4—Being LDS in France and in the closet
9—‘Mormon History—Revisited’: The growing pains of the new Church. How Mormons got the Priesthood. all was not well in A chaotic Zion in those formative years. 

My work colleague (the one who took the missionary discussions when he was younger because he thought the missionaries were hot) ¹ started dating this Spanish guy: a Mormon, albeit the kind that no longer believes at all. “He was having a go at religion while smoking pot. He said the Pope must be high… like Joseph Smith when he saw an angel.” 

I was surprised to say, “Nice to meet you!” to a clean-cut man when I was introduced—the judgmental gay in me expected a scruffy pothead. The conversation came to the Church. His grandfather was “a Spanish Mormon pioneer” and his mother came from a pious Catholic family. When his mother was a teenager, a school friend invited her to attend the Mormon church. She met a boy there. When she converted she was disowned. The couple got married and sealed in a temple before moving to Canada. That’s where he was born. He grew up in the Church, received his endowment and served a mission in Honduras. Now he believes in nothing. “It’s all made up!” What about his family? “My parents still believe but are both inactive now.”

Scottish preacher Oswald Chambers wrote, “If you yourself do not cut the lines that tie you to the dock, God will have to use a storm to sever them and to send you out to sea.” It is so true. But it’s also more complicated than that. If we persevere (and with God’s help), we can make it through. But we are not sitting at the dock watching the knots. We spend our life running around and juggling life’s demands, and the unexpected. So we sometimes stumble and fall. We do pick ourselves up, but some people give in temporarily and some people give up for good.


In the days of Joseph Smith members flirted with apostasy, tasted regret and begged for forgiveness or sailed away. 


When I met the Spaniard I had just finished posting about my experience as a new LDS convert. I was about to write the Church history post about the new Church and its growing pains. There is nothing new under the sun. People weather the storm, doubt but face opposition—or slip into apathy. In the days of Joseph Smith, his critics were no different from today (even if they didn’t blame it on pot). Members flirted with apostasy, tasted regret and begged for forgiveness or sailed away. 

David Whitmer—one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon—believed Joseph had seen an angel. But he had an issue with the Priesthood ² : “I do not think the word priesthood is mentioned in the New Covenant of the Book of Mormon. Authority is the word we used in the first two years in the church, until Sidney Rigdon’s days in Ohio. This order of the two orders of priesthood [the Aaronic Priesthood and the Melchizedek Priesthood] all originated in the mind of Sidney Rigdon.” ³

Facing persecution back East, the Mormons had decided to join a large group of converts in Kirtland, Ohio. They had been Campbellites (a denomination that aimed to restore the worship and ecclesiastical structure described in the New Testament). Rigdon had been a Campbellite preacher and he quickly became one of Joseph’s closest allies. If Oliver Cowdery was second in authority to the Prophet until 1838, he was in effect replaced by Rigdon (Joseph’s ‘spokesman’ and counsellor in the First Presidency). 

Sidney Rigdon, “… explained these things to Brother Joseph out of the old Scriptures, and got Joseph to enquire and as mouthpiece speak out the revelations […] but it may be the spirit of the man that gives it […] This is the way the High Priests and the ‘Priesthood’ as you have it, was introduced into the Church of Christ almost two years after its beginning—and after we had baptised and confirmed about two thousand souls into the church.” ³

There is no mention of the Aaronic or Melchizedeck Priesthood in the Book of Mormon and no documents from 1829 describe visitations from angelic messengers, or even voices, in the restoration of divine authority—the Mormon Priesthood. “It’s all made up!” said the Spaniard. Doctrine & Covenants, Sections 27 and 107 were subsequently edited to reflect the offices of the Priesthood (as well as the bestowal of the Aaronic Priesthood). In fact, more than 400 words were added to Section 27 (including the name of angelic visitors and the ordinations).

Meanwhile, in Section 128:20-21, Joseph talks about “the voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville […], declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times.” Oliver had tried to translate the golden plates and said that he prayed in the woods with Joseph “until a glorious light encircled us, and as we arose on account of the light, three persons stood before us dressed in white, their faces beaming with glory.” One of them said he was the Apostle Peter and the others James and John.

