The early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is shared by the larger Latter Day Saint movement, which originated in upstate New York under the leadership of Joseph Smith, Jr.. With the important assistance of Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon, Smith dictated and published works of scripture, claimed he was visited by angels, and formed a new church. In part because of the rapid growth of the movement, and in part because of its distinct doctrines and practices, the early Latter Day Saints encountered opposition wherever they gathered in numbers. In the first decades of their history, they gathered to and were driven from Kirtland, Ohio; Independence, Missouri; Far West, Missouri; and Nauvoo, Illinois. Finally, on June 27, 1844, their founding prophet was assassinated in a jail at Carthage, Illinois.
After the death of Joseph Smith, Jr., there was some confusion over who should be his successor, leading to the formation of several factions. The largest group of Mormons followed Brigham Young, the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. A significant fraction, including the majority of Joseph Smith's family, followed other leaders, such as James J. Strang, Sidney Rigdon, Alpheus Cutler, Lyman Wight, William Smith, and Granville Hedrick. Eventually, many of the scattered Latter Day Saints coalesced behind Joseph Smith's son Joseph Smith III to form the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now the Community of Christ, the second-largest Latter Day Saint denomination today.
Under the leadership of Brigham Young, Church leaders planned to leave Nauvoo, Illinois in April 1846, but amid threats from the state militia, they were forced to cross the Mississippi River in the cold of February. They eventually left the boundaries of the United States to what is now Utah where they founded Salt Lake City.
The groups that left Illinois for Utah became known as the Mormon Pioneers and forged a path to Salt Lake City known as the Mormon Trail. The arrival of the original Mormon Pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847 is commemorated by the Utah State holiday Pioneer Day.
Groups of converts from the United States, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere were encouraged to gather to Utah in the decades following. Both the original Mormon migration and subsequent convert migrations resulted in much sacrifice and quite a number of deaths. Brigham Young organized a great colonization of the American West, with Mormon settlements extending from Canada to Mexico. Notable cities that sprang from early Mormon settlements include San Bernardino, California, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Mesa, Arizona.
Following the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young stated that the Church should be led by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (see Succession Crisis). Later, after the migration to Utah had begun, Brigham Young was sustained as a member of the First Presidency on December 25, 1847, (Wilford Woodruff Diary, Church Archives), and then as President of the Church on October 8, 1848. (Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 3:318).
One of the reasons the Saints had chosen the Great Basin as a settling place was that the area was at the time outside the territorial borders of the United States, which Young had blamed for failing to protect Mormons from political opposition from the states of Missouri and Illinois. However, in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded the area to the United States. As a result, Brigham Young sent emissaries to Washington, D.C. with a proposal to create a vast State of Deseret, of which Young would naturally be the first governor. Instead, Congress created the much smaller Utah Territory in 1850, and Young was appointed governor in 1851. Because of his religious position, Young exercised much more practical control over the affairs of Mormon and non-Mormon settlers than a typical territorial governor of the time.
For most of the 19th century, the LDS Church maintained an ecclesiastical court system parallel to federal courts, and required Mormons to use the system exclusively for civil matters, or face church discipline.
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 of Kaysville, Utah territory. He called for repentance and a general recommitment to moral living and religious teachings. 500 people presented themselves for "rebaptism" — 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.
Several sermons Willard Richards and George A. Smith had given earlier in the history of the church had touched on the concept of blood atonement, suggesting that apostates could become so enveloped in sin that the voluntary shedding of their own blood might increase their chances of eternal salvation. On 21 September 1856, while calling for sincere repentance, Brigham Young took the idea further, and stated:
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. On December 30, 1856, the entire all-Mormon territorial legislature was rebaptized for the remission of their sins, and confirmed under the hands of the Twelve Apostles. As time went on, however, the sermons became excessive and intolerant, and some verged on the hysterical.
The church had attempted unsuccessfully to institute the United Order numerous times, most recently during the Mormon Reformation. In 1874, Young once again attempted to establish a permanent Order, which he now called the United Order of Enoch in at least 200 Mormon communities, beginning in St. George, Utah on February 9, 1874. In Young's Order, producers would generally deed their property to the Order, and all members of the order would share the cooperative's net income, often divided into shares according to how much property was originally contributed. Sometimes, the members of the Order would receive wages for their work on the communal property. Like the United Order established by Joseph Smith, Young's Order was short-lived. By the time of Brigham Young's death in 1877, most of these United Orders had failed. By the end of the 19th century, the Orders were essentially extinct.
