Church History
24 An Immense Labor

“An Immense Labor,” chapter 24 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 24: “An Immense Labor”

Chapter 24

An Immense Labor

Relief Society hall

“Cooperative stores have sprung into existence in almost every place throughout the territory where a store is needed,” wrote George Q. Cannon in a May 19, 1869, editorial in the Deseret Evening News. “Let every female in the territory have an interest in these stores, and the trade will flow as naturally to them as water downhill.”1

The editorial’s views on women and their importance in the cooperative movement impressed Sarah Kimball, the president of the Salt Lake City Fifteenth Ward Relief Society. Cooperation was crucial for the Saints to become a self-sustaining people. Women made many of the goods sold at co-ops and frequently purchased stock in the institutions.

Brigham Young taught that all efforts to establish Zion, no matter how mundane, were part of the sacred work of the Lord. Recently, he had urged the Saints to shop only at cooperatives and other businesses where the words “Holiness to the Lord” appeared somewhere on the establishment. By supporting these stores, the women worked for the good of the Saints, not outsider merchants.2

Sarah and her Relief Society were already working to promote the ideals of cooperation. The year before, they had begun building a Relief Society hall in their ward. Patterned after Joseph Smith’s store in Nauvoo, where the original Relief Society was organized, the new hall had two floors. On the upper floor, the women would have a workroom dedicated to worship, art, and science. On the ground floor, they would run a cooperative store that sold and traded wool cloth, spools of cotton, carpet rags, dried fruit, moccasins, and other goods made by Relief Society members.3 Like other small cooperative stores, it could also act as a retail distributor for the largest co-op in the city, Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (Z.C.M.I.).

When completed, the Relief Society hall would be the first of its kind in the Church. Relief Societies usually met in homes or in ward buildings. But Sarah, who had been a founding member of the original Relief Society in Nauvoo, had wanted a place where the women of the Fifteenth Ward could develop and strengthen their God-given powers and abilities.4

Sarah had been a driving force behind the hall’s construction over the last year. Though a man had offered to donate a city lot to the project, she and the other women in the society had insisted on paying one hundred dollars for it.5 Later, after the ward had broken ground on the new building, Sarah used a mallet and silver trowel to help a mason lay the cornerstone.

“The object of the building,” she had declared, standing atop the stone, “is to enable the society to more perfectly combine their labors, their means, their tastes, and their talents, for improvement—physically, socially, morally, intellectually, spiritually, and financially—and for more extended usefulness.”6

In the six months since then, the women had hired builders and supervised the construction work, which was now nearing completion. In the spirit of cooperation, they had raised money and pooled their resources to furnish the hall with window blinds and carpets. When some people asked how the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society had been so successful, considering they were hardly the wealthiest ward in the Church, Sarah had simply replied, “It is because we have acted in unison and have kept in motion that which we received.”7

The day after the editorial appeared in the Deseret Evening News, Sarah shared it with her Relief Society. “With woman to aid in the great cause of reform, what wonderful changes can be effected!” it read. “Give her responsibility, and she will prove that she is capable of great things.”

Sarah believed a new day was dawning for women. “There never was a time,” she told her Relief Society, “when woman, and her abilities and duties, were as much spoken of both in public and private as the present.”8

As the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society built their meeting hall, powerful steam engines sped passengers and freight across the country. Though wary of worldly influences coming to the territory, the First Presidency believed the new transcontinental railroad would make it easier and more affordable to send elders to the mission field and gather people to Zion. So, one week after workers completed the transcontinental line, Brigham Young broke ground for a Church-owned railroad connecting Salt Lake City to Ogden.9

Joseph F. Smith, meanwhile, worked as a clerk in the Church Historian’s Office in Salt Lake City. He was thirty years old and had more responsibilities in the Church than ever. Three years earlier, not long after returning from Hawaii, he had been called to the apostleship and set apart as a counselor in the First Presidency.10

Now, as the spring of 1869 was turning into summer, Joseph F. was preparing for a new challenge. His cousins Alexander and David Smith were coming to the territory. Sons of the prophet Joseph Smith, they lived in Illinois and belonged to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Alexander and David sustained their older brother Joseph Smith III as a prophet and the rightful successor of their father’s work.

