An Introduction to Shismatic Groups within Mormonism

John Hamer and Newell Bringhurst compiled many essays highlighting major Mormon schismatic groups that trace their founding to Joseph Smith in their book titled Scattering of the Saints.   The book is a great read.  It goes into quite a bit of detail of the major groups, but if you want a more comprehensive listing of Mormon Groups, Stephen Shields has a book listing approximately 400 schismatic group in his book Divergent Paths of the Restoration.

Each chapter in Scattering of the Saints is written by a different Mormon historian.  Just to give you a flavor of the book, I thought I would highlight the introduction today.  I’ll be highlighting a few of the essays from the book over the coming weeks.  In the introduction, Hamer and Bringhurst highlight a few of the lesser known schisms and unorthodox members as early as 1830, such as,  (all of these quote come from the introduction–the formatting is changed significantly, and quotes aren’t in the same order as the book.)

  • Black Pete— an African American convert— was active among Smith’s Kirtland followers as ‘a self-styled revelator’ or ‘chief man’ and ‘sometimes seized with strange vagaries and odd conceits.’
  • Laura Hubble, ‘professed to be a prophetess of the Lord’
  • Wycam Clark who formed his own Pure Church of Christ
  • the self-proclaimed prophet John Noah
  • Four years later, James Colin Brewster, a precocious ten-year-old child claimed direct communication with the Angel Moroni and proceeded to write his own works of scripture— all of which led to his disfellowship and ultimate excommunication.5
  • A more serious threat came in 1837 with the formation of the Church of Christ by Warren Parrish…Parrish brought into his organization a number of important dissidents, including three original members of Smith’s Council of the Twelve— specifically, brothers Luke S. and Lyman Johnson, along with John F. Boynton.
  • [George H. Hinkle], rejected Smith’s leadership, forming his own group “The Church of Jesus Christ, the Bride, the Lamb’s Wife”— an organization that continued in existence over the next several years.8
  • A second group fromed as a direct result of the Missouri Mormon War was the Alston Church, formed by Isaac Russell, and English convert.  Russell sought support from dissident Mormons who desired to remain in Missouri contrary to Joseph Smith’s directive to leave the state and settle in Illinois.9
  • In March 1842, Olive H. Olney was disfellowshipped on charge of setting myself up “as a prophet. “
  • Also in 1842, Francis Gladden Bishop asserted his own claims as a prophet
  • Two years later….William Law was joined by his brother, Wilson, along with [a group of others] set uo a rival church organization, the True Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and began publication of their own newspaper, The Nauvoo Expositor.
  • The pace of schism and fragmentation accelerated in the wake of Joseph Smith’s death…Other important Mormons asserting alternate claims to Latter Day Saint leadership
    • Sidney Rigdon— last living member of the church’s First Presidency;
    • Lyman Wight— a member of the Council of the Twelve;
    • Alpheus Cutler— a close confidant to Smith and member of the secret Council of Fifty;
    • William McLellin— a former member of the Twelve;
    • Charles Blancher Thompson— an articulate early church pamphleteer;
    • and James Strang— a gifted charismatic leader who claimed prophetic powers not unlike those asserted by Joseph Smith himself.14
    • The period of exceptional fragmentation drew to a close in 1860 with the formation of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) under the leadership of Joseph Smith III.
    • The Church of Jesus Christ, was organized in 1862 by William Bickerton— a former leader in the defunct Church of Christ that Sidney Rigdon had organized in 1844.  At present, the Church of Jesus Christ, with headquarters in Monongahela, Pennsylvania is generally recognized as the third largest Mormon group.
    • A second denomination, now known as the church of Christ (Temple Lot), was organized in 1863 under the leadership of Granville Hedrick.
    • The Church of Jesus Christ of latter Day Saints or Church of the Firstborn was organized by Joseph Morris in 1861.
    • The Church of Zion, was formed in 1868, by a group of dissident Mormon intellectuals under the leadership of William S. Godbe, Elias L.T. Harrison and former LDS apostle Amason Mason Lyman.  These “Godbeites” (as they become known) proclaimed “spiritual manifestations and revelations” in opposition to certain policies in the LDS church, which they felt resulted from a lack of checks on Brigham Young’s power and authority.21
    • Fundamentalist Mormonism developed in direct opposition to official LDS efforts to phase out plural marriage commencing with the Manifesto of 1890.22
  • Michael Quinn has calculated eight options or “legitimate methods of Mormon presidential succession” that emerged during this fragmentation period.15 As a result, “no fewer than fifteen important groups emerged” following Joseph Smith’s death.16

I quoted considerably from the introduction, and subsequent chapters deal with schisms within these groups already mentioned.  I found chapters on the Bickertonites, Strangites, and Fundamentalists especially interesting, and plan to highlight some more about them in future weeks.  I’ve discovered a number of break offs from the RLDS church as well, and there needs to be a term about “fundamentalist RLDS” groups that is distinct from Fundamentalist Mormons.  Did you have any idea there were so many groups?


16 comments on “An Introduction to Shismatic Groups within Mormonism

  1. A number of more traditional RLDS groups may be loosely consolidated under the classification of Restoration Branches. They are fundamentalist only in the RLDS sense, and are probably to the left, in most cases, of mainstream LDS. They contain a substantial number of members, but can be said to only be in communication with each other rather than in anything approaching communion.

  2. I’d like to know more about these Restoration Branches. I know that some groups oppose the ordination of women. I suspect that some of these groups would have much in common with the LDS, so I’m not sure how far left of the LDS that some of these groups are.

  3. Yes, I should clerify that the “left” is primarily theologically rather than politically. The origin of many of these groups was over the connection to Utah “Mormonism” implied when the church allowed previous polygamous marriages to stand among converts in India.