After the death of Brigham Young, the First Presidency was not reorganized until 1880, when Young was succeeded by President John Taylor, who in the interim had served as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
For several decades, polygamy was preached as God's law. Brigham Young, the Prophet of the church at that time, had quite a few wives, as did many other church leaders. This early practice of polygamy caused conflict between church members and the wider American society. In 1854 the Republican party referred in its platform to polygamy and slavery as the "twin relics of barbarism." In 1862, the U.S. Congress enacted the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln, which made bigamy a felony in the territories punishable by $500 or five years in prison. The law also permitted the confiscation of church property without compensation. This law was not enforced however, by the Lincoln administration or by Mormon-controlled territorial probate courts. Moreover, as Mormon polygamist marriages were performed in secret, it was difficult to prove when a polygamist marriage had taken place. In the meantime, Congress was preoccupied with the American Civil War.
In 1874, after the war, Congress passed the Poland Act, which transferred jurisdiction over Morrill Act cases to federal prosecutors and courts, which were not controlled by Mormons. In addition, the Morrill Act was upheld in 1878 by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Reynolds v. United States. After Reynolds, Congress became even more aggressive against polygamy, and passed the Edmunds Act in 1882. The Edmunds Act prohibited not just bigamy, which remained a felony, but also bigamous cohabitation, which was prosecuted as a misdemeanor, and did not require proof an actual marriage ceremony had taken place. The Act also vacated the Utah territorial government, created an independent committee to oversee elections to prevent Mormon influence, and disenfranchised any former or present polygamist. Further, the law allowed the government to deny civil rights to polygamists without a trial.
In 1887, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which allowed prosecutors to force plural wives to testify against their husbands, abolished the right of women to vote, disincorporated the church, and confiscated the church's property. By this time, many church leaders had gone into hiding to avoid prosecution, and half the Utah prison population was composed of polygamists.
Church leadership officially ended the practice in 1890, based on a revelation by Wilford Woodruff, a position which also allowed Utah to be granted U.S. statehood in 1896. At about the same time, the church prohibited its members from cohabiting with plural wives to which they had previously been married.
In modern times, the church has consistently excommunicated all its members who have attempted to marry more than one wife, or to cohabitate with a plural wife. Moreover, in the 21st century, the church has officially endorsed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution forever banning marriage except between one man and one woman. Nevertheless, the church has never abandoned its practice of performing polygamous sealings, in which a widower can be sealed to a second wife after the first wife dies.
As a result, a number of LDS women became active and vocal proponents of women's rights. Of particular note was the LDS journalist and suffragist Emmeline Blanch Wells, editor of the Woman's Exponent, a Utah feminist newspaper. Wells, who was both a feminist and a polygamist, wrote vocally in favor of a woman's role in the political process and public discourse. National suffrage leaders, however, were somewhat perplexed by the seeming paradox between Utah's progressive stand on women's rights, and the church's stand on polygamy.
In 1890, after the church officially renounced polygamy, U.S. suffrage leaders began to embrace Utah's feminism more directly, and in 1891, Utah hosted the Rocky Mountain Suffrage Conference in Salt Lake City, attended by such national feminist leaders as Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw. The Utah Woman Suffrage Association, which had been formed in 1889 as a branch of the American Woman Suffrage Association (which in 1890 became the National American Woman Suffrage Association), was then successful in demanding that the constitution of the nascent state of Utah should enfranchise women. In 1896, Utah became the third state in the U.S. to grant women the right to vote.
In addition to religious socialism, many Mormons in Utah were receptive to the secular socialist movement that began in America during the 1890s. During the 1890s to the 1920s, the Utah Social Democratic Party, which became part of the Socialist Party of America in 1901, elected about 100 socialists to state offices in Utah. An estimated 40% of Utah Socialists were Mormon.
While religious and secular socialism gained some acceptance among Mormons, the church was more circumspect about Marxist Communism, because of its association with violent revolution. From the time of Joseph Smith, Jr., the church had taken a favorable view as to the American Revolution and the necessity at times to violently overthrow the government. Thus, in 1917, after the Russian Revolution, LDS apostle David O. McKay initially told an audience in general conference that "It looks as if Russia will have a government 'by the people, of the people, and for the people." (April 7, 1917 Conference Report).
Eventually, however, the church began to view the revolutionary nature of Communism as a threat to the United States Constitution, which the church respected about as much as it respected American revolutionaries. In 1936, the First Presidency issued a statement stating:
Soon after the 1909 statement, Joseph F. Smith professed in an editorial that "the church itself has no philosophy about the modus operandi employed by the Lord in His creation of the world." Juvenile Instructor, 46 (4), 208-209 (April 1911)).
