Aug 22, 2016

Who are the real Mormons?

by Lindsay Hansen Park
August 22, 2016

When the Mormon Saints began their departure from Nauvoo on February 4, 1846 with the intention of heading to the Rocky Mountains, the journey took them to places they couldn’t imagine. It would be a journey that would test the spiritual and physical development of the Mormon people, shape the Mormon culture, and forge the fires of modern Mormonism.

Because of rain and a late start, the Saints with fire in their bosoms, found themselves illegally squatting on Indian lands protected by the Indian Intercourse act of June of 1834. The federal government called the camp ground Omaha lands and the Mormons called it Winter Quarters and Council Bluffs.[1]

Laws like the Intercourse Act were designed to protect traumatized native groups recovering from forced removal from ancestral lands, by attempting to discourage the advance of white settlers, creating a boundary around “Indian Country.” Territory west of the Mississippi was protected and whites were not allowed to cross into it without passports that kept track of their stay. While supposedly well-intended, the Indian barrier philosophy did not plan for what would be ongoing immigration from Anglo Americans into what they saw as their American West.

Mormons were part of this advance, which meant that what they called “Winter Quarters,” was actually preserved Indian land, guarded by the U.S. government to “keep the Indian safe in his permanent home.” Because American colonizers were forbidden from trespassing on this land, the Mormon’s arrival and then settlement, would put them into conflict with the US government. 

Although the Mormons already felt at odds with the federal government (and used this divide to align with the Indians), they soon began to wear out their welcome on Omaha lands. The tensions became so heavy that Council Bluffs Indian Agent Thomas Miller felt the need to intervene after consistent complaints from tribes in the area. He was said to have told Brigham Young at the beginning of April that the best service the Saints could render the Omaha would be to leave as soon as possible and stop the great destruction of timber and game, “which to the Indians is a great loss.” Mormons felt that this was once again an example of the persecution heaped upon them by their enemies.

The federal government was already skeptical of these Mormons, and while the Mormons wouldn’t publicly admit to the practice of polygamy until Orson Pratt’s national PR campaign in 1852, the tension was growing and the rumors of this strange group with their even stranger marriage practices were swirling. [2]

A copy of Orson Pratt’s, The Seer, 1853, public domain.

Mormons were boundary pushers. They sat on the literal boundaries of the frontier, the political boundaries of the United States, and on the edge of public acceptance and tolerance. The fringes of these boundaries worked like thread in a loom, weaving their identity as a tight-knit, socio-religious group, a strange and peculiar people.

They were Mormons first, Americans second, with tenuous connections to the latter. It is interesting that one of the defining mechanisms for Mormons, regarding their identity as a spiritual group, comes from external pressure due to their peculiarness. Which is to say, the stranger they were, the more solidified and united they became.

Whenever Mormons where forced to assimilate to American expectations, they resisted. Their marginalization was a source of faith—proof that God had really chosen them to do the hard work of building His Kingdom.

Perhaps it is this pattern of being victim to society’s pressures, or human nature that lead Mormonism to fight to maintain boundaries within itself. The church would spend it’s first century of existence trying to define itself against outsiders, and the second century defining itself over and over again from insiders.

As polygamy became more public, the polygamy narrative became another mechanism used to strengthen the Mormon identity as a peculiar and persecuted people. “We are the ones with the true order of marriage. We are living the higher law. Outsiders don’t understand us. Mormons have the truth. Plural marriage is of God, monogamy is of the devil. Monogamy brought down the fall of Rome.” [3] It would also become a source of great internal conflict for the church as time went on.

The term “Mormon” or “Mormonite” initially started in the 1830s as a pejorative. It was meant to insult and brand followers of the Latter Day Saints movement or the early church, but it didn’t take long until members of the movement began self-identifying with the label. The term became inextricably linked with polygamy and for nearly a century editorials, political cartoons, and exposes were written about polygamist Mormons, linking the terms together. This is why in the mid-to-late-19th century, some Latter Day Saint denominations who never practiced polygamy have renounced the term such as the Community of Christ who come out of the RLDS tradition. The term Mormon is too associated with the principle of plural marriage, a practice that many of the branches of the restoration (who didn’t move west) openly shunned. [4]

It was plural marriage that defined Mormons. It was plural marriage that ultimately sent them to the borderlands of the frontier. And then to the Borderlands of Mexico, and soon to be the Utah Territory. It was polygamy that kept Mormons from statehood for decades, that embroiled them in a larger public debate, where their highest order of marriage, was linked as the “twin relics of barbarism- slavery and polygamy.”

