In January 2010, John Dehlin Interviewed John Hamer on the Succession Crisis following Joseph Smith’s death. I posted part of this a few days ago when I posted about dissolving the First Presidency. One of the things I love was the discussion of the Presiding High Council.
JD, “Today we’re going to be discussing a brief history of the Community of Christ, otherwise known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today we have with us John Hamer, who is going to be guiding us through this very important topic. John Hamer is the editor of John Whitmer Books, and the president-elect of the John Whitmer Historical Association. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, John Whitmer was founded 40 years ago by members of the Reorganized Church, now the Community of Christ.
John Whitmer is like the Mormon History Association, except that it studies all the churches besides the LDS Church, the Community of Christ, the Strangites, the FLDS Church, and the like. John is a historian whose own research focuses on this topic. He co-edited a volume entitled Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism, is that right John?”
JH, “That’s right, yes.”
JD, “And he’s currently working on a history of the Strangite Church. John is also a mapmaker, and he’s produced maps for dozens of Mormon history books, including the first two volumes of the LDS Church’s Joseph Smith Papers. John’s ancestors joined the Mormon movement in 1833, seven generations ago, and he was raised LDS, but he was never endowed, did not serve a mission, and has not been a member as an adult. Nevertheless, he is an active participant in Mormon culture, both in the historian’s community, and in the Bloggernacle where he is a columnist on By Common Consent. John Hamer, welcome to Mormon Stories Podcast.
JH, “Thank you John, I’m so excited that you have restarted Mormon Stories. This has been such an important, I think, venue for people, and I know I’ve enjoyed them, and I know everyone is very excited that it’s coming back.
JD, “Oh, well thank you very much. It’s my pleasure, and I’m honored to have you with us. So John, maybe I’ll just set up a little bit of context on why I felt like this was such an important conversation to have, and to bring to the listening audience. I have to admit that for many, many years, I didn’t think much of the Reorganized Church. As I was taught about the Reorganized Church in seminary, in high school, I kind of viewed them as the quiet little brother that didn’t do much, that didn’t have many talents, that kind of lost in whatever game he played, and was just kind of an insignificant annoyance, that was sort of to be ignored and pushed off to the margins.
It wasn’t until I started studying the history of the Reorganized Church, and specifically the transformation that the church went through in the 60’s before I realized that the history of the Reorganized Church, or the Community of Christ is not only fascinating, it’s not only extremely redemptive in my opinion, but it also seems to have many lessons of interest and even inspiration for the Utah branch, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I couldn’t think of a better person to come on to talk about the Community of Christ other than maybe one of their top leaders, but you were one of the first people I contacted when I decided to bring Mormon Stories back. So thanks again for coming here to talk about it today.
JH, “Yeah, well thanks much. I think that your impression is pretty common because I think that actually as I’ve done work on several of the different churches. I think that people are innately fascinated with Strangites and Cutlerites and all the ites, and they want to hear more, but for some reason the RLDS Church, which the Community of Christ as it is now called gets a bad rap and people aren’t interested in it. But I just think that their history as you point out has been kind of remarkable, and this transformation.
When I tell people who aren’t inside the movement, when I go around and I’m talking to people about the work I do, and I say well we do a lot of work with the Community of Christ, and you probably haven’t heard of them but you’re very aware of the big Mormon Church with the guys who knock on your door and all that kind of thing, and you may be aware of the fundamentalists, the polygamists who are in the news in Texas after the raids and all that kind of thing, but there’s also this liberal Mormon Church, it’s the second largest Mormon Church, they’re off in Missouri and they long ago gave women the priesthood, they have women apostles, and they may be about to start solemnizing gay marriage. They are really kind of at the forefront of where liberal denominations are going. People are pretty much shocked that any Mormons are out there.
JD, “Yeah, well let’s jump in a bit to their history, how does that sound?
JH, “Sure, of course, yeah.
JD, “So let me set it up. So we sort of, I don’t know if there’s a better place to begin than the death of Joseph Smith. Is there any history relevant to the Reorganized Church/Community of Christ that sort of comes before the succession crisis, or is that the best place to start?
JH, “Well for the RLDS Church specifically before the succession crisis, there are precedents for who the leadership is. So Joseph when he dies, if Hyrum hadn’t died with him, I think there’s no doubt that Hyrum Smith would have been the successor. Hyrum Smith was the Assistant President of the Church, and people I think were aware that he would have taken over, but he of course died. He was martyred alongside his brother. So the only thing that you would say that might have happened beforehand were these various blessings that Joseph had given to his sons where he suggested like a Patriarchal blessing kind of thing where someday you’ll be a prophet of the church kind of thing.
So those blessings which we have much later witnesses. We don’t have the actual text of any of those happening, but we have people recalling them, would have happened before his death. That was in the minds of a lot of early core leaders, and they definitely thought at some point or other one of Joseph Smith’s sons, either his oldest son (he had four sons) including David Hyrum Smith who was born posthumously that he predicted would be a son that Emma would bear after he was dead. Or he predicted that he would be a son, and then after he died, she bore David Hyrum, and so people thought maybe one of them would be. Before that, I would say that’s what happens beforehand.
JD, “So, have you thought about—I mean this is just speculation, but I guess in the LDS Church there’s such a clear planned out succession, we tend to sort of think back on history and extrapolate backwards the assumptions that we have at present. You would think that Joseph would have had some type of legal document where he would have been very clear that ok, the president of the Quorum of Twelve was going to succeed me, so it might be a little bit shocking for people to hear that maybe he intended his children, but maybe he intended Hyrum, maybe he intended James Strang, maybe he intended Sidney Rigdon. What’s the prevailing sense of whether Joseph Smith just was promising this to a lot of people, or just didn’t know, or God hadn’t told him? Why the confusion? Why the uncertainty?
