The Beginning of the Reorganization
RLDS History of the Church 3:200–213
Jason W. Briggs
Elder Jason W. Briggs relates that in October, 1851, he attended a conference held at Palestine, Illinois, by Elder William Smith and others, and that there he became thoroughly satisfied that William Smith was wrong in his claims. This condition of things would naturally make a man anxious and thoughtful. Believing as he did that the faith he had espoused was of God, and yet repeatedly disappointed in and betrayed by supposed leaders, what should he do but to cry unto God for more light? This he testifies he did, and that the Lord by his Spirit revealed to him that he must renounce former leaders, and also the thing just proclaimed at Palestine, which he asserts was polygamy, and the promise was given him that the Lord would send the seed of Joseph to preside over the High Priesthood.
While pondering in my heart the situation of the church, on the 18th day of November 1851, on the prairie, about three miles northwest of Beloit, Wisconsin the spirit of the Lord came upon me, and the visions of truth opened to my mind, and the Spirit of the Lord said unto me,
Verily, verily, saith the Lord, even Jesus Christ, unto his servant, Jason W. Briggs, concerning the church: behold, I have not cast off my people; neither have I changed in regard to Zion. Yea, verily, my people shall be redeemed, and my law shall be kept which I revealed unto my servant, Joseph Smith, Jr., for I am God and not man, and who is he that shall turn me from my purpose, or destroy whom I would preserve? Wolves have entered into the flock, and who shall deliver them? Where is he that giveth his life for the flock? Behold, I will judge those who call themselves shepherds, and have preyed upon the flock of my pastures.
And because you have asked me in faith concerning William Smith, this is the answer of the Lord thy God concerning him: I, the Lord, have permitted him to represent the rightful heir to the presidency of the high priesthood of my church by reason of the faith and prayers of his father, and his brothers, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, which came up before me in his behalf; and to respect the law of lineage, by which the holy priesthood is transmitted, in all generations, when organized into quorums. And the keys which were taught him by my servant Joseph were of me, that I might prove him therewith. And for this reason have I poured out my spirit through his ministrations, according to the integrity of those who received them.
But as Esau despised his birthright, so has William Smith despised my law and forfeited that which pertained to him as an apostle and high priest in my church. And his spokesman, Joseph Wood, shall fall with him, for they are rejected of me. They shall be degraded in their lives, and shall die without regard; for they have wholly forsaken my law, and given themselves to all manner of uncleanness, and prostituted my law and the keys of power intrusted to them, to the lusts of the flesh, and have run greedily in the way of adultery.
Therefore, let the elders whom I have ordained by the hand of my servant Joseph, or by the hand of those ordained by him, resist not this authority, nor faint in the discharge of duty, which is to preach my gospel as revealed in the record of the Jews, and the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and cry repentance and remission of sins through obedience to the gospel, and I will sustain them, and give them my Spirit; and in mine own due time will I call upon the seed of Joseph Smith, and will bring one forth, and he shall be mighty and strong, and he shall preside over the high priesthood of my church; and then shall the quorums assemble, and the pure in heart shall gather, and Zion shall be reinhabited, as I said unto my servant Joseph Smith; after many days shall all these things be accomplished, saith the Spirit. Behold, that which ye received as my celestial law is not of me, but is the doctrine of Baalam. And I command you to denounce it and proclaim against it; and I will give you power, that none shall be able to withstand your words, if you rely upon me; for my Spirit shall attend you." And the Spirit said unto me, "Write, write, write; write the revelation and send it unto the saints at Palestine, and at Voree, and at Waukesha, and to all places where this doctrine is taught as my law; and whomsoever will humble themselves before me, and ask of me, shall receive of my Spirit a testimony that these words are of me. Even so. Amen." (The Messenger, edited by Jason W. Briggs, vol. 2, p. 1.)
