Mormonism and Agency: A Historical Query

By May 16, 2011

Behold here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man: Because, that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.

-Revelation to Joseph Smith, May 6, 1833 (Doctrine & Covenants 93:31)

“Agency” is a buzzword prominent in both of the worlds that I, and other Mormon historians, inhabit on a day-to-day basis. Within the world of Mormonism, the word signifies a central tenet of Latter-day Saint theology, one that receives regular and sustained attention from church leaders and in Sunday School curriculum. In the historical profession, meanwhile, “agency” has been labeled “the master trope of the New Social History”—signifying the collective efforts of social historians to rescue from the dustbins of history the lives and stories of marginalized figures, including especially African American and Indian slaves, women from all walks of life, and others who left behind few written records and lived otherwise unremarkable lives.[1]

Historians of American slavery thus often speak of their task as “giv[ing] slaves back their agency,” as they uncover the ways in which the enslaved asserted their own humanity, resisting and rebelling against the restraints placed upon them by a society which relegated them to (at best) second-class status. Historians of women do much the same, delighting in discovering examples of females from the past who challenged the sexist cultural mores of society in various ways. Most of this research is solidly-researched, interpretively sophisticated, and at times inspiring. Yet these efforts to restore historical actors’ agency is also problematic, as historians have more recently noted.

Writing on the subject of slaves’ agency, Walter Johnson thus pointed out that historians’ assumed definitions of “agency” are often “saturated with the categories of nineteenth-century liberalism, a set of terms which were themselves worked out in self-conscious philosophical opposition to the condition of slavery. … The term ‘agency,'” he continued,

smuggles a notion of the universality of a liberal notion of selfhood, with its emphasis on independence and choice, right into the middle of a conversation about slavery against which that supposedly natural (at least for white men) condition was originally defined. By applying the jargon of self-determination and choice to the historical condition of civil objectification and choicelessness, historians have, not surprisingly, ended up in a mess.

In order to “begin to sort this mess out,” Johnson proposed that historians “disentangle the categories of ‘humanity,’ ‘agency,’ and ‘resistance,'” and root their analyses instead in the day-to-day experience and understanding of the individuals and communities they study.[2]

More recently, Phyllis Mack has argued that “liberal, secular thinkers” define agency in a manner that understands religion primarily “as a form of self-estrangement” and treats “the search for spiritual enlightenment as a secondary phenomenon.” In her provocative book on “gender and emotion in early Methodism,” Mack argues that we need to understand early Methodist men and women on their own terms and that in order to accomplish this, “we need a more complex definition of agency than the liberal model of individual autonomy used by most secular historians.” “Methodists and others,” she explains, “defined agency not as freedom to do what one wants but as the freedom to do what is right.” In short, for Methodists “‘agency’ implied obedience and ethical responsibility as well as the freedom to make choices and act upon them.” It also “implied self-negation as well as self-expression. The goal of the individual’s religious discipline was to shape her personal desires and narrow self-interest until they became identical with God’s desire, with absolute goodness. The sanctified Christian wants what God wants; she is God’s agent in the world.”[3]

My sense is that many early Mormons inherited from their own religious upbringing and wandering a similar sense of “agency.” And my sense is that Latter-day Saint understandings of what “agency” means have changed repeatedly over the last 180+ years. And what I’d love to see is more attention paid to how Mormons have historically understood “agency,” how those changing historical definitions have influenced (or, perhaps a bit ironically, been influenced by) other developments in LDS thought and practice, and what that all means for Mormon theology and worship today. Any thoughts?


[1] Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37:1 (Autumn 2003): 113.

[2] Johnson, “On Agency,” 114-16.

[3] Phyllis Mack, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 9-10.

Article filed under Christian History Cultural History Gender Intellectual History Methodology, Academic Issues Race


  1. Catherine Brekus’ new article in the Spring edition of the Journal of Mormon History just arrived, and addresses the subject of women’s agency in regards to polygamy. I think it is based on her Tanner lecture from last year. I just breezed through the article this week, but Brekus proposes reevaluating the concept of agency not just in terms of women who challenged the popular views of polygamy as subjecting women to a degraded, worse than second class citizen status, but also how submitting to the demands of polygamy, which might seem passive to us from our perspective, can also be seen as an act of agency by preserving a religious identity that was under attack from the outside world. It’s interesting to think about agency that doesn’t always equate to defiance or rebellion, but as Mack points out, it is about “…implied self-negation as well as self-expression.”

    Comment by kevinf — May 16, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

  2. I only want to echo that this issue of defining “agency” in LDS thought needs more treatment, especially since it’s at the heart of LDS conservative thought.

    McMurrin has a brief, ahistorical account of the Mormon concept of agency in his “Theological Foundations.” It tries to define it in relationship to classical/medieval philosophy. He says there that agency is perhaps the most foundational aspect of Mormon theology, which is an interesting claim.

    Comment by DLewis — May 16, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

  3. I think McMurrin is reading Mormonism through his own lens. I don’t think he does a good job at all in trying to see the varying strains of Mormon theology on its own terms. That book is much more about “let’s apply these popular categories of the 60’s to Mormonism.”

