Readings in Mormon History: Mormon Reformation

For a number of years, I thought it would be fun to get a sort of a book club together, where a group of interested folks would read a scholarly article about a Mormon History topic and then discuss. I finally got around to doing that this summer and we recently had our second meeting. My hope was to have a diverse group of people (older and younger, men and women). I fully understand that such things are no replacement for sincere participation in Church and personal devotion. I also realize that this sort of history simply isn’t interesting to some people. Still, so far, it has been fun. I thought I would write up some of my comments from the most recent readings for those interested outside of my neighborhood.

The most recent get together was a discussion of Paul H. Peterson, “The Mormon Reformation of 1856-1857: The Rhetoric and the Reality,” Journal of Mormon History 15 (1989): 59-87. The Reformation is a topic which ties into a lot of other things which happened during the early Utah settlement and it colors non-Mormon perceptions to this day. This paper is drawn from Peterson’s dissertation and is somewhat apologetic in tone; however, it is still a solid and important piece. Besides Peterson’s dissertation, perhaps the two most evenhanded recent treatments of the controversial aspects of certain consequences of the Reformation are included in: Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector (Review) and Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Review). Look forward to Steve Taysom’s volume this fall as well. As far as scholars go, the most antagonistic readings are by Bagley and Bigler.

Some of my notes:

p. 60. Millennialism is essential context for the Reformation (and early Mormonism generally). Peterson uses the word “chiliastic.” Chiliasm is the greek form of Millennialism. Notes that Mormons don’t fit neatly into standard American categories. Pre-Millennial or Post-Millennial? My question: What about today? There have been spurts of Pre-Millennialism in the church, but I tend to think it is a sort of hybrid that trends toward post. That is, Zion must be established before the Lord returns. See note 25 in the paper.

p. 61. Mormons could believe anything they wanted and apostatize, but they still had to live the Mormon way and not bother their neighbors if they wanted to be accepted. I think this is generally the same as today.

p. 63. The Saints arrive in Utah and in 1855-6, some really bad things happen. They have plagues and droughts and hard winters. They are starving. In the OT this was a sign of the Lord’s displeasure. Church leaders saw it the same way. I tend to think that today we would view it as the consequences of living in the desert. However, this is imperative context for understanding what is going on.

pp. 65-6. Rebaptism introduced. Important to note that rebaptism started in Nauvoo and that the Saints were rebaptized when: 1) arriving in Utah the first time, 2) going to the temple, 3) joining a united order, 4) subject to church discipline. Rebaptism was generally ended in the 1890s, though it lingered on for a couple of decades more in certain cases of church discipline.

p. 67. Blood Atonement. I think that Peterson rightly views the rhetoric as hyperbolic. But he also doesn’t convey the frequency and degree to which this discourse was employed during this period. I think Peterson is trying a too hard to soften the blow.

pp. 69-70. One of the big points was whether people were bathing at least weekly. Jeddie Grant harangues a group of bishops for it and it is included on the Reformation Catechism (the list of 27 questions each member had to answer in order to rejoin fellowship). I recently met Michael MacKay at the JSP who did his graduate work in medical history and he pointed me to some interesting work on 17th century discussions regarding baptism and therapeutic washing. The Reformation rhetoric, coupled with the requests to bath before coming to the temple and baptism for health provide some interesting parallels to look at.

p. 70. Reformation Catechism. All about what you do. Nothing about what you believe.

p. 71. Don’t imagine we’ll hear this hymn in Sacrament Meeting any time soon.

p. 72. Hannah Tapfield King (Wife of BY) writes of how traumatic it was to be catechized. Makes me wonder about the occasional calls for more probing interviews of the youth.

pp. 73-4 and 77. “Getting rid of incorrigibles.” See Polly Aird’s stuff.

p. 74. I had forgotten that Church leaders told members that unless they repented that “the higher priesthood would depart into the wilderness among either the Lamanites or the Ten Tribes, and the Saints would be left with the Aaronic (lower) Priesthood and the law of carnal commandments.”

pp. 74-5. Amnesty for sin. If the saints would repent all their sins would be forgiven through this process. I find this communal work of salvation really touching and the idea of amnesty quite beautiful.

p. 77. The sacrament is returned after 6 months hiatus.

