From The Archives: Aristarchy, Aristocracy, and Anarchy

By January 14, 2008

After having been chased from Kirtland, Joseph Smith made his way to Missouri, arriving about March 13, 1838.  He dictated to to George Robinson in what has become known as the Scriptory Book the following (taken from the online version of Dean Jessee’s Personal Writings of Joseph Smith):

 After being here two or three days my Brother Samuel arrived with his family an[d] shortly after his arrival while walking with him & cirtain other bretheren the following sentiments occured to my mind.

Motto of the Church of Christ of Latterday Saints

The Constitution of our country formed by the Fathers of Liberty.

Peace and good order in society Love to God and good will to man.

All good and wholesome Laws; And virtue and truth above all things

And Aristarchy live forever! ! !

But Wo, to tyrants, Mobs, Aristocracy, Anarchy and Toryism: And all those who invent or seek out unrighteous and vexatious lawsuits under the pretext or color of law or office, either religious or political.

Exalt the standard of Democracy! Down [p. 16] with that of Priestcraft, and let all the people say Amen! that the blood of our Fathers may not cry from the ground against us.

Sacred is the Memory of that Blood which baught for us our liberty.

Joseph Smith Jr
Thomas B. Marsh
D. W. Patten
Brigham Youngs
Samuel H. Smith
Geo. W. Robinson
George M. Hinkle
John Corrill

A straight forward definition of the government sense of the word:

Aristarchy: Goverment by the best men; a body of good men in power.

As opposed to aristocracy:

Aristocracy: Government by the best-born, the nobles; the nobility or chief persons of a state.

Marvin Hill sees this attitude (reflected in the Book of Mormon) as a “Counter Revolution” against American democratic ideals in a Sunstone article in 1989.



  1. I haven’t read the Hill article, but it seems as though he overstates his argument, considering that the motto states “Exalt the standard of Democracy!” A major theme in Mormon thought is the need to elect good men to office, which is how I read “aristarchy.” But democracy is still seen here as fundamental.

    But I love this motto. It’s a great window into how early Mormons saw the Revolution through martyrological lenses:

    let all the people say Amen! that the blood of our Fathers may not cry from the ground against us.

    Sacred is the Memory of that Blood which baught for us our liberty.

    Comment by David Grua — January 14, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

  2. Is the word “meritocracy” of a latter vintage?

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 14, 2008 @ 2:44 pm

  3. Aristarchy:

    Aristarchy is a form of democracy suggested by the Classical Chinese Mandarin system of government, in which government officials are selected from a pool of candidates who have passed exams.

    It is democratic, because only the people can change or add to the original set of laws, by means of a petition signed by three-fourths of the full citizens of the relevant jurisdiction.

    The laws are broad statements of intent, which the Aristarchs are free to interpret as needed, following the spirit of the law, rather than the letter.

    Comment by IonicPing — January 14, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

  4. Is that really our motto? Wonder why it never caught on?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — January 15, 2008 @ 5:50 am

  5. I’m trying to imagine chanting this in Zone Conference in place of the Standard of Truth.

    Comment by David Grua — January 15, 2008 @ 11:01 am

  6. Ken Winn’s Exiles in a Land of Liberty is a standard treatment here. Hill is oversimplifying. there was always complex tension between republicanism, anti-monarchy, and democracy of the common man. these lds were simultaneously invoking the sanctity of the revolution, often described martyrologically even outside mormonism, and their belief that corrupt ministers and hicks would destroy the constitution and new republic. they’re not so different from moderns. both republicans and democrats are both deeply suspicious of hicks (though republicans are less suspicious of “hick” ministers).

    Comment by smb — January 20, 2008 @ 6:18 pm


Recent Comments

Rachel Helps on Digitized Publications Available from: “BYU also scanned the Exponent II and it's available on”

Kent S Larsen II on Digitized Publications Available from: “It’s not just the Scandinavian, German and Dutch publications that are available. Almost all the foreign language publications in the Church History Library are available…”

Matt Harris on Digitized Publications Available from: “C. Terry & J. Stapley: Thanks for these outstanding posts!”

Gary Bergera on Digitized Publications Available from: “This is great and deserves wide circulation. (And J. Stapley's amazing.)”

C Terry on Digitized Publications Available from: “Thanks for all those helpful additions, J Stapley!”

J. Stapley on Digitized Publications Available from: “...and one last one. All of the relevant University digital collections are worth checking out (though as you note BYU's is the most impressive…”