The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints emerged out of the remnants of early Mormonism remaining in the Midwest in the 1850s, and from the very beginning its missionary program was oriented toward converting the larger group of Saints who had followed Brigham Young and the Council of the Twelve Apostles to Utah. When Joseph Smith III, the son of the Mormon founder, became president of the "Reorganization" in 1860, he continued the emphasis on reclaiming early Mormons. Smith said in his inaugural address to the Reorganization's general conference that while he respected those who had gone to Utah, he thought they had been misled and were controlled by an authoritarian system which held them, if not against their will, at least in ignorance of other possibilities. He believed that all the Reorganized Church had to do to redeem these people as well as those in other Mormon factions was to offer an alternative form of the religion, one that was in his opinion more effective in teaching the truths revealed by the founding prophet.
Immediately after taking office, Smith prepared to send missionaries to the Mormon stronghold of Utah with a simple threefold message. First, the missionaries emphasized the news of Joseph Smith III's accession to the Reorganization's presidency, as the "true successor" to his father's position. Second, Brigham Young and all other claimants to the mantle of the prophet were condemned as usurpers of legitimate religious authority. Finally, the Reorganized Church's missionaries preached against esoteric Mormon doctrines, especially and most vocally condemning the practice of plural marriage.
It was therefore a momentous occasion when the April 1863 general conference of the Reorganization approved the sending of the first two missionaries to Utah. For many it signified a coming of age for the Reorganized Church, and they expected that it would yield overwhelming results, perhaps even the downfall of Brigham Young's organization. They based this hope on a periodic importuning from a few residents of the Utah Territory asking for the Reorganization to send ministers into the region. In 1863, for example, the newspaper of the church, the True Latter Day Saints' Herald, reported that the First Presidency had received over 500 letters from the Great Basin "urging young Joseph to send missionaries there."
While success was never as great as anticipated, the Reorganized Church sought to maximize the potential by sending two of its most outstanding preachers to Utah in the summer of 1863. Edmund C. Briggs, heading the missionary team, was a recently ordained apostle who had achieved dazzling success among other Mormon factions in Iowa in the earliest years of the Reorganization, baptizing over 100 new members and organizing six church branches. He brought an unusual blend of religious conviction, missionary skill, and administrative ability to the mission. His associate was Alexander McCord, a member of the early Mormon church and veteran of the Mormon Battalion who had settled in Utah after mustering out of the U.S. Army only to become disillusioned and bitter about what he considered the excesses of church government under Brigham Young. As a result, McCord returned to the Midwest in 1847 and joined the Reorganized Church when its missionaries visited his home near Galland's Grove, Iowa.
Briggs and McCord arrived in Salt Lake City on 7 August 1863 after a thousand-mile trek by wagon. The men immediately set to work preaching in the streets of the city, calling on the Mormons to "Arise, shake off your sins; turn once again to the Lord and serve him with all your might and strength." But this did little to endear them to the church leaders in the city, and soon it provoked action to stop the missionary work.
On 11 August 1863 Brigham Young and about thirty other church leaders met with Briggs and McCord to discuss the situation. The Reorganization missionaries declared their purpose, condemned the organization that Young headed, and immediately set up a confrontational relationship. As a result, Young told them he would not allow them to preach in any building that the church controlled in Utah Territory, which was most of them, and suggested that Briggs and McCord leave Utah because they might not be safe. Young said that zealots might try to cause them harm and that he "would not be responsible for [their lives] on the streets for a single hour." Whether this was an honest expression of concern or a veiled threat matters little, for there were no incidents of physical violence during the missionaries' stay in Utah. With enmity clearly showing between the factions the meeting then broke up; but, as they left, the missionaries declared their intention to continuing their preaching.
In addition to preaching, both in the street and in a few homes of non-Mormons, Briggs began writing for non-Mormon periodicals in the area. In the Daily Union Vendette, published at Fort Douglas near Salt Lake City, Briggs found a forum for the presentation of the main tenets of the Reorganization and a launching pad for setting up speaking engagements. At the same time, Briggs sent McCord to begin missionary work in Ogden while he continued working in Salt Lake City.
