Dissent in the Church
    Footnotes

    “Dissent in the Church,” Church History Topics

    “Dissent in the Church”

    Dissent in the Church

    Early Latter-day Saints made great sacrifices to gather together and build a society inspired by Enoch’s Zion, in which the people were “of one heart and one mind.”1 In an early revelation given to Joseph Smith, the Lord told the Saints, “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.”2 In most cases, early Church members found ways to harmoniously express differing viewpoints, thus maintaining unity even when they disagreed over social or doctrinal issues. There were some instances, however, in which individuals or groups within the Church dissented, coming into serious conflict with Joseph Smith or other leaders. In many of these cases, the dissenters chose to part ways with the Saints. In some, they followed the longstanding Protestant pattern of establishing a competing church or congregation that better reflected their own beliefs. In some instances, though not all, Church councils excommunicated dissenters for their opposition to the Church.3

    Perhaps the most serious episode of dissent in the early Church occurred during an economic depression in Kirtland in 1837. When the Kirtland Safety Society (a banking institution championed by Joseph Smith) foundered, a group of influential Church members called for Joseph Smith to be replaced as the Church’s leader, ultimately forming their own separate reformed church. In the agonizing division that followed, as many as 10 to 15 percent of the members in Kirtland left the Church. These included members of the Quorum of the Twelve and several of the Book of Mormon witnesses.4 Caroline Barnes Crosby recalled the pain of watching friends leave the faith: “Many of our most intimate associates, were among the apostates,” she wrote. “We had taken sweet counsel together, and walked to the house of God as friends. … I felt very sorrowful, and gloomy, but never had the first idea of leaving the Church, or forsaking the prophet.”5

    Cases of individual and group dissent have occurred periodically throughout the Church’s history. Notable examples include the disaffection and excommunication of several key leaders in Missouri in 1838 and that of a member of the First Presidency in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844.6 Over time, the work of the Lord has moved forward despite the choices of those who disagree with and oppose the Church. Even after the dissensions in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, the Lord prepared other Church members to serve in the place of those who left the faith. Sadly, many dissenters severed ties permanently with the Church. Over time, however, many also returned to full fellowship.7

    Not all disagreement leads to dissent. In fact, the clear expression of conflicting views, especially in council settings, frequently serves as preparation for revelation. For example, members of the Council of Fifty, a deliberative body organized by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, were under obligation both to disclose concerns when a proposal was put forward and to work toward unanimity in the process of reaching a decision. One reason groups sometimes failed to succeed, Joseph Smith taught the council members, was “because in their organization they never could agree to disagree long enough to separate the pure gold from the dross by the process of investigation.”8

    In a few cases, especially during the Missouri-Mormon war of 1838, Church leaders and members sternly warned or even intimidated dissenters. Afterward, however, an inspired letter from Joseph Smith admonished faithful Saints to try in the future to influence their friends who had strayed “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.”9 Recently, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf urged Church members to respect the choices of those who break with the Church even while mourning their departure: “It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves.”10

    Related Topics: Zion/New Jerusalem, Church Discipline, Other Latter Day Saint Movements, Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, Kirtland Safety Society

    Notes

    1. Moses 7:18; see also “Old Testament Revision 1,” 16, josephsmithpapers.org.

    2. Revelation, 2 January 1831 [D&C 38],” 51, josephsmithpapers.org; punctuation standardized.

    3. See Topic: Church Discipline.

    4. Milton V. Backman Jr., The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830–1838 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 328.

    5. Caroline Barnes Crosby, No Place to Call Home: The 1807–1857 Life Writings of Caroline Barnes Crosby, Chronicler of Outlying Mormon Communities, edited by Edward Leo Lyman, Susan Ward Payne, and S. George Ellsworth (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2005), 48.

    6. These included William W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Thomas B. Marsh, and Orson Hyde in Missouri and Joseph Smith’s counselor William Law in Nauvoo. See Mark Ashurst-McGee, David W. Grua, Elizabeth Kuehn, Alexander L. Baugh, and Brenden W. Rensink, eds., Documents, Volume 6: February 1838–August 1839, Vol. 6 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Ronald K. Esplin, Matthew J. Grow, and Matthew C. Godfrey (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2017), 294–310; “William Law” and “Orson Hyde,” josephsmithpapers.org.

    7. Roughly half of the prominent leaders who were involved in dissension in 1837–38 were later reconciled to the Church. Prominent leaders who returned after periods of public disaffection in the early Church include Parley P. Pratt, Orson Hyde, William W. Phelps, Frederick G. Williams, Luke Johnson, Oliver Cowdery, Thomas B. Marsh, and Martin Harris.

    8. “Minutes, Thursday, Apr. 4, 1844,” in Matthew J. Grow, Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, and Jeffrey D. Mahas, eds., Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846, Vol. 1 of the Administrative Records series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Ronald K. Esplin, Matthew J. Grow, and Matthew C. Godfrey (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 79.

    9. Letter to Edward Partridge and the Church, circa 22 March 1839,” 3; spelling standardized. See also Doctrine and Covenants 121:41.

    10. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come Join with Us,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2013, 22.