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Joseph Smith and Matthew Philip Gill: the dynamics of Mormon schism

By: matt b. - January 18, 2011

Jacob Baker and I discovered the Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ while Bushman summer fellows in 2007.    We spent a lot of time kicking back and forth analysis of this most interesting schism group, and organized an MHA panel around them in 2008.    And, today, the turgid pace of academic publishing has finally reached consummation, and the paper I wrote that summer has been published in the current issue of Nova Religio 14:3 (February 2011) 42-63.

The Latter Day Church is fascinating in part because of how skillfully Matthew Philip Gill engages in prophetic mimesis, replicating the experiences and language of Joseph Smith to create himself as Smith’s heir, calling to repentance the failed church of Salt Lake City and promising a re-invigorated version of Mormon spirituality – one which both invokes Joseph Smith’s charisma anew, but which also rewrites the sacred history of Mormonism in ways that follow the cultural accommodations the LDS church has made.   Gill’s movement is neither sectarian – which seeks to heighten tension with Western culture – nor a church movement – one which seeks to lessen that tension.  Rather, scholars like Armand Mauss and Thomas O’Dea have observed that the LDS Church itself seems to combine both of these impulses, oscillating back and forth along a spectrum of resistance, tension, and accommodation.  Just so, the Latter Day Church of Christ itself seeks to heighten both resistance and accommodation – rejecting, for instance, evidence that Joseph Smith ever practiced polygamy and embracing whole-heartedly the LDS church’s sentimental emphasis upon the family, but also heightening the sort of radical spiritual claims which have become routinized in American Mormonism.   Gill, after all, has had visionary experiences of all the figures Joseph Smith claimed to have encountered, adding a resurrected Joseph himself into the bargain.   As his father (and first counselor) asks derisively of the LDS Church, “We have again an era of prophets.  Proper prophets.  Not people who are just put into position and over time get to be a prophet . . . Where’s the revelation in that?”    And such is a new church born.

The abstract is as follows:

In 2007, Matthew Philip Gill, a resident of Derbyshire, England, announced the formation of the Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ. He claimed to be acting under angelic direction, and produced a new scripture, the Book of Jeraneck, to usher in his new faith. Gill’s church is a restoration of a restoration: he claims to have restored the Mormon movement, which Joseph Smith founded as a restoration of the church Jesus organized, but which Gill claims has fallen into apostasy—particularly its primary iteration, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which Gill was raised in but has abandoned. This article analyzes the relationship between Gill’s movement and the LDS church, pointing out the ways in which Gill draws upon the Mormon tradition to claim authority for his new church, but also the ways in which Gill seeks to alter the balance of tension between the LDS church and the culture around it. The article particularly explores Gill’s founding narrative, comparing its language, motifs, and forms of spirituality with those of Joseph Smith; the Book of Jeraneck’s intertextual relationship with the Book of Mormon; and Gill’s story of LDS apostasy.

And an excerpt:

The Book of Jeraneck is Gill’s crowning prophetic accomplishment, not least because it exemplifies a very Mormon piety.  Latter-day Saints of the early twenty–first century give scriptural priority to the Book of Mormon; they understand it to be a clarifier, commentator, and interpreter to the Bible; the work which presents God’s truth most clearly.[i] However, it is also deeply dependent upon the Bible. It quotes or paraphrases the Bible on over a thousand occasions; it roots its plot in Biblical history and echoes in type–scenes its most sacred events.[ii] It uses this relationship to justify both its existence and Joseph Smith’s role as a prophet. The questions it asks and the right it claims to answer depends upon the authority it gains through its association with the powerful religious expressions of Biblical Christianity.  It reinvents, rather than manufactures, that religion.

The Book of Jeraneck functions in much the same way in relation to the Book of Mormon, and is thus Matthew Gill’s primary tool for reinventing Mormonism. Just as Gill presents himself as the culmination of Smith’s prophetic mission, so is its existence proof.  The book twines together the multiplicity of Mormon sacred narratives, not only the forms and motifs and scenes of the ancient story of Smith’s Book of Mormon, but also the sacred narrative of Joseph Smith’s life. It thus legitimates Gill’s attempts to emulate both in the present; the very fact of the Book of Jeraneck is a foundation stone from which Gill can began to build his own Mormonism.  But as Alter notes, the key to finding meaning in types is in the differences; both the book and the prophet suffer from what literary critic Harold Bloom has called in poets “the anxiety of influence;” the desire to emulate and separate oneself from predecessors at the same time.[iii] If the Book of Jeraneck were exactly like the Book of Mormon it would serve little purpose to a prophetic reformer like Gill.  While the forms, lessons, and typologies of the book revitalize the narratives of Mormon piety, they also give it the spiritual legitimacy Gill needs to confront those narratives and alter them.

