A couple weeks ago my family decided to go camping in the beautiful Texas Hill Country. Based on past experience with stereotypes, I'd say most people have no idea that Texas has so much geographic variety and diversity. Here are a couple of pictures we took from the side of the road as we were driving through the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio:
On our drive we came to a really neat little town named Bandera. As we approached I saw a historical marker off to the side of the road, and being the "history buff" that I am, I decided to stop. I was surprised when I recognized the name of Lyman Wight. I had only been somewhat familiar with him and I knew he had some influence in the early history of the Church and then later in breaking off and establishing some settlements in Texas. This historical marker isn't far from the beautiful park we stopped at along the Medina River.
We had a wonderful time camping as a family and seeing some beautiful country. And I decided that I wanted to learn more about Lyman Wight and do a little homework when I got back. I began my little quest to learn more about his role, as well as early Mormon influence, in my new home state. Boy did I find a story.
Lyman Wight was an early convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with Sidney Rigdon and others in the Kirtland area. He had actually fought as a 17-year old in the War of 1812. He participated in Zion's Camp, and was extremely loyal to the prophet Joseph Smith. He was called to fill a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles caused by the death of Elder David W. Patten. Before Joseph was killed, there were plans made about possibly taking the Saints to Texas. Lyman Wight was the guy who was going to do this. But after Joseph was killed the rest of the Brethren decided not to go to Texas, but instead head out to the Rocky Mountains. Lyman had a recalcitrant attitude toward Brigham Young. The same loyalty Wight had for Joseph Smith didn't ever transfer over to Brigham Young, as head of the Twelve Apostles. In March of 1845, and against the Twelve's advice, Lyman headed off to Texas anyway with a group of about 21 families (some polygamist) who would come to be known as the Wightites. Here they would try to practice their own version of their Mormon beliefs.
Over the next decade this group would make their own unique contributions to Texas history and settlement in various locations. One of the last was in Bandera county, which they came to in March of 1854. The entire group, numbering between 200 and 250 people, eventually settled a few miles below the town of Bandera at a place called "Mountain Valley", and which is now covered by Medina Lake. For a time they manufactured tables, chairs, and other furnishings, which they sold in San Antonio. But for various reasons, the colony began to have setbacks, and eventually it was decided to head back to Independence, Missouri and join up with the rest of the breakaway Mormon groups. Wight died the day after they set out on the trip, and was buried about four miles outside of Fredericksburg at the site of a settlement they called "Zodiac" which they had built along the Pedernales river, and which no longer exits.
Early on Brigham Young sent representatives to persuade Lyman to come to Salt Lake City. But, they reported, he told them that "nobody under the light of heavens except Joseph Smith or [Patriarch] John Smith, the president of the Fifty, could call him from Texas to Salt Lake City, and that he had as much authority to call one of the Twelve, or rather Eleven, to Texas, as they had to call him to Salt Lake City." But more than this seeming insubordination, it was probably the publishing of a pamphlet in open opposition to Brigham Young and the Utah Church that led to the decision in December 1848 in which Lyman was disfellowshipped and later excommunicated.
I always like to find some personal application in the lives of others. My enduring question is, "What can we learn from Lyman Wight?" I like LDS historian David Bitton's summation, enough to quote it at length, from The Ram and the Lion: Lyman Wight and Brigham Young. (Parenthetically, Bitton once taught at the University of Texas at Austin):
Most basic is the narrow understanding of obedience in the parlance of Wight. He took second place to no one in putting his life on the line, in responding to the different calls placed on him. But his obedience was to his prophet, Joseph Smith. He never saw his position in the Twelve as requiring the same obedience to Brigham Young. Others made the transfer rather easily, seeing obedience to Smith and then Young as quite compatible and unidirectional. After the martyrdom, they came to see Young as the heir, deserving of the same kind of allegiance earlier granted to Joseph Smith. But Lyman Wight, his own man now that the Prophet was dead, did not intend to be clay in the hand of any potter named Brigham Young. From the beginning Mormon missionaries had chastised those who readily accepted dead prophets (the Bible) but showed no willingness to listen to a living prophet (Joseph Smith). Ironically, in a way he would not have recognized, Wight was facing the same challenge.
I do not wish to claim that Brigham Young handled everything perfectly. What if he had responded with even greater magnanimity? A letter to Wight might have been worded something like this: "Dear fellow apostle. We follow with great interest your company and your colony. Any success you have we know has the sanction of our beloved brother Joseph. As you know, he instructed us to move to the Rocky Mountains. Your brethren of the Twelve are all with us. We should work in concert. We know you will rejoice in our successes, as we rejoice in yours. Keep us informed. Perhaps we can be of assistance. We remember the old days as we preached the gospel and faced the bullets in Missouri. Let us carry on the work."
Or, when it became obvious that Wight, not realizing that he had been dropped, attached supreme importance to the Council of Fifty, one might imagine an addendum: "We are enclosing a brief letter from Uncle John Smith, president of the Fifty." Such a letter might well have instructed Wight to continue his efforts, to report on his activities to the church leadership in Salt Lake City, and perhaps, with the failures in Texas, to come to Utah.
But on the whole Brigham Young deserves high marks. Of course he was irritated at Wight's insistence on leading his colony to Texas, especially after sending a forthright appeal through Samuel Bent in 1845. But through the difficult years of 1845, 1846, 1847, and most of 1848 Young had patiently waited. He gave Wight the benefit of the doubt. Not knowing what was in Lyman's mind, Young sought information through messengers, allowing Lyman full opportunity to express goodwill or loyalty. No such expression was forthcoming. Only when Lyman threw down the gauntlet by publishing his pamphlet, did Brigham take decisive action.
Even then efforts to win Lyman Wight back did not cease. He must have had visits from different Mormon missionaries and letters from his nephews in Utah. In 1855, he received and responded to a long letter from Sanford Porter. In 1857–58 he exchanged letters with Wilford Woodruff. Before he had received Woodruff's second letter, he died.
If Brigham Young's patience can be attributed to the advice of those close to him, he deserves credit for listening to them. It was especially Heber C. Kimball, Young's close friend and counselor, who defended Wight as "noble hearted" and counseled patience. We do not have all the comments made about Lyman Wight, but thanks to the faithfulness of Wilford Woodruff in keeping a detailed journal we can eavesdrop on one conversation held in 1859. Wight had died the previous year, but the word may or may not have yet reached Utah. In any case, here is what Heber C. Kimball said: "I always believed Lyman Wight would be saved. I never had any but good feelings about him."
The parallel lives of Lyman Wight and Brigham Young are instructive in many ways. That their respective authority claims were ultimately incompatible seems clear enough, but just how early Wight locked himself into immovable opposition is more questionable. Some would define the problem as largely one of communication. Others would emphasize the personalities—the two strong egos that could not play on the same stage. I see tragedy in the blasted hopes of the "wild ram". I also see a profound truth in Young's succinct warning: "All that want to draw away a party from the church after them, let them do it if they can, but they will not prosper."
If you're interested in learning more, here are some good resources:
My Private Texas and Lyman Wight's
by LDS historian Davis Bitton
The Ram and the Lion: Lyman Wight and Brigham Young, also by David Bitton
Lyman Wight: Wild Ram of the Mountains, from "Saints Without Halos"
Lyman Wight (Wikipedia)
Lyman Wight, General Authority
"Lyman Wight and the Mormons on the Texas Frontier", a scholarly and respectful blog post by a Catholic I do not know.
Dreamers and Schemers: Lyman Wight's Mormon Colony in Texas
The perils of ex-presidential good works
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