The leading officials of the church, most of whom were on missions, hastened back to Nauvoo, and were soon engaged in an uncompromising struggle over who was to be the new leader. In 1917 there came into the possession of the Southern California Historical Society an ancient manuscript, the journal of George Miller, presiding bishop in 1844 at the time of Joseph Smith's death: "Many gaps occur . . . the pages are yellow with age, and whole segments have gone by the board, frequently a portion of a page is torn off, and other parts so charred as to be utterly undecipherable," so says Dr. H. W, Mills in his De Tal Palo Tal Astilla, but in them we can read something of the turmoil that was occurring in Nauvoo among the principal men of the church:
On my arrival in Nauvoo, I visited Elder John Taylor of the Quorum of Apostles who was sick of his wounds received in Carthage jail at the time of Joseph's death. Dr. Willard Richards (Joseph Smith's scribe) was there, and after a few remarks in regard to the mob, I asked Dr. Richards, whom Joseph had left to succeed him in the prophetic office. He replied that all was right; that there was a sealed document left which would be opened when the Apostles should get home that would settle all these matters ... from the hints and innuendos that I heard frequently, I was induced to believe that Joseph had designated his son Joseph to succeed him to the prophetic office, and on this belief I rested.
The Twelve at Nauvoo early assumed charge, but the vote by which they took control simply read, "All in favor of supporting the Twelve in their calling" (Nauvoo, August 8, 1844). This was interpreted, as time passed, to mean that they were in control, and they proceeded to administer the affairs of the church accordingly. On December 5, 1847, certain members of the Twelve met in council at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and appointed Brigham Young to be president of the church and Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards to be his counselors.
Less than three weeks later, December 24, 1847, this action of the Apostles was presented to a conference held in a log tabernacle recently erected on the east side of the Missouri River, and capable of seating about one thousand persons. This conference confirmed the action of the group of Apostles.
There were very many good people in all factions, and the majority of those who endured the hardships of the long westward journey of the Utah pioneers were of that class. Some felt there was no other alternative. The letter from Oliver Cowdery to his sister, Mrs. Phoebe Jackson, and her husband Daniel, which has been preserved, shows something of the predicament in which many of the Saints felt themselves to be.
Tiffin, Seneca County, Ohio, July 24, 1846.
Brother Daniel and Sister Phoebe: Phoebe's letter mailed at Montrose on the 2d of this month was received in due time, and would have been replied to immediately, but it came in the midst of toil and the business of court, which has just closed, and I take the earliest moment to answer. It is needless to say that we had long looked for and long expected a letter from you or Sister Lucy. Now, Brother Daniel and Sister Phoebe, what will you do? Has Sister Phoebe written us the truth? and if so, will you venture with your little ones into the toils and fatigues of a long journey and that for the sake of finding a resting-place, when you know of miseries of such magnitude as have, as will, and as must rend asunder the tenderest and holiest ties of domestic life? I can hardly think it possible that you have written us the truth, that though there may be individuals who are guilty of the iniquities1 spoken of--yet no such practice can be preached or adhered to as a public doctrine. Such may do for the followers of Mahomet; it may have been done some thousands of years ago, but no people professing to be governed by the pure and holy principles of the Lord Jesus can hold up their heads before the world at this distance of time and be guilty of such folly, such wrong, such abomination. It will blast, like a mildew, their fairest prospects, and lay the ax at the root of their future happiness.
You would like to know whether we are calculating to come on and emigrate to California. On this subject everything depends upon circumstances not necessary for me to here speak of. We do not feel to say or do anything to discourage you from going, if you think it best to do so. We know, in part, how you are situated. Out of the church you have few or no friends, and very little or no society--in it you have both.
So far as going West is concerned, I have thought it a wise move--indeed I could see no other, and though the journey is long and attended with toil, yet a bright future has been seen in the distance if right counsels are given and a departure in no way from the original faith, in no instance, countenanced. Of what that doctrine and faith are and were I ought to know, and further it does not become me now to speak.2
Many who went West never took part in the practice of the doctrines that proved so obnoxious to their brethren. For thrift, industry, and many of the virtues that make for good citizenship, this faction distinguished itself. Whatever we may say about what later happened to the leaders in Utah, there is no one who cannot afford to view with admiration the courage, faith, and capacity for sacrifice of the band of Saints who crossed the plains. And in that train of pioneers, there were those who later returned to become our own, and many of the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of those pioneers became stalwarts of the Reorganization.
