“The Challenge to Centralized Power: Zenus H. Gurley, Jr., and the Prophetic Office” by Clare D. Vlahos

Community of Christ was reorganized in the 1860s. Over the first couple of decades of the church’s existence, we had to figure out who had what powers and what the boundaries of those powers were.

During the 1880s there were 2 camps: Those who wanted centralized power and those who wanted decentralized power. The leaders of these ideologies were, respectively, Joseph Smith III and Zenus H. Gurley Jr.

This article from Courage – Vol 1, No 3, March 1971 describes the reform that Gurley tried to enact, but ultimately failed to do so. This article also explains why his reformation failed.

The Challenge to Centralized Power: Zenus H. Gurley, Jr., and the Prophetic Office

By Clare D. Vlahos

The RLDS phenomenon of centralized control may be traced to a fateful decision of the body in 1885; that decision rejected the last serious alternative: a redistribution of power to the members themselves.

In 1885 the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, through its Conference body, completed definition of the basic institutional structure that would be retained for much of the following century. This pivotal decision came in answer to an attempted reform by Zenas Gurley, Jr., an effort to limit the growing power of the prophetic office in favor of the Conference and of individual members. The internal conflict which the reform attempt precipitated was clearly a power struggle, for the seat of authority was at stake. Despite its failure, the Gurley reform is historically significant because it forced the church body to consciously endorse the continuing direction of centralized power.

In order to appreciate the complexity of forces operating in this struggle, one must understand three key elements. The important one was the initiator, Zenas Gurley, Jr. This essay will examine his criticism of the prophetic office and the substitute issue of the authority of the sacred books which he hoped to use as a lever to reform that office. In addition, Gurley’s concrete plan for implementing his reform and the nature of support and opposition it evoked will be explored.

The second key element was the prophet, Joseph Smith III. His natural opposition to the Gurley plan should be seen both through ideological and personality differences. Smith’s political ability as well as Gurley’s surfaced in the opening event of the final struggle: the Gurley-Blair Herald debate.

The last key element, which arbitrated the struggle, was the General Conference body. Its intended decision was clear, but several obscuring events made its expression ambiguous. This 1885 Conference became the climax of the drama, for it brought together personalities and issues for a final verdict.

Origins of the Reform

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Zenas Gurley, Jr., does not seem an appropriate figure to engineer the Reorganization’s most far-reaching reform attempt. He was born in 1842 in Hancock County, Illinois. His father was one the two men responsible for creating the organization which Joseph Smith III would eventually head as the Reorganization. 1 The younger Gurley himself became an apostle in 1874 and served in various missions in Utah, the Midwest, and the Atlantic coastal area. 2

Two figures seem to have been important for planting dissatisfaction within Gurley. One was his father whom Gurley viewed basically a reformer of the church he encountered in the 1850’s. Gurley claimed his father’s major error was that he did not go for enough in his changes, an opinion the elder Gurley himself may have held in later years. 3

A second figure was Jason Briggs, the other early shaper of the Reorganization. From Briggs, the younger Gurley seems to have obtained a number of his doctrinal criticisms. 4 Briggs also may have inspired an early informal alliance of sympathetic critics, an alliance which was never so elaborately cultivated as Gurley’s. 5 There is evidence of mutual Briggs-Gurley support in such critical times as the 1877 Conference’s refusal to sustain Briggs, Gurley’s 1879 resignation as apostle, and the 1885 Conference. 6 But their cooperation was evidently ideological and not tactical. 7 They did not attempt a reform strategy together, for while Briggs disagreed with several doctrines, he did not wish any further end than that he be allowed to express his views. After his withdrawal from the church because of being denied access to the Herald, 8 he claimed that questions involving the Presidency had played no part in his decision. 9

What can properly be termed the Gurley reform began to take place in the early 1880’s. At this point he began to actively solicit support for a tactical plan he felt could result in the limitation of the prophetic office. 10 This was not his first open sign of dissidence, however. In 1873 Gurley initially refused his call to apostleship on the basis of disbelief in Joseph Smith, Jr.’s revelations. 11 In 1877 disbelief became reform conviction. Gurley related that in a vision he was commanded to return to teaching the gospel and fundamental principles. 12 Gurley was later to interpret this to mean that Joseph Smith, Jr.’s revelations should not be a test of faith. 13 By 1879 a Conference resolution that seemed to make these revelations a law drove Gurley to his resignation as apostle. 14 President Smith at first seemed to want to bridge the gulf between dissenter and Conference. In 1877 he had interpreted Briggs’ suspension as little more than silencing; 15 Now at the 1879 Conference he further provided a moderate interpretation of the new Conference resolution that Gurley felt he could accept. 16

Gurley made many criticisms, but his reform attempt centered on the prophetic office of the church because he believed that the prophetic office was the primary vestige of the errors of the Nauvoo period. Gurley felt that Joseph Smith, Jr., had perverted the Christian nature of the movement by making himself not the prophet he was called to be but “an essential part of the gospel.” 17

The issue was not whether Joseph Smith, Jr., was a prophet. Gurley believed he had been called to this role. The problem was that a prophet is at all times under judgment. “No servant of Christ should be a guide for you to follow, only as he follows Christ. …” 18 If Smith was a prophet then his words could be questioned as could any man’s, but he had preferred to be the standard rather than the judged. While giving evidence of some prophetic truth through “manifestations of the Spirit,” 19 he had tried to turn such evidence into a test of critical infallibility that would perennially make him God’s spokesman. 20

