Church History
17 The Folks Are Reforming

“The Folks Are Reforming,” chapter 17 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 17: “The Folks Are Reforming”

Chapter 17

The Folks Are Reforming

American flags with mountain lake in background

While the winter of 1856–57 brought snow and ice to the Salt Lake Valley, Joseph F. Smith was laboring on the Big Island of Hawaii. Like George Q. Cannon, he had learned the Hawaiian language quickly and had become a leader in the mission. Now, almost three years after receiving his call, he was eighteen years old and eager to continue serving the Lord.1

“I do not feel as though I have done my mission as yet,” he wrote his sister Martha Ann, “and I do not want to go home till then.”2

A short time later, Joseph received a letter from his brother John in Utah. “Christmas passed, and the New Year’s Day soon followed it,” John reported. “There was no excitement.” Although the Saints normally enjoyed large dances and parties during the holidays, Church leaders had discouraged such festivities this year. The moral reformation Jedediah Grant had started the previous fall was still underway, and such celebrations were deemed inappropriate.

“We have forgotten ourselves and gone to sleep, laid aside our religion, and gone to amuse ourselves with temporal things,” John explained further. Recently called as the presiding patriarch of the Church, an office his father and grandfather had held, twenty-four-year-old John fully supported the reformation, although his intense shyness kept him from joining other leaders in public preaching.3

Other letters from home described the reformation for Joseph. Since September, Church leaders had been rebaptizing penitent Saints in any nearby pool of water—even if they had to break ice to do it.4 The First Presidency, moreover, had instructed bishops to stop administering the sacrament in their wards until more Saints were rebaptized and proved their willingness to keep their covenants.5

Joseph’s aunt Mercy Thompson believed the reformation was having a positive effect on her and the Saints. “I feel astonished at the dealings of the Lord with me,” she wrote to Joseph. “I do feel that the Lord has more than fulfilled His promises to me.”6

To encourage righteousness, Church leaders admonished the Saints to confess their sins publicly at ward meetings. In a letter to Joseph, Mercy wrote about Allen Huntington, one of the young men who had helped carry handcart emigrants across the Sweetwater River. Allen had always been a wild young man, but shortly after the handcart rescue, he stood up in the Sugar House Ward, acknowledged his past sins, and spoke about how the rescue had changed his heart.

“He had seen so much of the power of God that he did rejoice while traveling to meet the companies on the road and bringing them in,” Mercy reported. “He exhorted his young comrades to turn away from their follies and seek to build up the kingdom of God. His mother wept with joy. His father rose and declared it was the happiest time he ever saw.”7

Some men were also called as “home missionaries” to visit with families in the Church. During these visits, the missionaries asked a set of formal questions to learn how well family members kept the Ten Commandments, loved one another and their neighbors, and worshipped with their ward members.8

As they encouraged greater righteousness, Church leaders called on more men and women to practice plural marriage. Soon after the reformation began, Brigham Young urged John Smith to marry a second wife. The thought of John marrying another woman troubled his wife, Hellen, deeply. But if the Lord wanted her and John to obey the principle, then Hellen preferred to get the marriage ceremony over with as soon as possible. Perhaps living the principle would be easier afterward.

John married a woman named Melissa Lemmon. “It was a trial to me, but thank the Lord it is over with now,” Hellen wrote to Joseph in Hawaii. “The Lord is going to try His people in all things, and I think that is the greatest trial. But I pray to my Heavenly Father to give me wisdom and strength of mind to stand every trial as they come along.”9

Joseph also learned more about the reformation in letters from his sister Martha Ann. “I have been baptized and am commencing to live my religion,” she wrote in February. “I am just beginning to see my faults and mend my ways.” After months of feuding with Hellen, Martha Ann had finally made peace with her sister-in-law.10

“The folks are reforming, and they treat me well now,” Martha Ann told Joseph. “We are all good friends.”11

With many young people in her ward getting married, Martha Ann wondered if it was time for her to marry as well. She was secretly in love with William Harris, the stepson of Bishop Abraham Smoot. “My hand trembles when I say love, but it is so, very so,” she confided to Joseph. “He is a good young man and has gained my affections.”

She pleaded with her brother to keep the secret. “Do not say anything about it in any of your letters except mine,” she wrote, “and tell me what you think about it.”

