The Early Reorganization, 1851–1853

Guidance for the Church Today

By Vance Snively

(A sequel to "The Importance of the Revelation Given to Jason Briggs")

Most people today associated with the Independent Restoration Branches Movement agree that the Church is in an unorganized state because no legitimate higher quorums are in existence. Some believe it is our duty to set the Church in order, while others believe we should wait upon the Lord to do this. Both groups point to the events of the early Reorganization to support their position. It is important, then, that we understand those events from Church history so we know for ourselves the pattern God used to reorganize His Church. And since He is unchangeable, we should also be able to glean from His actions, as well as from those of His servants, the proper position we should take pertaining to His Church today.

After Joseph's death in 1844, the Church was in a disorganized state. The Church was thrown into chaos and, under several Church leaders, factions formed due to two main points of doctrine—presidential succession and polygamy. Brigham Young, with the support of eight other apostles, took control of the Church at Nauvoo, expelling those in disagreement with him. Eventually, Brigham relocated about 10,000 members (see RLDS History of the Church 3:27) of the 150,000 to 200,000 worldwide membership to Utah, rebaptizing them and reordaining the priesthood members (ibid., 1, 18–19). He also took with him the Church structure including the quorums, Church records, and Church assets. Many Church members who did not follow Brigham to Utah associated with one of the other faction leaders until they heard doctrines taught that were not in the original Church. Then they would associate with someone else, hoping to find the Church in its purity (ibid., 196–198). It was under these circumstances that the Saints tried to hold on to the Church and Gospel as best as they could during the "dark and cloudy day" after Joseph's death.

Jason W. Briggs
Jason W. Briggs

In the first part of 1851, Jason W. Briggs and the Beloit, Wisconsin, Branch left James J. Strang's group and associated with William Smith's group. However, in the fall of that year Briggs learned that William Smith was beginning to advocate the false doctrine of polygamy and teach that he was the true successor to Joseph the Martyr (ibid., 738). In addition, none of the other factions seemed to be teaching the original doctrines of the Church established by Joseph. Briggs had been ordained an elder in the Church prior to Joseph's death and wanted to continue to minister for the Lord but could not find a group that he believed represented the Church in Joseph's day. While pondering upon this condition of the Church, on November 18,1851, the Lord spoke to him on the prairie outside of Beloit, Wisconsin. (For a discussion of this revelation, see "The Importance of the Revelation Given to Jason Briggs.") In this revelation, the Lord confirmed to Briggs that polygamy was a false doctrine and that He would bring the seed of Joseph to lead the Church. In addition, He told Briggs that the elders should preach His Gospel as found in the Three Standard Books and that this revelation should be sent to the Saints.

Jason W. Briggs committed the revelation to writing the same day it was received. Over the next two days he read the revelation to several persons. They sought testimony from God of its truth and received it. The revelation was read to members of the Beloit Branch on the following Sunday morning. That evening the branch met again and voted to disassociate with William Smith's group (ibid., 200, 201–202). According to Briggs:

"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 . . . 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." (ibid., 202–203; italics added)

Zenos H. Gurley, Sr.
Zenos H. Gurley, Sr.

Simultaneously, in the spring of 1851 Zenos H. Gurley, Sr. was laboring in the Yellowstone, Wisconsin, Branch area. He had established the branch, and they were associated with James J. Strang. Gurley stated, "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." Having this conviction, he did not know what to do. He prayed about this problem and resolved to continue preaching the restored Gospel and let God direct him (ibid., 205).