Smith had actually succeeded in making himself “God” to the church when it accepted Doctrine and Covenants 19:2 enjoining Smith’s commandments unconditionally upon his followers. 21 Gurley denounced this action:

When the church adopted this, they became bound to accept all subsequent revelations without question, so long as Joseph Smith retained his office and position in the church. Thus we see the doctrine of infallibility clearly set up … in a trifle over five years from the day of organization, a dogma which required centuries in the Roman Catholic Church. … The voting by conference on … [various] questions is simply thrown away; because if that dogma is law, then … we are bound to receive all revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, and all that hereafter may be received …; and for any one to say, ‘I don’t believe the revelation on tithing,’ … &c., would be equivalent to saying, ‘I don’t believe in God.’ Such a law makes Joseph Smith’s power in the church omnipotent. It places him instead of God to us. … If this be law, … then in that case our salvation depends upon belief in Joseph Smith.

Gurley left no doubt of his position on Smith’s unconditional authority: “Upon this question I wish to be distinctly understood, that I have never seen a day according to my recollection, that I believed this dogma for one moment, I do not now, and never expect to. I regard it as a fatal error to Christianity. …” 22

The problem which now had to be faced in the Reorganization, Gurley felt, was caused by the church’s unconditionally accepting Joseph Smith, Jr., as a prophet and his revelations en masse. As a result, the absolute office which Smith had created for himself still persisted in the Reorganization. Legally the church had accepted all of Smith’s doctrines including those such as tithing and the gathering which were additions to the gospel. What must be changed was the blanket endorsement of the “revelations of Joseph Smith as a rule of faith and practice” to an endorsement of specific doctrines. 23 Until the blanket endorsement was lifted, the real law in the church was not the designated Conference body but the prophet who could legislate with each revelation. Such additions as the local Zion, stakes, high councils, the office of patriarch, and the school of the prophets had no real legal standing; yet they could not be disposed of. 24 It was a case that endorsement of the role acts of receiving revelation allowed the doctrinal contents to slip uncontested. 25

A Second Issue: The Authority of the Sacred Books

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Gurley found himself in a predicament in trying to translate the issue of an omnipotent prophet into reform strategy. He did not wish to challenge the concept of an authoritative prophet, but that infallible one who could not be questioned. Gurley thus settled on issue which allowed him to oppose omnipotence without opposing the prophet directly. This issue was “the absolute authority of the sacred books” as a test of faith. Gurley realized that the sustaining authority for doctrines of a prophet who was dead and the office he had created could not be derived from the man who presently occupied the office. That sustaining authority lay in the books which recorded the commands originally creating doctrines and prophetic powers. These books as an authoritative whole were a particularly useful tool to perpetuate non-gospel additions. As long as “the three books” and not specific church laws comprised the standard which judged the new prophet and his revelations, the standard was reduced to an act of interpretation. 26 The particular interpretation which Gurley was sure would be accepted was that of the prophet holding office. 27

Zenas Gurley’s opposition to the absolute authority of the sacred books was based primarily on his conception of the individual. A conflict appeared in two basic ways: the nature of revelation and individual responsibility.

Revelation, Gurley believed, was primarily given to individual men. Its forms could be various. Revelation to Joseph Smith as an individual might well be in the form he had presented it. Yet it would be authoritative only for him. All other men’s truth was revealed to them by the Spirit of God which thus allowed the choice of whether Smith’s revelations were authoritative for them also. As for governing the church, Gurley insisted that no special revelation was necessary. The information provided by Christ’s example and the early witnesses of the Bible and Book of Mormon was sufficient. 28

Joseph Smith had not only attempted to usurp all avenues of divine communication but also the responsibility for properly individual decisions, Gurley thought. He felt Smith had tried to deceive a man into believing that once he joined the church all moral decisions and responsibility for those decisions rested with the prophet. 29 In point of fact, “[since] each person has to make the final decision of what he accepts as true, the judgment is on a man and his work.” 30 A man cannot relinquish his responsibility even by voluntary choice. 31

Gurley’s Strategy to Implement His Reform

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Gurley’s first hopes for redistributing power in the church seemed to rest primarily with the Conference, presumably because this body would benefit from limitations on the prophet. Gurley evidently decided to test this strategy in 1879, for he claimed his resignation was designed to force an issue. 32 After the resignation, the issue of the official position on the Doctrine and Covenants was duly presented to the body. Gurley came off fairly well under the First Presidency’s interpretation which the Conference accepted, but the result did not completely satisfy him. He considered it a compromise. 33 However, he also discovered that the Presidency’s power remained unimpaired since it was allowed by the Conference to make that body’s decision. Consequently since the Conference did not respond warmly to Gurley, he soon tried a new reform tactic. 34

During the following years, Gurley made appeals to both the Twelve and Bishopric. 35 The support Gurley was trying to enlist was not for his reform per se, but for his new strategy to which the Presidency presented an obstacle. Basically the new strategy was simply to open the Herald to all points of view on controversial issues for one year. Because President Smith had refused similar requests before, 36 Gurley suggested he should be relieved from Herald editorship by the Conference. The Presidency and Twelve would jointly make preparations for the year’s campaign. 37

