My Enigmatic Grandfather, The Old Fox
Updated: Aug 7, 2019
Danny L. Jorgenson has done the most definitive studies of my sixth great grandfather on my father’s side, Alpheus Cutler. At the conclusion of a research article titled “Building the Kingdom of God, Alpheus Cutler and the Second Mormon Mission to the Indians,” Jorgenson sums up the enigmatic nature of my grandfather. “In retrospect Alpheus Cutler emerges a curious, paradoxical, enigmatic figure. The Cutler historians have remembered the Old Fox, as he was dubbed by Orson Hyde and George Smith, as a once respected Mormon high priest who became obstinate and defiant: a strange, disobedient heretic and apostate. An odd relic, he seemingly lost touch with the realities of Nauvoo Mormonism as represented by Brigham Young. Arrogantly, he chose to march to a self-composed tune.”
This is not a scholarly work, so I welcome corrections and input. Alpheus was the first link to my family’s connection to the Mormon Church. It came just a few years after the church was founded. Cutler lived a short buggy ride from Joseph Smith in upper New York, and his wife Lois Lathrop was a distant cousin of Joseph Smith. To give some historical perspective, his father, Knight Cutler, fought in the American Revolution and Alpheus served as a private in the War of 1812. There’s a lot of Mormon Church history that I won’t go into.
Three years after the church was founded in Fayette, New York in 1830, Alpheus Cutler’s daughter was healed by “laying on of hands” by David Patten, a Latter Day Saint Church elder. The original name of the church was Church of Christ, and it was known as that until 1834, when it was re-named Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
After his daughter was healed, Alpheus became a vigorous and devoted convert to the church. In the eleven years between his joining the church and Joseph Smiths’ murder at the hands of a mob in Carthage, Illinois, he served in various capacities; Captain of Smith’s personal bodyguard, “Master Builder and Workman on all God’s Holy Houses,” and he was commissioned to take the gospel to the native Indians.
After his baptism in 1833, Alpheus packed up his belongings and moved his family from New York to the main Mormon settlement in Kirtland, Ohio. Trained as a stone mason, he helped on the construction of the first temple, but soon found himself in trouble with the High Council of the Church. Alpheus was outspoken, to put it kindly. He complained loudly about being underpaid for his work. One biographer described him as sarcastic and critical, with a sharp and brusque manner. A contemporary said he had a mysterious, secretive way of telling things. We don’t get to pick our ancestors. If ancestors were cards you could pick and choose, I’d probably discard this one. Alpheus weathered that storm with the High Council, most likely due to the intervention of Joseph Smith. When the temple was dedicated in 1836, Alpheus claimed to have seen a vision of Jesus Christ descending down a long carpet into the temple. He said Christ spoke to him, but did not record what he said.
When Smith moved the church headquarters to Missouri in 1837, Alpheus followed him and settled in Ray County, Missouri. My grandfather was expelled from the state with the other Latter Day Saints during the winter of 1838-39, by an extermination order from Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs. Two main reasons for their expulsion was a prophecy by Smith that Independence, Missouri was where Saints would gather to build Zion, and if they were righteous they would inherit the land held by others, the land of their enemies. That was probably enough to get them run out of the state, but a second reason was that most Mormon immigrants to Missouri were abolitionists, and Missouri was at the time a slave state. I won’t go into the Mormon Wars, but there was a lot of conflict with the local populace who feared the growing political and economic influence of the Mormon settlers.
As proof that Alpheus was a true believer in the church and its mission, he risked death by sneaking back into Missouri, and secretly laid a cornerstone for the Far West Temple, thinking that at some time in the future it would come to fruition. That temple however was never built.
Alpheus then followed Joseph Smith and his followers to Nauvoo, Illinois. Cutler was appointed one of three members of a committee to oversee construction of the Nauvoo Temple on the third of October 1840. Directed to supervise the cutting of timber for the new edifice, Cutler led a group of workmen into the Pineries forest along the Black River in Wisconsin. He spent the next year cutting logs and floating them down the Black River to where it joined with the Mississippi River near La Crosse, Wisconsin. Then the logs were floated to Nauvoo, a total of about 400 miles.
While in Nauvoo, Cutler served on the Nauvoo High Council, and the Anointed Quorum; he was also named to Joseph Smith's Council of Fifty. Cutler received his endowment under Smith's hand on 12 October 1843, and subsequently became only the sixth person to be given the rare Second Anointing on 15 November—a full week before Brigham Young received his—which made him a "King and Priest" in Smith's still-secret Kingdom of God. I’m sure there’s a lot of interesting history in all that church secrecy, but I’m more interested in Cutler himself.
Cutler was called by Smith to undertake a mission to the "Lamanites" (as Native Americans were often called by the Saints during this time in history). He had not yet left on his mission when Smith was arrested and killed by a mob at the jail in Carthage, Illinois. After Smith’s death there were competing claimants to take on the mantle of church prophet. Alpheus first followed Brigham Young and continued to work on the Nauvoo Temple.
Two things I find particularly interesting to a non-scholar such as myself; my grandfather’s futile attempts to convert Indians, a mission that Alpheus took to heart, and Alpheus Cutler’s attempt to take over the mantle of prophet and leader of the church after he split with Brigham Young.
First, a little church history for readers not familiar with Mormon history.
According to Church history Joseph Smith was given the golden plates of the Book of Mormon by the Angel Moroni when he was only fourteen years old. The book tells the story of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the American Continent, including a visit by Jesus to the people of the New World. When I was a teenager I tried to read the Book of Mormon, but I lost interest at some point with the constant warring between the Nephites and the Lamanites. The Lamanites were the Jews that fled Palestine in three emigrations, built massive cities in the New World, farmed the land, produced works of art, and fought large-scale wars that culminated in the destruction of the Nephites in 421 A.D. Historically the Mormon Church identifies the Lamanites as the primary ancestors of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. There’s very little substantiated proof of this, despite the attempts of true believers in the Book of Mormon to connect the dots. New advances in genetics are making it harder for Mormon apologists to make a case for the basic premise of the Book. The mainstream scientific consensus about the origin of ancient Americans is at odds with the Book of Mormon, and the LDS Church is realizing the dilemma. The Church released an essay on their website titled “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies.” They finish the essay saying the “evidence is simply inconclusive.”
I will try in another blog to cover the attempts by the Mormons and my grandfather to bring the Mormon teachings to the indigenous Native American population, and Cutler’s break from the main branch of the church.