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.


Priesthood Restoration

From the perspective of evangelical Christians during the Second Great Awakening, signs of the “true and living” church were grounded in the presence of charismatic spiritual gifts such as healings, speaking in tongues, and prophecy. For Christian primitivists who became early converts to Mormonism, it was Smith’s reception of revelation, both written and oral, along with a manifestation of spiritual gifts, that qualified the Church of Christ (later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) as the “only true and living church” (D&C 1:30). The concept of priesthood took root by 1834, as the church began shifting from charismatic to administrative authority. It was during this time that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery began to expound upon visitations that they claimed to have received by heavenly messengers five years earlier.

According to these later accounts by Smith and Cowdery, while translating the Book of Mormon they became concerned over the question of having proper authority to baptize. On May 15, 1829, they took the matter up in prayer at the bank of the Susquehanna river in Harmony, PA, where they claimed to be visited by an angelic messenger (later identified as John the Baptist) who instructed and ordained them with a “lesser” priesthood (later called the Aaronic priesthood) for the purpose of baptizing. According to these accounts, the angelic messenger also promised that a higher authority would be obtained at a later time. Although neither Smith nor Cowdery recorded a date for this second event, it is commonly taught that during the summer of 1829 the two were again visited by angelic messengers (later identified as Peter, James, and John) who instructed them and conferred upon them this “higher” priesthood (later called the Melchizedek priesthood).

While several reports of angelic ministrations to Smith and Cowdery exist as early as 1830, details of priesthood ordination and naming of the heavenly messengers as Biblical apostles Peter, James, and John did not occur until 1834. This has led some scholars to contend that the restoration event was a later fabrication, stating that Smith and Cowdery likely crafted this narrative during a time when some early converts began challenging their ecclesiastical authority. Smith defended his own silence on the matter as “owing to the spirit of persecution which had already manifested itself in the neighborhoods.” Those who defend the events of the restoration of the priesthood point to later testimonies of Oliver Cowdery who continued to insist in the reality of these heavenly visitations long after he had severed his relationship from Smith and the church. However, David Whitmer and William E. McLellin, early leaders who also severed their ties, both denied the angelic restoration of authority when interviewed late in life.

The earliest mention of the ecclesiastical office of elder being conferred likely took place at the home of Peter Whitmer Sr. in June, 1830, two months following the organization of the Church of Christ. It was recorded that during this conference Smith ordained Cowdery and, likewise, Cowdery ordained Smith, to the office. Because these ordinations likely took place after the formal organization of the church, some scholars have challenged later statements that the church had been organized under the office of elder from its inception. Regardless of when the conferral of the office of elder may have happened, believers emphasize that Smith acted under God’s authority in organizing the church, even if his understanding and implementation of priesthood offices developed over time.

Historical Debate

The ongoing debate among historians of Mormonism regarding the restoration of the priesthood centers on two factors: the lack of contemporary accounts, with the first known account being written five years after the event reportedly took place, and the evolving concept of priesthood within the early Mormon church. The most comprehensive look at the topic is Gregory A. Prince’s Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood. Grant Palmer devoted a chapter challenging the claims of the priesthood restoration in An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. D. Michael Quinn also deals with the topic in the first volume of his The Mormon Hierarchy series, titled Origins of Power. Defending Smith’s claims, historian Ronald O. Barney contributed a chapter titled “The Restoration of the Priesthood” in A Reason for Faith. A forthcoming book is scheduled from historian Gerrit J. Dirkmaat dealing with the topic, although a publishing date has not yet been announced.

Utah War

The United States Army continued its advance towards Utah in 1857 and Brigham Young reached out again to his political friend, Thomas Kane, asking him to mediate the situation. Kane agreed and traveled towards Utah, meeting with the Army captains en route. Young agreed to relinquish his governorship to the new federal appointee and a peaceful settlement was reached, which included a full pardon from President Buchanan. However, Young and the Mormons elected to evacuate the valley rather than live under the watch of the U.S. Army. Nearly 30,000 Mormons relocated to settlements in Southern Utah and Nevada while the U.S. Army occupied Camp Floyd near Utah Lake. Within months of the Army’s arrival, Mormons gradually began returning to their homes in the valley, and an uneasy relationship was maintained between the Mormons and the Army soldiers over the following three years until the troops were called out of the territory at the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861.


