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The Mormon Reformation
Question: What was the "Mormon Reformation"?
The "Mormon Reformation" was a reform or spiritual rejuvenation movement that began among the Utah Saints in the mid-1850s
The "Mormon Reformation" was a reform or spiritual rejuvenation movement that began among the Utah Saints in the mid-1850s. Ironically, noted one historian, "[m]ore has been written about its excesses (real and imaginary) than about what actually happened. Stenhouse's anonymous chapter on the Reformation and Blood Atonement was typical. Even church historian B. H. Roberts devoted twice as much space in discussing blood atonement in connection with the reform movement than he did to the Reformation itself."
Question: What is the history of the "Mormon Reformation"?
Reasons for the Reformation
Wrote Thomas Alexander:
As life became more routine and economically stable by the mid-1850s, some of the General Authorities came to believe that many Church members and leaders had fallen spiritually asleep, becoming more enamored of materialism and the other trappings of Babylon than of building the kingdom. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Jedediah Grant attributed the crop failures and grasshopper plagues of 1855 and 1856, in part at least, to a decline in faithfulness....Members seemed less committed and enthusiastic. Not that prosperity itself was bad; but the Saints seemed unable to maintain spirituality in the face of increasing prosperity. 
In an effort to stir the saints to improvement, Brigham Young began by sending apostles into individual communities, reversing a trend toward "congregational autonomy." 
Second phase: Failure of these first reform efforts
By early March 1856, Brigham Young's own observations together with reports from members of the Twelve led the Church President to believe that the structural changes had not prompted a spiritual rejuvenation among the Saints and that even more intense measures would be required. Being a pragmatic man, he decided to take measures certain to elicit a response. Charging the "people," presumably leaders and followers alike, with sleeping on the job and "working wickedness," Young called upon the elders "to put away their velvet lips & smooth things & preach sermons like pitch forks tines downwards that the people might wake up." Heber C. Kimball, Young's first counselor, followed the President's lead, but it was second counselor Jedediah M. Grant who really led the rally, sometimes attacking the Gentiles but usually raining pitchforks on the Latter-day Saints. The Reformation entered a second phase. 
It was during this phase that the leaders adopted a stern, "hellfire and damnation" preaching style, since their more moderate efforts in "phase one" had not succeeded. During this period Brigham Young and others began speaking about a doctrine later called "blood atonement".
Blood atonement was a rhetorical device, and required the theoretical voluntary sacrifice of one's own life to repent for especially grievous sins. As Davis Bitton noted, however, blood atonement soon became a handy club for anti-Mormon critics of the Church. It remained so for the rest of the nineteenth century:
Against the backdrop of this heated rhetoric, unsolved murders could easily be charged to the Mormons, and Hicks [a member who later became hostile to the Church] joins in the chorus: "Many were the victims that fell by the hand of the destroyer, but not one in Spanish Fork City. My wife and myself both saw the blood of the Parrishes at Springville two days after the murders. Those were truly peralous times such as only fanatics know how to bring on a country."53 In a more sweeping allegation, he writes, "With the single exception of Spanish Fork City, I do not know a city that had an existence in Utah that has not shed the blood of from one to many victims." It is surely not quibbling to imagine Hicks on the witness stand being asked the basis for his knowledge of all these cities and perhaps being asked whether he included legal executions in his calculations. Mormons have insisted that blood atonement, by necessity a voluntary action, was never carried out in practice. But from the late 1850s on, anti-Mormons developed a series of indictments used over and over again when denouncing Mormonism. The concept of blood atonement, imperfectly understood, was especially calculated to arouse horror and indignation. Critical of the preaching rhetoric of some church leaders during the 1850s, Hicks was drawn into another rhetorical network by 1878, that of the anti-Mormons. 
