Christopher Blythe: The Crafting of a New Religious Movement

The following is an excerpt from historian Christopher Blythe‘s master thesis on Ross LeBaron, submitted to the Utah State University in 2009. In his work, Blythe characterizes Ross LeBaron as “a religion maker in the same sense as Joseph Smith or Jesus Christ, in that he brought forth new concepts, which diverged from previous orthodox norms” (p. 04).

Ogie’s Cafe, in Salt Lake City, Utah used by Ross LeBaron and associates for “priesthood meetings” | Photo: Antonio Trevisan

The Crafting of a New Religious Movement

In order to teach students the intricacies encapsulated in a “full-fledged” religion, Catherine Albanese has developed a system of four Cs: Code, Community, Creed, and Cultus.[1]  The first category, Code, embraces the notion that religions necessarily introduce a system of morals and ethics by which adherents make life decisions.  The second category, Community, includes social structure and hierarchy, as well as the manner in which believers relate to the non-believing world.  The third category, Creed, includes not simply a formal statement of belief, but a discussion of beliefs and theology embraced by the community of believers.  Finally, the fourth category, Cultus, is a technical word simply meaning ritual which embraces both formal ceremony and the practice of the believers. (For example, this includes informal prayer, the study of scripture, and sermonizing.)  In this section, Albanese’s convenient system is used in order to study the religion developed by Ross Wesley LeBaron.  Yet, before we discuss the basic four categories introduced above, a fifth C of particular usefulness when studying Mormon traditions – the claim – is presented.

The Claim

In a general sense, “the claim” is present in many religions in that there is a justification for their existence.  The Mormon concept of claim also demands that individual movements seek legitimization through claiming a descent of priesthood.  Joseph Smith’s religion instituted an elaborate theology and faith story concerning the bestowal of divine authority to mankind.  In the years preceding the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith was visited by a series of angels that conferred upon him “keys of authority.”  Joseph Smith came to be recognized as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator over the Church holding the keys of the Priesthood above officers who held a share in this power.  Mormonism also provided for future successors of this one-man office.  Hundreds of future factions would contend over this this pontiff-like position of exclusive direction of God’s work on the Earth.  Most simply explained, the claim is what allows Mormon factions to justify their individual development, but also to compete with one another.  Both of these traits are crucial components of LeBaronism.

In the previous section, we documented LeBaron’s claim of the Priesthood through his father.  This claim developed drastically in the years following the organization of the Church of the Firstborn.  Although initially he intended for the new organization to exist underneath the authority of the Fundamentalist leaders, gradually LeBaron determined that his Patriarchal position was above the “Melchezidek Priesthood” position he believed they held.  Eventually, LeBaron came to see his own authority as stemming from a higher restoration of the priesthood.  Much to the consternation of many of his followers, Ross introduced the idea that Benjamin F. Johnson had received angelic visitors in the Nauvoo Temple.[2]

This was not the last controversial change to LeBaron’s doctrines.  He also came to see himself in a different light as time advanced.  Initially, Ross believed he had a special work as a forerunner for the One Mighty and Strong, the messianic figure to purify the Mormon faith.  Later, he announced his own role as the One Mighty and Strong proper.  Subsequently, Ross began to see himself as the head of an eighth dispensation, thus equal to biblical and modern religious figures including Noah, Moses, or Joseph Smith.  Finally, Ross saw himself as the head of a council of dispensation heads, thus superior to all others.  This proclivity to claim greater and greater positions will be analyzed in the next section.

Creed:  Defined as Doctrinal Teachings

Our second inroad into the makeup of LeBaronism is a study of the theology of the movement.  Early in my study of Ross Wesley LeBaron’s teachings, I was cautioned that I would never understand them.  Robert Eaby, Ross’s earliest disciple, warned me that Ross’s teachings had a habit of switching radically even between conversations.  Of course, the idea that a religion-maker brings forth doctrine already formulated is unrealistic.  Even if one were to accept the possibility of the supernatural transmission of information, the prophetic figure must react and re-react to the message or experience.  Yet Eaby’s comment was much more insightful than he intended it.  The fluid nature of LeBaron theology is one important key to understanding the makeup of the faith.  Ross’s constant re-evaluation of traditional thought allowed him to be an example of the quest for truth that is a central theme in LeBaronism.  Nevertheless, LeBaron introduced certain doctrine and themes repetitively, though specifics often varied.