JH, “Well I think that he was actually busily saying all kinds of different things and so I don’t think that there was anyone besides Hyrum. I don’t think there was any clear path in terms of a successor. In terms of a legal document, there has been the legal document for the incorporation of the church that has been reviewed and found. That’s in the Hancock County Court House in Illinois, and that legally for the property of the church and that sort of thing, that says that Joseph Smith’s successors will be members of the First Presidency. So the people who are still in the First Presidency when he passed away, and that would have been Sidney Rigdon. But that isn’t canonical, that would be civil law.
In canon law would be scripture. What does scripture say? Scripture in fact doesn’t say at all who will be the president after the president goes, and even if you go into say scriptural precedent from the Old Testament, or the Book of Mormon or New Testament, there’s not an occasion where, say Moses dies and the next member of the Quorum of Twelve apostles then immediately succeeds Moses. Moses doesn’t have apostles, that doesn’t happen. Prophets don’t work like that in either the Old Testament or Book of Mormon, and even in the New Testament, a lot people assume that Peter as the chief apostle takes over for Jesus, but in fact it could easily be read that James the brother of Jesus takes over because when Peter goes to Jerusalem, he actually submits to James’ authority.
So anyway, the argument was made there was modes of succession even in the New Testament. There are no scriptural precedents. Joseph didn’t particularly name anybody, and there’s no reason to imagine, there wasn’t reason scripturally or any other reason to imagine that the president of the Quorum of the Twelve would take over upon his death.
JD, “Did you say there was a civil or legal document specifying the First Presidency as the successors?
JH, “That would be the civil law, so in civil law, yes. The church was incorporated in the state of Illinois. That corporation had in its bylaws that Joseph’s successors would be the First Presidency. So civilly, in the civil law frankly, in my judgment, just having read a whole bunch, the best successor in terms of an actual legal claim would have been Sidney Rigdon. And I can kind of say that because nobody really believes in Sidney Rigdon’s claims much. There’s one church that’s descended from Sidney Rigdon’s people and they also don’t even really claim him too much. They’re not big fans, so but anyway, I would say that Sidney probably had the best claim, but he wasn’t the best leader. So that’s where kind of things stood when Joseph died.
JD, “What about the rumors that there was some letter, or some blessing or prayer on Joseph Smith III? Is there any truth to either of those, or is that speculation or just outright falsehood, or am I getting it wrong?
JH, “Well the letter, the actual document was a Hoffman forgery.
JH, “So there was a Joseph Smith III blessing that appeared in the 1980s. It was a forgery. But you know, Hoffman—What about the rumors that there was some letter, or some blessing or prayer on Joseph Smith III? Is there any truth to either of those, or is that speculation or just outright falsehood, or am I getting it wrong? What about the rumors that there was some letter, or some blessing or prayer on Joseph Smith III? Is there any truth to either of those, or is that speculation or just outright falsehood, or am I getting it wrong?”
JH, “The reason why he was so successful was because he was a very astute student of Mormon history, and he would make stuff that made sense for Mormon history. I mean he would be a little off, and he wanted to kind of jab at Mormon claims and all those kind of things, and so he was attacking at the same time but he was also doing stuff that made sense. So people know that there’s all kinds of people who attested to the fact that these blessings had occurred. I mean there’s more than one occasion. So one of them takes place in the upper story of the Red Brick Store in Nauvoo. Another one apparently took place or supposedly took place in the Liberty Jail. Joseph Smith III was apparently visiting his father and he gave him a special blessing that apostle Lyman Wight later attested to, so there were a couple occasions like that but there is no text. We don’t know what it would have been about.
I think we can imagine that there would have been a patriarchal style blessing where a father asserts that his son would someday fill his shoes, that kind of thing and people remembered that sort of thing. We don’t know—that doesn’t constitute a legal claim. In any event Joseph Smith III would have been, I think was 12 when his father was killed so it was completely impossible for him to succeed. Although several leaders said that well one day he would; in fact even Brigham Young said that to several of his followers according to some of the witnesses we have. “
JD, “Ok, so one last question before we move on to Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon. Is there anything in LDS scripture today that specifies the succession? Like did that get added to the LDS Church at some point, the way that it happens now which is that the most senior apostle?
JH, “No, No.
JD, “So that’s just sort of like the cloture, the filibuster rule in the Senate. It’s not really official, it’s just kind of evolved into church policy.
JH, “It’s a practice, so there is nothing. In fact I would call it a ritual, which is the reason why when the president of the LDS church dies, the reason the First Presidency, is immediately dissolved, and the LDS Church makes a big point of that. So in other words, the counselors go back to the quorum, and now there’s 14 apostles instead of just 12, is because they ritually, the LDS church is ritually delegitimizes Sidney Rigdon’s claims.
So what they’re saying every single time there’s a succession , they’re saying Brigham Young was the successor, Sidney Rigdon had no claim. But there’s no reason to imagine based on anything in the D&C or anything else that the First Presidency would dissolve when one of the members died, and indeed in the Community of Christ it doesn’t dissolve. It simply, just what it does in the LDS Church, because that justifies the Brigham Young succession.
JD, “Ok, great, so let’s move on now to Joseph’s martyrdom, and we’re in Nauvoo. Joseph and Hyrum have been killed. What happens next?