p. 78. Peterson notes that the Reformation was possible as “For the first time in their history, the Saints were segregated from the outside world and insulated against interference and reprisal.” If we are going to take a Providential view of history and see the Natural disasters as God’s scourges, is it possible that it was also God’s will that the Army came to depose Young of his governorship as result of the Reformation (a la Elder Oaks on Polygamy)? So the Reformation was possible because of isolation, but the Reformation caused that isolation to be shattered by the Feds?

p. 79. Peterson notes that within a few years of the reformation, the positive results had largely wained and the Saints were back where they had started. Young is greatly disappointed. p. 80 includes an example of someone who got a divorce noting that his wife was scared into the marriage. Is this a lesson about the efficacy of the Reformation’s methods? It would appear that the modern church has a much higher success rate than the Church during this period. Why?


  1. In the church handbook of instruction it specifically forbids this kind of activity, because it leads to splinters and offshoots of the church at large.

  2. Stapley likes to live dangerously. That’s what we like about him.

    I found this very interesting, J., especially the catechism and amnesty.

    Also, I think that hymn is awesome and wonder what tune we could set it to. I will have to ask my husband, as he has a talent for these things.

  3. Landon, I looked and found no such prohibition, but it’s quite possible I missed it. Are you sure you saw it in the handbook, and aren’t just remembering some talk from the 70’s?

  4. Wow, a troll comment right out of the gate. You know you’re on the right track when that happens, J.

    Anyways, some interesting thoughts here. Regarding the disasters of 1855-56 in Utah, was there realistically any other way for Church leaders to shape discourse around their misfortunes?

  5. Landon, the CHI forbids book clubs? I believe you may be mistaken. Moreover, what do you think we’ve been doing on the blogs for the last six years?

    Steve, I think it does make sense. I do think it is interesting, however, that the church does not do this at all anymore.

  6. As a side note, the first article we did was Edward L. Kimball “The History of LDS Temple Admission Standards,” Journal of Mormon History 24 (Spring 1998): 135-175. I heartily recommend it to the interested reader.

  7. By coincidence I was just talking to Curt Bench yesterday and he recommended Peterson’s dissertation on the Reformation after reading his excellent thesis on the History of the Word of Wisdom. I am not quite finished yet but was surprised I had not heard about this mini-era before. Strange stuff. I think Brigham Young was known to promulgate adherence to Old Testament principles and had a certain affinity for that world view. Perhaps his ultra strict upbringing had something to do with it (no walking more than 30 min on the Sabbath, etc).

  8. Well, I have gotten splinters from wooden bleachers and old bannisters, but never from the written word no matter how dry it might be.

  9. My Relief Society is full of apostates who meet monthly to discuss a book announced in the Sunday meeting.

    I also recommended Paul Peterson last week to a client who had questions about something from that era. PP’s ears must be burning these days.

  10. This is good stuff, J.

    As a side note, it is my understanding that Jan Shipps and Sally Gordon are working on an article on the Mormon Reformation.

  11. Comment #10 was mine. Sorry about that–my wife was logged on.

  12. living in zion says:

    pg. 61 – I agree. I believe all kinds of fun and crazy stuff. I have just learned to not mention any of it at church. Thus, I have my weekday life and my Sunday life. Nothing in my beliefs disagrees with church teachings, just expands it in ways my ward would not approve of. Very conservative bunch. I figure living out in the ‘mission field’ is great because I don’t have any member living anywhere near my neighborhood and I don’t see/talk to any members during the week unless I seek them out.

    My non-member friends are awesome with their long -hair, flip flops and vegan foods. I love hanging out with them.

  13. J.,
    Sounds really interesting. A quick practical question: how do you read the articles? I find the UofU library interface generally clunky and uncomfortable (which may be deliberate, so that I don’t import it into my e-reader), but this article especially, the scan seems to have cut off a couple inches on the right side of every page. Does everybody have a hard copy of the article, or do you read it of the U’s site, or is there some super-secret way to get these that I don’t know about?

  14. That is interesting, Christopher. Gordon seems to have a number of things in the fire.

    Sam, I use the DVD archive. The scans aren’t always the best, but it is wildly superior to the UU archive.

    I’ll keep an eye out for your Relief Society sisters among the various offshoots, Ardis.