A document published in 1959 entitled “Articles of Faith of the Church of the Firstborn” provides one of LeBaron’s first attempts to systematize the major beliefs of his religion.  The LeBaron prophet based his own concept of a creed on the canonized “13 Articles of Faith” produced by Joseph Smith in the 1840s.  Following the traditional LDS format, LeBaron produced thirteen statements each serving as an amalgamation between the Latter-day Saint original and Mormon Fundamentalist doctrines.   For example, the first Article of Faith of the Church of the Firstborn states, “We believe in Michael, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in Joseph Smith, the Witness and Testator.”[3]  Other articles discuss the nature of the patriarchal organization, prophecies of the One Mighty and Strong, and the restoration of the Fullness of the Gospel.

One of Ross’s first unique contributions to Mormonism was his typology of Mormon teachings.  Mormon Fundamentalists had for decades referred to themselves as believers in the Fullness of the Gospel to distinguish their teachings from the lower truths propagated by the LDS Church.  Eventually, Ross LeBaron built on this concept and divided the teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Gospel of the Father.  The gospel of Jesus Christ was the exclusive responsibility of the LDS Church, whereas his jurisdiction fell under the Gospel of the Father.  This included teachings concerning polygamy, the nature of God, Mormon rituals, patriarchal priesthood, and historical mythology unknown to the average Latter-day Saint believer (and often, not found in the historical record.)

Some of his earliest innovations were based on the discussion of prophecy and dispensationalism – ideas that had been formulating over fifteen years before the organization of the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times.  Joseph Smith introduced similar concepts in early Mormonism.  Latter-day Saints believed that God had established certain dispensations by which the history of the world could be properly divided.  Mormons have interpreted these time periods to have started and stopped revolving around a cycle of introducing the Gospel via prophets and its subsequent rejection.  The dispensation begun by Joseph Smith is most often identified as the Seventh and Last Dispensation.

This idea of time is directly related to a similar concept in other world religions.  For example, Christianity was built on the foundation of Judaism.  Christians understand that Judaism is true religion, but is now incomplete and thus in a very real way, obsolete.  The same thing is true of Islam, which would acknowledge this relationship with both Judaism and Christianity.  Mormonism built on Christianity, in the same way that Islam did, claiming the pentacle of truth while other systems had ceased to be the divinely recognized vehicle.

LeBaronism built upon the idea of dispensationalism.  First, merely by citing biblical prophecy suggesting that the last days were divided into two periods: the times of the Gentiles and the times of Israel.  In the previous dispensation, under Christ, there was a period in which the Gospel was taught exclusively to Jews during the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth and later was taken to the Gentiles.  In the last days, this order was reversed.  The gospel first taken to the Gentiles would be taken from the Gentiles and given to Israel.  LeBaron cited this shifting of time periods to explain why the gospel, though eternal in nature, was administered differently under his direction than under the Mormon Church.

LeBaron has understood the importance of the Times of Israel as early as 1940.  That year, he came to believe that the Times of the Gentiles should last one biblical generation (identified as 120 years) and began with the first vision of Joseph Smith in 1820.[4]  When he organized the Church of the Firstborn, he cited Joseph Smith’s vision of Elijah on April 3, 1836 as that period’s genesis.[5]  Again in a later document, he cited the martyrdom of Joseph Smith on June 27, 1844 as the starting point.[6]  According to Tom Green, Ross eventually concluded that the Times of Israel began in 1950, 120 years after the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Ross cited the founding of Israel as a nation in 1948, as additional evidence for his views.[7]

These changing dates reflected LeBaron’s interest in biblical prophecy.  From his earliest days as a prophet, he sought to place himself within the timeline of God.  Dispensationalism was more than a justification for the changes he had made to the Mormon religion – though that was important.  He wanted to be present for the great changes that would occur before the Second Coming of Christ.  He envisioned his own role as a leader during this period.

Ross enjoyed setting dates for the fulfillment of prophecy.  He would often site evidence from passages in scripture and more often, “pyramid dates” to explain his expectations.  It is rumored that Ross once gathered several followers and listeners of a local radio program to Melchezidek Park in order to await the coming of Adam’s space craft.  The UFO never arrived, though a local pizza shop heard of the event and were reportedly quite successful in selling pizza to the gathering.  Ross’s critics have nicknamed this event the “Pizza Party.”  According to Robert Eaby, the situation had a comic conclusion, a ray of light descended on the group, building a great deal of anticipation, ultimately to be realized that it was only a passing chopper.[8]

