The Talmage Journals: Apostasy in West Tintic, 1921

James E. Talmage.

This post is the second entry in my series of (heretofore unpublished) excerpts from James E. Talmage’s personal journals. The entries below, written in 1921, describe a series of fascinating events in the Church’s West Tintic branch near Eureka, Utah. Members of the branch had begun to practice what they called “wife-sacrifice” where men were expected to ritually “sacrifice” their wives sexually to other men in the branch. The branch also sought to dissolve private ownership and establish a “United Order” in West Tintic. Predictably Elder Talmage was not pleased with these developments and became personally involved in the branch’s discipline. In the entries below, Elder Talmage describes the branch’s apostasy, interviews with members and leaders of the branch and stake, the discipline of members of the branch, and ultimately the branch’s disorganization.

Feb. 10, Thurs.: Attended council meeting which was prolonged far beyond the usual time for closing. President Heber J. Grant is still absent. I then attended a meeting of the Book of Mormon committee; and then had a long conference with Presidents Lund and Penrose and President E. Frank Burch of the Tintic Stake, the subject under consideration being the evil conditions prevailing in the West Tintic branch. In the evening I had another consultation with President Birch and with Elder Myron E. Crandall Jr. on the same subject.

Feb. 20, Sunday: I accompanied President Rudger Clawson to Eureka. […] We thought it well to put up at a hotel in Eureka, and so took rooms at the Bullion Beck House, which is under the direction of one of the Stake Presidency. We were in consultation with the Presidency until during the greater part of the time until 2 p.m., when we went into session with the High Council which was organized as a tribunal. Complaints of wicked and dangerous teachings and practises [sic] had been made against Moses S. Gudmundson, J. Elvan Houtz and others; and the Council of the Presidency and Twelve had directed that President Clawson and I be present at the trial. The case of J. Elvan Houtz was called first. His trial was followed by that of David Whyte.  The testimony adduced proved conclusively that these men and other residents of the West Tintic branch had been so far misled as to disregard the sanctity of the marriage obligation, as administered in the Temples, and had adopted a system of “wife-sacrifice”, whereby men were required to give up their wives to other men, and this under a diabolical misinterpretation of Scripture as to the law of sacrifice requiring one to give up all he has, even wife and children. At the evening session, which lasted until a late hour, Gerald Lowry, who had refused to answer certain questions put to him in the afternoon meeting, and who defiantly showed his disregard of the authority of the High Council, was by formal action and unanimous vote disfellowshiped from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Feb. 21, Mon.: We met with the High Council again in formal session as a tribunal, at 9 a.m. Moses S. Gudmundson was put on trial; and, as this man had repeatedly stated that he wanted time to present the “whole matter” from the beginning of the establishment of the West Tintic colony to the present time, he was given great freedom in presenting practically anything he chose to present, whether it had immediate and relevant connection with the actual charge or not. His trial occupied the whole of the forenoon and afternoon sessions. Following the afternoon meeting President Clawson and I repaired [sic] to the hotel, so as to leave the Stake Presidency free to consider the decisions they would render in the several cases; and this we instructed the to do; in the meantime Brother Clawson and I reviewed together the evidence presented and reached very definite conclusions as to what the decisions ought to be. When the Stake Presidency joined us half an hour before the time set for the opening of the evening meeting, we found that their conclusions coincided exactly with our own.

At the evening meeting the Stake Presidency announced the decisions arrived at, an each was unanimously sustained by the vote of the High Council. By this action, J. Elvan Houtz, David Whyte,  and Moses Gudmundson were each excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mrs. May Metcalf Houtz, and Mrs. Delia Hafen Whyte were disfellowshiped from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

By further action taken on unanimous vote of the High Council the branch hitherto known as the West Tintic branch of the Tintic Stake of Zion was disorganized. Thus all semblance of Church supervision in the affairs of that unfortunate little group of people has been taken away.

When, more than a year ago, reports reached the First Presidency, to the effect that the people in West Tintic had undertaken to establish the “United Order”, they to have all things in common and to abolish all private ownership, I was appointed to investigate the matter. As a result of my first visit to the Tintic Stake with this as one of my appointed duties, I reported the facts as I found them, which were briefly these: That Moses Gudmundson, who was the leader and dominating figure in the movement, denied all intention of going ahead of the Church, specifically in the matter of attempting to start a colony according to the United Order plan; that I did not believe his protestations, but on the other hand was convinced that the people of West Tintic, then organized into an independent branch in the Tintic Stake, were being led by an evil influence.