Though Young's references to blood atonement were probably hyperbole, they may have prompted some overzealous members to put the doctrine into practice. In March 1857, William Parrish and several of his family and friends decided to leave the Church and the community at Springville. They were murdered under suspicious circumstances, and although the perpetrators were never found, a number of commentators associated the deeds with the doctrine of blood atonement. 
To learn more: Blood atonement
As with any passionate, forceful campaign, some members risked getting 'swept up' and going to excess
As with any passionate, forceful campaign, some members risked getting 'swept up' and going to excess:
"President Young...said, 'there are some brethren who have confessed to sins they have not done. . . . I am happy to say there is not so much sin as I expected.' He said if the brethren repented and done these things no more they now started with a clean page, but if they did those things again their former sins would be accounted unto them." At this meeting, the same witness concluded, "I saw the power of the Priesthood and felt the same as I never saw or felt before."
In their eagerness to participate in the Reformation some members did, as President Young observed, confess to sins of which they were not guilty. Lorenzo Snow warned in a tabernacle address against the "popularity" of the Reformation. "Some join," he said, "and go through the external forms of religious zeal without the reform. They dare not admit they do not feel it." Also the penitents were warned not to be foolish and confess publicly. "Confess your faults to the individuals that you ought to confess them to and proclaim them not on the house tops." 
Plural marriage during the Reformation
Because entering into plural marriage was regarded as an especial sign of devotion, more members applied for plural marriages during this period than at any other point.  Average age of brides dropped to its lowest level during this period (between 16-17 years old for women in either monogamous or polygamous marriages).  This is a good example of some of the probable excesses during the Reformation; divorces following the Reformation were substantially higher than at other points. It is likely that under the social pressure to prove their loyalty and fidelity to their covenants, some members married too quickly or unwisely. "I was obedient but not wise," wrote a member later, "I married a girl but she did it more of fright than of love; for that reason it could not last long—only about 9 months [and] then she was divorced in 1858." 
On the other hand, more plural marriages created an artificial "shortage" of marriageable women. As Daynes notes, this helped integrate recent European immigrants into Utah. Women from overseas who would have probably remained unmarried under a "one-wife-per-man" policy were suddenly much better marriage prospects. This aided their integration, enhanced their economic standing, and also produced children by women who might would have otherwise remained childless. 
At the same time, however, Brigham encouraged those who were dissatisfied with plural marriage to either make their peace with it, or apply to him for a divorce. On October 6, 1856, he told unhappy wives that he would approve their divorces under "certain conditions and that is that you will appear forthwith at my office and give good and sufficient reasons, and then marry men that will not have but one wife." 
On the other hand, Brigham was far less lenient with men who requested divorces:
President Young said that when a man married a wife, he took her for better or worse and had no right to ill use her; a man that would mistreat a woman in order to get her to leave him would find himself alone in the worlds to come. He said he knew of no law to give a man in polygamy a divorce. He had told the brethren that if they would break the law, they should pay for it; but he did not want them to come to him for a divorce as it was not right....[Young went on to say that]It is not right for the brethren to divorce their wives the way they do. I am determined that if men don't stop divorcing their wives, I shall stop sealing. Men shall not abuse the gifts of God and the privileges the way they are doing. Nobody can say that I have any interest in the matter, [p.12] for I charge nothing for sealings, but I do charge for divorcing. I want the brethren to stop divorcing their wives for it is not right. 
A series of questions were prepared by the general authorities to be asked of the members. Some critics have characterized these as excessive and invasive, but they are little different from the modern temple recommend interview questions. (For a list of the questions, see here).
