CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Building an Organization:  Mormon Fundamentalists and the Creation of New Sects

by Christopher James Blythe (Utah State University)
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

[INTRODUCTORY NOTE:  Because this is an intellectual history concerning the relationship of the LDS Church and Mormon Fundamentalist communities, I wish to make perfectly clear that Mormon Fundamentalists do not claim to be LDS, in fact there has been a recent trend led by Anne Wilde to make strong distinctions to avoid confusion.]

In the wake of the raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch in El Dorado, Texas the media has introduced the average American to the concept of Mormon Fundamentalism.  Students and scholars of New Religions are well aware of the public’s tendency to generalize and stereotype controversial sects with which they’ve had little exposure.  So it will not be surprising to this audience that many are not aware that there are multiple sects of Mormon Fundamentalism and of course, that some are not aware that there are multiple sects of Mormonism itself – by some estimates over one hundred now operating.

In an effort to both distinguish and recognize the existence of Mormon sects as separate bodies, a new trend has developed in recent scholarship to speak of Mormonisms (plural).  Under this new paradigm, Mormonism does not exist as one large church body, but rather several reactions to the religion making of Joseph Smith, each a unique expression of Mormonism.  To put this into perspective, in April, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced 13.5 million members on their roles.  The number of adherents that belong to other traditions of Mormonism likely consists of somewhere between 300 and 400 thousand combined.  One of the foremost scholars of Mormonism, Jan Shipps, has divided the peoples of the Mormon Restoration into two major movements based on the geographic location of their headquarters – thus, the Mountain Saints consisting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its offspring and the Prairie Saints consisting of the Community of Christ and several other sects, which have continued since shortly after the death of the Mormon Prophet, along with their collective offspring.  I should note concerning this figure of 300 and 400,000, the vast majority are Prairie Saints who have been separate in their history from the Utah-based LDS Church for over 150 years.  In this essay, we will be limiting our discussion to the Mountain Saints, specifically the movement of Mormon Fundamentalism – which itself exists in a plethora of different sects and a large network of independent practitioners.  Anne Wilde, who is present at this conference, has offered the figure of 37,000 Mormon Fundamentalists; a much smaller figure than previous estimates, but likely more accurate.  The largest Mormon Fundamentalist sect is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with 10,000 members; the second largest is the Apostolic United Brethren with 7,000.  The figures drop quickly after this with only a couple thousand in the next largest body.  [I should note that according to Anne’s research, there are more Fundamentalists that do not belong to an organization – that is Independent Mormon Fundamentalists - than those who do.]  Of course, for me, one of the reasons Mormon Fundamentalism is so interesting is because it is a movement that encompasses so many bodies each striving to maintain their interpretation of original nineteenth-century Mormonism.      

As even those with a cursory interest in modern Mormon polygamy will know, the LDS Church has not been pleased by the Fundamentalist continuance of their controversial past.  This was particularly apparent, following the 2007 raid, when spokesmen acted quickly to distance themselves from the controversial sect and to clarify that Mormonism equaled solely membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  However, here, I am not focusing on the LDS reaction to Mormon Fundamentalism – only as it impacts my subject matter; but rather, I am interested in the place the LDS Church holds in Fundamentalist Mormon theology and how this question has impacted the creation and development of Mormon Fundamentalist sects.

[Comments on the importance of the essay – to provide an intellectual history, to examine a unique religious worldview, and to provide an example of the creation of sects as the results of marginalization.] 


Joseph Smith instituted many doctrines as he constructed a new religion: new scripture, the rituals associated with the Latter-day Saint temple, the concept of eternal families, a new understanding of the afterlife, a belief in renewed priesthood authority descending from angelic beings, but particularly important was the organization of the Church.  The first revelation printed in the forefront of the Latter-day Saint book of scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants confirms that the organization established in 1830 is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth….”[1]

            In the 19th century, an LDS hierarchical structure developed.  On a church-wide level, the hierarchy consisted of the Church President with two counselors (referred to collectively as the First Presidency,) a Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and a Presiding Patriarch.   Each of these sixteen figures were sustained as Prophet, Seers, and Revelators.  In LDS thought, which will be change in Fundamentalism), the President of the Church is the President of the Priesthood and sustained as THE Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.  He held keys and authority to direct the work of God on the earth, including the directional authority over the performance of rites.  For Fundamentalists and Latter-day Saints, alike the Church organization is an essential part of their understanding of God’s design. 