It was precisely the external pressure from gentiles, and outsiders like the federal government that propelled and calcified the faith which might be why we see the 20th Century as bringing new and interesting changes to Mormon borders and identity.

I get this need for identity. I’ve felt it very deeply myself. I’ve even felt the tingles of defense prickle up my skin when someone wants to compare my faith to that of say, Warren Jeffs. Even in casual conversation with other LDS Mormons, I can use the term “Mormon Fundamentalist” and get strong reactions from those from the LDS group.

“Oh, those people aren’t Mormons. They have nothing to do with us. We don’t practice polygamy and it’s been taken from the earth.” For the sake of clarity, and to give each group their sense of unique identity apart from their Mormonism, I’m going to use the terms “FLDS group” to refer to the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints, “AUB group” to refer to the Apostolic United Brethren, the “LDS group” to refer to the mainline Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and so on.

If the term LDS group makes you uncomfortable, perhaps it will reveal an inherent bias that you might not have realized was there, one that while natural, needs to be examined. I use these terms deliberately and strategically, because while the LDS group would like to be known as “The Church” and the “The Mormons,” (they went so far as to trademark the term, “the Mormon church”) the historical record disrupts that thinking and tells a much more complicated story. [5]

To understand this story completely, you need to understand the history of plural marriage itself and its relationship to the mainline LDS group, as well as its part in the overall Mormon movement.

For two centuries, polygamy defined the boundaries in the Mormon movement .Because the early church never established a clear criteria for succession, polygamy became more of a litmus for the faith than anything else, including the Book of Mormon. It is largely to blame for the Brighamite church leaving the early church and headed west. Polygamy is largely responsible for shaping the mainline LDS group both by its reaction to and it’s century of distancing itself from the practice of polygamy. [6]

This is why I don’t consider the mainline LDS church to be “the original” church. Such a church no longer exists. We have the early church and then we have schismatic or extant groups. The LDS group is one of the largest. Restorationist scholars John Hamer and Steve Shields estimate in their forthcoming updated version of Divergent Paths of the Restoration that well over 400 extant groups exist within the Restorationist movement.

It is important when talking about all these groups—and the various belief systems and practices—that we also recognize that they all have a claim to the Mormon movement. I say this all the time to people- “Why do you think there are so many break offs and split offs?”

If your answer is, “Because Satan leads people away,” think again. No one wants to be the bad. No one wants to be the outcast. No one wants to be the outlier. With the exception of a handful of groups who claim authority through personal revelation or authority through a new heavenly visitation, many of these groups, including the LDS group have valid stories of succession. This also includes (in my opinion) the FLDS group’s claim to authority up until possibly Rulon Jeffs, the Centennial Park group’s claim to some priesthood keys, and the AUB’s claims to keys.

The way these keys and authorities were passed on are not unlike the way that Brigham Young claimed his authority. Each stories draws similar parallels to one another. Perhaps these similarities are what leaves groups like the LDS to feel insecure with the public perception and maybe even territorial of Mormon identity. [7][8]

In 2008, the LDS group started a public campaign to own the term Mormon. On June 24, 2008 Elder Lance B. Wickman, General Counsel of the LDS Church sent out a letter to major newspapers, tv stations, and magazines (I want to thank Anne Wilde for digging up some of these primary documents for me from her well kept scrapbooks).

The letter, which was a response to the FLDS raids in Texas and the international media coverage, stated that,

“Over the years, in a careful effort to distinguish itself, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has gone to significant lengths to protect its rights in the name of the church and related matters. Specifically, we have obtained registrations for the name, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” “Mormon,” “Book of Mormon” and related trade marks from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and corresponding agencies in a significant number of foreign countries.” [9]

Let’s let this sink in for a moment. The LDS group tried to trademark the termMormon, the term that defined the group by it’s polygamist practice, so that that it could take the term Mormon from groups who still were living the polygamist practices that defined it with the term in the first place.

Of course this letter lead to several responses from different Mormon fundamentalist groups. The Fundamentalist advocacy group, Principle Voices issued a press release. Speaking for independent Mormon fundamentalists, the AUB group, The Kingston Group, the Work of Jesus Christ (Centennial) and several others, they asked to be given the courtesy to self-identify:

“We strenuously object to any efforts to deprives us and others of the freedom to name and describe ourselves by terms of our own choosing. Fundamentalist Mormons have been referred to by that name since the 1930s, often by the Church itself. We are proud of our Mormon heritage. Plural marriage is only one of the tenets of our religion, the Gospel of Jesus Christ as restored through Joseph Smith.” [10][11]

Mormon and religious scholar John Walsh, who served as an expert witness for the state of Texas during the FLDS raid case said, “I don’t know how you can’t call them fundamentalist Mormons. A Mormon is someone who believes in the Book of Mormon, who has a belief that Joseph Smith was called of God in some way.”