On a Sunday evening in the fall of 1851 after preaching that night, the Spirit of the Lord spoke to Zenos H. Gurley, Sr., and 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." A few weeks later, while reading the Doctrine and Covenants, the Spirit again spoke to him the same words. At this time he was laboring with Reuben Newkirk and told him of the experiences. Newkirk immediately confirmed they were of God. The Spirit was with them and they discussed these events for several days. At last, they entered into a covenant with God to renounce all who claimed to be prophets and take only the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants as their guide. At this time, they thought they were the only two who had taken this stand. Among all their associates, they stood alone against Strang and the other alleged prophets (ibid., 206–207). According to Gurley:

"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." (ibid., 207; italics added)

At about this time David Powell came from Beloit with the revelation given to Jason W. Briggs. At first, Zenos H. Gurley, Sr., could not accept one part of the revelation. From what the Lord had previously told Gurley, he knew God would raise up a prophet, but who the prophet was or where he would come from, Gurley did not know. However, about fifteen days later he received testimony of the truth of the revelation. At Reuben Newkirk's home, Gurley's little daughter began speaking and singing in tongues and the entire room was filled with the Holy Spirit. All in the room united their prayers to ask God who the successor of Joseph Smith, Jr., was to be (ibid., 207–208). After a few moments in prayer, the Holy Spirit declared: "The successor of Joseph Smith Jr., is Joseph Smith, the son of Joseph Smith the Prophet. It is his right by lineage, saith the Lord your God" (ibid., 208). According to Gurley,

"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." (ibid., 208; italics added)

These were the first visible gifts that had been manifest among the branch members since it was organized. Gurley went on to state:

"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. (RLDS History of the Church 3:208–209; italics added)

After these events Gurley wrote to Briggs to tell him they had received evidence that the Lord's revelation to him was true (ibid., 209).

In June of 1852 a conference convened in Beloit, Wisconsin, of those who desired to wait for the Lord to bring Joseph Smith III to be the next Prophet. The most important business of the conference was to adopt a series of resolutions offered by Elders Zenos H. Gurley, Sr., and David Powell. In part, these resolutions reaffirmed the following:

  • They should disassociate from all the factions that did not believe that the successor of Joseph Smith, Jr., was to be from his seed.
  • The whole law of the Church is contained in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants.
  • The elders are to preach obedience to the Gospel as found in these three books (ibid., 209–210).

Jason Briggs testified in the Temple Lot Suit about this conference as follows:

"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." (ibid., 211; italics added)

According to Church history, the accomplishments of 1852 were that:

This band of saints had renounced all would-be leaders, and in confident expectancy were waiting for promised light and wisdom. Yet they were resolved not to act rashly or hastily, but to await patiently the unfolding of the plan, as in the wisdom of God it should be revealed. So none presumed to know just what was to be done. It was enough for them to know that God had promised, and that he was able to fulfill. However, these days of patient and confident waiting must have been fraught with anxious care, (ibid., 213; italics added)

In January of 1853 a meeting was held to present certain questions to the Lord in prayer, one of which concerned the doctrine of polygamy. During the meeting several sung in tongues, and while they were engaged in prayer, the Spirit was manifest in great power. In response to their prayers, the Spirit spoke to them and reaffirmed that polygamy was evil. According to Zenos H. Gurley, Sr:

"Shortly after this communication was given, it was intimated by the Spirit that we must organize. This was strange teaching to me. I replied, It is impossible for us to organize farther than we have. I knew that we could not create a priesthood. I conversed with several of the brethren on the subject and we set it down as a mistake." (ibid., 215; italics added)

In March of 1853 a meeting was held to petition the Lord about the coming April conference. They were not sure of the validity of the ordinations of some who attended the previous fall conference. Thus, they met to ask the Lord, "Were those ordained apostles by William Smith recognized by God?" According to Zenos H. Gurley, Sr., the meeting proceeded as follows:

"Some little time elapsed, nearly an hour I judge, before we received an answer to our inquiry. We were then told that those ordinations were not acceptable,—were not of God,—and near the close of the communication we were told expressly to organize ourselves, 'for ere long, saith the Lord, I will require the prophet at your hand.' Such was the manifestation of the power of God, that not a doubt was left on our minds concerning the source from which the commandment came. We all knew it was from God, but how to organize was the question. . . . To refuse to organize was disobedience; to go forward in the attempt was darkness. There was but one alternative, and that was to seek wisdom from above.

