From the Archives: The Mormon Reformation of 1856-57

By August 21, 2008

I’ve been going through Joseph F. Smith’s letter correspondence from his first mission to Hawaii of late and have come across several references to the Mormon Reformation, which reached its zenith, according to most accounts, during 1856-1857. These letters surprised me for several reasons. First, I had always assumed the “Reformation” was a name historians later gave to the period and was surprised to see the Saints themselves referring to the movement as a “Reformation” right as they were in the midst of it. And many of the elements historians such as Paul Peterson (who did a PhD diss at BYU on the Reformation) and Thomas Alexander have identified as the key elements of reform are identified by individuals in the midst of it: the stopping of theaters and dancing, the calling of home missionaries, mass rebaptisms, the cutting off of the unconverted, and the scramble for multiple young brides. I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise to see historical assessments validated by documents, but I guess I just hadn’t realized how overt and deliberate the reformation was.

I’ve pasted below some of my favorite snippets (Jane Fisher’s is my personal fave) from JFS’s letter correspondence, available on the Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church CD-ROM, volume 1, DVD 28.

George W. Gee, May 5, 1857

we have had a refermation here this winter an the people are a going to do better here after the most of of them some area a doing it and some are a going to the states for instance T S Willians he was cut of fom the curch last fall and he has gon back to he states this spring but his oldest gurl did run a way from him the nite before and he did rip and swere a bout it but he has gon and left hur here she was married to david Cimball by unckle lius  we \ aint had any theaters this winter here but this spring we have had some few times have had a surcoss and I have went 2 and seen it

Jane Fisher, Great Salt Lake City, May 11, 1857

I forgot to tell you that, we had reform<(ed> repented of our “sins, been rebaptised into the Church. and in “lieu of “danceing we pray and intsted of going to “theater, we attend metings. “and I can asure you that, <we> feel a great deal better, and injoy the spirit of, the lord much more. however our “leaders, say when we get “right, we shall have balls and then we will dance. right.

Charles E. Griffin, GSLC, S. H. Ward, April 4, 1857

We have had a good time here this winter, tho’ we have had no dancing. I have not been to a dance nor heard of one for a long time. …I have not got another Wife yet, but I could not say that I shall not-when I can finde one to get. I have made two trips North this winter – one to Box elder and one to Ogden but still I can’t say that I have made out yet. I suppose you have heard that John has got another. I saw Merrich when I was “up north”-he has got Two Wives-

William Jasper Harris, February 3, 1857

there is great excitment among the young folks here about getting married but still more among the old ones there is from twenty to forty a getting married evry day there is a great many old men that <think> they will be cut off from the church and be damned if they dont get another wife I believe that Gim is a going to take a ribe I dont know but I shall have to have you bring me some of them native girls well I dont that I have much more to write the folks are a reforming and waking up from their sleep and begining to live a new life and these poor deviles are getting in a hurry and leaving and them that cant take the hint will take you know what

William W. Cluff, Maui, June 25, 1857

 Joseph <would> you believe me if I tell you that I have now got Seven Sister in-Laws mour now than I had when I left home! …I expect we <will> have to take some of the Hawaiian sisters unless we can find some in California, for it will be make hewe loa to go with the intention of geting any in the valleys!

Joseph Fisher, Great Salt Lake City, February 24, 1857

I can inform you that we are all well at present & I fell thankful to our hevenly Father for it  I feel thankful all the day long for the milde chastiseing he has give unto us without pouring out his Jugements upon us he has merely called on us to to reform & repent of our sins renew our covanents & must keep his commandments, or be cut off for this is the last pruning & all the bitter branches must be cut off in order to save the tree & we feel glad that we can say that the majority ha<d>ve joind in with the reformation. the Athorities has sent out mitionarays throughout the valies of the mountains to call on all to repent & the report is that the fire is increasing Dayly  they allso call on all <good> men to get three or four wives whitch business takes mighty well for the last six weeks Brighams office has been crouded Dayly with mariages so that he had to send away 15 or 20 coupel one evening untill the next morning  I have been round a little but I find girls very scarce  John took another last thirsday  James was maried week before  Jane & 2 or 3 girls in the city are single yet not because they havent had offers \ but I think they must be waiting for some of the young misionari<e>s to return So I think you boys had better look out or you will come up misson unless you bring them with you …sutch a racing & runing after girls you never saw for it <is> considered the cheapest way to make saints to marry & make them at home than to emigrate them from furin countries for they will be born under the law & will be abel to keep the law & make perfect saints … you boys had better wrtie & secure some of the girls