Like Joseph III, Alexander and David believed that their father had never taught or practiced plural marriage. They claimed instead that Brigham Young had introduced the principle after their father’s death.11

Though Joseph F. sometimes exchanged letters with his cousins, they were not close. He had last seen Alexander three years earlier, in 1866, when Alexander had stopped to preach in Salt Lake City on his way to a mission in California. Knowing the Saints would dispute his claims about his father and plural marriage, Alexander had come prepared with statements that his father and Hyrum Smith had published in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, which appeared to condemn plural marriage and to deny the Saints’ involvement in that practice.12

In 1866, Joseph F. had wanted to counter his cousin’s claims, but he was at a loss. To his surprise, he could find little documented evidence connecting the prophet Joseph to plural marriage. He knew that Joseph Smith had taught the principle to several faithful Saints, including Brigham Young and others now living in Utah Territory. But he found that they had documented almost nothing about the experience.

There was also the Lord’s revelation on marriage, which had been recorded by Joseph Smith in 1843 and published for the first time in 1852. The revelation described how a man and woman could be sealed together for eternity by priesthood authority. It also explained that God sometimes commanded plural marriage to raise up children in righteous families and help fulfill His covenant to bless Abraham with a numberless posterity.13

The revelation was strong evidence that Joseph Smith had taught and practiced plural marriage. Alexander had refused to accept its authenticity, however, and Joseph F. had been unable to find additional written evidence of the prophet’s plural marriages.14 “So far as the books are concerned,” he had acknowledged to his cousin, “you have them on your side.”15

After learning that Alexander would be returning to Utah with David, Joseph F. began again to look for evidence of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages.16 Plural marriage had become a fundamental part of Joseph F.’s life, and he was determined to defend it. A few years earlier, his first wife, Levira, had divorced him, partly because his marriage to a second wife, Julina Lambson, had aggravated existing tensions in the relationship. Since then, Joseph F. had married a third wife, Sarah Ellen Richards.17 For him, an attack on the practice threatened the covenant relationships that formed the foundation of his family.

Over the last three years, Joseph F. had also understood more about how his uncle and father responded to the grave dangers they faced in Nauvoo. To defend themselves and the Church against critics, they had sometimes deflected rumors of plural marriage in Nauvoo by publishing statements that carefully denounced false practices without condemning the authorized practice itself. Their caution helped explain why almost no written evidence existed to connect the prophet and Hyrum to the practice.18

To remedy this gap in the historical record, Joseph F. began collecting signed statements from people who had been involved in early plural marriages. Some of the women he spoke to had been sealed to Joseph Smith for this life and the next. Others had been sealed to the prophet for eternity alone. Joseph F. also gathered information about what his aunt Emma knew about the practice. His oldest sister, Lovina, had lived with Emma for a time after most of the Saints had traveled west. She testified that Emma had once told her that she consented to and witnessed her husband’s sealings to some of his plural wives.

Through the early weeks of summer, Joseph F. continued to collect statements, every day waiting for his cousins to arrive.19

On July 22, 1869, Sarah Kimball called to order the first meeting in the Fifteenth Ward’s newly completed Relief Society hall. “The house has been built for the good of all,” she announced to the women in the room.20

Two weeks later, on August 5, the First Presidency dedicated the building. At the ceremony, a choir sang a new hymn that Eliza Snow had written about the Relief Society hall’s role in protecting Zion:

May union in this Hall abide

With God-like strength and skill:

And Father, let Thy wisdom guide,

And each department fill.

We dedicate this House to Thee,

As love and labor’s bower:

May Zion’s welfare ever be

Its ruling motive power.21

The First Presidency was pleased that the building embraced the ideals of economic cooperation and local manufacturing. In his remarks to the society, Brigham emphasized the importance of women and men working together for Zion. “The earth has to be revolutionized,” he said. “There is an immense labor to be performed, and all the means, talent, and assistance that can be procured will be required.”

