Polygamy on the Pedernales

Polygamy on the Pedernales: Lyman Wight's Mormon Village in Antebellum Texas

Melvin C. Johnson
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt4cgp7m
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  • Book Info
    Polygamy on the Pedernales
    Book Description:

    In the wake of Joseph Smith Jr.'s murder in 1844, his following splintered, and some allied themselves with a maverick Mormon apostle, Lyman Wight. Sometimes called the "Wild Ram of Texas," Wight took his splinter group to frontier Texas, a destination to which Smith, before his murder, had considered moving his followers, who were increasingly unwelcome in the Midwest. He had instructed Wight to take a small band of church members from Wisconsin to establish a Texas colony that would prepare the ground for a mass migration of the membership. Having received these orders directly from Smith, Wight did not believe the former's death changed their significance. If anything, he felt all the more responsible for fulfilling what he believed was a prophet's intention.

    Antagonism with Brigham Young and the other LDS apostles grew, and Wight refused to join with them or move to their new gathering place in Utah. He and his small congregation pursued their own destiny, becoming an interesting component of the Texas frontier, where they had a significant economic role as early millers and cowboys and a political one as a buffer with the Comanches. Their social and religious practices shared many of the idiosyncracies of the larger Mormon sect, including polygamous marriages, temple rites, and economic cooperatives. Wight was a charismatic but authoritarian and increasingly odd figure, in part because of chemical addictions. His death in 1858 while leading his shrinking number of followers on yet one more migration brought an effective end to his independent church.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-532-8
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[v])
  3. [Map]
    (pp. [vi]-[vi])
  4. Introduction The Wild Ram of Texas
    (pp. 1-8)

    The history of the Wightites and the polygamous villages of the Texas Hill Country are relevant and timely today. Such stories as headlined in the Eldorado (TX) Success, “Arizona Man Says Prophet Stole His Family,” in July 2005, catch attention. The Dallas Morning News reported a year earlier about the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints’ new compounds “in tiny Eldorado, where fire-and-brimstone religion may be welcome but multiple wives tend to rankle.” Once again, more than 140 years later, the American issues of “fringe religions, moral relativism and separation of church and state” have come to Texas. Texas and Texans have...

  5. 1 Militant Mormonism on the American Frontier
    (pp. 9-31)

    Lyman Wight was born in 1796 to Levi and Susanna Wight in Fairfield, Connecticut. The future Missouri militia colonel served as a teenager in the War of 1812, and later he and his wife, born Harriet Benton, settled, by 1826, in the Western Reserve, Cuyahoga County, Ohio. They joined the communitarian movement of Sydney Rigdon,¹ an ex-Baptist minister and convert of Alexander Campbell, in 1829. Wight founded a Rigdonite community styled “the Family,” a self-contained, common-stock economy based on New Testament principles of Christian primitivism, in which members shared all possession universally.

    Wight wrote later that “the doctrines of the...

  6. 2 The Wild Ram Strays from the Fold
    (pp. 32-53)

    In a prayer meeting on 14 May 1844, Lyman Wight joined the Anointed Quorum, a secret group of members and spouses who had received the Second Anointing,¹ a mark of significance, favor, and power within the elite ranks of the church’s leading members. This gave Wight an almost-independent authority as a “king” and “priest” in church and personal affairs. On 8 August 1844, Brigham Young spoke about the Second Anointing at a special general meeting in which the Twelve were chosen to lead the church. Although Young insisted on the primacy of the Twelve in church affairs, he certainly acknowledged...

  7. 3 Gone to Texas
    (pp. 54-69)

    As the Latter Day Saints gathered in Nauvoo during the first week of April 1845 for their semi-annual General Conference, only a few knew the Wightites had begun their journey to Texas the previous month. John Hawley later wrote that when leaving Wisconsin, the group “entered into [a covenant] and that was we would have to take as Lyman said ‘the orders of God’ and those days was days of order to do as we was told and in this we was well schooled.”¹ The covenants taken that day were serious affirmations of a true believers’ community. These covenants held...

  8. 4 Frontier Mormonism in the Texas Hill Country
    (pp. 70-89)

    Wightite separatism informed its interactions with other Texans before the Civil War. Two reasons explain this exclusion. First is the sacred-and-profane socialized daily life that subordinated individual life to the larger community. The religious system discouraged members from general interaction with outsiders beyond village attachments. Second, polygamy, despised—if not feared—by non-Mormons, created a barrier between the societies.