“JH, “So everybody has been marshaled for Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign, and I know that we don’t ever really hardly emphasize this about Joseph Smith running for president in 1844, but that really was the number one thing that he was doing, and absolutely everybody who was anybody had been called on a mission, and they were out campaigning for Joseph Smith right when he is killed. And same thing, Sidney Rigdon, who is his vice presidential candidate on the ticket has to move to Pennsylvania because you can’t both be from Illinois according to the U.S. Constitution, you have to be from two different states, the president and the vice president. So Sidney Rigdon moved back to Pennsylvania where he was originally from and so he’s on the ticket as the vice president when Joseph gets assassinated, and everybody has to make his way back.
On the way back, there’s a couple options. So who’s going to be the leader? Obviously it can’t be Joseph Smith III, he’s just a little kid. It’s not going to be Emma or anybody in the”immediately after. You know, she’s a woman, it’s that kind of time period. Hyrum is dead. Samuel Smith also dies very soon. The only living Smith left therefore an adulthood male is William Smith who is by far the most unsteady Smith. People don’t like William. He stays off in the east anyway because his wife is sick, so he’s gone for an entire year. So outside of the family in the church structure, what’s going to happen?
The options are the First Presidency; essentially they’ve lost key members recently, so William Law has been, you know he’s part of this whole reform movement that actually—he starts the Nauvoo Expositor, and he actually precipitates the entire martyrdom and everything like that that happens. So he is out of the church, but Sidney Rigdon is still there, so that’s an option, Sidney Rigdon. The other two options then, the two leading quorums are the High Council, the Presiding High Council, and previously, earlier in Mormon history, the High Council had been very important ruling body, especially in Far West, especially in the Missouri period, just right before Nauvoo.
So we always hear about how where when Joseph Smith was in prison in Missouri, Brigham Young, that’s when he emerges, he leads the Saints out of Missouri and he moves them to Illinois, but he doesn’t take control as leader of the apostles, he actually takes control as acting president of the High Council. The High Council then proceeds then to fill vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve. The High Council is the one that appoints people to take the place of Thomas Marsh, and the other apostles who have left or died. So it’s—”
JD, “So there’s no equivalent to the High Council today, right? I mean I don’t even know how to conceptualize this?
JH, “So this doesn’t exist really. So what’s happened in the LDS Church which is when the apostles end up taking over, all of the other possible things get lessened. It’s an all-apostle, all the time church now. But we have to understand that in the original church, for example even now, so right now you think of the First Presidency. Well, that’s just three of the apostles, right? Well not in the early church. Joseph Smith and his counselors, none of those guys had ever been in the Twelve. That had nothing to do with the apostles. It was a completely separate quorum. So in the same way there’ s this High Council.
The equivalent now in the LDS Church is just Stake High Councils. So every stake has a High Council, and the Stake Presidency is in charge of that. But what we have in the Church as a whole in Missouri, and then also in Nauvoo is what is effectively a Presiding High Council, a High Council of General Authorities of the Church where the different stakes, well actually if they have a problem at their stake High Council, you can appeal your case, and it will go—it doesn’t go to the apostles, it goes to the High Council of the Church in Nauvoo. So in other words, there’s a presiding High Council that is over all the other high councils. The head of that is William Marks, who is the presiding Stake President of the church in Nauvoo, so Marks is another possibility.
So then the other possibility of course is Brigham Young, another leading church member, the head of the Travelling High Council, the Council of the Twelve Apostles, who are in charge specifically of missionary work. So they are in charge of anywhere in the church that isn’t a stake. If somebody is going to have a case in a branch, then they’ll appeal it to the Twelve. So those are essentially what you have. You have the First Presidency, you have the High Council, and you have the Travelling High Council. So what happens is Emma and some of the people who agree with her, think that the head of the High Council should be the new head of the church, William Marks. But William Marks believes legally that Sidney Rigdon has the best claim, so he sides with Rigdon in the First Presidency as being the successor, so that essentially nullifies Marks’ claim, because it puts it with Rigdon, so that’s why it comes down to essentially Rigdon versus Young.
JD, “Ok, was Brigham Young in town during the martyrdom, or was he out?
JH, “No, he was out campaigning for president.
JD, “How long did it take him to get back in town, to find out about the martyrdom and then come back?
JH, “Yeah, I’m terrible at dates.
JD, “Oh, no. It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok. Do you think it was a year, was it a month?
JH, “No, No. You know, whatever. They came back very quickly.
JH, “Sidney Rigdon beat him back by a few days or whatever it was. He was there in town first.
JH, “Sidney called a meeting to hopefully, what he tried to do was get himself named Guardian over the Church. So he wanted to lock in that he would be the successor. The apostles made it back in town in time, and it became a showdown meeting. And so that’s where this meeting that we hear about where essentially the first major thing that happens where it is sometimes referred to as essentially Brigham Young is chosen to be the successor, but in fact what Brigham argues is, how can we have a successor? Joseph is in the grave, a martyr. We’ve just lost this martyr. How can anyone replace Joseph? No one can replace Joseph. You no longer have a prophet, but you have apostles, and the apostles can as a whole, as a quorum can lead the church until such a time as Joseph returns or whatever happens next. People were ok with that, and they weren’t ok with Sidney Rigdon being the Guardian. [Hamer chuckles] So essentially that’s what happens.
JD, “Had Sidney Rigdon lost some credibility with the saints over the Nauvoo period?
JH, “Sure, yeah. Well Sidney Rigdon is routinely, I think we always talk about him as being, his having his status weakened, and having his status be on the outs, and all of those kinds of things. Part of the reason for that of course is that we don’t write the history from Sidney Rigdon’s perspective. We write the history from everybody else’s perspective. Sidney didn’t win, and so therefore, no one writes it about him. We should note, like I did, that he’s the vice presidential candidate, so he is running with Joseph Smith in full fellowship. He’s in the First Presidency still.
