Friday, November 29, 2019

Some Remarks on the Josephites


One of the consequences of belonging to the largest branch of Mormonism is that you can go through life knowing little or nothing about the other branches. But when you’re looking at things from the bottom up, you don’t have that luxury. So while the Josephites are familiar with the story of how, after the martyrdom of the Prophet, Brigham Young led most of his followers away to practice polygamy in the Utah wilderness, the Brighamites, for the most part, know almost nothing about the faction that gathered around the Prophet’s wife and children, and eventually made his son, Joseph Smith III, their President.

My (tentative) association with such a small branch of the Latter Day Saint movement has led me into a lot of long-winded explanations of its history and doctrines. The interest in this movement seems to be enough to justify giving an outline of what I know about the Josephites so far.

The Josephites, or ‘Eastern Mormons,’ with whom I associate are a rather small group that originated from a schism in the RLDS church in 1984. The name of ‘Josephites’ was originally applied to all of the followers of Joseph Smith III in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Prior to 1873, they simply called themselves ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ just like their rivals out west, but Joseph III added the word ‘reorganized’ to distinguish themselves from the Utah sect, whose practice of polygamy was eating up all the attention in the press.

The Reorganized Church was led by Joseph III until his death in 1914, and was headquartered in Missouri. Joseph III had seventeen children by three wives (he was not a polygamist; he just outlived the first two), and three of his sons led the church after him; the last retired in 1978.

At first, the RLDS church was distinguished from the LDS church mainly by its rejection of polygamy and of Brigham Young’s racial doctrine, neither of which were believed to have originated with the Prophet Joseph. It also had a different succession mechanism, reserving the presidency as well as the patriarchate for descendants of Joseph Smith.

In the late 20th century, the leaders of the RLDS church began to drift away from the original doctrines, making every effort to transform their denomination into an ordinary, liberal protestant church. They stopped believing in the Book of Mormon, abandoned their claim that Joseph Smith was a monogamist, and finally, in 1984, voted to ordain women to the priesthood.

The vote at the 1984 general conference wasn’t unanimous, but the yeas carried. This became the beginning of a schism, as traditionalists in their various wards all voted in the negative every time a woman was presented for ordination, which led to the leadership purging them out of the church; even eight-year-old children were tried before disciplinary councils, as this was the only way to get them out of the voting population.

After these events, what was left of the RLDS church experienced a complete reversal of fortunes. Before then, it had grown at about the same rate as the LDS church in Utah, keeping pace with about one seventh of the larger church’s membership for over a century. Now, it is only one fiftieth as large. Nor was ordaining woman the last change in doctrines; the church continued to morph and dissipate as it gave its presidency and patriarchate to men who were not related to Joseph Smith, began marrying homosexuals, and eventually changed its name to “Community of Christ.”

As for those who were cast out in the Schism of 1984, some, having lost the church of their youth, simply disappeared into secular society, others dissented over to the Brighamites, and yet others, refusing to either give up their faith in the Book of Mormon, or to unite with the spiritual progeny of the polygamists, formed independent Restoration Branches devoted to living the original doctrine as best they could, though they do not claim authority to ordain any offices higher than elder.

All of this led the priest from whom I first learned about the Josephites to conclude: “Satan must really hate our church.”

Members of these Restoration Branches, which I have been investigating since early this year, number somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 worldwide, and are most numerous in the midwestern United States, especially Missouri, though they also have congregations in Kenya, the Philippines, and Latin America, and a very small presence in Europe.

Even so, the Eastern Mormons are few and far between. The congregation whose meetings I have been attending numbers about a dozen on a good week, and it’s an hour’s drive from Lafayette to Bainbridge to get there. When we desire to meet in larger groups, we have to travel to reunions. I attended one of these in Ohio in June; about 50 people were present. For news of the global progress of the movement, they publish a periodical called Tidings of Zion.

The Josephites that I have met are very friendly and hospitable – just like with the Western Mormons, any place you can find a community of them is a place you can expect to be fed and sheltered. The winnowing process of the 1984 schism and subsequent need to rebuild from an extremely scattered state has left a membership with more than the usual level of commitment to their religion. At the same time, they are very suspicious of centralized authority, and view attempts to unite the Restoration Branches under a single corporate structure as a dangerous heresy.

Throughout all this, they are happy to point out that theirs is the branch of Mormonism that has been the most careful to follow the original doctrines, whether that be the doctrine on polygamy (they’ve always been against it), the ordination of blacks (always for it), the ordination of women (always against it), or homosexuality (again, always against it). From their point of view, both the Brighamite (LDS) church and the post-schism RLDS church are guilty of repeatedly changing their doctrines in order to appease the wider society.

One of the less-than-ideal aspects of the Restoration Branches is that they seem to have forgotten about some of the more eccentric teachings of Joseph Smith; even their priests usually can’t tell you what the Book of Abraham or the King Follett Sermon are. To be fair, the Brighamites in Utah are also capable of forgetting history – i.e. Joseph Smith’s many clear commands to the Saints to not believe anyone who claimed that he was secretly authorizing polygamy.