  15. lurker123 says:

    J., this might seem really stupid of a question, but do you normally take notes when you’re reading books? I mean, that really is a great idea, must help with retention and location of specific points for later reference, but it had never occurred to me to do that outside of a high school lit assignment or something. Who knew that school could teach you useful things!

  16. lurker123, I do generally keep notes on the books I read. However, this was a little bit different as it was aimed at discussion. Typically I keep transcripts of details that I think are important for most books that I read. If I didn’t need to do it for research purposes, though, I doubt that I would be so valiant.

  17. Mark Brown says:

    J., in a review of Aird’s work which you wrote a few months ago you said that “this represents an egregious failure of Mormon society to self-regulate”. How broadly do you apply that judgment? I think that much of the rhetoric can be implicated in MMM. Do you think the reformation had positive aspects?

  18. lurker123 says:

    Sam B., on the UoU archive, you can fit the page to the screen by going to the toolbar at the top of the interface, and you’ll notice that there are three buttons with white rectangles (representing the page). Click on the button that is furthest to the right, the “fit to width” button. Annoyingly, you have to do this each time you go to another page…but it works.

  19. Correlation guy says:

    From the Gospel Principles Manual, Chapter 45: “The Millenium”:

    A thousand years of peace, love, and joy will begin on the earth at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This thousand-year period is called the Millennium.

    According to the Wikipedia articles you linked to, this is the very definition of Premillennialism. It is definitely not Postmillennialism. It couldn’t be any clearer.

    (Also, church leaders teach that Jesus is our Elder Brother. Sometimes I think J. Stapley lives in some strange Mormon parallel universe where he can make up his own teachings. Still, I appreciate his posts, including this one.)

  20. Cool idea, J. When all the JI guys were in UT, Jared T. would have us over for a monthly discussion group. Fun times and definitely good for the soul (at least for some people). As for millennialism, Underwood, iirc, argues that despite some postmillennial tendencies, early Mormons definitely fell within the premillennial camp.

  21. David G.,
    I’d thought Underwood argued that Mormons were both, but when I checked this morning, he falls strongly on the premillenial side (although he says that, because of stereotyping and misunderstanding, mid-20th-century scholars often put the Mormons in the postmillenial side of things).

  22. Landon, does this mean you won’t be coming over this Thursday? You promised to bring the Treat Bucket.

  23. RE: Millennialliam. I do agree that in the technical sense, Mormons are and have been premillennialists. I think it is important to make some important distinctions between Mormon premillennialism and the prominent Protestant variants. The idea, for example that Zion must be established before the return of the Lord and the people united. The idea that non-Mormons will live happily during the Millennium and missionary work will continue. The idea that its time is not necessarily fixed. The idea of a millennial government of the people. As Correlation guy, notes, the Gospel Principles manual emphasizes certain aspects of teaching. I tend to think that the manual emphasizes things that were popular when it was first written, but that is beside the point.

    Correlation guy, it is not that I don’t think Christ is our brother, but I view his demotion away from the the Eternal God as a certain trend in Mormon thought, that I don’t particularly agree with. You may be interested in Corbin Volluz’s BYU Studies piece, “Jesus Christ as Elder Brother.”

    David, man, I would have loved to have joined you.

    Mark, you have asked an interesting question. I tend to view those failures as the manifestations of violence during this time. Was blood atonement rhetoric, hyperbolic even though it may have been, a failure of Mormon society? Well, there is no question that we would loose a lot of members today if leaders started talking that way. And I do think the many of the consequences of the Reformation were regrettable. But I’m not feeling like I am in a good position right now to judge.

  24. Re Corbin’s article:

    I located a source he overlooked regarding the elder brother idea. See Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Vol. I. No. 3. Far West, Missouri, July, 1838, Joseph Smith jr. Editor, p. 43-44:

    “Question 17th. Does not Jo Smith profess to be Jesus Christ?

    Answer. No, but he professes to be his brother, as all other saints have done, and now do. — Matthew 12:49, 50. — ‘And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples and said, ‘Behold my mother and my brethren, For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.'”

  25. Good point, BHodges. Saying that Jesus is not a brother in some sense within Mormonism is a very difficult argument to make.

  26. I just wanted to throw in the extra source, not advocating a stance, just to be sure ;). I think overall Corbin’s article is well worth reading.