Scholar Carmon Hardy pointed out, “From the Fundamentalist point of view, they are the “real Mormons” because they continue to adhere to Smith’s original teaching that polygamy brought exaltation in heaven.” [12]

Even the LDS group went so far as to officially point out the differences between themselves and the FLDS group, including:

*The LDS group excommunicates members found practicing it
*Members of the LDS group wear regular, modern clothes and have contemporary hairstyles
*The LDS group encourages both secular and religious education
*The LDS group does not practice or condone arranged marriages

And then, as if to issue a definitive statement, included: One cannot be a polygamist and be a Mormon.

“One cannot be a polygamist and be a Mormon.”

As if nearly one hundred years of shared history and leaders, including Brigham Young, John Taylor, Lorenzo Snow, Wilford Woodruff, Joseph F. Smith, and Heber J. Grant and Joseph Smith Jr, all practicing polygamists are suddenly are redefined as what…?

I could spend the four days blogging and refreshing memories on the history that makes this statement a distortion of the history, but I’d rather talk about how these groups, and those within and without the Mormon movement, are claiming the term Mormon, in spite of one group’s attempt to co-opt and control the name.

Wikipedia explains the terms thusly: Depending on the country and intellectual property laws, Mormon and some phrases including the term are registered trademarks owned by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. (a holding company for the LDS Church’s intellectual property). The LDS Church has applied for a trademark on “Mormon” in the United States, however, the United States Patent and Trademark Office rejected the application, stating that the term “Mormon” was too generic. In 2002 the church filed an application for the term as it applied to religious services and the application was abandoned as of August 22, 2007. Since then, there have been several cases where litigation was involved and the LDS church continues to engage in boundary maintenance by creating legalistic arguments to stake a claim on the concept of who is Mormon. They are taking the history of Mormon identity and moving the discussion, into the courtroom.

Many know that I come from the LDS group. I was baptized into the LDS group and my parents and grandparents come from it, all the way back to the Brighamite group and into the early church. I think I have a fairly decent grasp on how boundary maintenance is done within the LDS group. I work often with mainline Mormons who worried about the strict boundaries the modern LDS group has set, feel that their Mormonism will be defined for them, through excommunication, church discipline, or social pressure. Within the LDS tradition alone we have labels like, “Jack Mormon,” “Molly Mormon” “Liberal Mormon” “Conservative Mormon.” I tell those worried about losing their Mormon identity to look back to the history and to see how nearly 400 groups, with more than half still claiming the term Mormon exist in Mormon movement. And then I point to Mormon Fundamentalist friends, who, for not quite a century yet, have been ostracized by their LDS cousins and yet don’t seem to be deterred in claiming the name.

In fact, as if the LDS group had suddenly become the outsiders of the Mormon faith, exerting external pressure on these fundamentalist groups, when the LDS church tells them they aren’t Mormon, they proudly say that the truth is, they are even more Mormon, the true Mormons, the one that haven’t abandoned the Mormon heritage and truth of the gospel.

The LDS church claims the title “mainstream” largely in part of its membership which is estimated up to 15 million people. The size of the group isn’t the only thing that makes it mainstream, the abandoning of the principle of plural marriage which was the church’s reaction to polygamy, is also to be credited. When the church abandoned the principle, missionary work in the LDS church skyrocketed. Baptisms were suddenly easier to come by, the church no longer found itself at odds with the federal government, and were able to avoid government liens and fines and slowly pull themselves out of the crushing debt they were in. The modern tithing program began to take off as a result of this change. [13]

As the LDS group took it’s D&C 132 and the principle of celestial marriage to no longer mean polygamous sealings but monogamous unions, they slowly transitioned their focal point, a once very fluid definition of the family to a very mainstream one. When polygamy was “abandoned” by the LDS group, with it went the Mormon frontier teachings of Adam/God, creation, and other heady polygamist doctrines, including one that tied racial curses to temple restrictions. This allowed the church to lift its ban on African Americans in the temples and with male ordination. (And just as a side note, before this happened all other sects that split from the LDS branch use to teach a rote prayer to their children. They would face the temple and ask that the doors someday be open again to them when the church was set in order. When the priesthood/temple ban was lifted, most fundamentalist groups considered the LDS group to be in full apostasy with the temples corrupt. This is when the AUB decided to build their own temple and those rote prayers largely stopped being said. Brian Hales also estimates that convert baptisms from the LDS group to the AUB tripled that year). [14]

This reaction to polygamy helped define a new generation of LDS Mormons that believed they had nothing to do with polygamy and the LDS group has been working hard since, for a variety of reasons, to keep the mainstream status and distance itself from a core Mormon doctrine.