William would soon be leaving on a mission to Europe, however, which Martha Ann considered a sore trial. “I am getting over it now; that is, I am striving to overcome it,” she lamented in her letter. “I suppose it is all good.”12

By the spring of 1857, Brigham Young and other Church leaders were pleased with the Saints’ reformation and reinstituted the sacrament throughout the Church. Brigham said time and again that the Saints were a “God-blessed people.”13

Yet some problems had arisen during the reformation. Leaders had spoken harshly of apostates and locals who were not members of the Church. Feeling intimidated, some people left the territory. Bishops, home missionaries, and Church members also clashed sometimes when frequent home visits and public confessions proved embarrassing, disruptive, or intimidating. With time, Church leaders began encouraging that interviews and confessions be done in private.14

Church leaders typically used moderate and uplifting language in their sermons to encourage the Saints to do better. The Book of Mormon provided clear examples of how forceful preaching could inspire people to reform, however, and Church leaders had often used extreme language that winter to call the Saints to repentance. At times, Brigham and others had even drawn on Old Testament scriptures to teach that certain grievous sins could be forgiven only through the shedding of the sinner’s blood.15

Such teachings harked back to the hellfire and brimstone language of Protestant revival preachers who tried to frighten sinners into reform.16 Brigham understood that he sometimes let his fiery sermons go too far, and he did not intend for people to be put to death for their sins.17

One day Brigham received a letter from Isaac Haight, the stake president in Cedar City, about a man who had confessed to a sexual sin with his fiancée after he had received his endowment. The man had since married the woman and said he would do anything to make restitution for his sin, even if that meant having his blood shed.

“Will you tell me what to say to him?” Isaac asked.

“Tell the young man to go and sin no more, repent of all his sins, and be baptized for the same,” Brigham replied.18 Amid the reformation’s hard admonitions, he often counseled leaders to help sinners repent and seek mercy. Both Brigham’s forceful preaching and his counsel for mercy were intended to help Saints repent and draw closer to the Lord.19

As their season of reformation wound down, the Saints once again grew frustrated with the federally appointed officials in the territorial government. Early in 1857, Utah’s legislature petitioned James Buchanan, the newly elected president of the United States, to grant them greater freedom to appoint their own government leaders.

“We will resist any attempt of government officials to set at naught our territorial laws,” they warned, “or to impose upon us those which are inapplicable and of right not in force in this territory.”20

The local government officials, meanwhile, were equally frustrated with the Saints’ disdain toward outsiders, intimidation of federally appointed leaders, and lack of separation of church and state in the territorial government. In March, some officials resigned their appointments and returned east with stories of the Saints’ plural marriages and seemingly undemocratic government, much as Perry Brocchus and others had done a few years earlier.

Early that summer, after the snowy plains thawed and mail routes reopened, the Saints learned that their strongly worded petition and reports of their treatment of former territorial officers had deeply alarmed and angered President Buchanan and his advisers. The president viewed the Saints’ actions as rebellious, and he appointed new men to the vacant offices in Utah.21 Eastern newspapers and politicians, meanwhile, demanded that he use military action to oust Brigham as governor, quell the Saints’ rumored rebelliousness, and see that the new federal officials were seated and protected.

To its critics, the plan sounded excessive and expensive, but rumors soon spread that the president intended to carry it out. Buchanan saw it as his duty to establish federal authority in Utah. At the time, the United States was experiencing significant tensions over the matter of slavery, and many people feared that slaveholders in the southern states might someday form their own country. Sending an army to Utah might dissuade other regions from challenging the federal government.22

With his term as governor up, Brigham now expected the president to try to appoint an outsider to replace him. The change would not affect his standing with the Saints, but it would lessen his ability to help them politically. If the president removed him from office and sent an army to enforce the change, the Saints would have little hope for self-rule. They would again be subject to the whims of men who scorned the kingdom of God.23

About a month after Brigham heard the rumors of Buchanan’s intentions, he learned that apostle Parley Pratt had been murdered. His murderer, Hector McLean, was the estranged husband of Eleanor McLean, one of Parley’s plural wives. Eleanor had joined the Church in California after years of suffering from Hector’s abuse and alcoholism. Hector had blamed Parley when Eleanor left him, and he sent their children to live with relatives in the southern United States. Eleanor attempted to reunite with her children, and Parley followed soon after to assist her. In May 1857, however, Hector hunted Parley down and brutally killed him.24

Parley’s murder shocked Brigham and the Saints. For more than twenty-five years, Parley had been a leading Latter-day Saint writer and missionary. His tract A Voice of Warning had helped to bring countless people into the Church. The loss of his tireless service and incomparable voice pained the Saints deeply.

