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The Morrisite War: Part One

Praying Joe and Brigham's Shameful Ways

 

 

A Familiar Utah Tale

It was a three-day battle royal. A government troop one thousand strong surrounded a rag tag Mormon splinter group. It ended after a gunfight that left six cultists (including the leader, a self-proclaimed prophet of God) and two posse members dead. Sound familiar? An unfortunate by product of modern day Utah?

Only this siege took place in June 1862. The troop, a posse headed by a territorial Marshal loyal to Brigham Young. The cult of true believers, the Morrisites, a group that had deserted Young's fold to create a "purer" version of Mormonism.

As the posse fired cannon volleys into the Morrisite encampment, the weary cult members hunkered down waiting for the second coming of Christ. Their leader, one Joseph Morris, prayed for guidance while bullets and cannonball rained down upon his flock.

Not so different from some modern day fracases involving the government and a band of wacky Mormon separatists. The John Singer camp comes to mind.

Joseph Morris shares a lot with modern Mormon Fundamentalists. He fled the orthodox Mormon Church because, in his mind, its teachings had become corrupt. He chose to set up his own version of Joseph Smith's religion. One closer, he felt, to what Smith and God wanted. And like Singer, it ended badly for Morris and his devotees.

But there are important differences between Morris and his present day counterparts. Both groups opposed the Church's stand on polygamy, however Morris left because he loathed the practice. A tad bit different from current LDS fundamentalist, who goes gaga gaa over collecting beaucoup teenage wives.

A fervent follower of Joseph Smith, the multiple wife doctrine of 1800s Mormonism repulsed Morris. He just couldn't believe his hero, Smith, practiced such an abomination. A demon in human guise had foisted it on the one true Church; a devil named Brigham Young.

His differences with Young led to the aforementioned fray at an abandoned fort in Uintah, a small valley south of Ogden. Morris was shot dead for his troubles and his followers dispersed. This is the story of the Morrisite War, probably the first battle between the government and a Mormon splinter group in Utah.

There are good guys and bad guys in this tale. Just who comprises the heroes and who the villains has been hotly debated since Marshal Robert T. Burton gunned down Praying Joe Morris minutes after the Morrisites surrendered.

Finding Religion

Joseph Morris was twenty-three and living in England when he heard the siren song of the Mormon missionaries. The Church had spread its wings all over Europe in its search for converts to the newly articulated word of God. These disseminators of the good word found particular success in Great Britain and Scandinavian countries. Both regions seemed to be peopled with folks hungry for a new gospel. These new Mormons often immigrated to Utah just to be near the prophet of their new faith.

Morris had worked as a farmhand and coal miner. However, when Joseph Smith's inspired teachings took hold, he was on a road to a new profession, prophet of God. The road to revelation was a windy one, and it would take many years and several odd jobs before Morris would thrust himself into his new vocation.  

After baptism into the LDS church, young Joseph took himself a bride, Mary Thorpe, and left England for Utah. Before reaching the new Zion, Morris and his wife took a two-year detour to St. Louis where he worked as a fireman on a Mississippi riverboat.

Next it was off to Pittsburgh where he would get his first taste of preaching to the masses. Morris served as branch president for a Pennsylvania Mormon congregation. Apparently his first time at bat in the word of God arena didn't go to well. The congregation gave him his walking papers. His teachings didn't sit well with the Pittsburgh Mormons. It would take more on the job training before Morris would perfect his job skills.

Still smarting from the rebuke, Morris moved his wife and new child to the Greet Basin of Utah. It is here he would find his voice and preach a gospel that would attract followers much to the chagrin of the Mormon orthodoxy. But that was several years down the road.

A Shocking Discovery

Morris arrived in Salt Lake City in 1853 and it was there he received his first shock.

Polygamy was a hot button issue with the Mormon Church. In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith had kept the practice a secret only to be passed on to the most faithful of the faithful. Due to strong feelings the idea of taking more than one wife inspired in the less open minded citizens of the United States, Mormons had always kept the practice on the down low.