What did Gurley hope to accomplish through a propaganda contest in the Herald? This was to be only the preliminary step to enactment of his reform, but it was a necessary one for two reasons. First, Gurley needed to make the opposition who supported the traditional prophet’s role look questionable; and second, Gurley had to identify with popular issues to build more support. Gurley hoped to accomplish the first change by at least three methods. First, he would emphasize Joseph Smith, Jr.’s fallibility by stressing such evident “errors” as polygamy and his “carnal” revenge. Next, it would be helpful to drive a wedge between the Restoration attitude of Smith with its Mosaic overtones and the gospel of Christ with which Gurley identified his movement. 38 Finally, the right of members to question authoritative offices must be stressed, particularly in view of the prophet’s fallibility. In turn, Gurley hoped to build his own cause by making it less controversial. He could begin by preaching the continuity of his reform with the pre-1860 Reorganization. Also, the stress on enactment of changes by law might prove a competitive authority to President Smith’s divine sanction. Gurley also implied that decentralization would mean greater freedom of action in the Conference and quorums, which was undoubtedly true. 39

After the year of free debate in the Herald had taken place, Gurley planned to propose that the church then define an official doctrinal position. To insure that this position would be specific, the church would make its definitions in the form of additions to the “epitome of faith,” a listing of church doctrines by Joseph Smith, Jr., which Gurley found palatable. Perhaps due to his apprehension of manipulatable Conferences, the final decisions would be voted on in the individual branches. 40

By 1884 Zenas Gurley had openly proposed his strategy through brief references in the Herald and more Twelve and Bishopric. It evoked some support and a great deal of opposition. Among the quorums the First Presidency was most unified in its opinion. Of the two members, President Smith taking no public position, still made his feelings known, but W.W. Blair proved the most aggressive opponent. The Quorum of the Twelve, on the other hand, proved least homogenous. In the past the Twelve had shown greater tolerance if not zeal for both Briggs and Gurley. The majority by 1885 were siding with Blair, regarding the two as deniers of the faith. On the reform side, Briggs and Gurley were part of the Quorum, and Briggs’ brother Edmund was considered by some to be sympathetic. The Bishopric may also have been a source of quiet support. Gurley seems to have been friendly with both George Blakeslee and E.L. Kelley. In later years Kelley admitted association with the Briggs-Gurley group but claimed he severed the relation in 1878 when their sentiments became clear to him. However, Gurley considered Kelley sympathetic as late as 1882 and possibly thought that Blakeslee also supported him. Also, Kelley seems to have represented the Gurley side in an 1886 Conference committee. 41

Outside the quorums Gurley aroused some active supporters. Within his family he counted the assets of his fairly well-known mother and his brother Edwin. In his home branch of Pleasanton as well as Lone Rock and several other nearby Missouri branches, there were members who would later withdraw in sympathy with Gurley. Most other support rose and fell with the issue and could not be counted on unconditionally. 42

Opposition to Gurley was more widespread and better defined than the support. The Conference body in 1879 had considered Gurley’s resignation “dishonorable” and in 1882 had reacted with hostility to a Gurley sermon. 43 Its views had changed little by 1885. Other evidences of suspicion and criticism occur through Gurley’s complaints in 1882 44 and a pointed request by the Lamoni branch for a sermon on “The Divine Calling of Joseph Smith.” 45 Gurley could also count among his enemies the former Bishopric he had opposed in a battle of quorums, one of whom, Israel L. Rogers, was active in the 1886 Conference battle with Gurley. 46 In addition, Gurley’s association with Jason Briggs seemed to create other enemies. Earlier controversies had also alienated his fellow Utah mission ministers and several prominent members such as Charles Derry. 47

The hardening attitude of the Twelve reflected a growing change in the general membership. Earlier Briggs and Gurley challenges had been met by indifference. While some action was taken, both Conference and quorums showed a desire to shift responsibility for the action. 48 For example, with Briggs one Conference preferred to set up a committee as its voice rather than vote on the committee decision. 49 All of this was changing, however, as concern over the seriousness of the conflict spread. In general, the membership like the Twelve seemed to be taking a sterner look at Gurley and Briggs as the trouble source.

The Issue of Personality: Gurley and Joseph Smith III

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Gurley had been fortunate so far in not being forced to face President Smith directly over an issue. Gurley’s strategy of course tried precisely to prevent such confrontation. Although Smith had chosen not to become an antagonist in the struggle, his official position rode on the victory of those opposing Gurley. Besides his position, two other factors influenced the prophet’s sympathies: his personal relations with Gurley and his conception of the Gurley reform.

Personal feelings between Smith and Gurley changed during the period of Gurley’s ministry, for at the beginning of their acquaintance Smith did not evidence particular bias. At a time when Briggs was already controversial, Gurley received his call to the office of apostle. 50 Both Smith and Gurley could trade anecdotes in their correspondence and share sympathy for a particular difficulty the other faced. 51 Smith even welcomed the free expression of unorthodox Gurley views early in their relationship and promised to print one letter on his own initiative. 52 Nevertheless, the Gurley-Smith correspondence was never intimate, 53 and there is no reason to suspect other aspects of their personal relations were ever closer.

