, Iowa, as a possible location for the Saints who were on the verge of being driven from Missouri. Thus, Dr. Williams was not in Missouri at the time the Saints were persecuted. His own family was among those driven out. And there is no other documentary evidence, besides the excommunication record, that he had participated in anti-Mormon activities, as the other six men had.

In light of these gaps in information, the family conjectures that the Prophet, then in Liberty Jail, had told no one of his assignment to Dr. Williams and that Dr. Williams had simply left to do it without explaining his absence to any of the Twelve. But it is certain that he suffered great guilt by association in the excommunication trial with such clearly disaffected men as George M. Hinckle, Sampson Avard, John Corrill, Reed Peck, Thomas B. Marsh, and Burr Riggs.

Another unfortunate record linking him with apostasy is Lucy Mack Smith’s mention of him as part of a group that attempted to depose the Prophet and establish David Whitmer in his stead (see Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith and His Progenitors for Many Generations, Liverpool: S. W. Richards for Orson Pratt, 1853, p. 211). However, other historians identify members of this group as Warren Parrish, John F. Boynton, Luke S. Johnson, Joseph Coe, and Sylvester Smith (see Essentials of Church History, p. 100; Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 3rd ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967, p. 184). It seems unlikely that Dr. Williams, prominent in the Church and close to the Prophet, would have been omitted had he really participated.

Despite his human failings and misfortunes, he went with the Saints as they moved from Missouri to Illinois and, despite his excommunication in those uncertain circumstances, took steps to have himself rebaptized. He endured faithful to the end, a legacy he has passed on to his descendants. Had he lived long enough to go west and finish out his life with the Saints, we can suppose that his continued years of faithful service would have balanced out the turmoil and misunderstandings of those early years.