The missionaries were zealous in finding forums for their message, and, as a result, they had several scrapes with Latter-day Saint authorities. Over a period of several months, the missionaries built a respectable following in Utah. A high point came on 6 September 1863 when Briggs conducted the first Reorganized Church baptismal service in Salt Lake City. At that time sixteen people affiliated with the Reorganization, and on 26 January 1864 they founded a branch. Moderate success continued thereafter, and there were over 100 Reorganization members in Salt Lake City by 6 April 1864. In November 1863 Briggs had baptized an important convert, George P. Dykes. Immediately ordained an elder, Dykes began using his contacts to build a support base for the Reorganization in the territory. As a long-time resident of Utah, Dykes was able to gain a hearing among many of his former church associates, and it was largely through his assistance that the Utah mission grew to over 300 members by the spring of 1864. As one of their last official missionary acts, Briggs and McCord organized the Utah District of the Reorganized Church.
When the two Reorganized Church missionaries left Utah on 12 August 1864 they were satisfied with their efforts. Briggs reported that he was "happy to inform that the work of the Lord in this territory is onward with rapid strides to the spiritual observer, and I feel every day more and more encouraged with the prospects before me of the triumph of the gospel of Jesus."
Encouraged by this turn of events, the Reorganization's leadership kept missionaries in Utah throughout most of the remainder of the nineteenth century. In particular, the descendants of the founding prophet made several visits to the area on behalf of the Reorganization. The two younger brothers of Joseph Smith III, Alexander H. Smith and David H. Smith, undertook missionary work in Utah in August 1866 while en route to California; and they again visited Utah in 1869. The second trip, however, had to be cut short when David took ill, a malady that eventually led to his being committed to the Elgin, Illinois, home for the insane in 1877. Joseph Smith III also made three missionary trips to Utah--1876, 1885, and 1889--where he met with cousins and preached to packed houses every time. In the early part of the twentieth century, the son of Joseph Smith III and designated successor to the presidency of the Reorganized Church, Frederick Madison Smith, made several missionary trips to Utah. Other members of the Smith family have followed suit on behalf of the Reorganized Church since that time.
Without question, the Reorganization's most successful period of activity in Utah was before 1890, while the Utah Mormons were still overtly practicing polygamy. This doctrine served as an easily discernible difference between the two groups and opened the door for conversions of Mormons who had difficulties with the practice. In the 1880 census of Utah, the group's overall success was demonstrated by the registration of 820 individuals as Reorganized Church members, and this did not take into account the many people who were converted from Mormonism and then quickly left the state. By 1890 the number of Reorganization members in Utah stood at more than a thousand. Jason W. Briggs, a Reorganization apostle who first undertook a Utah mission in 1875, commented that more than ten years later "the footprints of the first missionaries of the Reorganization are still visible," caustically adding, "and all the soft soap of the Tabernacle works can not wash them out."
Despite Briggs's assessment, after the turn of the century the Reorganized Church's fortunes in Utah clearly declined. The blurring of identities between the two Mormon factions as Utah Mormonism began accommodating to American culture led to a less receptive audience for Reorganization missionaries. In addition, the Reorganized Church began changing in the middle part of the twentieth century and started to mirror more mainstream Protestant conceptions, most of which were not particularly attractive to many Utah Latter-day Saints. As a result, at the end of the twentieth century, the Reorganization has only three small branches in the state--in Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Orem.
See: Alma R. Blair, "RLDS Views of Polygamy: Some Historiographical Notes," John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 5 (1985); Alma R. Blair, "The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: Moderate Mormons," in Mark F. McKiernan, Alma R. Blair, and Paul M. Edwards, eds., The Restoration Movement: Essays in Mormon History (1973); Wayne A. Ham, "Truth Affirmed, Error Denied: The Great Debates of the Early Reorganization," John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 7 (1987); Richard P. Howard, "The Changing RLDS Response to Mormon Polygamy: A Preliminary Analysis," John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 3 (1983); Roger D. Launius, Father Figure: Joseph Smith III and the Creation of the Reorganized Church (1990); Roger D. Launius, Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet (1988); Clare D. Vlahos, "Images of Orthodoxy: Self-Identity in Early Reorganization Apologetics," in Maurice L. Draper and Clare D. Vlahos, eds., Restoration Studies I (1980).
Roger D. Launius