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The Mormon Reformation was a period of renewed emphasis on spirituality within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). It took place in 1856 and 1857 and was under the direction of President of the Church Brigham Young. During the Reformation, Young sent his counselor Jedediah M. Grant and other church leaders to preach to the people throughout Utah Territory and surrounding Mormon communities with the goal of inspiring them to reject sin and turn towards spiritual things. The most conservative, and even reactionary, elements of LDS Church doctrine dominated the public discussions during the Reformation. As a result of the Reformation, almost all "active" or involved LDS Church members were rebaptized as a symbol of their commitment.
All pioneers who gathered to Utah Territory under the direction of Young, whether members of the LDS Church or sympathetic non-members, were welcome as long as they helped in efforts to build up Zion. The undeveloped area required labor for the cutting of timber, road development, the creation of farms and pastures for cattle and other livestock; and the construction of homes, meetinghouses, mills, businesses, and irrigation systems. Church members who were willing to physically strengthen the Mormon settlements were so valued that "problems they might have with smoking, drinking, profaning, Sabbath breaking, and even immoral living did not normally cost them their standing in the community and the Church." Consequently, by the early 1850s, communities within the Mormon settlement region were prospering and secure but contained a segment whose personal practices were not within the exacting standards of the LDS Church.
In 1852, Young felt the church in Utah was secure enough to announce the practice of plural marriage to the world. Shortly after the announcement, however, the Latter-day Saints in Utah experienced a period of trial. The population of the new territory was increasing at a rapid rate as Mormon converts from Europe joined the American Saints in their migration across the Great Plains. In 1855, a drought struck the flourishing but still largely undeveloped territory. Very little rain fell, and even the normally dependable mountain streams ran very low. In addition to the damage caused by drought, an infestation of grasshoppers and crickets destroyed whatever crops the Mormons had managed to salvage. During the winter of 1855–56, flour and other basic necessities were suddenly very scarce and very costly. Heber C. Kimball wrote his son, "Dollars and cents do not count now, in these times, for they are the tightest that I have ever seen in the territory of Utah."
In September 1856, as the drought continued, the trials and difficulties of the previous year led to an explosion of intense soul searching. Jedediah M. Grant, a counselor in the First Presidency and a well-known conservative voice in the extended community, preached three days of fiery sermons to the people in the area of modern Kaysville, Utah. He called for repentance and a general recommitment to moral living and religious teachings. Five hundred people presented themselves for rebaptism as a symbol of their determination to reform their lives. The zealous message spread from Kaysville to surrounding Mormon communities. Church leaders traveled around the territory, expressing their concern about signs of spiritual decay and calling for repentance. Members were asked to seal their rededication with rebaptism.
This reformation was promoted intensely by all three members of the First Presidency, as well as several apostles, who gave fiery sermons in favor of greater orthodoxy, and rebaptism in preparation for the full practice of "celestial law" in Utah Territory prior to the Second Coming, which they suspected would be soon. According to Young: "The time is coming when justice will be laid to the line and righteousness to the plummet; when we shall take the old broadsword and ask, Are you for God? And if you are not heartily on the Lord's side, you will be hewn down."
Throughout the winter special meetings were held and Mormons urged to adhere to the commandments of God and the practices and precepts of the church. Preaching placed emphasis on the practice of plural marriage, adherence to the Word of Wisdom, attendance at church meetings, and personal prayer. Several sermons also focused on improving personal appearance, dress and hygiene. Although Grant died shortly after one of his winter tours, a victim of pneumonia, the influence of the reformation spread throughout the Mormon colonies. On December 30, 1856, the entire all-Mormon Utah territorial legislature was rebaptized for the remission of their sins, and reconfirmed under the hands of the Twelve Apostles.
To encourage reformation, certain adjunct theocratic committees may have attempted to ensure order and conformity by censuring local troublemakers. Dissident Mormons of the time reported rumors that committees resorted to summary judgments with punishments meted out by enforcers colloquially termed "Danites" or "destroying angels". For example, the southern Utah pioneer and militia scout of the time John Chatterley later wrote that he had received threats from "secret Committee, called ... 'destroying angels'" in late 1856 and early 1857. Commentators have pointed to pronouncements during this period by Young and Grant which would seem to give vigilante-style bloodshed a religious basis. Young denied that any such acts were condoned by him or the church leadership. In a speech in 1867 Young said:
Is there war in our religion? No; neither war nor bloodshed. Yet our enemies cry out "bloodshed," and "oh, what dreadful men these Mormons are, and those Danites! how they slay and kill!" Such is all nonsense and folly in the extreme. The wicked slay the wicked, and they will lay it on the Saints.
Historian Dean L. May noted that the more zealous reformation efforts were not universally accepted in Utah: in a possible tongue-in-cheek diary entry, Hannah Tapfield King responded to Grant's accusation that the Polysophical Society (a literary club organized by the more socially liberal Lorenzo Snow and his sister Eliza R. Snow), had an "adulterous spirit." King wrote, "Well, there may be, for he says there is, and probably he understands it. To me it all seemed good and nice, of course a little vanity and folly, and that one sees in the tabernacle and everywhere."
As in similar Protestant reformation movements, the enormous enthusiasm and dramatic signs of repentance could not be sustained. By the spring of 1857, with the return of more familiar spring rains, the religious life of Mormon communities returned to a more normal pattern. The Reformation appears to have burned out completely by early 1858.
