Reviews – Conflict in the Quorum: Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith
Western Historical Quarterly, Kenneth W. Godfrey
Historians of the American West who include the Mormon experience in their studies usually focus on settlement patterns, water rights, relationships with Native Americans, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, church and state conflicts, and plural marriage. Mormonism is depicted as a monolithic corporate structure that leaves little room for theological speculation and freedom of thought. Writers tend to believe that when the Lion of the Lord (Brigham Young) roared, all the thinking had been done and Utah grew silent. Only the sounds of church members rushing to fall into step filled the mountain air.
Gary James Bergera relates a different story as he details the theological conflicts that raged between Brigham Young and Orson Pratt. Was Mormonism, according to Pratt’s argument, to become a religion primarily bound to scripture or would it continue to find its fundamental strength in the living oracles who led the church, the position espoused by Brigham Young?
Church members were aware of many of these conflicts. Accounts were published in Mormon newspapers and church leaders addressed subjects regarding Pratt’s and Young’s disagreements in public meetings as well as in the private gatherings of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. At the time, more church members sided with Young than Pratt, but in the twentieth century, Mormon leaders found many of the theories of Pratt more acceptable than those of Young. As Bergera points out, “reliance on Pratt has continued to be pervasive and unmistakable in Mormonism to the present” (p. 282).
Pratt’s difficulties with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young began in Kirtland, Ohio, where he and Joseph Smith argued over the pronunciation of a Hebrew word. They disagreed, too, over aspects of plural marriage and Pratt’s belief that Joseph Smith had “made advances towards apostles’ wives, including his own companion, Sarah” (p. 19). Pratt’s conflicts with Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, included disagreements over such theological issues as Young’s Adam-God doctrine, Young’s idea of the eternal progression of God, and on worshiping the attributes of deity.
Bergera’s primary sources are minutes of meetings of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, diary entries of participating parties in the conflicts, and the words of the combatants themselves. (Historians today are denied access to the minutes, an important trove of primary source material.)
While Young clearly convinced other church leaders that even apostles were required to seek his approval before teaching or publishing new ideas, Pratt won the war of words. It can be effectively argued, as Bergera does, that today many of Pratt’s theological ideas are supported in the writings of Mormon apostles, while those espoused by Young are believed to be flawed.
Those convinced that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have always been “monolithically unified” and afraid to speak their minds will find this book not only surprising but interesting as well. Bergera’s volume whets the appetite of those interested in Mormon doctrine and points to the need for someone to research and write a multivolume history of Latter-day Saint theology. There is, I believe, a trove of documents available to historians in Mormon archives to make such a study possible. “The field is white, ready to harvest,” to borrow a phrase often used in the Doctrine and Covenants, a book both Young and Pratt agreed was scripture.
Religious Studies Review, Kurt Widmer
The conflicts between Apostle Orson Pratt, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young revolve around the key concepts of apostolic authority, theological harmony, and the role of continuing revelation within the governing body of the LDS church. The Pratt-Smith conflict emerges with the introduction of plural marriage and an alleged illicit affair of Pratt’s wife Sarah in 1842. Bergera argues effectively that the 1842 allegation was a response to Sarah’s rejection of Joseph Smith’s advances. Pratt, his world shattered over the incident, voluntarily withdrew from the church for a time. This led to the misconception that he had been excommunicated. The alleged excommunication would provide Brigham Young with the legitimization needed to realign the governing body in 1875. The first major Pratt-Young conflict began in 1847 with the reorganization of the First Presidency. Pratt contended it was the right of the apostles to lead the church and not a separate quorum or individual. The debates continued for the next two decades over doctrinal issues. Bergera argues effectively that the heart of the conflict lay in Pratt’s intellectual reservations over Young’s consolidation of power and Young’s theological teachings. It was Pratt’s striving for a consistent, harmonizing, literal hermeneutic rather than blind acceptance of charismatic authority that led to the difficulties. Bergera’s work provides a valuable tool for researchers by including transcripts of previously unpublished apostolic council minutes surrounding the Pratt-Young conflicts. Bergera has made a welcome and significant contribution to the field of Mormon studies.
