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Reformation (LDS) OF 1856-1857

by Paul H. Peterson

A rejuvenation movement initiated by Church leaders in 1856-1857 to rekindle faith and testimony throughout the Church has long been known as the Mormon Reformation. Motivations for reform had as much to do with the lofty expectations of Church leaders as with the spiritual complacency or deficiency of the Saints. The Reformation occurred in a period of optimism and anticipation, as Church leaders hoped to create the unified society viewed as a necessary precursor to the Millennium. With the Saints now secluded in their Rocky Mountain retreat, a reemphasis of basic principles seemed especially appropriate.

The Mormon Reformation commenced in early September 1856, when President Brigham Young sent his counselor Jedediah M. Grant to preach reform in settlements north of Salt Lake City. While speaking to assembled Saints, Grant was prompted to commit them to reform and to counsel them to signify that commitment through rebaptism. Grant's success had a contagious effect, and within days Saints in other settlements showed their commitment by being rebaptized.

Early reform efforts, influenced by President Grant's unbridled enthusiasm, were somewhat spontaneous. The revivalistic spirit, the anxious confession, and the mass rebaptisms, however, gradually gave way to more judicious and ordered reform. The reform became especially systematic at Church headquarters, where a policy was established to have two home missionaries assigned to each ward. Equipped with a twenty-seven-question catechism to help measure the worthiness of the Saints, the home missionaries assisted families with everything from hygiene and church attendance to obeying the Ten Commandments. Only after some months of missionary-member visits were Saints in the Salt Lake City wards rebaptized in early spring of 1857. In Salt Lake City, rebaptism generally marked the formal end of the Reformation, though reform fervor continued until mid-1858.

Under instructions from President Young, the Reformation was carried to settlements and missions throughout the world. While procedures differed somewhat in areas away from Utah, rebaptism was a strong recommendation for all the Saints. It symbolized both forgiveness of sin and a recommitment to obey commandments. Those who refused to be rebaptized might lose their membership in the Church. In Britain, zealous application of Reformation principles resulted in trimming from Church rolls a large number of the less-committed.

The era of the Reformation is often regarded as a controversial period. Some critics have erroneously claimed that blood Atonement was practiced at this time. While President Young did preach that forgiveness for certain sins could come only through the sinner's shedding his blood, such comments reflect his style more than his intent. Many of Brigham Young's utterances were rhetorical and designed to encourage (or sometimes even frighten) Saints into gospel conformity. With equal force, he also instructed Church leaders to forgive those who expressed sorrow for sin and repented.

For many Latter-day Saints, the Reformation was a period of spiritual rejuvenation. Attending meetings, paying tithing and other free-will offerings, and showing other outward indicators of renewal increased dramatically. The Reformation also had the effect of separating "wheat from chaff." Some members were disconcerted by the processes and the effects of reform and chose to leave LDS settlements. Perhaps the most damaging legacy from the point of view of Latter-day Saints was the grist the Reformation provided anti-Mormon writers who for decades would inaccurately characterize the period as a "reign of terror" (see Anti-Mormon Publications).

It may be that both critics and apologists have claimed too much for the Reformation. Certainly the reform impulse was on the whole more structured and restrained than has often been believed. Conversely, it appears that the major impact was of short duration and only moderate consequence—perhaps because the Utah expedition and impending armed conflict abruptly ended the main thrust of the movement less than a year after it began.

(See Daily Living home page; Church History home page; 1844-1877 home page)


Larson, Gustive O. "The Mormon Reformation." Utah Historical Quarterly 26 (Jan. 1958):45-63.

Peterson, Paul H. "The Mormon Reformation of 1856-1857: The Rhetoric and the Reality." Journal of Mormon History 15 (1989):59-87.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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