[On] 7 December, [Wilford] Woodruff [was] the concluding speaker in sacrament meeting. While still pressing the Reformation theme, Woodruff's speech nevertheless signalled a change in the tone of the Reformation--in effect opening a third phase characterized by love and concern. He called upon the ward leaders to repent by removing "the fog & darkness from your own minds & then you can see clearly to remove the darkness from the minds of the people." Woodruff also exhorted priesthood leaders to deal with the Saints in "the spirit of God." They did not, he said, need to "knock the people in the Head in order to wake them." Rather, he suggested, they ought to "get a Fatherly feeling & try to save" the Saints. The ultimate purpose of the Reformation, he said in an apocalyptic vein, was to prepare the people "for the great things of God which are Comeing upon the Earth & upon this people." Then he urged the "people to repent & do the works of righteousness" and live their religion. He spoke encouragingly to the members but left the ward leaders with no doubt that the Lord required strict obedience of them....Since the Reformation intended internal reform, it did not involve calling local nonmembers to repentance. 
The Reformation continued throughout the remainder of the winter but on a much less intense level. On 7 January 1857 in a letter to the Western Standard, Woodruff said that an atmosphere of change had settled on the community. "The Saints," he said, "are living their religion and the power of God is resting upon them." On 8 February 1857, Brigham Young pulled back somewhat from his harsh preaching of blood atonement by saying, "In the name of the Lord, that if this people will sin no more, but faithfully live their religion, their sins will be forgiven them without taking life 
Question: What was the effect of the Mormon Reformation?
"Like many other enthusiastic movements, the Reformation had created unanticipated disruption within the community as lay members scurried to prove their loyalty and faithfulness"
How do we assess the Reformation? Like many other enthusiastic movements, the Reformation had created unanticipated disruption within the community as lay members scurried to prove their loyalty and faithfulness. The harsh discipline and Brigham Young's exercise of power in demanding obedience during the second phase of the movement provoked excessive demonstrations of loyalty and consequent disruption. The destruction of the Polysophical Society temporarily stymied the development of the humanities and fine arts in the community. The sermons on repentance and blood atonement seem to have led members to confess to sins they had not committed and may also have incited a few fanatics more orthodox than the General Authorities to murder dissidents (Larson 1958, 54). The emphasis on the visible trappings of orthodoxy that fueled those new plural marriages led inevitably to divorce or unhappy homes among the unprepared. The effort to achieve status in the kingdom or to demonstrate loyalty and spirituality by seeking advancement to the Melchizedek Priesthood disrupted the normal functioning of the Aaronic Priesthood quorums. Moreover, the excesses of the second phase of the Reformation added fuel to the charges lodged in Washington against the Mormons that led to the Utah War.
On the other hand, in spite of the harsh beginnings and in spite of the excesses, the reformation produced some worthwhile reforms. One of these was the increased emphasis on kindness and love in the third phase. This emphasis on love and charity may have contributed to the revival of the Female Relief Society in early 1857. Joseph Smith had first organized the Relief Society in Nauvoo on 17 March 1842. Although some Church members had organized Relief Societies to provide charitable help for Indians as early as 1854 and some general purpose Relief Societies had been organized as early as January 1855, the larger association authorized by Joseph Smith had remained dormant since the exodus from Nauvoo (Jensen 1983, 105-25).
When the Reformation turned from raining pitchforks to urging love and charity, local leaders revived the organization to aid the poor in a number of wards in Salt Lake City. The Salt Lake Fourteenth Ward furnished some of the leadership of this movement. On 14 February 1857, Woodruff, Hoagland, Joseph Horn, and Robert L. Campbell attended the organizational meeting. Bishop Hoagland had called Phebe Woodruff as president, and Mary Isabella Horn and Mary Southworth as counselors. They and the other sisters in the ward spent their Relief Society meetings quilting, sewing, and making carpets for the poor. By June 1857, they had clothed all the poor of the ward and made a sizeable donation to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund (Woodruff 1983-85, 5:20, 59-60).
The home missionary system of the first phase inaugurated an effort at cooperative revival that promised much for the future and undoubtedly contributed to the development of a Godly community. Regular visits to the homes of members by such priesthood holders and Relief Society women as home teachers, home missionaries, and visiting teachers have provided a sense of concern and connection with the larger community of the Saints. 