Several sermons by Willard Richards and George A. Smith that had been delivered earlier in the history of the LDS Church had touched on the concept of blood atonement, suggesting that apostates and those who committed certain other denounced sins, such as murder, were beyond the saving power of the blood of Christ and could be redeemed only by the voluntary shedding of their own blood. On September 21, 1856, while calling for sincere repentance by church members, Brigham Young took the idea further, and stated: "I know that there are transgressors, who, if they knew themselves and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them, and that the law might have its course.
Young reiterated the concept in several other sermons during the Reformation period. Although this belief was never widely accepted by church members, it became part of the public image of the church at the time and was pilloried in eastern newspapers along with the practice of polygamy. During the subsequent history of the church, this concept was frequently criticized by church members and was formally repudiated as church doctrine in 1889 and again in 1978.
Impact of the Reformation
In addition to the Reformation's appeal to the spiritual and emotional lives of Latter-day Saints, actions taken during the movement had lasting impacts on church members, their families and the church organization.
According to historian Paul H. Peterson, the pledges of conformity with church practices led to a measurable increase in plural marriages throughout the Mormon region. Many men who had previously resisted plural marriages were sealed to one or more plural wives. Stanley S. Ivins's statistical research reveals that the number of plural marriages in relation to population was 65 percent higher in 1856–57 than in any other two-year period in Utah history.
A second impact of the Reformation was an increase in practical and emotional unity among the church membership. Historians James Allen and Glen Leonard point out that the Reformation "may have accounted for the fact that the following year the Saints were emotionally prepared to confront the army of the United States en route to Utah." During this conflict, known as the Utah War, Mormon militia were asked to engage in diversionary action on the plains and in Wyoming. And Church members were prepared, under Young's direction, to abandon and destroy their homes, farms, and businesses and move again to the White Mountains of Arizona, which Young had selected as a possible place of refuge should full-scale war begin. Historians have also asserted that the emotional rhetoric contributed to the defensive dialogue and actions in Southern Utah which ultimately burst forth in the Mountain Meadows massacre.
Also during this time, leaders at church headquarters established a policy of assigning two "home" or ward missionaries in each congregational unit. They were asked to visit each family in the ward, assess their material needs and provide help where possible. They were also asked to inquire into family members' spiritual commitment, including asking searching questions about religious practices. After some months of these missionary visits, Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City and surrounding communities who had not yet been rebaptized were asked to do so as an expression of their ongoing commitment to the church. Paul H. Peterson asserts that those who refused to be rebaptized might "lose their membership in the Church. In Britain, zealous application of Reformation principles resulted in trimming from Church rolls a large number of the less-committed." A modest number of less zealous church members left the Utah area, returning to the east or traveling on to California.
- Walker and Dant, p. 274
- (Young 1856a, p. 226)
- Briggs 2006, p. 320, n.26.
- Young 1867, p. 30.
- May, Dean L. Utah: A People's History. Bonneville Books, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1987. ISBN 0-87480-284-9.
- Journal of Discourses 4:53–54.
- Ivins, Stanley S., "Notes on Mormon Polygamy," Western Hunanities Review, vol. 10, 1956, p. 231.
- Allen, James B. and Leonard, Glen M. (1976, 1992) The Story of the Latter-day Saints; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-565-X
- Peterson, Paul H. "The Mormon Reformation of 1856–1857: The Rhetoric and the Reality." 15 Journal of Mormon History 59–87 (1989).
- Briggs, Robert H. (2006), "The Mountain Meadows Massacre: An Analytical Narrative Based on Participant Confessions" (PDF), Utah Historical Quarterly, 74 (4): 313–33.
- Peterson, Paul H. (1989), "The Mormon Reformation of 1856–1857: The Rhetoric and the Reality", Journal of Mormon History, 15: 59–88.
- Sessions, Gene Allred. Mormon Thunder: A Documentary History of Jedediah Morgan Grant. University of Illinois Press, 1993. ISBN 0-252-00944-4.
- Walker, Ronald W. and Doris R. Dant, editors, "Nearly Everything Imaginable: the Everyday Life of Utah's Mormon Pioneers." BYU Studies, Provo, Utah 1999.
- Young, Brigham (March 2, 1856a), "The Necessity of the Saints Living up to the Light Which Has Been Given Them", in Watt, G.D., Journal of Discourses by Brigham Young, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, His Two Counsellors, the Twelve Apostles, and Others, 3, Liverpool: Orson Pratt (published 1856), pp. 221–26.
- Grant, Jedediah M. (November 2, 1856), "Companies on the Plains—Practicability of Hand-carts—The Time for Starting From Missouri River—Reformation, etc.", in Watt, G.D., Journal of Discourses Delivered by President Brigham Young, His Two Counsellors, and the Twelve Apostles, and Others, 4, Liverpool: S. W. Richards, pp. 70–75.
- Kimball, Heber C. (December 21, 1856), "Reformation—A Test at Hand to Prove the Saints", in Watt, G. D., Journal of Discourses Delivered by President Brigham Young, His Two Counsellors, and the Twelve Apostles, and Others, 4, Liverpool: S.W. Richards, pp. 138–45.
- Woodruff, Wilford (October 6, 1856), "The Facilities Afforded by the Hand-cart Movement for the Gathering of Israel—The Saints Specially Opposed by the Devil in Any New Enterprise—Reformation", in Watt, G. D., Journal of Discourses Delivered by President Brigham Young, His Two Counsellors, and the Twelve Apostles, and Others, 4, Liverpool: S. W. Richards, pp. 94–100.
- Young, Brigham (November 2, 1856), "Reformation Necessary Among The Saints—Infidel Philosophy", in Watt, G. D., Journal of Discourses Delivered by President Brigham Young, His Two Counsellors, and the Twelve Apostles, and Others, 4, Liverpool: S. W. Richards, pp. 58–63.