Joseph Fielding, GSLC, Jan 6, 1857

Bro Br<i>gham as he said drove with with A slack Line, he was very mindful, and knew well the Weakness of mortal Man but of late, often we have had so long experience he has taken A firm stand, testifying against the Evils that are in our Midst and calling upon us all without exception, to repent, to make Confession and Restitution to all whom we have wronged or offended, whether God or Man, and then to be baptized for the Remission of our Sins, this has caused great searching of hearts, has brought to Light things that were not known or thought of, from which we see plainly that if our Enemies had come upon in this State we could no more have stood then Israel of old could in the Days of Joshua and we know not how soon we may have the Tryal, for the Devil is not dead nor asleep-hence there is little talked of here at present nor for some time past but Reformation  every one is asured that he cannot attain much of the Spirit until he has this humbld himself and reformed his Moral Course if Conduct  A new baptismal Font has been built near the Endowment House for the use of all the Saints that are found worthy, many have been cut off from the Church, and many removed from their Office, others will will not Comply with the Call to repent. and make Restitution and of course will be severed from the Body, you know it has long been talked of A Line being drawn, but we never knew before how it would be drawn; it is understood that our old Enimies are designing Evil against the Saints, and if so we may expect to see Traitors enough to join them, but they are all in the Hands of him that rules in the Heaven, and inasmuch as we humble ourselves and put away the Evil of our doings there is no fear but the Lord will sustain us-You will I suppose have heard of the Death of Brother J M Grant, which took Place on  the 1st of Dec, his Death seems to have been caused by his own exertions in the Cause of Reformation, he has been very valiant for the Truth, and has left behind him the Name and honor of A faithful Servant of God, I am not yet aware who is to take his Place when it was clearly seen how far we as A People were coming short of the Requirements of the Gospel, and after so long experi-peri ence, and the actual Transgression also, the Sacrement was withheld, in fact it is truly A solemn time, Business is dull, Cash is scarse, and we are having A hard Winter, the bringing in of the emigrating Saints has been attended with great Expence and and Loss owing to the lateness of their starting but after all the Lord is with us, many Missionaries have come home from almost all Parts of the World, who are now appointed to preach as Missionaries in the various Wards and and Settlements of the Saints, they have returned home with good Reports almost universally in those Places w<h>ere the Gospel has been rejected, A faithful Testimony has been bourn so that the People are left without excuse

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Good point, and a nice collection of quotations. Want a few more?

    Brigham Young to Silas Smith, 4 October 1856

    Quite a reformation is springing up among the Saints in many parts of the Territory, which we hope and trust will extend to all the settlements. A general awakening to the interests of Zion and their own condition is much needed, and we are happy it has commenced and is rapidly extending. Many have renewed their covenants in the waters of Baptism

    Brigham Young to George Q. Cannon, 4 October 1856

    There is quite a reformation springing up in many of the Settlements, which we trust will increase and extend throughout the territory. A General desire to renew their covenants and live nearer to the Lord, to serve him more perfectly and to be more Circumspect and alive to the interests of Zion and her prosperity. This awakening spirit is much needed, as it is too unusually [sic] the case that when the Elders come home they throw off their armour, and the people too frequently follow their example.

    Brigham Young to Thomas S. Smith, 7 October 1856

    We have finished a baptismal font near the endowment house, which has been dedicated, and is now used for baptisms. Many are going forward renewing their covenants before the Lord. We trust that the spirit of reformation may prevail over the entire community. There is need enough for it; for truly the people were falling asleep; be coming covetous, and the spirit of apostacy appeared to be prevalent to considerable extent.

    If you’re making a study where it would be helpful to have others, please contact me offlist.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 21, 2008 @ 8:17 pm

  2. Stan, thanks for posting these. I love the documentary materials bearing on the this period. The Mormon Reformation is one of the best documented and least interpreted areas of nineteenth-century LDS history. Lots and lots of interesting ritual and rhetorical stuff there for us to work on yet. And, like Ardis, I have collected quite a bit as well if you are interested.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 21, 2008 @ 8:52 pm

  3. Stan, fun stuff here. I like Jane Fisher’s quote, too. How do you read that last sentence of her’s (“right.”)? I can think of a couple of ways, and some are more humorous than others.