Of subsequent events Elder Briggs writes as follows:
The foregoing communication was committed to writing on the day it was received, in accordance with the injunction given; and on the two following days it was read to several persons, among whom were David Powell, H. Lowe, and J. Harrington. The latter raised an objection founded on the second paragraph of section 14, and paragraph 2, section 51, Doctrine and Covenants, that no one save a prophet, seer, etc., had a right to receive a revelation relating to or affecting the whole church. This objection has been constantly urged by those of every faction, until this day; whose inference has been, that it was false. Some conversation occurred in consequence among these brethren, in which it was also urged in answer to this objection, that then the Lord had no right to give such a revelation, the right to give one implying the right to receive. The two last named brethren decided to comply with the promise contained in the last paragraph of the revelation, and seek a testimony; and reporting what they had seen and heard to a brother and sister, the four agreed to join in seeking a witness concerning it. This they did, and all four received satisfactory testimony of its truth.
During the remainder of the week it was noised about among the saints that something of unusual interest was on foot, and on the Sunday following, November 24, a full attendance was had of the church at our meeting place, which was at the house of Mother Polly Briggs. The branch numbered something over thirty members, and nearly all were present. The presiding elder preached as usual, but with unusual liberty; after which he read to the church the communication received on the Monday preceding, and testified that he now saw light, where darkness had reigned before. But one or two instances of levity and incredulity were manifested. Unusual solemnity prevailed, and intense feeling showed itself in nearly every countenance.
The meeting concluded with an appointment for the evening, at the house of Bro. John A. Williams. This meeting was commenced in the usual manner, and then declared open for general consultation and testimony. It soon took the character of an investigation, and many facts relative to the erroneous teachings of William Smith and Wood were brought out. Ample opportunity for any to defend them was given, which was attempted by one or two; after which an expression of sentiment respecting these men was suggested, and a motion made and duly seconded to withdraw the hand of fellowship from them. The vote was almost unanimous in the affirmative, only two voting against it.
The next few days were occupied by several brethren and sisters in copying the communication and sending it to all the places named; and subsequently to all places known to them where plurality of wives or polygamy had been taught as a celestial law. Shortly after this a statement relative to the teachings and acts of William Smith and J. Wood, signed by several of the members of the branch, including all its officers, was sent to the several branches; including the one at Waukesha, and Brethren Lowe, Harrington, Powell, and J. W. Briggs met at the house of the latter for consultation. After prayer, the gifts of tongues, interpretation, and prophecy were received, and increased light given, which determined the sending of Elders Lowe and Harrington to visit the branches eastward as far as Waukesha, and then northward to deliver the foregoing communication and statement, and to communicate to the saints in these regions the stand taken by the church at Beloit, and the reasons for it, which was in effect this: A withdrawal of confidence in any and all organizations and pretended leaders, or successors to the Presidency of the Church, entertaining a belief that the true successor of Joseph Smith would be his eldest son, who would in the 'due time' of the Lord be called to act in that capacity, and for which we would wait; and in the meantime preach the gospel, baptize, and form branches, and nothing more. Such a position it was believed the only tenable one. And every day, and at every interview with each other, this view of the case became more apparent, and the resolution to pursue that course became stronger. Thus imbued, the two elders mentioned went out, and the result was, wherever they went among saints, who had been misled by one or another of the factions which had arisen, they infused the same spirit, and planted, under God, the same hope. The branches visited, were one called the Nephi branch, in Walworth County, one at Voree, and one in Waukesha County, Wisconsin. David Powell at first hesitating to adopt the same course with the rest at the time, wrote a letter of inquiry to William Smith, asking explanations. (The Messenger, vol. 2, p. 5.)
Continuing, Elder Briggs states:
Returning to Beloit, Bro. Powell called upon J. W. Briggs, with a letter from Henry E. Deam, living near Yellowstone, Lafayette County, Wisconsin, where a branch had been raised up by Zenos H. Gurley and H. P. Brown, who acknowledged James J. Strang, where Bro. Gurley then resided. Upon consultation it was agreed that a letter should be written to those two brethren, and on the l9th of February Bro. Powell started to visit them, and carried the letter and a copy of the communication of November 18." (The Messenger, vol. 2, p. 6.)