    Wightite economic and cultural successes directly sprang from separatism. Zodiac, from 1847 to 1851, became important economically to the Texas Hill Country. The later Wightite villages of Hamilton Mills (1851–53) and Mountain Valley (1854–58) also distinctly influenced the economic...

  9. 5 Bishop George Miller and Zodiac: 1848–1849
    (pp. 90-108)

    Bishop George Miller came to Zodiac early in 1848, left once and returned, then left for good in the fall of 1849. An able bureaucrat, once the second bishop of the LDS Church, and a member of the Council of Fifty and the Anointed Quorum, he was an irritable man who vented his spleen against those whom he disliked. His writings (1855) were not kind to Wight, generally critical of him and his labors in Wisconsin and Texas. Because of this, his generally favorable observations about the prosperity of Zodiac add balance to its evaluation. Additionally, his comings and goings...

  10. 6 Cutting the Wild Ram from the Flock
    (pp. 109-123)

    While Zodiac grew in prominence, and Colonel Wight in stature, among the Texans, Brigham Young forged a consensus among the leadership to reorganize the First Presidency, with himself as Joseph Smith Jr.’s successor. This process placed the Wightite flock beyond the fold of Utah Mormonism. Elder Orson Hyde,¹ on 7 October 1860, remembered that it was during February 1848 that “the Twelve” gathered and “the voice of God” proclaimed that Young should lead His church. Anecdotally, the apostle said many people “came running together where we were, and asked us what was the matter. They said that their houses shook,...

  11. 7 Independent Mormonism in Antebellum Texas
    (pp. 124-135)

    The Wightites had found 1848 to be an eventful year. It included the coming and going of George Miller, the departure of the Zodiac apostates, the issuance of An Address and its rebuttal by Orson Hyde, the visit of Thomas and Martindale, and Wight’s excommunication. In the midst of all this, Wight had been writing to William Smith about the post-Joseph church. In July, he informed Smith, “I have no other calling to attend to: but according to all lineal rights you are left as Patriarch of the Most High God; and Young Joseph to preside over the church.” On...

  12. 8 Polygamy and a Temple on the Pedernales
    (pp. 136-160)

    The intrinsic cultural patterns of Zodiac included polygamy, temple ritual, and socio-economic communitarianism, and, as such, they reflected antebellum Mormonism. RLDS president Joseph Smith III, in a letter to Joseph Davis of the Utah church in 1899, wrote, “nearly all the factions into which the Church broke had plural marriage in some form” in the post-1844 era before the Civil War. His father had been gathering concurrent wives as early as the Kirtland years. Joseph Smith Jr. further refined the practice at Nauvoo, moving it from private to doctrinal grounds. By 1860, plural marriage was an integral part of Mormonism...

  13. 9 The Mormon Millers of Hamilton Valley
    (pp. 161-176)

    Lyman Wight and most of the colony moved about fifty miles from Zodiac, to Hamilton Valley in Burnet County, during the first half of 1851. Several reasons were responsible—disease, floods from the Pedernales River, massive thunderstorms, jealousy from the larger non-Mormon community, and economic difficulties. John Hawley also mentions “outsider” concern about polygamy; that remains a problematic assumption. He was the only contemporary Wightite source to make the claim, whereas no mention of this exists in non-Mormon sources.

    One major reason for Zodiac’s demise was a common one—the jealousy of the larger non-Mormon community, reflecting similar earlier experiences...

  14. 10 The Mormon Cowboys of Bandera County
    (pp. 177-191)

    In the fall of 1853, the locals of Bandera City had heard that Lyman Wight and his Mormon families were again on trek, heading slowly south by west out of Burnet County in their heavy wagons. Even in the far reaches of Lone Star civilization, Texans were well aware of the rumors of the supposed Mormon culture of violence. However, no one in the Hill Country feared this particular group, led by its old patriarch. Although they might be polygamous and separatist, they were not followers of Brigham Young and Utah Mormonism. Wight was simply moving his community again, as...

  15. Conclusion The Way of All Flesh
    (pp. 192-207)

    The company disbanded, and the survivors split the property and goods. Some, like Orange Wight who had earlier left the colony, did not receive a share. Harriet Benton Wight and several of her family endured the frontier hardships of the Civil War at Bandera, Fredericksburg, and Marble Falls. Others returned to Bandera County to join their former neighbors from the colony. Many lived in Texas for the rest of their lives, including Ezra A. Chipman, the last polygamist, who died in Bandera County in 1913 at the age of ninety-five.¹

    The Civil War caught up the former Bandera Mormons, as...

  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 208-223)
  17. Index
    (pp. 224-231)