After the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon came back to Nauvoo to present his claims. He maintained that he was the legal guardian of the church, entitled to preside as the only surviving member of the First Presidency, and that according to divine instruction, he was equal with Joseph Smith in holding the keys of the kingdom.3
After consultation with the president of the stake, William Marks, he called a meeting in the grove, August 8, 1844, in advocacy of his claim, but the Twelve as represented by Brigham Young assumed control of the assembly. As is usual in such cases, every man in that meeting saw what happened according to his own opinion of the issues involved. Some later, who went to Utah, with Brigham Young, said they had witnessed the features of "Brother Brigham" transformed into the very likeness of the prophet. Others, perhaps more literal minded, saw quite another thing. In the tattered remnant of George Miller's journal we read what he wrote at the time:
On the return of the Twelve, a public meeting was called. The Apostles and Sidney Rigdon were on the stand, Brigham Young acting as principal speaker. Sidney urged his pretensions as a kind of guardian and temporary leader. Young made a loud and long harangue, and as I had always taken him to be a blunderbuss in speaking--and on this occasion apparently more so--for the life of me I could not see any point in the course of his remarks other than a wish to overturn Sidney Rigdon's pretensions. As this meeting was a pretty general conference of the elders, the Twelve assumed a temporary leadership, which was pretty generally conceded to them, as they were the quorum next in authority to the Prophet and Presidency of the whole church. N. K. Whitney and myself were put in nomination as trustees in trust for the church, instead of Joseph Smith, deceased, and were voted in by acclamation, and acknowledged as such by all present.
George Miller, it will be recalled, was then Bishop of the church.
Elder Rigdon's claims in consequence were not presented, but he did not consider this a settlement of the point at issue. Returning to Pittsburgh on October 15, 1844, he commenced to publish the Messenger and Advocate, In April, 1845, he perfected his organization, assuming the place made vacant by Joseph's death, and appointing other officers, including two counselors, Samuel James and Ebenezer Robinson; Carvel Rigdon (his brother) as patriarch, and a quorum of apostles. A stake was established at Pittsburgh with the usual officers. He also organized a quorum of seventy-three, unique in the history of the various factions, as it not only included seventies, but men belonging to other quorums as well.
In the pages of Rigdon's Messenger and Advocate may be found the names of some of the ablest and most logical expositors of the faith of the Saints, but the group apparently lacked cohesion. The organization maintained a struggling existence for years but never fulfilled its early promise, although the insistence of this faction upon observance of the laws of the land was most commendable, as compared with the teachings of some of Rigdon's erstwhile brethren.
One of the converts of Rigdon, William Bickerton, was able to start a branch, which has endured until the present time. This group has members throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, and several churches in Detroit, Michigan. One of the admirable achievements of this small faction has been the publication of the Book of Mormon in Italian, and the introduction of the gospel among the people of that nationality in America to a remarkable extent, considering the size of the working force.
The man who became leader of the second largest group of that early period was a man comparatively unknown during the lifetime of Joseph Smith. His name was James J. Strang, and he was not baptized until February 25, 1844, but by sheer force of personality he put himself at the head of a large faction as years passed. He made certain miraculous claims which won many to him, and was not without real ability as a leader. He at first declared against the evil of polygamy as practiced in the West, but some time later avowed belief in the doctrine (about 1848 or 1849). The acquisition of the notorious John C. Bennett to his organization may partly have accounted for his changed viewpoint. Strang claimed his ordination to have been at the hands of an angel about the same hour as the death of Joseph Smith in Carthage.
Strang first built up the city of Voree, at a place now called Spring Prairie, in Walworth County, Wisconsin, but as his organization grew, he decided to plant a colony on the Lake Michigan archipelago and the following year headed a prospecting party to Beaver Island. This island, fifteen miles in length by six in width, became the new home of the "Strangites." Strang assumed more and more of the qualities of a dictator and finally permitted himself to be crowned king in July, 1850. In 1854 King James was elected to the Michigan legislature and took oath of office on January 3, 1855. He had a lovable personality, some real ability, and was daring to the point of rashness. A man of his type was bound to create antagonism, and he was shot and mortally wounded in June, 1856, taken to Voree, Wisconsin, and died there. A few of his adherents remain to this day, but there has never been a successful effort made to revive the movement.