I want to, just for fun, show you how little removed mainlines Mormons actually are from Mormon fundamentalists:

*In teaching and beliefs: Both belief in the traditional restoration story of Joseph Smith in the grove, Subscribe to the Book of Mormon, the Plan of Salvation (with some obvious tweaks to the top tier of the celestial kingdom), and the temple endowment and sealing practices. They all believe in a restored order of priesthood, some form of preordination/predestination, priesthood keys, sealing and saving ordinances, and a Joseph Smith/Brigham Young view of the bible.[15]

*In location: The headquarters for the LDS Mormon group is in Salt Lake City Utah, the headquarters for the FLDS, AUB, Kingston/Davis County Co-operative Society, the Latter-day Church of Christ and many other groups share their headquarters in the State of Utah. Many of these groups own businesses that members of the other groups frequent on a daily basis. The Order or Kingston group sponsors the Utah Jazz and other LDS Mormon owned,Larry H. Miller companies like movie theaters and restaurants. The AUB owns health and natural food stores that LDS Mormons frequent and the LDS groups owns Deseret Book and the LDS distribution center which each of the groups purchase their Mormon novelties, teaching resources, and sacred texts from. [16]

What is even more strange is that we forget, especially my generation- that we still have people living in the LDS group today that would have been part of the Brighamite Mormon group before it split into fundamentalist offshoots. It was only in the 1930’s that the LDS group began to actively distance itself from the practice of polygamy. This means there are notable LDS leaders who can’t separate themselves from their own polygamist roots.

Take for example Spencer W. Kimball. Related to the Eyring polygamists through marriage, and the Kimballs, he also had other interesting connections. His uncle was John Woolley one of the founding fathers of Mormon fundamentalism, and bodyguard to John Taylor (who also claims sealing authority from Taylor). Kimball’s middle name is, in fact, “Woolley”, that’s what the W. stands for. [17] Kimball also met Ervil Lebaron in 1942 and Ervil, who later started his own Mormon Fundamentalist group, put a “hit” or an order of death of Spencer W. Kimball. [18]

Ezra Taft Benson was born to a father who grew up in polygamy. His Great-Grandfather was Ezra T. Benson, who was a known leader and polygamist and married Joseph’s wife Desdeomna Fuller. In 1950 Benson was sealed to his recently deceased cousin, Eva Amanda Benson with his living wife Flora standing in as proxy. [19]

Gordon B. Hinckley attended the same high school as Rulon Jeffs (leader of the FLDS group). Rulon served a mission with Cleon Skousen in England and held many notable mission positions included secretary, treasurer, and assistant to the president. Rulon also married to Hugh B. Brown’s daughter, Zola. [20][21][22]

Current Apostle Dallin H. Oaks is another example, among several of apostles being sealed to multiple women in the next life and being proud of the fact. [23]

And ignoring all the multiple sealings Mormon leaders continue to currently practice in the posthumous sense, there are many, many more connections reminding us that we can try to get away from this doctrine in perception, but we can’t even do it in name.

In conclusion, it would seem that while each group has the right to shore up their borders and set boundaries for group identity, we would all be mistaken to believe we can extricate ourselves for our very tied past, a past that is indeed, very much Mormon.



<![if !supportLists]>1. <![endif]>Robert A Trennert Jr, “The Mormons and the Office of Indian Affairs: The Conflict Over Winter Quarters, 1846-1848,” Nebraska History 53 (1972): 381-400.

<![if !supportLists]>2. <![endif]>
“Minutes of conference : a special conference of the elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints assembled in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, August 28th, 1852, 10 o’clock, a.m., pursuant to public notice”. Deseret News Extra. 14 September 1852. p. 14.

<![if !supportLists]>3. <![endif]>On June 18, 1865 President Brigham Young, delivered the following remarks in the Bowery, Great Salt Lake City: “Since the founding of the Roman empire monogamy has prevailed more extensively than in times previous to that. The founders of that ancient empire were robbers and women stealers, and made laws favoring monogamy in consequence of the scarcity of women among them, and hence this monogamic system which now prevails throughout Christendom, and which had been so fruitful a source of prostitution and whoredom throughout all the Christian monogamic cities of the Old and New World, until rottenness and decay are at the root of their institutions both national and religious.” – The Prophet Brigham Young Journal of Discourses, Vol. 11, p. 128

<![if !supportLists]>4. <![endif]>
Where do Mormons get their name from?”. WebDevilAZ. March 25, 2009. Retrieved March 28, 2016.