The Book of Jeraneck’s emulation begins with its very words.  Its language echoes the stilted grammar of the Book of Mormon. It follows not the omniscient narration of the Bible but the personal, first person voice of the Book of Mormon, a discourse deeply associated with Mormon spirituality.  Its redacted structure, claiming to be the product of an ancient editor working many texts into a single prose narrative of exodus and civilization building, clearly models the Book of Mormon.  Both Biblical and Book of Mormon characters, phrases, and plot forms make appearances in the pages of the Book of Jeraneck.    It also emulates the Book of Mormon’s structure.  Both works claim to be a sacred narrative of a civilization produced by a godly redactor late in that civilization’s history, who writes in a nostalgic tone, for their civilizations are close to destruction because of their wickedness.  Both civilizations are the children of pilgrims, guided by God out of ancient Israel on the eve of a great disaster, and brought to a new promised land, where they flourish and falter dependent upon their obedience to God, and are governed by prophet–kings.

But in addition to echoing the Book of Mormon the work also echoes the sacred history of Joseph Smith’s life.  The redactor Jeraneck opens his own story in the autobiographical form, writing “I have been taught the Gospel of the Christ and the almighty God by my Father and Mother.” (1,1)  Jeraneck then tells us that in his youth “I desired to know of many things.”  He went into “a great forest” to pray, and there “a great light gathered and I beheld in that light a personage and I became afraid and I was about to get to my feet and run when the personage spoke to me . . . and I stayed kneeling on the ground.”   We see in these words the shadowy images of both Nephi and Smith’s First Vision, the stories so many Mormon children are raised on, but also that of the twelve year old Gill himself. (JS-H, 1:14-17)

The blurring between the literary and the historical here is quite intentional.  Gill marshals the imagery of Smith’s scripture not only because he has absorbed its spiritual style, but because it is Smith’s prophetic legacy he seeks to fulfill.   The origins of both books are tied inexorably to the supernatural experiences of the men who produced them, binding both prophets into the narratives they produce.  The prophet’s experience and the stories of the books are of a piece; the presence in the lives of these men of heavenly messengers who are simultaneously characters in the texts–Moroni, Jeraneck–makes the two histories bleed into each other, become mutually reinforcing, and transform the mundane history of the present age into an extension of the sacred history of the scripture.   Reproducing Smith’s accomplishment has been perhaps Gill’s most important legitimating achievement, for it places him not only in Smith’s prophetic mold, but also his movement in the providential iteration of history where Smith lived.

The book’s ability to bridge the gap between sacred and secular history, to transform one into the other, is crucial because it means the stories of the Book of Jeraneck are legitimate grounds for re-conceiving the relationship between Gill’s version of the Mormon faith and the world around it.  Indeed, Gill’s attempts to revision the foundational narratives of Mormon sacred time and sacred space find their ultimate ground in that text, using its theological power to create revised stories of the Mormon past.


[i] Philip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: the place of the Latter-day Saints in American religion (New York: Oxford, 1991) 224; Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon is the Word of God,” Ensign (January 1988) 2-5.

[ii] Mark Thomas, Digging in Cumorah: reclaiming Book of Mormon narratives (Salt Lake City: Signature, 2000) 17.

[iii] Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 47; Harold Bloom, The anxiety of influence: a theory of poetry (New York: Oxford, 1973) 5-19.

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21 Comments

  1. Brilliant. I was “wowed” by the original presentation at MHA, and am glad to finally see this in print. Any paper that utilizes Robert Alter and Harold Bloom while exploring the scriptures of a schismatic Mormon group deserves serious acclaim.

    Also, it should be noted that this paper won MHA’s best graduate paper last year—a distinction that, I think, applies to every single paper Matt has written, but worthy of being mentioned nonetheless.

    Comment by Ben — January 18, 2011 @ 8:49 am

  2. Excellent stuff, Matt. I’m excited to read the article in its entirety.

    Comment by Christopher — January 18, 2011 @ 9:22 am

  3. Sign me up as another fan of this great work you’ve done. Are you going to put Gillite historian on your business card? Could be pretty cool. Like Jon Butler studying the Keithites.

    Comment by smb — January 18, 2011 @ 9:44 am

  4. Excellent, Matt. And congratulations.

    Comment by Jacob B. — January 18, 2011 @ 10:08 am

  5. Congrats, Matt.

    Comment by David G. — January 18, 2011 @ 10:28 am

  6. Loved the presentation at MHA. How have the Gillites fared in the last two years?

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 18, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

  7. Look forward to reading it, Matt.

    Comment by Ryan Tobler — January 18, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

  8. Congratulations, Matt!

    Comment by Jared T — January 18, 2011 @ 11:15 pm

  9. Have you attended any of his online Church services? :)

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — January 19, 2011 @ 12:02 am

  10. This was fine. The heritage of Strang and Thompson lives on in this. The apostles’ struggle with these issues in 1844-7 are fascinating. Then, charisma worked a fertile ground among Mormons. Not so much now.