Wisconsin Bookwatch, James A. Cox
Compiled and analyzed by Mormon scholar Gary James Bergera (director, Smith-Pettit Foundation, Salt Lake City), Conflict in the Quorum is a meticulously researched, carefully written documentation of the manifold disagreements between various strong-willed and devout leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as “the Mormons,” during its first turbulent years of existence. Looking at how conflicts between diverse leaders had significant and enduring effects upon LDS doctrine, policy, and organizational structure, Conflict is an impressive body of scholarship which presents an astutely written and insightful account that can be read with considerable interest by both academic and non-specialist general readers alike.
Journal of Mormon History, William G. Hartley
A pervasive belief among LDS church members, author Gary Bergera affirms, is that “harmony prevails within the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles.” But historically, he cautions, “differences of opinion can and do erupt into debates” within this leadership group (vii), and his important book examines one major case of such—”the sometimes contentious relationship” between Apostle Orson Pratt and church presidents Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
Among nineteenth-century LDS leaders who were not presidents of the church, few tower taller than Apostle Orson Pratt. A missionary as energetic as the apostle Paul, Pratt crossed the ocean sixteen times on missions. Wilbur D. Talbot asserts in Acts of the Modern Apostles (120-21) that Pratt “walked more miles, preached more sermons, and converted more people than any other man of his generation.” A leader in the church’s pioneering and colonizing work, Pratt was a legislator, mathematician, and astronomer His logical mind produced “precisely written theological studies,” providing powerful defenses of LDS doctrines.” (1) T. Edgar Lyon posited that Pratt “did more to formulate the Mormons’ idea of God, the religious basis of polygamy, the pre-existence of spirits, the doctrine of the gathering of Israel, the resurrection, and eternal salvation than any other person in the church, with the exception of Joseph Smith” (qtd. p. 281).
In an even-handed way, Bergera carefully explores the main conflicts Pratt had with his two church presidents (Smith and Young) and shows how and what kind of resolutions—albeit sometimes tenuous ones—were reached. Bergera did not take sides but “tried to consider each person’s perspective in terms of how he interpreted his circumstances” and “to set aside my own preconceptions and biases as much as possible,” relying on the participants’ own words and their contexts to form the core of the study (viii).
Among the conflicts discussed are: Pratt’s feud with Joseph Smith in 1842 when Pratt was dropped from the Twelve; Pratt’s opposition to reconstituting the First Presidency in 1847; Young’s dressing-down of Pratt in the 1850s and 1860s for preaching and publishing doctrines of which he did not approve (the nature of God, the creation, Adam’s role, the Holy Spirit, and God’s omniscience, among others); Pratt’s publishing without authorization Lucy Mack Smith’s history of Joseph Smith; Pratt’s championing of Joseph Smith’s inspired version of the Bible; and ultimately Pratt’s 1875 demotion in seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve.
This book expands upon Bergera’s previous essays published on the subject: a 1980 Dialogue article about the 1853-68 Pratt-Young controversies and a Journal of Mormon History essay (1992) focusing on Pratt’s demotion in seniority and the quorum realignment of 1875.
Regarding sources, Bergera informs readers that much of his research was done in the late 1970s at the LDS Church Historical Department when “policies regarding access to the papers of general church officers were different” (viii). Unable since then to reexamine those sources, he had to rely on his old notes and photocopies. We therefore benefit from such research that is no longer possible, which is a major contribution of this book.
Certainly since the first Twelve in this dispensation were chosen in 1835, there have been “conflicts in the quorum,” so Bergera doesn’t plow new ground there. A short list of such conflicts includes Thomas B. Marsh’s removal as president of the Twelve (the famous quarrel over the pail of milk); William Smith’s ‘violence upon” Joseph Smith in Kirtland; Lyman Wight’s insistence, over Brigham Young’s objections, on carrying out Joseph Smith’s assignment to go on a mission to Texas; and dropping Moses Thatcher, John W. Taylor, and Matthias Cowley from the quorum. Notable, too, is the “conflict” that caused President Joseph F. Smith to silence Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith and Seventy Brigham H. Roberts from arguing about the creation of the earth. What Bergera provides here is the most in-depth study of which I’m aware regarding the internal differences at the First Presidency-Twelve levels and how they were resolved.