This movement spread rapidly, and was received not only by individuals, but by organized branches, which had been raised up by men authorized under the administration of Joseph Smith the Martyr. Some of these were organized before Joseph's death, and presided over by men holding authority under him, including the one at Beloit, Wisconsin, organized in 1843, over which Elder J. W. Briggs presided; one at Waukesha, Wisconsin, also organized by Elder Briggs, in 1842 or 1843; and one organized later at Yellowstone, Wisconsin, of which Elders Zenos H. Gurley, Sen., and Hiram P. Brown were the organizers, and Elder Gurley president; and finally one near Jeffersonville, Illinois; which was organized several years before the death of the Martyrs, and continued in an organized condition until united with the Reorganization; presided over through all the dark days by Elder Thomas P. Green.
Zenos H. Gurley
In the spring of 1850 I was appointed by a conference held at Voree, to visit a tribe of Indians in the north part of this State. On my way I was overtaken by a brother and requested to accompany him to this section of country. Immediately after our arrival I commenced preaching about fifteen miles south of this place, and continued my labors for some weeks, when (hearing of an old acquaintance) I came here about the middle of summer. The second day after my arrival I was requested to preach a funeral sermon. At the close several persons requested me to preach to them again. Accordingly, I made an appointment for the next Sabbath, a friend having offered me his house for the occasion. On my arrival at the place appointed for worship, I was agreeably surprised in finding a large and respectable congregation, of courteous manners and solemn deportment, instead of the refuse of society, as I had expected to see in this mining region. Our exercises were unusually solemn and interesting. I felt truly that God had a people, even in this place. So deep were my convictions of this fact, that contrary to my instructions I continued my labors, and after a few weeks I had the pleasure of inducting seven into the kingdom of God. From this time the way seemed to open before me. Calls for preaching came in from various places, which I gladly responded to as far as it was in my power, and with the help of H. P. Brown, who came to my assistance sometime in the winter following, we succeeded in building up a church of twenty-three or twenty-four members, which we called the Yellowstone branch. A few months afterwards, I moved my family into this section, and continued my labors with the church, teaching them the principles of the gospel as revealed from heaven to us through Joseph the Seer.
During this time several strange things came to my knowledge that fully satisfied me that unless good and evil, bitter and sweet could proceed from the same fountain, neither J. J. Strang, B. Young, William Smith, nor any that had claimed to be prophets, since Joseph's death, were the servants of God. The inquiry arose in my mind, 'What shall we do? Here are a few honest saints who have obeyed the gospel, and are looking to me for instruction. What can I say? What can I teach them?' Thus I meditated for months. God, and God only, knows what the anguish of my mind was. I resolved that I would preach the word; and, thank God, preaching brought me out right.
It was after preaching on Sunday evening, in the fall of 1851, while sitting in my chair at Bro. Wildermuth's house, my mind was drawn to Isaiah 2:2, 3. At that moment the great work of the last days, as it is spoken of by the prophet in that chapter, seemed to pass before me in all its majesty and glory. It appeared that I could see all nations in motion, coming to the mountain of the Lord's house in the top of the mountains. At this time Strang's Beaver Island operation appeared before me. It looked mean and contemptible beyond description. A voice—the Spirit of God—the Holy Ghost, then said to me, "Can this (alluding to Strang's work) ever effect this great work?" I answered, "No, Lord." I felt ashamed to think that I had ever thought so. The voice then said, "Rise up, cast off all that claim to be prophets, and go forth and preach the gospel, and say that God will raise up a prophet to complete his work." I said, "Yea, Lord."
