Independent Restoration Branch Movement
by Rudy Leutzinger
The beginnings of the Independent Restoration Branch Movement are not well publicized and its originators remain obscure. The story of their efforts to hold fast to the original gospel as introduced through Joseph Smith, Jr., and perpetuated by Joseph Smith III has yet to be told. This paper will identify four significant contributions which led to the establishment of the first Independent Restoration branch on May 6, 1984. It win briefly define the legal justification for branch organization and identify the current status of the movement.
Historians have identified that changes in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints were initiated in the early 1960's (Booth, "Recent Shifts in Restoration Thought"; Noffsinger, speech). Position Papers (1968) and Presidential Papers (1979) arose out of the attempt to reinvent RLDS theology. Many voices were lifted in dissent from inside the church (Mothers in Israel; Mrs. Noel Gouldsmith mimeographed publications; Richard Price, The Saints at the Crossroads, Cumorah Books, 1974; Fred Hubble's School of Faith-later School of Saints, early 1970's; Restoration Voice, 1978) and even some expressions of caution from outside the church (W. Paul Jones, "Theological Re-Symbolization of the RLDS Tradition: The Call to a Stage beyond Demythologizing," John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, vol. 16, 1996). More traditional viewpoints were disrespected and church organs were closed to fundamentalist articles. The hierarchy even succumbed to ridicule and name calling (Cole, Neo-Fundamentalists, Saints Herald, 1976).
Honest saints who did nothing more than bear their testimony became the objects of administrative and judicial actions (silencing and expulsion of Moroni Hoyt, personal testimony, 1968; The Vancouver Story, 1976) by leadership bent on forcing its politics on the membership regardless of the final impact on the church. A high degree of antagonism towards brothers and sisters in the faith by administrators at every level, erected barriers of mistrust and disagreement which still hinder unification efforts today. Through this period of upheaval with changes in theology and government being implemented, perhaps the most egregious change that occurred was the closing of opportunities for expression of dissenting opinions within the church. The very pluralism which had characterized RLDS history and been lauded by the church's intellectual elite (Alan Tyree, Christian Witness of the Book of Mormon, The Saints Herald, vo1. 139, June l, 1992) is no longer part of the church's mantra.
1. Patriarch Lynn Smith and In-Home Prayer Services
As changes in the church were becoming apparent during the mid and late 1960's, many older saints who had worshiped with Joseph Smith Ill, Frederick M. Smith, and Israel A. Smith were dismayed and heartsick over the divergent path that the church was taking. Most were in their sixties, seventies, and eighties with no administrative responsibilities and incapable of mounting a measured, sustained defense. These saints turned to the Patriarch of the Reorganization, Lynn Smith, with the question, "What can we do?”
In true fatherly fashion, Smith responded, "Meet together in your homes outside of the control of the administrative officers and petition the Almighty for the deliverance of His church."
The course of action was set and Smith's advice spawned the Independent Restoration
Branch Movement. Under his counsel, the Saints met in prayer and testimony meetings--not "with bitterness or rancor-but with a determination to persevere in this crisis. Services were scheduled regularly in the homes of the Saints on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays so as not to interfere with regular congregational activities. Most prominent in the encouraging, organizing, and presiding in these services were Patriarch Lynn Smith-the father of the movement, Elders Elmer Kahler, Jess Williamson, John Ba11entyne, Savage, and others. At one time, four different groups were holding regularly scheduled services. Occasionally, former Apostles Arthur Oakman and Charles Hield would put in an appearance, but generally, 10 to 40 humble Saints-- mostly elderly-would gather in living rooms, basements, or garages. There were .no microphones or amplifiers; publicity and invitation[s] were only by word of mouth; and rarely did the assembly include anyone under 25 years of age. And yet, the Spirit of God blessed these meetings as the stories of the church were rehearsed. The spiritual gifts were demonstrated in healings, prophecies, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. These gatherings continued through the early 1980's until the presiding ministers died or were incapacitated by age. These small groups that held regular worship services outside of the jurisdiction or the church's administrative leadership for more than 15 years were the seed of the Independent Restoration Branch Movement. And the patriarch who had been denied his birthright became the father of the movement which holds the promise of redeeming the church. His influence is still felt today.