That said, there are things where he is a little bit on the outs with Joseph. Specifically this is about what has become by that time in the Nauvoo Period, such a core practice and important doctrine which is polygamy. So Joseph and an inner group of members of the church are practicing plural marriages. They think it is absolutely important to salvation, and they are teaching that and practicing it, and Sidney Rigdon is a major opponent of that practice, and so there was a proposition I guess for Sidney Rigdon’s daughter. Joseph proposed to marry her.
JD, “Nancy. Nancy, right?
JH, “Nancy Rigdon. She was completely unwilling to be a part of that. She didn’t want to be involved, and Sidney also condemned that, although he didn’t do it publicly. So there was a sense still that Joseph had, obviously he was running with him for president. There was a sense that Sidney was willing to, even though he wasn’t on board, he wasn’t going to make a stink the way let’s say William Law did, the way that William Law just absolutely refused and went public, and decided that there needed to be reforms in the church. Sidney was going to work with Joseph.
But, that said, there are these competing factions. There are the pro-polygamy faction and the anti-polygamy faction within the leadership of the church in Nauvoo, and Sidney is definitely seen as the standard bearer for the people who are against polygamy. The problem for the people who are in favor of polygamy is that this would immediately discredit their families, or actually their activities so if your daughter, like my great, great, great, great grandparents whose daughter Nancy Mariah Winchester married”one of the young wives who married Joseph Smith. They on the one hand, in a positive sense feel sealed to the prophet for all eternity. This is an important thing that brings their family to the highest degree of glory.
On the other hand, if it was to be rejected as a doctrine, suddenly this calls into question what she’s been doing, you know she could be a shamed woman essentially in Victorian America, so in a way, life or death, or at least reputation and your entire family is at stake as to whether this doctrine is sanctified or whether it’s rejected.
JD, “What percentage of the membership in Nauvoo do you suspect knew about the polygamy?
JH, “It’s a pretty open secret, so I think ever since Bennett, uh James Bennett, [Hamer said James, but he meant John C. Bennett] who had been mayor of Nauvoo and one of Joseph’s very close friends and also involved in the polygamy, he had written an expose where he named names. He described the practices and things like that, so it’s a big open secret. On the other hand, people could reject what Bennett had to say. He was an apostate. They decide, or they believe that that was just a bunch of humbug.
But what ends up happening with the Expositor, everybody around the Mormons definitely believed the exposes, and they definitely said, ok this is a horrible thing that is happening. In Nauvoo, what the Expositor does, it doesn’t tell people about polygamy outside, everybody outside already knows that this is happening. They already believe it. But because William Law is respected inside Nauvoo, it does I think tell the membership that it’s something that’s more credible, a more credible witness. I think people are aware of it. There is an inner circle that it has been taught to, it’s probably only going to be I don’t know probably maybe a hundred people, something like that, but it’s the key leaders. It’s everybody on the High Council, it’s everybody in the Twelve, it’s the Seventies, it’s important people that know about this stuff.
JD, “Ok, so Sidney did know about it, he just didn’t approve of it.
JH, “Absolutely, so he would be among the leadership who know and don’t approve. That faction then would also include Emma, Joseph’s legal widow obviously, and her family. They don’t approve of it and they don’t agree with it, and then also William Marks, who is the head of the High Council and also the Stake President of the church there.
JD, “He did not approve.
JH, “He also didn’t approve.
JD, “Ok, ok. So this post-martyrdom standoff, in some ways really was a polygamy versus anti-polygamy standoff?
JH, “Right. So if the wrong person ends up being the successor, you know, it’s going to go one way or another, because this is a doctrine that is in contention.
JD, “And that ends up informing the major tension between the LDS church and the reorganized Church for the next what 150 years I guess or 100 years or something?
JH, “Absolutely, so yeah.
JD, “I read this Dialogue article, like I don’t know, 10 years ago that basically challenged the common story, and I’m not trying to cast doubt into people’s faith or testimonies at all, but it seemed like a pretty credible article that said the history, the story that we’re all told about Brigham transforming into Joseph in some way, that historically there’s some questions about that. Can you just tell us what the traditional narrative has been and why that isn’t something necessarily to be taken at face value?
JH, “Sure. So yeah. ultimately when everybody, after the martyrdom everybody’s out campaigning for Joseph for president, Sidney’s off in Pittsburgh where he has to establish residency to be the vice-president, they all come back. There’s a big showdown ultimately between Sidney Rigdon, who wants to be named Guardian of the Church, and Brigham Young, who doesn’t want Sidney Rigdon to be named Guardian of the Church, as to what the direction is going to be. The way the traditional story goes, the LDS story goes that Brigham, when he stood up and he gave his speech, he appeared transfigured before the audience, and the audience saw him as Joseph, and so that told them that he should be the successor. So that’s the traditional narrative as we have it now.
There are a couple of problems with it as the traditional narrative. One, it doesn’t date to the time period itself, so Brigham does end up being in charge of all of the Church’s apparatus at Nauvoo including the Times and Seasons, and all those kinds of things and he is immediately in a big succession battle against Sidney Rigdon and some of the other successors who kind of emerge on the scene. They don’t cite this in the Times and Seasons. They don’t make an article about that this happened and this is proof of Brigham’s claims or any such thing. In other words, they would have the ability to immediately write about that. They don’t. Nobody writes about it. So the story doesn’t exist at the time, or at least it is not written down by anybody or reported by anybody.
