If Not 1890, What Year Did Mormonism Change the Most?

By October 24, 2016

I’ve been thinking recently about Grant Underwood’s article in Pacific Historical Review, “Re-visioning Mormon History.” In short, Underwood contends that 1890 is not such a watershed year for Mormon history as historians have led us to believe. Underwood argues, at most times convincingly, that Mormons had not Americanized nor become much less peculiar since the year of the Woodruff Manifesto.

I don’t want to rehash his entire argument and evidence here (those who are interested in a deeper dive should consult Christopher’s excellent rumination on the article here and David’s follow up questions on the article here). However, I find that I generally agree with Jan Shipps on the importance of 1890. She wrote, “Whatever else it did, the Manifesto announced that the old order would have to pass away.”[1] Despite my belief that 1890 is a very important year for Mormons and historians of Mormonism, I think reducing the large-scale changes in Mormonism to 1890 alone is unproductive. If historians are seeking a sort of “trigger year” where Mormonism struck out on a new course, what date would be more appropriate than 1890? Here are a few options:

1867: in this year, Brigham Young, Eliza R. Snow, and others reorganized the Relief Society all across the Mormon settlements in the West. This re-introduced new sites of gendered power for women within Mormonism. Future LDS Church President and theologian Joseph F. Smith was sustained as an apostle and Mormons participated in the first General Conference held in the Tabernacle. Smith’s decisions and theologizing fundamentally reshaped Mormonism during and after his tenure. The Deseret Telegraph Company also opened, sanctioning a church-owned means of communicating relatively quickly with the rest of the United States. This signaled a Mormon embrace of mass-media with the world beyond formal religious pamphlets.

1869: The completion of the transcontinental railroad was the beginning of the end for Mormon isolation. In combination with the telegraph, Mormons began to embrace pluralism and capitalism (although it took the hierarchy longer to embrace the ideas).

1877: The dedication of the St. George Temple ushered in a new period of LDS temple worship and liturgy and, I would argue, an acceptance that Mormonism would be in Utah for some time to come. The death of Brigham Young created financial problems for the LDS Church and was the first transition in the church presidency since 1847. 1877 also marked the end of the Reconstruction of the South and Congress concentrated on the Reconstruction of the West, including the crusades against Mormon polygamy.

1887:  John Taylor’s death sparked a controversy over succession in Brighamite Mormonism, although Wilford Woodruff eventually overcame objections and was set apart as president of the LDS Church. The Edmunds-Tucker Act brought on the future financial disincorporation of the LDS Church and prefigured the Woodruff Manifesto.

1896: Utah attains statehood after the LDS Church publicly abandons plural marriage (although polygamous marriages are still solemnized) and ceases open participation in politics on a partisan level.

1904: Joseph F. Smith issues the Second Manifesto, attaching penalties to entering into plural marriages. Two men are dropped from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles over plural marriage. This measure, and the fallout of the Smoot Hearings in which it was released, catalyze widespread changes for the LDS Church.

1936: The First Presidency of Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay enact The Church Welfare Plan. Two stake presidents that helped shape the plan, Hugh B. Brown and Harold B. Lee, are later called as apostles. The LDS Church also releases a statement opposing communism, which led to all sorts of interesting developments after World War II.

1968: Correlation is implemented across several church organizational units. Belle Spafford, President of the LDS Relief Society, is elected president of the National Council of Women.

1978: All worthy individuals, no matter ethnicity or descent, are eligible to participate in temple liturgy. Mormonism becomes a religion in which all peoples across the globe can participate.

Daily Universe Front Page JI

What other years could be added? What evidence would you add to these years? Or what would you contest?

[1] Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 115.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Miscellaneous


  1. How about 1844?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 24, 2016 @ 8:25 am

  2. How about 1894, when the Church began instructing missions not to encourage emigration to Utah, but urging members to stay at home? As with plural marriage, immigration didn?t end with a single decree, of course, but look at the changes that were tied to the cessation of immigration: The Church had to adapt in a way that would allow it to flourish outside the Great Basin ? not just with marriage practices, but a host of little things that affected Mormons? day-to-day worship (tithing in cash rather than kind, moving Fast Day to Sunday, requesting that students and workers attend Church in their temporary locales and temporarily transfer their memberships, which transformed many of those distant branches from missionary-oriented waystations to permanent member branches). There were greater consequences from the cessation of immigration that I think haven?t been adequately explored: When you tell someone in Holland or even Florida not to emigrate to Utah circa 1900, you?re basically saying ?You will never go to the temple,? which led to a whole collection of adaptations that eventually provided for the full range of Church benefits everywhere.