II. Fuller/Walton Experiment
The next event in the progression towards independent branches challenged congregational authority directly. In the early 1970's, Elder Barney Fuller moved to Independence, MO, and connected with Seventy Eugene Walton. Fuller, a self-confessed former liberal, came from California where he had published a paper, Zion’s Warning, which was antagonistic to the liberal RLDS leadership. He brought the paper with him, but guarded the mailing list and financial information. Walton was a convert to the church from Maine who had moved to Independence in the late 1950's and gained a wonderful reputation as a minister and preacher. Fuller was the consummate salesman, congenial and accommodating, looking for every angle to complete the deal; Walton was the pious martyr (by late 1974, he had been silenced and expelled) with an ability to preach and prophesy that was rare. The two negotiated a deal with the Center Stake presidency to allow [the] fundamental group to hold services in much the same manner as a charismatic experiment (Praise Fellowship Mission) then in progress. Restrictions were placed on collecting funds: no tithing could be accepted and contributions were not tax deductible through the RLDS church. These services began in 1973 and continued through the fall of 1974 at various locations around Independence. Preaching and prayer services were held on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings in direct confrontation with local congregational services. A wide variety of speakers preached from the liberal William D. Russell to the conservative Arthur Oakman. The group was governed by several elders who met in council but never sought approval for decisions in a business meeting nor was information on contributions ever disclosed. In the fall of 1974, Walton and Fuller split. Though short-lived and undefined structurally, this group did experiment with and function in a branch format for a brief period
The idea of an independent branch organization was growing.
The Saints of Vancouver, Washington, at the Crossroads
In early 1974, Richard Price published his book, The Saints at the Crossroads. It focused attention on the changes that were in process in the RIDS church and brought awareness to many outside of the Independence, Missouri, area. It also provided encouragement across the country for many who had believed that they were alone in having doubts about the liberal doctrines being expounded by the church leadership. Before long, other publications (Restoration Voice, 1978) began to appear and opposition in various forms arose.
Most notable were the difficulties in Vancouver, Washington, when the local RLDS branch bundled up the Sunday school curricula and sent it back to the Herald House with a note to not bother sending any further materials. The opposition grew so strong in this branch that the General Church leadership took action and locked the Saints out of their building in 1976. Reeling from this swift and decisive act, the Vancouver Saints finally decided to continue holding services. They eventually elected officers and continued meeting, first in a school and later in the local grange hall. Under the leadership of Patriarch Paul Fischel and Elder Darrell Moreland, the branch continued outside of the RLDS church's direct control. They did not formulate by-laws or lay a foundation for continuing to function in program areas. In fact, by 1984, they had no direction to give to other groups interested in forming branches nor had they, at anytime, proselytized a branch forming movement. The Vancouver branch was the first to use the term "restoration" as a descriptive adjective and was formed in response to a coercive act by the RLDS hierarchy.
It is hard to understand the thinking of the hierarchy in this action. Perhaps their motive all along was to end up in civil court and redefine the church legally as a hierarchical organization (The Vancouver Story, 1978). If so, then one can see why the aggressive actions of the leadership so callously disregarded the concerns and feelings of these devoted Saints. On the other hand, to force these people to meet in services outside of the church's jurisdiction, certainly established a precedent for any future opposition parties and is clearly counter-productive to the church's mission. The Vancouver Saints were valiant and steadfast. Their robust defense of their rights will always be recognized as critical to the establishment of the Independent Restoration Branch Movement.
IV. Restoration Festival, Inc., and Mass Silencings
In the late seventies, High Priest Greg Donavan moved to Independence from Plymouth, MI. He entered into a business venture in the form of a restaurant on Noland Road. The business failed, but the real draw for Donavan was the church. He had marshaled a group of priesthood who sponsored some larger scale meetings called restoration festivals. This group organized regular worship services and held a weekend session at Graceland College in the fall of 1978 that claimed an attendance of 3,000 Saints. Due to the scale and frequency of these activities, incorporation as a not-for-profit organization seemed advisable and a board of directors was elected. The Restoration Festival, Inc., organized quarterly events-summer reunions at Lake Jacomo, gatherings at various locations in the area-and published sermon and lecture transcripts and sold tape recordings. The focus of the meetings was worship; there was never a conference or business session scheduled in a public forum. The most common activity of the Restoration Festival, Inc. was a Friday evening preaching service followed by a Saturday session which began with a prayer and testimony meeting. Three or four presentations/lectures on various gospel topics would be followed by a Saturday evening preaching service. These gatherings were publicized in the local newspaper and would attract 500 or more Saints. Offerings were collected to cover expenses.