    Comment by Clark — May 16, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

  4. I echo Kevin’s reference to Brekus’s JMH article, which is based on her Tanner lecture. Addresses these issues you describe well, Chris, and comes to many of the same conclusions as Mack’s Heart Religion. I think questions like these are at the heart of formulating a better conception of “lived religion,” which you are amongst several young Mormon historians trying to promote.

    A great post, Chris.

    Comment by Ben — May 16, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  5. “I think McMurrin is reading Mormonism through his own lens.”

    I am shocked. I would never do that myself. 🙂

    Thanks for the post Chris.

    Comment by Chris H. — May 16, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

  6. David Bokovoy pointed this out a little while back on MDDB. “Agency” defined this way certainly fits the classical concept of “freedom.” “Freedom” was initially the ability of a being to realize its nature and thus pursue The Good (i.e. God). The more secularized version has become liberty from all restraints or moral consequences of one’s actions.

    When Satan sought to destroy the agency of man, I think it had little to do with forcing people to be “good” as is commonly stated. I think it had much more to do with erroding the necessity of moral law.

    Great post!

    Comment by WalkerW — May 17, 2011 @ 12:37 am

  7. Thanks, all, for the comments.

    For whatever reason, I’d forgotten Brekus’s article when I wrote this yesterday, but I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in these issues. Thanks for reminding me of it, Kevin and Ben.

    It’s been awhile since I read McMurrin, but the observation of DLewis and Clark that he speaks ahistorically of agency doesn’t surprise me. His comment that agency is “the most foundational aspect of Mormon theology” is striking, and whether or not he’s correct, it drives home the point that we need to better understand how LDS have historically understood the term and its theological implications.

    Comment by Christopher — May 17, 2011 @ 9:24 am

  8. I agree that understanding the various strains of agency within the history of Mormon thought is important. And hopefully from a more sophisticated place philosophically.

    Honestly I don’t mind people doing Mormon theology with an agenda. (Say McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine or more academically Blake’s recent three volume work) The difference is that McMurrin doesn’t portray himself as doing this – now admittedly neither does McConkie. But that just highlights that much more what McMurrin is doing wrong.

    Just like reading McConkie doesn’t give a good idea of the range of beliefs historically neither does McMurrin. Worse, at least McConkie captures a major strain of Mormon thought. I’m not sure McMurrin’s reading captures much at all.

    Comment by Clark — May 17, 2011 @ 10:05 am

  9. Clark, I think McMurrin was exploring a theological avenue open to Mormon thinking but which was (and still is) largely unexploited. We have lots of historians and lots of religion teachers, a few philosophers, and no theologians. No one would claim theology is a major strain of LDS thought. It is not even a minor strain yet.

    We might discuss the LDS doctrine of agency against Satan’s proposal outlined in LDS scripture, but I would think that historically the counterproposal against which we would contrast LDS free agency doctrine would be the various versions of predestination current in early 19th-century America.

    Comment by Dave — May 17, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  10. Here are my views in regard to the changing definition of agency within Mormonism. I am not a scholar, so some of the terms I use may not fit their scholarly definitions. Also, this is a rather general outline based on my views and experiences, so please take it in that light.

    “Agency” in the scriptures and in the early writings of the church is not defined. The speaker/writer never defines for his audience what agency means as is so often done today. Whatever it meant was probably within the common usage of the day, and therefore easily understood by the audience. We tend to read into these early statements (including scripture references) what we think agency means using today’s “mormon” definition or using more modern definitions of agency from various specialized fields of study. We are likely missing what it actually meant or may have meant back then.

    1) The first major shift from the original meaning of agency seems to have started around the late 1800s. This occurred as agency began to be defined more in terms of “free agency.” Free agency was a term from Protestant and Philosophical debates about whether man’s agency was “free” (meaning that a man’s actions were based on his own free will) or “necessary” (meaning that a man’s actions were based on necessity, or determined by external causes). The religious debate was also concerned about whether a man’s will was really free (meaning uncontrolled/undetermined by God) or whether it was predestined/predetermined (meaning God created man’s will, therefore, man acted exactly as God determined he should act).

    Obviously Mormons sided with the idea of free agency?that man’s will is really free. The opposite of free agency (using this definition) is that God is ultimately in control of all that man does. The definition of agency within the church begins to shift away from the actual word “agency,” and more toward the philosophical concept of “free” and what that means.

    2) The next major shift seems to correlate with the rise of Communism in the early to mid-1900s and its threat to Freedom. Since agency had been associated with “free” for some time, any threat to freedom was seen as a threat to agency. Discussions of agency begin to shift from philosophical discussions of whether a man’s will is free, to discussions of coersion, compulsion, force, political freedom, etc.

    Obliviously Mormons sided with liberty over dictatorial Communism. The opposite of free agency (using this definition) is that man should be free from outside influences or compulsion of any kind. The definition of agency within the church becomes synonymous with freedom and liberty. Satanic influence is seen in oppression, force, etc.