  27. J., do you think the rhetoric concerning the loss of the higher priesthood was part of the wider hyperbole of the reformation or was it viewed as a very real possibility among the leaders?

  28. Aaron, I don’t have a good enough handle on what was going on to have an opinion regarding your question. But I find it wildly fascinating. The paper cites Woodruff’s journal that three apostles, including Woodruff, offered to resign their apostolate if better men could be found. So it is clear that people were taking some of the tough language seriously.

  29. I’m interested as to what other important/interesting JMH/Dialogue etc. articles would you recommend for such a group, Jstap, recognizing that these are subjective qualities.

  30. Well, BHodges, we started out with Kimball’s treatment of the Temple recommend as it goes over a lot of interesting material fairly quickly. I asked what sort of topics people were interested in and created a sort of list. Kimball’s piece mentions the Reformation and someone wanted to learn more: voila. Next is Ehat’s and Quinn’s BYU Studies articles on the Council of 50. I think we will just go with what people are interested in. There are hundreds of really great articles to read, so I don’t think we will have trouble finding anything.

  31. J. I likewise think that this is a very interesting dynamic.

    The closest thing I have heard to this, in modern times, is a talk by E. Packer in which he suggests that the Church has made mistakes and is danger of apostasy if they do not change things.

  32. Cynthia L. says:

    Wow, the apostatizing stuff is incredibly interesting. Very different from what I’m accustomed to hearing about never leading astray, never falling into post-Christ-on-the-earth-like apostasy again.

    So when do we transition from very-well-could-happen to nope no way can’t happen?

  33. Well, technically the idea that the Melch. Priesthood would be taken away wasn’t an apostasy, just a punishment. The Church would still exist. To my knowledge it was only ever suggested during the Reformation. As a side note, though, I believe that the idea of the Church President never leading the Church astray was popularized during the first Manifesto.

  34. lurker123 says:

    J. Stapley,
    “As a side note, though, I believe that the idea of the Church President never leading the Church astray was popularized during the first Manifesto.”

    Then, do you think that it would have been possible for Joseph Smith to have resolved the conflict raised by the Nauvoo Expositor’s criticisms by “admitting” to be mistaken about Plural Marriage and his ever-increasing temporal power? Were Wm. Law and the Higbees calling for the resignation of the Prophet, or for him to repent and reform himself?

  35. lurker123, (btw, I would love for you to de-lurk officially and go by a handle resembling an identifiable name), I’m not quite sure what you are asking.

    During the 1890 Manifesto, the idea was invoked to assure people that Wilford Woodruff was not leading the Church astray by ending polygamy as an institutional practice (I know, I know, post-manifesto polygamy, yadda, yadda, yadda).

    While I do sometimes like to play historical what if (what if x was cannonized instead of y; or what if JS lived for a few more years), I’m not sure how useful it is. Had Smith formally renounced polygamy, the temple cosmology and his secular power, things would certainly have been different; though, I think such a thing is fantasy. Regarding the Laws, I suspect that if JS renounced all of that in Jan 1844, he could have prevented their schism. But then, his whole project in Nauvoo would have completely evaporated.

  36. Ben Johnson says:

    J, can you elaborate on ‘a la Elder Oaks on Polygamy’? Any more details?

  37. In church we’re constantly bombarded with how inspired our leaders were for doing x because they could foresee y, but when I read LDS history, I rarely get that sense. In fact, I’d say most of the time they feel most inspired to action, be it establishing Zion in Jackson County, marching with Zion’s camp, living the law of consecration, defending polygamy, defending prohibition, etc., etc., things almost always turn out differently than they expect.

    If they truly are inspired, and I believe they are, then the inspiration isn’t one of foresight — ie., I don’t get the impression they’re shown the end from the beginning any more than the rest of us. They simply do what they feel inspired to do, without any guarantee of results. They end up having to trust that the Lord had his hand in it and that somehow, His purposes were accomplished. Same as us.

    I find this both satisfying and dissatisfying at the same time.

  38. Ben Johnson, I was thinking of this interview with Elder Oaks. The excerpt of interest is:

    HW: The question of religious freedom that we were addressing: I guess my question is, everybody has a different take on this. When the supreme courts finally weighed in and defined religious freedom and boundaries of it in relation to the Mormons, do you feel then that the Supreme Court ruling was overreaching, flawed or inappropriate, given the situation? There’s a range of opinions, as you well know as a Mormon and as a scholar of religious freedom and as a legal mind.