The Festival activities attracted such a large and positive following that the RLDS hierarchy could not ignore them. Other organizations were already in existence, including Mothers in Israel and the School of the Saints. But with no means to punish or control women, the RLDS leadership opted to focus on the Restoration Festival, Inc. In a calculated attack, a new resolution on priesthood silencing was introduced at the April, 1980, World Conference. It removed a man's right to appeal a silencing action from the judicial line and limited him exclusively to an administrative appeal. The resolution also identified several grounds for silencing, one of which was "willful disregard ... of a supervising administrative officer" which was later interpreted as "crossing jurisdictional boundaries." The Center Stake Presidency advised the Restoration Festival, Inc., of their intention to silence the corporation's board which resulted in the withdrawal of some board members. True to their word, the Center Stake Presidency silenced High Priest Greg Donovan, Elders Gary Kuntz and Richard Darby and Priest Paul Collier in the fall of 1980 under authority of new GCR # 1158—the first mass silencing. This action did little to halt the momentum of the Festival activities although it took a tremendous toll on individual lives. A second round of silencings occurred in November, 1982, and set the stage for the Independent Restoration Branch Movement
The Study of Church Government
In December, 1982, a group of both silenced and unsilenced ministers (Elders Gary Kuntz and Rudy Leutzinger, Priests James and Patrick McKay, Steve Marshall, Charles Perry, and Phil Beckmann among others) began an intense study of church government to learn why their rights 'Within the law of the church had been abrogated. Under the direction of the Spirit of God, this focused study, which lasted into early 1984, produced four principles of church government:
1. Priesthood authority comes from God.
Only God can bestow priesthood and, once given, only God can remove it. Likewise, God sets the limits and bounds of service.
2. Elders have the duty and responsibility to organize and build-up branches.
As the study progressed, the brethren were amazed to see the significance placed on the branch by Joseph Smith, Jr., and Joseph Smith Ill. The first church organization of April 6, 1830, was a branch according to all subsequent definitions. The word "church" and "branch" were often used interchangeably (compare Doc. & Cov. 17:16a with CH 1:561; see also Doc. & Cov. 83:22). The branch was defined as the "primary" organization of the church with the responsibility of protecting the rights and dignity of individual members. In the early Restoration and Reorganization, elders-both traveling and standing-were commissioned to establish branches With significant rights within the structure of the church. Unfortunately, branches had been moved to a secondary role by conference actions and those associated rights had been eroded over the years to such an extent that the church had lost it understanding of the unique role of the branch in church government. And even more, the protections afforded to individual members at the branch level were gone.
3. Branches may convene conferences.
Conferences are "secondary and governmental organizations" of the church. Authority to order a conference comes through a presidential quorum, a presidency, or two or more branches. Elders do not have the right to arbitrarily order a conference for legislative purposes. If they did, confusion and anarchy would prevail in church government. And legislative conferences that allow only elders to have voice and vote have been specifically discouraged by General Conference actions as "disrespectful to the entire body" of the Church (Adopted April 6, 1868. No. 87. That all private members, male and female, have a right to vote on all questions that the elders may deem of sufficient importance to bring before the church; Adopted April 9, 1873. No. 145. Whereas, The String Prairie and Nauvoo District conference at its last session, as published in the Herald, adopted a resolution expressive of their opinion, to the effect, that none had a legal right to vote on the business before the body except the elders, or Melchisedec priesthood; and whereas, The General Conference or 1868, resolved and decided affirmatively, "That all private members, male and female, have a right to vote upon all questions that may be brought before the General Conference;" it is hereby Resolved, That this conference considers the action of the String Prairie and Nauvoo District conference, on the suffrage question, premature, and disrespectful to the entire body, and that said conference is hereby respectfully requested to reconsider and rescind said resolution at their next quarterly conference session.).
