So I read Bigler and Bagley’s The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857-58 (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2011) last week. It will certainly convince you that the Utah Territory of the 1850s was the Wild Wild West as much as it was Zion. Checking the footnotes, it seems like the narrative is built primarily on reports from dissenters, which I suppose is where you turn for facts if you think Mormons were all liars, thieves, and murderers. There wasn’t much historical context provided, say about levels of violence in other western settlements or maybe something about that Second Civil War that was just around the corner. It seems misleading to paint General Johnston, commander of Johnson’s Army that marched on Utah, as a paragon of patriotism in contrast to Brigham Young’s alleged treason without noting that, shortly thereafter, Johnston was in open rebellion against the United States as a Confederate General and died from a Union bullet at Shiloh in 1862. Patriotism was a rather malleable term in the 19th century. Still, the book is a helpful corrective to the usual narrative about righteous Mormon settlers just trying to mind their own business but being harrassed by wicked Gentiles and federal officials.
The chapter on the Mormon Reformation (titled “The Cleansing Blood of Sinners: The Reformation”) fills a couple of gaps in the story. Starting about mid-1856, Brigham Young and his counselors Heber C. Kimball and Jedidiah Grant took the Saints to task for perceived laxity. Fire and brimstone preaching was followed by personal examinations, detailed confessions, and rebaptism (for those who stayed as opposed to those who decided to head out for California or Oregon).
Perhaps the most invasive characteristic of the Reformation was the “catechism,” a long list of intrusions into a person’s conduct meant to uncover violations of righteous behavior and cleanliness. Grant told bishops and teachers to visit every home and “find out those who are not disposed to do right.” …
Hannah Tapfield King, a forty-nine-year-old Englishwoman from Cambridge, described the ordeal: “The Bishop and at least 2 teachers went around and catechized the peole in every house, taking some members into separate apartments! … They then proceeded with me. It began, Have you committed murder, ditto, ditto — adultery? Ditto-ditto — robbed? — Spoken slander of your neighbor? — Broken down your neighbor’s fences? — Brought your children up in principles of righteousness, etc. It was over a foot in length! Blessed were those who could answer in innocence. (p. 97-98)
The Reformation was a top-down initiative directed at the lay membership. It countered the natural bent of most of the settlers to spread out north and south and focus on establishing homes and farming enough food to feed the family rather than doing churchy things. In the eyes of LDS leaders, it also served to make the people righteous enough that God would strengthen and protect His people in conflict with outsiders and the government. It made Mormons feel anxious, even paranoid, but made non-Mormons feel threatened. It set the scene for (contributing to if not directly causing) Mountain Meadows and the Utah War. As a matter of history, then, one can ask whether the Reformation, a conscious decision taken and put into action by LDS leaders, accomplished the intentions of LDS leaders, and also whether the unanticipated consequences that accompanied it outweighed any benefits the program achieved. (That’s what we would call it now: a program.)
An alternative treatment of the Mormon Reformation is in Stephen C. Taysom’s Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries (Indiana Univ. Press, 2011). He devotes twenty pages to analyzing the Reformation from a religious studies angle. Taysom sees early Mormon identity tied to the more-or-less permanent tension and crisis that characterized the years prior to the exodus to Utah and the Reformation as an artificial crisis engineered by LDS leaders:
The Mormon Reformation should not be interpreted primarily as a response to an organic spiritual crisis. Rather, it was the intentional creation of a crisis by church leaders in an attempt to reinvigorate Mormon communal and religious identity at a time when the Mormons were between periods of major crisis with the outside world. … The Mormon Reformation stands as a synthetic crisis implemented by LDS leaders to reinvigorate reliance on LDS Church leaders among rank-and-file Mormons at a time when external crises were absent. (p. 171)
With a nod to Foucault, Taysom discusses the home missionary program and the catechism (noted above) as techniques of institutional surveillance. “The catechism was an important tool of surveillance that served to inflict guilt and induce confession — a cathartic act that bound the individual Mormons to their leaders” (p. 180). Taysom borrows from Mary Douglas an anthropological analysis of witch hunting, which is “found in small, tightly knit communities … [that] share a world view and maintain clear boundaries with the outside world, but have little formal structure within their group,” to try to understand what was going on with the Reformation. “[T]he sifting process of the Mormon Reformation could appropriately be classified as a period of witch hunting, simply because it was an effort to locate and expel evil that was believed to reside within the confines, physical and spiritual, of their religious community” (p. 181).
You won’t find that sort of discussion in your Sunday School manual, obviously. I think Taysom’s discussion helps understand the Reformation while also seeing it as something of a unique event tied up with Mountain Meadows and the Utah War, two other unique events from the same period. It was a time of troubles.
But history has a habit of refusing to remain buried in the past. Unique event, yes, but the Mormon Reformation was also simply a more extreme version of the periodic programs and initiatives that are directed at Mormons today. The conviction that we modern Mormons, just like the pioneers, need to be stirred up to repentance and rededication (rebaptism is no longer required) is still alive and well.