Some also cite an additional editorial that enumerates various possibilities for creation including the idea that Adam and Eve: (1) "evolved in natural processes to present perfection", (2) were "transplanted [to earth] from another sphere" (see, e.g., Adam-God theory), or (3) were "born here . . . as other mortals have been." (Improvement Era 13, 570 (April 1910)). Proponents of evolution attribute this 1910 editorial to Joseph F. Smith and have sometimes identified it under the title "First Presidency Instructions to the Priesthood: "Origin of Man." However, others have cast doubt on Joseph F. Smith's authorship of the editorial, which was published without attribution and seems to have contradicted contemporary views published elsewhere by Joseph F. Smith himself. They also contend that there is little evidence that the editorial represents "First Presidency Instructions" as the title under which it is often cited indicates.
In 1925, as a result of publicity from the "Scopes Monkey Trial" concerning the right to teach evolution in Tennessee public schools, the First Presidency reiterated its 1909 stance, stating that "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, declares man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity. . . . Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes."
In the early 1930s there was an intense debate between liberal theologian and general authority B. H. Roberts and some members of the Council of the Twelve Apostles over attempts by B. H. Roberts to reconcile the fossil record with the scriptures by introducing a doctrine of pre-Adamic creation, and backing up this speculative doctrine using geology, biology, anthropology, and archeology (The Truth, The Way, The Life, pp.238-240; 289-296). More conservative members of the Twelve Apostles, including Joseph Fielding Smith, rejected his speculation because it contradicted the idea that there was no death until after the fall of Adam. Scriptural references in the Book of Mormon such as 2 Nephi 2:22, Alma 12:23, and Doctrine and Covenants sec. 77:5-7 have been cited as teaching the doctrine that there was no death on the Earth before the Fall of Adam and Eve, and that the Earth's temporal existence consists of a total of seven thousand years (c.4,000 B.C.-c.2,000 A.D.). Some maintain that those scriptural references pertain to a spiritual death, although others disagree. It is clear, however, that the LDS church does not conform to the same young-Earth creationist creed as many other faiths. The church has made it quite clear that the six days of creation are not necessarily six 24-hour periods. Brigham Young definitely addressed the issue (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe , 100), and even the very anti-evolution Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught that a day, in the Creation accounts, “is a specified time period; it is an age, an eon, a division of eternity; it is the time between two identifiable events. And each day, of whatever length, has the duration needed for its purposes. . . . “There is no revealed recitation specifying that each of the ‘six days’ involved in the Creation was of the same duration” (“Christ and the Creation,” Ensign, June 1982, 11). Elder James E. Talmage published a book through the LDS church that explicitly stated that organisms lived and died on this earth before the earth was fit for human habitation (). However, the official Church Educational System Student Manual teaches that there was no death before the Fall. The debate between different LDS leaders in 1931 prompted the First Presidency, then led by Heber J. Grant as President, to conclude:
The debate over pre-Adamites has been interpreted by LDS proponents of evolution as a debate about organic evolution. This view, based on the belief that a dichotomy of thought on the subject of evolution existed between B. H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith, has become common among pro-evolution members of the church. As a result, the ensuing 1931 statement has been interpreted by some as official permission for members to believe in organic evolution. However, there is no evidence that the debate included the topic of evolution, and historically there was no strong disagreement between Joseph Fielding Smith and B. H. Roberts concerning evolution; they both rejected it, although to different degrees. B. H. Roberts wrote that the "hypothesis" of organic evolution was "destructive of the grand, central truth of all revelation," (The Gospel and Man's Relationship to Deity, 7th edition, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1928, pp. 265-267).
Later, Joseph Fielding Smith published his book Man: His Origin and Destiny, which denounced evolution without qualification. Similar statements of denunciation were made by Bruce R. McConkie, who as late as 1980 denounced evolution as one of "the seven deadly heresies" (BYU Fireside, June 1, 1980), and stated: "There are those who say that revealed religion and organic evolution can be harmonized. This is both false and devilish." Evolution was also denounced by the conservative Ezra Taft Benson, who as an Apostle called on members to use the Book of Mormon to combat evolution and several times denounced evolution as a "falsehood" on a par with socialism, rationalism, and humanism. (Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Report, April 5, 1975).
