Succession Angst Circa 1849

The idea that leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would stay in the Joseph Smith Jr family was embedded in the minds of long time American Mormons. After all, they had lived this idea, from the Smith brothers involvement in all levels of leadership, to revelations that hinted at various sorts of primogeniture, ancient and modern. Royalty might have been a dirty word in early national America, but it’s a natural impulse attested in so many ways. Some early critics of the Nauvoo apostles tell a story of real confusion, worry, and wonder at how the royal family of Mormonism was to continue.

Working to place Brigham as the equal of the devil helped them keep focused on a hope for a Smith family prophet. Independent religious serials sprang up to give voice to this searching hope. One of these was the Melchisedeck and Aaronic Herald published by Isaac Sheen. Sheen’s monthly was priced at cost, so the opening editorial comment states. It is clear that Sheen saw his effort as a light in a dark world of leaderless Mormons, and Sheen eventually became counselor to the acclaimed William Smith, who was seen at least by Sheen as a kind of regent for the young sons of Joseph Smith Jr.

William installed features of Nauvoo that Sheen seems to have been reluctant about. By April 1850, the paper announced that William and Sheen had excommunicated the Utah apostles and ordained a new set.

In Sheen’s mind (and other scattered Saints) Brigham was fine until he claimed the apostles could function as the church presidency. Sheen was committed to the Smiths and published correspondence between lone adult heir William and Lyman Wight, the lone star apostle of Texas. Wight sided with a possible Smith family succession, at least for a time.

After William took the reins of the Small Kentucky based church, there were revelations directing not only the calling of new apostles, but resolutions defining the relationship to other branches of the schismata of Nauvoo. Here’s one:

Resolved. That all the Churches abroad be instructed by this conference, according to the Revelation received by the Prophet Wm. Smith, to gather to the branch of the Church in Texas as a place of refuge for the Saints . . . We furthermore declare that we are loyal subjects of this government and will continue to raise the warning voice that the government may protect itself from the treasonable combinations of the Salt Lake Mormon land pirates and banditii.

Wight was installed as a counselor to Smith at the April conference (billed by the paper as THE GREATEST ANNUAL CONFERENCE), while Sheen was replaced by Aaron Hook. It’s not clear why Sheen was displaced, but the April 1850 was the last issue of the Herald as far as I can tell. That last issue is a really fun one, given the insights we get into the attitudes of the Convington (soon to be Texas) church. Sheen published William’s revelation (I’ll give it below, since I think it’s important for a number of reasons) and considerable anti-Strang material. Sheen also gives a brief nod to James Brewster of Kirtland fame.

Both of these are seen in the same light as the Utah Mormons: they are firmly out of bounds since the true successor to Joseph Smith may only be a descendant of Joseph Smith. The arguments are fun, but tedious and I won’t give them here.

William Smith’s March 20, 1850 Revelation

A REVELATION, given March 20, 1850, in Covington, Kentucky, to William Smith, Isaac Sheen, George Bailey, Samuel Heath, and other Elders who were present, and to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, for their salvation both temporal and spiritual.

Behold, I say unto you, my servants, who have assembled yourselves together on this occasion to obtain knowledge from me what ye shall do concerning your temporal affairs. Behold, I say hearken to my voice, ye that have purified yourselves by obeying my gospel: this is my will concerning you, yea, even all of you who have named my name, prepare ye, and get ye up from this land, and go ye out from among the gentiles who have decreed thy destruction, and who now in their secret plottings have evil designs against you, for I have decreed an overflowing scourge, and the land shall be deslate and all the people shall mourn, and it shall come to pass that my word shall be fulfilled concerning the wicked; and in summer and in winter shall it be, and the plague shall not tarry, but it shall be even as I have spoken and there shall be no safety in the land: except only among those whom I have appointed to tarry, therefore let my servant William Smith, and my servant Isaac Sheen, and my servant George Bailey, and servant Samuel Heath, gather together all their means, with their families and with the poor, and the halt, and the lame, and the blind of my Church, so far as they have abilities and power to do, and depart immediately from this land, to the land that I have appointed for the gathering of my people, in the land of Texas, to the place of my servant Lyman Wight, where my people may rest in peace, where they may plant and another not inherit, and where they may build unto me an house, that shall be called the house of my glory, and prepare themselves for the redemption of Zion, and for the endowments, and the for the ordinances, and for their priesthood qualifications. These things I have spoken (not in a mystery) that ye may understand, and that you may become wise, for now is the day of salvation, and the day of my visitation upon the face of the whole earth, for I will speak unto the nations by lightnings, judgments and earthquakes, wars, rumors of wars, and by bloodshed, and the kings upon their thrones shall tremble and they that are clothed in rich scarlet, and purple, and fine linen, shall be cast down, and in one hour shall they be brought to nought, and they who have slain the prophets shall also be condemned and destroyed and overthrown, and they who do wickedly and have divined deceit for the ruin of my people. Behold I am God and besides me there is no saviour, I am he, that maketh the earth to tremble, and the wicked are as grasshoppers before my face, nor can they purchase my favor with their gold, nor turn aside the just for a thing of nought. Behold ye are my servants and my Church and the plant of mine own right hand planting, therefore none can remove thee from the place I have appointed for thy salvation, and for thy rest, and for thine endowments, and for thy keys, and for thy municipals and for thy anointing, that I have ordained. Now I say concerning my servant Otis Hobart whom I have taken unto myself, whose works I have accepted, and is justified before me, behold he is with me and his spirit mingleth in the councils of the martyred prophets, and his testimony in your behalf shall be heard in the [obscured] He is mine, I have called him hither. It was for Zion’s sake. Let therefore wisdom direct you, my servants and my Church, to get up from this land and gather to the valley of the Cordilleras mountains, to await the day of my vengeance which shall come like a whirlwind, upon the wicked, and prepare for my coming in a place of refuge and safety that I have provided for my people. For there will I give safety and great peace to all those that keep my commandments. Make haste to fill up all the quorums of my church as I have commanded and make loud proclamation of these things to the nations of the earth. Behold I say gather yourselves together, gather ye out and flee to Zion with all your gold and silver, raiment, horses, and chariots with you, for behold the plague cometh and scarcely shall the righteous escape. These words and this commandment have I given unto my servants and unto my Church. Amen.

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4 Responses to Succession Angst Circa 1849

  1. ricke says:

    It appears that William could wax verbose! Did William ever see himself as a regent rather than as the legitimate heir? What are the parts of the revelation you find important?

  2. WVS says:

    William is difficult to pin down I think. At one point it was clear that he was angling to lead the Nauvoo church, and basing it on the somewhat unfortunate language of D&C 124. I say unfortunate, because I believe it might have been the signal for a sort of cleavage between the church and possibly what Stapley is wont to call “cosmological priesthood.” I’m not offering a detailed picture here, but there is evidence that Joseph saw himself moving to a higher level in some way, while Hyrum took over as titular president of the church. Hyrum as president would have nicked the foundation Brigham Young laid later advertising apostle as highest office. If Hyrum had survived, he would have succeeded JS no doubt. And that would have created some wonderfully confusing succession theories.

  3. WVS says:

    I also think that JS envisioned the cosmological priesthood as unified with the ecclesial office somehow. That was never carefully developed, unless it meant what happened with the Council of Fifty business. I don’t think that is fully understood, and perhaps was never really fleshed out before JS’s death.

  4. ricke says:

    Wow! Joseph was really on a roll in the last few years of his life — well, really ALL of his life, I guess. Where would all of it have led?!

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