Updated: Jun 18, 2021
In the 1870’s, a revelation was produced, recorded by Warren Cowdery, Oliver’s brother, which purported that Jesus Christ, Moses, Elijah, and Abraham appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery committing unto them priesthood key (permission to operate) such efforts as missionary work, the gathering of Israel, redeeming the dead. There is some dispute as to the veracity of this revelation, now found in section 101 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It seems to fit the authority style of Brigham Young and his followers (leadership by keys) more than Joseph Smith, who rarely said anything about keys, and when he did, used it in contexts that don’t follow into its modern use. Neither he nor Oliver gave a contemporary witness of those Kirtland events. It was unknown for almost 30 years. Yet it provides the context for the next forty years of power and authority in the LDS Church as Brigham Young rose to claim the throne of Mormonism.
The Rise of Brigham Young, the Czar of Deseret
There is very little indication that Joseph Smith expected the Quorum of the Twelve to lead the Church outright. In fact, he had basically given up the presidency of the Church in 1844 to Hyrum so he could retrench himself into focusing on spiritual things. The idea of priesthood keys was one of limited understanding and one that was expanded upon and probably exaggerated at the time of Joseph’s death to justify the leadership of the Twelve. That concept of keys over the decades would soon dominate the entire discussion of priesthood, to the point where keys became the dominating factor in the exercise of Mormon priesthood up through the 20th century. It became the holy permission slip to act in one’s priesthood, which had several factors involved, such as missionary work, work for the dead, sealing, and running the kingdom of God on earth. Keys, like priesthood, may have simply been an invitation to learn one of the mysteries of priesthood, not an hierarchical allowance to use priesthood in a leadership capacity. In other words, keys (or mysteries) may follow the righteous exercise of priesthood, not the other way around. The doctrinal development of keys has always been a missing link in Mormonism’s power structure and remains a curious anomaly against the backdrop of revealed scripture.
When Joseph was murdered, Brigham Young was back east on a mission. When he heard of the death of the prophet, Young’s first reaction was shock and mourning, fearing the entire enterprise was at risk. He then remarked later that Joseph had left behind the keys to the kingdom to the Twelve. It’s unclear what he meant since his only record of ordination up to that time was his calling by Oliver Cowdery to the apostleship, not a transference of keys by Joseph Smith. Of course, the claim comes that the keys came in secret as part of the record of one of the Council of Fifty meetings in Nauvoo. Recently, the Joseph Smith Papers are providing evidence that this may not have happened or understood as later explained.
There is a faithful narrative about Brigham Young. It’s short. It deals with how he moved the Saints to Utah, helped to colonize the West, bring in the railroad, and begin building the Salt Lake Temple. There’s more, but it’s less flattering. Many of the notes on Brigham Young here come from Quinn’s Origins and Extensions of Power. D. Michael Quinn paints a dire picture of the process by which the Twelve swept into power in 1844. One can corroborate much of this inside the Journal of Discourses and the Discourses of Brigham Young. Even though Brigham Young was back east, his close companion and cousin, Willard Richards, was his eyes and ears in Navuoo. Willard Richards and John Taylor of the Twelve were the only ones to witness the murder of Joseph and Hyrum, yet in a strange way, they benefited from that loss in terms of power and control. Do we assume too much at face value considering the story of the martyrdom. One wonders, because later, Samuel Smith died from “exposure” during the excitement that followed the murders. There is some evidence that Hosea Stout, the sheriff of Nauvoo, acted on the orders of someone to poison him. It’s alarming that within a few short days, three Smith brothers were dead, two possible heirs to the Church presidency. The friends and successors who benefited were curiously close.
One theory of succession is that Joseph had been toying with the idea that the leadership of the Church would be familial and patriarchal, not organizational. Hyrum was already being considered the president of the Church, but he was murdered alongside Joseph. Samuel could have been in that line. The last Smith brother, William, was later marginalized in 1845 and left without a position. There were no birthright claims of substantial note by any Smith family member until Joseph’s young sons could grow old enough to claim them. That left others to fill in the gap.
The first group of people that claimed leadership of the Church followed James Strang. They gravitated toward someone with an imitative experience that was similar to Joseph Smith’s. They eventually migrated to Wisconsin and Michigan, fell apart and largely drifted back to the RLDS church 20 years later. The second group was backed by Sydney Rigdon, the last remaining member of the First Presidency and William Marks, the President of the High Council in Nauvoo. Rigdon argued for guardianship over the Church until they could reorganize and determine which direction to go and how to lead. After he was excommunicated and intimidated into leaving, he formed his own church after relocating to Pennsylvania. The final and most determined group were the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles under the leadership of Brigham Young. They campaigned rigorously for their position upon Brigham’s return to Navuoo. To improve his chances, Brigham sent all the Quorum of Seventy away on missions to lessen the likelihood of others swaying them against the Twelve. By August, the Church voted, and the Twelve were installed as the leaders of the church, nominally under Brigham Young. Some reported years later that he transfigured to appear like Joseph Smith, a controversial claim to say the least because of the lack of contemporary sources.
