Note: This post is meant for what4anarchy, but I thought to share it with others who may have interest.
Recently what4anarchy and I were talking and I happened to mention to him that one day, as I was researching Joseph Smith’s visit to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1839, in conjunction with research on possible daguerreotypists present in that city at that time, I Ixquicked a search term and came across the following document written by Stephen J. Fleming:
(Btw, the above PDF document is taken from this web site.)
what4anarchy asked me to send the document to him but I opted instead to just post it on this blog.
Who presides/conducts? The elders of the church or the bishopric?
The title of this post is taken from D&C 46: 2. I’ve always been fascinated by the phrase “elders of my church” or “elders of the church.” Currently, it is the members of the bishopric that conduct all meetings they are present at (unless a higher authority is attending.) I suppose “the elders of the church” can refer to them, but not every scriptural reference seems to imply the bishopric. For example, from the law of the church (D&C 42), it is written:
And the elders of the church, two or more, shall be called, and shall pray for and lay their hands upon them in my name; and if they die they shall die unto me, and if they live they shall live unto me. (D&C 42: 44)
For most people, this is interpreted as any member of the elder’s quorum. No one believes that this only refers to the bishopric, yet in the same revelation, we read the following:
And if any man or woman shall commit adultery, he or she shall be tried before two elders of the church, or more, and every word shall be established against him or her by two witnesses of the church, and not of the enemy; but if there are more than two witnesses it is better. (D&C 42: 80)
Here, probably most would think that the phrase “elders of the church” applies only to the bishopric or the stake presidency/high council, not to just two members of the elder’s quorum. Yet, two verses later, the Lord makes it plain that the “two elders of the church” before which the trial takes place does not include the bishop:
And if it can be, it is necessary that the bishop be present also. (D&C 42: 82)
Enter Fleming’s Article
Now, the document I linked to above, about the Philadelphia church, is interesting for several reasons:
The law of common consent had more power back then
According to the article, Benjamin Winchester, a LDS missionary, started proselyting in Philadelphia in the summer of 1839, after preaching in New Jersey. He finally was able to baptize several people and when Joseph Smith, Jr. visited in the winter of 1839-40, he established a branch of the church there, with Brother Winchester as the presiding elder. “Presiding elders,” states Fleming, “are what are called branch presidents today, and in the early days of the church, they were usually chosen by the branch.” Emphasis mine. (See scenario #5 in the article, Power of the Law of Common Consent, to understand why I find this so remarkable.)
Brother Winchester, apparently, was quite the proponent of Mormonism. He wrote to church headquarters for help with the missionary work prior to the arrival of Joseph Smith, debated publicly with a Presbyterian preacher, baptized, edited and wrote most of the Gospel Reflector, a Mormon periodical started to present a different picture of Mormonism than what was being published in the newspapers of the area. It is understandable that when the Philadelphia Branch was organized by Joseph Smith in December of 1839, Brother Winchester became the presiding elder.
Six men leading: a bishopric and a branch presidency
When the Philadelphia branch had financial trouble, they decided to call a financial committee, but Hyrum Smith, who was visiting, directed them to call a bishopric, instead. He taught them to call a branch presidency for spiritual affairs and a bishopric for temporal affairs, which they did, naming Bro. Winchester as presiding elder, with Bros. Whipple and Wharton as his two counselors and Bro. Syfritt as bishop with Bros. Price and Nicholson as his two counselors.
Can you imagine the elder’s quorum presidency of a ward or branch being the actual leaders of the congregation, with the bishopric being subordinate to the presiding elders and being responsible chiefly for the Aaronic priesthood and finances, as it was designed to function? No? Well, apparently the bishopric back then couldn’t either, because once a bishop and a presiding elder found themselves in the same branch, a power struggle ensued!
The Aaronic priesthood did home teaching, and not once a month
Fleming then states:
The branch also appointed the priests, teachers and deacons of the branch to “visit each member of the Church to inquire as to their faith and standing.” At a conference in December of 1840, the Aaronic Priesthood reported that “all the Saints (with but few exceptions) are diligently striving to keep the commandments of God, and their faith in the work of the Lord in the Last Days, is unshaken.”
