Church History
26 For the Best Good of Zion

“For the Best Good of Zion,” chapter 26 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 26: “For the Best Good of Zion”

Chapter 26

For the Best Good of Zion

St. George temple plans

During the spring and summer of 1870, retrenchment spread from Salt Lake City to Relief Societies throughout the territory—even in rural communities where Saints already lived simple lives. Eager to keep pace with their sisters in the city, President Elizabeth Stickney and the women of the Santaquin Relief Society held a picnic in their schoolhouse. They prepared a simple meal of brown bread and bean soup, enjoyed each other’s company, and spun twenty skeins of yarn for homemade cloth.1

The need to retrench became even more essential after another grasshopper infestation ravaged the Saints’ crops in many settlements. In a May meeting with the Salt Lake City School of the Prophets, George A. Smith lamented that few people had listened to the First Presidency’s repeated counsel to store grain. He then compared the grasshoppers to critics of the Church in the local and national government.

“There are many who expect to fatten themselves on our overthrow and pick the bones of the Mormons,” he said. “They may determine to send armies here to destroy us, and scatter us, and lay waste to our habitations, but it will not prove our religion to be false.”

With the Cullom Bill under review in the Senate, the eyes of the nation’s lawmakers were on the Saints. George believed that critics in Salt Lake City were trying to turn public opinion against the Church, so he counseled the men of the school to be patient and wise and not to give offense. He also warned them not to look to wicked men to lead the Saints.2

Though George did not mention William Godbe and Elias Harrison by name, they were likely among the men he had in mind. After organizing their Church of Zion, William and Elias had spoken of a “Coming Man” who would lead their New Movement. William had reached out to Joseph Smith III, perhaps to recruit his leadership, but Joseph had not joined their cause.3

That spring, however, Amasa Lyman announced his decision to join the Church of Zion, immediately sparking rumors that he would lead it. Amasa had been released from the Quorum of the Twelve in 1867 for apostasy, and few people were surprised when he embraced the New Movement. Yet his oldest son, Francis Lyman, was speechless when he learned of his father’s decision. He tried to reason with Amasa but soon was too heartsick to argue. He fled the room and wept for hours.4

Brigham encouraged members of the School of the Prophets to leave such dissenters alone and refrain from criticizing them. In the meantime, he vowed to continue building up God’s kingdom. “I intend to use my influence to strengthen Israel until Jesus reigns whose right it is to reign,” he declared.

In July, he asked the men in the School of the Prophets to share their views on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. After listening to their testimonies, he bore witness of the Savior’s sacrifice and acknowledged the dangers facing the Saints, including the disaffection of former stalwarts. “We have got the gospel,” he said, “but if we expect to receive the benefits of it, we have got to live according to its precepts.”

He urged the men to follow the counsel of the Lord’s servants, promising that God would bless them if they did.5

That summer, Martin Harris came to Utah on the transcontinental railroad. After learning of Martin’s desire to come west, Brigham Young had been eager to assist one who had given so much time and money to the Church in the past. He asked Edward Stevenson, a seasoned missionary, to collect donations for Martin and then help the old man make the long journey from Kirtland. “Send for him,” Brigham had instructed, “even if it were to take the last dollar of my own.”6

Martin’s arrival caused a stir in Salt Lake City, though he was not the first former Church member to come to the territory. Thomas Marsh, the original president of the Quorum of the Twelve, had been rebaptized and come west thirteen years earlier, his heart full of regret for leaving the Church in 1838. Martin’s status as a Book of Mormon witness set him apart, however. At eighty-seven years old, he was one of the last living participants in some of the earliest miracles of the new dispensation.7

Soon after arriving in the city, Martin visited Brigham Young, and the prophet invited him to speak at the tabernacle on September 4. When that day arrived, Martin stood at the pulpit for thirty minutes and quietly spoke about his search for truth during the religious revivals of the late 1810s.8

“The Spirit told me to join none of the churches, for none had authority from the Lord,” he testified. “The Spirit told me that I might just as well plunge myself into the water as to have any one of the sects baptize me, so I remained until the Church was organized by Joseph Smith the prophet.”9

In the weeks that followed, Martin reunited with his wife, children, and other family members in the territory. His older brother, Emer, had died the previous year in northern Utah’s Cache Valley. But their widowed sister, Naomi Bent, lived in Utah Valley. On September 17, she went with Martin to the Endowment House, where Edward Stevenson rebaptized him, after which Orson Pratt, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Joseph F. Smith reconfirmed him a member of the Church. Martin and Naomi were then baptized and confirmed for several of their ancestors.10

The following month, Martin bore witness of the truth and divine origin of the Book of Mormon at the Church’s October general conference. Afterward, George A. Smith approached the pulpit. “It is remarkable to have the testimony of Martin Harris,” he said. “The Book of Mormon, however, carries evidence with it. The promise has been fulfilled that those who do the will of God should know of the doctrine that it is true.”