Brigham immediately went to work consolidating his power in 1844. Where Joseph Smith was loose with his leadership and organization, Young tolerated no dissent. He established “whistling and whittling” brigades to intimidate and silence those who opposed his leadership. These young men (not little boys) would follow people around Nauvoo, intimidating and bullying them until they simply picked up and left. That worked for those that opposed the leadership of the Twelve for the most part. Others were beaten or had property damaged, at least until they gave up claims or recanted any grievances.
At first, the Twelve believed they had equal power among themselves. That slowly dissolved as Brigham Young elected himself the new President of the Church in 1847 in Nebraska on his way back from Deseret (Utah). Other break-offs formed with defections of Lyman White and Alpheus Cutler from the Twelve. He soon sent the rest on missions away from the center of the Church to keep his status unchallenged. He only kept his First Presidency, who weren’t among the Twelve, in Deseret, and they were fiercely loyal to him, to help him lead and govern. Stake presidents and bishops were lined up below him inside a loyal hierarchy structure of obedience.
Brigham Young demonstrated very little of the teaching, revealing, or prophetic skills of Joseph Smith although he did have one canonized revelation that dealt with the migration west (D&C 136) and reported to have a couple of dreams where Joseph came to visit him, ostensibly to chastise him on a couple of topics. Young himself would state several times that he was nothing like Joseph Smith, a “Yankee guesser,” a “shepherd” to keep the wolves out of the flock. His style was blunt and off-putting. He demonstrated no finesse and no firm grasp of doctrine. Most his theological doctrinal teachings have since been forgotten by the Church, or like the temple endowment, altered greatly. Much of what he taught he laid at the feet of Joseph Smith (polygamy, blood atonement, the temple endowment, Adam/God doctrine) as after-the-fact secret teachings that only he was privy to learn. He never denied that he was anything like Joseph Smith, but was simply a protector, a guardian much in the way Rigdon was arguing. Many times, he argued that his role was to keep the Church safe until the young Smith boys could rise up and take control of the Church as they aged up. When Joseph Smith III declined his offer and instead started his own church (RLDS) in the 1860’s from various leftover factions that did not go west, this deeply hurt Young, who started the Church on a rigorous campaign to defend their claims of inheritance and hurl insults at the Smith family, Emma in particular. He claimed he was never to be the permanent leader. But while he said and believed such things, his actions spoke much louder.
By the time he was firmly planted in Utah, he had become a virtual czar over Deseret with a paper election system. From the period between 1846 and 1857, he ruled as dictator of the region. Some reports indicate he had a secret police known as Brigham’s Boys, that would carry out frontier justice upon those who were non-believers, apostates, adulterers, thieves, and the like. From these reports and rumors, people would find family members face-down in their barns with throats slit—signifying that a sort of divine justice had been carried out and it was not their place to question. This type of behavior didn’t rest with the Church leadership alone. Local leaders also took matters into their own hands, some to avenge sins, real or perceived, and others used their power for personal gain, whether for money, power, or women. Young instituted “home teaching,” a program to spy on members to make sure they were living the commandments Young had instituted among the Saints. His retrenchments, controls, open living of polygamy and perceived subjugation of women were abhorred back east.
The United States would not tolerate a governor over a territory acting as dictator, a nation beginning to flex its manifest destiny muscles while fighting the cold civil war of territory annexations to balance slave and free states. By 1857, President James Buchanan sent federal troops to put down a supposed insurrection in the Deseret territory, nominally occupying it with federal troops. This march on Deseret was one of the catalysts that lead up to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, September 11, 1857 where around 120 wagon train emigrants of men, women, and children were executed after a series of attacks and blunders that caused local church leaders to take matters into their own hands, presumably to silence any repercussions. While there is no evidence Young ordered this to occur, but there’s little doubt he created an atmosphere where it could.
During the same era, the Mormons went to war with the Ute and Paiute tribes in what is now known as the Black Hawk war. The reasons for the war echo the rest of the story of Native subjugation in the West, a battle over territory, land, cattle and horse theft, Mexican slavery, and the desire to move the nomads away from the settlements. The brutality conducted upon the natives was beyond the pale. The massacre at Mountain Meadows was repeated in Circleville, Utah where a peaceful tribe of men, women, and children Paiutes were rounded up and executed. A similar massacre happened with the Shoshoni tribe at Bear River, with the help of the US Calvary, the largest Native American massacre in American history. Although Brigham Young has been oft-quoted that it is better to feed an Indian than to fight one, there is plenty of evidence that fighting was much more preferred. This was a long way from a church that once believed the Native Americans were key converts who would be instrumental in establishing Zion.