The difference, at least as I see it, is that among the Josephites a wider range of beliefs seems to be tolerated. In other words, most of them may have forgotten about a particular teaching of Joseph Smith, but if a minority still believes it, there’s nobody in a position to tell them not to.

It’s also ironic to note that the Josephites share the Mormon myth of the Council in Heaven and the rival plans of salvation, even though most of them don’t remember that this originally came from the Book of Abraham.

On the whole, I have a favourable opinion of the Josephites, though I have not met as many of them, or learned as much about their practices, as I would like. For example, I have yet to meet or talk with anyone involved in their foreign missionary work, something in which I am very much interested.

As I learn more about this little-known branch of Mormonism, I will be sharing my findings on this blog. I think it’s our responsibility to find out everything we can about all of the religious traditions who share our belief that Joseph Smith had a message from the Lord, and that the Christian faith can best be lived by those who heed that message.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Best Evidence For Joseph's Monogamy


There is a general attitude, among both the Brighamites and the secular world, that people such as myself who believe that the Prophet Joseph Smith was a monogamist simply don’t care what the historical evidence says – the evidence in question being merely that a lot of people said Joseph had multiple wives. Meanwhile, the search for something more conclusive – either a genetic link to a child born of a polygamous marriage, or a document authorizing polygamy written in Joseph’s own hand – has turned up empty on both counts.

 But even lacking such supports for their own claims, these people still manage to wave away any protestations that Joseph might have told the truth about having no wife but Emma. Cite any piece of history that favors the prophet’s honesty, and they’ll just ignore it and say something like “your only evidence is a closed mind.” And curiously enough, TBMs who deride us for not following the consensus of secular scholars on this matter are still perfectly willing to reject the secular consensus that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction.

While I could go on at length about the contradictory alibis – how the people who claim that Joseph had instructed them to take many wives changed their stories often enough to thoroughly discredit themselves – or how all the children born to the alleged plural marriages have been turned out, after genetic testing, to not be Joseph’s, I think that there’s one oft-overlooked point that might be the best piece of evidence for Joseph’s monogamy.

None of the women who claimed to be Joseph’s wives ever became anti-Mormons.

Now, this isn’t the case with all of his alleged wives. There were plenty of women, such as Fanny Alger and Agnes Moulton Coolbrith, who are included in lists of Joseph’s wives, and who later left the church. But for them, all the evidence is second-hand – rumors, essentially – and the women themselves never said anything about being married to Joseph Smith.

The women who actually made such claims for themselves, like Eliza R. Snow and Helen Mar Kimball, were all, by that time, the plural wives of Brigham Young and the other higher-ups in the Utah Church. Furthermore, they didn’t go public with their stories until the 1870s, when the doctrine of polygamy was under attack from the Reorganized Church and the Brighamites needed to gather up evidence to defend it.

These women’s affidavits were used to bolster the Utah Church’s claims during the Temple Lot Suit, in which the Utah Church and the Reorganized Church each argued that it was the rightful continuation of the religion that Joseph Smith had founded. Judge John F. Philipps, approaching the matter as an impartial fact-finder, rejected the evidence for polygamy as unreliable and sided with the RLDS.

These disputes might have gone very differently if even one woman had had a polygamous relationship with Joseph Smith, came away from it feeling hurt and abused, and gone public about her bad experience with Mormonism. But this never happened.

 The same cannot be said about Brigham Young and his harem. Even among Brighamite apologists, there’s no concealing the fact that some of Brigham’s wives eventually became bitter toward him and the Church and turned into enemies of Mormonism. That is certainly what happened with many of Brigham Young's wives, such as Ann Eliza Webb, who became a minor celebrity with her caustic memoir Wife No. 19.

Granted, there were plenty of non-Mormons and ex-Mormons who accused Joseph of polygamy back in the Nauvoo days, but it's one thing to spew calumnies against someone you hate, and quite another thing to denounce an embarrassing relationship of which you were once a part. There were women who did the latter for Brigham, but not for Joseph, and this seems, in my mind, to be one of the strongest evidences for Joseph's monogamy.

Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball each had more than forty wives; each produced at least as many children, and both endured vitriolic denunciations from former wives who had become grossly dissatisfied with the whole business. Joseph, according to the LDS church, also had dozens of wives, and yet those relationships produced zero children, and zero angry exes.

As I see it, the simplest way to account for that evidence is to conclude that Joseph simply wasn’t doing what Brigham and Heber were doing. Or in other words, that Joseph told the truth.

And for those of us who, like myself, believe that Joseph was a messenger of Christ and that the Lord chooses honest men to do his labors, that shouldn’t be a conclusion that we need to feel shy about.

Book Review: No Man Knows My History

Fawn McKay Brodie was born in Ogden, Utah in 1915. She grew up in the LDS church (her uncle, David O. McKay, would eventually becom...