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Schismatic Groups

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James J. Strang (1813-1856) asserted the right to lead the Church shortly after Joseph Smith's assassination in 1844 and attracted a group of followers.

by Martin S. Tanner

Like any large religious body, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had a number of variously disaffected members break away. Some have taken a group of members with them and started rival organizations, based on their interpretations of the teachings of Joseph Smith. There have been about 130 such groups; only a few have existed for more than ten years.

The first was known as the Pure Church of Christ, founded in 1831 by Wycam Clark, Northrop Sweet, and others. Asserting that Joseph Smith was a false prophet, Clark claimed that he was the true leader of the Church. The group held only two or three meetings and died out.

The most prominent schismatic group organized during Joseph Smith's lifetime was the Church of Christ, established by Warren Parrish in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1837. A few months earlier Parrish was accused of embezzling funds from the Church's bank, the Kirtland Safety Society, and was excommunicated. Alleging that Joseph had fallen from his divine calling as leader of the Church, Parrish claimed the authority to lead it. He gained the support of three members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, some of the presidents of the Seventies, and several other influential leaders who had become alienated from Smith during the 1837-1838 economic crisis in Kirtland. That group broke up in less than a year (CHC 1:403-407).

The death of Joseph Smith in 1844 produced another flurry of new groups seeking to take advantage of the loss of the Church's leader. There were people in these organizations who agreed that Joseph Smith had been a true prophet, although many of them rejected or ignored some of the doctrines or practices he had established; the question in their minds was who was to take his place.

Joseph's counselor in the First Presidency, Sidney Rigdon, was one of the first to press his claim, telling the Saints that there could be no successor to Joseph Smith and that he should be named guardian of the Church, to watch over it in Joseph's name and build it up to the memory of the slain prophet. His claim was rejected by most members, who sustained Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Rigdon was excommunicated, and he returned to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he established the Church of Christ, which lasted less than two years. In 1863 he organized the Church of Jesus Christ of the Children of Zion. This group lasted into the 1880s.

In August 1844, James J. Strang, converted only a few months before Joseph Smith's death, produced a letter supposedly from Joseph Smith appointing Strang to lead the flock (see Forgeries), and claimed that an angel had appeared to him shortly after the martyrdom and ordained him to that calling. Strang was immediately excommunicated. A few weeks later, he moved with a group of converts to Voree, Wisconsin, the area he claimed as the new gathering place for the church. His followers included two apostles, John E. Page and William Smith (younger brother of Joseph Smith), and William Marks, former president of the Nauvoo Stake. For a short time, Martin Harris accompanied a Strangite leader on a mission to England.

Strang moved his group to Beaver Island, a small island in northern Lake Michigan, where in 1850 Strang was crowned king in an elaborate ceremony. There he established a theocracy that thrived for most of the decade with an estimated 3,000 members; he also continued the practice of plural marriage. On June 16, 1856, two assassins, part of a larger conspiracy, shot Strang; he did not appoint a successor before he died eleven days later. His group was broken up by the combined action of federal and local forces, and the majority was forcibly exiled from the island. A small remnant of Strang's order, however, still exists in Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado, and New Mexico (Van Noord, pp. 48-177, 233-66; Lewis, pp. 274-91).

A move toward creating a larger reorganization began early in the 1850s. Some former Strangites, including William Marks, Jason Briggs, and Zenas H. Gurley, met in 1850 to decide on a new leader. Briggs and Gurley had been members of William Smith's group, called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which had been organized in 1846 after the excommunication of William Smith from the Strangites. Marks, Briggs, and Gurley were convinced that succession in the presidency of the Church must be lineal, descending from father to son. In an intense proselytizing effort, they drew to them a number of other Mormons and former Mormons in the Midwest of the same idea. A group met in Beloit, Wisconsin, on June 12-13, 1852, to organize. In 1853 they held another conference and apostles were chosen. In 1859 Joseph Smith III formally accepted the call to become the new president and prophet, and in April 1860 the group formally incorporated under the name of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Most of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s immediate family joined this church in the early 1860s, and many descendants remain active members today (Launius, pp. 77-139).

Other groups broke away during Brigham Young's administration in Utah. One of the most significant was the Godbeites, organized in 1868 under the leadership of William S. Godbe. Several years earlier, Godbe had joined with E. L. T. Harrison, Edward W. Tullidge, Eli B. Kelsey, William H. Shearman, and other disaffected Mormon businessmen and intellectuals to protest the economic self-sufficiency policy of Brigham Young. Godbe and his group favored a less structured society, free trade inside Utah Territory, and open trade with the outside world. Their social protest soon developed into a thorough rejection of doctrine and practice. They discarded all of the Church's theological structure, claiming loyalty to no single prophet or set of scriptures. Instead, they proclaimed the universal brotherhood of man and the universal love of God. This led to involvement with the Spiritualist movement, popular in the nineteenth century. They participated in a number of sťances, in the belief that they were speaking with deceased LDS Church leaders, Jesus Christ, and the ancient apostles. The Salt Lake Stake High Council excommunicated Godbe and Harrison on October 25, 1869. Others in the group eventually brought on their own excommunication. In 1870 they formally organized the Church of Zion, an openly anti-Mormon organization, both religiously and economically, which founded the Salt Lake Tribune. The movement failed to attract many new followers and died out by 1880 (Walker, 1974, 1982).

Other splinter groups have followed from time to time, especially following the termination of plural marriage in 1890 (for further discussion see Fundamentalists).

[See also Anti-Mormon Publications; Apostates; Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS), Response to Criticism home page; General Criticism home page.]


Anderson, C. LeRoy. For Christ Will Come Tomorrow: The Saga of the Morrisites. Logan, Utah, 1981.

Carter, Kate B. Denominations That Base Their Beliefs on the Teachings of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, 1969.

Launius, Roger D. Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet. Urbana, Ill., 1988.

Lewis, David Rich. ""For Life, the Resurrection, and the Life Everlasting': James J. Strang and Strangite Mormon Polygamy, 1849-1856." Wisconsin Magazine of History 66 (Summer 1983):274-91.

Morgan, Dale L. Bibliographies of the Lesser Mormon Churches. Salt Lake City, n.d.

Rich, Russell R. Those Who Would Be Leaders: Offshoots of Mormonism. Provo, Utah, 1959.

Shields, Steven L. Divergent Paths of the Restoration: A History of the Latter Day Saint Movement, 3rd ed. Bountiful, Utah, 1982.

Van Noord, Roger. King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang. Urbana, Ill., 1988.

Walker, Ronald W. "The Commencement of the Godbeite Protest: Another View." Utah Historical Quarterly 42 (Summer 1974):216-44.

Walker, Ronald W. "When the Spirits Did Abound: Nineteenth-Century Utah's Encounter with Free-Thought Radicalism." Utah Historical Quarterly 50 (Fall 1982):304-324.

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