    Comment by WVS — January 19, 2011 @ 2:00 am

  11. Very interesting, Matt. Non-LDS can simply dismiss the religious claims of Gill and his Latter Day Church, but mainstream Mormons can’t reply (as would most Christians) that angelic visitors, visions granting divine authority, and supernatural translations of ancient books in strange languages are implausible in our day. For many Christians, such claims are implausible in any era, but that’s a different issue.

    It is worth noting how central new technology is to the LDC — Skype, Internet radio, a church blog, and YouTube are all highlighted several times by the speakers in the videos posted at the LDC website/blog. This is what NRMs look like in the 21st century.

    Comment by Dave — January 19, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

  12. Thanks, folks. Stapley – they’re actually growing and now have an apostle, I think named John Stevenson, based in Salt Lake. Still probably in the low double digits numbers wise, though.

    BiV – I did. Via youtube, for nearly an entire year.

    WVS – Thanks. The notion of ‘charisma’ versus institutionalism is a well trodden one in studies of New Religious Movements; Mormonism has been for a lot of scholars a paradigmatic case.

    Comment by matt b. — January 19, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

  13. Dave – yes. I deal with this a bit in the paper; a lot of scholarship on NRMs has argued that the internet actually encourages fragmentation, division, and so on, that the internet hurts rather than helps mobilization. I think this church is a good counter example, particularly because they report gaining converts entirely through electronic media.

    Comment by matt b. — January 19, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

  14. “The Latter Day Church is fascinating in part because of how skillfully Matthew Philip Gill engages in prophetic mimesis, replicating the experiences and language of Joseph Smith to create himself as Smith’s heir”

    To me, this sounds less “fascinating” and more “same old, same old”. As Steven Shields has shown in “Divergent Paths of the Restoration”, most of the “mighty and strong” ones who have followed Joseph Smith have mimicked his language, scriptures, myths, stories, organization, doctrines, and visitations; while at the same time proclaiming the former things now in apostasy and themselves as the new revelation from God. I’ve watched the formation of two such groups up close: Archie Wood’s in Pocatello, ID. and Mike (somebody, I can’t recall his name right now) in Highland, UT. Both had visitations from a distinguished panel of angelic brethren, both brought forth scriptures (The Book Of Azrael for Wood and Sacred Scriptures for Mike), both saw the current LDS Church as in apostasy, and both developed organizational structures patterned loosely on the Salt Lake church.

    Comment by larryco_ — January 21, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

  15. Larry, might I suggest you read Matt’s article before dismissing what he (and many others) find fascinating? Steve Shields has done some great work identifying the many manifestations of Latter Day Saintism, but trust me, interpretively his Divergent Paths doesn’t hold a candle to Matt’s analysis.

    Comment by Christopher — January 21, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

  16. Nope. Not dismissing the research. Not dismissing the analysis. Having personally researched these groups and read everything available on up to 200 of them, I was just pointing out the sameness in these movements.

    Comment by larryco_ — January 25, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

  17. Nope, I might not suggest that? Well, I already did. And forgive me for not buying your “not dismissing the analysis” bit—you explicitly said that what Matt described as “fascinating” was not, and instead “same old, same old.”

    Have you read Matt’s article yet? If not, then you have not, in fact, “read everything available” on these groups. Since you are better read on Mormon schismatics than I, could you please point me to other schismatic Mormon groups that originated in the British Isles, produced a book of scripture that sacralized the British landscape in ways that the Book of Mormon sacralized the American, and that has relied almost entirely on new media to spread their message and gain a following?

    Comment by Christopher — January 25, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

  18. A pretty passionate exchange, boys.
    There is something very familiar about Gill, but in Matt’s analysis a) you see some of the impressive distinctiveness of Gill, including particularly his appropriation of Britain’s sacred lands, and b) a more academic approach to Mormon schismatics. I doubt Matt has time, but I think a more academic comparative treatment of modern schismatics would be welcome. I think Matt’s treatment of Gill points the way.

    Comment by smb — January 25, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

  19. Oh, and the amazing ways in which Gillites exploit modern integrative media. Matt does great work with these.

    Comment by smb — January 25, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

  20. Larry – my goal was to push analysis of these Mormon movements into conversation with the sociology of NRMs. That is, to give it a bit more nuance and rigor than the word ‘sameness.’

    Steve Shields’s work is exhaustive and impressive; fortunately, I’m not at all trying to do what he did.

    Comment by matt b — January 25, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

  21. If only you knew!

    Comment by Christine — March 23, 2011 @ 2:48 pm