While the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) emerged from elements in the early Mormon movement that accepted more mainstream American religious and social ideals its membership also spun its own formidable conspiracy theory. An early and persistent theme in early Reorganization apologetics was the “usurpation” of spiritual authority by Brigham Young and the Apostles at the time of Joseph Smith Jr.’s death.
Those who had known the Mormon founder best and who had experienced the fruits of the gospel, this theory suggested, now conspired to rob Joseph Smith III of his birthright as successor to his father and to enslave the Saints by, among other things, fostering the “evil” practice of polygamy. Joseph Smith III vowed at the time of his ordination as RLDS prophet in 1860 to seek to correct the errors that had been introduced into the church by Young and his cronies, and to call those who had followed them to repent and return to a more reasonable religious vision.
Smith inaugurated a vigorous missionary program to “rescue” those Latter-day Saints enmeshed in what the RLDS believed were the “evil practices” originated by Young. Simplistically, they believed that all the Reorganized Church had to do to redeem these people was to offer an alternative, pointing out the errors of plural marriage and other speculative doctrines, as well as by showing the illegitimacy of the leadership of Young. Smith sent the first RLDS mission to Utah in 1863 with the express mission of teaching the residents of the great conspiracy by the Apostles, and to call them to repentance toward “orthodox Mormonism.”
Edmund C. Briggs and Alexander McCord, the first two RLDS missionaries in Utah, had several scrapes with LDS authorities for trying to show the errors of the Utah brand of Mormonism. In so doing, they stirred up conflict. In fact, a few weeks after their arrival Briggs attended a public service were Brigham Young was denouncing the upstart RLDS. In the course of the sermon Briggs rose to debate Young as an usurper and evil tyrant. The police were called to restore order and as they escorted him from the building Briggs turned to the officer and whispered that “he recognized his [police] authority but not that of Brigham Young.”
Thereafter, the Reorganization maintained a missionary effort in Utah for the purpose of showing the errors of the Apostles and to call the “conspiracy to account.” In addition to missionary contact, the Reorganization published and distributed hundreds of tracts, pamphlets, magazine articles, and books designed to show the evil designs of the Apostles and to influence his followers. None of these efforts, much to the chagrin of the Reorganization’s leadership, were particularly effective.
The conspiracy motif was fundamentally stated in 1879 by William B. Smith, the brother of the founding prophet and one of the early apostles. “The Church was robbed of her prophet and patriarch, by a most hellish plot that had been in vogue for not only months, but years previous to the time of their deaths,” wrote Smith to his nephew, Joseph III. He added: “The persons who were most conspicuous in this work . . . were no other than John Taylor and Willard Richards, who by constant importunities prevailed upon your father to sign his own death warrant….Thus these men…ensnared the prophet from off his watch tower, and led him like a lamb to the slaughter.” With the success of this conspiracy to rid the organization of its founder and guiding force, Young and his cohorts were able to take over and do whatever they wanted. What they wanted to do, he added, was to engage in polygamy, introduce all manner of theological innovations, and to control the resources of the church.
In this capacity, the Reorganized Church’s membership, believing they were faithful to the goals and aspirations of the early Restoration movement, went to the barricades of the gospel to defend it from destruction at the hands of conspirators. David H. Smith, son of the prophet and arguably the poet laureate of the early Reorganization, wrote a powerful poem that took as its theme the apostasy of the Apostles and the reorganization of the church to preserve the gospel. He wrote that the RLDS was seeking to protect the church from those
Who would lead it from precepts of virtue so plain,
Once taught her by Joseph the Seer.
A final indicator of this theme can be found in the case of David H. Smith’s insanity. During a 1869 mission visit to Utah Smith came unglued and was eventually hospitalized for mental illness. Many RLDS believed that David had somehow been drugged or something by the Mormons—they were never, however, very clear how this was done—to get him out of the way because his message on behalf of the RLDS was so powerful.
This was so much poppycock, believed by far too man in the RLDS movement of the nineteenth century.