    In short, the cessation of immigration was the trigger that gradually shifted the Church from one lived fully only in the Great Basin to one that could thrive anywhere in the world.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 24, 2016 @ 9:44 am

  3. Nice post, J.

    I agree with Ardis on immigration: it’s super important for assimilation, ethnicity, institutional change, economics, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t think of right now.

    I also wonder about 1869 for the Godbeites as a microcosm of Mormonism’s relationship with capitalism, technology, and pluralism.

    Comment by Jeff T — October 24, 2016 @ 9:53 am

  4. Thanks for all the great comments!

    Gary: I feel silly not including 1844. The pitfalls of studying 20c history Mormonism–not going far enough back!

    Ardis: 1894 is a superb suggestion. Gathering (and he genealogical society) are essential to understanding Mormonism.

    Jeff T.: Capitalism is always the answer. I wish I had included it in my post!

    Comment by J Stuart — October 24, 2016 @ 10:01 am

  5. I’m going to agree with Ardis, and add the adoption revelation, which is essentially the inflection point of the entire curve of Mormon cosmology and foundation for Modern beliefs.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 24, 2016 @ 10:29 am

  6. 1839-40. The doctrinal, liturgical, and marital transitions/expansions of Nauvoo signaled a marked departure from what I consider “early Mormonism” and set the stage for what many understand to be Mormonism’s inherent uniqueness.

    Comment by Christopher — October 24, 2016 @ 11:15 am

  7. How about 1839? The beginnings (to some extent) of Nauvoo, polygamy, Council of Fifty, “General” Smith and the militia, Mayor Smith and an eventual run for the presidency, Baptism for the Dead and Endowment(s) ordinances, secrecy and “righteous” lying, missions to Great Britain, and the foundation of more esoteric doctrines leading up to the King Follett sermon and the sermon at the grove.

    Comment by larryco_ — October 24, 2016 @ 11:24 am

  8. oops! Christopher beat me while I was composing.

    Comment by larryco_ — October 24, 2016 @ 11:25 am

  9. One could make an argument for 1858, when Brigham Young gave up Utah’s territorial governorship to Alfred Cumming, whom President
    Buchanan appointed and sent to Utah under protection of federal troops. The event marked the beginning of the end of theocracy in Utah.

    That said, I still think 1890 was the year that changed Mormonism most, not just because it began the end of polygamy, but also because it marks the year in which the church changed one of its core practices in order to succomb to federal law.

    Comment by Barbara — October 24, 2016 @ 11:26 am

  10. I would say that the year that Mormonism *will* change the most is sometime in the future.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — October 24, 2016 @ 11:27 am

  11. I’m with Andrea. The year the church will change the most is when all members are allowed full participation.

    Comment by Barbara — October 24, 2016 @ 11:50 am

  12. How about 1980?

    The change to the 3-hr. block was more revolutionary than many give it credit for. To me, it represents the end of the effort to get Mormons to function as a closed social group. It transformed Primary top-to-bottom, and its effects on Relief Society were nearly as drastic. The YM/YW organization were also dramatically affected, and social ties between ward members are not as close.

    As an aside, this also facilitated putting multiple wards in a single building, which has it’s own issues.

    Minorities are scarce in my area, to the point that as far as events that have changed Mormonism within in my lifetime, 1980 probably takes the prize, more than even 1978.

    Comment by The Other Clark — October 24, 2016 @ 11:54 am

  13. I would add 1838. The expulsion from Missouri and Joseph Smith’s imprisonment shifted his revelations from an imminent millennium to a more distant one. The temple ceremonies developed in Nauvoo were a means to begin the millennial work, even if Christ was not coming.