Joseph Smith might have made it up as he went along. It is also possible that he learned (and edited) as he went along. My Fundamentalist friend Moroni once told me about a group of people he met who had received their Second Anointing—an ordinance that makes one’s ‘calling and election sure’ but is no longer available in the LDS Church. However, they didn’t even know it. After listening to the description of the ordinance, Moroni told them. Maybe Joseph needed a little help and time before he could understand what he saw or received too. 

In any cases, Joseph asked the Saints to consecrate their property to the Church and to  move to Kirtland, Ohio. That’s how Joseph met Brigham Young, who after Joseph’s death would become the face of Mormonism for decades.

Since his childhood Brigham had struggled to find a denomination that felt right. He joined the Methodists at 23 in rural New York but was still unsatisfied. After reading the Book of Mormon he concluded there was “something in Mormonism” and “reasoned on revelation” for a whole year before being baptised and ordained an Elder. The whole family converted. Now 31, Brigham met the Prophet—a tall and blue-eyed man in his late twenties. Both were young, uneducated and robust and, after chopping wood together, talked about the Gospel all evening. A new friendship had begun.


Joseph Smith might have made it up as he went along. It is also possible that he learned (and edited) as he went along.


The Saints listened to Joseph talk about the afterlife and the Priesthood. Joseph taught them about the degrees of glory (differing from Heaven and Hell): almost all humankind will receive a degree of salvation and those in the highest level will become gods dwelling with God. Brigham struggled with that teaching. Mormonism was distancing itself more and more from all other Christian denominations. But Brigham persisted and drew closer to the Prophet in the process—and that doctrine eventually became ones of his favourites.

Brigham preached the Gospel whenever he could. So far an obscure and unsettled man, he gained confidence and found his place. When his wife died the Church became his second family. Using the Bible to prove the Book of Mormon was true, Brigham and his brother went on a mission to Canada and brought back many converts. In July 1833 the Church had grown large. Joseph said it was time to build a temple to the Lord. 

But there was trouble in Missouri. Independence in Jackson County was “the place for the city of Zion” to be built (while Ohio was another place for the Saints to gather). Rumours that the Mormons were abolitionists (and a bit too excited when it came to religion) didn’t sit well with the old settlers. Mormons were buying land and becoming a majority who could soon control local government. A vigilante forced them to depart within 6 months.

The Missouri Saints, now seeing themselves as the persecuted people of God (a new feature of the Mormon identity), moved to Clay County where they faced a harsh winter in dire conditions. In February they went to ask Joseph to rid them of their enemies. 200 men joined ‘Zion’s Camp’ with Joseph as ‘Commander in Chief of the Armies of Israel’ to reclaim the land that was theirs by divine decree.

The expedition made the situation worse: The Governor recanted his offer to be a mediator. Anti-Mormons gathered their own 200 men. When cholera swept the camp the Saints read into it God’s judgement for their iniquities. However, Zion’s Camp cemented friendships and a sense of purpose. The Saints refocussed when Joseph gave new revelations and new translations after he purchased mummies and papyri.

Meanwhile, Brigham found a second wife who could help him with his two daughters. Mary Ann Angel had been impressed with his preaching. Oliver, David Whitmer, Martin Harris (the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon) and Brigham (with his cousin Heber C. Kimball) were among the men that formed the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They would travel all the way to Europe to preach the Gospel but Brigham went to Native Americans tribes (a remnant of the House of Israel according to the Book of Mormon).

Once back from his first mission, Brigham found Kirtland in a different mood. Joseph, who loved wrestling and laughing, was hot-blooded and came down on nearly everyone, including his wife. Many people were questioning the Prophet and his authority, making him even more testy. Joseph was even brought to Church court several times by Church members. His Apostles didn’t get along, and there even was a fist flight between him and his brother William. Brigham never sided with the critics.

How charismatic Joseph must have been for a man as fiercely independent and rugged as Brigham to submit completely to him. His faith was inseparable from Joseph and he never faltered in his love for either. Joseph loved Brigham too. However, he condemned him and the Twelve Apostles after their mission for not bringing back the funds to build the temple like they were supposed to. 

The situation got so bad that Brigham felt compelled to confront him and his two counsellors (Rigdon and Frederick Williams). On this occasion, Joseph asked the Apostles for their forgiveness. He said he would do better.


³ David Whitmer, An Address To All Believers in Christ, page 64



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