Yet newspaper editors throughout the nation celebrated Parley’s murder. To them, Hector McLean had justly slain the man who had wrecked his home. One newspaper even recommended that President Buchanan appoint Hector as the new governor of Utah.25

Like those who had persecuted the Saints in Missouri and Illinois, Parley’s murderer was never brought to justice.26

As tensions increased between the Saints and the United States government, Martha Ann Smith prepared to say goodbye to William Harris, who would soon be leaving for the European mission. Martha Ann expected to marry William when he returned home. On the day he met with the First Presidency to be set apart for his mission, she helped his mother, Emily Smoot, prepare his belongings for the journey.

As they worked, William burst into the room. “Get your sunbonnet, Martha, and come on,” he said. While setting William apart, Brigham Young had suggested that William bring Martha Ann to the city and marry her before leaving for Europe.

Startled, Martha Ann turned to Emily. “What shall I do? What shall I do?” she asked.

“Honey,” said Emily, “put on the calico dress and go on.”

Martha Ann quickly changed into her calico dress and climbed into the wagon beside William. They were married in the Endowment House, and Martha Ann moved in with William and the Smoot family. Two days later, William loaded his belongings into a handcart and left the valley in a company of seventy other missionaries.27

When the missionaries arrived in New York City several weeks later, William was astonished by the hostility many people felt toward the Saints. “We hear all kinds of abuse about the Mormons and the authorities of the Church,” he wrote Joseph F. Smith, his new brother-in-law. “The topic of conversation is Utah, Utah in every newspaper that you see. They say that they are going to send out a governor for Utah and troops, and he will enforce the law of the United States, set the women at liberty, and if old Young resists, hang him up by the neck.”28

On July 24, 1857, the tenth anniversary of the Saints’ arrival in the valley, the Smoot family joined Brigham Young and two thousand other Saints for a picnic at a mountain lake east of Salt Lake City. Brass bands from various settlements played as the Saints spent the morning fishing, dancing, and visiting with each other. American flags flew from the tops of two tall trees. Throughout the morning, Saints fired cannons, watched the territorial militia drill, and heard speeches.

Around noon, however, Abraham Smoot and Porter Rockwell rode into camp, interrupting the festivities. Abraham had just returned from a Church business trip to the eastern United States. On the way, he had seen freight wagons traveling west to supply an army of fifteen hundred troops the president was now officially sending to Utah with a new governor. The government had also stopped mail service to Utah Territory, effectively cutting off communication between the Saints and the East.29

The next day, Brigham and the Saints traveled back to the city to prepare for invasion. On August 1, Daniel Wells, the commander of the territorial militia, ordered his officers to get every community ready for war. The Saints needed to stockpile provisions, letting nothing go to waste. He forbade them from selling grain and other goods to wagon trains going to California. If the army laid siege to the valleys, the Saints would need every ounce of their supplies to survive.30

Brigham also requested that mission presidents and Church leaders in outlying branches and settlements send missionaries and other Saints home to Utah.

“Release those of the elders who have been laboring there for any great length of time,” he instructed George Q. Cannon, who now presided over the Pacific mission in San Francisco. “Induce as many of our young men to return as possible, as their parents are exceedingly anxious to see them.”31

Brigham had heard rumors that General William Harney, a man known for his brutality, was leading the army to Utah. Though Harney claimed to feel no hostility toward most Saints, he was apparently determined to punish Brigham and other Church leaders.32

“Whether I am to be hung with or without trial,” Brigham speculated, “is yet to be decided.”33

While the Saints in and around Salt Lake City prepared for invasion, George A. Smith visited the territory’s southern settlements to warn them about the coming army. On August 8, he arrived in Parowan, a town he had helped to establish six years earlier. The Saints there loved and trusted him.34

News about the army had already reached the town, and everyone was on edge. They feared that additional troops from California would invade southern Utah first, attacking the weaker settlements there before working their way north. Impoverished settlements like Parowan, existing on the edge of survival, would be no match for the army.35

George worried about the safety of his family and friends in the area. The army intended to wage a war of extermination against the Church, he told them. To ensure their survival, he urged the Parowan Saints to give excess grain to their bishop to store for the uncertain times ahead. They should also use all their wool to make clothes.36

The next day, George spoke more forcibly. The Church was hated back east, he claimed. If the Saints did not trust in God, the army would divide them in two and conquer them easily.

“Take care of your provisions, for we will need them,” he instructed. He knew the Saints would be tempted to help and feed the soldiers when they came—whether out of kindness or a desire to profit off them.

“Will you sell them grain or forage?” George asked. “I say curse the man who pours oil and water on their heads.”37