Nineteenth-Century Break-offs
September 1979

“Nineteenth-Century Break-offs,” Ensign, Sept. 1979, 68

Nineteenth-Century Break-offs

The groundwork for the Restoration took many years to lay, yet hardly had the Church been organized when men began to break off and form other organizations. There are many reasons for such active dissent, and most of the reasons still apply among people who leave the Church today to found other groups: an obsession with one teaching rather than finding a balanced view, disagreement with a Church position or principle—especially when a change is made—and disobedience to priesthood leaders and their authority. Not everyone who leaves the Church feels that he must form another group; yet for those who do, an element of ambition seems to enter in.

We can see this pattern clearly from the beginning. Accustomed as we are to the teachings of modern revelation, we may not realize just how powerfully Joseph Smith’s message wrought upon the minds of his hearers, most of whom had believed that revelation ended with the Bible. To those who felt that Joseph Smith had gone astray, the temptation was always present to see themselves as chosen by God to restore the truth. Some persuaded themselves that they in fact received this calling. Others knew better, but grasped the opportunity for power and recognition. This pattern is sad, but it should be neither shocking nor surprising. There have always been break-offs and there no doubt always will be. The first occurred when the Church was barely a year old.

Break-offs before the Prophet’s death

Wycam (or Wycom) Clark is a name known to few and then only because he has the dubious distinction of apparently founding the first opposition church. Baptized in Kirtland in about 1830, he left the Church, probably in 1831, to organize the “Pure Church of Christ.” Its six members held a few meetings, but the organization soon disintegrated.1

Out of the ten or so offshoots during the pre-1846 period, two challenged the Church in serious ways. Both were led by men who had been close to the Prophet and who understood the power of the Restoration. They were Warren Parrish and William Law.

Warren Parrish had been a loyal missionary and the Prophet’s faithful scribe, but when the Kirtland Safety Society, a banking institution, failed, he with others questioned whether Joseph Smith could still be inspired of God. Warren Parrish had previously repented of serious transgression; but as cashier of the Kirtland Safety Society, he embezzled more than $25,000 of its funds (which embezzlement contributed to the failure of the Society) and “began to discover that there was ‘great iniquity’ in the church.”2 He led a group of about thirty men, all former elders, in founding the “Church of Christ”; the group had previously tried to install David Whitmer as their president.3 They stayed behind when most of the members moved to Missouri, and soon disintegrated.

According to George A. Smith, Heber C. Kimball met Warren Parrish while crossing the Fox River in Illinois, and Parrish asked him to “‘have the goodness not to say to the people here that I ever was a Mormon. I am a Baptist minister. I am preaching at that meeting house for a salary of $500 a year. If they find out I have been a Mormon, it would hurt my influence very much indeed.’” (Journal of Discourses, 7:115.)

William Law, like Warren Parrish, spearheaded dissension from within at a critical time. In the spring of 1844, persecution by Illinois neighbors was severe, but when influential deserters threw their weight behind the anti-Mormon movement, they not only precipitated the second major crisis in the Church but indirectly brought about the death of Joseph Smith.

As early as December 1843, the Prophet Joseph had stated in council, “We have a Judas in our midst,” and both William Law, his second counselor, and William Marks, Nauvoo Stake president, took offense (History of the Church, 6:152). By spring, William Law was holding secret meetings with others on how to kill the Prophet, meetings that were reported to Joseph Smith by two loyal boys attending three meetings, Dennison L. Harris and Robert Scott. On 18 April 1844, Law and a number of other conspirators were excommunicated. The next month, the group of excommunicates appointed Law to succeed Joseph Smith, the “fallen prophet.” They canvassed Nauvoo for new members, but the group disintegrated soon after the death of Joseph Smith.4

After the Prophet’s death

When Joseph and Hyrum Smith met their deaths on 27 June 1844, most of the Church leaders were scattered abroad, doing missionary work and trying to advance Joseph Smith’s campaign for President of the United States on the National Reform Party ticket. John Taylor and Willard Richards were the only apostles in Nauvoo, and John Taylor had been severely wounded. Most members of the Church had never thought about a change in leadership and knew of no guidelines to help them choose correctly; the situation was ripe for confusion and opportunism, even though the Prophet had taught the Twelve that they “‘are not subject to any other than the first Presidency … and where I am not, there is no First Presidency over the Twelve’” (History of the Church, 2:374).

