Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)



Committee Chair(s)

Philip Barlow


Philip Barlow


Kyle T. Bulthuis


Clint Pumphrey


Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, managed dissent throughout his prophetic career. Most of the earliest dissenters came and went with little lasting impact on Mormonism—the church maintained a coherent structure despite attempted disjuncture. However, when Smith was assassinated in June 1844 (just fourteen years after he established the church), the Mormon community ruptured. Claimants to Smith’s ecclesiastical office competed for church-wide leadership. Brigham Young led thousands westward to the Rocky Mountains, but thousands of Mormons rejected Young and his version of Mormonism. This crisis over succession sparked the growth of schisms in the young American faith.

Much of the scholarship on dissenters and schisms in Mormonism focuses on why the divisions occurred—the reasons for dissatisfaction. The scholarship also tends to be biographical in nature, focusing on the lead dissenter. Lacking in the scholarship is the “how” of dissent and schisms—how did schisms form, how did they maintain distinct identity, and how did they evolve. This thesis utilizes William Law’s 1844 dissenting group as a case study to answer these questions. By looking at the “how” we learn that Law’s organization was an extralegal internal reform body (not a separatist church), that evolved into Sidney Rigdon’s 1845 Church of Christ, and that many dissenters stayed true to their reform goals by aligning themselves with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the 1860s.