Last week the Salt Lake Tribune reported on a recent shake up among members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Observers say an unprecedented number — up to 1,500 members — of the polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs were barred from the group’s church after being told over the weekend they were “unworthy” to attend.
Most don’t appear to have been instructed to leave their families and their homes, as is common when people are excommunicated from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but instead forbidden to enter the LSJ Meetinghouse in Colorado City, Ariz.”
“Unworthy” FLDS members were allowed to go to meetings in a different location where they could repent and work toward becoming worthy again. The article continued,
The people were reportedly estranged for expressing doubt of Jeffs, breaking one of his new, extreme rules or failing to pay increasingly high tithing totaling thousands of dollars…
Former FLDS member Ezra Draper said that people were asked to “renew their covenants.”
“It wasn’t any kind of doom and gloom apocalyptic, it’s more[,] ‘If we’re going to earn the favor of the Lord in this upcoming year and ask that the prophet be released from the prison, signify that you’re willing to obey by coming forward and renewing your covenants with the Lord,’” he said.
Reading this put me in mind of the Mormon Reformation of 1856-57 and I was left thinking once again how much Fundamentalist Mormonism looks (and acts) like the early Mormon Church. According to Gustive Larson who was a professor of Church History at BYU at the time he wrote his article for the Utah Historical Quarterly,
By means of public exhortations and catechizing [i.e., interrogating] in private, the soul-searching process swept over Mormondom at home and abroad in 1856 and early 1857, until every Saint was rededicated to “the Kingdom” through rebaptism or purged from membership. It was an emotional experience which regenerated the earth-bound masses spiritually to knit them into a more self-conscious brotherhood. It was a drive for unity against a threatening world. (Gustive O. Larson, “The Mormon Reformation,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, January 1958, 46)
The time is coming when justice will be laid to the line and righteousness to the plummet; when we shall take the old broad sword and ask, ‘Are you for God?’ And if you are not heartily on the Lord’s side, you will be hewn down. (Journal of Discourses 3:226)
According to Gustive Larson, both financial faithfulness and sexual purity (including renewed emphasis on plural marriage) were important elements of the Mormon Reformation. He wrote,
The consecration of property to the church, originally practiced in Ohio and Missouri, was revived to knit the Saints more closely together. This movement preceded the Reformation by two years when the leaders urged the Saints, in Conference speeches, to deed their properties in trusteeship to the church and receive ‘an inheritance in the Kingdom’ in return. (47)
Dr. Larson also quoted a song that was written for, and titled, “The Reformation.” It exhorted,
Now, sisters, list to what I say, With trials this world is rife
You can’t expect to miss them all, Help husband get a wife!
Now, this advice I freely give, If exalted you would be,
Remember that your husband must Be blessed with more than thee.
Then, O, let us say, God bless the wife that strives
And aids her husband all she can T’ obtain a dozen wives. (58)
As the Mormon Reformation spread, LDS Apostle and second counselor in the First Presidency Jedediah Grant told the Latter-day Saints at a meeting in Salt Lake City,
I am speaking to you in the name of Israel’s God and you need to be baptized and washed clean from your sins from your backslidings, from your apostacies, from your filthiness, from your lying, from your swearing, from lusts, and from every- thing that is evil before the God of Israel.
We have been trying long enough with this people, and I go in for letting the sword of the almighty be unsheathed not only in word, but in deed. (50)
As another BYU Church history professor, Paul Peterson, noted, “The problem was that while the Saints were good, they were not good enough” (Paul H. Peterson, “The Mormon Reformation of 1856-1857: The Rhetoric and the Reality,” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 15, 65).
In November of 1856, at a priesthood meeting, Brigham Young sought to root out sin among the priesthood holders. After the meeting opened with prayer and song,
“President Young had the doors locked. He then said, ‘I am about to question the brethren and I charge them in the name of Jesus Christ to tell the truth. Those who cover up their sins the curse of God shall be upon them.’ He then drew from the breast pocket of his coat a long slip of white paper and read the following questions, calling upon the brethren to answer them as they were put”:
1. Have you shed innocent blood or assented thereto?
2. Have you committed adultery?
3. Have you betrayed your brother?
4. Have you borne false witness against your neighbor?
5. Do you get drunk?
6. Have you stolen?
7. Have you lied?
8. Have you contracted debts without prospect of paying?
9. Have you labored faithfully for your wages?
10. Have you coveted that which belongs to another?
11. Have you taken the name of the Lord in vain?
12. Do you preside in your family as a servant of God?
13. Have you paid your tithing in all things? (Larson, 53-54)
Later the number of questions was expanded to twenty-six and the list was taken house to house by special missionaries tasked to personally interview each church member. Among the additional questions were queries that dealt with how the individual treated animals, family and employees, and this one:
Do you speak against your brethren or against any principle taught us in the Bible, Book of Mormon, Book of Doctrine & Covenants, revelations given through Joseph Smith the prophet and the Presidency of the Church as now organized? (54)
I see a number of parallels between the Mormon Reformation of the nineteenth century and Warren Jeffs’ purging of “unworthiness” from his twenty-first century followers. In addition to those evident above, the FLDS Church also has a list of questions for its members. Lindsay Whitehurst, blogger for the Salt Lake Tribune, addressed the question of “How FLDS leaders determined who was ‘worthy’ of church.” She wrote,
…questions were asked as Lyle Jeffs (or one of a handful of other interviewers) held the member’s hand to determine if they were speaking the truth.
Here’s the text…
To Qualify for the Holy United Order Covenant
1. Do you think only pure thoughts?
2. Are your desires in pleasures of unrighteousness?
3. Do you dwell in wickedness of evil dross of this generation?
4. Is there in your heart the seeking for Babylon?
5. Are you saying your prayers in all that you do?
6. Are you dwelling in the spirit of your calling as an emissary of God?
7. Have you received the gift of the witness of My approval in your marriage conduct?
8. Are you abiding the law of purity and righteous obedience in My Holy Law?
“Let all My people now be judged.”
Non-fundamentalist Mormons today generally regard Warren Jeffs and his church with contempt and/or pity. They are unaware–or fail to recognize–that the FLDS Church is not so very different from the early Mormon Church as led by Brigham Young. Warren Jeffs is, in many ways, living out a legacy he inherited from early Mormon prophets.