That which lay behind the formal niceties evolved into darker feelings by the early 1880’s. Ideological differences undoubtedly played some part, but the root seems to have been Smith’s negative reaction to aspects of Gurley’s personality. The 1882 Conference appointed both men to present a petition to the Secretary of State concerning polygamy. While they were writing the draft, a disagreement arose over Gurley’s characteristic use of invective. Since President Smith prevailed, Gurley waited for their personal presentation to explain his feelings to the Secretary. Smith could hardly conceal his delight in the retelling when the impatient official brusquely cut Gurley off. 54 On another occasion Smith publicly responded to a Gurley sermon whose tone upset him more than the ideas. In both incidents Smith’s irritation arose not from critical language but the impression he felt Gurley was trying to create. In short, Smith felt Gurley “was possessed of rather too much ego to keep his balance under all conditions.” 55 In fairness to President Smith, it should be noted that his personal dislike of Gurley and his opposition to the reform did not color his estimation of Gurley. Smith never questioned his sincerity even after the withdrawal. 56 Paying tribute to Gurley’s honesty, Smith once admitted a personal criticism “would have been an insult … from a less-regarded man.” 57 Nor did he call Gurley’s ability into question: “Elder Gurley was a brilliant man, an eloquent speaker in the pulpit, intelligent and energetic in his quorum work, and always strongly confident of accomplishing that which he undertook to do. …” 58

Interestingly, Zenas Gurley found the exact opposite of qualities in Smith. Perhaps because President Smith as a greater threat to Gurley than the reverse, the flaws he saw related to the reform effort. At no time does Gurley seem to have been offended by Smith’s personality but he did question Smith’s prophetic talents. 59 Gurley also entertained no high opinion Smith’s Herald editorship, a post from which Smith could frustrate the reform propagandizing. 60 When he wondered aloud at honesty, Gurley also seemed more concerned with the reform. 61 In particular he doubted Smith’s firm denials of polygamy in the early church and questioned whether or not he was secretly aware father’s guilt. 62

Smith and Gurley’s Ideological Differences

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President Smith’s sympathies lay with Gurley opponents, however, for the more significant reason that he disagreed with the reform principles. To Smith’s mind the inherent danger of Gurley’s plan was a rigid definition of doctrine. Because he did not accept the reform criticisms of the prophet’s role, Smith found the nature Gurley’s proposals upsetting. Gurley seemed to be suggesting an “iron bedstead” of creedal belief which would unnecessarily rigidify the church. Rather than providing license to the prophet, the standard of the three books in Smith’s opinion served as protection against a narrow, binding dogma. 63

Smith shared very little in ideology with the general opposition to Gurley, however. While many criticized Gurley for not accepting the Doctrine and Covenants as revelation, Smith admitted one need only accept the revelation in the book. And he concurred with Gurley that not all of the book was revelation. 64 The result of accepting three books and not a creed as the faith – particularly when all parts of the books were not inspired – led Smith to a pragmatic viewpoint. “The accepted faith of the church [was] …,” he concluded, “what the elders and members agreed to promulgate as the belief.” 65 In this same sense, Smith defined the three books as a “standard of reference” or that source from which the members decide what they will believe. However, the doctrines of the gathering and the tithing were not open questions. They might or might not be proved in the three books, but the doctrines were authoritative because the people had accepted them. 66

Smith here sounded quite similar to Gurley. Both agreed that the membership itself must agree by what faith it would be bound. Smith suggested that the nature of the faith would be known well enough without specific definitions, which he felt would be harmful to individuals who might tend toward the orthodox periphery. Gurley, however, argued that at that time there was no great freedom to believe, as evidenced by the attacks on his own alleged “denial of the faith.” Because the authority in defining belief was being denied to the membership, the leadership had usurped the right to define. The situation was simply one of trading democratic authority by which the people bind themselves for an imposed authority by which others bind them.

Smith’s Tactical Strategy: Containment of the Reform

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In spite of his ideological opposition, President Smith initially showed no inclination to attack the reform. Perhaps he recognized the inconsistency between a creedless faith and an attack for false belief. At any rate, in 1879 Smith interpreted the church position on the Doctrine and Covenants in such a way that both Gurley and Briggs felt they could accept it. 67 The proof that President Smith was not ready to quash the reform attempt lies in his rejection of Gurley’s resignation as apostle and his insistence that he remain and combat the error “within.” 68 Gurley thus had to take his resignation to the Conference for action. 69

President Smith may not have directly opposed the Gurley reform at first, but he was far from uninvolved. Smith seemed to be trying to set aside a security compound within the body for the reformers. It was a two-way type of protection. On the one hand, a screen of toleration was erected in the form of the 1879 compromise. 70 Smith had also made rulings in regard to the 1877 Conference action against Briggs which allowed the Conference to silence him but made it practically impossible for that body to remove him as an apostle. 71 However, the protective barrier also extended in the other direction. Smith would allow deviations in thought but not where they might have too profound an influence. Blair rather than Briggs was called to the position of counselor as a result. 72 Some Gurley materials were allowed in the Herald but not those condemning Joseph Smith, Jr., for polygamy. Most importantly, President Smith acknowledged the potential impact of a Gurley-sponsored free debate in the Herald. He flatly refused to let it take place. 73

Smith’s Role in the Gurley-Blair Debate

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There is an indication that the security barrier was beginning to buckle under Gurley’s activity by 1885. As a result, W. W. Blair combatted the growing reform with the first outright attack emanating from the Presidency. The Blair attack was undoubtedly his own idea and not Smith’s carefully formulated plan. It can be stated, though, that Blair must have received an endorsement for what began as an attack on Gurley and became a debate, with Gurley making rebuttals.

The supposition of Smith’s endorsement of the Blair attack – if not the Blair ideas – stems from three facts. Blair was the only other member of the Presidency, which gave his voice a great deal of importance. In addition, Smith had to approve the Blair articles for publication because he was the Herald editor, a circumstance of added importance in view of the Herald’s semi-official nature at that time. All official announcements, news from the Presidency, and much information to individuals appeared in the Herald. Finally, President Smith apparently confirmed his endorsement of Blair’s attacks by the political move of installing him as associate editor of the Herald fourteen days after the exchange ended.