Many other investigations have followed; and we have found to our sorrow that what we saw as the inevitable development of evil unless the people placed themselves in strict harmony with the order and government of the Church, had become a reality, namely, erotic ideas and practises [sic] concerning the marital state and the sexual relation. The best I can say of the people is that they have become fanatical through the power of evil. They have made sacrifice their hobby. The eating of meat, the taking of animal life even to provide food, and many other practises common with other people have been forbidden there; while long fasts and particularly the sacrificing of comforts and wholesome desires have been held up as ideals. Now they have reached the abominable status of men sacrificing their wives to other men; and by this means they have put themselves subject to the punishment provided for by the law of the land. The present state is one of abominable immorality. Some of the women, notably the wife of Moses Gudmundson, and the wife of Gerald Lowry, withdrew promptly from the colony rather than countenance to any degree these ungodly practices. I believe that the judgment of the High Council in these cases is just; and that others than those already tried are involved.

During the afternoon I had a long interview with one of the presidency of the Tintic Stake, and with others concerned in the investigation of West Tintic affairs.

Mar. 13, Sunday: Went by early train to Eureka, where I arrived in time to attend part of a council meeting then in progress, comprising the Presidency of the Stake, the High Council, and the Bishoprics. The brethren had a long array of questions to submit to me, and I believe my visit and the counsel I was able to give were beneficial.

Mar. 11, Fri.:  […] At 2 p.m. the High Council opened its session as a tribunal. Complaints had been made against seven persons connected with the West Tintic condition. Two sessions were held during the day, the latter ending about 11:40 p.m. I put up at the Bullion Beck hotel.

Mar. 14, Mon.: The High Council hearings were resumed at 9 a.m., and the first sitting lasted from that time until noon. The second session lasted from 1 to 6. Although the cases heard were in many respects similar as to general conditions, each case was tried separately with strict observance of the order laid down for the conduct of the High Council trials. I was present in an advisory capacity only and took only such active part as the circumstances seemed to require. I left the Stake Presidency to formulate their own decisions; and these were submitted to me but a few minutes before they were announced officially. The vote of the High Council to sustain the decision of the President was unanimous in each case. The results were these:

Gerald H. Lowry, who was disfellowshipped [sic] by action of the Council three weeks ago, was today excommunicated from the Church. He was not present, having gone to Idaho soon after the earlier action was taken against him. However, he acknowledged service of complaint and summons, by a letter which was read to the Council; and in this letter he expressly gave consent to the hearing of his case without his personal attendance; and in view of the conclusive testimony that he had been a party to the infamous “wife-sacrifice” practise [sic], and furthermore the proof furnished by letters from the Presidency of the Lost River Stake and from one of the Bishops in that stake, such letters having been addressed to the First Presidency, and complaining that Gerald Lowry had violated the conditions under which he was placed by disfellowshipment, and had been addressing the people in public to the injury of the Church, the extreme penalty, that of excommunication, was inevitable.

J. Leo Hafen, who, prior to the disorganization of the West Tintic branch three weeks ago, was president of that branch, was also excommunicated from the Church. There was no direct evidence that he had been an active participant in any “wife-sacrifice” atrocity; but his dereliction in failing to report the condition of affairs to the Stake Presidency, his refusal to give information to the Stake President when called upon, and his persistent refusal to comply with the usual and well established order and regulations of the Church, were deemed sufficient to warrant the penalty imposed upon him.

Ralph B. Weight, his wife Mrs. Minerva B. Weight, Thomas D. Nisbet, Levi G. Metcalf Jr., and his wife Mrs. Lucy Warren Metcalf, were disfellowshipped from the Church.

The experiences of yesterday and today have been to me most sorrowful. If there be any pleasing feature about the proceedings, by which our brethren and sisters have been disfellowshipped or excommunicated, it is to be found in the fact that each of the excused who was present came voluntarily forward and, though with tears, stated that the trials had been fair and impartial, and that the decisions were just. Three of those disfellowshiped [sic] expressed their gratitude at what they called the leniency of the Council in not visiting upon them the extreme penalty. […]

Mar. 15, Tues.: Left Eureka on the 7:41 a.m. train and stopped off at Springville. Among my fellow-passengers were four of those dealt with by the High Council in the recent trials, and I had a personal conversation with each. From statements made to me by J. Leo Hafen, and in fact by each of the others, it became clear to me that one of the corrupting conditions prevailing among them has been the conception that they ought to be guided individually by dreams, or inspiration so-called, consisting in individual impressions; and that their impressions are supreme notwithstanding they may be in conflict with the teachings of the Church and the regulations established therein.

At Springville I was met by Myron E. Crandall Jr., who took me by auto to the home of Levi Metcalf, who accompanied us. There we met his wife, Mrs. Lucy Warren Metcalf, who was excused from attendance at the trial because of her physical condition, but who was disfellowshiped on the evidence presented in her case, which was tried concurrently with that of her husband Levi. She spoke more freely than many of the accused had done, and stated that she now saw that her actions were in violation of the laws of the Church and that the judgment taken against her was just. As she was ill I administered to her and believe that she will realize the blessing desired.

