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Why there were only 6 founding members of the Church and more facts about the historic event


Editor’s note: This article was first published in 2021.

Many of this year's Come, Follow Me lessons could be considered history lessons as much as they are teachings of gospel principles. This week’s lesson on the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830, is no exception, and I found myself digging into the historical context and importance of those events even more than usual. Here are a few of the questions—and the subsequent answers—I found in my personal study of Doctrine and Covenants 20–22.

Why were there only six founding members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

According to early documents and first-hand accounts, there were roughly 40 men and women gathered on April 6, 1830, in the log home of Peter and Mary Whitmer to witness the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ. But why were there only six members in the formal organization? Why weren't all 40 men and women in attendance included as founding members of the Church?

When the Church was organized in 1830, the state of New York had enacted a procedure for incorporating religious organizations. An article on ChurchofJesusChrist.org explains the following: 

The statute required a church or congregation to elect from three to nine trustees to take charge of church property and transact business affairs. Two elders of the congregation were to be selected to preside over the election. Fifteen days’ notice, given for two successive Sabbaths, was required. A certificate establishing a name for the church and evidencing completion of the organizational events was to be recorded in the county or counties where the church was located.

In accordance with the state statute, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were sustained as elders and teachers in the Church. Four other members were also selected to be the Church's first members, otherwise known as “trustees.”

Why did the Church need to formally organize?

According to the New York state statute previously mentioned, it wasn't required for a group of worshippers to incorporate to exist as a Church. But if they did so, they were entitled to certain legal privileges like acquiring and owning property and performing marriages.

More importantly, the Lord had givena commandment to organize the Church. According to ChurchofJesusChrist.org, Joseph wrote the following in History of the Church

Whilst the Book of Mormon was in the hands of the printer, we . . . made known to our brethren that we had received a commandment to organize the church; and accordingly we met together for that purpose, at the house of Mr. Peter Whitmer, Sen., (being six in number,) on Tuesday, the sixth day of April, A.D., one thousand eight hundred and thirty.

The Lord's desire to establish His Church on the earth is also clear in Doctrine and Covenants 10:53 and 18:5. Additionally, sections 20 and 21 of the Doctrine and Covenants came about as instruction for the newly organized Church and outlined many important lessons pertaining to baptism, the sacrament, the priesthood, the cause of Zion, Joseph Smith's prophetic calling, and the witness of the Holy Ghost. The setting for the organization of the Church provided the Lord an opportunity to teach these important doctrines to the early Saints.

Who were the six founding members?

There's actually some debate about who the six founding members of the Church were since the Prophet said there were “six in number,” including himself and Oliver Cowdery. Likewise, in Doctrine and Covenants 20:2, Joseph and Oliver are listed as the first and second elders of the church. All other written accounts include Hyrum Smith as a founding member. As to the other three founding members, accounts from Brigham Young, Joseph Knight Jr., and David Whitmer vary, but historians generally agree that they were Samuel H. Smith, Peter Whitmer Jr., and David Whitmer.

In Joseph Smith's History of the Church, he highlights the baptisms of himself, Oliver Cowdery, Samuel Smith, Hyrum Smith, David Whitmer, and Peter Whitmer Jr. The late Richard Lloyd Anderson, who was a professor of religion and history at Brigham Young University, surmised that “perhaps those first baptized were honored by being the organizers of the Church.”

As a formally organized religious society today, one might assume that the new Church members filed a certificate of incorporation with the state of New York. Historians could therefore refer back to that document for a decisive answer to the question of the Church's founding members. But unfortunately, that document, if it ever existed, seems to have been lost in the annals of history. In August 1879, President John Taylor sent a letter to Utah territorial librarian William C. Staines, asking him to search for a New York incorporation certificate—but Staines came up empty-handed. 

As recently as 1988, Elder John K. Carmack of the First Quorum of the Seventy, went to Albany and Waterloo, New York, to search the respective state and county archives for the document, but was unable to find anything on file. 

For more information on these inquiries, you can read Elder Carmack's Ensign article.

What took place at the meeting at the Whitmer home?

We don't have any formal minutes or exact notes from that first Church meeting on April 6, 1830. But according to the Church History topics page on the Church's website under Founding Meeting of the Church of Christ, “The meeting opened with prayer, and the assembly sustained Joseph and Oliver as elders and teachers in the Church. Joseph and Oliver then ordained each other as Church elders, the participants in the meeting partook of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, Joseph and Oliver laid hands on the heads of those who had previously been baptized to give them the gift of the Holy Ghost and confirm them members of the Church, and Joseph received the revelation now found in Doctrine and Covenants 21.”

My Takeaways

In all honesty, this interest in historical research was very atypical for me, and I think the Church's publication of Saints has piqued my interest generally and made me ask more questions about some of the early events in our Church's history. And after this week, I can say with full confidence that in reading (new to me) first-person accounts, words from the Prophet Joseph Smith himself, and other early Church documents, my faith and testimony was strengthened. I now better understand the principle of “seeking learning, even by study and also by faith.”

► You'll also like: 5 surprising things we learned from the new Church history book, ‘Saints’

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