Sidney Rigdon, the only surviving member of the First Presidency, and William Marks, still Nauvoo Stake president, called a meeting of the membership for August 8 to select a Church “guardian.” Less than forty-eight hours before the meeting, the majority of the apostles arrived. Several members attending that meeting later testified that they miraculously saw and heard, not Brigham Young who was speaking, but Joseph Smith himself; when it came to a vote, the people overwhelmingly sustained the Twelve to lead the Church. (See History of the Church, 7:229–40).

Sidney Rigdon took his rejection hard. As early as October conference 1843, he had been sustained as first counselor in the First Presidency against the Prophet’s wishes. After the vote, Joseph Smith told the congregation: “‘I have thrown him off my shoulders, and you have again put him on me. You may carry him, but I will not’” (History of the Church, 6:49). After the membership had sustained the Twelve, Elder Rigdon told the Saints that he was with the Twelve, yet within a few days he was holding secret meetings, claiming powers higher than those held by Joseph Smith, and ordaining men to be prophets, priests, and kings. Called to account, he refused to appear and was excommunicated on 8 September 1844 in a trial held by Presiding Bishop Newel K. Whitney, the Twelve, and the Nauvoo High Council before a large congregation. (B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 2:426–27.)

He moved to Pittsburgh, then to Greencastle, Pennsylvania, where he published a paper and organized his own church, sent out missionaries, and tried to organize a United Order. By 1847, however, he had only a handful of followers left, although some of them began a second organization in Iowa in 1869 that attracted possibly twenty families at its peak. Rigdon, who was living near his married children in Friendship, New York, never moved to Iowa although he corresponded with this group. He died 14 July 1876 in Friendship and is buried in the local cemetery. His son John W., last survivor of the twelve children, wrote: “I do not think the Church made any mistake in placing leadership on Brigham Young. … The church had to leave Nauvoo and seek a place farther west. The task would have been too great for Father.”5

A second major break-off, the oldest schism dating from the Nauvoo period that still survives, was founded by James Jessee Strang, who was baptized in Nauvoo 24 February 1844 in the font of the unfinished temple. Since the Saints were, even then, considering the possibility of relocation, Strang was asked to study the Wisconsin area near Burlington. After a couple of months, he sent in a favorable report and asked permission to establish a stake in the Racine and Walworth county areas. He claimed that on 9 July 1844 he received a letter from Joseph Smith dated 18 June 1844, nine days before the martyrdom, which named Strang as prophet and president of the Church, and Voree, Wisconsin, as the gathering place of the Saints. Since the letter was handprinted and differed markedly from Joseph Smith’s usual style, Strang was excommunicated, first at an elders conference in Florence, Michigan, and again by the Twelve in Nauvoo.

Strang then translated an “ancient” record which he unearthed at the foot of an oak tree, announced a visitation from an angel who “anointed” him, published a periodical aimed at persuading the Saints to abandon Brigham Young, and sent out missionaries who converted both some sincere believers and some dissatisfied former Church officials, including John C. Bennett, John E. Page, and William Smith. He also “excommunicated” the Twelve, moved his organization to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan in 1847, had himself crowned king in 1850, began practicing plural marriage, and was fatally wounded on 16 June 1856 by two men who took refuge with Strang’s enemies and were never tried for their crime.

While Strang was dying, one of his apostles asked if he were going to designate a successor. He replied, “I do not want to talk about it.” After his death, his approximately 2,600 followers were forcibly removed from Beaver Island. Five of Strang’s twelve apostles spent the night of 19 February 1857 praying for guidance, but received no answer about a successor. The church dwindled rapidly. In 1863, 112 Strangite believers asked Joseph Smith III to become their leader. He refused, as did Strang’s son, Charles J. Strang, when approached in 1882. L. D. Hickey, the last surviving apostle, ordained a “presiding high priest” in 1900 who ordained a successor in 1923 who in turn ordained a third successor in 1928. This man did not select a successor, although after his death in 1946 the group selected their own leader, a man ordained by one of the previous leaders as a high priest, but not a presiding high priest. Since 1922 there have been two factions in the group with a total of about 250 members centered in Voree, Wisconsin; Boyne City, Michigan; Kansas City; Pueblo, Colorado; and Artesia, New Mexico.6