This was not Ross’s only prophecy, nor the first one that passed unfulfilled.  During the course of his ministry, he predicted a Russian invasion, his own demise as one of the two martyred prophets in the Book of Revelation, and the coming of Jesus Christ in 2010.[9]  He defended his failed prophecies by explaining that sometimes he predicted things via calculation, rather than revelation.[10]

In the 1980s, Ross LeBaron came to accept a doctrine most commonly associated with Eastern religious traditions, reincarnation.  LeBarons often refer to this concept as the doctrine of eternal lives or multiple mortal probations. Perhaps unintentionally, as LeBaron emphasized his new discovery, reincarnation seems to have overshadowed the traditional Christian idea of the atonement.  Both doctrines dealt with the salvation of mankind.  For LeBaron, the major idea was that men could work out their salvation in multiple lives, slowly progressing to godhood.  Part of this process included becoming a prophet, a dispensation head, and eventually an Adam over one’s own world.

As mentioned above LeBaron also believed that flying saucers were an important part of God’s plan.  UFOs were the vehicles of the God’s.  He cited various biblical passages as references to flying saucers in the ancient record.[11]  Technology and science played a role in other teachings, as well.  For example, Ross believed that God had used televisions to communicate with Moses on Mount Sinai.[12]

Many of LeBaron’s followers rejected these teachings as nonsense.  They were attracted to Ross’s claim and its historical precedence, rather than his bizarre teachings.  However, they enthusiastically embraced the notion that they could seek their own understanding of truth.  To have a prophet that they openly acknowledged as eccentric allowed them to make up their own minds on theology without being forced to tow the party line.

Cultus: Defined as Ritual

The most important ritual in LeBaronism was the ordination of a man to the office of Patriarch.  In this ordination men were given the full rights to receive revelation, teach, and perform any religious ceremony that they themselves had received.  However, these rights were strictly limited to one’s own family and those that followed them by free agency.[13]  In addition to this newly applied ordination, LeBaronism continued or intended to continue all, of the ceremonies of the Mormon Church.

An essential portion of the Mormonism stemming from Brigham Young is the rituals associated with the Latter-day Saint temple.  Following the traditional Christian rituals of baptism, confirmation, and priesthood ordination for males, the Mormon believer also participates in a series of ordinances that are, except in very rare cases, performed within these buildings.    These ceremonies include: (1) initiatory ceremonies consisting of a “Washing and Anointing,” as well as the bestowal of a Priesthood garment to be worn through the remainder of the neophyte’s life; (2) the Endowment, a ritual drama depicting the biblical story the creation and fall, as well as mankind’s return to God’s presence and (3) a sealing ceremony uniting marriages and families for “time and all eternity.”  A fourth and final culminating ceremony, the Second Anointing was considered at times crucial, but now de-emphasized in Latter-day Saint thought.[14]  The ordinance assured one salvation following this life, as well as imparting the Fullness of the Melchezidek Priesthood.  It is likely that the average member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not have heard of the Second Anointing.

The rituals associated with the Latter-day Saint temple played a crucial role in Church of the Firstborn thought, although in practice they were seldom performed.  Like many second generation Mormon Fundamentalists, the LeBaron family was deprived access to Latter-day Saint temples and thus did not participate in these ordinances, with the exception of sealing marriages.  Beginning with the 1920s in response to the LDS Church’s changing of the ritual garment, Mormon Fundamentalists placed a great deal of emphasis on the Priesthood Garment, strictly adhering to the traditional form of the garment extending from one’s ankles to his neck and down to his wrists.  Many Fundamentalists wore the traditional “priesthood garment,” without having actually gone through the initiatory ceremony itself.  In the 1940s, Ross Wesley LeBaron was one of these men.

In the 1950s, he suggested that the time would come when the Church of the Firstborn would offer the temple ceremonies, although he currently lacked qualified and trained followers.[15]  Yet throughout his life, he never participated in the elaborate endowment drama.   Individual patriarchs, who were once members of the LDS Church, have attempted to preserve the endowment in their families, by performing the covenants (or vows) made during the endowment, while attempting to reenact the drama or simply reading an expose of the rite.  Patriarchs have utilized living rooms and hotel rooms to perform the ceremony.  Ross performed the initiatory rituals of the Temple and the Second Anointing on only two occasions: first, in 1967, when he himself received these ordinances from fellow patriarch, Robert Eaby, and second, in 1996, when he performed these ordinances for two followers, shortly before his death.[16]  As with the endowment, other patriarchs performed the initiatory rituals much more frequently than Ross did.