President Smith did more than endorse Blair in his effort to discourage the spread of the reform. He cleverly split the opposition by preventing Briggs’ entrance into the debate. 74 One result was that not all the membership grasped the significance of the event. The Conference in a resolution interpreted the Gurley-Blair series as personal attacks by two quorum members, a damaging blow to Gurley’s strategy. 75 Briggs’ appearance and discussion by members supporting Blair could well have revealed the extent of the criticism to those still on the outside of the controversy.

At the 1885 Conference, Smith took advantage of the situation when the Conference prepared to sustain its officers when he addressed the body concerning the three controversial apostles: “The voice of the Spirit is that E. C. Briggs be sustained for the present. J. W. Briggs and Z. H. Gurley are in your hands, to any disapprove as wisdom may direct. Be merciful, for to him that is merciful shall mercy be shown.” 76 In other words the strategy now was to relax the protective barrier a bit from the other side. As Gurley seemed to be threatening to break out, Smith was no longer holding off a hostile Conference to such an extent as he had in 1879 by his moderate ruling. After the Conference had refused to sustain the two men, a request was sent to the Presidency from the Twelve asking for an interpretation of the action. 77 In effect, this was asking the judge for a sentence, and the ruling which came certainly placed Briggs and Gurley squarely within the security compound once again: “We answer that they are still members of their quorum, and hold priesthood; but by reason of the vote not to sustain, are not authorized to act as ministers for the church, until such time as the disability imposed by the vote of conference is removed.” 78 President Smith was once again indicating that he wanted Gurley and Briggs, and he would tolerate men with unorthodox ideas. But he would not allow a structural reform. 79

Gurley’s Reform Strategy in the “Debate”

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The events of 1885 were pivotal from another perspective. The strategy which Gurley had been advocating for a number of years – free debate followed by a common decision on the faith – had not yet been put to a test. 80 Up to 1885 Gurley realized he was limited in what he could write for the Herald. 81 This prompted his request for President Smith’s removal from the editorship to allow a completely free exchange. 82

There had evidently been little response from the quorums. Gurley thus may have realized that a more indirect tactic than quorum pressure would be necessary to gain entry into the Herald. That opportunity came with the Blair attack on Gurley’s basic reform ideas. Responding with full political awareness of his opportunity, Gurley insisted on the right to respond to Blair’s three articles with three of his own. These three, extending from February 14 to March 14, 1885, used the occasion to spell out the actual nature of his reform. As mentioned previously, the exchange could have been more impressive and thus of greater benefit to Gurley if Smith had allowed other respondents. This was vitally significant to Gurley, for the whole enactment of his program depended on a popular reversal of the opposition majority. 83

1885 Conference: Gurley and Briggs’ Absences

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The April 1885 Conference proved to be merely a continuation of the Herald contest. On one side, neither Gurley nor Jason Briggs attended Conference, nor did Edmund C. Briggs. Both Jason and E. C. Briggs reported to the Conference by letter, but none reported to the Quorum of Twelve. The major question, however, is whether Jason Briggs and Gurley’s absences were related to the Herald debate. At least four explanations are possible:

  1. both men found it impossible to attend;
  2. neither man was especially concerned about attending;
  3. the absence was a precautionary measure against Conference hostility; or
  4. it was a boycott of protest against the Blair attacks. 84

The first is discountable because neither man ever revealed a legitimate excuse at a time when it would have been helpful, and the second is doubtful on the basis of the extreme controversy then raging. These two reasons would suggest either that coincidentally both Briggs and Gurley were unconcerned about Conference or both had pressing business. Gurley’s absence the previous year for business reasons had, at least, produced a letter to the Twelve. 85 The third reason is not probable either. It presupposes a knowledge of the Conference mood. Gurley and Briggs knew feelings were aroused, yet they had no way of determining in what direction. If they had supposed the Conference to be seeking punitive measures, their tendency would probably have been to defend themselves in person. At least their absence as events transpired only harmed their cause. To regard the absence as a protest is proper, first, because both men harbored antagonisms from the Herald affair, Gurley from the Blair condemnation and Briggs from his gagging. 86 In addition, Gurley in later defense mentioned the Presidential accusation of denying the faith as important. That charge too may be traced to Blair in the debate. 87

The Quorum of Twelve took immediate action against its absentee apostles. It censured all three and explained its action on the basis of nonattendance in a time of crisis and failure to send a reason. The Conference awaited the moment to sustain and then asked President Smith’s advice, as previously noted, which spared E. C. Briggs but delivered the others to the body. E. C. was then sustained while the other two were not. 88

The 1885 Conference gave no reason for its action, and the 1886 body was spared the effort by the withdrawals. 89 One explanation – that a refusal to sustain upheld the Quorum censure – was suggested by an 1886 committee. By then the Conference did not feel any reason was necessary, and the report was not accepted. 90 However, the committee explanation was inadequate for the very reason that the Conference had no scruples in sustaining the censured E.C. Briggs. The failure to report to the Quorum was minimized as the real cause by the Briggs reports to the Conference body and the lifting of E. C. Briggs’ censure when he later presented a valid reason for missing. 91 The Quorum evidently felt the justification of its action lay in the absence and not the report. However, the Quorum explanation of nonattendance was evidently a cover. As President of the Twelve, Jason Briggs noted that it had never been the pe require attendance at every Conference. 92