JD, “Including people’s private journals, right?
JD, “So there’s no instance of somebody going home that night, and somebody saying, hey something amazing happened. None of that. Never?
JD, “No, known instance of that story ever being written down?
JH, “The story appears later.
JH, “In fact the problem with it is it doesn’t precisely fit, in my opinion, the narrative of what happened. So in other words, if this miracle happened, if a lot of people did see it at the time, you might imagine that well they would ordain Brigham Young to be the successor, that they would make him president of the church. In fact he didn’t argue to be made president of the church, he immediately takes control of the apparatus, but he’s acting president as, what ends up happening is people place the Twelve in charge of the Church. So we don’t have the reorganization of the Church where there’s a new president and a new First Presidency in the LDS tradition until three years later in 1847 when they’re off in Omaha, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. So instead they have this period of time where the Twelve are simply acting as the leaders in the meantime. So I think that another problem here is not only isn’t there isn’t any contemporary sourcing for this, but also that it doesn’t really fit the narrative of what actually happened.
JD, “Ok, gotcha. How do we suspect this narrative sprang forth then?
JH, “Well so at the time, this wouldn’t have even been a helpful narrative, because like I said, the Twelve are in charge, not Brigham Young. But later obviously Brigham Young is in charge off in Utah. In the 1850s, especially in the early 1860s, what ends up happening is that Brigham Young who is now head of a new First Presidency, who is in charge of what is the last church standing, church organization standing, what ends up happening is that we might call a pretender to the throne arises so suddenly one of Joseph Smith’s sons has become an adult, he has said that he’s received a revelation that he should be prophet and leader of the church, and he has come as the president, he has been ordained president of a new organization of the church back in Illinois.
So now that there is a pretender, now that there is somebody who is a threat to Brigham Young’s control of the presidency, now they have to have new narratives that kind of talk about him as a sort of spiritual successor, it’s not just good enough to say I’ll lead this people until Joseph comes back or something like that, there’s a need to say that there’s a spiritual basis for this.
JD, “And then someone tells a story in General Conference, it starts spreading around, and ¦
JH, “And everybody remembers it.
JD, “And they’re even people who we have records were on missions in foreign countries at the time of the alleged event between Sidney and Brigham who then end up writing in their journals that they were at the event and saw Brigham transformed even though we know from correspondence that they were in Europe¦
JH, “In a way–that happens, yes. Some of the best, some of the nicest, a great narrative of it is written by somebody who definitely wasn’t there, but on the other hand, that could be a trick of memory.
JD, “Yeah, Yeah.
JH, “I remember things that I was not there for, because I’ve heard the story told so many times I just remember it, and then I’m shocked to find out, well wait a second, I wasn’t even there. So that definitely happens, sure.
JD, “So again, I’m not alleging fraud, I don’t intending that at all. That’s just the way that the human memory works. We remember things like you said, that sometimes we didn’t experience, or that we weren’t there to experience. Ok, so let’s go back. You know Brigham wins. I think it’s important just to reiterate, as I understand it, Brigham didn’t claim the title of prophet, and it wasn’t until like David O. McKay that a president or prophet of the church allowed themselves to be called prophet. Is that right?
JH, “Right. I think that Mike Quinn brings that out in his Mormon Hierarchy series, so yes. It is my understanding of the way it works too. Essentially, there is this idea I think in the LDS tradition, all the way up until that time in the middle of the 20th century that there is the prophet, who is Joseph, and they’ll call him the prophet. Then there is the president of the Church who is a prophet, a seer, and a revelator in the same way that all of the apostles or prophets are seers and revelators. They’re all sustained as such.
But, for example, there’s a special way Mormons for example still today refer to Joseph. He is the prophet Joseph. We never ever would say the prophet George–
JD chuckles, “Right.
JH, “–and be referring to George Albert Smith. You don’t even know who I’m talking about when I say the prophet George. I mean there’s just nothing–so there is a deference, and in fact that difference was more distinct in the LDS tradition, it was more distinct up until like you say the mid-20th century and now it’s less distinct probably.
JD, “Right, ok. So Brigham wins the share of the members, they go to Utah. Who stays behind, and how does it lead to the formation of the Reorganized Church?
JH, “So Brigham wins, he takes control of the church in Nauvoo, and so he has the headquarters apparatus, but we have to know that when, at the time of the martyrdom, if you take all the Mormons who had been baptized from the foundation of the church up until the martyrdom, the majority of the members are off in branches. They live all around, scattered all around the country, and there’s a whole bunch up in Britain and in Europe. But most of the people who got baptized didn’t gather to Nauvoo. It’s only the very most committed people who end up gathering to Nauvoo.
So there’s a large number of people that are scattered all around in all the branches, and they don’t immediately all become, what we now call Brighamites, or the LDS. They don’t all affiliate. You essentially have a church that has more than one center. So I like to make this analogy with the medieval Catholic Church, when it’s in schism. So there’s this moment you may know about where there’s a pope in Rome, and then there’s a pope in Avignon, in France, and it’s this moment of schism. Nobody knows who the real pope is, is it in the pope in Avignon, or is it the pope in Rome?
It’s not that some people are Roman Catholic, and some people are Avignon Catholics, everybody’s Catholic. It’s all a church. It’s not really separate yet, but there are different leaders and you may be affiliated with one or the other. And in the broader church outside of the headquarters, outside of Nauvoo, everybody in all of the branches everywhere doesn’t necessarily know who they’re affiliated with, and they might be affiliated with multiple people depending on who visited them last or what newspaper they happened to get.