I then went to the home of Mrs. Crandall, to meet her daughter, Mrs. Erma Gudmundson, who appears to have been a victim of many painful conditions arising from the immoral state of affairs at West Tintic. She is the wife of Moses S. Gudmundson, who was excommunicated at the earlier trial. I found her to be virtually a physical wreck. She has been harassed by occasional visits and more frequent messages from her husband; the nature of some of which was disclosed. Thus, he told her that should she say a word or do a thing against the interest of the people accused of wrongdoing at West Tintic, she would be the cause of his death, as it had been shown to him in vision that such action on her part would bring about his murder, and that calamity would be visited upon herself and her children. In her impressionable state, such messages as these threaten her sanity and even her life. She was really in the grip of an evil power; and I have seldom experienced a meeting with such a potent adversary as the evil spirit by which she was possessed. She seemed to crave my aid, and yet she persistently refused to look me in the face, saying that my face and my eyes were so bright as to terrify her. I was not conscious of any unusual condition of this sort, but she turned her head and shaded her eyes whenever for the moment I caught her gaze. I proceeded to administer to her, and rebuked the evil power, conscious all the while of a real struggle and conflict. Immediately after the administration she turned her eyes upon me and smiled, and was not disturbed by my gaze, but kept her eyes directed toward me. When I left her she was holding her baby and was in a state of comparative peace. I confess, however, that because of her weakened condition and of her state of nervous disturbance, I have not full faith that she will not suffer a relapse.

Upon my arrival at Springville this morning I was met by one of the Bishops, who requested that I meet the four Bishops of Springville together with certain relatives of the parties who have recently been dealt with in the Tintic Stake, and to this I assented. I was taken to the home of Bishop Bringhurst of the Springville 2nd Ward, where I found assembled the other Bishops and several women who were related to the unfortunate brethren and sisters with whom we have had to deal. They assured me that they sustained the action of the High Council, and of the direction given by the Church, and that in view of the facts they could not well see how the Church could do otherwise than disfellowship or excommunicate the offenders. But they wished to know whether those who had incited the West Tintic movement, and who had in some degree induced people to go out upon the land and live in the strange order thereon established, were to go free. They informed me of conditions that have long existed in Springville, this consisting essentially in the holding of meetings by women, and participated in by a few men, at which meetings messages were asked for. They told of alleged inspiration and revelation coming through women, and particularly of the frequency with which the gift of tongues was indulged in; and averred that by these means directions were sought as to individual and other affairs. Thus, they say, that business enterprises, land purchases, change of residence, mating in marriage, etc., were determined by this clique, as through prayer and fasting some “message” had been given directing them what to do.

I counseled with the Bishops on the matter, and urged them to greater diligence in the regulation of the affairs of their respective wards, particularly with regard to people holding meetings of a professedly religious character, and the encouragement of publications supplicationsfor “manifestations” out of the ordinary.

In all these alleged proceedings, many of which were conducted with semi-secrecy, the dominant thought seems to have been that individual inspiration, direction through speaking in tongues, and particularly dreams, were superior to all counsel or direction through the ordinary Church channels.

It seems to me that the evil one is particularly busy in thus trying to undermine the faith of the people, that is of the few who are willing to be thus led, and in planting the germs of spiritual disease, generally in a soil of excessive piety.

I was able to spend only about half an hour with my brother, William George, and his wife and family. I was very happy to find George in an improved state of health, and to find Hettie and the children so well. I returned home by evening interurban train.

Apr. 16, Sat.: I left by early train for Tintic, arriving about 11 p.m. President Birch met me and took me by auto to his home in Silver City, where arrangements had been made for my accommodation during the conference. […] Reports having been received to the effect that several of the West Tintic people, who had been disfellowshiped from the Church, had manifested a very defiant spirit, these had been summoned to appear before the Council to show cause why they should not be excommunicated from the Church; and Mrs. Ella Lowry Hafen, wife of the former president of the one-time West Tintic branch, J. Leo Hafen, and who had not been tried for her fellowship on the earlier occasions, was cited to appear before the High Council. Two elders had been sent to visit each of the parties individually, and to report as to their condition of mind and their desires with respect to retaining their membership in the Church. Each had signed a waiver of attendance, stating that he or she consented to the trial or investigation being carried through whether the party was present or not. Great care was taken to hear the witnesses, who were the elders who had visited them, and it being plain that no one of them manifested any repentance, and that Ella Lowry Hafen had openly avowed her allegiance to what these people call “the cause”, the penalty of excommunication was pronounced in each case.

Apr. 19, Tues.: […] Had many callers, among them the county attorney of Juab County, and the district attorney of Tintic judicial district, who came to report certain developments in their investigation of the violation of law in the West Tintic settlement.