The Real Meaning of the Conference Action

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That Quorum and Conference concern lay elsewhere than absenteeism was revealed by the first business of the session. A resolution was presented to restrict Herald articles. 93 The Twelve presented an amendment stating that representatives were under obligation “to uphold and defend” the faith of the church. 94 Evidently the Twelve’s concern had been evoked by the Herald series also, for in February a majority rejected Jason Briggs’ attempt to convene over the reform controversy. 95

It is doubtful if the Conference action would have taken the form it did but for two factors. First, President Smith seemed to communicate a desire for this particular action. He delivered the two men into the Conference’s hands at the moment to sustain, not when resolutions were being entertained. That he desired the refusal to sustain is suggested by his protection of E. C. Briggs whom he did wish sustained. The second factor explains the subterfuge in explanations. The Conference did not have a valid charge against Gurley and Briggs. It had tried once before to remove Briggs in 1877 for disbelief in particular doctrines and ended up having all charges nullified. The simple reason was ironically the thing Gurley was fighting against: the church had no creed. A heresy or charge of denial was impossible so long as no one knew what the faith was. Only if Gurley had been successful in his reform could he have been charged and removed. 96

There is a broader meaning to the Conference action than its disapproval of the Gurley-Blair debate. Part of that meaning dealing with Smith’s security barrier has already been mentioned. The other deals with the Conference itself. By the only means it had, the popular voice in the body rejected the Gurley reform, although it is doubtful that the body fully understood the reform. It responded to Gurley as a “denier of the faith” which, in terms of that body’s understanding, was an accurate charge. Gurley had attacked what many considered to be the faith. The real misunderstanding lay in what that faith was: the Conference’s or Gurley’s conception.

Withdrawal of the Reformers

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At the 1886 assembly Gurley, his family, and Jason Briggs withdrew from the church. Documents of withdrawal and reasons were presented, trial rules dispensed with, and the names removed the records. The dramatic exodus of two apostles for the most part was not contested, but after the reform danger had passed, the general verdict seemed to be that withdrawal had been unnecessary. Because he straightforwardly defended his action in the Herald, many accepted Briggs’ explanation for both men. However accurate Briggs’ reasons, Gurley withdrew for different reasons than being barred from the Herald. 97

If the Herald ban was not the problem, neither were the nine contested doctrines that Gurley and Briggs presented in a statement the 1886 Conference. 98 The mere presence of these same doctrines for a number of years had not previously pushed Gurley to withdraw. The real reason is suggested in an overlooked remark of Briggs’ in which he attributed his Herald barring to narrowed principles of toleration. 99 In Gurley’s case the greater intolerance eventually transformed opposition into a final defeat for his reform. The defeat was much more final than a censure for Conference absence. First, what he considered to be past accomplishments of the reform were being erased. The 1879 Presidential report, the final statement of beliefs to the Secretary of State, the 1884 resolution which made “local commandments” of the Doctrine and Covenants not binding – these successes – had been efforts to disestablish Doctrine and Covenants authority and the prophet’s powers. 100 The combination of a Presidential attack and the refusal to sustain him meant the church was moving to its pre-1879 position, Gurley stated. 101 The second and more convincing piece of evidence of defeat was that the reform itself could no longer continue. Gurley’s means of carrying on the reform had been indefinitely closed to him: the Herald, ministerial preaching, and the quorums. 102

It is possible that the reform defeat did not have to force a Gurley withdrawal. Basically the withdrawal was due to a failure of strategy on both sides, but how that strategy could have been different is not clear. The very thing which Smith desired – to contain the reform within safe limits – was the one intolerable to Gurley, for silencing left him with no base of operations. Another factor which goaded him into withdrawing was the Conference failure to explain its action, 103 even though the Conference could not logically do this since it had no valid charges. Thus, there was only one course for Gurley because his purpose within the institution had been taken from him. It was April 1886 before Gurley decided to withdraw. His act was not one of impetuous anger but a realization of the inevitability of the situation. 104

Cause of the Reform’s Failure

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If handled differently, Gurley’s reform still would not have succeeded. The two elements that his reform depended upon seem to have been popularly rejected. First, Gurley’s appeal to the mass of church members rested on their choosing greater freedom to define beliefs. No evidence ever appeared that this ultimate in principles was of great value to most people in the church. In fact, the opposite is suggested by a common charge during the Blair debate. Here interest was not centered on possible Gurley inadequacies in proving the error of specific Restoration doctrines, but rather concern that he had “oppose(d)” a ‘thus saith the Lord’ to the church” seemed paramount. 105 Gurley unwittingly attacked not only error but assurance. He was trying to attract supporters at the same time he attacked the authority which verified the faith of those potential supporters. His opponents triumphed by their appeal to assurance, not freedom.

