|Richard Bushman, 26 February 2010|
I think most people who have lived a Mormon life have seen church government as a marvel, perhaps even a miracle. How can things function so well without professionalization? How can so many wards release bishops every five years and find others to take on the job? Why do we work so hard in our church jobs? We trust our leaders with our money, time and confidential problems. The organization works well more often than not, we can move from ward to ward and the system is much the same. How can we account for the success of this lay-led church which seems to run against expectations?
The Church's organization has been compared to other organizations. When I was growing up, it was compared to the German army [laughter]. Meaning it was the epitome of efficiency. It may have been efficient, but it was far more voluntary and far less well-trained.
Is it a monarchy with a king? The comparison doesn’t seem quite right when the church is run by a man with the American title of "president."
Alternatively, the church has an American democracy background. Does its lay leadership look like a democracy? What is this church?
German sociologist Max Weber tried to categorize forms of organizational legitimacy. His question was: why is it that people submit to a government as if the government had a right to rule over and command us? What gives it that legitimacy? His category of "Charismatic authority," a divine gift, applies best to the Church. Weber defined charisma as a certain quality of individual personality which sets a person apart from ordinary men. That person is treated as if endowed with superhuman or exceptional powers or qualities. This description seems to fit Joseph Smith to a 'T.' Why did converts consider his authority legitimate? Joseph Smith governed by virtue of his divine gift.
Weber considered this type the least stable of the three major types in his 1922 theory of social and economic organization. In addition to charismatic, there were “Traditional” like a monarchy, where authority descends by right, And “Rational, Bureaucratic.” Think of modern businesses or governments. Charisma is fragile in comparison, it falters if the divine gifts are brought into question, and after the charismatic leader dies a struggle may ensue among successors. Typically, the charismatic leader collect followers but doesn't form an organization. His successors then have to devise another foundation for authority.
The followers must routinize the charisma, and change the organization based on the divine gift to one based on routines of accepting who has authority. Movements must turn supernatural powers into accepted roles for leaders and followers, becoming a bureaucratic, or rational government. Under the bureaucratic govt, authority comes with the office, not with personal gifts. In order to last, charisma must evolve into the bureaucratic, according to Weber, or the movement will disintegrate.
This theory has been applied to Joseph Smith who was a charismatic leader of the first order. What about the evolution of authority after Joseph Smith? It is commonly said that it was routinized, and Brigham Young is assigned the role of performing that act. Joseph led by prophetic gifts, Brigham by administrative genius. He took the pulsing, energetic, but chaotic young Church and made it into smoothly-run corporate body with well-defined offices; a bureaucratic government. That is the thesis some have followed.
This account of administrative development overlooks Joseph Smith’s preoccupation with organization almost from the beginning. He didn’t just institute a movement, but organized a church with officers of which he was one.
The revelation given at the time of organization, Doctrine and Covenants section 20, said more about offices than doctrines. The element of organization was one of Joseph Smith's major achievements. He thought of himself as an organization man. Section 90 says “And this shall be your business and mission in all your lives, to preside in council, and set in order all the affairs of this church and kingdom.” He was called to occupy an office. His titles reflect the combination: "thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet," the charismatic, and "an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church," the bureaucratic (D&C 21:1).
|Bushman presents his paper on Joseph Smith and charisma|
A most startling feature of organization was the merger of charisma and bureaucracy in contradistinction with Weber’s categories. Joseph Smith assigned charismatic gifts to an office rather than keeping them to himself. He was appointed, called to be a seer, translator and prophet in the records of the church, and what is more bureaucratic than minutes? [laughter]
When he claimed authority in the Sept. 1830 conflict with Hyrum Page, the main argument was that these things were not appointed to Page. The wild eruption of prophecy from whoever was not Joseph Smith's way. All things must be done in order. Another revelation said "For I have given him the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed, until I shall appoint unto them another in his stead" (D&C 28:7).
The gifts were not personally invested in him; they resided in the office by appointment. This was a revolutionary transformation. The record of the conference noted: "Brother Joseph smith jr. was appointed by the voice of the conference to receive and write revelations & commandments for this church" (Far West Record, 26 Sept. 1830, microfilm of holograph, Church Historical Dept. Archives, p. 2; see RSR p. 121).
I hope you can appreciate the marvel of that! Joseph Smith effectively bureaucratized charisma and centralized revelations in the Church. By this practice he also democratized the spiritual gifts. While he seemed to claim a monopoly in the Page incident he also wanted to spread charisma widely. Every priesthood holder was instructed: "And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation" (D&C 68:4).