So very soon after, Brigham is in charge of the Church in Nauvoo, there emerge a couple of leaders. Sidney Rigdon is one. He organizes a new church headquarters in Pennsylvania. It has a newspaper and all those kind of things, church organization, it has twelve apostles. My great, great, great, great uncle, Benjamin Winchester ended up becoming one of Sidney Rigdon’s apostles. At the same time there is another claimant, a guy named James Strang emerges and he has all sorts of claims that he makes to the same kinds of spiritual powers that Joseph had had. He finds plates, he translates the plates, they have witnesses. He has angelic ordination. There’s all kinds of things, and people start to believe that he is the true successor, and he gets a remarkable array of important early Mormons who follow him, including most of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith’s mother, and all kinds of others.”
JD, “So Martin Harris, and–”
JH, “Martin Harris. So what ends up happening actually, the major showdown. There was that first major showdown that everybody’s aware of, there’s a second major showdown and that happens because there’s constantly”there’s people in Nauvoo, there’s people in all the branches, and then the most important thing is there are the converts that are constantly being made in England. These guys are constantly making converts and they’re coming to replace all the people that are leaving Mormonism. So there’s a mission where James Strang sends Martin Harris and other Strangite missionaries to England. Martin Harris has his name on the Book of Mormon. He can say I’m one of the witnesses. I knew Joseph Smith. I was one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. And the real prophet, and the real successor is James Strang, and he does that.
But the problem with it is, is that Martin Harris as we know in Mormon history is such a wild guy who is so unsteady and unstable, that he impresses absolutely nobody in England. So the Twelve and Brigham Young absolutely wins, and the Strangite mission is a total fiasco, and so instead of sending them all to James Strang and his colonies in Wisconsin and in Michigan, all of the converts from England go to Utah, so that is the real victory and is why immediately the Utah church becomes so much larger than the other churches because they are the ones constantly getting fueled with new converts.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise to us, because the Twelve were in charge of missionary work, so they were the ones that were known. That was their other advantage. They have the core group in Nauvoo of the polygamy faction, but then they also have control over the missionary work.”
JD, “Gotcha, Gotcha. Ok a second standoff, Brigham wins again.”
JD, “Ok, so what happens to the remnants?”
JH, “So then there are all these different organizations, that are everybody that’s left, all these branches, everybody who doesn’t go west, or people who go west and then they come back. That happens a lot. People who go west, they don’t like Utah, they decide they do like California, so all the people in San Bernadino. There’s all kinds of Mormons who aren’t affiliated with Brigham Young. Essentially most of the leaders though, all kind of fall on hard times, the generation ends, they die a little earlier than Brigham Young. In the case of James Strang, he is martyred in exactly the same kind of way that Joseph Smith is. He is shot and killed and his church is scattered and driven away from Michigan in the same way that Mormons have been driven from Missouri.
So those churches pretty well are in a state of collapse. And also the other thing that has happened is that most of those leaders including James Strang ultimately embrace polygamy, and so there’s still this faction of Mormons, original Latter-day Saints, people from the very earliest times who just do not believe in polygamy, and they don’t think that should be a part of it, and that includes of course Emma and her family who have stayed in Nauvoo. She doesn’t want to go out west and become Brigham’s wife, or whatever she’d have to do in one of the polygamy factions. So she stays. All of those people are still believers and they are still opponents of polygamy so these guys start to gather together their congregations. They also, some of them believe that Joseph’s Smith’s son would lead the church. So they come and they invite him to that occasion, and he’ll say, look I’m not going to say I’m the prophet of the church unless I have a spiritual manifestation from God that tells me that I’m the prophet of the church.
So he won’t do it, and so they wait. Ultimately though he feels that he has that manifestation, so he believes he has a revelation from God that he should be the prophet of the church, so he comes forward and then 150 years ago this April 6, is the anniversary, he becomes the prophet and president of the Reorganized Church.”
JD, “So my math is bad. Is that 1859, or 1860?
JH, “1860, yep.
JD, “Ok, so we have a new church and they call themselves the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?”
JH, “The call themselves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So they don’t call themselves the Reorganized Church. They claim the original name, initially, in fact for a long time. So you’ll see actually when you look at old pictures of RLDS congregations, even in the 30’s, 1930’s they’ll still say Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because they are very, that name was revealed by revelation as you know in 1838. So people had a very strong feeling for that name, and keeping that name. They ultimately added that word Reorganized to the name legally during the major anti-polygamy laws that came through the federal government when the federal government had its campaign to stamp out polygamy.
So one of the laws dis-incorporated the LDS church and also seized all the property over a certain value. So because that law specified the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for legal reasons, they incorporated with a different name with the word Reorganized on the front of it in order to protect their property during that same anti-Mormon persecutions that the federal government had. So anyway, ultimately it was a convenient name, so it kind of stuck, but they always, always thought it was completely bulky to say Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
JH, “They were always trying to change it all the way back..”
JH, “..if you look at the records. They finally did.
JD, “Real quick. Did Joseph III write down his dream or vision, or give detail about what he experienced?
JH, “He did not reveal that. That’s not one of the revelations that has been canonized in the RLDS/Community of Christ D&C. When he came to the conference April 6, 1860, I think his quote is ˜I come by a power not my own.’ He indicated that he had a spiritual manifestation that caused him to do it but I don’t think that”there’s nothing like a thus saith the Lord revelation.
JH, “He does dictate further revelations though that are canonized and part of the Community of Christ D&C.
JD, “Are there any big names at that 1860 conference that we would recognize?
