William Law (1809-1892)

William Law is more misunderstood than John Corrill and David Whitmer.

The mere mention of his name is enough to send chills down the spine of most church members. Law is attributed to the cause of the deaths of Joe (aka Joseph) and Hyrum.

Although now seldom recognized as being anything more than a bitter apostate. (Lyndon W. Cook, “Brother Joseph Is Truly A Wonderful Man, He Is All We Could Wish a Prophet to Be”: Pre-1844 Letters of William Law, BYU Studies, vol. 20 (1979-1980) Number 2 – Winter 1980, p. 207)

The truth is Law was a wealthy Irishman who joined the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo from Canada. He and his elder brother Wilson migrated in a wagon train with their families and other church members.

In Nauvoo, Law was counseled by Joe to invest in land, which he did so by buying from the church, i.e. Joe. This pitted the two largest landowners against one another. Joe trumped Law by issuing a decree that church members must only buy land from the church, i.e., Joe. Law lost; he could not sell his land nor recoup his investment.

Law was a counselor to Joe in the First Presidency for a couple of years, even publicly defending Joe’s (aka Joseph’s) character. During that time, Law became privy to some of the inner workings of the church, but not all. What he did see, though, bothered him tremendously. For example, he saw Joe (aka Joseph) promise a prominent lawyer/politician (Cyrus Walker of McDonough County, Illinois. A Whig candidate for the United States House of Representatives) that he would swing church votes his way in lieu of legal help. Joe received the legal help but reneged on his promise and swung the vote of the members for Joseph P. Hoge.

At one point, Joe approached Law’s wife about sharing herself with him, which so offended Law that Hyrum had to reveal the concealed D&C 132 revelation with him. That revelation was the biggest letdown for the Laws. Now they knew the rumors were true, and Law looked foolish for having previously defended Joe publicly against such charges. Law did what any honest person would do – he spoke out:

Law tried to get Joe (aka Joseph) and Hyrum to abandon this practice, but they refused. Law therefore began the ” Reformed Mormon Church” as his alternative. This was the first use of the word “reformed” among Mormons.

We have received from Nauvoo a Prospectus for a new paper, to be entitled the “Nauvoo Expositor.” It is intended to be the organ of the Reformed Mormon Church, which has lately been organized in that place, and to oppose the power of ‘the self-constituted Monarch,’ who has assumed the government of the Holy City.(Upper Mississippian as cited in the Nauvoo Expositor)

The principals claimed to believe in the Book of Mormon and the restoration of the gospel, but rejected what they termed Nauvoo innovations, notably plural marriage. Claiming that Joseph was a fallen prophet, the dissenters set out, through the Expositor, to expose the Prophet’s supposed false teachings and abominations. (Durham, Reed C., Jr., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, p. 996)

As Cook points out, William Law, although an endowed member of the “Anointed Quorum,” was unaware for some time that Joseph Smith and others had been sealed to additional wives. (Lyndon W. Cook. William Law: Biographical Essay, Nauvoo Diary, Correspondence, Interview, Grandin Book, 1994, reviewed by Scott H. Faulring in BYU Studies, vol. 34 (1994), Number 4–1994-95, pp. 23-24.)

I (William Law) told him that if they wanted peace they could have it on the following conditions, That Joseph Smith would acknowledge publicly that he had taught and practiced the doctrine of plurality of wives, that he brought a revelation supporting the doctrine, and that he should own the whole system (revelation and all) to be from Hell. (Diary of William Law, 13 May 1844 cited in “William Law, Nauvoo Dissenter” by Lyndon W. Cook, BYU Studies, vol. 22 (1982), Number 1 – Fall 1982, p. 68)

Law was not alone in his outrage:

Forasmuch as the public mind hath been much agitated by a course of procedure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, by a number of persons declaring aginst certain doctrines and practices therein, (among whom I am One,) it is but meet that I should give my reasons, at least in part, as a cause that hath led me to declare myself. In the latter part of the summer, 1843, the Patriarch, Hyrum Smith, did in the High Council, of which I was a member, introduce what he said was a revelation given through the Prophet; that the said Hyrum Smith did essay to read the said revealtion in the said Council, that according to his reading there was contained the following doctrines; lst the sealing up of persons to eternal life, against all sins, save that of sheding innocent blood or of consenting thereto; 2nd, the doctrine of a plurality of wives, or marrying virgins; that “David and Solomon had many wives, yet in this they sinned not save in the matter of Uriah. This revelation with other evidence, that the aforesaid heresies were taught and practiced in the Church; determined me to leave the office of first counsellor to the president of the Church at Nauvoo, inasmuch as I dared not teach or administer such laws. And further deponent saith not.
AUSTIN COWLES. (Nauvoo Expositor)

William’s son  Richard S. Law (a judge) gave the following testimony:

Mr. Law has related to me, and to others, the following circumstance:

“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.

