Organization of the Church

Joseph Smith Jr. formally organized his small following into a church on April 6, 1830 in western New York. Although the common belief is that the new church was organized in Fayette, this has been debated among historians pointing to the lack of clarity in the historical record where both Manchester and Fayette have been proposed as locations. Authority to organize the church has also been debated. A common claim for modern followers is that the Mormon church was organized under restored apostolic authority, however the record shows that the office of apostle did not emerge until several years after the church was formally organized. At the time of its organization, the highest office of ordination may have been elder. Believing scholars have claimed that the office of elder was an early form of apostleship within the newly-established church. In ecclesiastical form, the early organization was not atypical from other congregational churches of its time. However, as the church grew, it also grew increasingly hierarchical in administration. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today is governed by a Quorum of Twelve Apostles, it was not clear during Joseph Smith’s lifetime that this was his intention, although it is clear that the Twelve were to play a major role in the development and ecclesiastical government of the church.

The naming of the church went through several iterations, beginning with the Church of Christ (1830) and was at various times also known as The Church of the Latter Day Saints, The Church of Jesus Christ, The Church of God, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (alternately, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). The changing of the name represented perhaps a fine-tuning of the Church’s identity and distinction from other denominations; however, their also exists some discussion that the name changes may have been, in part, financially motivated as the Mormons moved from one location to another, often leaving debts behind.

While the largest group of Mormons followed Brigham Young to the West following the death of Joseph Smith, many remnants of Latter Day Saints remained throughout the Midwest, forming smaller churches that used some convention of the Church’s historical names. David Whitmer, for example, returned to the earliest name, Church of Christ, for his branch. What became Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) initially began as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints before adding the distinction “Reorganized” to their name. Today, dozens of churches under a wide variety of names exist claiming heritage in Joseph Smith’s restoration movement, although the term “Mormon” is typically associated with members of the largest denomination, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Historical Debate

Historian H. Michael Marquardt and Reverend Wesley P. Walters published Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record that, among other things, argued for Manchester as the location of the organization of the Church of Christ. They argued that the shift to Fayette was a later historical revision in order to avoid debts incurred in Ohio by making it appear as if it were a different organization. Recently, historian  Michael Hubbard MacKay has countered this argument in his book Sacred Space: Exploring the Birthplace of Mormonism. Priesthood offices at the time of the Church’s organization were discussed in Gregory A. Prince’s Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood and D. Michael Quinn’s The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of PowerNewell G. Bringhurst and John C. Hamer co-edited Scattering of the Saints: Schism Within Mormonism, an anthology that covers the various denominations that emerged from Joseph Smith’s movement.

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