It’s been a good year for top-notch journal articles on early Mormonism. Religion and American Culture added another one to the mix this past month: “Ordering Antinomy: An Analysis of Early Mormonism’s Priestly Offices, Councils, and Kinship” Religion and American Culture 26 (Winter 2016): 139–183, by Kathleen Flake, Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia. Flake’s article approaches a pair of perennial questions. Was early Mormonism populist? And to the extent that it was, how did its prophetic center hold?
Thomas F. O’Dea, writing sixty years ago, posed the possible answers in stark terms: How could the developing church “reconcile” adherents’ “democratic predilections with the authority of a divinely inspired prophet?” It could either “permit unrestrained prophecy and thereby splinter into smaller and smaller groups, finally breaking up into a Babel of private revelation” or “it could restrain prophetic gifts, restricting revelation and prophecy to one man, and develop a centrally directed organization about that one leader. Compromises between the two positions were, of course, possible but were likely to be unstable.”
Historians since O’Dea have often recapitulated his either/or, and, in Flake’s view, haven’t look hard enough for the mechanisms that did, in fact, stabilize a movement that was, in fact, both authoritarian and antinomian. For example, Nathan Hatch and Marvin Hill published, in the same year (1989), essentially opposite interpretations: Hatch argued that early Mormons were quintessential democratizers, and Hill argued that early Mormons fundamentally repudiated democratic society. Recent approaches have been more nuanced. Benjamin Park’s 2013 article works from the hugely important premise that democracy in antebellum America was not a unitary impulse Mormons could embrace or reject; it was cross-pressured, both egalitarian and patriarchal—so early Mormonism embodied and inflected democracy’s paradoxes in distinctive ways, Park argues, until a more straightforwardly theocratic authority prevailed after Joseph Smith’s death. I can’t recount a full historiography here, and Flake, for her part, chose to focus on Hatch’s arguably still-dominant thesis. So, for both reasons, feel free to address other scholarship (Harper, Bushman, Blythe(s), Park, etc.) and intersecting issues (schisms, succession, etc.) in the comments.
Flake’s view is that the historiographical issue (was early Mormonism populist?) presses the classic religious studies inquiry (how did early Mormonism’s center hold?) and that a substantive answer to the latter will help unseat Hatch’s reigning response to the former. “How did a movement that purposefully set about making every member a prophet/prophetess, priest/priestess, and king/queen sustain any order, much less secure the obedience of thousands to one man in an increasingly democratic order?” Flake asks. How did Joseph Smith “disperse” his “powers of prophecy and priestly mediation of divine power” without completely “atomizing” his movement? (141)
I’m going to quote Flake’s own synopsis of her answer, since the article isn’t available on JSTOR yet: “I argue that Smith organized power within his movement by creating three parallel sites of authority: priestly office, council, and kinship. These were not in the pattern of American constitutionalism or a ‘separation of powers,’ executive, legislative, and judicial and with individuals limited to a role in one or the other power. Rather, all believers held degrees of authority in every site simultaneously as officers of the church, members of governing councils and kin within sacramentalized families, but with varying positions and thus, shifting status vis-à-vis each other according to context: office, council, or kinship. The practical effect of these overlapping power structures was to ensure that no individual had ultimate authority in every circumstance, including Smith himself. These shifting status relationships and reciprocities of power stabilized Mormonism’s potentially self-destructive antinomianism and, as a historiographical matter, have been mistaken for populism” (142).
Each site of authority was, as Flake puts it, republican in style but hieratic in substance. Dense descriptions of the development of these sites of authority, and their overlapping layers of accountability and attainability, make up the bulk of the article. The descriptions are punctuated by moments where status relationships shift, where power is reciprocated, or where mutually-constituted authorities limit each other’s operations: seventeen-year-old “teacher” Reynolds Cahoon visiting Smith’s home and inquiry into Smith’s obedience to the commands; Smith ordaining his father and brother to the Kirtland High Council, and then, minutes later, father Smith placing his hands on his sons’ heads and blessing them with the keys of the kingdom and/or the priesthood of their progenitors; John Johnson and his son Luke, who had been called to the High Council, enacting the same reversal; or Smith not being made president of the Anointed Quorum until his wife, Emma, agreed to join it. In short, authority was latent in some contexts and operative in others because it was always constituted in relation to other offices, councils, and ritually constructed kin. The result, Flake argues, is that, cf. O’Dea, early Mormonism was authoritarian and antinomian, and, all things considered, remarkably stable—i.e., an ordered antinomy.
Flake concludes by commenting on the application of Hatch’s Democratization thesis to American religious history more generally. In his final pages, Hatch says that magnetic religious leaders had two options: “authentic servanthood or exploitive demagoguery.” Or, as Flake puts it, Hatch says that such leaders “could either submit to the power of the people or exercise power over them. The one a virtue, the other a vice.” We’re back at O’Dea’s either/or. But Flake asks readers to consider whether these stark options “subtly reprise” Protestant anxieties—at least as old as Anabaptist Muenster—about revelation and antinomianism, and whether such anxieties might be animating “regnant tropes” in American religious history (Hatch’s democratization thesis, Noll’s republican synthesis, Marsden’s fundamentalism, Wacker’s evangelicalism via Pentecostalism) that make evolution toward a “particular kind of public ethic” seem inevitable for American religious groups (167–8).
Mormonism has its own history of evolution toward that public ethic, and no one has told that story better than Kathleen Flake. But it would be a mistake, she reminds readers, “to conclude that the nation obtained the degree of conformity it demanded in exchange for Constitutional protection.” Rather, Mormonism was and remains oriented toward “radically perfectionist” ends. Flake’s ultimate goal is to illuminate how the Mormon polity maintained an authoritarian center while extending prophetic power to every member in pursuit of such perfectionist ends. But, in the process, she hopes to unsettle, as well, the scholarly meta-narratives that obscure antebellum American religious possibilities beyond populism/theocracy, authority/antinomy (167–8).
What do you all think? I know these are questions friends and contributors to JI have worked on for years. I’d be interested to hear some passionate yeas and nays, especially from anyone who gets a chance to read the whole article.
 Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 155–6.
 Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) and Marvin S. Hill, Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1989).
 Benjamin E. Park, “Early Mormon Patriarchy and the Paradoxes of Democratic Religiosity in Jacksonian America,” American Nineteenth Century History 14, no. 2 (2013): 183–208.