4. Conferences organized under the direct of branches have the authority to organize or reorganize, establish, maintain, sustain, and build-up the Church within the prescribed boundaries of the conference.
Common consent requires that conference actions should receive the endorsement of participating branches and the individuals in them. Referral of conference actions to the branches is the only practical way for common consent to be implemented.
These organizational principles were defined in a tract published in late 1985 titled Branch Organization and a Brief History of the Independence Branch. They were so well understood that Richard Price and Larry Harlacher wrote in a 1986 publication, Restoration Branches Movement (Chapter 2-- The Uniting of Restoration Branches, p. 7), "So after a number of Restoration Branches develop and have time to become stable, then those branches can hold General Conferences of their own. At these conferences a council of elders and a president pro-tem can be elected annually. An example of this kind of leadership was seen after the Nauvoo-Utah Apostasy, when Jason Briggs was made president pro-tern of the Reorganization before Joseph Smith III came to the Church and became the true prophet." Whether or not one accepts Price's assertions that a "General Conference" should be called and "president pro-tem" be appointed, it is clearly understood that branches have the authority to call conferences.
The Independence Branch
By early 1984, the legal right of elders to organize branches was well understood. The concern was that the organizing of a branch-independent of the RLDS hierarchy-should not be taken as a retaliatory act (as in the case in Vancouver). The act must be a measured and calculated action to preserve the church and the dignity of the individuals in it. The brethren were looking for some reason to organize that did not revolve around the silencing actions they had endured.
In the RLDS World Conference of April, 1984, a document allowing for the ordination of women was approved (Doc. & Cov. 156) and a reason for acting was presented. It was now clear that the hierarchy was headed in a different direction than the silenced brethren. On May 6, 1984, seven members (Elders Kuntz and Leutzinger, Priests McKay and McKay, Teacher Gene McKay, Sisters Bonnie McKay and Joy McKay) met in a home at 1527 N. Holder in Independence to organize an independent branch of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. A business meeting was called to order; Elder Leutzinger was elected branch president; Priest James McKay was elected secretary. All present and two others (priest Charles Perry and his wife, Danelle) were named as charter members in good standing and their priesthood offices recognized. This action was followed by a service where the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was served.
This was not an act of defiance; it was a studied and planned event calculated to (1)
preserve individual rights and (2) perpetuate the gospel originally restored by the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. The Independence Branch remained alone for several months publishing its action by word of mouth and presentations in small gatherings of the saints. In the fall of that year, another branch was organized under the direction and authority of Elder Dale Smith at Beals Island, Maine. The branch has moved off of the island and is known today as the Jonesport Restoration Branch.
Though several more branches were organized, the momentum of the independent restoration branch movement did not really begin to grow unti1 1987. To stop the trend, the Center Stake Presidency expelled the Independence Branch's president in the fall of 1987. Center Stake President Chet Henson told this author that the action was taken against the Independence Branch because it was the first restoration branch and to send a message to other elders considering establishing independent branches. This did not have the desired effect and the legal right of elders to establish branches is well understood.
The Next Step
Over the intervening years, numerous attempts have been made to organize at a higher level than the branch. The International Elders Conference in 1985 (A. J. Cato), the Church of the Lamb of God in the late 1980’s (Lee Abranson), the Restored Church in the early 1990s (Norman Page, William Whenham, Marcus Juby), and the Conference of Restoration Elders/Remnant Church in the mid 1990s (David Bowerman) have followed a similar pattern in that a dominant personality marshaled a cadre of supporters and modeled a structure based on the RLDS church of the 19508, 1960s, and 1970s.
These top-down hierarchical organizations are the antithesis of the governmental structure patterned in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and history of the Restoration and Reorganization. All have met with failure because they have departed from the original principles of church government.
In November, 2005, that trend was changed as a conference of branches met in the Stone Church for two days of legislation. Here the pattern of the Reorganization was followed to the letter as branches organized a conference that gave voice and vote to the church membership. A second conference was held in April, 2006, with attendees from 81 branches from around the world representing over 5,000 Saints. With the convening of branch conferences, the same church government is now in existence as was in the original restored church and through which the Reorganization was spawned. The organization is now in position to claim the church. It is an exciting time far those who have endured.