The people also rejected the other basic element which doomed the Gurley reform. Gurley based his later strategy on a final decision of the people which would reject the Smith prophetic role doctrines more in keeping with the gospel of Christ. 106 Gurley could not influence such a vote to his side because that decision had previously been made in 1860. The people at that time had accent this concept of prophet when they chose Joseph Smith III to lead them. They had not directly rejected the gospel but had merely affirmed the Restoration interpretation as the gospel. To Gurley this was a rejection, for he felt interpretations must be judged also. But Gurley fought a fruitless contest, for his defeat already lay in the past. 107

As a result of Gurley’s reform defeat, the Reorganized Church clearly defined its seat of power within the prophetic office. The 1885 Conference gave the prophet no power which in practice he did not already exercise. What it did do was to beat back the last attempt to date to relocate the center of control. By its refusal to accept any version of Gurley’s reform, the church actually accepted the tenets that the prophet rather than the Conference would continue to direct through the legislative power of unrestricted prophecy 108 and that the prophet’s power to interpret would not be limited through specific definitions. Later unsuccessful attempts by other quorums to limit the prophet’s power have only challenged its degree, not its supremacy. Audacious as it was, only a fundamental reform such as Gurley’s could have succeeded. Gurley understood that the only restriction on an office of theoretically limitless authority must be a relocation of its actual power and responsibility.