However, in Salt Lake City, a thousand miles away from the prying eyes of nosy gentiles, polygamy was flaunted in the open. Joseph was flabbergasted. He had no idea his beloved new religion practiced such a thing.

To make matters worse, a Sanpete County bishop convinced Mary to ditch Morris. She packed up their child and belongings and split for greener pastures than she thought marriage to Joseph would yield.

Despite these tribulations, Joseph choked down his doubts and remained in Utah, keeping faith with the Mormon Church. He even remarried in 1855. But this marriage was no more successful than his first. It ended six months after the wedding.

Shortly after Joseph Morris relocated to Provo, a religious fervor exploded across Utah. This revival spread like the flu through the faithful brethren. Impassioned pleas from Church leaders whipped the rank and file into an orgy of repentance and rebaptism. The dreaded Blood Atonement (the particularly Mormon doctrine of shedding blood for sins) often sprang from the pulpit.

It was the great Mormon Reformation of 1857, that period in Utah when the Saints were driven to reaffirm undying obedience to LDS tenets. Fiery speeches from ward houses condemning back sliding Mormons were the order of the day.

This fiery evangelism proved irresistible to Morris. He took to it like a starving man at Chuck O Rama. After being rebaptised, Joseph was honored with the role of Special Teacher, kind of a special Mormon cop cum adviser that strong-armed the rank and file into obedience.

He passionately intoned against the sins, real or imagined, he saw infecting Zion. Joseph Morris had found his stride. It was during this time he picked up the rather disrespectful moniker of Praying Joe.

One of the evils he felt compelled to preach against was polygamy. It constituted nothing less than adultery and the smugly pious Morris wasn't afraid to say so. To say this annoyed the Church leadership is an understatement.

Stake President John C. Snow gave Morris the boot from his teaching assignment. The local Provo bishop and ward members began treating him like a leper. His new wife left him. It was Pittsburgh all over.

A Letter to Brigham

Dejected, Morris sought answers in prayer. And it was there in Provo, fresh from his disgrace, rankling from ostracism, that Joseph Morris had his first revelation.

God had a special plan. He, Joseph Morris, was chosen "from before the foundation of world to be a mighty man, yea, to be a prophet of Israel." Shades of Brian David Mitchell.

Elated by this piece of divine revelation, Joseph fired off a letter to Brigham Young. In this letter he proposed a dual presidency of the LDS church between Young and himself. Brigham would handle the administrative aspects of the church, while Morris would see to the talking with God stuff.

We can only imagine how Young reacted to this particular correspondence. We can be sure it wasn't, "Go find this Morris fellow, I got myself a partner." It seems Young never deemed it necessary to respond to this or other letters of a similar bent from Morris. He apparently felt he was running the Church just fine without the help of a new prophet.

Joseph Morris took to the road preaching his new gospel, undeterred by the cold shoulder from the LDS president. In 1859 he received his second revelation. God forked over total leadership of the one true faith. If Young didn't want to play ball, Heavenly Father assured Morris, maybe the ingrate should find himself a new Zion to run.

In 1860 Morris wandered into Slaterville, a small community north of Ogden. He was still preaching to anyone that listened, that he, not Young was the true prophet of the Mormon Church. Slaterville seemed to agree with Morris' direct line to Heavenly Father. He received 15 more revelations before year's end.  

These revelations confirmed that the LDS hierarchy was corrupt and the rank and file in a state of apostasy. It was revealed that Young was not the prime instigator, but merely a puppet of first counselor George A. Smith. It seems this Judas was a satanic angel hell bent on destroying the one true Church.

Smith was behind the notorious Mountain Meadows Massacre (the 1857 slaughter by Mormons of a wagon train in Southern Utah) among other abominations, according to Morris' revelations.

As crazed as these little tidbits from the Lord may sound, Morris actually began to acquire some honest-to-God followers in Slaterville. It was this appearance of devotees that alarmed the Orthodox Church. It is one thing to have a raggedy vagabond spouting off outrageous revelations, but it became much more worrisome to LDS leaders when folks began to line up behind this mad Isaiah.