In summary, the Reformation moved through three overlapping phases--a structural reform phase, a phase of intense demand for a demonstration of spiritual reform, and a phase of love and reconstruction. In the first phase, Church leaders tried to achieve reform through the home missionary effort. After Brigham Young and his counselors had become convinced that the missionaries had not achieved the desired result, they pressed the movement into the second phase. Missionaries continued to preach as the leadership rained pitchforks on member's heads and hearts. Generally loyal to their leaders, members scurried to prove their faithfulness by confessing sins and asking for rebaptism, entering plural marriages, and seeking advancement from the Aaronic to the Melchizedek priesthood.  Larson:
Certainly, one unfortunate result of the Reformation was to give color to anti-Mormon propaganda which circulated in the East and helped send the United States Army marching on Utah to put down an imaginary rebellion....
Doctrine taught during the Reformation
Brigham Young ordered the Saints to "starve the Gentiles" when the future victims of the Mountain Meadow Massacre arrivedSummary: The order not to trade with immigrants applied to all commodities, and was prompted by the threat of siege due to the imminent arrival of the US Army to Utah. It was not intended to kill immigrants.
Summary: In September 1857 a group of Mormons in southern Utah killed all adult members of an Arkansas wagon train that was headed for California. Critics charge that the massacre was typical of Mormon "culture of violence," and claim that Church leaders—possibly as high as Brigham Young—approved of, or even ordered the killing.
Jump to Subtopic:
- Henry B. Eyring (2007): "What was done here long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct"
- Question: What is the Mountain Meadows Massacre?
- Question: What happened to the perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre?
- "Mountain Meadows Massacre"
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- Gustave O. Larson, "The Mormon Reformation," Utah Historical Quarterly 26/1 (January 1958): 45–46.
- Thomas G. Alexander, "Wilford Woodruff and the Mormon Reformation of 1855-57," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 no. 3 (Summer 1992), 25-39. (needs URL / links)
- Alexander, "Wilford Woodruff and the Mormon Reformation," 26-27.
- Alexander, "Wilford Woodruff and the Mormon Reformation," 27.
- Davis Bitton, "'I'd Rather Have Some Roasting Ears': The Peregrinations of George Armstrong Hicks," Utah Historical Quarterly 68/3 (Summer 2000): 209.
- Alexander, "Wilford Woodruff and the Mormon Reformation," 27-28.
- Larson, "Mormon Reformation," 54.
- Stanley S. Ivins, "Notes on Mormon Polygamy," Western Humanities Review 10 (1956), 231. This article is conveniently reprinted in Utah Historical Quarterly 35/4 (Fall 1967): 309–321.
- Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840–1910 (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 107. ISBN 0252026810.
- Paul H. Peterson, "The Mormon Reformation of 1856-1857: The Rhetoric and the Reality," Journal of Mormon History 15 (1989): 80.
- Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840–1910 (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 107–115. ISBN 0252026810.
- Eugene E. Campbell and Bruce L. Campbell, "Divorce among Mormon Polygamists: Extent and Explanations," Utah Historical Quarterly 46/1 (Winter 1978): 10–11; citing Wilford Woodruff Journal, 6 October 1856.
- Eugene E. Campbell and Bruce L. Campbell, "Divorce among Mormon Polygamists: Extent and Explanations," Utah Historical Quarterly 46/1 (Winter 1978): 10–11; citing Journal History, 15 and 18 December 1858, and Brigham Young's Office Journal," 5 October 1861.
- Alexander, "Wilford Woodruff and the Mormon Reformation," 31.
- Alexander, "Wilford Woodruff and the Mormon Reformation," 34.
- Alexander, "Wilford Woodruff and the Mormon Reformation," 36.
- Alexander, "Wilford Woodruff and the Mormon Reformation," 36.
- Gustave O. Larson, "The Mormon Reformation," Utah Historical Quarterly 26/1 (January 1958): 47.