Mountain Meadows Massacre

In 1856, the newly-formed Republican Party announced its platform opposing “the twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery.” President James Buchanan, perhaps in an attempt to distract from the growing threat of Southern secession, determined to address the “Mormon problem” by marching 2,500 U.S. troops to Utah in early 1857, tasked with installing a federally-appointed governor and building a military fort to temper the unruly Mormon kingdom. News of this reached Brigham Young, who saw the advance as a hostile takeover. The Nauvoo Legion was called back into service and militamen began drilling for a likely war against the U.S. Army. Following the May, 1857, murder of Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt in Arkansas, anti-outsider rhetoric reached fever pitch, fomenting into what is widely considered the darkest day in Mormon history: the September 11, 1857 massacre of a migrant party of 116 men, women, and children, slaughtered by a Mormon militia at Mountain Meadows in Southern Utah. Historical consensus maintains that orders to kill the passing wagon party came from local militia leaders, although some speculate that the orders came from Brigham Young. While evidence linking Young directly to the massacre is weak, there is little doubt that the zealous rhetoric he encouraged had fanned the flames of fanaticism, adding religious violence in Utah to violence provoked over sovereign rights in “Bleeding Kansas” and other Western territories during the same period. Following the massacre, an attempt to cover up the slaughter by blaming Paiute Indians became the official explanation. Only one Mormon, John D. Lee, was convicted for involvement. Lee was executed by firing squad twenty years after the massacre.

Further Reading:

Gospel Topics essay: “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints” (Read from the section titled “Violence in Utah Territory” to the end of the article).

Mormon Reformation

In response to an increasing fear of outsider influence in the territory, Brigham Young and other apostles began preaching a series of focused and inciting sermons in 1854-56 that inspired many to be re-baptized as an act of penance. These sermons provoked the Latter-day Saints towards more exacting obedience to the Word of Wisdom, payment of tithes, and promoted the acceptance of plural marriage as the pathway to eternal exaltation. Additionally, Young began preaching a form of capital called “blood atonement,” which stipulated that grave sins such as adultery, murder, and apostasy were beyond the saving power of Christ, thus requiring the perpetrator to offer themselves as a sacrifice by means of decapitation or firing squad. While no documented orders have been found from Young calling for blood atonement to be carried out, a number of Mormons took it upon themselves to commit violent acts of frontier justice in its name.


Utah Polygamy

With the influx of non-Mormons bound for California, and the appointed territorial officers, the Mormons could no longer keep their peculiar institution of plural marriage a secret. The federal officers who fled the territory wrote of the many Mormons who had “a large number of wives.” Rumors began to spread across the nation of fanatical Mormons stealing young girls and forcing them into sexual slavery. In August 1852, church leaders became public for the first time on the subject. Gathering at a conference, Orson Pratt of the Twelve Apostles delivered the first sermon on the doctrine of plural marriage and Young followed up by offering his remarks and reading the revelation that Joseph Smith reportedly dictated nine years earlier (D&C 132). News traveled swiftly across the nation, much to the horror of most Americans.

Further Reading:

Gospel Topics Essay: “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah.”

Curse of Cain

The issue of popular sovereignty, or a territory’s right to accept or reject slavery, also became hotly debated during this period. Speaking to a mostly Mormon Legislature in February 1852, Brigham Young confessed that while he personally found slavery to be inhumane, he believed Africans were cursed to servitude based on his belief that they were the descendants of the Biblical Cain who slew his brother. Furthermore, Young decreed that males of African heritage were ineligible to receive priesthood ordination, despite instances where free black men had previously been ordained in the church. Although the curse of Cain concept was supportable by Latter-day Saint scripture (Book of Abraham), it was not a concept that was unique to the Mormons. Many Southern Baptists also used the curse of Cain concept as justification to support the institution of slavery.

Further Reading:

Gospel Topics Essay: “Race and the Priesthood.”