Joseph White Musser

Mormon Fundamentalism is a well known collective term for groups of Latter-day Saints who attempt to replicate the doctrines and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1840 – 1890 era, most notably plural marriage. Less well-known, perhaps, are the figures who initially organized and developed the Fundamentalist Mormon movement, such as Joseph White Musser. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Cristina Rosetti discussed some of who Joseph Musser was and what his lasting legacies have been. What follows here is a copost to the full interview.

In the interview, Cristina Rosetti discussed who Joseph W. Musser was:

In the simplest terms, Joseph White Musser was a Mormon who grew disenfranchised with the Church of his childhood. Musser was raised in a complicated period, namely the long end to polygamy. Shortly after his first marriage, he felt called to practice the principle of plural marriage. The problem was that polygamy ended years prior.

As the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints moved away from the practice in 1890 and 1904, he questioned whether the Church was acting in accordance with God’s law or conceding to the demands of the U.S. government.

He came to believe the latter and married additional wives after both the First and Second Manifesto. Like many polygamists in the 1920s, he was ultimately excommunicated for the controversial practice.

But his excommunication is just the beginning of the story. Around the same time as his disciplinary hearing, he met other Mormons who shared his concerns. Through these meetings, the Mormon fundamentalist movement was born.

From there, Musser became the individual who did more to shape the doctrines of the Fundamentalist Mormon movement than any other.

As an explanation of the manifestos mentioned above, Rosetti offered the following:

In 1890, Wilford Woodruff delivered the First Manifesto that stopped the solemnization of new plural marriages in the United States. For many Latter-day Saints, this was a matter of revelation.

For fundamentalists, this was a concession in the wake of the Edmunds-Tucker Act and the very real fear of government intervention into the lives of Latter-day Saints. At the same time, statehood was on the line for the Utah Territory.

The reality is that plural marriage did not end after the First Manifesto. An end to plural marriage by this time would be nearly impossible. Of course, many people did dissolve their marriages or live separately. But, separating families is difficult and many chose to remain in plural unions despite the announced change by Woodruff.

Many also continued to believe in the necessity of the practice. For that reason, new plural marriages continued, many under the authority of Apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For this reason, in 1904, a Second Manifesto was delivered by Joseph F. Smith. By this time, Congressional hearings were planned to determine whether Reed Smoot, a monogamous Latter-day Saint, could serve in the U.S. Senate.

Like the First Manifesto, some saw this as a matter of Revelation while others questioned if this was further concession. Regardless, it was an important step to further convince the nation that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were a monogamous people. …

Finally, in 1933, Heber J. Grant delivered the final statement that is colloquially known as the “Third Manifesto.” This was the definitive statement that actually ended the practice.

Unlike before, Grant called for sweeping excommunications, the implementation of loyalty oaths in the wake of a growing oppositional movement, and for law enforcement to prosecute rogue Latter-day Saints.

The leaders of the Church at the time of the 1890 manifesto still believed that plural marriage was divinely-appointed practice and encouraged some Latter-day Saints to contract more marriages in secret. This continued at least through 1910, at which point, it falls of the record. It was really during the presidency of Heber J. Grant that the practice was completely closed off to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

Heber J. Grant did not like polygamy, which is interesting since he was a polygamist at one point in his life. There is a sense, based on his statements, that the public perception of the practice embarrassed him. … His attitude ultimately led to the implementation of Church loyalty oaths, the reorganization of stakes and branches in southern Utah, and raids on the community founded by the fundamentalists. … He became the foe of the movement because he ardently tried to end it.

Heber J. Grant, along with J. Reuben Clark, Jr., worked to quash the Fundamentalist movement.

In a condition where Musser was rejected by the mainline Church, he had to work to articulate a Fundamentalist Mormon understanding of Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice through his understanding of his circumstances and the words of earlier church leaders. Cristina Rosetti explained some of the core doctrines for which Musser is remembered:

When I think of central themes of the Mormon fundamentalist movement, four things come to mind:

  1. A priesthood that exists apart from the institutional Church
  2. Plural marriage
  3. The Adam-God doctrine
  4. Consecration …

One thing that readers will notice is that Joseph Musser’s intellectual contributions were not particularly new. Most of his theological ideas were expansions and extrapolations on 19th century Latter-day Saint doctrine.

Musser’s significance was found in the way he compiled statements from early Church leaders and made them compelling to the average Mormon.

These represented aspects of Latter-day Saint history and doctrine that had been rejected as well as a justification for the religious organization of which he was a part.

For more on Joseph White Musser, head on over to read the full interview with Cristina Rosetti at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. While you’re there, check out the Thomas S. Monson quotes page and the Bruce R. McConkie 101 page.

3 comments for “Joseph White Musser

  1. “…he questioned whether the Church was acting in accordance with God’s law or conceding to the demands of the U.S. government.”

    This sounds a lot like the response of some members to the First Presidency’s endorsement of COVID-19 vaccines.

  2. This is actually quite timely. There is a growing neo-fundamentalist movement growing in the church. They reject the gospel topics essays, claim historians like Richard Bushman have tried to destroy the real history of the church (always have to have a good conspiracy theory on the political far right, they usually argue against Joseph’s use if seer stones) and quietly claim some GAs are leading the church astray. I think the Desnat movement is just one part of this trend and quite a few promote the Heartland theory beyond reason. Do you think this is cyclical?

  3. Old Man,
    It’s a tension rooted in the idea of a restoration. I.e., if there is a cycle of times when there are pure religion on the earth that is then corrupted by apostasy, leading to the need for a restoration to that pure religion, there is an inherent risk that the group claiming to be a restoration can fall into apostasy. And a restoration, in theory, maintains the idea that there is a static model of perfection that must be followed at all times (else, what are you restoring to?). In the Church, this idea is often connected to the doctrine that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Combine that with the fact that things change as circumstances change, and institutions evolve over time and you will have people questioning whether the institution is following God’s will or has fallen into apostasy every time something changes.

    John Hamer and Newell Bringhurst put it this way:

    A second factor involves the tension between Mormonism’s basic characteristic as an ever-changing, evolving institution and the Mormon belief that church doctrines and ordinances are a “restoration” of primitive Christianity and of eternal, unchanging principles. Roger D. Launius asserts that certain “centrifugal tendencies” are inherent to Mormonism because the movement throughout its history has proved to be “a dynamically evolving institution.” As a result, Latter Day Saint churches have both attracted and thrown off “a wide divergence of people, each with remarkably differing interpretations of the ‘truths’ of Mormonism.” (Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst and John C. Hamer (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2007), 9.)

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