To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here: The most interesting bit of news I garnered from last week’s conference was not news of a temple in Provo or disapproval at calling ourselves “Mormons.” It was Apostle Boyd K. Packer assuring young members of the LDS Church that the second coming of Jesus Christ is a long time coming. That’s a big shift from the early years of 19th century Mormonism, where blessings that promised recipients that they would witness the second coming of Jesus Christ were not uncommon. The church Joseph Smith initiated was pure millennialist is coming. I recall my father telling me that I would likely see Christ’s return and — remembering that fondly — I’ve mentioned the same to my children.
One bit of history that underscored the Christ’s-return-is-near doctrine of the 19th century LDS Church was the Mormon Reformation of the middle 1850s in Utah. What began as an effort to re-energize the spirituality of Utah saints via “home missions” to members degenerated into harsh denunciations of local church leaders, blood atonement speeches, accusations of adultery, fanaticism from guilt-obsessed members and finally, a counter-productive surge of interest in polygamy. It took the untimely death of a fire-breathing apostle to allow future church leader Wilford Woodruff to cool the Mormon Reformation down.
As Thomas G. Alexander recounts in the Summer 1992 Dialogue article, “Wilford Woodruff and the Mormon Reformation of 1855-57,” by 1855 the LDS prophet, Brigham Young, and other church leaders worried that “many Church members and leaders had fallen spiritually asleep, becoming more enamored of materialism and other trappings of Babylon than building the kingdom.” Besides Young, apostles Heber C. Kimball and Jedediah Grant preached that recent crop failures were punishment from God directed at the Saints. In the 1855 October general conference, Young proposed home missions — designed to bring members back to reactivity — rather than prostlyting to Utah non-members. The effort, Alexander explains, also broke with the church tradition of local congregations enjoying autonomy in many decisions. Instead, apostles were sent to direct the home mission efforts. By March 1856, Young realized that the home missions efforts had failed. At that point, Young, with the enthusiastic support of Kimball and Grant, decided to go “fire and brimstone” on Utah members.
Efforts to bring the Saints back to repentance evolved into fierce denunciations of church members as “working wickedness” by church leaders as they fanned out through the Utah territory. Young preached a doctrine in September 1856 espousing the now-discredited doctrine of blood atonement, which denied Christ’s atonement for certain sins. Other apostles, particularly Grant, preached the same during the reformation. As Alexander relates, it’s assumed that the murder of the Parrish family and some friends in Springville, Utah, in 1857 was in part due to local members’ diehard belief in the blood atonement doctrine that had been stressed. No one was ever punished for murdering the victims, who had apostasized and were seeking to leave Springville.
As is the case with many fundamentalist-type purges, the arts also suffered. Apostles Grant and Kimball dissolved the Polysophical Society, an arts and humanities appreciation group that met at the home of future church president Lorenzo Snow. In fact, apostles Woodruff, Amasa Lyman and Parley P. Pratt, as well as poet and lyricist Eliza Snow were members. However, according to Alexander, Grant described the society as “a stink in my nostrils” and “filled with an adulterous spirit,” writes Alexander, The Polysophical Society was no more.
Church leaders during the Mormon Reformation accused members and lesser leaders of adultery and demanded their repentance. Again, Grant was a particularly enthusiastic accuser. However, even Woodruff, a far more milder man, joined in these attacks. The most prominent charge of adultery was leveled at several presidents of the First Council of the Seventy on Oct. 7, 1856, in the old Salt Lake Tabernacle. After a rancorous meeting, the presidents were urged by Woodruff to “repent.” Later, a prominent bishop, Abraham Hoagland, came under condemnation for his efforts to assist and prostlyte to non-members. Woodruff told Hoagland, writes Alexander, that “sending priesthood holders to preach to them ‘was like casting pearls before swine.’” Although Hoagland defended himself for a while, he soon repented.
The unexpected death of Grant on Dec. 1, 1856 was the beginning of the end of the fanatical stage of the Mormon reformation. Woodruff, who assumed greater responsibility from Young, moved the reformation into a third phase, which stressed love and forgiveness, writes Alexander. The emphasis turned to pleas for personal improvement, rather than severe denunciations and unfounded charges of adultery. Members were urged to better themselves before preaching to other members. A series of rebaptisms that indicated renewed covenants occurred.
Nevertheless, as Alexander writes, the effects of the fundamentalist, accusatory phase of the reformation took a while to ease. One effect was an increase in members wanting to enter polygamy. This was not necessarily a positive for church leaders, who were aware that increases in polygamy tended to up the divorce rate. Indeed, as Alexander accounts, “…the 65 percent increase in the new plural marriages during the Reformation led to a subsequent escalation in the divorce rate …” However, even Woodruff was caught up in the plural marriage rage. He married a plural wife during the reformation and even offered his 14-year-old daughter to Young, who prudently refused Woodruff’s offer. Alexander also writes of Young’s denying “Old Father Alread” permission to marry three girls, ages 12 and 13.”
The reformation probably did prepare the saints to unite against outside adversaries. By the mid-1850s, it was clear that the federal government would soon be a part of Utah life, and for 35-plus years the LDS Church would face the threat of termination at the hands of the feds. Gentiles, and by extension the feds, were a target to call wicked.
Also, as Alexander writes, the church was successful, with the final emphasis on renewed love and charity, to bring members back to executive authority.
This post also was published in Currents, the Standard-Examiner’s digital-only section on politics and culture. For more information on Currents, call 801-625-4400.