And then there was all the discord…
Problems soon arose, though, between Bro. Winchester and a traveling elder named Almon Babbitt, which was resolved by the two with forgiveness and reconciliation. However, a junior apostle, John E. Page, who visited the branch 1841 for an extended period of time, began to make trouble for Bro. Winchester and exert influence over the branch, especially when Winchester was gone on a mission to Salem, Massachusetts during the summer. In September of that same year, Elder Babbitt wrote to church headquarters, essentially suggesting that Winchester ought to be released, as he wasn’t doing a good enough job and potential converts had stated they wouldn’t be baptized while Winchester presided.
That October, Bro. Winchester wrote a letter to church headquarters, refuting what Babbitt had written and also traveled to Nauvoo to set the record straight. Joseph Smith attended the meeting and felt Bro. Winchester had a contentious spirit and reproved him. Then, in January of 1842, the Twelve “suspended” Bro. Winchester until he made “satisfaction” for disobeying the First Presidency. Elder Page wrote another letter to church HQ, saying that Bro. Winchester was his enemy. That winter, Bro. Winchester traveled back to Philadelphia.
Now, here is where it gets even more interesting…
Apparently, the branch became divided, with the lesser portion siding with Elder Page (the apostle) and the majority siding with Bro. Winchester (the presiding elder.) Those that were with Winchester leased another building in which to attend church. The northern branch (the lesser part of the people) chose William Wharton (former counselor of the branch presidency) to be their new presiding elder, while the southern branch (the majority) kept Bro. Winchester as presiding elder.
According to Fleming, though, the real controversy was between the bishopric and the presiding elder (Winchester.) Bishop Jacob Syfritt, his first counselor James Nicholson, and his mother Eliza Nicholson all had a bone to pick with Winchester. A special conference was called in April of 1842 to mend the strife between the northern and southern branches and to investigate the causes of it. Winchester brought charges against both Syfritt and Nicholson and the conference determined that they were true. Both men were rendered “satisfaction.” Then the conference investigated Bro. Winchester. He defended himself, putting the blame of the problems squarely on the shoulders of both Almon Babbitt and Elder John E. Page. The conference ended up exonerating Bro. Winchester of any wrongdoing.
The conference also placed the entire branch in the southern location and firmly into the hands of Bro. Winchester. It also wrote a letter to Hyrum Smith, explaining the proceedings so that he would understand what the voice of the people had decided, and printed the minutes of the meeting. Apparently, the pesky bishopric was also dissolved at this time.
The northern branch struck back by writing to Joseph Smith, with petition signatures, requesting that they separate from the southern branch and become a genuine separate branch of the church, with Bro. Wharton as the presiding elder, meeting in the original location. The Twelve apostles granted their request in May of 1842 and also disapproved of the southern conference. They also “silenced” Winchester from preaching until he made satisfaction for disobeying the First Presidency while at Nauvoo.
No more spoilers
Now, I won’t spoil the rest of the story, only to say that it is very engaging. It is almost on the same level as daytime soap operas, except that the people mentioned in the article were real and as many were holders of the priesthood of God, their actions might be considered even more shocking. I, personally, found it a fascinating read.
But more than that, I think it may be a good read for our times. The time period covered by Fleming, 1839 to after the martyrdom of the Prophet and Hyrum, was one of a lot of change, and not everyone responded to those changes in the same way. Not everyone understood or knew who was supposed to be in charge, meaning who was supposed to be the leaders. Not all the doctrine or new revelations given were received with gladness. Although we modern LDS are not currently faced with the rapid changes these earlier saints were exposed to, that is not to say that things will remain the same as always. It may be beneficial to review the responses of these early saints and leaders and put ourselves in their places, to prepare ourselves, at least mentally, for the things which are prophesied to come to pass in our day and age, prior to the Lord’s second coming.