“The assistance of the ladies is as requisite as that of the men,” he continued. “Our Relief Societies are for the benefit of the poor and for the benefit of the rich. They are for the benefit of every condition and for the benefit of the whole of the community of the Latter-day Saints.”22

Sarah added her testimony of the value of cooperation at a meeting later that month. She taught that cooperation was a part of the Lord’s pattern for Zion. In her mind, local manufacturing was crucial to the Saints’ well-being.

“The subject must not be lost sight of,” she insisted, “even for a single meeting.”23

Alexander and David Smith arrived in Salt Lake City that summer and stayed their first night with Joseph F.’s older brother John, the presiding patriarch of the Church, and his wife Hellen. Two days later, Alexander and David called at Brigham Young’s office, hoping to get permission to preach in the tabernacle, which was sometimes made available for other religious groups to hold meetings. Brigham considered the brothers’ request, but he and other Church leaders were wary of their motives and did not grant permission.24

In the Historian’s Office, Joseph F. Smith continued to collect evidence that Joseph Smith had taught and practiced plural marriage, greatly expanding what he and the Church knew about plural marriage in Nauvoo. Aside from gathering more statements, he combed through the journals of William Clayton, who had been the prophet Joseph’s clerk, friend, and confidant. William’s journal was one of the few records from Nauvoo that detailed early plural marriages, and it provided evidence of the prophet’s participation.25

When Joseph F. was not in the Historian’s Office or with his family, he was officiating in the Endowment House. In early August, he and George Q. Cannon administered the endowment to their friend Jonathan Napela, who had come to Salt Lake City from Hawaii in late July to receive the ordinance, visit Church headquarters, and meet Brigham Young and other Saints.26

Alexander and David Smith, meanwhile, were still in the city, attracting crowds whenever they spoke. Hoping to weaken Brigham Young’s authority, wealthy merchants who opposed the Church’s cooperative movement rented a large Protestant church where the brothers could give lectures criticizing Brigham’s leadership and the Church. As Alexander had done three years earlier, they also relied heavily on quotations from the Times and Seasons to deny their father’s involvement in plural marriage.

At the same time, Joseph F. Smith and other Church leaders gave sermons on Nauvoo plural marriage in ward buildings throughout the city.27 On August 8, Joseph F. spoke to a congregation in Salt Lake City. He presented some of the evidence he had collected about early plural marriages and addressed his father’s and uncle’s statements about the practice in the Times and Seasons.

“I only know these facts,” he told the congregation. “Everybody knows the people then were not prepared for these things, and it was necessary to be cautious,” he said. “They were in the midst of enemies and in a state where this doctrine would have sent them to the penitentiary.”

Joseph F. believed his father and uncle had done what they did to preserve their lives and protect other men and women who were also practicing plural marriage. “The brethren were not free as they are here,” he continued. “The devil was raging about Nauvoo, and there were the traitors on every hand.”28

In September, a Latter-day Saint editor named Elias Harrison mocked Alexander and David Smith’s mission in a column of the Utah Magazine, a periodical he published with the financial backing of his friend William Godbe, one of the wealthiest merchants in the Church. With an unsparing pen, Elias belittled the Reorganized Church and accused the Smith brothers of being “singularly ignorant” of their father’s ministry.

“Their especial zeal is spent in trying to prove that their father did not practice polygamy, basing their arguments on certain assertions in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and in the Times and Seasons,” wrote Elias. “But what does this amount to? David and Alexander can prove Joseph Smith denied polygamy, and we can prove he practiced it.”29

Though Elias often defended the Church in his writing, he did so to conceal his real motives for publishing the Utah Magazine. Since the beginning of the cooperative movement, he and William Godbe had quietly resisted the First Presidency’s counsel to support fellow Saints and avoid merchants who did not use their profits to strengthen the local economy.30 For William, opposing the First Presidency required great subtlety. Aside from being a successful businessman, he was a Salt Lake City councilman and a member of the Thirteenth Ward bishopric. And he was a son-in-law and close friend of Brigham Young.31

Like Elias, William believed the prophet was old-fashioned and exerted too much influence over the lives of the Saints. Before the cooperative movement began, merchants like William had enjoyed more control over the local market, allowing them to charge high prices and get rich. Under the new system, however, the Church sought to keep prices low to benefit poor Saints and the local cooperative stores.

