I Have a Question


Contains questions of general gospel interest, answered for guidance and not as official statements of Church policy.

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.

I have always been taught to pray, but often I don’t seem to get answers. I have faith and I think I’m worthy. What should I do?

Lindsay R. Curtis, president of the California Oakland Mission Your question is a common one. I think we all have struggled with the problem of “unanswered” prayers. That’s a tough situation to be in. We usually don’t worry about whether or not our prayers are being answered when all is well. It’s when we’re in trouble, when we have special needs, that we seek with some intensity to obtain answers to our prayers. And when those answers don’t seem to come, our need seems to increase.

It’s natural in that situation to contemplate, “Where are you, Heavenly Father?” “Are you listening?”

We can answer those questions by remembering that God is constant. He operates by pre-established principles, not unwisely or by whim. We should also remember that he has promised to not leave us alone.

So, it seems to me that if we’re not getting answers to our prayers the problem is in our understanding or in our faithfulness or in our asking, not in the Lord.

What are some common problems that may be holding us back from receiving answers? One is that we ask impatiently. We sometimes expect the Lord to give us immediate answers. But he hasn’t promised that—and sometimes it’s for our good that he wait. Sometimes when the Lord doesn’t answer our questions on the spot—or within a day, or a week, or a month—we assume that he isn’t going to answer them at all. That, of course, is a serious mistake. As long as we continue in our prayers we have the promise of an answer. But we’ve never been promised an answer to questions that we don’t ask and we’ve never been promised an immediate answer.

A second problem is that we don’t listen. Our senses are constantly bombarded with other information: we kneel to pray and feel the floor under our knees or our arms folded across our chests; a truck rambles past the house; rain hits the window pane; the clock ticks loudly in the corner. No wonder it’s difficult to find enough spiritual quiet to hear the things the Lord is trying to tell us. But we can make things even worse by failing to make a real effort to listen. We utter our prayers, even with feeling and sincerity, and then immediately rise and jump into bed, rise and run to work, rise and converse with a family member about nonrelated concerns.

How can the Lord get through to us under those conditions? It takes practice and patience to learn how to receive spiritual communications in the best of circumstances. Again, the difficulty is not with the Lord; it is with us. I believe he will give us answers fairly freely, but if we are not listening or if we are not in tune, we may not receive or understand the answer. The result is that we may think the Lord is not even listening, when the real problem is that we’re not listening.

We can learn to listen by trying to rid ourselves of outside interference—as well as inside interference—and by taking the time just to feel the Spirit.

What else should we consider as we attempt to receive answers to prayer? First, we must not expect the Lord to do all the work for us. Oliver Cowdery received a special revelation from the Lord teaching him that principle: “Behold, you have not understood,” he was told. “You have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.” (D&C 9:7.) Then the Lord explained the process: We should first study the problem out in our minds, weigh the various factors involved, and come to a decision. Then we may go to the Lord to seek his approval, redirection, or further counsel.

Second, we must be careful not to “ask for that which [we] ought not” (D&C 8:10). Sometimes we ask for things that would not be in our best interest. In such cases the Lord is being very kind when he doesn’t grant our requests. But when we want something badly, we often times don’t hear any answer other than the answer we want. And since the Lord isn’t going to give us something he knows would be harmful for us, we think he isn’t answering us at all.

Third, we must be willing to work for our prayers to come to pass. If we pray to get out of debt and then just sit around waiting for someone to miraculously come up and give us the exact amount we need, we’ll probably be disappointed. If we pray to get out of debt, we should be willing to work hard enough and smart enough to make it happen. When missionaries pray to be led to the honest in heart, they must be willing to move their feet in the direction shown them. If a person prays for a testimony, he must do his part by studying and living the commandments.

Fourth, we must learn how to recognize the answers when they come. A person might do all of the above and still not hear what the Lord is trying to tell him. Part of the difficulty may stem from the fact that he just doesn’t know the voice of the Lord, he may not know how it feels to have a prayer answered, so he doesn’t recognize the answer when it comes.

There are many ways prayers may be answered. Joseph Smith often had heavenly visitations. Moses heard a voice from a burning bush. Some people receive dreams. I must confess that I have never seen a vision nor had such a dream, nor have I ever heard an audible voice speak to me from the other side. But I can identify with Enos, who said, “While I was thus struggling in the spirit, behold, the voice of the Lord came into my mind” (Enos 1:10).

This is the way the Lord usually answers my prayers. Perhaps he knows it is the way I’m best equipped to hear him.

He answers others in other ways. He spoke to Oliver Cowdery about a feeling like a burning in the bosom (see D&C 9:8). That feeling comes to different people in different ways, I’ve learned. For some it’s a warm feeling in their chest. For others it’s a feeling of exhilaration. For still others it may come in yet another way.

But we must remember that the burning in the bosom is not the method of answering prayers that the Lord mentions the most. In revelations to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Hyrum Smith, the Lord talks about answering prayers by enlightening the mind, speaking peace to the mind, telling the person “in your mind and in your heart,” filling the soul with joy (see D&C 6:15, 23; D&C 8:2; D&C 11:13–14). He will speak to us in ways that will be most effective for our own conditions. We must learn to recognize how we feel when the Spirit is with us and when he is communicating to us.

Sometimes the answer to our prayer is no. We can receive that answer in the form of a “stupor of thought” (D&C 9:9); or it may come as a dark feeling, a feeling of disquiet and unrest, a feeling of uneasiness.

I’m afraid I’m making this all sound very complicated. Actually it isn’t, once we learn. When we righteously seek help and counsel from the Lord, keeping in mind the principles we’ve considered here, we’ll grow in our ability to receive and interpret the answers to our prayers.

Our Heavenly Father loves us; he is not an uncaring God. He seeks our growth and progression. And he stands willing to answer our prayers. He promised through James, the brother of Jesus: “If any of you lack wisdom [or need comfort, or seek direction, or need help in overcoming the chains of sin, or desire heavenly assistance] let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

“But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.” (James 1:5–6.)