Christopher has already ably outlined the morning session of today’s conference at UVU on Mormon schismatics. Here I will summarize the proceedings from the afternoon.
The afternoon session was comprised of three speakers on three different and important groups that traced their origins to Joseph Smith, Jr. R. Jean Addams presented on the Church of Christ, Temple Lot (Hedrickites), Vickie Cleverley Speek spoke about the Strangites, and Michael Van Wagenen summarized his research on the Wightites in Texas. Like the morning session, the three speakers first presented their individual papers and then combined for a panel and Q/A session. This format allowed for questions that examined the three groups in comparison to one another, which was one major objective of the conference.
R. Jean Addams is a history buff living in Washington state and his presentation was a summary of Hedrickite history from the 1860s, when they first began gathering to Jackson County, through the controversies with the RLDS in the 1890s, and culminating with the present day church. The Hedrickites grew out of a group of Latter Day Saints that had remained in the midwest after the death of Joseph Smith in 1844. Granville Hedrick, their charismatic leader, reported in 1864 that an angel had appeared to him with the instructions to return to Jackson County, re-acquire the temple lot, and build the temple. In the late 1860s his followers began gathering in Independence and bit by bit bought title to the land set apart by Smith in 1831 as the future site of the temple. The group was unable begin construction of the temple and by the late 1880s the much larger Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had begun settling in the region. Joseph Smith III believed that the temple lot rightfully belonged to the RLDS, which an Ohio court had declared in 1867 to be the true successor of the original Mormon church. The 1890s saw what came to be known as the Temple Lot Case, which formally involved the RLDS and the Hedrickites as parties, but the Utah church also provided witnesses (including Wilford Woodruff and other prominent Brighamites) and money to the Hedrickites. Although the court initially granted the land to the RLDS, on appeal the decision was reversed and the Hedrickites retained title. Addams also discussed the controversies over Hedrickite apostle Otto Fetting’s revelations during the 1920s, which resulted in Fetting leaving the church. Addams indicated that there are perhaps 8,000 Hedrickites today, many of whom are third-world converts.
Vickie Cleverley Speek is a former journalist that recently wrote God Has Made Us a Kingdom: James Strang and Midwest Mormons, a fine examination of Strang, his wives, and the early Strangite movement. Strang was Brigham Young’s greatest challenger during the aftermath of Smith’s death, presenting a charismatic alternative to the more pragmatic and authoritarian Young. Strang claimed an angel had appointed him to be Smith’s successor and was able to produce a letter from Smith directing Strang to establish a stake in Wisconsin. In addition, Strang translated a set of purportedly ancient plates which several witnesses testified were real. Strang was able to attract thousands of followers that yearned for a charismatic leader that paralleled in many ways the founder. Speek narrated first the establishment of a major Strangite settlement in Voree, Wisconsin, and then the founding of Beaver Island in Michigan, where Strang was crowned king, initiated an endowment ceremony, instituted polygamy, and even served in the state legislature. In 1856, Strang was martyred by a former follower, providing yet another parallel to Joseph Smith. Speek indicated that perhaps 100 Strangites remain today.
Michael Van Wagenen is a PhD. candidate at the University of Utah who wrote a master’s thesis on the negotiations between Sam Houston and Mormon representatives to buy a considerable piece of Texas land during the early 1840s. The Texas plan was one of several such plans instituted by Smith and the Council of Fifty to move the church if necessary to an isolated region and establish an independent government. Houston was open to the idea because if his efforts to annex Texas to the United States failed, he needed a buffer between his republic and Mexico. Van Wagenen presented evidence that in the last weeks of Smith’s life Smith rejected the idea of going to Texas, and after his martyrdom Brigham Young completely rejected the plan. Apostle Lyman Wight, who had been involved in the negotiations, led a group of Latter Day Saints to Texas and presided over a Mormon settlement there until his death in 1858. There are no Wightites today.
Addams, Speek, and Van Wagenen then assembled for a panel and Q/A. Some of the questions revolved around the Temple Lot Case, the views of the Hedrickites on Blacks and the Priesthood and African polygamy, and other queries about the specific groups. But other questions such as views of the Pearl of Great Price as scripture, understandings of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s status as a prophet/fallen prophet, and positions on Smith’s temple ceremonies allowed the panelists to bring the three groups into dialog with each other by comparing and contrasting views. This was perhaps the greatest benefit of the conference format and I think it successfully allowed the presenters and the audience to think in new ways about these groups that were both united and divided by their understandings of Joseph Smith’s legacy.