Morris collected himself thirty-one disciples during his sojourn in Slaterville. Of course, the distressed local bishopric excommunicated the offenders and drove Praying Joe's little group out of town. Still, he kept picking up followers as he moved his way towards South Weber, another small community south of Ogden.

A Prophet Comes to Uintah

South Weber, located in the Uintah Valley, was abutted on either side by two hills, one on the edge of Ogden, the other the present day home of Hill Air Force Base. The Weber River winds its way though this scenic community, a rural area peopled at the time by Mormon farmers that had fallen on hard times.

It was here Morris scored his greatest coups. The first in the form of Richard Cook, bishop of the South Weber ward. Cook's conversion gave a much-needed respectability to Morris' cause. Soon folks from around the area flocked to the new prophet. The ranks of loyal Morrisites swelled. So much so that alarm bells began to sound in Salt Lake City.

Brigham Young dispatched two of his trusted apostles (twelve council members chosen to advise the LDS president in the style of Jesus' apostles) to suss out just what the heck was taking place in South Weber. On February 11, 1861 apostles John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff presided over a meeting with the Morrisites. Things did not go well.

One incensed participant suggested loudly that what Morris needed was a good lynching. Taylor silenced the rowdy and the testimony began. Ten men, including Cook, and seven women stated in no uncertain terms that Morris was a prophet while Brigham Young failed to meet the requirements for such a designation.

In the spirit of open discussion and tolerance, the apostles promptly excommunicated Morris, Cook and the sixteen deluded souls that dared cast aspersions on Brigham's prophesying abilities. Woodruff ended the meeting with a spirited lambasting of Morris. He further predicted Morris' influence would quickly decline. It would take a posse armed to the teeth to bring about Woodford's prophecy.

In fact, following the meeting, people continued to sign up with the Morrisites in record numbers. So much so that Morris later wrote "the spirit of the Lord has rested upon the people, and they have come from almost all parts of the Territory..."   Mormon leaders could only stew and bide their time.

The second coup Morris scored was the conversion of John Banks. One of the earliest converts in England, he had been baptized by non other than Parley P. Pratt; Banks had one time been a rising star among the Mormon ranks. He had served as the president of the London Mission.

Upon completion of a two year mission in Ohio, Banks traveled to Salt Lake City under the belief Brigham Young would appoint him presiding bishop of the LDS church. Unfortunately, Heber C. Kimball had already filled that slot. Banks was not pleased.

He demonstrated his displeasure by scuffling with the prophet. Things got physical and the LDS president did not fare well in the altercation. Young excommunicated Banks for "unchristian-like conduct."

Banks headed for American Fork a bitter man. He ditzed around with farming, an avocation he did not particularly like, for a few years. He met Morris during those unsatisfying times and they hit it off. Both considered themselves devout Mormons, but felt the Church leadership shouldered many faults. Morris moved to Salt Lake City in 1858. Banks swallowed his doubts and was rebaptised into the Church.

He chucked it all and headed for South Weber after Morris, in an 1860 revelation, appointed him presiding bishop of the true faith. Banks influence on the Morrisites growth cannot be underestimated.   An eloquent speaker, he had converted a lot of folk to Mormonism during his missions in England and Ohio.

With his considerable skill directed towards the Morrisite cause, new followers began to arrive in droves to Praying Joe's flock. His two most influential acolytes firmly in place Joseph Morris was ready to take the next step.

Another One True Church

  On April 6, 1861, thirty-one years to the day after Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Morris officially split with the orthodoxy to create his own version of Mormonism.

On the temporal level, Morris instructed all of his followers to consecrate their belongings to his new church. Styled on Joseph Smith's rather communistic new order, his flock would have no need for personal possessions. It would be a utopia where all things belonged to all members. Right.

This divvying up of private possessions would cause problems later on when members of his church tried to leave and reclaim their stuff. This little problem would ultimately lead to Morris' downfall.

