“Godbeites,” Church History Topics
The Godbeites were a protest movement in the late 1860s and early 1870s who opposed Brigham Young’s leadership and economic policies. Calling themselves the “New Movement” and eventually organizing the Church of Zion, they represented mercantile and mining interests counter to agricultural interests, argued for capitalism instead of cooperation, and welcomed the practice of spiritualist séances. Their leadership consisted largely of British-born converts to the Church who came from business and intellectual classes. The movement coalesced around William Godbe, a wealthy Salt Lake merchant, and eventually around former Apostle Amasa Lyman.
The Godbeite movement arose in 1869 in response to a new system of economic cooperative mercantilism inaugurated by Brigham Young. Young worried that capitalists like Godbe reaped huge profits from exports at the expense of the poor. To reduce capitalist power, he encouraged local communities to pool their resources, manufacture their own goods, and sell them in cooperative stores at inexpensive prices.1 Godbe and his associates protested the Church’s coordination as economic intrusion and an affront to the freedom of conscience.
In 1870 Godbeites joined with others to found the Liberal Party and oppose the Church’s influence in temporal and political affairs. In turn, Church leaders helped to found the People’s Party, which explicitly promoted Latter-day Saint interests. These realignments of Utah politics along religious concerns aggravated tensions between Church members and their non–Latter-day Saint neighbors in the period leading up to Utah statehood in 1896.2
Many Godbeites protested the religious authority of Church leaders by claiming new revelations received during spiritualist séances. A broader spiritualist movement whose adherents believed humans could communicate with the spirits of the dead had become popular in the United States. After participating in several séances, Godbe claimed that the spirits of Joseph Smith and others had spoken through living persons, or “mediums,” to direct him in reforming the Church. Followers performed regular séances, hoping to commune with deceased prophets, relatives, and other influential figures from history. These claims to revelation deepened the conflict between some Godbeites and the leadership of the Church.3
During this time, the Godbeites represented the largest and most aggressive opposition movement to Brigham Young’s leadership in Utah Territory. Although short-lived, the movement coincided with a shift in the Church’s oversight of local economic conditions. The cooperative ideals of the Saints working together for a common interest remained, but wards, not cities and towns, would primarily assist in the financial well-being of Church members. Afterward, central planning declined in importance, and voluntary contributions of individuals and families—tithing and fast offerings—rose to become the dominant method of sustaining the temporal kingdom.
Before the Godbeites, most opposition to the Church had come from the outside—from Protestant critics who lived some distance away from Church members. Godbeite protesters, however, founded a local newspaper (later called the Salt Lake Tribune) that in the late 1800s was intentionally hostile to the Church but by the 1920s had become a friendly, if occasionally critical, neighbor to the Church-owned Deseret News. The legacy of Godbeite opposition had transformed into more neutral journalism. The political, business, spiritualist, and journalistic concerns of the Godbeite protests diverged by the 1880s, and by the early 1890s the movement’s leaders had either died or scattered into separate pursuits.