Conflict in the Quorum


Conflict in the Quorum: Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith

An in-depth view of the fiery conflicts between Mormonisms most famous leaders.

December, 2002

SKU: 1-56085-164-3 Categories: , Tags: , , , Author: Gary James BergeraProduct ID: 1302


At a meeting of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve in 1860, one of the church’s senior apostles, Elder Heber C. Kimball, complained that “Brother Orson Pratt has withstood Joseph [Smith] and he has withstood Brother Brigham [Young] many times and he has done it tonight and it made my blood chill. It is not for you to lead [the prophet],” Kimball continued, “but to be led by him. You have not the power to dictate but [only] to be dictated [to].”

Whenever the quorum discussed Elder Pratt’s controversial sermons and writings and his streak of independent thinking, the conversation could become heated. As documented by Gary James Bergera in this surprisingly suspenseful account, Pratt’s encounters with his brethren ultimately affected not only his seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve but also had a lasting impact on LDS doctrine, policy, and organizational structure.

“There is not a man in the church that can preach better than Orson Pratt,” Brigham Young told the twelve apostles on another occasion. “It is music to hear him. But the trouble is, he will … preach false doctrine.”

Pratt responded that he was “not a man to make a confession of what I do not believe. I am not going to crawl to Brigham Young and act the hypocrite. I will be a free man,” he insisted. “It may cost me my fellowship, but I will stick to it. If I die tonight, I would say, O Lord God Almighty, I believe what I say.”

“You have been a mad stubborn mule,” Young replied. “[You] have taken a false position … It is [as] false as hell and you will not hear the last of it soon.”

Not infrequently, these two strong-willed, deeply religious men argued. Part of their difficulty was that they saw the world from opposing perspectives—Pratt’s a rational, independent-minded stance and Young’s a more intuitive and authoritarian position. “We have hitherto acted too much as machines … as to following the Spirit,” Pratt explained in a quorum meeting in 1847. “I will confess to my own shame [that] I have decided contrary to my own [judgment] many times. … I mean hereafter not to demean myself as to let my feelings run contrary to my own judgment.” He issued a warning to the other apostles: “When [President Young] says that the Spirit of the Lord says thus and so, I don’t consider [that] … all we should do is to say let it be so.”

For his part, Young quipped that Pratt exhibited the same “ignorance … as any philosopher,” telling him “it would be a great blessing to him to lay aside his books.” When Pratt appealed to logic, Young would say, “Oh dear, granny, what a long tail our puss has got.”

Ironically, Orson Pratt would have the last word both because Young preceded him in death and because several of Young’s teachings and policies had proven unpopular among the other apostles. One of Young’s counselors said shortly after the president’s death that “some of my brethren … even feel that in the promulgation of doctrine he [Young] took liberties beyond those to which he was legitimately entitled.” Meanwhile, Pratt continued to hold sway with some of his colleagues. His thoughtful—if ultra-literalistic—interpretations of scripture would also influence such later church leaders as Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie.

Bergera’s nuanced approach avoids caricatures in favor of the many complexities of personalities and circumstances. It becomes clear that the conflict in which these men found themselves enmeshed had no easy, foreseeable resolution.

Gary James Bergera is managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation in Salt Lake City, former managing director of Signature Books, and former managing editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. He is co-author of Brigham Young University: A House of Faith, editor of Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, The Autobiography of B. H. Roberts, Statements of the LDS First Presidency, and companion volumes of Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed, 1842-1845, and The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845-1846 (also co-editor) and On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess, and a contributing author in The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith, Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience: A Mormon/Humanist Dialogue, and The Search for Harmony: Essays on Science and Mormonism. He is also the recipient of a Best Article Award from the Mormon History Association.

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5 reviews for Conflict in the Quorum

  1. Kurt Widmer, Religious Studies Review

    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.

  2. James A. Cox, Wisconsin Bookwatch

    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.

  3. William G. Hartley, Journal of Mormon History

    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).

    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.

  4. Michael W. Homer, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought

    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.

  5. 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. “

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