“Thus,” he said, “the Book of Mormon has thousands of witnesses.”11

In late November 1870, Susie Young sang and strummed a guitar as she traveled south in a carriage bound for St. George, a settlement of Saints in southern Utah. Riding with her were her mother, Lucy, and younger sister Mabel. After years of living in the bustling Lion House, they were moving to a home of their own in St. George. Susie’s father, Brigham Young, was coming to southern Utah as well, though not permanently. Now nearly seventy years old, he suffered from arthritis and preferred to spend the winter season in St. George’s warmer climate.12

Susie sang partly to lighten the mood in the carriage. On October 3, a few days before the Church’s fall conference, she and her eighteen-year-old sister, Dora, had quietly slipped away from their mother’s birthday party to meet up with Dora’s fiancé, Morley Dunford. The three of them had then gone to a Protestant minister—one of several now living in the valley—who married Dora and Morley while Susie stood watch.

For Susie, the elopement had been like something out of a thrilling novel or stage play. But it had devastated her parents. Dora had been engaged to Morley for two years. He was handsome and came from a family of faithful Latter-day Saint merchants. He had a drinking problem, however, and Brigham and Lucy did not think he was a good match for their daughter. In fact, one reason they had wanted to move their daughters to St. George was to put three hundred miles between Dora and Morley.13

But Dora’s marriage meant that she would not be moving south with the rest of the family. Susie could now see how sad that made their mother feel. Even as Lucy sang and joked with the others in the carriage, her eyes betrayed her grief. Susie tried her best to cheer her mother up, but nothing really seemed to help.14

With no railroad between Salt Lake City and St. George, the journey south took fourteen days over rough roads.15 St. George sat in a large river valley rimmed by rocky, red cliffs. On a tour of the area about a decade earlier, Brigham had looked over the valley and prophesied that a city would spring up from it, with homes and spires and steeples. A short time later, he sent apostle Erastus Snow and more than three hundred families on a mission to the area to grow cotton, a crop that had been raised with some success in other southern Utah settlements.

Since then, the Saints in St. George had worked hard to fulfill Brigham’s prophecy. The region was extremely hot for much of the year, and snowfall was rare. Two nearby rivers, after they were dammed, provided just enough water to grow crops and fruit trees amid the desert scrub. When rain fell, it sometimes came in torrents, washing out the settlers’ dams. Timber was also scarce, so the Saints built instead with stone and adobe. Many who came to settle the valley left soon after they arrived. Those who stayed clung to their faith, trusting the Lord would help them establish a home.16

The settlers had since built wide streets, several nice homes, a courthouse, and a nearby cotton mill. In the center of town, they were also constructing a stately sandstone tabernacle where they could meet and worship together.17

When Susie and her family arrived in St. George, they settled into a comfortable home in the city and met their new neighbors. Her father, meanwhile, spent time considering the needs of the settlement and of Saints everywhere. The temple in Salt Lake City was years away from completion, and the Endowment House, which administered only some of the ordinances of the temple, was a temporary solution for a long-term need. The Saints needed an operating temple, where they could make covenants with Heavenly Father and perform all necessary ordinances for the living and the dead.18

In January 1871, just before Brigham planned to travel back to Salt Lake City, he attended a council of local Church leaders in the home of Erastus Snow, who presided over the Church in the region. As the meeting was drawing to a close, Brigham asked the men what they thought about building a temple in St. George.

Excitement filled the room. “Glory! Hallelujah!” Erastus exclaimed.19

After Brigham returned to Salt Lake City, he wrote Erastus about his plans for the new temple. It would be smaller and less ornate than the temple in Salt Lake City. It would be crafted from stone and plastered inside and out. Like the temple in Nauvoo, it would have a single tower rising from one end of the roof and a baptismal font in the basement.

“We wish the Saints in the south to unite their efforts with one heart and one mind for the prosecution of this work,” he wrote.

Brigham looked forward to returning to St. George in the fall to begin construction on the temple,20 but the Church in other parts of the territory needed his attention in the meantime. Over the last year, Amasa Lyman had been preaching for the Church of Zion and attending séances at which Spiritualist mediums claimed to speak for Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Chief Walkara, and other Saints who had died. People reported hearing rapping noises or seeing a table levitate during the meetings.21

While these séances drew some Saints to the New Movement, most were wary of them, and the Church of Zion soon floundered. By the time Brigham returned to Salt Lake City in February 1871, the New Movement was less a religious organization than it was a group of people with a shared goal of ending the Church’s influence in the area.

In April, the leaders of the New Movement changed the name of their newspaper from the Mormon Tribune to the Salt Lake Tribune. Then, in July, they dedicated the Liberal Institute, a spacious meetinghouse in which they could deliver sermons, hold séances, and stage lectures and Liberal Party political meetings. The New Movement had also succeeded in drawing away Brigham’s former friends T. B. H. and Fanny Stenhouse, who had been on the cusp of leaving the Church for several months.22

The New Movement, however, posed less of a threat to the Church than did James McKean, the newly appointed chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court. Judge McKean was determined to stamp out what he considered to be theocracy in Utah. Around the time of his appointment, the Cullom antipolygamy bill had failed to pass in the Senate and United States president Ulysses Grant had sent McKean to Utah specifically to enforce the existing antipolygamy law.23

“In this country a man may adopt any religion that he pleases,” Judge McKean declared soon after his arrival, “but no man must violate our laws and plead religion as an excuse.”24