Bergera first tells us about Orson Pratt’s negative reactions to plural marriage in Nauvoo and his alienation from the prophet. Scanty documentation surrounds the disciplinary action taken against Pratt in August 1842 other than that he was “cut off.” In chapter 2, Bergera shows that Pratt was “cut off” from the quorum, not from the church, and that his reinstatement in 1843 returned him to his “former office and standing” in the Twelve (36, 45). The next chapter assesses Pratt’s opposition to reconstituting the First Presidency in November and December 1848 and provides verbatim minutes from an “intense three-week period” of meetings (82), during which the matter was thoroughly debated until Pratt conceded. “A pattern emerged that would repeat,” Bergera noted. “Pratt would continue to feel the need, or the responsibility, to question Young, who for his part would respond in kind to Pratt” (82). Next, Bergera examines Pratt’s major philosophical writing and thinking, most of it published in The Seer, the newspaper Pratt edited in Washington D.C. (1852-54). As defender of the faith, Bergera says, Pratt “had few equals,” but “these same gifts would earn him another near-expulsion form the church he loved” (104). From then on, Pratt’s and Young’s differences became “increasingly polarized in a battle of wills between two strong, opinionated minds” (110).
When Pratt returned from the East in 1854, Pratt’s and Young’s doctrinal conflicts escalated (chap. 5), particularly those relating to the omniscience of God and to Young’s “Adam-God” teachings. Pratt had had Lucy Mack Smith’s history of Joseph Smith published in England in 1853, an act that Young criticized as unauthorized and as perpetrating false history. Young criticized Pratt publicly several times. “He is dabbling with things that he does not understand,” Young preached in March 1857; “his vain philosophy is no criterion or guide for the Saints in doctrine” (132). In 1858 Pratt was nearly disfellowshipped (133).
The next chapter, “False Doctrine,” quotes lengthy excerpts from minutes of a lengthy meeting on January 27, 1860, of Fist Presidency, Twelve, Seventy, and other leaders called to resolve Pratt’s and Young’s doctrinal disagreements. Afterward, Pratt felt humiliated to see how out of harmony he was, not only with President Young, but “with his quorum and church” (151). In response, he preached a “confessional sermon on January 29, 1860.” Chapter 7 contains the entire text. But that confession, as the next two chapters demonstrate, “actually exacerbated, rather than resolved” the two men’s differences (170). Chapter 10 discusses two personal developments very hurtful to Pratt: his separation from his first wife, Sarah, and the excommunication of his son, Orson Pratt Jr., for “unbelief.”
Next, Bergera details how Young in 1860 formally denounced both the Lucy Mack Smith history and Pratt’s “confessional sermon.” He also chided Pratt for his teachings about how Adam originated, the Holy Spirit, the creation, and other matters and insisted that “no member of the Church has the right to publish any doctrines, as the doctrines of the Church … without first submitting them for examination and approval to the Fist Presidency” (242). Young’s criticisms were designed, Bergera finds, “to reduce the influence of Pratt’s theories, not to diminish the status of the apostle himself.” Pratt immediately issued a statement of “sincere regret” for publishing things troublesome to church authorities (243).
Chapter 12 describes Pratt’s return from England in 1867 “determined to distance himself” privately and publicly “from several of his disputed theories” (246). After that, “conflict between the two men dissipated” as the infirmities of age and other assignments took priority in their lives (251). Bergera then deals with the 1875 rearrangement of seniority in the Twelve that resulted in the demotion of Hyde and Pratt. Young took that action, Bergera argues, to prevent Hyde and Pratt from ever becoming church presidents because they had “faltered” in the past (280).
In his conclusion, Bergera posits that “the primary issues were not the attributes of God or the identity of Adam or the publication of Lucy Mack Smith’s history and Joseph Smith’s Bible. Rather, they were conflicts over authority—Young’s notion of dynamic revelation and the primacy of contemporary statements by living prophets on the one hand and Pratt’s fundamentalist adherence to a literal interpretation of divine canon on the other” (284). Pratt, Bergera adds, despite “protracted doctrinal disagreements with Young, … would remain forever committed to the church and its teachings, even at the expense of his own welfare and that of his several families” (83).