Although this is a good overview of the cultus in LeBaronism, LeBaron’s focus on independence and individuality allowed Patriarchs to institute their own forms of ritual and practice.  Some continue to focus on scripture study, fasting, and prayer, while others study Non-Mormon and even Non-Christian mystical paths.  For the followers of Ross LeBaron, there are certain rituals that are necessary and limitless others that might be added or deleted according to each family’s prerogative.

Community

LeBaron referred to the ecclesiastical structure of the Church of the Firstborn as the “patriarchal order” to differentiate it from the “apostolic order” of the LDS Church.  In other words, like the ancient patriarchs, men presided over their own families.  If, as was most often the case, they were converts to the faith, then patriarchs were adopted as children in another man’s lineage, usually Ross’s.  Thus, the structure of LeBaronism was akin to a genealogical tree.  Ross emphasized patriarchal autonomy and noted that even when he was present, a man “presided in his own home.”[17]   When there were issues within a family, children or wives could turn to their grandfather or great-grandfather, up to the presiding patriarch, Ross.  LeBaronism considered families independent units, which might operate differently according to their individual situations and presumably based on revelation.

The vast majority of Mormon Fundamentalist sects have taught the doctrine of the gathering, an early Latter-day Saint teaching that insisted that converts should gather to one central location.  Although some believers chose to move closer to their mentor, this was not required.  Thomas Arthur Green, one of LeBaron’s adopted sons, explained this concept in terms of the biblical patriarch, Abraham, who according to Mormon thought received the priesthood from Melchezidek and then returned to his own home.[18]  On another occasion, Green described the “nature of the patriarchal system” as “men going separate directions.”[19]  Thus, unlike many Mormon Fundamentalist communities, patriarchs are dispersed throughout the United States, with no intentions of gathering to Utah.

Despite its individual nature, the Church of the Firstborn certainly has developed a community.  Initially Ross thought that ordained patriarchs would serve within a typically organized Mormon Church structure.[20]  However, with the exception of the April 3, 1955 meeting, no typical church officers were ordained.  Instead Ross developed his community around periodic meetings, which he termed patriarchal councils.  Each patriarch served as a member of Ross’s council and in turn could preside over his own council comprised of his sons.  For a brief period, LeBaron held meetings of the Church of the Firstborn at rented halls in the Salt Lake City area.  More often, he “held church” at Ogies, a local diner.  These informal gatherings included cheap food and lengthy religious conversations.  Patriarchs also held religious ceremonies at their homes.

Ross LeBaron crafted what I characterize as a comparatively liberal, Mormon Fundamentalist sect.  In addition to allowing free thought and expression, LeBaron embraced individuals that Mormon Fundamentalists considered anathema.  LeBaron ordained both Black men and practicing gay men to the office of Patriarch, an inclusion unheard of in any other Mormon Fundamentalist community.   He also introduced the concept of the “Matriarchal Priestesshood” in which women were ordained to perform ordinances in their families.[21]

Code:  Defined as Morality or Ethics

The final aspect of Religion-Making, to be addressed in this paper, is the creation of a code: a system of morality or ethics by which adherents are bound.  LeBaronism is deliberately designed for a great deal of creativity and self-expression.  Thus, I would suggest that a detailed code was not put into place during the lifetime of Ross LeBaron.  Ross is known to have said that it did not matter so much whether something was right or wrong, but whether something brought about the desired results.  This practical idea of ethics fit into a religion that emphasizes personal revelation.  However, certain themes can be seen throughout LeBaronism’s ethical makeup.   These include abhorrence of so-called “unrighteous dominion” by patriarchs over their families, a refusal to compromise on essentials within the Gospel, and a disavowal of proselytization.

To avoid priestcraft, or the abuse of ecclesiastical position, Ross taught his followers that the only righteous function of the LeBaron priesthood was to teach doctrine and perform ordinances.  Demands of compliance in areas of doctrine or practice were considered inexcusable.  In addition, LeBaron was personally uncomfortable with donations, thus never collected tithing.  When a follower tried to give him money, Ross spent the money on a community meal at Ogies.[22]  Ultimately, the accusation of priestcraft is the worst insult a LeBaron might levy against another.

