Church History
Reformation of 1856–57

“Reformation of 1856–57,” Church History Topics

“Reformation of 1856–57”

Reformation of 1856–57

For approximately seven months from September 1856 to April 1857, Brigham Young and other Church leaders preached throughout Utah Territory to generate greater religious commitment among Latter-day Saints. This season of devotional activity, which came to be known as “the Mormon Reformation,” represented a turning point for many who reported experiencing spiritual renewal and improved morale within their communities.1

In their efforts to build up the kingdom of God and prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints often expressed frustration at perceived shortcomings in living the restored gospel. As they raised communities in the unfamiliar terrain of Utah Territory, they experienced many early setbacks and natural disasters, particularly crop failures, wildfires, grasshopper plagues, and a winter famine. Brigham Young viewed these challenges as divine reproofs, and at the October 1855 general conference he urged the Saints to repent “that [they] may be chastened no more.”2 The following spring, he called for sermons to blast “peals of thunder” and motivate mass repentance. In September 1856 Brigham informed several Apostles of plans to “make a great wake” throughout the territory.3 Within days, Jedediah M. Grant, counselor in the First Presidency, launched the effort at a conference north of Salt Lake City. Immediately following Grant’s preaching, 500 Saints were rebaptized to signify their renewed devotion.4

Similar sermons were given throughout the settlements. In some areas, “home missionaries” visited homes in each ward with a list of questions designed to prompt introspection and obedience to high standards. “Have you coveted anything not your own?” one such question asked, echoing one of the Ten Commandments. Others emphasized respect for property rights and faithfulness to family and the Church: “Have you branded an animal that you did not know to be your own? … Do you pray in your family night and morning and attend to secret prayer?” Home missionaries also urged men to marry additional wives to show greater commitment to the faith.5

The urgent rhetoric and religious zeal sparked increased church attendance and tithing offerings. Five months into the reformation, Brigham Young signaled God’s acceptance of the people’s repentance. When home missionaries completed their tours in April 1857, most Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City had been rebaptized.6

Unintended consequences transpired after the period of the reformation. At times, Brigham Young, Jedediah Grant, and other leaders had warned against dissenters and apostates. Drawing on biblical passages, particularly in the Old Testament, these leaders had also taught that some sins were so evil that forgiveness could only come from the sinner’s blood being shed. Reports of intensified rhetoric and rumors of “Mormon defiance” toward the federal government reached the president of the United States, who took military action to quell supposed insurrection. The threat of armed conflict heightened tensions between different groups, and in some areas of Utah Territory terrible violence broke out. This period, known as the Utah War, ended after government officials arranged a truce with Brigham Young and other territorial leaders.7

As concerns about hunger and survival became less frequent, Latter-day Saints largely avoided the intense militant preaching style of the mid-1850s. Brigham Young adjusted policies to better accommodate rising numbers of settlers and spoke out against driving others from the territory. Saints continued to inspire one another toward centering their communities on faith and devotion, an aspect of the reformation that resonated across the many settlements in the North American West.8

Related Topics: Crickets and Seagulls, Utah War, Mountain Meadows Massacre


  1. See Paul H. Peterson, “The Mormon Reformation of 1856–1857: The Rhetoric and the Reality,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 15 (1989), 76–77.

  2. Brigham Young, in “Discourse,” Deseret News, Nov. 28, 1855, 298.

  3. Brigham Young, in “Discourse,” Deseret News, Mar. 12, 1856, 2; Wilford Woodruff, “Journal, 1854 January–1859 December,” Church History Library, Salt Lake City, 143.

  4. See Peterson, “The Mormon Reformation of 1856–1857,” 65–66.

  5. Peterson, “The Mormon Reformation of 1856–1857,” 69–71; see Topic: Plural Marriage in Utah.

  6. See Peterson, “The Mormon Reformation of 1856–1857,” 76–77.

  7. Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard, “Peals of Thunder,” in Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 20–32; see also “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics Essays,; Topics: Utah War, Mountain Meadows Massacre, Thomas L. and Elizabeth Kane.

  8. See Peterson, “The Mormon Reformation of 1856–1857,” 78–80.