A dichotomy of opinion exists among some church members today. Largely influenced by Smith, McConkie, and Benson, evolution is rejected by a large number of conservative church members. A minority accept evolution, supported in part by the debate between B. H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith, in part by a large amount of scientific evidence, and in part by Joseph F. Smith's words that "the church itself has no philosophy about the modus operandi employed by the Lord in His creation of the world." Meanwhile, Brigham Young University, the largest private university owned and operated by the church, not only teaches evolution to its biology majors, but has also done significant research in evolution. BYU-I, another church-run school, also teaches it; the following link is an article on how evolution and faith are reconciled at BYU-I. References:
Thus, the church underwent a number of important changes in organization, practices, and meeting schedule. In addition, the church became more media-savvy, and more self-conscious and protective of its public image. The church also became more involved in public discourse, using its new-found political and cultural influence and the media to affect its image, public morality, and Mormon scholarship, and to promote its missionary efforts. At the same time, the church struggled with how to deal with increasingly pluralistic voices within the church and within Mormonism. In general, this period has seen both an increase in cultural and racial diversity and extra-faith ecumenism, and a decrease in intra-faith pluralism.
See generally: Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Gordon Sheperd & Gary Sheperd, "Mormonism in Secular Society: Changing Patterns in Official Ecclesiastical Rhetoric," Review of Religious Research 26 (Sept. 1984): 28-42.
In 1973, the church recast its missionary discussions, making them more family-friendly and focused on building on common Christian ideals. The new discussions, named "A Uniform System for Teaching Families", de-emphasized the Great Apostasy, which previously held a prominent position just after the story of the First Vision. When the discussions were revised in the early 1980s, the new discussions dealt with the apostasy less conspicuously, and in later discussions, rather than in the first discussion. The discussions also became more family-friendly, including a flip chart with pictures, in part to encourage the participation of children.
In 1995, the church announced a new logo design that emphasized the words "JESUS CHRIST" in large capital letters, and de-emphasized the words "The Church of" and "of Latter-day Saints". According to Bruce L. Olsen, director of public affairs for the church, "The logo re-emphasizes the official name of the church and the central position of the Savior in its theology. It stresses our allegiance to the Lord, Jesus Christ."
On January 1, 2000, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles released a proclamation entitled " The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints". This document commemorated the birth of Jesus and set forth the church's official view regarding Christ.
In 2001, the church sent out a press release encouraging reporters to use the full name of the church at the beginning of news articles, with following references to the "Church of Jesus Christ". The release discouraged the use of the term "Mormon Church".
During and after the American Civil Rights Movement, the church faced a critical point in its history, where its previous attitudes toward other cultures and people of color, which had once been shared by much of the white American mainstream, began to appear racist and neocolonial. The church came under intense fire for its stances on blacks and native Americans issues.
The cause of some of the church's most damaging publicity had to do with the church's policy of discrimination toward blacks. Blacks were always officially welcome in the church, and Joseph Smith, Jr. established an early precedent of ordained black males to the Priesthood. Smith was also anti-slavery, going so far as to run on an anti-slavery platform as candidate for the presidency of the United States. At times, however, Smith had shown sympathy toward a belief common in his day that blacks were the cursed descendants of Cain. In 1849, church doctrine that though blacks could be baptized, they and others could not be ordained to the Priesthood or enter LDS temples. Journal histories and public teachings of the time reflect that Young and others stated that God would some day reverse this policy of discrimination. It is also important to note that while blacks as a whole were specifically withheld from priesthood blessings (although there were some exceptions to this policy in both the 1800s and 1900s), other races and genealogical lineages were also prohibited from holding the priesthood. By the late 1960s, the Church had expanded into Brazil, the Caribbean, and the nations of Africa, and was suffering criticism for its policy of racial discrimination. In the case of Africa and the Caribbean, the church had not yet begun large scale missionary efforts in most areas. There were large groups in both Ghana and Nigeria who desired to join the church and many faithful members of African descent in Brazil. On June 9, 1978, under the administration of Spencer W. Kimball, the church leadership finally received this divine sanction to change the long-standing policy.
Today, there are many black members of the church, and many predominantly black congregations. In the Salt Lake City area black members have organized branches of an official church auxiliary called the Genesis Groups.
In 1981, the church published a new LDS edition of the Standard Works that changed a passage in The Book of Mormon that Lamanites (considered by many Latter-day Saints to be Native Americans) will "become white and delightsome" after accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of continuing the original reference to skin color, the new edition replaced the word "white" with the word "pure", emphasizing inward spirituality.
While promoting convenience and making church practice compatible with non-Utahns, this new schedule has been criticized for eroding fellowshipping opportunities among North American Latter-day Saint youth. This erosion, in turn, has been blamed for decreasing LDS participation of young women to below that of young men, and for a downward trend in the percentage of LDS males who accept the call to serve a full time mission. See Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power.