A third major break-off group dating from the time of Joseph Smith’s death involved some of the earliest members of the Church. William E. McLellin, one of the original twelve apostles, was excommunicated at Far West in 1838 and became an active persecutor of the Saints. He also probably holds the record for involvement in other factions of the Church since, at one time or other, he belonged to break-offs founded by Warren Parrish, George Hinkle, Sidney Rigdon, William Law, and James Jesse Strang—whom he tried to oust from leadership. He founded a church of his own, then affiliated with the Church of Christ—Temple Lot, and died unaffiliated with any in 1883.7

Early in 1847, McLellin began publishing a paper at Kirtland for his following of forty-two people. Feeling that the Church had gone astray as early as 1833–34, he organized his “The Church of Christ” in 1847 and persuaded not only David Whitmer (then disaffected and living in Missouri) but also Book of Mormon witnesses Hiram Page and Jacob and John Whitmer that David was the rightful successor to Joseph Smith. About a year later, the Whitmers announced that “McLellinism” was an error, and the Kirtland group gradually dissolved. Then in 1875 or 1876, David Whitmer baptized some people and sent them out to preach the gospel; the group continued sporadic publication until about 1900. After that, the group gradually dwindled. (See Ensign, Aug. 1979, p. 34.)8

William Smith, the last surviving brother of the Prophet, led an equally erratic career. Ordained one of the original apostles, he was suspended two or three times because of his behavior. After his brothers’ deaths, he alternately supported and criticized the Twelve, joining, not particularly peacefully, first with the Strangites and then with the Reorganized Church after his excommunication in 1845. He apparently aspired to power and never succeeded in obtaining it.9 (See Richard L. Anderson, p. 30, this issue.)

One of the most colorful break-offs was “The Church of the Messiah” led by George J. Adams, a lay Methodist preacher and a successful actor in Boston. Adams, in fact, introduced theater into Latter-day Saint culture after his baptism and popularized it in Nauvoo. He had been assigned to go inform the Twelve of the martyrdom, but stayed in Cincinnati where he spent the travel funds allotted to him. In April 1845, he was excommunicated. He later joined Strang’s church and crowned Strang king on Beaver Island, using his theatrical props and costumes, but in 1856 was excommunicated by Strang’s group for adultery after he abandoned his first wife. We get glimpses of him as a preacher in Vermont with a simultaneous career across the state line in New York, establishing the “Church of the Messiah” in 1861 in Maine, and purchasing and settling a six-acre site in the Holy Land near Jaffa, where he transferred most of his church in 1866. Most of the 156 settlers had abandoned the colony by about 1867, although three families remained and prospered.10

The most stable and largest of the post-martyrdom break-offs is the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, possibly because it did not depend upon the charisma and claims of one man but was rather the work of a number of men. Probably the three men most instrumental in its organization were Jason Briggs, Zenas Gurley, and William Marks, all of whom stayed behind when the Church left Nauvoo and all of whom were affiliated for some time with the Strang group and/or others. Zenas Gurley, who was affiliated with the Yellowstone, Wisconsin, branch of Strang’s church when it repudiated Strang’s practice of polygamy, prayed for guidance and, according to their history, received an “answer … through the gift of tongues, prophecy and vision” that “young Joseph, the son of the martyred Prophet … is the rightful heir to the successorship.” A few months later, a messenger arrived from Jason Briggs, who reported receiving a revelation “that the Lord would in his own due time call upon the seed of Joseph Smith to come forth.” In 1852 and 1853 at a series of conferences, Briggs and Gurley organized a purposely incomplete quorum of Twelve Apostles to hold the church in readiness for its president. William Marks, former Nauvoo Stake president, became a member at a conference in 1859 and was influential in helping Joseph Smith III decide to take his “father’s place at the head of the Mormon Church” in 1860, some eight years after the first organized move in that direction had been made.11

At the time Joseph Smith III was ordained in 1860, the Reorganized Church had approximately three hundred members; in 1975 there were 213,399.12 Joseph Smith III was succeeded in 1914 by his son, Frederick M. Smith, who was followed by his two brothers, Israel (1946–1958) and W. Wallace, who retired in 1978 in favor of his son Wallace Bunnell Smith, current president.

