As of recent, one of my favorite quotes is “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” (William Blake). Recently, a good friend betrayed me in a very hurtful way which had far-reaching repercussions. Betrayal by an enemy is expected. You do not trust an enemy. You do not expect your enemy to act morally. And, you do not expect your enemy to have your back. However, you do have all these expectations from a friend. When a friend commits a betrayal it hurts much deeper and is far harder to recover from.
The story of W. W. Phelps is a great example of the depths a friend can hurt you. William W. Phelps joined and became a devoted follower of the Prophet Joseph Smith the Church during the Kirtland era. He became a member of the stake presidency in Jackson County, Missouri and a trusted friend of Joseph Smith.
Later, as a result of some financial improprieties during the Kirtland era, W. W. Phelps left the Church. He became bitter and declared himself an enemy to the Prophet. This all came during a period of intense persecution of the Prophet, along with many of the leaders. Joseph Smith and other leaders had been arrested and placed under military guard following the “extermination order” of Governor Boggs.
As Joseph Smith’s life hung in the balance, William W. Phelps came forth to serve as a state witness against the Prophet. As a result of testimony from Phelps and others like him, the Joseph Smith and several others were incarcerated in a several Missouri prisons, including Liberty Jail, until they escaped and fled to Illinois.
When a close friend betrays you, you begin to understand how devastated Joseph Smith must have been during this period. It gives you a much better appreciation for Joseph Smith sat in jail for months he must have felt bitter disappointment as he contemplated the betrayal of his trusted friends. In these circumstances, it is so easy to become bitter, to hold grudges, and not forgive others. You want them to know how much they hurt you and how much pain they have caused you. Yet, the pain and bitterness that you hold in your heart does nothing but drag you down.
As the story of W. W. Phelps continues, two years later, after great anguish and bitter remorse for his actions, Brother Phelps sent the Prophet a heartfelt letter that began:
“Brother Joseph, … I am as the prodigal son. … I have seen the folly of my way, and I tremble at the gulf I have passed.” He begged for forgiveness and asked he might return to them.
Joseph Smith’s immediate reply stands today is a worthy example of the power of forgiveness, as he wrote back to Phelps:
“Dear Brother Phelps: … You may in some measure realize what my feelings, as well as Elder Rigdon’s and Brother Hyrum’s were, when we read your letter—truly our hearts were melted into tenderness and compassion when we ascertained your resolves… It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior—the cup of gall, already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us. …
“However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive, for which we thank the Lord. And having been delivered from the hands of wicked men by the mercy of our God, we say it is your privilege to be delivered from the powers of the adversary, be brought into the liberty of God’s dear children, and again take your stand among the Saints of the Most High, and by diligence, humility, and love unfeigned, commend yourself to our God, and your God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ.
“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.”
It was William W. Phelps who spoke at the Prophet’s funeral service and who later penned the words that have become one of the great hymns of the Restoration, Praise to the Man.
For anyone who is going through the betrayal of a friend, who is finding it hard to forgive and move on, Joseph Smith set an amazing example of forgiveness and compassion. While “it is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend,” we are required to forgive everyone. While we may not become close friends again as Joseph Smith and W. W. Phelps did, we will be able to become closer to Christ as we follow his ultimate example of forgiveness.