After the federal occupation in the late 1850’s, Young’s sole rule slowly crept to an end. A decade later with the railroad coming through Deseret, his power had been weakened over the territory, with much if his iron fist being neutered with the establishment of a Washington-backed territorial governor. He began turning his attention to cementing his own legacy and grooming his own sons for power. Although he is claimed to have died from a bout of illness, there is some evidence he was poisoned by a wife or daughter.
Although the topic of polygamy will be mentioned elsewhere, in terms of power and authority, it is important to note his teaching regarding priesthood and polygamy. He taught that it was necessary for the highest realms of the Celestial Kingdom, turning the New and Everlasting Covenant from a salvatory Christian ideal to one about marriage and sealing to many wives. His manner of handling women personally caused friction in his own marriages. He taught that women could be fetched by one who had higher keys, even taking a married woman from a man with less. Here was someone who died with 56 wives, an omen to the many wives and concubines of David and Solomon. Some of them were marriages of temporal and dynastic import, but it’s clear that a many of his wives were unhappy with his behavior, with his methods, or with his abuse of power over them. Almost half of them divorced or were "disappeared."
Brigham’s legacy of priesthood and power shows us little in understanding priesthood, but some of the basest of ways to execute it. Parallels to Saul, King David, King Noah, and other scriptural leaders can be drawn. His only priesthood acclaim is to have led the establishment of the temple ceremonies which he gave from memory from experiences with Joseph Smith and were completely unverifiable. Unlike Joseph Smith, he was unafraid to use the full extent of his power. He amassed women, wealth, and status that rivaled others living during that era. Economically, he would come to be a competitor to the upcoming Robber Barons, the largest reason why anti-polygamy legislation reached a fever pitch—to strangle the economic competition that Deseret was giving the capitalist captains of industry back east who wanted to open markets out west.
His colonizing capacities are legendary. He opened the arid west. He created grid systems that foresaw larger use in the future. He established industry in sugar beets, cattle, sheep, textiles, masonry, mercantile, and even cotton. He successfully established consecration-styled United Order communities that survived until the Manifesto when they were forced to liquidate. He ruled the Mormon empire for almost 30 years, longer than any other prophet to lead the Church. He possibly died a billionaire in terms of today’s dollars, most of it due to non-interest loans against Church finances. His predecessor died bankrupt.
Yet given all that power, from the perspective of spiritual acclaim, his was a diminutive leadership. The theory of the Church being less, not more, with respects to spiritual power and authority takes on a powerful witness in the leadership of Brigham Young. It’s interesting that Brigham Young seems to accept this in many of his statements, that he was simply providing a holding station for another to come after. He had no aspersions of a Church that would or could not fail. He was constantly warning the Saints about the perils of falling into apostasy. He would warn that it could and would possibly happen. There was no discussion about his own or others infallibility, on inability to lead the Church astray, or that the Church would never again fall into apostasy. In fact, he often spoke of the opposite.
“What a pity it would be, if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blink self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken the influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.”
John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff – Managing the Decline of Deseret
After Brigham’s death, the Twelve vowed they would never allow their president to usurp power again. They had been marginalized for over two decades while Brigham Young had ruled the Church as an autocrat. Nevertheless, within two years John Taylor had begun to exercise his options as president of the Twelve and soon there was another First Presidency formed with Taylor as the head. He made some organizational adjustments to priesthood quorums, stratifying them on age so that young boys would begin getting the priesthood at age 12 and advance upward from there. He also organized the Primary and the youth organizations. He oversaw the canonization of the Pearl of Great Price as scripture, and new editions (along with edits and correlations) of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Taylor was hampered by the renewed prosecutions against polygamy by the United States government. He became obsessed with its protection. He prophesied that it would never be removed. Where he lacked Brigham's leadership capabilities, he made up for it in fervent zeal. He was more charismatic than Brigham Young but most of his revelations have not been canonized since they deal with polygamy and its preeminence and position in church doctrine, its immutability and prophesies about God not allowing it to be expunged from the Church. He had to go into hiding because the government was jailing LDS leaders for polygamy by 1880. While in hiding, he purportedly gave a blessing to one Lorin C Woolley, who would claim decades later that it was an ordinance blessing, giving Woolley the keys to continue polygamy if it was taken away from the Church. The blessing is disputed. Taylor died in hiding in 1887.