The founding minutes of the first high council meeting in the Church said it was the privilege of each presiding authority to seek revelation to govern. When problems of interpretation arose, the president was to inquire and obtain the mind of Lord. Revelation went with the office.
Joseph Smith admonished the Twelve to keep careful minutes since their decisions will appear in the records of heaven and remain doctrine. Revelation is promised to holders of virtually every office in Church. In modern practice 13-year-old Deacon's Quorum presidents are enjoined to seek revelation in their callings. This makes exceptional powers common. Every leader at every level is to seek the revelatory gift.
Joseph's organization laid the groundwork for Brigham Young's success. In the 1844 crisis he did not have to claim prophetic gifts to undergird his claim to leadership, he based them on the keys of apostleship from Joseph Smith. He could not have gained the loyalty of the people if Joseph Smith had not created the office. One of my favorite pieces of art in Rough Stone Rolling is a needlework piece depicting Joseph Smith's legacy as understood by ordinary Mormons. In the center is the Temple. Around the borders are the names of the Twelve Apostles with Brigham Young at the top center. That is what this particular seamstress counted as Joseph Smith's legacy, the Temple and the Apostles.
Brigham Young set his leadership apart from Joseph Smith's. [Brigham speaking in the third person]: "A person was mentioned to-day who did not believe that Brigham Young was a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator. I wish to ask every member of this whole community, if they ever heard him profess to be a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, as Joseph Smith was? He professed to be an Apostle of Jesus Christ, called and sent of God to save Israel" [JD 6:319-320].
Brigham said he held an office, not based upon personal prophetic gifts. Over and over he insisted he was not the successor as a "prophet," but the Mormon people insisted he was a prophet. Heber C. Kimball praised him as the "living oracle," and "mouthpiece of almighty." He said "brother Brigham is our President—the legal successor of Joseph Smith, and God speaks through him as he spoke through brother Joseph" [JD 8:274].
church members today expect the same of Bishops in every ward. Every officer including themselves are to partake of the charisma. Charisma was not replaced by but was invested into a bureaucracy from the beginning. It formed a seemingly contradictory structure: a charismatic bureaucracy.
This peculiar construction recasts the problem of power that has so vexed church leaders from the beginning. Viewed from the stance of modern democracy, charismatic leadership grants too much power to a central figure. Within a few years of the organization of the Church Joseph Smith was accused of authoritarian control. He was called a tyrant, pope, and king in 1834 [HC 2:144–146]. From the view of American democracy, such a stance seems justified. There is an unchecked power in charisma. Who can restrain the leader since the legitimacy of the movement is vested in his gifts? It rules out criticism of the leader's power. Neither followers or lieutenants can criticize without undermining entire movement, destroying the foundation of the enterprise.
In milder forms, the problem afflicts all revealed religions in this country. The faith of every believer in the Bible carries the potential for civil disobedience. The word of God against the voice of people. Charles Finney stated no human legislation can make it right or lawful to violate any command of God. Godly principles outrank every human practice and democratic law. This is a truism for believers in revealed religion. Loyalty to faith trumps other loyalties. "Vox populi, vox dei," the voice of people is the voice of God, is blasphemous. Prophets are the voice of God. This pits two fundamental founding documents of American culture against each other. Who rules? The people or the God of the prophets? The Constitution versus the Bible.
The problem has beset American politics and jurisprudence since the beginning but has troubled no other group as much as the Mormons. In the committee hearings during the Reed Smoot controversy when they debated the seating of a Mormon apostle, the issue was persued relentlessly. Revelation, or the law of the land: which is binding? Suppose a revelation is received and confirmed but comes in conflict with the law of the land. Which is binding? How can you pledge allegiance to revelation and law of land, what do you do if they conflict? People feared Church president Joseph F. Smith would dictate Smoot’s votes in Washington. The logic of revelation requires submission by the believer. The question has been posed to Mitt Romney. Would policies be dictated from Salt Lake City?
Underlying these accusations and criticisms of church authoritarianism is the single most striking opposition between church and democratic political cultures: their contrasting attitudes about power. The views are almost polar opposites. Power in democratic discourse is expanding, seeking domination. The challenge is how to regulate power. A democratic government seeks to contain power. The Bill of Rights, checks and balances, freedom of speech and the press are democratic treasures because they constrain power. Perhaps democracy’s greatest virtue is its ability to contain power.
