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Religion Library: Mormonism

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Stephen Taysom

The belief in continuing revelation, living prophets, and an emphasis on the ideas of apostasy and restoration that formed the core of Joseph Smith's experience and religious message also provided the pattern for schism. During Joseph Smith's lifetime, most of the schismatic breaks occurred over differences between followers and Smith over theological or administrative issues. As early as 1831, some Mormons claimed to have been instructed by God to leave Joseph Smith's organization, which the dissenters believed to have lost divine favor, and form separate churches. These early schisms never grew beyond a dozen members and, for all practical purposes, disappeared from history.

The most significant sectarian divides occurred after Smith's death and may be divided into two broad categories: Mormons who rejected the leadership of Brigham Young after Smith's death in 1844, and Mormons who rejected the LDS Church's disavowal of plural marriage in 1890.

When Smith was killed, a power struggle ensued between Brigham Young, who was the president of the Church's Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and Sidney Rigdon, a member of the Church's governing First Presidency but who was disaffected from Smith. The majority of Mormons in Nauvoo chose to follow Young, and this group settled in Utah where they became the largest and most well known of the sects that trace their roots back to Joseph Smith. Those who rejected Young's leadership and Joseph Smith's first wife, Emma, and her children, remained in the midwest, along with large number of scattered Mormons who were not caught up in the westward movement.

These Mormons began to coalesce in the 1850s, and in 1860 they persuaded Joseph Smith's oldest son, Joseph Smith III, to take leadership of their movement. This group called itself the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and taught that polygamy and the rituals of endowment and eternal marriage were not introduced by Joseph Smith, but were later innovations conceived and implemented by Brigham Young. The RLDS Church, headquartered in Missouri, and the LDS Church, headquartered in Utah, maintained a cold relationship during the 19th century, with Joseph Smith's teachings and legacy as the main bones of contention. After the LDS Church abandoned the practice of polygamy, the relationship between the two main branches of the Mormon movement improved significantly. In 2000, the RLDS Church changed its name to the Community of Christ.

When LDS Church president Wilford Woodruff announced that plural marriages would no longer be performed by the Church (1890), he laid the groundwork for another major schism. Because the practice of plural marriage had been central to the theological identity of the LDS Church in the years after 1852, those who had sacrificed and suffered for their adherence to the principle found it difficult to accept Woodruff's decree. Various Church leaders continued to authorize, perform, and enter into plural marriages for another two decades.

In the 1920s, when the Church began to excommunicate those who married polygamously, several small, family-based sects emerged that claimed to have received unpublicized visits from divine messengers who had instructed them to continue the practice of plural marriage. Following the typical pattern of Mormon schisms, these sects claimed that the main body of the Church had gone astray from divine injunctions and had therefore lost the authority of the one true Church.

Polygamous Mormon sects continue to evolve and develop to the present.  In 2006, one such sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, gained notoriety when its leader, Warren Jeffs, became a fugitive. Jeffs was eventually arrested and charged with a variety of crimes relating to marriages of adults to minors in his community. Also in 2006, HBO launched a popular television series called "Big Love," which followed the lives of members of a fictional Mormon polygamous sect.


Study Questions:
1.     When did the most significant divide happen amongst the Mormon followers? What sects did it create?
2.     Who was Brigham Young? Why was he a figure of controversy?
3.     What issue strongly divided the two sects? How was it resolved?
4.     How has polygamy created a sect in contemporary society?

 
     
     
     

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