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Latter-day Saint History

Who Was Joseph W. Musser?

He was a defining figure in the Mormon Fundamentalist movement.

Joseph W. Musser was a defining figure in the Mormon Fundamentalist movement. Drawing on the teachings of Brigham Young and others, he served as the ideological spokesperson for the fundamentalist movement during its formative period and provided leadership for a time as well. This interview with Cristina Rosetti discusses Joseph W. Musser’s life and legacy.


Read more about Joseph W. Musser in Joseph White Musser: A Mormon Fundamentalist.

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Table of Contents


Who was Joseph White Musser?

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

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

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

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


What led you to write Joseph White Musser: A Mormon Fundamentalist?

From the onset, Matthew Bowman and Joseph Spencer’s series on influential Mormon thinkers included figures outside the usual cast of characters. When I heard about the vision, I approached them to include a figure whose work outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped to shape so much within it.

By that time, Bryan Buchanan and I had spent about a year transcribing diaries and correspondences for a documentary history on Joseph Musser’s life (forthcoming with Signature Books).

Learn more about the biography of Joseph Musser in this Benchmark Books lecture with author Cristina Rosetti.

Why was plural marriage so important to many Latter-day Saints?

The short answer is that the leaders of the Church spent years saying it was necessary for exaltation. Beginning in the Nauvoo period, and solidified under the leadership of Brigham Young, plural marriage was the Mormon marriage system and the embodied experience of the gods.

Brigham Young said, “The only men who become Gods, even the sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 11:269.) Latter-day Saints in the 19th century, and the later members of the fundamentalist movement, believed him.


What were the three manifestos and why were three necessary?

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

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

The Mormon fundamentalist priesthood council with Joseph White Musser (lower right).

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

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

Heber J. Grant did not like polygamy.

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

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

That was something that only further came into question as one of Joseph F. Smith’s wives delivered a child during the hearings.

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

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


In what ways did Heber J. Grant become the foe of polygamists?

Heber J. Grant did not like polygamy, which is interesting since he was a polygamist at one point in his life. There is a sense, based on his statements, that the public perception of the practice embarrassed him.

In his April 1931 address at the Church’s semiannual general conference, he referred to the continuation of polygamy as a “regrettable and most annoying circumstance.” In private communications, he referred to the women of the fundamentalist movement as “silly.”

His attitude ultimately led to the implementation of Church loyalty oaths, the reorganization of stakes and branches in southern Utah, and raids on the community founded by the fundamentalists.

In his reflections on arrests in 1935, Joseph Musser noted the county attorney’s comments that “Officials of the regular (“Mormon”) Church, were assisting to bring about the arrest and conviction of polygamists.” (“The Short Creek Embroglio,” Truth, October 1, 1935)

All this to say, he became the foe of the movement because he ardently tried to end it.


Why was John Taylor’s 1886 revelation significant to Joseph Musser?

The 1886 Revelation is based on an account by Lorin C. Woolley, an early proponent of the Mormon fundamentalist movement. Beginning in 1912, Woolley began teaching about an event that occurred on September 27, 1886.

According to his account, President John Taylor retired early in the evening to pray. Over the course of eight hours, he was met by the resurrected Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith who confirmed to him that the eternal principles of God cannot be revoked.

For believers, this was synonymous with plural marriage.

If the prophets said it, he believed it.

In subsequent recollections, Woolley explained that Taylor proceeded to ordain men to ensure the preservation of the practice. Musser believed both the Revelation and subsequent ordinations were historic events that confirmed the continuation of polygamy and vindicated him and his family. While we have documentation of the Revelation (written in John Taylor’s handwriting), we actually don’t have a contemporary account of the ordinations.


What were some of Joseph Musser’s doctrinal ideas?

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

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

I’ve often joked that a lot of the things people think of as “anti-Mormon” are actually just fundamentalist doctrine.

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

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


Why was priesthood so important to Joseph Musser?

Joseph Musser believed that the priesthood was both the power of God and the men who wielded that power. To him, the priesthood was also the power to celestially bind families. This alone was reason enough to devote significant time to the subject. A loss of the priesthood was just as significant.