JH, “Well Emma.
JH, “Emma of course affiliates. William Marks is one of the big names who was there.
JH, “So Wiliam Marks had been the¦
JD, “High Council.
JH, “Stake President in Nauvoo, and the Presiding High Council, and so he still has been a believing Mormon, he has looked for, you know whatever he considers to be the true Mormonism in all the wrong places as we say. He had been a Srangite, a Thompsonite, other kinds of things. But anyway, he was affiliated with that, and in fact he’s probably the guy who gets Emma to be involved and probably there’s a lot of reluctance on the part of both Joseph III and Emma, because their husband/father was killed for this, they had been driven out of their homes. There was all kinds of reasons why they were afraid of getting back involved in this kind of thing, but I think that William Marks, the fact that he was on board was probably helpful.
JD, “Right, ok. So when they reorganized, did they form themselves in a way that was similar to the way that Joseph was running things, or different, or different from the way we’re running things now? Was there a distinction to how they set things up?
JH, “Yeah, so one difference, they did set up more of the original church apparatus, so one thing that happens when the Twelve take over the Nauvoo church, suddenly it becomes kind of an apostolic church. So the First Presidency is no longer becomes its own an independent quorum, it becomes an extension of the apostles. Those are 15 apostles now, and it’s the senior most apostle. The First Presidency in the Reorganized Church is simply its own separate quorum. It has nothing to do with the apostles.
They have a Presiding High Council, just like in the original church. They have a Presiding Patriarch/Evangelist. In the early church you could use either word and we use the word Patriarch in the LDS Church, they use the word Evangelist in the Community of Christ. But anyway they have a presiding Evangelist eventually. They have one now still today, so there’s a couple of differences like that in organization.
In some cases, for example Bishops. In the early church Bishops were financial officers and that’s the way it is in the Community of Christ. Pastors, that’s a weird one. People think”LDS people are like ˜pastors, those guys are protestants.’ They have pastors. But if you look at the articles of Faith, the Articles of Faith talk about the original jobs that people have, that are like the early church and one of those is we believe in prophets, I’m sorry in pastors, that’s one of those on the list, so pastors is also something they have in the early church, in the Community of Christ.
JD, “They still believe in the Book of Mormon, just like the LDS Church, right?
JD, “Did they just take the Book of Commandment, singular, Book of Commandment?
JH, “Book of Commandments.
JD, “They accepted that?
JH, “No, the Doctrine and Covenants. So the Book of Commandments is the early version of the D&C and some of the churches don’t believe”so there were significant changes to the revelations in Joseph Smith’s lifetime. He felt that it was possible to do that presumably and so they did. So there were big changes. That offended some members in other churches, not the Community of Christ. The Temple Lot Church for example, they don’t believe in the D&C, they do believe in the Book of Commandments, but that’s not true in the Community of Christ. They use the D&C.
JD, “The D&C.
JH, “Although we should note that the LDS D&C is substantially changed, so there was a whole bunch of different stuff that was added. It’s Joseph Smith material, but it’s like his letters and other things that got added to the D&C, so it wasn’t in the original one and so the Community of Christ doesn’t have that in theirs.
JD, “Right, ok. So they get to keep Kirtland. Is that right?
JH, “So yes, essentially there’s always members in Kirtland. Even when everybody leaves, there’s still Mormons of some kind there. They had been members of different churches at certain points; the Strangites organized a stake there, and they had control of the Temple, there’s other different little churches that are there, but ultimately, the people that are in Kirtland, the Mormons that are in Kirtland joined with the Reorganization and so it becomes the property of the RLDS Church, and yes, they are in Kirtland.
JD, “Ok. At some point, they go to Independence, is that right?
JD, “Do they move there from Nauvoo?
JH, “Well the church is initially headquartered in Nauvoo, so that’s where Joseph III continues to live. In kind of a great story, he is actually, so here his dad is assassinated by gentiles there. Yet people are so worried about theocracy, Joseph III ends up becoming a lawyer and actually gets elected Justice of the Peace by those same people. In other words, there’s not a Mormon presence anymore. He actually has a nice reconciliation even with Thomas Sharp, who is one of the main anti-Mormon leaders.
But anyway, they work on trying to get along with their neighbors, and they continue to be in Nauvoo. They end up leaving Nauvoo because by the time the railroads really become important, Nauvoo becomes just a little backwater. There’s nothing you can ever do without a railroad, and there’s no railroad, so they moved temporarily to a place called Plano, Illinois. They ultimately found a colony called Lamoni, in Iowa, named for the pacifist king in the Book of Mormon because they’d become interested in peace, and they want to emphasize that, so for that philosophy, they take that name and they found a colony in Iowa which becomes the headquarters of the church. Finally at the end of Joseph’s life, he lives an awful long time, so he’s living off all the way into the 20th century. In the 20th century, they move to Independence, they want to go back to the center place.
JD, “So was it Joseph III who received a revelation that prophetic succession should go through the bloodline? When did that creep in?
JH, “There’s no revelation to that effect. So they don’t believe that. So essentially what the Community of Christ had always believed was that the prophet had the capacity to designate a successor, and it does say that in the D&C. There’s a point in the D&C where it says if Joseph shall fall, he will have no powers save to name a successor. So they believe that the ordination, you know the claim was made anyway that there was a childhood ordination where he had ordained his son to be the successor. So then as prophet, Joseph III creates a much more, he does give a kind of a constitution of what should happen if he were to die. He also ordains a successor, so he ordains his son to be his successor, but it didn’t have to be, and in fact there was another member of the First Presidency thought it should be him, and when it wasn’t him, he actually broke away from the church.