Wilford Woodruff assumed the presidency of the Twelve apostles while in hiding as well and true to his predecessors he waited a couple of years before getting himself sustained as the president of the Church and forming a new first presidency. One of the reasons for this was that George Q Cannon had been both in the first presidency under Brigham Young and John Taylor and had been seen as someone taking on power and authority over church functions. The power struggle between the Apostles and Cannon lasted decades until Cannon’s death in 1901 as he had been assisting elderly presidents from Young to Taylor to Wilford to Snow and was to have been a bit of the power behind the throne. But as he was not one of the original insiders he wasn’t as trusted. One has to wonder what secrets were being protected.
Woodruff continued the embattled behind-the-scenes fight against the anti-polygamy purges of the 1880’s. He would also warn and prophesy of how polygamy would stand and the Lord would come to the rescue. One of the reasons for this intransigence was that Joseph Smith had received a revelation in 1843 stating that if he lived to be 90-years old he would see the face of Christ (presumably in the Second Coming). That year would have been 1890. Many hoped that the Lord would come to intervene and remove the United States government from the land.
When 1890 came with no plagues and destruction upon the land, Woodruff and some of the Church leaders began to quietly admit defeat and moved to accommodate the government’s insistence of giving up polygamy. Wilford began crafting a compromise, a manifesto, to stop the practice at least publicly. It is important to note that polygamy for the United States government was simply a card to play to get the Church to come into its sphere of control. Muslims could continue practicing it. The rule was aimed at Mormonism. For years, the Church has been playing both political parties like a fiddle, bloc voting for one party and then another as a swing vote to bring attention to their issues. The Republican Party, however, had been dominating national politics for the most part since 1860. They wanted to solidify bases and saw the Mormon people as a group they could blackmail into voting for them. Many of the politicians in Washington wanted a Mormon surrender and Federal troops to be sent in to physically dissolve the religion and jail all polygamists.
Woodruff’s Manifesto was a compromise. It allowed those who had entered plural unions prior to 1890 to continue living with their wives, avoid prosecution, and receive pardons for their crimes. The best part, however, was statehood into the Union. All they had to do was promise no more plural marriages, a dissolution of Mormon communal enterprises to private parties (probably the REAL aim), and a promise to deliver the Mormon vote to the GOP. The compromise was entered, and the Mormon empire officially ended as the LDS Church got into bed with big financiers back east to help absolve debts and began working their way into the mainstream of Americana. This happened just as the political winds shifted temporarily to the Democrats, which was less circumspect about warring against Mormonism. It may have been one reason that polygamy continued unabated for 30 more years under the nose of Uncle Sam.
Woodruff’s spiritual legacy is inextricably tied to the Manifesto. Aside from changing the Law of Adoption so that temple sealings were genealogical, beginning the focus on eternal families, his big addition to Mormon doctrine was the infallibility doctrine that he tied to the imposition of the Manifesto. This was his way of assuaging some of the orthodox Saints who would have been worried about their prophet and church abandoning such a key doctrine and principle, one that was promised to be vindicated by the Lord. Woodruff states:
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.
It is curious that such a statement was made under such auspices. Although the Manifesto is one of the three statements canonized as scripture since Joseph Smith, it was not intended to be scripture at the time. It was a lie to the United States government, its purpose was to intentionally convince the members that something had been changed, when it in fact, had not. That’s because plural marriages were still taking place . . . in Mexico, and in secret, although they were to be denied in public. The very moment the Church proclaimed the Manifesto, it was sowing seeds for the fundamentalist breakoffs that would happen three decades later. It was indeed, leading people astray, while claiming otherwise. It was Nauvoo in reverse.
While there were other statements made early on by Joseph Smith that have been propped up to support this statement by Woodruff, mostly recollected later by Woodruff, the many of Joseph's teachings warned that it was indeed possible for himself and others to lead the church into error. Brigham Young also warned of this, as did Heber C. Kimball. The lengths that modern church leaders have gone to build upon Woodruff’s statement bring us back to the syllogism first visited from Gordon B. Hinckley’s statement. It created a doctrine of infallibility where people could simply follow the prophet and not worry about implications. They could abdicate their agency and belief to the church leaders. It also began the principle of eschewing statements that had come earlier by later leaders with those that were now living. That would be fleshed out later, but the seeds were sown by Woodruff. He has the veritable distinction of canonizing the idolatry of man into Mormonism.
Woodruff would spend the rest of his years apologizing for the Manifesto, helping the church see it as a necessary evil. It allowed them to finish the Salt Lake Temple and to get financing for church debts. It kept the church from going bankrupt. In 1898, Woodruff went to speak at a meeting of the Bohemian club in San Francisco, a secret club of financiers and government officials. What he said we have no record, but immediately after, he took ill and died.
 D. Michael Quinn (1994). The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books) pp. 152–153.
 Journal of Discourses, 8:69
 Prophet Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 3, p. 45
 D. Michael Quinn, Extensions of Power
 President Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses, 6:125