For all Mormons, the central claim of the religion is the Restoration of this power after a Great Apostasy.

As the Church began to change their practices to better align with American norms, Musser feared that the Church was again entering into a period of Apostasy. Preserving the fundamentals was not just about “preference.” It was about ensuring the priesthood remained on the earth into the Millennium.


Why was the Journal of Discourses so important Mormon fundamentalists?

Fundamentalists believe in the “fundamentals.” For the early members of the movement, there was an authenticity claim attached to this. The closer to the original source, the less corrupt the doctrine.

For this reason, the statements by Brigham Young, John Taylor, etc., were essential for preserving the true faith established by Joseph Smith. The Journal of Discourses is a complete set of declarative statements by these leaders. Today, many Mormons look at these statements and attempt to parse out whether the leaders were speaking as prophets or ordinary men.

That differentiation did not matter to Musser. If the prophets said it, he believed it.


How did Mormon fundamentalists and the Church serve as foils for each other?

Musser kept a close eye on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until he died. He wrote about it in his journals, commented on the general conference in his monthly newspaper, and wrote letters to Church leaders. As he did this, he was always drawing comparisons and shaping his new Mormon identity in light of the faith of his childhood.

He was a fundamentalist only inasmuch as there was an entity that was not.

This also worked in the reverse. When Heber J. Grant shared the “Third Manifesto” over the pulpit, he spoke against the people who practiced polygamy into the 20th century, the rumors they spread about the continuation of the practice, and the doctrines they espoused about the nature of the Church and priesthood.

As he did this, he drew a line in the sand and defined Latter-day Saint Mormonism up and against the renegade Mormons gathering in southern Utah.

The two groups needed each other in order to have their respective identities make sense. You can only be modern if there is something antiquated. And you can only be a fundamentalist if there is something that abandons the fundamentals.


What led to schisms in the Mormon fundamentalist movement?

Like all schisms in Mormonism, contested authority claims were the major factor. In Short Creek, this mostly centered on the scope of authority. Should priesthood authority govern temporal and eternal matters? Was the President of the Priesthood just responsible for sealing families or running a religious institution?

The other major problem was the way authority was conferred. In the case of Joseph Musser, the major schism in the movement was centered on the ordination of his doctor, Rulon C. Allred.

While Allred was faithful and beloved in the community, he was not in the traditional line of succession and many people were bypassed in order for him to climb the hierarchical ranks. This divided the community and ultimately became a source of the schism that led to the eventual formation of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) and the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), the largest Mormon fundamentalist religions at the time.


What do you hope people take away from the Joseph White Musser biography?

When most people think about Mormon fundamentalism, they imagine the most recent Netflix series or news special. I hope people recognize that Mormon fundamentalism has a history that extends beyond this. It has a rich history of forging an identity in close proximity to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The early members of the Mormon fundamentalist movement were all Latter-day Saint until they weren’t. It is a closer history than some people might imagine at first glance.

I also hope people recognize that Mormonism was not unique in navigating modernity. The early 20th century saw the emergence of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy that gave rise to the fundamentalist movement in American Christianity. Catholicism and Orthodoxy saw similar debates that resulted in traditionalist or reactionary movements.

In the wake of modernity, everyone was trying to figure out how to “do religion” in a time of immense change. Joseph Musser was among the Mormons who rejected the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ trek toward modernity.


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About the interview participant

Cristina Rosetti is a professor and public scholar of minority religions in the U.S. Her research looks at the history and lived experience of Mormon fundamentalists in the Intermountain West.


Further Reading

Mormon Fundamentalist Resources

  • Joseph White Musser: A Mormon Fundamentalist (University of Illinois Press)
  • Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations after the Manifesto (Greg Kofford Books)
  • LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904 (Dialogue) [PDF]
  • Plural Marriage after the Manifesto (Gospel Topics)
  • “John the Revelator”: The Written Revelations of John Taylor (BYU RSC)

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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