    Comment by G. Jones — October 24, 2016 @ 11:58 am

  14. I’d probably agree with Ardis. In many ways what we call the international church under McKay is really an extension of that moment. And correlation arguably is a necessary correlation of an international church even if it takes time to come to fruition. Continue the gathering to Utah and there’s far less necessity for correlation and top down structural identity.

    If we’re going to pick an other period, why not 1916 when Heber J. Grant becomes President of the Church. That’s a key point for breakoffs seeing the Church as leaving what they perceive as right. Grant then becomes a popular boogyman. However it’s also important as a kind of demographic switchover in terms of the background leadership has. (I suspect we’re coming close to a similar inflection point in our own time)

    Overall though I really like Ardis’ pick.

    Comment by Clark — October 24, 2016 @ 3:06 pm

  15. Some work from the premise that 1890 is considered to be the year in which the biggest “changes” came to Mormonism. However, if they’re using 1890 and The Manifesto as the accelerator for those changes, I think it would be more correct to say that 1904 is the year in which the biggest changes came to Mormonism.

    1890 may have appeared to be a watershed event to the outside world, but historically we can safely say that truly few of the Church’s actual leaders believed The Manifesto to be all encompassing or a permanent fixture among the people. Plural marriage, as it had originated in Kirtland and Nauvoo, returned back underground and occurred on such a regular basis that church members were left confused as to whether The Manifesto really meant anything at all.

    It wasn’t until 1904 with Pres. Joseph F. Smith issuing The Second Manifesto that Mormonism truly began to change. With the dropping of Elders Cowley and Taylor from The Quorum of the Twelve further solidify this stance, and the internal “prosecution” of some (not all) people entering into plural marriages shortly thereafter goes to show that “the old guard” of Mormonism was finally on its way out.

    Comment by Stan — October 24, 2016 @ 3:12 pm

  16. These are great comments. Thanks all!

    Comment by J Stuart — October 24, 2016 @ 6:43 pm

  17. I like the argument in Carter’s Building Zion, summarized below (from his introduction).

    “The second key date is 1871, when the decision was made to move the temples from the town center to locations just outside town, effectively dismantling what had been a single homogeneous religious world revolving around the temple (all things sacred) and replacing it with a differentiated one with clearly ascribed sacred (temple) and secular (the town and all in it) zones.”

    A major shift towards modernization in worldview reflected in the cognitive and actual landscape.

    Comment by Ben S — October 25, 2016 @ 11:51 pm

  18. I propose 1952, the year that Apostle John A. Widstoe died. His death left conservative forces free rein to take the Church in a direction that it is only now starting to recover from.

    Comment by Roger D Hansen — October 26, 2016 @ 5:47 am

  19. 1923 – changes in the garment and temple ordinances
    1990 – major changes in the temple

    Comment by James — October 26, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

  20. How about 1921 when the current cultural implementation of the word of wisdom became a requirement for temple worship following American Prohibition.

    In my mind this is the most significant cultural shift that continues to isolate and hinder mormon culture. It codified the idea that dietary indugence could be a sin, instead of the word of wisdom being an additional source of spiritual strength as is clearly intended from the revelation.

    Comment by Jack Lane — October 26, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

  21. 1921 is actually an excellent candidate for far more than the WoW. It was the year that Lund died in the First Presidency, and Grant was able to do what he wanted. He started systematic reforms across the church, including releasing a general RS president for the first time, revising the temple liturgy (and all other aspects of Mormon liturgy), and a whole host of progressive reforms.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 26, 2016 @ 1:58 pm

  22. Were Grant’s revisions based on George Richards’ recommendations, or were these further changes?

    Comment by Ben S — October 26, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

  23. The temple liturgy changes were based on Richards’ recommendations. Grant put him in as SLC Temple Pres when Lund died. But the temple stuff was only part of the liturgical reforms during this time.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 26, 2016 @ 9:15 pm

  24. Hey Stapley, you should write a book on this!

    Comment by J Stuart — October 27, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

  25. What year did Church leaders stop endorsing political cadidates? 40s or 50s? Political neutrality a big step towards a broader tent.

    Comment by RL — October 30, 2016 @ 12:37 am


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