Aside from the Reorganized Church, there are no sizable congregations, although “modern” sects have proliferated and number about thirty. The best-publicized of these groups are fundamentalist; usually they preach and practice plural marriage, sometimes secretly, and claim that the Church “went astray” at the time of the Manifesto in 1890. Some of them actively proselyte, particularly among Latter-day Saints in the West.

These groups exhibit some of the same characteristics of earlier break-offs: usually a charismatic and sometimes unstable leader who perceives himself as chosen by God, an emphasis on one doctrine or principle that distorts the harmonious balance of the whole gospel, and a defiance of priesthood authority. It is sad that there will probably always be those who become a “law unto themselves” (Rom. 2:14); and even sadder that others who lack discernment or spiritual maturity will find their arguments persuasive. But it should not be surprising. The Savior himself warned Joseph Smith that the last days would contain “false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch, that, if possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (JS—H 1:22).

Map of central US


  1. George A. Smith, “Divine Origins of ‘Mormonism’—Doings and Sayings of Early Opposers and Apostates,” Journal of Discourses 7:114, 11:4.

  2. Elders Journal (Far West), 1 (Aug. 1838): 57–58.

  3. Elden Jay Watson, Manuscript History of Brigham Young 1801–1844 (Salt Lake City: Elden Jay Watson, 1968), p. 16.

  4. History of the Church, 6:280–81, 341, 346–47; B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 2:224–25.

  5. Conrad Harward, “Sidney Rigdon, The Church of Jesus Christ,” typescript in author’s possession, 1961, pp. 13–14; Kate B. Carter, Denominations That Base Their Beliefs on the Teachings of Joseph Smith, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1969), p. 17; Max W. Craner, “A Report on Sidney Rigdon and James C. Brewster,” typescript in author’s possession, 1957, unpaginated.

  6. Russell R. Rich, Those Who Would Be Leaders (Offshoots of Mormonism), 2nd ed. (Provo: Brigham Young University Extension Publications, 1967), p. 21; Milo M. Quaire, The Kingdom of St. James, A Narrative of the Mormons (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930), p. 236; O. W. Riegel, Crown of Glory: The Life of James J. Strang, Moses of the Mormons (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935), p. 28; Mark A. Strang, The Diary of James J. Strang (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1961), pp. vii–ix; interview with Joseph Flanders, Pueblo, Colorado, 6 July 1960; interview with Bruce Flanders, Voree, Wisconsin, 24 Sept. 1972; interview with Mrs. Milo Flanders, Pueblo, Colorado, 6 July 1960; interview with Vernon Swift, Artesia, New Mexico, 20 July 1967.

  7. Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History, 26th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1973), p. 175; History of the Church, 3:215,286–88; Rich, p. 35.

  8. Rich, p. 36.

  9. Times and Seasons 6 (15 May 1845): 904, published a number of days after the publication date; History of the Church, 7:433; Riegel, p. 124; The History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Independence, Mo.: Herald House, 1967), 3:34.

  10. Peter Amann, “Prophet in Zion: The Saga of George J. Adams,” The New England Quarterly 37 (Dec. 1964): 477–500; History of the Church, 7:147, 159, 395; Kate B. Carter, comp., Heart Throbs of the West, Vol. 4 (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1943), p. 439; interview with Elmer Stevens, Addison, Maine, 7 Aug. 1967; interview with Howard Leighten-Floyd, Holden, Missouri, 10 July 1960. Mark Twain mentioned part of the returning group in his Traveling with the Innocents Abroad (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958), pp. 306–309.

  11. Reorganized History of the Church, 3:206–207, 216–18, 221–23, 236, 249–51, 263–64.

  12. Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, World Conference, 1976 Report, p. 98.

  • Russell R. Rich, BYU professor emeritus of Church history and doctrine, teaches Sunday School in the Orem Utah Sixteenth Ward.