With his grasp on the market weakening, William had become irritated with Brigham’s emphasis on the sacredness of cooperation. More and more, he and Elias had begun using the Utah Magazine to prepare other like-minded people to stage a revolt within the Church.32

Their desire to revolt had taken shape one year earlier on a business trip to New York. At that time, both men had begun trying to communicate with the dead through Spiritualist séances. Spiritualism had become popular in the aftermath of the American Civil War as people yearned to communicate with loved ones who had perished in the conflict. Church leaders had long condemned such practices, however, as counterfeit revelations from the adversary.

Ignoring these warnings, William and Elias immersed themselves in séances and came to believe that they had spoken with the spirits of Joseph Smith, Heber Kimball, the apostles Peter, James, and John, and even the Savior. Convinced these communications were real, William and Elias felt called on a special mission to rid the Church of everything they considered to be false. When they returned to Utah, they began to publish subtle criticisms of Church leaders and policies alongside more positive columns in the Utah Magazine.33

Soon after publishing his column on the Smith brothers, Elias grew more aggressive in his attacks on Brigham Young and Church policies. He argued that the cooperation movement robbed the Saints of the competitive drive necessary to stimulate Utah’s economy, which he thought was too weak to sustain itself on local manufacturing. He also reasoned that the Saints were too selfish to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the community.34

Then, on October 16, Elias published an editorial urging the Saints to develop Utah’s mining industry. Over the years, Brigham Young had approved of some Church-supported mining, but he worried that the discovery of valuable minerals would bring greater social problems and class divisions to the territory. This concern had led him to preach aggressively against independent mining ventures in the territory.35

It soon became clear that Elias and William were carefully conspiring against the Church. On October 18, Orson Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, and George Q. Cannon met with the two men and some of their friends. Elias was full of bitterness, and neither man was willing to sustain the First Presidency. Five days later, at a meeting of the Salt Lake City School of the Prophets, William stated that he had followed Brigham’s economic counsel against his better judgment and did not believe the prophet had a right to guide the Saints in commercial matters. Elias spoke even more defiantly against Brigham’s leadership. “It is false! It is false!” he shouted.36

A few days later, the Salt Lake City high council met with Elias and William at the city hall. Elias accused Church leaders of acting as if they and their words were infallible. In rejecting counsel, William claimed that he and Elias were only following a higher spiritual authority, an allusion to their Spiritualist séances.

“We do not ignore the priesthood by any means,” he insisted, “but we do admit the existence of a power behind the veil from which influences and instructions do come and have always come by which the will may be guided in its onward path.”

After the two men spoke, Brigham addressed the high council. “I have never sought but one thing in this kingdom,” he said, “and that has been to get men and women to obey the Lord Jesus Christ in everything.”

He affirmed that all people had a right to think for themselves, just as Church leaders had a right to counsel them according to revelation. “We work in harmony with our Savior,” he declared. “He works in harmony with His Father, and we cooperate with the Son for the salvation of ourselves and the human family.”

Brigham also rejected the idea that Church leaders could not make mistakes. “Man having the priesthood may be fallible,” he declared. “I do not pretend to be infallible.” But his fallibility did not mean God could not work through him for the good of the Saints.

If William and Elias wanted to continue criticizing the Church in the Utah Magazine, Brigham believed they were free to do so. He would continue to preach and practice cooperation, regardless of what they or outsider merchants did or said. “I will leave it to the people to do as they have a mind to,” he said. “I have the right to counsel them, and they have the right to take my counsel or let it alone.”

When the hearing ended, the stake president proposed excommunicating William and Elias from the Church for apostasy. The high council sustained the motion, and all but six people in the room—each an associate of Elias and William—sustained the decision.37