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Conflict in the Quorum: Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith Hardcover – December 15, 2002

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Historians of the American West who include the Mormon experience in their studies usually focus on settlement patterns, water rights, relationships with Native Americans, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, church and state conflicts, and plural marriage. Mormonism is depicted as a monolithic corporate structure that leaves little room for theological speculation and freedom of thought. Writers tend to believe that when the Lion of the Lord (Brigham Young) roared, all the thinking had been done and Utah grew silent. Only the sounds of church members rushing to fall into step filled the mountain air. Gary James Bergera relates a different story as he details the theological conflicts that raged between Brigham Young and Orson Pratt. Was Mormonism, according to Pratt's argument, to become a religion primarily bound to scripture or would it continue to find its fundamental strength in the living oracles who led the church, the position espoused by Brigham Young? Church members were aware of many of these conflicts. Accounts were published in Mormon newspapers and church leaders addressed subjects regarding Pratt's and Young's disagreements in public meetings as well as in the private gatherings of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. At the time, more church members sided with Young than Pratt, but in the twentieth century, Mormon leaders found many of the theories of Pratt more acceptable than those of Young. As Bergera points out, "reliance on Pratt has continued to be pervasive and unmistakable in Mormonism to the present" (p. 282). Pratt's difficulties with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young began in Kirtland, Ohio, where he and Joseph Smith argued over the pronunciation of a Hebrew word. They disagreed, too, over aspects of plural marriage and Pratt's belief that Joseph Smith had "made advances towards apostles' wives, including his own companion, Sarah" (p. 19). Pratt's conflicts with Smith's successor, Brigham Young, included disagreements over such theological issues as Young's Adam-God doctrine, Young's idea of the eternal progression of God, and on worshiping the attributes of deity. Bergera's primary sources are minutes of meetings of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, diary entries of participating parties in the conflicts, and the words of the combatants themselves. (Historians today are denied access to the minutes, an important trove of primary source material.) While Young clearly convinced other church leaders that even apostles were required to seek his approval before teaching or publishing new ideas, Pratt won the war of words. It can be effectively argued, as Bergera does, that today many of Pratt's theological ideas are supported in the writings of Mormon apostles, while those espoused by Young are believed to be flawed. Those convinced that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have always been "monolithically unified" and afraid to speak their minds will find this book not only surprising but interesting as well. Bergera's volume whets the appetite of those interested in Mormon doctrine and points to the need for someone to research and write a multivolume history of Latter-day Saint theology. There is, I believe, a trove of documents available to historians in Mormon archives to make such a study possible. "The field is white, ready to harvest," to borrow a phrase often used in the Doctrine and Covenants, a book both Young and Pratt agreed was scripture. --Kenneth W. Godfrey, Western Historical Quarterly

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. --Kurt Widmer, Religious Studies Review

From the Inside Flap

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

Pratt’s response was 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 false as hell and you will not hear the last of it soon."

It was not infrequently that these two strong-willed, deeply religious men argued. Part of the difficulty was that they did so from opposing perspectives--Pratt’s a rational and 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, 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


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Signature Books; Second printing edition (December 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1560851643
  • ISBN-13: 978-1560851646
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #670,868 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Steven H Propp TOP 100 REVIEWER on October 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Gary James Bergera is managing directory of the Smith-Pettit Foundation, former managing director of Signature Books, and former managing editor of 'Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.' He is also the coauthor of Brigham Young University: A House of Faith and editor of Line upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine (Essays on Mormonism Series), The Autobiography of B.H. Roberts, etc.

He wrote in the Preface to this 2002 book, "This is a study in interpersonal conflict and group dynamics. It is a story that illustrates issues of freedom and obedience and the fragile fabric they share... An examination of the controversies arising between nineteenth-century LDS leaders Orson Pratt and Joseph Smith, and later between Pratt and Brigham Young, illustrates the degree to which such disharmony can affect church doctrine, policy, and organization."

Here are some additional quotations from the book:

"(Orson) Pratt was not alone in expressing reservations about forming a First Presidency. Still, a pattern emerged that would be repeated. Pratt would continue to feel the need, or the responsibility, to question (Brigham) Young, who for his part would respond in kind to Pratt." (Pg. 82)
"For the remaining thirty-three years of his life, Pratt would devote himself wholly to the church...
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To begin, I want to point out that this is one of the most well written books I've read in quite some time. The chapters were well organized and foot notes make up at least half this book for those who want to research the book further.

The reason I'm only giving this book 2 stars is because I feel I was mislead. In the preface Gary James Bergera claims to primarily use official documentation and maintain an unbiased attitude towards the material he had to work with. This is certainly not the case. It is painfully obvious any evidence demeaning to the prophet is considered "reasonable", even when that evidence could easily go both ways. I also was not impressed by the books he chose as his sources; Bergera selected authors who specifically regarded Joseph as a false prophet and liar, rather than a well rounded selection of sources as the preface claims.

So in short: this book is not for LDS members by any means. Its intent is to discredit the LDS church and its leaders authenticity rather than give an insightful look into early LDS history. One quick look at the other books bought by those who have also purchased Conflict in the Quorum will affirm this. I'm writing this review primarily to warn others so they don't make the same mistake I have.

EDIT (2/2/2014): Wow, it sure is funny to come back and see how much I've changed since writing this review. It's been quite some time, years, but in that time I've been studying church history every night like it was a second job. I don't even know where to begin trying to explain how wrong I was in trusting the word of Joesph Smith. These authors I called out for regarding Joesph as a false prophet and lair: they were right on the money.
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The literature of early Mormon history is broad and deep for substantial reasons. The Mormons are - possibly in the Biblical sense; possibly in the modern sense - "a peculiar people". It's only natural to wonder how they got to be that way. This excellent and authoritative history fills in many questions.

The story starts with Joseph Smith and Orson Pratt. When Orson's own wife Sarah tells him that Joseph - the living prophet of God - approached her to be a plural wife to him, he is faced with an unbridgeable conflict between his faith and his wife. Orson seems to go temporarily insane. He then seems to resolve the crisis by denying Sarah and clinging to Joseph with a fanaticism that defies understanding. Orson eventually became one of the most strident advocates of polygamy among the Mormons. To keep his faith, he loses Sarah and the family he started with her. His grandson becomes a leading federal lawman persecuting the polygamists of Utah.

But this is just where the story starts to get interesting.

After Joseph is murdered and Brigham Young leads the Mormons to Utah, both Brigham and Orson hold true to their separate personal experiences of Joseph Smith. And they're not the same. Both are determined to convince the world ... or at least the Mormon people ... that their own vision of the doctrine is true. The problem for Orson is that Brigham is the mouthpiece of God and Orson is not.

It would have been easy for Brigham is simply get rid of Orson. At about the same time, another member of Mormonism's ruling council, Amasa Lyman, was summarily drummed out for holding views contrary to established doctrine. Orson had originally baptized Amasa Lyman in the very early days of the Church. But that wasn't Brigham's choice.
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