On the spiritual side, Morris picked Banks and Cook as his two councilors. He also selected twelve apostles from his flock. It was pretty much the same set up as the orthodox LDS Church.

Morris began preaching that he was the greatest prophet of his age. Joseph Smith had paved the way so Morris could come along and put the world right. In Morris' theology it was Jesus Christ, Joseph Morris, and Joseph Smith in that order of importance. Brigham Young was conspicuously absent from this holy order.

The revelations came fast and furious. Praying Joe was on a roll. He preached against polygamy, railed against racial hatred, and gave women the priesthood. All pretty good things, he appeared ahead of the curve in such like.

However, a nuttier side also reared its ugly head amongst all that forward thinking. Christ was acomin' according to Morris. The savior had a date with humanity and the Morrisites were gonna be the ones to reap the windfall.

  The Second Coming would be a real estate bonanza for the Morrisites. Christ would turn over all the homes and holdings of the Mormons to Joseph Morris and his gang. The Mormons would then act as servants for the Morrisites, a punishment, I guess, for backing the wrong horse.

This all must have sounded pretty cool to a lot of folks, because Morris soon had about a thousand folks doting on his every word. He even predicted the day in which Christ would drop by to hand out all the goodies to the Morrisites.

Of course, Christ didn't keep the appointment. He must have had a pressing engagement elsewhere. This no show was the beginning of Morris' troubles within his church. Folks were pretty disappointed that Jesus hadn't come to the party and many wanted to split.

Adding to his troubles, locals of a non-Morrisite bent often hassled the true believers. It must have been considered the height of fun for young toughs to pick on those nutty cult folk in South Weber.

One incident involved a half-dozen armed men that invaded a Morrisite schoolhouse on a lark. They bullied a man and his wife for a time before growing bored. No one was hurt, but a hat was snatched off the man's head. The toughs left the schoolhouse to come face-to-face with an angry Morrisite mob. They were quickly overpowered and the stolen hat was returned.

These tiffs usually amounted to nothing more than threats and bluster, but they heightened the tension between the Morrisites and local Mormons.

Two of the participants in the hat-snatching incident swore out a complaint against the 11 Morrisites that had knocked them around just because they had had a little fun in the schoolhouse. One of the group was arrested and slapped with forty days of hard labor and a fifty-dollar fine.

The Davis County Bandits

Newspapers around the state began chastising the religious group and dubbed them "The Davis County Bandits." The Morrisites rankled and believed they could hope for no justice from courts dominated by Brigham Young's brood. Morris declared he would honor no more warrants from the ranks of the infidels.

A Weber County deputy sheriff that attempted to serve a warrant on John Banks was shown the door without his prisoner. The pot was reaching a boil.

Morris insisted that Christ was on his way. When the aforementioned day had come and gone with no Jesus, undeterred, Morris would just spout out another date for the Second Coming.

Some of his followers were getting pretty miffed that the savior seemed unwilling to make his promised appearances. Many began packing up and hightailing it from the Morrisite camp. Naturally they wanted a refund on the stuff they had given over to the Morrisites when they were duped into believing. Morris was not forthcoming in returning their property. It wasn't his fault that they couldn't see he was a true prophet of God, after all.

Though the Morrisites would grudgingly return some of the consecrated property, most deserters felt they were being cheated in the quality and quantity of the returned items.

Three former members decided to take matters in their own hands in early 1862. Louis Gurtson, William Jones, and John Jensen hijacked a wagon full of wheat on its way for milling in Kaysville. The Morrisites, rather pissed at the robbery, promptly captured the three and held the prisoners in the Morrisite camp.

Gurtson escaped and told his tale of woe to authorities. The Morrisites refused to turn over the two malefactors when presented with a writ by the territorial chief justice John Kinney. Appalled by the refusal, acting territorial governor Frank Fuller ordered an armed posse to retrieve Jensen and Jones.

  On June 12, 1862 five hundred men commanded by deputy marshal Robert T, Burton left Salt Lake City. Armageddon was coming to South Weber.

Part Two