  1. Joseph Smith and Heman C. Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Lamoni, Iowa: The Board of Publication of the Reorganized Church, 1920), Vol. III, 200-201, 742-747
  2. History IV, 232, 367, 423, 444; Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., to Council of Twelve (Pleasanton, Iowa: March 26, 1884).
  3. Zenas G. Gurley Jr. “History of the Reorganization,” pamphlet (Pleasanton, Iowa: May 12, 1886), 4.
  4. The Saints’ Herald (Lamoni, Iowa: official publication of the RLDS Church), Vol. XXXII, 138-139; History IV, 213-217, 239-240
  5. History IV, 730. Edmund L. Kelley, later Bishop of the church, is the source of the report that there was a group of members sympathetic to Briggs’ point of view. Kelley noted that he was approached by Briggs about joining this group in 1878.
  6. Joseph Smith to Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., letter, RLDS archives, Joseph Smith Letterbook No. 1, pp. 264-265 (Dec. 15, 1877); Herald XXXII, 138-139; History IV, 524-525, 561-562, 730.
  7. There is no evidence of cooperation in planning reform strategy before the crises in which they did aid each other. Thus, Briggs and Gurley’s relation was evidently only ideological in the sense that they ended up on the same side in a crisis. But Briggs seems to have had no part in Gurley’s elaborate propaganda scheme by which he hoped to persuade the church majority to his viewpoint.
  8. Briggs testified in court in 1894 that “I did not withdraw because of any change in doctrine, or because anything new was brought in, but it was the interpretation put upon certain lines of policy and doctrine; and while others were allowed to discuss those lines of policy I was not permitted to do so, but was shut out. … that was what I objected to, and not to any change in the doctrine of the church” (The Temple Lot Case, trial recording, [Salt Lake City, Utah; Modern Microfilm Co.], p.400).
  9. Temple Lot, 406-407
  10. Gurley – Council.
  11. Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., “Biographical Sketch of Zenas H. Gurley, Jr.” Biographical and Historical Record of Ringgold and Decatur Counties, Iowa, pp. 539-544, (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1887), p. 542.
  12. Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., to Fred Johnson, letter, RLDS archives (Pleasanton, Iowa: June 18, 1886); Herald XXX, 312.
  13. Joseph Smith and W.W. Blair to Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., letter, RLDS archives, Joseph Smith Letterbook No. 1, pp. 491-493 (Oct. 23, 1878); “Biographical,” 542.
  14. Smith-Gurley (Oct. 23, 1878); “Biographical,” 542; History IV, 259-260, 283-185.
  15. History IV, 213-217
  16. History IV, 259-260, 283-285; “Biographical,” 542.
  17. Herald XXXII, 217; Gurley-Johnson.
  18. Gurley-Johnson.
  19. Ibid. Gurley claimed Joseph Smith Jr., had shown indisputable error. In particular his prophetically true forecast of the Civil War rebellion (1832-1833) had been succeeded by an erroneous prophecy four years later at Salem, Massachusetts.
  20. Herald XXX, 312; XXXII, 139-142, 217.
  21. Doctrine and Covenants 19:2a, b read:” Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words, and commandments, which he shall give unto you, as he received them, walking in all holiness before me; for his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith; for by doing these things, the gate of hell shall not prevail against you. …”
  22. Herald XXXII, 108. Gurley suggested that Joseph Smith Jr., returned to Mosaic values in his attempt to transcend the role of prophet. He considered it a “complete return to the old covenant, under which the prophet was God’s mouth-piece to the church – but in the New, Jesus speaks the word of life, which word will judge the world …” (Gurley-Johnson).
  23. “History of the Reorg.”; “Biographical,” 542; Herald XXXI, 753-754;
  24. History IV, 259-260; “Biographical,” 542; Herald XXXI, 753-754
  25. Gurley implied at various times that this making of the prophet into law itself seemed to encourage extravagances with civil law also. Examples were the attempt to violently retake Missouri land (Herald XXXII, 169-173) and encouragement of illegal mob attacks upon Utah Mormonism by the Reorganization leadership (Herald XXXII, 734-735).
  26. In the absence of church law, Gurley himself used the Bible and Book of Mormon – especially their references to Christ – to judge controversial doctrines. He found the Book of Mormon less objectionable than the Doctrine and Covenants because he felt Joseph Smith had only been the translator and because it proved a more stable standard than the Doctrine and Covenants which might at any time have to include a new false doctrine as part of its standard.
  27. Herald XXXII, 169-173; History IV, 259, 283-285, 524-525; “Biographical,” 542.
  28. Gurley-Johnson.
  29. Herald XXXII, 169-173.
  30. Ibid. XXX, 312.
  31. Ibid. XXXI, 753-754.
  32. Herald XXVI, 369-371.
  33. “Biographical,” 542.
  34. History IV, 283-285
  35. Gurley-Council; Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., to unnamed addressee, letter, RLDS archives (Pleasanton, Iowa: June 14, 1882). Although the addressee of this letter is not mentioned by name, the text of the letter suggests Gurley is writing to E.L. Kelley. Kelley was Gurley’s missionary partner before Kelley’s call to Bishop’s Counselor.
  36. Joseph Smith to Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., Letter, RLDS archives, Joseph Smith Letterbook No. 2, pp. 149-156 (April 2, 1879).
  37. Gurley-Council.
  38. Gurley characterized the situation in which God speaks through one authoritative prophetic mouthpiece as Mosaic. The gospel conception of revelation allowed direct communication between God and every man through the Spirit.
  39. Herald XXX, 312; XXXII, 169-173; “Biographical,” 541; Gurley-unnamed addressee.
  40. Gurley-Council; Herald XXI, 753-754; XXVI, 369-371.
  41. Herald XXXII, 225; History IV, 260-261, 478, 481, 526-528, 730; Gurley-unnamed addressee.
  42. History IV, 525, 561-562
  43. Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith III and the Restoration, ed. Mary Audentia Smith Anderson (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1952), 295-296.
  44. Herald XXIX, 71.
  45. Ibid. XXVI, 369.
  46. History IV 195-197.
  47. Joseph Smith to Jason W. Briggs, letter, RLDS archives, Joseph Smith Letterbook No. 1, pp. 150-153 (May 1, 1877)
  48. Joseph Smith to Jason W. Briggs, letter, RLDS archives, Joseph Smith Letterbook No. 2, pp. 74-75 (January 26, 1879).
  49. Smith-Gurley (Dec. 15, 1877).
  50. William W. Blair, The Memoirs of President W.W. Blair, compiled by Elder Frederick B. Blair (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Publishing House, 1909), 176
  51. Joseph Smith to Jason W. Briggs, letter, RLDS archives, Joseph Smith Letterbook No. 1, pp. 434-435 (Aug. 20, 1878).
  52. Joseph Smith to Jason W. Briggs, letter, RLDS archives, Joseph Smith Letterbook No. 1, pp. 127-128 (April 5, 1877)
  53. Ibid.
  54. Smith and Restoration, 298-302.
  55. Ibid., 295-196
  56. History IV, 561.
  57. Smith-Gurley (April 2, 1879).
  58. Smith and Restoration, 298.
  59. Zenas H. Gurley, Jr. to _______ Dillore, Letter, RLDS archives (Pleasanton, Iowa: April 1, 1893).
  60. Gurley-Council.
  61. “Biographical,” 541, 543
  62. Joseph Smith to Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., letter, RLDS archives, Joseph Smith Letterbook No. 2, pp. 274-277 (July 24, 1879).
  63. History IV, 484, 539-541; Herald XXXI, 753-754
  64. Smith-Gurley (Oct. 23, 1878)
  65. Smith-Gurley (Dec. 15, 1877).
  66. Herald XXXII, 225.
  67. History IV, 283-185; “Biographical,” 542.
  68. Smith-Gurley (Oct. 23, 1878).
  69. History IV, 283-285
  70. “Biographical,” 542.
  71. History IV, 195-197
  72. Blair, 176.
  73. Smith-Gurley (April 2, 1879); Herald XXXIII, 383.
  74. Temple Lot, 400; Herald XXXIII, 383.
  75. History IV, 477.
  76. History IV,479 (Footnote 2).
  77. Ibid., 483.
  78. Herald XXXII, 305.
  79. History IV, 524-525.
  80. Gurley-Council.
  81. Smith-Gurley (April 2, 1879); Smith-Briggs (May 1, 1877).
  82. Gurley-Council.
  83. Herald, Various places in Vol. XXXII.
  84. History IV, 476.
  85. Gurley-Council.
  86. Herald XXXIII, 394.
  87. “Biographical,” 542.
  88. History IV, 477-481.
  89. Ibid., 483.
  90. Ibid., 523.
  91. History IV, 522-523.
  92. Ibid., 487.
  93. Ibid., 477.
  94. Ibid., 478.
  95. Ibid., 487.
  96. Ibid., 479.
  97. Herald XXXIII, 394; Ibid. XXXIII, 383; History IV, 561-562.
  98. History IV, 524-525.
  99. Herald XXXIII, 394.
  100. History IV, 524-525.
  101. “Biographical,” 542.
  102. Gurley-Dillore.
  103. Gurley-Dillore; “Biographical,” 543.
  104. “Biographical,” 543. Either the date of April 1886 is approximate or Gurley and Briggs wrote their withdrawal document of March 28, 1886, before a definite decision was reached. Gurley gave the April 1886 date in an article written in 1887 so he should have remembered.
  105. Herald XXXII, 121.
  106. Gurley-Johnson (see also fn. 37).
  107. Ibid., XXX, 312.
  108. In the context of Gurley’s argument it can be contended that the Conference power to approve a new revelation is not actually a real restriction on the prophet’s power to legislate. (1) it would be an act of disobedience and inconsistency to reject a revelation while accepting the commandment to receive all revelations of the prophet (D. and C. 19:2). (2) This power actually belongs to the prophet, for it was he who originally gave the Conference this supposed prerogative to question revelations. (3) In actual practice the Conference does not use its supposed power, thus the power cannot be considered a real one.

Clare D. Vlahos is a graduate student in theology at the University of Iowa.