In the church by contrast, power is trusted, even beloved in the person of the president. He wants to maximize this power. People want to obey him reverently, they feel blessed by the guidance and direction he can give. What could be better for their lives and children? They are scarcely conscious of abuses. Problems are seen as occasional anomalies to be corrected, not as the inevitable outcome of power. No one talks of checks and balances in the Church. Power is redemptive not aggressive. The word "rights” never appears. The absence of restraints troubles democratic critics of Mormonism, who see a threatening and unchecked power.
Why not demand detailed finances? campaign or lobby for changes in policy? inexplicable that Mormons comfortably reside in two opposing realms, church and democracy. Mormons are aware of problems of govt power, most follow conservative, libertarian, Mormonism doesn’t numb then to dangers of concentrated authority in state. yet these same people exhort to follow the prophet, they don’t criticize for financial disclosure or ask for greater voice. they happily embrace policies and accept assignments. bestow a degree of confidence on church givt they would never give to state govt. how do Mormons reconcile these opposed attitudes?
If asked about this, Mormons refer to checks that are there, such as the sustaining vote. In an annual conference members sustain the leaders, and approval is sought at every level. No person is to be ordained to any office in a regularly organized branch without a vote. Is that not democratic? We all know this is a ritual without teeth [laughter]. The names are selected in advance, there is no debate, no campaigning, no examination qualifications. There is not advance knowledge of who will be proposed, and the vote is usually unanimous. This is not an election, but community support for those who are called to lead them. We're saying we’re behind all of you, we trust you. If it turned into election this would be a sign of community decay. There are some checkslike bringing the church president to court if needed, but this is limited.
I would argue that the preeminent check on church power is charisma itself. Paradoxically, the factor that seems to underlie authoritarianism in the church is the chief restraint on power. Leaders are believed to act according to the mind of God. That is the source of their legitimacy. They receive a call from heaven, they see their authority as godly and therefore it must be exercised in godly manner. This self-conception gives scripture the potency they wouldn’t command. Joseph Smith's letter from Liberty Jail has surprising practical impact:
"We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.Hence many are called, but few are chosen. No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile" [D&C 121:39-42].
This passage frustrates a modern reader in search of a theory of government. It opens with a theory of human nature we recognize, with unrighteous dominion. This is the premise of James Madison's Federalist nmber 10, interest will prevail. What is Joseph Smith’s answer to Madison's issues on the republic? To our dismay, Smith lapses into sentimental comments about the priesthood ruling by meekness. What good is that? It outlines precisely the rare virtues that are unreliable in leaders. How can such sentiments regulate what the Mormon scriptures say is the very nature of humans?
What critics fail to recognize is the constraining effect of "moral terms of power." All power operates within a moral framework, that is, a sense of what values legitimize authority. The King must be the protector of his people or they turn against him as George III learned. The Democratic Politician must use power for the good of the people, or resign or be voted out. The CEO must serve the interest of the shareholders, as executives who fail to improve stock prices know too well.
The moral terms of power constrain the leaders in any organization. In the Church, the bishop is an emissary of God with high moral terms, people expect it of him as anyone in that office knows. They may not state this vocally but the Stake President does, and the bishop knows too. "I'm not worthy" is the standard response to the call. This is because the moral demands are higher than most feel they can meet. The demands operate in a bishops mind without a word being uttered. The congregation expects him to visit, council, inspire their young children. The implicit moral demands are immense, and everyone, most of all the bishop, knows this. If he falls he will have failed as surely as the CEO whose stock drops. These expectations act as a far more powerful check on authority than any constitutional check. Just compare the operation of the Church to the regular government and see its effectiveness.
The secret ingredient is the expectation that leaders and people both feel. They are called of God and receive the gifts attached to their offices. Newly ordained leaders assume a bishoply manner, members speak of the mantle of the office, though no one can explain exactly how the change comes about. In actuality, the change comes about by group wisdom. They know in their bones that only leadership based on righteousness will work.
Charisma, the gift of divine power, saturating the organization thus makes the ethos. Joseph Smith didn’t know the sociology behind this, he only knew he had the command from God to form the church this way. He had confidence in his own gifts and wanted to share them, to grant to all the power to speak for God, and even to see God as he had. He knows he imposed the obligation of godly behavior on those who assumed office. A bold organizational move that has passed the test of time. Thank you.