Bergera’s fine book would have been strengthened by noting that, prior to the 1842 crisis, Orson Pratt and his brother Parley had taken exception to Joseph Smith’s financial management in Kirtland. Also, the book’s title may mislead a little. “Quorum” refers to the Twelve, from which the First Presidency is drawn. From the title, one would expect the study to focus on the quorum itself during each of the conflicts discussed. How did the Twelve, as a quorum and as individual members, respond to these episodes? What role did Orson Hyde, the quorum president, play during these conflicts? Who among the Twelve sided with Pratt, particularly during conflicts about the Adam-God controversy, the Lucy Mack Smith publication, and the Joseph Smith translation? Additional perspective would have come, as well, from considering the several conflicts that other quorum members had with one another and with the First Presidency and how those were managed.
Conflict in the Quorum is meat, not milk. It is carefully researched. Bergera’s writing style is clear and enjoyable to read. His voluminous footnotes are as interesting and informative as the text itself. This book makes a responsible, solid contribution to our understanding of how priesthood authority operated in the LDS church’s early years, also providing insight into the personalities and character of Brigham Young and Orson Pratt. It is a narrow study—a small slice of the big lives of Young and Pratt. To understand the Pratt-Young conflicts within a larger framework, readers should examine, among other studies, Breck England’s The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt and Leonard J. Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses.
1 David J. Whittaker, “Pratt, Orson,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 3:1114-15.
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Michael W. Homer
Gary James Bergera’s book, Conflict in the Quorum, is a well written and fascinating account of Orson Pratt, one of Joseph Smith’s original Twelve Apostles, that highlights some of his disagreements with Church leaders (including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young) concerning new revelations and the meaning of sacred scripture. Pratt’s initial skirmishes with Joseph Smith centered on the secret doctrine and practice of plural marriage. He disagreed with the practice’s introduction in Nauvoo, was “cut off from the Quorum” (43), and was not initially included in the Holy Order. When he did become a member of the Holy Order, his wife, Sarah, did not join him. She did not become a member of this elite group, and Pratt did not marry his first plural wife (Charlotte Bishop) until after the death of Joseph Smith (47-48). When Brigham Young became de facto Church president, Pratt balked at his plan to reorganize the First Presidency but finally conceded the point at the Kanesville “marathon” conference in 1847 (64-81). Nevertheless, after Young became Church president, Pratt continued to disagree with him with respect to some of his doctrinal teachings.
Bergera is a careful writer, with the result that his book contains a good synthesis of the origins and theological underpinnings of plural marriage, as well as the usual references to secondary sources. These sources demonstrate that Smith’s initial instructions and personal behavior concerning this doctrine upset some of his more puritanical followers, including Pratt. Smith, and some of his closest associates, later denied that the Prophet made some of the statements that various witnesses claimed he had. In any event, it is evident that Church leaders understood the volatility of the new teaching as well as the danger of linking it with a duty of obedience to the Church’s hierarchy.
While Pratt and Smith were eventually reconciled, Bergera’s study suggests that the relationship between Pratt and Young was always problematic. Pratt’s first rift with Young involved Young’s plan to reorganize the First Presidency. Bergera’s tendency to “block quote” from the minutes of meetings is at times a hard slog but perhaps Bergera’s point is that attending the meetings would have been an even harder slog and that one can understand the developing dispute only by reading the minutes of these marathon meetings. One does feel the tension among the participants while reading the minutes. Nevertheless, I believe that Bergera should have provided more context and analysis of the proceedings.
One wonders whether part of Pratt’s disagreement with Young was not only his belief that reorganization conflicted with Smith’s original intent but also the more practical reality (apparently shared by a few of the other apostles) that the Twelve’s prerogatives would be weakened when a new First Presidency was created. Obviously, the Twelve recognized that Joseph Smith would remain the paramount figure in Church history and that all future leaders would build on the foundation he had established. In this context, Pratt was not initially prepared to accept Brigham Young as Smith’s literal successor.