    DHO: I am of two minds on whether the Reynolds case overreached the proper bounds of religious freedom. On one hand it was a terribly prejudiced ruling and as a result of it, some of my relatives went to prison, and I can’t ignore hostility to the ruling for that reason.

    On the other hand, it was a development in formulating how religious organizations would relate to government, putting limits on how far religious practice could be permitted to go. And there have to be some limits to religious practice, even though it’s based on belief that is protected by the Constitution. There have to be limits on practice, and the Reynolds case was a first cut at putting limits on religious freedom, and those limits had to be placed. While you can argue with where the limits are placed — and they’ve been adjusted for more than a century since that ruling — it was a legitimate thing for the government to try to define them.

    HW: In two or three sentences, please recap what that case was about. It was a really important case.

    DHO: Well, if I can speak roughly, in the Reynolds case, you have a man who had married more than one wife — a violation of federal law which was enacted deliberately to prevent Mormons who lived in the United States territory from pursuing their religious practice of having more than one wife. And he was prosecuted and sentenced to prison for a violation of that law. And in the Reynolds case, the constitutionality of the law was challenged on the basis that religious freedom guaranteed the right to practice plural marriage.

    HW: I asked a legal scholar about the repercussions of that case, and she said something very interesting, that it was like Protestant America is going after the Mormons and polygamy and thinking, “Do we want the government involved because it’ll set those limits that are our limits.” She said, “What we learn from those polygamy cases was that the Constitution protects the freedom of belief but not necessarily the freedom to act. And as the 20th century progressed and as believers began to feel themselves the new secularism biting at their heels, and to learn to live by rules that they themselves had opposed on amendments …”

    DHO: That’s the limit.

    As a side note, I think it is pretty clear from this that Elder Oaks is keeping a breast of the recent literature (e.g., Gordon).

  39. Sean G. (lurker123) says:

    J. Stapley, I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer. My question wasn’t so much a historical what-if as it was a question about the strength of the “follow the prophet” mentality pre-Manifesto. Did the political culture of Mormonism allow the prophet to renounce a previous teaching of his without tarnishing the legitimacy of his office, or his authority to hold it? Was prophetic speculation permissible? I guess I was thinking about the Adam-God theory/doctrine in particular. So, I probably should have just gone with that instead of the what-if with the Expositor, especially since that’s actually relevant to the reformation… anyways. I think that this post might actually be less clear that the last one.

  40. Welcome aboard, Sean G. That is an interesting question, that makes sense. I do think that there was a strong willingness to follow JS, even when his new ideas contradicted older ideas. But I also think that there was a bit more leeway. Adam-God is an interesting case, as you have folks like Orson Pratt, who basically reject the ideas completely. One might point to certain apostles in the 1890s (like John W. Pratt Taylor) who took a similar position with regard to ending polygamy. But what about the average members during these time? I’m not sure I have a good answer.

  41. You meant, John W. Taylor, right?

  42. Hah! That is correct, WVS. What a horrible typo. I’ll strike it out in the comment.

  43. Kevin Barney says:

    I love discussion groups like this. Well done, J.

  44. J,

    There appears to have been an egregious omission from your invitations (clears throat auspiciously). Seriously, though, good discussion. Are they all this good?

  45. In response to Sean G (lurker123), J, I’m just reading Prince and Wright’s McKay bio, and already in the early chapters, we have President McKay not wanting to publicly say anything about Elder McConkie after the publication of Mormon Doctrine for fear of undermining his authority as a Church leader, in spite of what apparently he and other General Authorities considered to be hundreds of doctrinal errors. To supersede a previous prophet’s doctrinal expositions (or other general authorities) appears to be something that is approached with great reluctance, if approached at all. Instead, we have a much milder response along the lines of “We pay more heed to current prophets than dead ones”. That kind of strikes a middle ground, and might seem to be motivated by a desire to not create anxieties or questions among newer converts, or members with fledgling testimonies.

  46. Good point, Kev. I think the strong language against Adam-God during the Kimball era was possibly due to a belief that Young really didn’t teach it. I agree that for some time we have not wanted to say anyone was wrong.

    And I don’t know if they are all this good, it was only the second time. Hopefully it stays interesting.