"We sought, and in answer were told to appoint a day and come together fasting and praying, and the Lord would show us how to organize. We therefore appointed the day, dismissed the meeting, and went home rejoicing." (ibid., 216–217; italics added)

They met together again on the appointed day, March 20, 1853. After several attempts by Satan to stop their activities, the Lord told them how to organize:

"Verily, thus saith the Lord, as I said unto my servant Moses, 'See thou do all things according to the pattern,' so say I unto you. Behold, the pattern is before you. It is my will that you respect authority in my church; therefore let the greatest among you preside at your conference. Let three men be appointed by the conference to select seven men from among you, who shall compose a majority of the Twelve Apostles; for it is my will that that quorum should not be filled up at present. Let the President of the Conference, assisted by two others, ordain them. (The senior of them shall preside.) Let them select twelve men from among you, and ordain them to compose my High Council. Behold, ye understand the order of the Bishopric, the Seventy, the Elders, the Priests, Teachers, and Deacons. These organize according to the pattern. Behold, I will be with you unto the end; even so. Amen."—True Latter Day Saints' Herald, vol. 1, pp. 53–55. (RLDS History of the Church 3:217–218; italics added)

On April 6, 1853, the conference convened at Zarahemla, Wisconsin, and was in session for three days. A temporary president of the conference was elected to preside over the process of fulfilling the revelation given March 20. They debated two days as to who should be chosen to preside at the conference because they were to choose the senior and the debate was between high priest and seventy. On April 7 it was finally decided that a high priest should preside and Jason W. Briggs was elected (ibid., 218–222). Of these debates and subsequent events Zenos H. Gurley, Sr., wrote:

"It seemed as though each one thought that the salvation of the church depended on the decision being made according to their respective views, so we argued, so we debated, till the close of the second day, when we began to think the work was lost. . . . The Spirit the night before had told a few in a prayer meeting that to-morrow they should see 'eye to eye.' But the day closed, and we were farther apart than on the former evening. . . .

"The conference adjourned for prayer meeting in the evening. We accordingly came together at early candlelight, and commenced the meeting as is usual on such occasions. For a short time it seemed as though the 'Prince of Darkness' triumphed. After a little, one of the brethren arose and rebuked the Devil. Shortly after some sprang to their feet saying, 'Angels, angels, brethren, are near us!' and in a moment our darkness was turned into light. The transition was instantaneous. . . . We were then told that the Lord had withheld his Spirit from his elders to show them that they had not sufficient wisdom in and of themselves to organize. . . . We were then commanded to organize according to the revelation given the 20th of March, with the assurance that the Lord would be with us to the end." (ibid., 219–221; italics added)

As written by Jason W. Briggs about the prayer meeting and subsequent events,

"It was at this meeting that [there was] an exhibition of power, light, and unity of spirit, above any ever before witnessed among us. Tongues were spoken and interpreted; hymns sung in tongues and the interpretation sung; prophecy and visions were exercised here for the first time to the writer. Many sang in tongues in perfect harmony at once, as though they constituted a well practiced choir. Angels appeared and were seen by some, and a testimony of their presence given by others affirming one of them to be the recording angel, who exhibited a partially unrolled parchment as an unfinished record upon which we were assured should be recorded the act we were called to perform in the reorganization of the church, confirmation of the foregoing revelation of the 20th of March, given, enjoining obedience to the same. The evident proofs of divine direction were so strong, that doubt disappeared, while the light was so clear to all that diversity of opinion ceased, and the whole people were truly of one heart and one soul. And on the next morning [April 8], at the opening of the session, the revelation of March 20 was presented to the conference, and accepted as such by unanimous voice; after which the following persons were chosen as the three to select the seven to be ordained into the Quorum of Twelve Apostles: Cyrus Newkirk, Ethan Griffith, and William Cline, who selected the following seven persons, who were accepted by the conference, and ordained according to the instructions previously given; viz., Zenos H. Gurley [Sen.], Jason W. Briggs, Henry H. Deam, Reuben Newkirk, John Cunningham, George White, and Daniel B. Rasey. . . .