The change was publicized as a way to increase the ability for missionaries to serve. At the time, missionaries paid for all their expenses in their country of service. Recession during the Carter presidency pushed inflation higher and the exchange rate lower. This sudden increase in costs together with already high costs of living in Europe and other industrialized nations resulted in a steady decline in the number of missionaries able to pay for two full years of service. The shortening of the required service time from 24 to 18 months cut off this decline in numbers, leveling out in the period following the reinstatement. For those in foreign missions, this was barely enough time to learn a more difficult language and difficulty with language was reported.
Nevertheless, the shortened period of time also had an impact on numbers of conversions: they declined by 7% annually during the same period. Some also saw the shortening as a weakening of faithfulness among those who were eventually called as missionaries, less length meaning less commitment required in terms of faith. However, it has also been seen as a recognition by the leadership of changes within the LDS cultural climate.
Record economic growth starting in the mid-1980s mostly erased the problem of finances preventing service. As a secondary measure, starting in 1990, paying for a mission became easier on those called to work in industrialized nations. Missionaries began paying into a church-wide general missionary fund instead of paying on their own. This amount paid (about $400 per month currently) is used by the church to pay for the costs of all missionaries, wherever they go. This enabled those going to Bolivia, whose average cost of living is about $100 per month, to help pay for those going to Japan, whose cost tops out at around $900 per month.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Church began to focus its attention on the issue of same-sex marriages. In 1993, the Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii held that discrimination against same-sex couples in the granting of marriage licences violated the Hawaiian constitution. In response, the Church's First Presidency issued a statement on February 13, 1994 declaring its opposition to same-sex marriage to protect the sanctity of traditional roles of marriage. The statement and urged its members to not discriminate against gay's and lesbian's, but not condone same gender rights.
Supported by the efforts of the LDS Church and several other religious organizations, the Hawaiian legislature enacted a bill in 1994 outlawing same-sex marriages. Officially, the Church continues to oppose efforts in Hawaii to grant gay and lesbian families the right to legal equality, including adoption, child custody, and joint property rights.
As other states, including Vermont and Massachusetts, began extending legal protections to same-sex couples, the Church continued to take an active role in preventing any legal equality for families other than the heterosexual married couples. In 2004, the Church officially endorsed an amendment to the United States Constitution banning marriage except between a man and a woman. The Church also officially announced its opposition to political measures that "confer legal status on any other sexual relationship" than a "man and a woman lawfully wedded as husband and wife." ("First Presidency Statement on Same-Gender Marriage", 19 October 2004). Although the statement was directed specifically to gay marriage, the statement could also be read to encompass political opposition by the Church to recognizing civil unions, common-law marriages, plural marriages, or other family arrangements.
In the early 1980s, the apparent discovery of an early Mormon manuscript, which came to be known as the "Salamander Letter", received much publicity. This letter, reportedly discovered by a scholar named Mark Hofmann, alleged that the Book of Mormon was given to Joseph Smith, Jr. by a being that changed itself into a salamander, not by an angel as the official Church history recounted. The document was purchased by private collector Steven Christensen, but was still significantly publicized and even printed in the Church's official magazine, The Ensign. Some Mormon apologists including Apostle Dallin H. Oaks suggested that the letter used the idea of a salamander as a metaphor for an angel. The document, however, was revealed as a forgery in 1985, and Hofmann was arrested for two murders related to his forgeries.
Not all of Hofmann's finds have been deemed fraudulent. A document called the 'Anthon transcript' that allegedly contains reformed Egyptian characters from the Book of Mormon plates is still in dispute, although the characters have been highly circulated both by the Church and other individuals. Due to Hofmann's methods, the authenticity of many of the documents he sold to the Church and the Smithsonian will likely never be sorted out.
At the 1992 Sunstone Symposium, dissident Mormon scholar Lavina Fielding Anderson accused the Committee of being "an internal espionage system," which prompted BYU professor and moderate Mormon scholar Eugene England to "accuse that committee of undermining the Church," a charge for which he later publicly apologized (Letter to the Editor, Sunstone, March 1993). The publicity concerning the statements of Anderson and England, however, prompted the church to officially acknowledge the existence of the Committee. ("Mormon Church keeps files on its dissenters," St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 15, 1992, at 6e.) The Church explained that the Committee "provides local church leadership with information designed to help them counsel with members who, however well-meaning, may hinder the progress of the church through public criticism." ("Secret Files," New York Times, Aug. 22, 1992).
The First Presidency also issued a statement on August 22, 1992, explaining its position that the Committee had precedent and was justified based on a reference to D&C (LDS) Sec. 123, written while Joseph Smith, Jr. was imprisoned in Liberty, Missouri, suggesting that a committee be formed to record and document acts of persecution against the church by the people of Missouri.