    Even earlier, many of the same people had strongly objected when curriculum disputes broke out over the uniqueness of Restoration scriptures. Among them were certainly scriptural literalists, but it was more a dispute over the role of the church than a view of scripture that drove the dispute. (That dispute isn’t over even today in the CofChrist, by the way.) However, they spent 10 to 20 years believing that what was happening was happening beneath the notice of the Presidency. When they realized the Presidency was fully invested in this, there was a sense of betrayal that provoked great anger in how the Presidency was portrayed in their literature.

    By the time women were ordained, these alternative organizations were already in place to receive further refugees. There will be some more refugees, I suspect, as the CofChrist struggles with the implications of Section 164.

    And maybe that’s what they share with fundamentalist Mormons: the worldview that they are the “faithful survivors” of the Restoration movement.

    Politically, these people probably look like mainstream America of 50 years ago, with a mixture of Democratic and Republicans not unlike American Protestantism today.

  4. I think we need to better define left and right from a theological point of view. I don’t know exactly what that means. I suspect that fundamental rlds and lds share many similarities theologically, though I have been surprised to learn rlds don’t think much of the 3 degrees of glory in d&c 76.

  5. Huh???

    The CofChrist doesn’t think much ABOUT the glories in D&C 76, but it was pretty standard exposition in the missionary slides and tracts well into the 70’s, at least.

    Like I said, there are biblical literalists among those who left the RLDS, but that certainly was not the dominant view.

  6. perhaps I am misinterpreting some comments at sunstone. CoC historian mark sherer discussed decanonization, and said it didn’t matter if certain revelations were decanonized. section 76 was specifically mentioned in this context, and I got the impression that 76 was no longer believed. historian bill russell said it hadn’t been referenced in decades (which your comment seems to agree with). I guess I don’t understand rlds beliefs about the section, but it is certainly devalued much more in rlds circles than lds circles.

  7. why are the other mormon churches put to the left of the lds utah mormon? it because heavenly father only put the good and perfect at his right? all have the same roots what make the difference is how much of joseph`s smith behaviour and doctrines they believe were from god and what his own or friend ideas.He was very influenced by others and as human failed in many ways.just relax stop your busy lives and think about this,read his writtings.

  8. MH:

    Sec 76 has not been decanonized. Bill Russell does have a rep for saying that what he believes is what the church believes, and I’ve come across some statements where he has expressed the notion that RLDS prophets who disagreed with him had narrow-minded views of the gospel.

    If you follow official church sources on the web, or read the literature put out for worship or curriculum aids, you’ll pick up a pattern that almost exclusive emphasis on teachings of the D&C is placed on the most recent revelations (Sections 161+). Older Sections are quoted, as is the Book of Mormon, almost exclusively in the context of supporting the current teaching emphases of the recent sections.

    I hate having to say this, but it looks exactly like a new political administration focusing on its priorities to the total exclusion of its predecessors. It bothers me a lot, because I doubt God leaves office when a prophet reaches 65. 😀

  9. FT: It only makes sense that resources and curriculum aids focus on recent revelation – it is, after all, recent revelation. It’s not like the reunion texts this year looked at 161 – they looked at 164. Just as last years’ looked at 163, and 162 before that and 161 before that – etc.

    And this is consistent with the church’s position on scripture, that it is not literal or necessarily authoritative (unless it supports an anti-gay sentiment) but rather it is indicative of the context and situation in which it is given.

    So does 76 need to be de-canonized to be disregarded? Not if you view scriptures as errant/contextual/a point in time on a spiritual journey. If that is your position, as I believe it is the current CofC position, then it makes sense to focus on the current point, with the past as history, not as authoritative.

  10. MH asked: “Did you have any idea there were so many groups?”

    In college I came across a very large encyclopedia of world religions, similar in size (both number of pages and font) to a single-volume OED. I don’t recall the name, although it wouldn’t surprise me if it was something germane like “Encyclopedia of World Religions”. Anyways, I spent a good three or four hours going through all the various LDS offshoots it listed. IIRC there were at least thirty mentioned, with others suggested (i.e., they might have been considered too small for inclusion as separate entries). Until then I was really only aware of the RLDS and Fundamentalists who still practiced polygamy. This would have been about 12 years ago, I imagine that the same book is probably still in print someplace.

  11. BTC:

    It does have the consequence, however, of meaning that in effect, the current prophet becomes the ONLY prophet. There is no one of equal stature to question his interpretations. That means that a scripture has — what? — about a 10 year shelf life and belies any ability to speak beyond a tiny institution.

    I know you believe the Prophet is not correct on some issues fundamental to your personal sense of morality. Your comment includes an example. To use my own analogy from Abinadi, I’m not generally willing to grant one who sits in Joseph’s seat authority ON THAT BASIS if he drifts too far from what Joseph taught.

    Doesn’t mean I necessarily think he’s wrong or that Joseph was right; it means I need a better basis for resolving any contradiction than the notion that “newer, hence better.”

  12. Vice versa holds true as well. Just ’cause Joseph said it don’t make it true either. Truth is truth – no matter who says it.

  13. BTC:

    Certainly. It’s just that Joseph is not in the position of being dependent for the existence of his pulpit on Steve. 😀

  14. Sounds fun, lookin forward to it.

  15. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the book, MH. I find the many expressions of Mormonism to be endlessly fascinating.

  16. John, I’m glad you happened by. I agree with you that these expressions of Mormonism are fascinating, but I think you and I are in the minority. I started writing a post on Fundamentalist Mormons, but it took me too long to write, so I put up something quick yesterday. I’ll probably post on fundamentalists next week, so I hope you stop by again with any insights you may have.

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