This is the sixth installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering small chunks of the book in successive weeks through the summer, with new posts appearing Monday mornings. We invite anyone and everyone interested to read along and to use the comment sections on each post to share your own reflections and questions. There are discussion questions below.
Chapter 13: Priesthood and Church Government
Chapter 14: Visitors
Chapter 15: Texts
These chapters are really about authority, and the persistent questions about where in Mormonism it really derives. In chapter 13, Bushman makes a familiar claim: that it is a deep oversimplification to credit Joseph Smith with the soaring visions and Brigham Young with the hard work of implementation and community building: rather, as we have seen already in our accounts of the city of Zion and temples, Joseph Smith was obsessed with construction, physical, geographical, imaginative, and organizational, and Bushman calls the “array of governing bodies and relationships formalized in 1834 and 1835 … among Joseph Smith’s greatest achievements.” (251) High councils, a First Presidency, a Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, two orders of priesthood: a labyrinthine structure that was curiously democratic and undemocratic at once.
When Joseph Smith organized a high council in Clay County, Missouri, in July 1835, he told them that the church could function without him, and Bushman detects a note of satisfaction in his voice: throughout chapter 13, he tells us that Joseph Smith attempted to shift authority from his shoulders to someone else, anyone else. He put high councils in charge of Kirtland and Missouri settlements, and the Quorum of the Twelve in charge of the Saints everywhere else in America. He grew reluctant to give them revelatory direction, telling one petitioner that “we feel fearful to approach [God] upon subject[s] that are of little or no consequence.” (257) Minutes of the Quorums replaced the revelations in Joseph Smith’s diaries, as the Acts of the Apostles follow the Gospels in the New Testament.
More, the church seemed as eager to pick up that mantle as Joseph Smith was to lay it down. Bushman’s discussion of the creation of the Doctrine and Covenants, the collected and edited revelations of Joseph Smith printed in tandem with the “Lectures on Faith,” a set of theological discourses of unclear authorship, but certainly bearing the stamp of Sidney Rigdon more than any other single person, downplays Joseph Smith’s influence. The introduction describes the revelations without mentioning Smith by name. The collection was presented to the church for approval in Joseph Smith’s absence. And many Saints echoed Joseph Smith’s past denunciation of creeds and catechisms in their opposition.
But Smith himself accepted its ratification, embracing the systematization and standardization that a formal statement of beliefs would provide. Yet, despite his seeming relief at laying down the burden of leadership, Joseph Smith could not stop tinkering. Bushman spends quite a while exploring how Joseph Smith’s notions of authority squared with those of Jacksonian America, and notes primarily how undemocratic church governance actually was. Though it places authority in the hands of the common folk and contains provisions for removing leaders from office, the theory behind government by council hearkened back to ideas far older than those of Jacksonian America.
First, virtue. Bushman invokes eighteenth century republican theory to understand this notion. Later, in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith would coin the term ‘theodemocracy’ to describe his ideal form of government. Despite the fact that he would ordain any male convert, he emphasized also that their priesthood authority only functioned so long as they followed the dictates of God. Government was not simply to be by majority rule, but to be made harmonious by common adherence to the principles of Mormonism. This principle was why Joseph Smith was so suspicious of Matthias the prophet, a New York visionary who visited Kirtland in the fall of 1835. He claimed to be the reincarnation of the Biblical apostle Matthias, and to speak with the authority of the Holy Spirit of Truth In Matthias Smith saw some things he despised: religious charisma unfettered by the bonds of priesthood hierarchy, the whiff of sin and scandal, for Matthias had stood convicted of beating his child. Joseph Smith cast him out, calling him “the Devil in bodily shape.” (275)
Second, revelation. Joseph Smith shared this with Matthias, which is why Bushman makes much of the linkage of the two men in the popular mind. The reason the councils worked so well, Joseph Smith insisted, was that priesthood gave every man there the right to receive divine inspiration. His own authority then stood in uneasy tandem with that institutional power; as Bushman puts it, “how could an authoritarian religion distribute so much power to individual members?” (252) And indeed, at times Joseph Smith simply asserted his prerogative. In June 1835 he rejected overtures from a British sect called the Catholic Apostolic Church, which also sought to restore the primitive church, ordained twelve apostles by revelation, and so on. Joseph Smith rejected them because these New Testament restorers had no place for a prophet like Moses, or Joseph Smith, who would often subordinate himself to councils but insisted that his own revelations – particularly, the new scripture he dictated – held pride of place.
Third, family. In December, either in 1833 or 1834, Smith ordained his father the patriarch of the church, a title which evoked the Book of Genesis, and the lineage by which Isaac claimed authority over Ishmael. And indeed, the old man was told he would “sit in the general assembly of patriarchs” with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (262) In 1835, the long revelation on the nature and organization of priesthood declared that priesthood “came down from the fathers,” a legacy passed through families, and the Book of Abraham, which Smith began working his way through in 1835, emphasized the point again and again. Priesthood in the early going of the Book of Abraham is inextricably tied to family and lineage. Abraham’s story links all of the sources of authority together, priesthood, righteousness, and authority: As he says, “desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.” (Abraham 1:2)
Even, then, as Joseph Smith broadened the authority accessible in his church, he also narrowed it. The stories of lineage in the Book of Abraham were later used to deny those of African descent access to the priesthood and the temple. And, of course, the strongly patriarchal bent of the notion of lineage made the language of Mormon authority and priesthood even more male than the Jacksonian democracy which surrounded it.
If you’d like to join the discussion, but aren’t sure where to start, here are some possible points for discussion:
1. What is the relationship between authority and priesthood? To what extent did authority in Mormonism depend on priesthood office, particularly in these early years, when notions of what priesthood was remained inchoate and tangled?
2. In these chapters, Bushman draws several comparisons between Joseph Smith and other visionary leaders and Mormonism and their movements. He tends always to set Joseph Smith apart, to find ways to explain why he was different. Is he right? Were Matthias and Smith as different as Bushman claims?
3. What did it mean to connect priesthood to lineage, the way Joseph Smith did in the 1830s? Why did this idea seem so appealing in an America often described as fiercely democratic?