The story of Fundamentalist’s origin helps to explain the initial attempts by Proto-Fundamentalists to fit the Church as a body into their faith story.  [I will use the term, Proto-Fundamentalism to describe those individuals and movements operating before the 1930s introduction of Lorin Woolley’s movement – although the distinction is not always perfect.]  In October of 1890, Wilford Woodruff issued the “Manifesto” and the Mormon faith was forever changed.  The document, initially designed as a press release, promised that the Church no longer sanctioned the solemnization of new plural marriages.  There were multiple interpretations of this document, the details of which are beyond the scope of this paper.  In short, there were many who were not ready to abandon the religious tenet that had become known simply as “the principle.”  Thus, plural marriage continued, though more secretly than ever before.  Church authorities, including members of the First Presidency, continued to give permission for couples to be sealed in plural marriage, though they were frequently encouraged to move to one of the Church’s colonies in Mexico or Canada.  [The term sealed is in reference to the Mormon ritual that solemnizes marriages and familes “for time and all eternity.]  Secrecy was encouraged.  And top Church leaders themselves rarely performed such ceremonies instead they appointed local leaders with the responsibility to solemnize such marriages.  [Of course, B. Carmon Hardy’s wonderful book, Solemn Covenant provides a full list of such unions.]

During the Reed Smoot hearing, the conflict between the Church’s public denials and private practice of plural marriage was exposed to the public.  As a response to the government’s renewed interest in the infant state of Utah’s marriage practices, LDS Church president Joseph F. Smith issued what has come to be known as the Second Manifesto.  In 1904, the second official end to polygamy was taken seriously by most Church leaders and very few officially sanctioned plural marriages occurred after that year.  However, some of the individuals that had previously been selected to perform plural marriages secretly during this period, continued to do so. 

            Thus, beginning in 1904, we have our first examples of Proto-Fundamentalists – in two major strains of thought.  One believed that they were merely continuing the covert, but authorized practice of plural marriage.  They turned to individuals such as Apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley, as well as local patriarchs, such as Nathan Clark in Mexico or John W. Woolley in Salt Lake.  Most believed that Joseph F. Smith still secretly supported their cause.  The men who performed such marriages thought that they were acting on his authority.  There was no formal organization; rather this first grouping existed as a network of believers. 

A second grouping looked towards new charismatic individuals, specifically John T. Clark and Samuel Eastman, who taught the importance of plural marriage, resistance to change, and millennial expectations.  Both movements turned to prophecies of a messianic figure, the One Mighty and Strong, who they felt was represented in Eastman or Clark, respectively – neither of which had held high positions in the LDS Church or claimed their authority through any private commission.  Instead, they awaited a prophesied “Setting In Order,” in which the One Mighty and Strong would restructure the Church’s hierarchy, ousting the former leadership.    


            I would make an important aside here.  Samuel Eastman, although an individual rarely discussed in any depth – the founder of a defunct movement – appears to have been, by far, one of the most important thinkers at the foundation of Mormon Fundamentalism.  For example, he seems to have been the first man to place the prophecy of the One Mighty and Strong into the conversation of twentieth-century Mormonism.  This idea will be incorporated into each new additional sect.        

Seven years after first advancing his prophetic claim, Samuel Eastman also instituted the first organization of Mormon Fundamentalists, called the Work of God’s Kingdom.  He referred to his small group as a “temporary fold,” not intended to replace the “one true Church.”   In his sermons, he often justified the organization by stating that it was only formed after a “number of you [speaking to his flock] had been ruthlessly ejected from the Father’s Church by your shepherds.”  The idea being that his followers could not worship in the LDS Church following their excommunications.  However, he used the phrase “semi-apostate” when speaking of the LDS Church.  (In other words, its fixable situation.) 

In his writings, two additional ideas that are crucial in later Fundamentalism emerge.  First, he constantly referred to the fact that he maintained his priesthood despite his excommunication.  And we also first see the concept of graduating from the Church into Mormon Fundamentalism.  In other words, their role was to preserve the higher teachings of Mormonism for those who would advance from the main body.       

            The movements led by John T. Clark and Samuel Eastman both dissolved following their deaths.  Much of their followers were absorbed into the larger movement, which came about in the 1930s.  So far as I’m aware, no one today claims their religious heritage to these men. 


             Now, let us return to the first grouping from which emerged what could be termed Orthodox Mormon Fundamentalism.  By the late 1920s, most of the men that had initially held the informal network together had died.  At this time, the son of one of these men, Lorin C. Woolley took the reins of the movement.   Under Woolley, a Quorum of Seven men, known thereafter as the Council of Friends, began to serve as the directing force behind Mormon Fundamentalism.  He suggested that Mormonism had always had this quorum of seven men, who were truly the spiritual head of God’s people.   Woolley saw the hierarchy existing in three parts:  President of the Church of Jesus Christ, who is under the Patriarch of the Church, who in turn is under the President of the Priesthood.  He designed a type of organization - in that the Fundamentalists now knew exactly who the leadership was, however the same community structure existed, as it had before the 1920s.  That is individuals were still to attend their own local LDS Church meetings.   

