Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Mormon Maverick in the Texas Hill Country--Elder Lyman Wight

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


Sally F said...

Very interesting, Spence. Good job doing the research and finding out your answers! Did you do it all on your own, or did you talk to that High Counselor?

Anonymous said...

Great post -- I enjoyed both the subject and the way it was written, and the great list of online resources at the end. It was especially wonderful that you found a piece of Mormon history near you, and you made the effort to research and share it. More of that from all of us, please!

Anonymous said...

You have a beautiful family. I say that in hope that life will bring joy to them. I'm like you a Us History teacher but without the idealism that you must have. With still 5 years to go to retire I question whether or not I can face my students and optimistically and honestly portray American Democracy as anything sacred other than a guise for the wealthy class to accumulate wealth & power. Even on a grassroots level I see the same kind of abusive deception. I serve on my small towns city council. I see such disregard for what the founding fathers stood for in our current leadership. I find that here in Utah that the church has been hijacked by the Republican Party. Our church seems to take little position against this cruel war when it glaringly rebukes any notion of Christian conduct. I say all this to prepare you for the day you see the injustices hinder your own family. A father like mine who can't afford teeth. A daughter like mine who can't go to college because she suffers with OCD and our institutions build golf courses instead of investing in our young. Another daughter of mine is at BYU but is struggling. This is a 4.0 sterling scholar all state softball & prom Queen who can't find the resources to stay in school. My son couldn't qualify for a home at $110,000 and both he & his wife work full time. We and I include the church in this...we need to be more sensitive to injustice in our so called democratic society. We need less capitalism and more cooperativism to meet the challenges of the future < global warming, alternative energies, ethnic cleansing, Darfur, etc.> All this is well documented in the Doctrine & Covenants. Young Gays in our church are committing suicide or leaving the church in droves. Kind of scary that they can't find a place in Christ's Church. I long for the Days when Huge B. Brown and LeGrand Richards taught us tolerance and compassion for all mankind. I see many of my history friends dare not print the truth about our own history without putting their membership in jeopardy. I see openness fleeting in church classes and complacent boredom instilled. Now this all sound pretty depressing. What do you see for your own kids future if they are not among the privilaged? What will you say in your History? classes in the face of injustice?

Clean Cut said...

Sally, I haven't yet been able to talk with that High Councilor about his knowledge of early Texas church history yet, so I had to do my own little research. It was rewarding and worth the effort.

Ardis--Thank you! It was actually quite a challenge to condense a ton of information which I read and summarize the points that stood out to me. I appreciate you taking the time to read it and share your comment.

Clean Cut said...

Yeti, although I do not share your sentiments exactly, I can understand where you're coming from and I think there is validity in some of what you say. I too agree that we need to be more sensitive to injustice in our democratic society.

Last night my wife and I watched the first disc of the new HBO series about John Adams. I thought it was fantastic. But there was one particular scene that I thought of after reading your comments. It's the speech Adams gave before the Congress, when it was considering the resolution of Independence. Of course we don’t have the exact transcript, but I loved the way the scene portrayed what David McCullough called “a speech of a lifetime” by Adams. John Dickinson stood first and gave quite a passionate and very reasoned gloom and doom picture of America’s future if the Congress decided to vote for independence from Great Britain. And then in the midst of thunder and lightening John Adams rises to speak:

"He's given you a grim prognostication of our national future. But where he foresees apocalypse, I see hope...

...I am not without apprehensions, gentlemen, but the end we have in sight is more than worth all the means.”

So Yeti, yes, there is plenty to feel apprehensive about. But there is hope. The end we have in sight is more than worth the means right now. I choose to believe things can be changed and improved, but I must lend my voice and efforts, even if it means we must endure some dark days and nights. Perhaps this has something to do with my desire to go into public administration.

I’m not ready to let go of American idealism. Our country has always been about the process of bringing our reality more in line with our ideals. It’s gotten us quite far—why quite now?

I see a pattern in the lessons of the Revolution. At great cost, they formed a republic so that we Americans could take matters into our own hands. I choose to believe in optimism, accompanied with a good dose of realism, even when it appears pessimism is justified. No matter how bleak the present may be, I believe that the future can be bright only if we hold to and strive towards our ideals.

Anonymous said...

This was very interesting to learn about the Texas split off groups. I wrote a post a few months back about the Bickertonites and the other split off groups, but hadn't known about this one. This is great! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Spence..the US Constitution does not guarantee liberty. It is a piece of parchment. It is the righteousness of the people following the principles in the "We the People" document. Without that moral course of leadership it all crumbles. With the Enrons, the Phil Graham Bill, a President violating "checks & balances, leading us into an immoral war, ignoring Global warming, no vision of lessening our carbon footprint, muzzling Government scientists, no child left behind, unprecedented corporate greed, etc etc....We see the our liberty diminished. Magic Valley Mormon calls this whining. I call it "not sticking your head in the sand & doing something about it.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Thanks for writing this up, and for the photos!

Mormon Heretic said...

Clean Cut,

I just did a post on JS's presidential platform, which included the Annexation of Texas. Could add any insights into that period of history?

Clean Cut said...

Anonymous said...

Late to the party as usual:

Someday I'll read this whole thing, but it is interesting in that it's one of the only first-person Civil War accounts by an LDS soldier, and it also gives some detail about the TX Mormon adventure. The reminiscences and Civil War letters of Levi Lamoni Wight: life in a Mormon splinter colony on the Texas frontier, by Wight's son Levi Lamoni Wight (1836-1918).

Clean Cut said...

Very cool--thank you!

JaketheSnake said...

If you want to read more on Lyman Wight and his colonies, link here to my

published in 2006.

Andy said...

Thank you for this! I am giving my 120th elders' quorum lesson this Sunday (ten years; awesome calling) & was going to tell the story of Lyman Wight, concluding the tale with a photo of the Big Dipper on the west central tower of the temple & how important it is to follow the prophets. I don't judge Lyman Wight in any sense of the word, except to say he was arguably one of Joseph Smith's most loyal, fearless friends--up there with Rockwell & Hyrum & Brigham & Alexander McRae. I'm sure you know, there was a very heartbreaking exchange of letters in Lyman's declining days with his old & dear friend, Wilford Woodruff. I recently read about this in the most detailed book written about Liberty Jail: the incomparable book “Liberty Jail and the Legacy of Joseph” by Thomas Cottle & Patricia Cottle,