Joseph Stuart is a BA student in American Studies at Brigham Young University, entering his last semester. He recently “rocked the GRE” in the words of his fiancee, and is planning on going to grad school in history or religious studies. He has worked on several fascinating projects, one of which examines the social history of the Woodruff Manifesto, from which the following document is taken. Let’s give a warm welcome to Joseph.
This summer I have had the good fortune to work for the Charles Redd Center at BYU, attempting to examine responses to the 1890 Woodruff Manifesto. By canvasing nearly 1000 journals, diaries and autobiographies, I found a veritable cornucopia of results, from the bemused to the belligerent. One reaction that was of particular interest, though not directly related to the Manifesto, came from a note in the Abraham Cannon diaries.[i] It said simply:
“I attended my Quorum meeting…spent nearly two hours in interesting and instructive conversation on various points of doctrine. The subject was the Josephite [RLDS] Church, its authority and gifts, was discussed, in the course of which John Henry Smith read a letter to him form the head of that Church, Joseph Smith [III] dated Nov’r 7th. The people and authorities here are congratulated therein for their abandonment of plural marriage, and the writer suggests that this matter could not have originated with the Lord or it would have remained unchanged.
This man is certainly not sincere or he would have accepted the truth long ago, as he has had abundant evidence given him that his father, the Prophet, had more than one wife.”
This tantalizing reference piqued my interest, and I resolved to find what JSIII had to say after the cessation of plural marriages. After nearly two months of archival work, I stumbled across the Wilford Woodruff Correspondence Register[ii] at the Church History Library, and found a letter that was very similar to the letter to John Henry Smith. It reads:
THE FIRST PRESIDENCY
Of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ
President Wilford Woodruff Lamoni, Iowa Nov 8th, 1890
Salt Lake City, Utah
Dear Sir: —
Permit me to congratulate you on the action of yourself and the late Conference of October 6th; yourself, for presenting the manifesto and the advice in contained; the Conference for accepting and adopting the advice given.
For the advance of the Angel’s message and the final triumph of truth,
There are several intriguing aspects of the letter.
- “The advice.”
- “the Angel’s message and the final triumph of truth.”
Like the Federal Government and many Latter-day Saints, JSIII does not appear to know whether or not the Manifesto was a press release, a formal disavowal of practice, or a renunciation of belief. The Federal Government went to the point of asking President Woodruff about whether cohabitation was still permitted during a federal inquiry in 1892 when the Church was seeking amnesty, a fair question considering how many plural marriages were still approved after the Manifesto was released, and the exodus of a significant minority of LDS polygamists to Mexico and Canada. This understanding of the Manifesto as “advice” may have led to the Second Manifesto, when Joseph F. Smith put some teeth into the Church’s anti-polygamy stance in 1904.
The second area of importance is the phrase “the angel’s message.” Rather than focusing on, for example, “my father’s teachings” or “priesthood revelation,” JSIII says “the angel’s message,” referring to Moroni’s multiple visitations. I suppose that this was typical of early Mormonism, a focus on Cumorah (the Book of Mormon) rather than the Grove (Priesthood succession and restoration), and the RLDS (now Community of Christ) would logically follow that thought.
The second part of the second statement, “the final triumph of truth” appears to be a subtle slight aimed at the Church’s new stance. Joseph F. Smith, JSIII’s cousin, had affidavits sworn by the wives of Joseph Smith saying that the Prophet had lived and taught polygamy. JFS ultimately sent these affidavits to RLDS headquarters (the “abundant evidence” cited by Cannon in his diary). The RLDS responded by attempting to persuade the “Utah Church” through mail and missionaries that polygamy was an invention of Brigham Young rather than revelation through Joseph Smith.
It is difficult for me to fathom the relationship between the RLDS and the LDS Churches at this time, when cousins led or would soon lead their respective branches of Mormonism (JSIII and Joseph F. Smith, who served in the First Presidency at the time). Being able to write the Utah Church in the wake of their renunciation of polygamy, after such a protracted public and personal battle over the origin of the practice, must have been especially satisfying to JSIII.
[i] Cannon, Abraham H. (Abraham Hoagland), 1859-1896. Candid Insights of a Mormon Apostle : The Diaries of Abraham H. Cannon, 1889-1895. Ed. Edward Leo Lyman 1942-. Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with the Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2010. December 2, 1890.
[ii] Wilford Woodruff General Correspondence File 1887-1898, LDS Church Archives.