Most members of the church, including myself until just recently, would have no idea about a period of history in the church referred to as “The Reformation.” I have always thought the church would never have needed anything like a “Reformation.” I always believed the continuing succession of leaders after Joseph Smith precluded the need for anything that might be called a “Reformation.” The word Reformation implies change or alteration. Isn’t that what the restoration was all about to begin with after all? Exactly what was it about the church Joseph had established under the direction of the Lord that needed reforming after only 26 years of existence? As I learn more about the Mormon Reformation, I realize it was actually much less a reformation of the church itself so much as it was an evolution within the leadership of it. I have come to realize there is much more to learn about the early church leadership from the Mormon Reformation than about the wayward membership the leaders were attempting to “reform.”
The Mormon Reformation was an effort by Brigham Young and his leadership team of the church to bring in line or “reform” the membership of the church. It was the perception of President Young in 1856 that the people were becoming too relaxed, too dispassionate about their duties and responsibilities. As a result Brigham Young and his first presidency began the reformation program in earnest. It quickly turned into a revivalist atmosphere among the members of the church and more. Almost all existing members were required to be re-baptized or lose their membership in the church.
It was during this same period that President Young began the rhetoric and teaching of blood atonement. This doctrine provided that there were certain sins that in order to be forgiven of, a sinner must shed their own blood. Apologists claim the doctrine was never actually practiced. Critics claim it was. It is not our purpose here to decide that question. It is important for what we are considering to understand however, the doctrine was taught and espoused by Brigham Young openly and in public, almost no one refutes that. It is a historical fact. Whether or not the doctrine was ever actually practiced, it had the effect of instilling fear and anxiety in the people. During the reformation, messengers sent from the church visited each home of the members. These “home missionaries” came equipped with a list of questions to be read for confession purposes in every home. Among the questions to be asked in each home were these that if answered in the affirmative were understood to carry a penalty of blood atonement:
“Have you committed murder, by shedding innocent blood, or consenting thereto?”
“Have you betrayed your brethren or sisters in anything?”
“Have you committed adultery, by having any connection with a woman that was not your wife, or a man that was not your husband?” (Questions taken from Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard, page 26)
In addition to these, there were another 23 questions the home missionaries administered in the homes of the people.
From the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: (which I find more apologetic than most other sources.)
“The revivalistic spirit, the anxious confession, and the mass rebaptisms, however, gradually gave way to more judicious and ordered reform. The reform became especially systematic at Church headquarters, where a policy was established to have two home missionaries assigned to each ward. Equipped with a twenty-seven-question catechism to help measure the worthiness of the Saints, the home missionaries assisted families with everything from hygiene and church attendance to obeying the Ten Commandments. Only after some months of missionary-member visits were Saints in the Salt Lake City wards rebaptized in early spring of 1857. In Salt Lake City, rebaptism generally marked the formal end of the Reformation, though reform fervor continued until mid-1858.
Under instructions from President Young, the Reformation was carried to settlements and missions throughout the world. While procedures differed somewhat in areas away from Utah, rebaptism was a strong recommendation for all the Saints. It symbolized both forgiveness of sin and a recommitment to obey commandments. Those who refused to be rebaptized might lose their membership in the Church. In Britain, zealous application of Reformation principles resulted in trimming from Church rolls a large number of the less-committed.”
As a side note, what do you suppose would be the response if you were to request a re-baptism for yourself from a present day church leader?
The revelations given by the Lord through Joseph Smith provided every guideline needed for Priesthood leadership to deal with every leadership issue then and now. As I consider the reformation, I find practically none of the revealed priesthood principals for leadership applied. It is for this reason I find more in the reformation that causes me to question the actions of the leadership than the poor members who were summarily and systematically raked over the proverbial coals. Because revealed priesthood leadership principles were absent, the Lords people were subjected to unneeded anxiety, pressure, and fear. It is clear; control, compulsion, and dominion were the leadership tactics of the day. We will consider here just how destructive such practices by men are to any priesthood power they think they may have.
In the Doctrine & Covenants the Lord instructed, “Let no man think he is ruler; but let God rule him that judgeth, according to the counsel of his own will, or, in other words, him that counseleth or sitteth upon the judgment seat.” Priesthood leaders are not to set themselves up as “rulers” of the people. (D&C 58: 20) They do not “rule” over anyone.