Ironically, when Brigham Young was sustained as Smith’s successor and later decided to publicly announce the practice of polygamy, he chose Orson Pratt to deliver the message. The man whom Young referred to as a “philosopher” explained the theological justifications for the controversial doctrine, which still impacts the image of the Church , and threw down a gauntlet which prevented the Mormon Church from entering the religious mainstream until well into the twentieth century. Four years after the announcement, the newborn Republican Party condemned bigamy as one of the “twin relics” of barbarism, and shortly thereafter two of Utah’s territorial judges suggested that polygamy could be prosecuted under the common law. President James Buchanan sent federal troops to Utah to quell the “rebellion” which consisted mainly of a political struggle to control the territory and its domestic institution. Not surprisingly, the federal government eventually won the battle in this political contest of wills.
When Brigham Young was removed as territorial governor and was stripped of the last vestiges of de jure secular authority, he became more sensitive when his religious authority was challenged. One of the more interesting themes that Bergera pursues (by quoting word for word the discussions which took place) is the dichotomy between Pratt’s willingness to issue public apologies for being “out of harmony,” while at the same time continuing to publicly disagree with Young’s specific teachings.
Even while some Church leaders were advancing the notion that the prophet’s teachings were unassailable, Pratt was offering up specific examples to demonstrate that they were not. While Pratt admitted that, when “President Young speaks by the power of the spirit there is frequently such a flood of revelation that he has not time to explain every particular” (97), Pratt also argued in favor of “a more literalistic and absolutist approach to scripture than Young’s dynamic theology” (106).
Nevertheless, Bergera cites examples of both Young and Pratt engaging in creative theology. While Pratt advised elders “never to advance an idea before the world, which we cannot substantiate by revelation” (94), he would occasionally “stretch” the definition of “revelation” and introduce “philosophical underpinnings” (89). But when his teachings conflicted with Young (even on the doctrine which linked Adam and God), the Church president prevailed because he was the only one authorized to define doctrine for the Church despite the fact that some pronouncements were perceived by many as not entirely consistent with the revelations of Joseph Smith or with biblical teachings (128).
Bergera’s account of Orson Pratt is an important book even if the substantive issues about which Pratt and his Church leaders argued have long been resolved. Polygamy is no longer a doctrine or practice of the LDS Church (Pratt’s initial negative reaction reflects the official contemporary Church position), there is no longer any question concerning the process of succession, and there seems to be no disagreement that the LDS prophet is the final interpreter of Church doctrine. But Bergera’s study suggests that one of the slippery slopes of an open canon (as demonstrated by the controversy over Brigham Young’s teaching of the Adam-God theory as well as some of Orson Pratt’s own teachings) is that there are undefined boundaries between doctrine and speculation that may cause confusion among Church members (95). But Bergera also demonstrates the strength of this system, which allows Church presidents to abandon doctrines and practices, as well as their theological justifications, when it is necessary to protect the vitality of the Church.
Benchmark Book News
A common perception among Mormons is that there is a perpetual state of harmony and agreement among the church’s leaders, particularly the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. However, it stands to reason that, given the multitude of personalities and temperaments of these men, there are bound to be occasional disagreements, even conflicts and controversies. The author of this fascinating new book ably and evenhandedly explores this dimension of the Mormon hierarchy, focusing on the conflicts between Orson Pratt and, first, Joseph Smith and then Brigham Young. Bergera points out that “neither the conflict nor the men themselves were ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ ‘good’ or ‘bad.'” His “interest is in exploring expressions of faith when one leader clashed with an equally sincere and devoted colleague.” These clashes were over power and authority, policy, and doctrine.
Newell Bringhurst writes that “Bergera’s careful scholarship—drawing on diaries, personal papers, and other extant documents—provides fresh insights into the attitudes and behavior of these men. ” Todd Compton says: “Bergera confronts head-on one of the most pervasive and unnecessary myths in Mormon culture: that church leaders are monolithically unified. “