William Law was an early leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but was later excommunicated for apostasy. He founded the short-lived True Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which he founded upon the teachings of Joseph Smith prior to 1838.
Law was born on September 8, 1809, in County Tyrone, Ireland. He moved with his parents and siblings to the United States in approximately 1820, settling at first in Pennsylvania but eventually settling in Canada.
Law and his wife, Jane, were taught the gospel by missionaries John Taylor and Almon W. Babbitt and were baptized by 1837. Law led a group of fellow Saints from Canada to Nauvoo, Illiinois, in 1839. He was ordained an elder by Parley P. Pratt in April 1837, and in January 1841 was called to serve as a counselor to Joseph Smith in the First Presidency; Joseph’s brother Hyrum served as the other counselor.
Scholars suggest a few reasons that caused William Law to turn against Joseph Smith and eventually be excommunicated.
According to an article at the FairMormon website, Law’s son Richard was with his father during an exchange between him and Joseph Smith.
- About the year 1842, Richard Law 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.
After Hyrum Smith had given a copy of the revelation to Law and told him to take it home and read it, then bring it back again, Law said that he and his wife “were just turned upside down by it” and “did not know what to do.” He had previously declared, “If an angel from heaven was to reveal to me that a man should have more than one wife, I would kill him!”
Law had confided in Hyrum that he had committed adultery and “did not feel worthy to live or die.” But he yearned to be sealed to his wife Jane. Law asked Joseph if that were possible. Joseph inquired of the Lord and “the Lord revealed that William could not receive the ordinance because he was adulterous.” William was angry and he and Jane stopped meeting with the endowed Saints. Jane suggested they sell their property and leave Nauvoo, but William wanted to “crush’’ Joseph. He began to conspire with others to kill Joseph and his family.
FairMormon writes that William had bought property on the outskirts of Nauvoo and planned to sell parcels to Saints arriving in Nauvoo, whereas the Church through Joseph had land in the river bottom and Saints were encouraged to buy and build there, thus helping retire the debts of the Church.
Removal from the First Presidency
Not long after William began secretly plotting the death of Joseph Smith, he was removed from the First Presidency. He considered his January 1844 removal from the First Presidency illegal because he had been called by revelation. He demanded a rehearing and in April was tried again. Meanwhile, William continued to make his views against Joseph public. He was excommunicated on grounds of apostasy. “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. They announced the formation of a ‘reform’ Church based upon Joseph’s teachings up to 1838, with William as president.”
The Nauvoo Expositor
William considered Joseph Smith to be “unChristian” regarding his opposition to the state of Missouri, saying “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.”
Law also believed that it was his responsibility to expose Joseph Smith to the Saints and he and his followers published a newspaper that detailed Law’s disputes with Joseph, calling him a demon and a fallen prophet. He denounced Smith’s candidacy for the presidency of the United States. He also criticized Smith for the doctrines of plural marriage, exaltation, and the nature of God. Joseph met with the Nauvoo City Council, and all expressed concern that the newspaper would stir up violence toward the Saints. Deliberating over two days, they voted to “declare the newspaper a public nuisance and destroy the press that printed it.” Part of their deliberation included reviewing the United States Constitution, the Nauvoo city charter, and the laws of the land to be sure they were legally justified. The press, the type, and copies of the newspaper were burned in the street that evening. Local newspaper editor Thomas Sharp printed in his newspaper the destruction of the press and added: “War and extermination is inevitable! Citizens arise, one and all!!! We have no time for comment, every man will make his own. Let it be with powder and ball!!!” What Law printed on June 7, 1844, set off a series of events that ultimately led to the death of Joseph Smith on June 27, 1844.
Law recorded later in his journal that Joseph Smith “claimed to be a god, whereas he was only a servant of the Devil, and as such he met his fate.”
He moved to Des Moines County, Iowa, that month and later to Rock Island County and Jo Daviess County in Illinois. By 1870 he relocated to Shullsburg, Lafayette County, Wisconsin, where he died on January 19, 1892.
- FairMormon “Question: What caused William Law to apostatize from the Church and turn against Joseph Smith”