The ancient apostles James and John approached the Master and asked Him if they might sit on His left, and the other on His right hand in His Kingdom. This request agitated the remaining ten apostles. The Master used this occasion to teach the great Priesthood leadership principle. He said, “Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10: 42-45) Again, as he did in D&C 58, the Lord makes it clear; priesthood leaders are not to assume they are “rulers” of the people. They rule over no one, to choose to do so as we will see, results in forfeiture of priesthood power.
The Lord revealed correct priesthood leadership principles in a magnificent revelation to the prophet Joseph Smith. The Mormon Reformation, and the actions of the leaders of the day, if they are weighed against these eternal truths, is found greatly wanting. D&C 121: 36-44 is given by the Lord as follows: (with commentary following)
36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
The only possible way the rights and powers of the priesthood can be controlled or handled by any man regardless of position or calling is upon principles of righteousness. There must be a connection with heaven itself. That connection does not and cannot come from a position or calling including president, prophet, or pope. We have already seen the Lord does not consider acting as a ruler over people a principle of righteousness. It is in fact unrighteousness. There could not have been the direction or blessing of heaven in the Mormon Reformation because its foundations were unrighteousness.
37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
The conferral of priesthood is no guarantee of power in the priesthood. A man may be ordained to a priesthood office and never have any power in the priesthood whatsoever. If any or all of the parameters outlined by the Lord in this verse are violated the spirit of the Lord is grieved. When the spirit of the Lord becomes grieved it is withdrawn from the man. The Lord then declares “Amen” to the priesthood and authority of the man. A very convincing case can be put forth that every one of the qualifying attributes of unrighteousness in this verse were violated by the church leaders in the Mormon Reformation.
38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
In this verse we find a direct and stern warning from the Lord to wayward leaders. It is one thing to forfeit your priesthood by your actions. (This usually happens unbeknown to the man because in his arrogance and blindness he believes wrongly that he has rights and privileges because he has been ordained or has such and such a calling or position.) However, when you do forfeit priesthood power, and the connection with heaven by which it may be exercised, since you no longer have any connection, help, or rights from heaven, the only options left for you if you choose to continue in unrighteousness is to “kick against the pricks,” to “persecute the saints,” and to “fight against God.” Persecuting the saints in the reformation seems to have been the chosen fare of resort for leaders whose priesthood surely must have been forfeited according to the criteria the Lord set.
39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
The effects of our fall and the telestial existence we all struggle against make flaws and mistakes in every man inevitable without exception. All of us, including anyone and every one regardless of position or rank who has been ordained to a priesthood office are disposed to immediately think it is their right to “rule” and to use their position or calling to exercise what the Lord calls “unrighteous dominion.” To borrow words from an earlier verse, unrighteous dominion includes any effort at any level by a leader to “control” or to apply any amount or level of “compulsion” whatsoever upon the souls of the children of men. The Mormon Reformation was at its heart an effort on the part of leaders to implement and extend control and compulsion upon people. The dominion exercised against church members by the leadership of the church during the Mormon Reformation is in my opinion, the poster child case for “unrighteous dominion.”
40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
Zion has failed in the church for a number of complex reasons. The unrighteous efforts of church leaders to control, to apply compulsion, and their exercise of unrighteous dominion upon the souls of members of the church is at least a major contributing factor.
41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.
The leadership applied almost none of the accepted principles of priesthood leadership from these verses in the Mormon Reformation. No wonder it failed miserably to create greater spirituality among the people. It did however instill plenty of fear and subservience to the leaders. Such leaders, such principles, deserve no loyalty or followership from any of Gods children.
Vestiges of these flawed leadership tools and philosophies were passed along and remain in the church today. Though cloaked in a slightly different garment than what appeared in the mid 1800’s, control, compulsion, and dominion are yet tools used to achieve desired results of church leaders from the people. The people want and need priestly, Christlike, humble, loving, servants to minister righteousness among them. The Lord requires it. He has offered no other options for priesthood leaders. Other options adopted by men result in "Amen” to their priesthood.