He was a Canadian and so he actually took most of the Canadian Church away with him, and there was a Canadian RLDS Church for a while that finally merged back in. But anyway, there was a possibility that it wouldn’t be in the family, right from the start, but it was initially. So, it went from Joseph to Joseph III to his son, and then from his son it went to two of his son’s brothers, so actually three of his sons in succession. Because Joseph III had lived so long, and had had kids way late in life, his son only died in the 1970s.
JD, “Oh wow!
JH, “So there was actually a grandson of Joseph Smith Jr. still in charge of the church all the way until then. He retired because he was old¦
JD, “Ok, wait, wait. We’re in the 70s now right?
JD, “Ok, let’s pause, and let’s come back to this ok? Sorry, I don’t mean to cut you off.
JH, “No, it’s ok.
JD, “So the defining difference between the two churches in the late 19th century was polygamy, is that right?
JD, “Ok, so talk about the tension between the two churches, and the affidavits, and sort of what was going on there that would make Brigham Young or whoever his successors were feel a little bit threatened by what was going on in Independence.
JH, “So yes, there was this. The Reorganized church was essentially, almost entirely organized to fight polygamy. They just absolutely hated polygamy. Emma hated polygamy, and her sons hated polygamy. The members were more or all agreed. In fact, when they went out and sent a mission out to Salt Lake they were terrible missionaries, because essentially, the front page of their newspaper was essentially just a screed against polygamy, which is what everybody was doing. I mean that was your family. It wasn’t easy to simply ˜oh yea you guys are right. I guess polygamy is bad.’
There was no way, even if you didn’t like Brigham Young, there was not much you could do when you were already a polygamist. So anyway, they were very, very opposed to polygamy, and they would work with the federal government against polygamy.
JD, “They were trying to come out to Utah to convert Mormons back to the RLDS church, right?
JH, “Right, yes,
JD, “And that made Brigham feel, or whoever his successors were to feel threatened and a little bit nervous?
JH, “Sure, yeah, because a lot of people believed”I mean people still as we’ve kind of mentioned before, Joseph had a special place. There’s no doubt about it. Joseph the prophet was different from other prophets, even Brigham Young, no matter how important Brigham Young had become. So here’s his son, I mean some of his sons looked exactly like him. So the people remembered him. There were old-time members. They were moved by that, but ultimate the LDS Church actually did a fantastic job of not losing members to the RLDS Church. In part that was because the RLDS Church was terrible missionaries on this polygamy issue. They were more interested in condemning polygamy than actually bringing people into communion with themselves, and so that was definitely a problem. What did end up happening is that, so Brigham tapped Joseph Fielding Smith, or Joseph F. Smith? Which do you call it Joseph Fielding Smith, or Joseph F. Smith?
JD, “Joseph F. Smith. But really quick, weren’t they running around telling people in Utah that Joseph never practiced polygamy, that that was all a lie?
JH, “Yes. Yes. “
JD, “So that would be really troubling to the leaders of the LDS Church in Utah.
JH, “You know, I don’t that is was that troubling because they were wrong. [Hamer and Dehlin both chuckle] In other words, they were discrediting themselves in a way, because they believed, the sons were able to believe that either it didn’t happen or ultimately Joseph III is a lawyer, as I mentioned, and lawyers actually make pretty terrible, anyway they have problems as historians because law, the law has a different standard of proof than history can. So his standard of proof was you have to give me a smoking gun. You know, until I have the smoking gun, where’s the kids? Where’s this? Where’s a personal? Where’s something I can have as actual legal evidence?
I can still in my apologetic way deny that this happened, and I can try to make clear my father’s good name and that kind of thing. So they were definitely going around and saying you know that it was something that Brigham Young and the apostles had made up and they were wrong. So in fact actually that discredited them, and that was actually, it helps the LDS leaders.
JD, “But still it made Joseph F. Smith be appointed to collect affidavits, right?
JH, “He was definitely going around, and he would actually debate his cousins, so you know Joseph F. Smith is Hyrum’s son, and Joseph III is Joseph Jr’s, so they are first cousins. They just had a very negative relationship as a result of that. But then the LDS historians went around and just took all kinds of affidavits which are very helpful to us today, because it explains the entire early Nauvoo practice, we wouldn’t otherwise really know about it, because it was pretty much kept secret in Nauvoo, but in order to discredit Joseph III and his claims that there was no Nauvoo polygamy, the LDS Church marshaled some very convincing evidence about the practice. We know about it based on that.
JD, “So they would go to Joseph’s former wives and say, were you married to Joseph Smith? Give me all the details. As I remember they would even say, were you married in all senses of the word as if to say, was there intimacy? Is that right?
JH, “You know, to the extent that you can talk about that kind of thing in Victorian times, they would do it. [Hamer chuckles] Yes, there would be those intimations that you would get, the impression that they were married in all senses of the word in that way.“
JD, “So we’re grateful for that history that got recorded.
End of Part 1. I’ll post part 2 shortly. I was fascinated to learn that Hyrum would have been the next leader, though as I think about it more, it makes sense. Any comments?
[…] church history, Mormon Heretic has been transcribing some interviews with my brother on the subject of what happened after Joseph Smith died, and Zomarah provides a […]
Wow, I can’t believe you went through and transcribed this entire interview. Thank you so much for doing this, MH!
It was really cool for me to be able to revisit this conversation with John Dehlin via text. I realize how the story gets told a little differently (than I might have done in a lecture) because John’s questions provide a different skeleton on which to hang the narrative than I might otherwise have produced.