“The gentleman says his father believed that Joseph had become possessed of an evil spirit and had been deceived. He also claims that the foundation for his father’s disaffection, and final withdrawal from the Church, was owing to the teaching of plural marriage to him by the Prophet Joseph Smith. He declares further that his mother was taught the same doctrine by the ‘Mormon’ Prophet.

“Mr. Law speaks in high terms of Joseph Smith, and says he was one of the most lovable men in his disposition and temperament he had ever met. While speaking with the utmost respect and affection of the Prophet Joseph as a man, he has no faith whatever in the Gospel as revealed through him in this dispensation.”

The matter herein presented was read to Mr. Law in the presence of two witnesses, and he acknowledged the same to be correct. (“Mr. Law’s Testimony,” Improvement Era, 1903, Vol. Vi. May, 1903. No. 7.)

When viewed under the light of truth, one can objectively see that Law exhibited courage and dealt with the improprieties honorably. Like David Whitmer, William Law went on to live a long, happy life in service to his fellowman despite Joe’s (aka Joseph’s) curses:

Regionally acknowledged as a competent physician and surgeon, Dr. Law practiced nearly forty years near Apple River, Illinois, and at Shullsburg, Wisconsin. He died of pneumonia at the age of eighty-two.

fn. William Law, nevertheless, was a prominent and respected citizen in his community. In later years he served as one of five directors of the Shullsburg Bank. (Ibid.)

Mormon historians perpetuate this instead:

Full of bitterness and hatred to the end of his life, William Law died in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, 19 January 1892, at age eighty-two. (Lawrence R. Flake, Prophets and Apostles of the Last Dispensation (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 243-45.)


  • Lyndon W. Cook, “William Law, Nauvoo Dissenter,” BYU Studies, vol. 22, (Winter, 1982) no. 1, pp. 47-72.
  • Lyndon W. Cook, “Brother Joseph Is Truly A Wonderful Man, He Is All We Could Wish a Prophet to Be’: Pre-1844 Letters of William Law,” BYU Studies vol. 20, (Summer, 1980), pp. 217-18.
  • Lyndon W. Cook, ed., William Law: Biographical Essay, Nauvoo Diary, Correspondence, Interview, Orem, UT: Grandin Book Co., 1994.
  • Lyndon W. Cook. William Law: Biographical Essay, Nauvoo Diary, Correspondence, Interview, Grandin Book, 1994, reviewed by Scott H. Faulring in BYU Studies, vol. 34 (1994), no. 4, pp. 23-24.
  • “THE MORMONS IN NAUVOO, Three Letters from William Law on Mormonism, AN HONEST MAN’S VIEW AND REMORSE,” The Daily Tribune, Salt Lake City, July 3, 1887.
  • Dr. W. Wyl (Wilhelm Ritter von Wymetal) interview with William Law in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, 30 March 1887, published in The Daily Tribune, Salt Lake City, 31 July 1887.
  • Richard S. Law (son of William Law) Interview by Joseph W. McMurrin: “An Interesting Testimony by Elder Joseph W. McMurrin, One of the First Seven Presidents of the Seventy” & “Mr. Law’s Testimony,” Improvement Era, vol. VI, no. 7, (May 1903) pp. 508-09.
  • William Law, “Much Ado About Nothing,” Times and Seasons, July 1, 1842.
  • Nauvoo Day Book of William Law
  • Lyndon W. Cook, The Gospel According to William (forthcoming book?)
  • Steven L. Shields, Divergent Paths of the Restoration, 1990, pp. 29-30.
  • John Frederick Glaser, “The Disaffection of William Law,” Restoration Studies, III, ed. Maurice L. Draper and Debra Combs, Herald Publishing House, 1986, pp. 163-175.
  • D&C 124
  • William Law