The issue of compromising cherished beliefs is a common discussion point in Mormon Fundamentalism and in LeBaronism.  The 1890 manifesto is often referred to as “a covenant with death and hell” and seen as the reason behind the LDS Church’s loss of the higher teachings and authority.  LeBaron also believed that Mormon Fundamentalists in 1945 had signed an equally damnable document, in order to be released from prison.  Thus in LeBaronism compromise is seen as one of the most heinous sins, with serious consequences for the guilty party.  The Articles of Faith of the Church of the Firstborn state this principle simply, “We also believe that the Fullness of the Everlasting Gospel was restored by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and that any departure therefrom is apostasy.”[23]

The final theme running through LeBaron ethics is a disavowal of proselytization.  Whereas, an essential component of Mormonism has always been missionary work, Mormon Fundamentalism has traditionally insisted that this work would be performed only by the LDS Church.  Although, Ross LeBaron seems to have toyed with the idea of having a missionary focus in the Church of the Firstborn, he later rejected the idea that evangelization was appropriate.  For example, LeBaron insisted that eventually missionaries would be ordained just before the second coming.  Tensions have risen, on more than one occasion, over questions of what consists of proselytizing and whose right it is to determine the proper timing.

The key idea is that the esoteric teachings of the Gospel of the Father are not for all mankind.[24]  This does not mean that members cannot share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with their friends or even explain the basics of their beliefs, but seeking converts is a sin.  A more popular approach is discouraging of the interested in the form of emphasizing the negative or through eccentric behavior.

For example, Robert Eaby remembers an occasion in which a man came to visit Ross LeBaron to learn about his teachings.  When the man arrived, Ross was in the living room constructing a “gigantic blowdart.”[25]  Such “tests” were not unusual.  Would the potential convert see through the ruse to the real message of LeBaronism?  If God had directed them to LeBaronism, then they would remain.

Other moral ethics within LeBaronism are a matter determined within a patriarchal family.   Because there are no excommunications from the Church of the Firstborn, due to its familial nature, no level of unorthodoxy can technically place one outside its ranks.  Thus, another patriarch could not legitimately state that one of their fellow members had lost the authority to teach and administer to their own family. However, disregard for patriarchal leaders or mistreatment of followers might find one without friends, invitations to gatherings, and participation in family councils.  In the next section, I will discuss the driving factors behind the crafting of LeBaronism.

[1] Catherine L. Albanese, America Religions and Religion (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1981), 8-9.

[2] Interview with Robert Eaby.

[3] Articles of Faith of the Church of the Firstborn.  Copy in the author’s possession.  This is a reference to the mid-nineteenth-century Mormon belief that the biblical Adam was in actuality Michael, the archangel, who in turn was a god previous to his mortal life on earth.

[4] [Ross] Wesley LeBaron, Disputed Authority (Salt Lake City: n/p, [1940]), 7.

[5] Articles of Incorporation of the Church of the Firstborn.  Copy in the author’s possession.

[6] Ross Wesley LeBaron, Open Letter to F.M. Darter (n/p, 1968).  Copy in the author’s possession.

[7] Thomas Arthur Green, Patriarchal Priesthood 2 (n/p, n/d), 25.

[8] Robert Eaby interview.

[9] Ross W. LeBaron, Fulfillment of Prophecy (n/p, n/d).  Copy in the author’s possession.  Robert Eaby interview.   Robert Black interview.

[10] Michael Stagg, Right of the Firstborn (n/p, n/d), 16.  Copy in the author’s possession.

[11] See for example, Ross Wesley LeBaron, Depart Ye, Depart Ye (n/p, 1967); Ibid, Flying Saucer Dynamics (n/p, n/d).

[12] Thomas Arthur Green, Notes from Ross W. LeBaron, (n/p, n/d), 4-5.  Copy in author’s possession.

[13] Robert Black, The New and Everlasting Covenant, Volume Two (n/p, n/d), 338.  Copy in author’s possession.

[14] David John Buerger, The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994), 62-63.

[15] Lyle O. Wright, “Origins and Development of the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times.” (M.S. Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1963), 252-253.

[16] Thomas Arthur Green, The One Anointed and Appointed (n/p, n/d).  Copy in the author’s possession.

[17] Interview with Dewayne Hafen.

[18] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, edited by Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 323.

[19] Thomas Arthur Green, Mormon Polygamy Post #512 (December 6, 1999).  Copy in possession of the author.

[20] Wright, 252-253.

[21] Tom Green, Notes, 8.

[22] Interview with Robert Eaby.

[23] Articles of Faith of the Church of the Firstborn.  Copy in the author’s possession.

[24] Thomas Arthur Green, Ross Paul (n/p, n/d).  Copy in the author’s possession.

[25] Interview with Robert Eaby.



Reference

Blythe, Christopher James. Ross Wesley LeBaron and the Crafting of a Mormon Sect:  a Case Study in Twentieth Century Religion Making. Master Thesis. Utah State University, 2009, pp. 16-29.  Used with permission of the author.


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