    Stan, Ardis, or Taysom: Has anyone examined the Mormon Reformation within the context of 19th-century American evangelical revivals? Spending the majority of my time these days immersed in antebellum Methodist sources, I can’t help but notice the remarkable similarities in preaching style, content, and aims (with noticable differences, such as the plural marriage stuff). While for much of Christianity, the second great awakening was more abour revival (conversion) than reform, for Methodists (and apparently for Mormons during 1856-57) the two seem inseparable.

    Forgive my ignorance of the specifics of late 1850s Utah, but was there much “experimental religion” (visions, tongue-speaking, prophesying) among the LDS then?

    Comment by Christopher — August 21, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

  4. Christopher, I think you make an important point. I remember reading in On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout 1844-1861 (1:218 – unfortunately I don’t own this and only have notes from a ILL copy) where they were preaching “reformation” on trek west. I have also run into, like you said, protestant reformations/revivals during the early mid 19th century. The 1856/57 reformation was just much, much beefier. I don’t know that anyone has written on this.

    As far as charisma, yeah, you will find glossolalia, prophecy, group healings, and the occasional dream or seer stone. Not to sure about visions.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 21, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  5. Awesome. Thanks J.

    Comment by Christopher — August 21, 2008 @ 10:30 pm

  6. Chris,
    I look at the parallels between revival and reformation in my article on the Mormon Reformation that is currently being revised for Religion and American Culture. The Mormons tapped into the old jeremiad style of preaching during these years that had been introduced in New England in the 1650s and which had since that time been a major theme in Protestant culture. Mormons weren’t much for this type of thing before or after the Reformation, and it is ironic that it was during this period that they most closely resembled their religious ancestors and their contemporaries in tone. Stapley is right, as usual, that “reformation” was preached as early as the trek west, but it wasn’t until hte 1855 period that it found such systemmatic application in word and deed.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 21, 2008 @ 10:32 pm

  7. Chris, I like the idea of looking at the Reformation in terms of a 19th Century revial. Sounds like a promising idea.

    Comment by Brett D. — August 21, 2008 @ 10:32 pm

  8. Taysom, I suspected you might have done something on the subject. I look forward to the published article.

    Comment by Christopher — August 21, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

  9. One of the letters mentioned in passing the arrival of the Willey-Martin company. Do you think the Reformation going on helped to color how we interpreted the Handcart Pioneer stories? (Or in other words, how are these narratives related?)

    Comment by Coffinberry — August 22, 2008 @ 8:30 am

  10. This is a little off-topic, but can I just say how much I appreciate the openness here?

    I frequent some maritime history discussion boards where historians tend to be quite secretive about on-going research projects and regard each other with a good deal of suspicion, for fear someone else will “steal” their project and beat them to the publisher.

    It says a lot about you guys that, apparently, no one here has to worry about those kinds of issues.

    Comment by JimD — August 22, 2008 @ 11:31 am

  11. Actually I just stole Taysom’s idea and am self-publishing it via to steal his thunder. I’ll be sending copies to Buckingham Palace and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

    On a serious note, congratulations on the article, Steve. Have you situated it in early itinerant Mormon evangelism? there was an awful lot of millenarian jeremiads being preached by the itinerants (er, elders), and I’m not sure whether they were preaching that way to branches as well as lookers-on. Interesting to think about preaching to the elect in the congregation versus preaching to the unchurched/backsliders in terms of the intensity of rhetoric. my sense of the harsh revival sermons was that they were defined to create regeneration among the unchurched and to validate the regenerated in their superiority over them. I guess as I write this was the same for Mormons, with those nearly psychopathic enforcers that made life complicated for the more urbane among the LDS.

    I’m still fascinated by nancy towle’s comment that many believers in the American backcountry were investigating Mormonism because they were afraid of the possibility that their predictions of imminent destruction of the non-Mormons. this was ca. 1831 and seems accurate to my reading.

    Comment by smb — August 23, 2008 @ 8:04 pm

  12. smb,
    I think that itinerant Mormon preaching in general is a fascinating and neglected topic. I haven’t done any formal work on that kind of rhetoric but it does seem to adhere to typical revival-style discourse typical of the 2nd GA.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 26, 2008 @ 5:58 am

  13. Sorry for my silence–it’s probably not the best blog ethics to post and then disappear for a week (I was in Montanna with no wi-fi). Thanks to all who stepped in and answered questions much better than I could have. Ardis and Steve, thanks for the offer–I just may take you up on it.

    Comment by stan — August 31, 2008 @ 7:02 pm


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