In the fall of 1871, about a month before he planned to return to St. George, Brigham learned that Robert Baskin, the United States attorney for Utah and one of the authors of the Cullom Bill, intended to charge him and other Church leaders with various crimes. A former Church member named Bill Hickman even agreed to try to implicate Brigham and other Church leaders in a murder Bill had committed during the Utah War fourteen years earlier.25

Bill Hickman was now under arrest for another murder, and he had cut a deal with the court to be lenient with him in exchange for his testimony. He was a lawless man whose word would never hold up in an impartial court of law, especially since several reputable people knew the facts of the crime and denied Brigham’s involvement. Still, John Taylor, who had been with Joseph Smith at the Carthage jail, urged Brigham not to place his life in the hands of the court. Doubtful he would share Joseph’s fate, Brigham said, “Things are entirely different to what they were then.”26

The first charges came on October 2, when a United States marshal arrested Brigham for living with more than one woman as his wife. Daniel Wells and George Q. Cannon were arrested on similar charges.

The arrests ignited a firestorm of rumors. Outside the territory, newspapers predicted that civil war would break out in Salt Lake City and reported that the Saints had stockpiled guns and positioned a cannon on the foothills of the mountains.27 In reality, the streets of Salt Lake City were quiet. Church leaders cooperated with the lawmen, and lawyers began preparing for Brigham to answer the charges in court the following week.28

When that day came, the courtroom was crowded. Thousands stood in the street outside the city building. Brigham arrived fifteen minutes before the judge and sat patiently, his coolness disarming his critics.29

After Judge McKean arrived, Brigham’s lawyers tried to stop the hearing, claiming that officials had not followed proper procedure when they assembled a grand jury with no Church members. When McKean denied this request, the lawyers tried to find fault with the charges themselves, hoping to have them dropped altogether. Once again the judge denied their request.30

During the hearing, McKean revealed that he saw the case not as a trial of Brigham’s innocence or guilt but as a crucial battle in a war between the Saints’ revelations and federal law. “While the case at bar is called The People versus Brigham Young,” he stated, “its other and real title is Federal Authority versus Polygamic Theocracy.” He was not interested in being an impartial judge. In his eyes, the prophet was already guilty.31

Assuming the trial would not be scheduled until March, during the next term of the court, Brigham left for St. George nearly two weeks later. A few days after that, arrest warrants were issued for him and other Church leaders—this time for the trumped-up murder charge.32

On November 9, 1871, after days of chilly weather and some rain, the sky over St. George was clear and pleasant. Just south of town, Susie Young stood in a large crowd on a newly surveyed city block where the Saints had gathered to break ground on the temple.33

Brigham had made few public appearances since coming to St. George that fall. With illness and a court hearing hanging over his head, he had to be cautious. Some people feared that marshals would try to capture him and drag him back to Salt Lake City. At night, he stayed at Erastus Snow’s house, where armed men stood guard to protect him.34

At the temple block, Susie gripped a pencil and notebook, ready to take notes on the ceremony. Before moving to St. George, she had been the star pupil of one of her father’s stenographers, and she took pride in being a reporter. From her place in the crowd, she would be able to record everything that happened. She could easily see her father and mother standing close together and her sister Mabel clinging to her mother’s hand.35

After the choir sang an opening hymn, George A. Smith knelt and offered the dedicatory prayer, asking the Lord to preserve the prophet from his enemies and lengthen his days. Susie then watched her father and other Church leaders break ground at the southeast corner of the block.

The Saints sang “The Spirit of God like a Fire Is Burning,” and Brigham climbed onto a chair so that everyone could hear him give instructions for the “Hosanna Shout,” a solemn cheer given at dedication ceremonies and public events since the Kirtland temple.

Following his lead, the Saints raised their right hands and shouted three times, “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb!”36

A few weeks later, Brigham received notice that Judge McKean had scheduled his court date for December 4 even though he knew the prophet was far from Salt Lake City. Brigham was reluctant to leave St. George, however, and the judge pushed the court date to early January. Meanwhile, Brigham consulted with his lawyers and advisers about the course he should take. He knew that he would be arrested once he returned to Salt Lake City, and he was now more concerned about his safety than before. He wanted assurances that he would not be killed while in custody.37

For a time, he considered going into hiding, as Joseph Smith had done in Nauvoo. Murder was a capital offense, and if a biased jury found him guilty, he could be executed. But in mid-December his lawyers urged him to return to the city, confident that he would be safe. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve and other friends were divided on the matter, yet they agreed that he should act as he saw best.38

One night, Brigham dreamed that two men were trying to take control of a large meeting of Saints. After he awoke, he knew what he needed to do. “I feel like going home and running the meeting, with the help of God and my brethren!” he told his friends.39

On his way back to Salt Lake City, Brigham stopped in a small settlement for the night. The Saints there were distraught over his choice to go to trial, knowing that Judge McKean had all but pronounced him guilty. One man even sobbed when he learned what Brigham intended to do. The prophet understood his fear, but he knew the right course to take.

“God will overrule all for the best good of Zion,” he said.40