Another group under the leadership of Alpheus Cutler4 dissented from the westward movement, and after some wandering, founded the little town of Manti in Fremont County, Iowa. Here Cutler finally died, but before he passed away he called some of his elders to him and told them of a land far to the north between two beautiful lakes, where they were to take a colony and preach to the Indians. In 1865, the advance guard of this people found the land described by their aged leader, and the whole colony removed there and founded the village of Clitherall, Minnesota. With them was an Indian chief of the Oneida tribe of New York, by the name of Lewis Denna, who had been a missionary in the time of Joseph Smith, traveling many miles on foot from tribe to tribe in Kansas and Nebraska. With Denna's aid, a treaty, which neither party ever broke, was drawn up with the Indians. They lived in peace together for many years, until civilization drove the Indian elsewhere. Most of these people joined the Reorganization as years went by, but a remnant still exists and has founded a small but successful community venture in Clitherall with a branch in Independence, Missouri. As a group, by their strict morality, honesty, and industry they have richly earned the honor and respect of all men with whom they have business or social contact.
There were movements sponsored by George M. Hinkle, by James Colin Brewster, by James Emmett, by Gladden Bishop, and several times David Whitmer was persuaded to take the leadership of a small group, but these declined rapidly.
Little Joseph was not forgotten, but a certain fear was expressed for his safety, if we are to believe the journal of Presiding Bishop George Miller, for he says:
Subsequent to these times of intense excitement, I made frequent attempts at conversation with Brigham Young and H. C. Kimball in regard to Joseph leaving one to succeed him in the prophetic office, and in all my attempts to ascertain the desired truth as to that personage, I was invariably met with the innuendo, "Stop, or hush, Brother Miller, let nothing be said in regard to this matter or we will have little Joseph killed as his father was"; implying indirectly that Joseph Smith had appointed his son Joseph to succeed him in the prophetic office. And I believe that this impression was left not alone upon my mind, but on the brethren in general and remains with many until this day.
Good and honorable men were in every one of these groups; in fact, in spite of certain abnormal social conditions that sprang up in a few of these colonies, out-and-out rogues have been comparatively few in any branch of the Restoration Movement, but so strangely is man constituted that seemingly there can be no honest difference of opinion religiously. Men who had walked closely together, been more than brothers, now condemned each other in the strongest of terms. Each was still confident that the work was of God and that there could be no right way but his way. Some found this certainty only to lose it again as they tried first one faction and then another, finding no satisfaction anywhere. Among this type of men early in the fifties the Reorganization, or "new movement" as it was sometimes called, sprang into being almost simultaneously in different sections of the United States.
From the time of the breakup at Nauvoo and for many years after, the groups into which the church was split tended to fluctuate very largely. Members still considered themselves parts of the church, both as individuals and as branches, but their leaders were gone. The question about who should become the head of the church was vital, but it scarcely affected the faith and hope of the people themselves, founded as it had been in the principles of their religion. Later, as the leaders introduced new theories, these were accepted by a portion of their following, and others drifted away to form alliances elsewhere.
The majority of the membership was scattered, but of the groups who clung together, three immediately assumed major importance: Brigham Young in the West, Sidney Rigdon in the East, and James J. Strang in the North. The largest single group followed Brigham Young, the president of the Quorum of Twelve, to the West, but there were defections all the way across Iowa, notably the group under Alpheus Cutler. Many others never went farther than Council Bluffs; many more stayed at Florence; and still others straggled back to the States or California to later unite with the Reorganization, or joined in the exodus of hundreds after the first missionaries went to Utah.
1 Referring probably to a beginning of polygamy and showing that Oliver
Cowdery had then heard for the first time of this nefarious doctrine.
2 Church History, Volume 4, pages 272, 273.
3 Doctrine and Covenants 87:3.
4 The author may not thoroughly understand the position taken by Alpheus Cutler, but he did not, I think, claim at first to be the successor to Joseph Smith, but rather one of a certain quorum or committee of seven men, arranged and set apart by Joseph the Seer in Nauvoo. This committee still retained certain prerogatives after the church, as an organization, had been rejected. This group believed all the fundamental doctrines of the church, as well as baptism for the dead and other temple rites and ceremonies. But their outstanding achievement is the operation among themselves of a United Order with All Things in Common. The belief in this has been taught and an attempt made to put it into practice by almost all factions and groups of the Restoration Movement. This group at Clitherall for a few years held everything in common. This venture failed, and they returned to individual ownership for many years, but a few families are again making an attempt to put it into effect at the present time, with admirable results.