As I left the house my mind was dwelling upon what had just transpired. Although the Spirit had told me that God would raise up a prophet to complete his work, it did not enter my mind at that time that I would realize the work in its present form. My whole desires were that those dear souls around me might enjoy the gifts and blessings of the gospel as the saints did in Joseph's time, and be saved from those meshes of iniquity which thousands had run into. A few weeks afterward, while reading a paragraph in the Book of Covenants, which says, "If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light," the Spirit said unto me again, "Rise up, cast off all that claim to be prophets, and go forth and preach the gospel, and say that God will raise up a prophet to complete his work." I answered, "I will do it, God being my helper." From that time I began to look about in earnest for a starting point. I examined the book carefully and saw at once that the teachings of the day were contrary to the law, and resolved that although I had but one talent, yet in the name of Israel's God I would go forward and leave the result with him.
At this time I was laboring with Bro. Reuben Newkirk, a young and worthy brother. I explained my visions to him, and he indorsed them at once. The Spirit of God was with us, and day after day was spent in holding council about the matter, until one day (being at work together in a lone place) we joined hands, and in a most solemn manner entered into a covenant, calling God to witness, that we would from that hour renounce all that claimed to be prophets, and take the Bible, Book of Mormon, Book of Covenants, and the Holy Spirit for our guide. This was a new era in my existence. In Joseph's time I had stood with thousands of the servants of God, and counted it an honor to call them brethren, but alas, how changed the scene! One, only one remained of my associates that I could call brother. At times how dark, how dark was the future!
Could I at that time have been permitted to realize what I have enjoyed with you and other dear saints within a few weeks past, how gladly would I have stemmed the torrent, and said with the apostle, "I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord." Well, thank God, he who commenced this work will carry it forward, and I rejoice. My past experience strengthens me for the future. Then we were alone; our brethren around us having been taught that Strang was Joseph's successor, could only look upon us as apostates when they became acquainted with our position. We seemed to be hedged in. Darkness was all around us on every side. Light was only above us. Well, thank God, we proved him to be a present helper. A few days after we had entered into this covenant, while Brother Newkirk was in secret prayer, the Holy Spirit rested upon him. He arose and spoke in tongues, and started homewards, speaking in tongues and praising God. His wife heard him and met him, and shortly afterward she received the same gift and blessing. These gifts were the first fruits of the reformation.
About this time Brother David Powell came from Beloit (about fifty miles distant), bringing with him a revelation which had been given to Jason W. Briggs, sometime in the previous November, declaring that the Lord would in his own due time call upon the seed of Joseph Smith to come forth, and set in order the quorums; in a word, to fill his father's place. He was commanded to write it and send it to all the churches. There were some ideas in the revelation that I could not receive. I was entirely unacquainted with the order of the priesthood as it really is, nevertheless I knew that God would raise up a prophet, but who he was, or where he would come from, I did not know.
About ten or fifteen days after I had heard of this revelation, while sitting by my evening fire, my boys came running into my room, declaring with great earnestness that their little sister was up to Brother Newkirk's, speaking and singing in tongues. For a moment I was overpowered with joy. I exclaimed, 'Is it possible that God has remembered my family.' Immediately I went up, and when I was within one or two steps of the house, I paused. I listened, and O the thrill of joy that went through my soul! I knew that it was of God. My child, my dear child was born of the Holy Spirit. I opened the door and went in. It appeared to me that the entire room was filled with the Holy Spirit. Shortly after I requested them all to join with me in asking the Lord to tell us who the successor of Joseph Smith was. I felt anxious to know that I might bear a faithful testimony. We spent a few moments in prayer, when the Holy Spirit declared, "The successor of Joseph Smith is Joseph Smith, the son of Joseph Smith the Prophet. It is his right by lineage, saith the Lord your God."
