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.

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