<![if !supportLists]>5. <![endif]>
“Rights and Use Information”. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Retrieved 2016-04-26

<![if !supportLists]>6. <![endif]>Esplin, Ronald K. (Summer 1981).
“Joseph, Brigham and the Twelve: A Succession of Continuity”. BYU Studies 21 (3): 301–341.

<![if !supportLists]>7. <![endif]>Newell Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster (eds.), The Persistence of Polygamy, Volume 3: Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy from 1890 to the Present(Independence: John Whitmer Books, 2015), 154-55, 479.

<![if !supportLists]>8. <![endif]>Lynn L. Bishop,The 1886 Visitations of Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith to John Taylor: The Centerville Meetings (Salt Lake City: Latter Day Publications, 1998), 194-95, 202, cited in
Hales (2006, p. 157).

<![if !supportLists]>9. <![endif]>For example, “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” is registered as United States
Federal TM Reg. No. 2766231, and “Mormon” is registered in the European Community serial number EC004306701, registered July 6, 2006.

<![if !supportLists]>10. <![endif]>The term “Mormon fundamentalist” appears to have been coined in the 1940s by LDS Church
Apostle Mark E. Petersen: Ken Driggs, “‘This Will Someday Be the Head and Not the Tail of the Church’: A History of the Mormon Fundamentalists at Short Creek”, Journal of Church and State43:49 (2001) at p. 51

<![if !supportLists]>11. <![endif]>Adams, B. (2008, June 09). Fundamentalists: We’re Mormon, too. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from

<![if !supportLists]>12. <![endif]>Polygamists Fight Church to Be Called Mormon | Fox News. (2008). Retrieved March 22, 2016.

<![if !supportLists]>13. <![endif]>
“Chapter 12: Tithing, a Law for Our Protection and Advancement”, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church, 2011).

<![if !supportLists]>14. <![endif]>Hales, Brian C. (2006), “Chapter 16: Rulon C. Allred’s Leadership”, Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: the Generations after the Manifesto, Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books,
ISBN 1589580354, OCLC 64510545, Because African American Church members now had access to LDS temples, the Allreds concluded that all LDS temples were desecrated.

<![if !supportLists]>15. <![endif]>Briney, Drew (2008), Silencing Mormon Polygamy: Failed Persecutions, Divided Saints, & the Rise of Mormon Fundamentalism (
self-published), Salt Lake City, Utah: Hindsight Publications, p. 28, ASIN B001MBY7GY, OCLC 297227864.

<![if !supportLists]>16. <![endif]>O’HEHIR, Andrew (2015, September 19). America’s little-known ISIS: The fundamentalist Mormon sect that blends polygamy, child rape and organizedcrime.Salon. Retrieved March 22, 2016.

<![if !supportLists]>17. <![endif]>Associated Press (9 November 1985).
“Spencer Kimball Dies at 90; Was Mormon Church Leader”. New York Times. Retrieved 5 March 2016.

<![if !supportLists]>18. <![endif]>
Jon Krakauer (2004). Under the banner of heaven: a story of violent faith

<![if !supportLists]>19. <![endif]>Ezra Taft Benson, Diary, April 25, 1950. For context and full citation, see Gary James Bergera, “Weak-Kneed Republicans and Socialist Democrats”: Ezra Taft Benson as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1953-61, Part 2, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, (Winter 2008, vol 41). April 25, 1950 Was sealed in marriage to his recently deceased cousin, Eva Amanda Benson (July 6, 1882–August 10, 1946). Eva was the never-married daughter of Benson’s uncle Frank Andrus Benson. Flora had first suggested acting as proxy for Eva, then did so during the vicarious ordinance performed by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith in the Salt Lake Temple. “I have never witnessed a more unselfish act on the part of any person,” Benson recorded, “and I love Flora all the more because of it. The Lord will richly bless her for this act of unselfish love for Eva and me and the Kingdom. Flora is one of the choicest daughters of our Heavenly Father.”

<![if !supportLists]>20. <![endif]>
Millennial Star (PDF scans) Volumes 92–93, 1930–1931, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University

<![if !supportLists]>21. <![endif]>Skousen, Eric N. (2006-01-14).
“Eulogy for Dr. W. Cleon Skousen”. Retrieved 2016-03-21.

<![if !supportLists]>22. <![endif]>Zoellner, T. (1998, June 28). Rulon Jeffs: Patriarch, president, prophet for polygamy. Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved March 21, 2016

<![if !supportLists]>23. <![endif]> Oaks, D. (January, 29, 2002). The Right Thing at the Right Time (Devotional). Provo, UT: Brigham Young University.

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