During the course of its history the Church has spawned more than its share of schismatic organizations. During the Nauvoo period William Law and others disaffected with Joseph over polygamy, temple ordinances, the political Kingdom of God, and radical teachings about the nature of God formed the New Church, which was meant to institutionalize Mormonism in its pure form before it was infected by the Nauvoo era innovations. After the abandonment of polygamy Musser and others broke off to found the various fundamentalist sects. Indeed, since the Manifesto, virtually all of the Mormon schismatic groups have been on what one might call the Mormon Right. They have objected to what they see as excessive Mormon compromise with the broader society. Interestingly, however, Mormonism has also spawned liberal schismatic groups. I am not taking here about the Mormon Alliance or other liberal Mormon groups. Rather, I am talking about Mormons who view the current Church as too hierarchical, authoritarian, and out of step with enlightened thinking who have gone off and formed their own churches.
The paradigmatic historical example of this sort of liberal schismatic sect is the Godbeites. The Godbeites were a group of modern, forward-thinking Mormons during the last years of Brigham Youngâ€™s administration. They objected to a number of things about the Church. They disliked polygamy. They thought that the Church should not interfere in economic matters (this was at the height of the ZCMI and the Mormon boycott of Gentile businesses). They insisted that Church leaders should not meddle in politics. They also were very into spiritualism. In short, they wanted the Church to move toward the Victorian mainstream. At seances the spirit of Joseph Smith made an appearance to urge them on, and they eventually founded their own church. Nothing much came of the Godbeite church. It soon disintegrated, and its only lasting legacy was the Salt Lake Tribune, which started its life as the official organ of Godbeism.
What I find fascinating is that some on the contemporary Mormon Left have set out to found their own churches. They are not working for transformation of the Church. Nor are they just creating clubs or forums for like minded friends. Rather, they are creating actual ecclesiastical structures (although structure may be a bit of an ambitious word) complete with new scriptures and in some cases ordinances.
Consider Reform Mormonism, a liberal, non-hierarchical branch of Restorationism. According to their new scripture, The Book of Michael:
It has been taught that people must obey God; that in order to interact with God in a future state, people must achieve requirements that God has set. You have immediate access to God within yourself at any moment in this existence. While in the next existence we may understand the nature of eternity more fully, access to God is not different than it is in this existence. When you are in an eternal state, do you expect to visit with God as you imagine in time in space? For what reason would God prefer to exist as a particular objectification when God could choose to exist in an eternal state wherein you have access to God immediately rather than by physical proximity? We presently have full access to God. In the next existence, interaction with God will not be significantly different. What we learn in this life relative to interaction with God will serve us in the next. In order to believe that God’s intent is for people to obey commandments, one must understand why God would seek to establish commandments. It is easy to understand why people would want other people to obey commandments, and therefore it is easy to understand why people might ascribe to God the idea of commandments. Commandments always come to us from other people. Be wary of their intention, as many problems in Earth’s history have been caused by those who claim God’s sanction, convince others of it, and then lead others to destructive acts that impede their progression. (Michael 3:1-6)
Needless to say Reform Mormonism seems to be very accomodating to virtually any set of beliefs, is very non-judgmental, and doesn’t get hung up on issues of authority. Reform Mormonism (as yet) lacks ordinances. However, for those seeking a liberal Mormon sect with a more avuncular ritual, look no further than the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ. (Not be confused with the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an RLDS off shoot). They teach:
Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord restored the sacred sealing authority to the earth. As with the Apostle Peter of old, the Lord gave Joseph Smith authority, that “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This same authority to bind loving relationships for time and all eternity exists today in the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ. We practice all of the ordinances of the house of the Lord, and authoritatively seal them upon all loving couples, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
I have no idea about the size and health of these neo-Godbeites. It seems to me that most Mormons looking for a more liberal ecclesiastical home end up as Episcopalians or Unitarians. (My theory is that the choice hinges on oneâ€™s taste in choir music and liturgy.) Hence, these off shoots have to compete with some well established liberal alternatives. Still, the Unitarians donâ€™t claim to have the sealing power or perform the ordinances of the Lordâ€™s House, so there is no doubt some market niche for these groups.
And who knows. One of them might start a newspaper.