            One of the members of the original Council of Friends was Joseph Musser, who may be the most important thinker in Mormon Fundamentalist history.  He, at least, popularized the idea that the Fundamentalists as a group represented the Priesthood, in distinction from the Church.  One of his ideas is particularly interesting, in response to increasing excommunications.  According to Musser, there was a heavenly Church [referred to as the Church of the Firstborn] which consisted of only those living that were willing to live all of God’s laws and a mortal church which did not always incorporate these members.  I find this fascinating, as it seems to be the reverse of St. Augustine’s two-church argument in the fourth century. 

However, this first generation of Mormon Fundamentalism sought actively not to replace the earthly LDS Church in the eyes of their adherents.  Although the fundamentalists were not openly welcome among the “corporate organization,” they were still part of God’s church in His eyes.  They did not see themselves as a separate sect or a group.  Rather the Council of Friends was in charge of maintaining that portion of the Gospel that was no longer practiced by the LDS Church.  In response to perceived changes in doctrine and ritual performance, Fundamentalists took on additional responsibilities to the solemnization of plural marriage and the propagation of endangered teachings.  For example, when the LDS Church no longer was willing to baptize the children of excommunicated members, the Council authorized Fundamentalists to baptize and confirm their own children and this too, as members of the LDS Church.  Over time, they performed other ordinances.

 Nevertheless, they did not (and often believed they could not) perform those rituals reserved for the Mormon Temple.  This did not have a major impact on the first generation of believers, because they had already received the Temple Endowment, which Latter-day Saints considered an essential ordinance for admittance into the highest level of heaven.  Yet, there was concern in the second generation over having to await a ceremony to be performed in the distant millennium.  The evidence for this is in several memoirs of Lorin Woolley encouraging members by insisting that their children would not be deprived of blessings, even if they did not receive the rituals. 

            Over the next generation, more ideas were incorporated into the new Fundamentalist orthodoxy.  Men were not to speak against the Latter-day Saint authorities.  Because the Church was still a divinely recognized organization, the Church remained in charge of preaching the Gospel through missionary work and genealogy efforts.  The specific responsibility of the “Priesthood” was to keep alive those laws of the Gospel that had been rejected by the Church.  This definitely included plural marriage, early Latter-day Saint teachings, the correct forms of ordinances, and came to include the United Order, the communalist teachings of Joseph Smith.  In the late 1930s, with some controversy from within, the movement began to meet in branches - that is regular congregations, outside of the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  This seems to have started in the wake of mass excommunications following the first attempt to organize a polygamist intentional community in Short Creek.  (When the members started attending local congregations, it was very difficult to remain under the radar.)  Of course, like Eastman, the idea was that this was a necessary, however regrettable temporary situation.

            Before I continue - It’s important to insert a key historical point here.  At this time in history, the early 1950s, what I’ve spoken of as Mormon Fundamentalist Orthodoxy splits into two large factions.  What would become the FLDS in Southern Utah and what would become the Apostolic United Brethren in Northern Utah.  I will continue the intellectual history with the events in northern Utah.  This is not because I am privileging the AUB as the true intellectual heirs of Woolley, but rather is based on the resources available to me. 

 For Fundamentalists then, Mormonism is a fractured religion.  The Church and the Priesthood are two essential halves of the divine religion, which due to circumstances have been separated.  Neither part is complete without the other.  As a member of the Apostolic United Brethren said to me recently, “We, like the Church, are hobbling along.”  This view of religion presents many tensions, especially when the church the Fundamentalists are taught to respect, does not recognize you and actively opposes your work. 



            This leads us to the Church of the Firstborn, the first Fundamentalist movement to replace the LDS Church in both theology and structure.  In 1955, Ross Wesley LeBaron began to preach in Fundamentalist meetings, that “We need not fall back into the Church, one day.  But, instead, we can become part of the Church of the First-Born.”   LeBaron’s intention was not to create a rival Fundamentalist faction.  When he did organize the Church, he served as Patriarch with his brother, Joel, serving as Church President.  The President of the Priesthood would still be over the Patriarch, although then leader Rulon Allred likely was not interested.  This initial model of the Church of the Firstborn did not last Ross and Joel agreed on the date of the organization of the new church that Ross would preside as Patriarch until the Setting in Order – the coming of the One Mighty and Strong.  However, the following day, Joel claimed he had received a revelation that he was in fact that man.  The Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times then organized in northern Mexico with a growing following in the late 1950s and 1960s.  Later the movement fissured following the assassination of Joel LeBaron by another brother. 