(Transcriptions taken from Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University: MSS 229, Box 6, Folder 2, Journal 24.)


The Talmage Journals: Apostasy in West Tintic, 1921 — 7 Comments

  1. Fascinating, Joseph! So much interesting stuff here, especially the exorcism by Talmage and the personal revelation run amok. This sort of thing is exactly why religious institutions tend, over time, to “routinize” charisma so charisma can be more easily controlled by the institution. Unfortunately, in doing so, they lose charisma’s potential to challenge institutional boundaries in positive and constructive ways as well as negative and destructive ones.

    I’m intrigued by the reference to “direction through speaking in tongues.” I wonder what this looked like in practice? Was someone interpreting the tongues to the larger community?

  2. Chris, there are a million interesting things to glean from this set of entries–which is one of the reasons why I didn’t even attempt to provide a commentary. There’s just too much, from the obvious ones like the shocking “wife sacrifice,” the visionary experiences, women and revelation, and there’s more minor things including, like you said, a vague mention of “speaking in tongues,” and also I found interesting that Talmage seems to blame the West Tintic apostasies at least partly on “excessive piety.”

  3. Thanks for sharing these interesting journal entries. Spiritual innovation was apparently alive and well in the 1920s.

    It is interesting that in both areas, mating is being directed through revelatory means. I wonder if these ideas developed in isolation of each other — influenced only by a common Mormon heritage — or if there could have been some influence between the two towns (about 40 miles apart).

    Interesting too is that women dominate the phenomena in one town, while it appears (from the info available) that men do in Tintic.

  4. The disciplinary actions in question appear to have started from church headquarters, with an apostle acting and consultant to the stake leaders. Even today, sometimes explicit instructions on how to treat a church member in question are sent to stake leaders along with the materials. Sometimes only materials are sent with no instructions. But even without direct instructions, they slant the evidence available as a top down communication, rather than a bottom up disciplinary process anticipated on D&C 102.
    D&C 102 forms the foundation of disciplinary counsels in the church. This section anticipates that actions will flow up through members to the counsel, not down from Church headquarters, as is currently happening and ahppened in this case. In fact the Church website explicitly interprets D&C 102 in such a way as to prohibit undue outside influence from above, especially by the Quorum of the Twelve on the High Counsel. From the Church website we read:

    “The Prophet Joseph Smith in 1840 gave instruction for high councils concerning the rights of those involved. He wrote: “The Council should try no case without both parties being present, or having had an opportunity to be present; neither should they hear one person’s complaint before his case is brought up for trial; neither should they suffer the character of any one to be exposed before the High Council without the person being present and ready to defend him or herself; that the minds of the councilors be not prejudiced for or against any one whose case they may possibly have to act upon” ( History of the Church, 4:154). . . “D&C 102:30–32 . What Is the Relationship between the Quorum of the Twelve and the Stake High Councils? between the High Council and the Stake Presidency? The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “The High Council had nothing to do with the Twelve, or the decisions of the Twelve. But if the Twelve erred they were accountable only to the General Council of the authorities of the whole Church, according to the revelations.” (History of the Church, 2:285.)”

    Since disciplinary counsels are in fact being influenced and at times directed from Salt Lake, recent actions against scholars by the Church breaks the impartiality requirement and the exclusion of the Quorum of the Twelve. Even if the many reports that church headquarters has influenced disciplinary councils are totally false (and I do not think that they are), the dissemination of highlighted materials to stake leaders, in my opinion breaks the spirit of neutrality demanded by Joseph Smith and the early Mormon revelations in disciplinary counsels, and runs counter to the church’s own written policies.

  5. Really interesting, Joseph. The part about abstaining from meat and having long fasts, etc. reminds me of asceticism in early Christianity.

    Also, I think it would be interesting to compare the context for Talmage’s experience in Tintic with the context of Kirtland in March 1831–does anyone know? Were there any similarities in the doctrines being espoused? It was at that time that D&C 46 was given, which explains the gifts of the Spirit and the “diversities of operations.” The gist of it is the idea that not all spiritual manifestations are of God, and that the spiritual gift of discernment enables a person to ascertain the source of an idea or practice in circulation. Verse 27: “And unto the bishop of the church, and unto such as God shall appoint and ordain to watch over the church and to be elders unto the church, are to have it given unto them to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God.”

    The dilemma of rival charismatic authority was encountered early on in Mormon history. Further, if one frames all charismatic claims–even Joseph Smith’s–as a challenge to traditional religious authority, then the gift of discernment of spirits would be necessary to all individuals, not just to those in authority over the church.

  6. This is especially fascinating for me since I am a direct descendant of John Leo Hafen. Oddly enough, my mother was a convert to the church from an apostate line. Her mother was John Leo Hafen’s daughter.