"On the last day of this conference the seven who had been ordained apostles met to choose a president of the quorum. It was proposed by J. W. Briggs, that the rule of courtesy should govern our choice; that is, that the oldest man among them should preside. Zenos H. Gurley [Sen.] being the oldest man, refused. It was then proposed (by the same) that the next oldest should preside, to which H. H. Deam being that one, refused, and both alleging that the rule of courtesy should only apply to pro tern, presidents, in the absence of the permanent one, and not to an original choice, it was then moved by them both that J. W. Briggs be the President of the Quorum, which was so voted." (ibid., 222–223; italics added)

Thus, in April 1853, the Church, except for the quorum of the First Presidency which awaited Joseph Smith III, was reorganized.

When looking at the events surrounding the reorganization of the Church from 1851 to 1853, one cannot help but recognize a distinct pattern in them. First, the men involved in this process resisted organization until the Spirit directly told them to organize. This resistance was because they did not want to organize a church on their own, after the manner of men. They wanted a church organized by God and directed by Him through the presence of His Spirit. They wanted the Church of Christ, established April 6,1830, to be set in order by God in its fullness. Only God, not man, could do that.

Second, God specifically directed the reorganization of His Church from the first revelation given to Jason W. Briggs to the commandment given to the April 1853 conference "to organize according to the revelation given the 20th of March" (ibid., 221). As Zenos H. Gurley, Sr., stated about the events of the April 1853 conference, "We were . . . told that the Lord had withheld his Spirit from his elders [at the conference] to show them that they had not sufficient wisdom in and of themselves to organize" (ibid., 220). Thus God, not men, reorganized His Church.

Third, God validated His work by giving His Spirit to it. When Jason W. Briggs and Zenos H. Gurley, Sr., and the Saints at the Beloit and Yellowstone Branches committed themselves to follow the directions the Lord had given, they received the gifts of the Spirit. And when they came together in conference to seek and do the Lord's will, He continued to bless them with gifts of revelation, wisdom, tongues, interpretation, and angelic ministry. They knew what they were doing was God's will because He gave them the power of His Spirit to guide and sustain them and to confirm the truth of the work to them.

From the above we see the pattern God used to reorganize His Church. He spoke, and as men responded in obedience, He gave them His Spirit to validate His work. And because He is unchangeable, He will use this same pattern to set the present Church in order. However, for this to happen we must be willing to wait on Him as they did in the early Reorganization. It is His Church. He, and only He, has the authority to set it in order. Any attempt by men to do this on their own will only create a church based on the precepts of men. But like the men of the early Reorganization, we want the Church of Jesus Christ which was restored on April 6, 1830, to be set in order. To have that, we must allow God to do it and be content to wait for Him. And when He moves, we can expect His Church to function in its fullness with the gifts of the Spirit and angelic ministry.

The Church's calling today has not changed from when it was organized April 6,1830. It is to accomplish the "great and marvelous work." The Temple in Zion must still be built. Zion itself must be established. The priesthood must receive the Endowment. His elect must be gathered out of the world into Zion. The world must be prepared for the Second Coming of Christ. And because these things must yet be done, we can be assured God will set His Church in order.

While we wait for Him to do this, may we heed the counsel given by the Lord to Jason W. Briggs and Zenos H. Gurley, Sr., and reaffirmed by the June 1852 conference:

  • Disassociate with all factions.
  • Wait for the Lord to bring the seed of Joseph Smith, Jr., to lead the Church as prophet, seer, and revelator.
  • Continue to acknowledge that the Church organized April 6, 1830, still exists where six or more are organized according to the pattern in the Doctrine and Covenants.
  • Continue to believe the whole law of the Church is contained in the Inspired Version, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants.
  • Preach repentance and remittance of sins through obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as found in the Inspired Version, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants and not faint in the discharge of the duties of the priesthood.

May we do these things so that when the history of the Church for our time is written it will be said about us as it was said about the men of the Reorganization, "they were resolved not to act rashly or hastily, but to await patiently the unfolding of the plan, as in the wisdom of God it should be revealed" (ibid., 213).

(Vision 61:20–23)