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 are
aa 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-
perience, 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 andLoss 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