            Ross LeBaron although theoretically the head of his own church, continued to meet with the Fundamentalists.  Because he refused to stop promoting a separate church, leaders asked him to stop attending.  It appears that the LeBarons’ dissent strengthened the theological ties between the Apostolic United Brethren and the LDS Church.  According to a 1960s sermon, Rulon Allred stated that, he had received criticism from a member of the Church of the Firstborn that "Rulon Allred holds no authority. Why, he still holds to the L.D.S. Church and claims to be a member of it."  His response was “I do claim membership in the Church. The Church will always be God's Church. He organized it, and He still recognizes it! It is the only Church He does recognize and sustain!”

A new turning point in the Fundamentalist view of the Church occurred in June of 1978, a year following Allred’s death.  It was then that the LDS Church announced the lifting of previous restrictions against black men holding the Priesthood.  Early Mormons believed that the Africans descended from the biblical Cain.  Whereas, Mormons traced their own lineage through Abraham, who was promised that his descendents would possess the priesthood, descendents of the first murderer would be deprived of the privilege until a future millennial date.  For many Mormon Fundamentalist groups, the Church’s announcement was devastating.      

            Before this point, only the Church of the Firstborn had replaced the LDS Church, in their own theology.  The new stress was a major factor in the creation of another church, which emerged this time from a member of the Priesthood Council itself, Gerald Peterson.  Like the LeBarons, he established a full organization and was quickly rejected by the AUB.  But changes were in store for the larger group as well. 

            In 1978, Owen Allred, the successor to his brother Rulon, announced that the ordinances of the temple could now be performed.  By allowing Black Latter-day Saints into the temple, these LDS ceremonies were corrupted.  This was a major turning point.  Other developments occurred in the AUB, including the forming of restrictions for the performance of sealings and other ordinances.  While previously anyone professing belief in the Priesthood’s authority could receive sealings of plural marriages or other rituals, now further evidence of worthiness and adherence to AUB as a movement were required.  These two major developments have made it so practically modern Mormon Fundamentalism does not lack in any of the benefits of membership in the LDS Church.  They still recognize a distinction between the Priesthood group and the Church and long for the day the two will be reunited.  Yet, the calling of the Church is now more restricted, perhaps only to evangelical efforts through its extensive missionary program.         


            It is important to note that new Mormon Fundamentalist sects continue to appear, but rarely do they stem from members of the LDS Church – rather, like the Church of the Firstborn or the Branch Church of Gerald Peterson – they are twice removed, stemming from a Mormon Fundamentalist group.  There are exceptions – most notably the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days or the TLC. 

In 1990, the LDS Church altered several ceremonial elements of the ritual drama performed within temples.  Although this did not cause the manifesto’s worldview shattering effect, many Latter-day Saints were bothered by changes that had been made to ceremonies they considered eternal in nature.  Ultimately, this provided the justification for the founding of one more sect.  The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days was briefly a flourishing community during the mid to late1990s.  They appeared on various television programs and boasted of receiving thousands of visitors to their weekend lectures.  It is interesting to note, that, like Samuel Eastman’s movement, the group of excommunicated Mormons did not intend to found a church.  But in 1994, they decided to organize their movement and then realized they had a church already.  A church presidency was formed and twelve apostles called. 

            Some concluding thoughts we can draw from this brief history of Mormon Fundamentalist sects.  First, we can see the impact of marginalization on the formation of sects.  Whereas, Mormon Fundamentalism, in each case, we’ve discussed, wanted to exist as a movement within the LDS Church body, mass excommunications necessitated outside organizations.  (Of course, a larger religion would not appreciate what they consider a subversive movement established within their ranks.)  Second, I’m particularly interested in the question faced within schismatic sects whether to maintain or disavow a loyalty to one’s mother church.  In this case, I’ve wondered about the causes.  Practically, there might not be much of a difference whether the AUB considered itself the replacement of the LDS Church or whether it did not, however theologically and psychologically there is a huge difference.  So how has the AUB maintained the LDS Church in their theology, while other movements have minimized its importance and sometimes replaced it.  [Suggest four possible reasons, influx of converts from the LDS Church, strength of theology, minimal persecution when compared to others, and historically did not have gathered communities.]  

            I would state that the world of Mormon Fundamentalism is very complex.  Today, I’ve approached an intellectual history of Fundamentalist ideas concerning organization.  However, I would like it understood that it is far from complete in its scope.  I’ve left out discussion of the FLDS Church and its offspring, as well as the vast body of Independent Mormon Fundamentalists.  But at least the conversation has started.   

[1] Doctrine and Covenants 1:30.