It is proper here to state that the main body of the church lived from four to eight miles from us, and having learned that we had left Strang they regarded us as apostates. However, it was not long after the gifts were manifested and when they came to know that these blessings were indeed with us, they admitted that they were of God, and gradually, one after another, united with us, until the whole church were made to know the truth of our position, and rejoice with unspeakable joy. Although the church had been organized more than a year, and striving to live right before God, yet no visible gifts had been manifested among us.
It was now necessary that we should change our organization and position in relation to the Presidency of the Priesthood. The branch had been organized under Strang. The Lord had taught us that this was wrong, consequently we appointed a day for the purpose of acknowledging the legal heir. The day arrived, and it will be long remembered by many that were present. While we were singing the opening hymn, the Holy Spirit was sensibly felt. Several sung in tongues. A halo of glory seemed to be spread over the congregation, and when we bowed before Almighty God in solemn prayer, all felt and all knew that what we were about to do was approbated of God. After singing, I stated to the church what was the object of our meeting, and requested all who wished to renounce J. J. Strang, as prophet, seer, and revelator to the church, and acknowledge the seed of Joseph Smith in his stead to come forth in the own due time of the Lord, to manifest it by rising up. In a moment the entire congregation stood up, and one simultaneous shout of joy and praise went up to God for our deliverance. Nearly all the congregation were under the influence of the Spirit of prophecy, and many important truths relating to the triumphant accomplishment of this great work was then declared. (The True Latter Day Saints' Herald, vol. 1, pp. 18–22.)
After these events Elder Gurley wrote to Elder J. W. Briggs, saying, "We have received evidence of your revelation."
After some correspondence and consultation it was agreed to hold a conference in Newark branch at Beloit, Wisconsin, in June, 1852. At the time appointed quite a number of the saints assembled. Elder Jason W. Briggs was chosen to preside over the conference; John Harrington acted as clerk. The most important business of the conference was the adoption of a series of resolutions which were offered by Elders Zenos H. Gurley, Sen., and David Powell, considered separately, amended, and finally passed as follows:
Resolved, that this conference regard the pretensions of Brigham Young, James J. Strang, James Colin Brewster, and William Smith and Joseph Wood's joint claims to the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as an assumption of power, in violation of the law of God, and consequently we disclaim all connection and fellowship with them.
Resolved, that the successor of Joseph Smith, Junior, as the Presiding High Priest in the Melchisedec Priesthood, must of necessity be the seed of Joseph Smith, Junior, in fulfillment of the law and promises of God.
Resolved, that, as the office of First President of the Church grows out of the authority of the Presiding High Priest, in the high priesthood, no person can legally lay claim to the office of First President of the Church without a previous ordination to the Presidency of the High Priesthood.
Resolved, that we recognize the validity of all legal ordinations in this church, and will fellowship all such as have been ordained while acting within the purview of such authority.
Resolved, that we believe that the Church of Christ, organized on the sixth day of April, A. D., 1830, exists as on that day wherever six or more saints are organized according to the pattern in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants.
Resolved, that the whole law of the Church of Jesus Christ is contained in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Book of Doctrine and Covenants.
Resolved, that, in the opinion of this conference, there is no stake to which the saints on this continent are commanded to gather at the present time, but that the saints on all other lands are commanded to gather to this land preparatory to the reëstablishment of the church in Zion, when the scattered saints on this land will also be commanded to gather and return to Zion, and to their inheritances, in fulfillment of the promises of God; and it is the duty of the saints to turn their hearts and their faces towards Zion and supplicate the Lord for such deliverance.
Resolved, that we will, to the extent of our ability and means, communicate to all the scattered saints the sentiments contained in the foregoing resolutions.
Resolved, that this conference believe it the duty of the elders of the church, who have been legally ordained, to cry repentance and remission of sins to this generation, through obedience to the gospel as revealed in the record of the Jews, the Book of Mormon, and Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and not to faint in the discharge of duty. (Church Record)
In accordance with the above provision a committee was appointed to write a pamphlet, on the basis of these resolutions, for circulation, entitled, "A Word of Consolation." The committee was composed of Jason W. Briggs, Zenos H. Gurley, Sen., and John Harrington. Of this conference, and the events following, Elder Briggs writes:
This closed the business of the conference, and after some desultory remarks and exhortations from Bro. Z. H. Gurley and others, it adjourned on the evening of June 13, after a session of two days, to meet at the Yellowstone branch of the church, in Lafayette County, Wisconsin, on the 6th of October following.
The position taken by this conference was, it must be seen, an anomalous one. All similar assemblages or bodies convened and acted under the call of a leader or head; but this acknowledged none. Others were the results of a professed head. This was a preceding, or preparatory to an expected head; and the epithet of being "a headless body" was freely cast at the brethren. Yet to them was visible the tokens of divine care, which, like the cloud of the size 'of a man's hand' to the ancient prophet, confirmed their faith, that what had been promised would surely be fulfilled, in "the due time of the Lord." And they were determined to wait and prepare for that "time." (The Messenger, vol. 2, p. 9)
There was no intention at this time of organizing a new church, but these men were acting as members and officers of the original church, regulating and setting in order the church, according to the law, as they understood it, and in harmony with instruction given to them. Elder Jason W. Briggs in his testimony in Temple Lot suit stated:
There were quite a number of elders and members there, but just how many I could not say. There was no action taken at that conference looking towards the reorganization, further than to adopt resolutions declaring our rejection of the different leaders, and stating that we stood in the expectation of one of the sons of Joseph Smith assuming the leadership of the church at some time in the future, and that is the position [in which] the church would stand, accepting the leadership of no one.
There were no steps taken looking towards the disciplining of members of the church who had been teaching false doctrines, and from which we had withdrawn; we simply disfellowshiped all those different leaders, and went it our selves, until the sons of Joseph Smith or one of them should accept the leadership of the church. We declared that we would not follow any of these would-be leaders any further; we just declared ourselves freed from them, that is all. The fact is, we just simply withdrew from them; that is all there is to it. (Plaintiff's Abstract, p. 396)
Of events following this conference Elder Briggs writes:
From this conference the elders returned to their homes and fields of labor with a deeper sense of responsibility and a more determined purpose to hold up the standard of Christ, raised anew by the Spirit's power, which manifested, from time to time, that we should organize, in preparation for the reëstablishment of the quorums and First Presidency of the Church, according to the pattern in the Book of Covenants. But how this was to be brought about, no one presumed to know. Brethren David Powell and John Harrington took a mission south, and on their way visited Lee County, Illinois, where they met with several of the saints that had been associated with William Smith; but now stood aloof, or sympathized with the work they were laboring to build up. Among these was William W. Blair, who had been baptized the previous autumn, and who now stood aloof. The brethren held some meetings, and bore their testimony, and the immediate fruit was the baptizing E. C. Briggs, who had never been identified with the church, or any of its factions.
It will be proper here to record a testimony given concerning him on the eighteenth day of the preceding November, at the time the communication already referred to was received. He was at that time living with his brother, S. H. Briggs, in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, and had for some time been sick; and word had been received a few days previous that he was given up to die, with a request for his mother to come immediately if she would see him alive. The Spirit said, "Thy brother Edmund shall not die, but shall live and come into the church, and shall stand with you in this work. And subsequent intelligence showed that from that same hour he began to amend and rapidly recovered his strength, and now, the first opportunity, came into the church. From there these brethren went through Illinois and Missouri, calling upon the Whitmers, and into Arkansas; they baptized several at other places.
Most of the elders had families and were poor, and during the winter preached mainly in their several localities. Bro. Z. H. Gurley visiting Wingville and the Blue Mounds settlement, where several united with the church; among whom were George White, John Cunningham, of the former place, and Daniel B. Rasey, of the latter, who became a zealous laborer in that region of country." (The Messenger, vol. 2, p. 17)