    3) The idea of agency being free will, freedom of choice, and/or liberty etc. seems to have taken on a life of its own and spawned various related ideas, interpretations, and misunderstandings. I’m sure many have heard statements by members (or ex-members) who have used the concept of agency in new and unusual ways, often to justify themselves or their actions. That’s all I’ll say about that.

    4) During the last twenty or so years, the Church has tried to encourage the use of the scriptural word, “agency,” instead of the non-scriptural term, “free agency.” This gets us back to the correct word, but the definition of agency is still muddled by all the various ideas about “free” agency from across the years. We talk so much about what free means, that we’ve forgotten what the word agency actually means. Our current definitions of agency are more defined by the concept of “free” than they are by the concept of “agency.”

    Lately, I’ve noticed that the Church has begun to define agency in terms of “acting” (which is actually found in the definition of agency) rather than the free agency idea of “choosing.” That’s all well and good, but we’re still carrying a lot of baggage from the many years of actually discussion the idea of “free” rather than what the word agency means.

    Please don’t get me wrong?Free Will and Choice are definitely related to Agency?I’m just saying they are not the definition of the word. For instance, we would not define Repentance as Forgiveness, or Faith as mere Belief, even though those concepts are related to each other.

    Comment by Matthew Andreasen — May 17, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

  11. Dave, I’m not sure what it means for theology to be a major strain. If you mean in the formal sense, then yeah. I agree. Although I think it has been a major strain at various times. (Say early 20th century)

    However my point precisely was that McMurrin was doing creative theology while portraying it as something else. Nothing wrong with doing creative theology. Others have done it (Pratt, Widstoe, Roberts, McConkie). But the way McMurrin did it seemed quite disingenuous to me.

    I think comparing and contrasting early Mormon views with contemporary Protestant debates is very helpful. However one also has to cast it within the oppositions that it is found within during various narratives. Which isn’t always the same as found within Protestantism although it is related. (It’s also dangerous reading metaphysics that perhaps were pronounced in the formal debates into the Mormon use where I just don’t see them pronounced or even understood)

    Comment by Clark — May 17, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

  12. Matthew, I agree that there is a strong anti-Calvinist theology in the evolution of agency.

    A non-Mormon account of the Feb 5, 1840 attributes to Joseph the following:

    I believe . . . that a man is a moral, responsible, free agent, that although it was foreordained he should fall, and be redeemed, yet after the redemption it was not fore ordained that he should again sin.

    So there is some evidence it was in play before the later debates about both Calvinism and Libertarianism. (Which plays into McMurrin as well) But I’d fully agree this isn’t terribly strong evidence. I do wonder what happened around 1870 that changed the rhetoric from just talking agency to overwhelmingly talking about free agency.

    Comment by Clark — May 17, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

  13. The above quote is from a reporter’s correspondence with his wife (if I recall correctly). I can’t tell if it is a direct quote from the Prophet, or if it’s the reporter’s words summarizing what Joseph said.

    Assuming that it’s a direct quote, it would show that Joseph Smith understood the term “free agent,” and used it correctly since it’s tied to the idea that man was not foreordained to sin. Anyway, the scriptures never use the term “free agency,” even though Joseph likely understood the term.

    Where the words “agent” and “agency” appear in LDS scripture, there seems to be a lack of philosophical rhetoric. Instead, it seems to me that those words are simply used following the common definitions found in the dictionaries of the time, rather than using some specialized jargon.

    Comment by Matthew Andreasen — May 17, 2011 @ 11:22 pm

  14. Yeah that’s what I was getting at by weak evidence. It’s hard to tell whether it accurately captures what Joseph said or rather is someone adding the word because of their religious tradition. So at best it is weak circumstantial evidence. As I said it’s not until the early 1870’s that I start seeing the term become widespread.

    Comment by Clark — May 17, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

  15. Agency is a word that has been misunderstood for quite some time. Most of LDS thought dealing with agency is founded upon what Satan’s plans were in the pre-mortal life. How we define that usage is often how we define the entire usage across the board. Believeing that Satan was going to force us to do good though is the wrong definition. It wasn’t what Satan was proposing to do at all.

    Satan sought the destruction of man- his ability to freely choose and have joy. Satan’t plans were and still are about the destruction of man’s ability to act. He does this through causing us to sin. Sin places limits upon us either by our own doing or having a sentence of punishment placed upon us by divine law.

    Agency is a word that is defined as having the authority or right to act. This can only be accessable though if one chooses to do good. Choosing to do bad places us in the path of consequences which lead eventually to the right and ability to act for ourselves to be destroyed. Instead we become acted upon. This is what is meant in the scriptures as spiritual bondage- the chains of hell.

    Because Christ atones for our sins he makes us free from this bondage and places us back in the path where we can act for ourselves (through obedience). Read 2 Nephi Chapter 2.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — May 18, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

  16. Thanks, Rob. I’ve read 2 Nephi before.

    To clarify: the point of the post isn’t that some people understand or use the word “agency” incorrectly. The point is that in order to more fully appreciate Mormonism’s historical theology, we need to better historicize the word and its meanings.

    Comment by Christopher — May 18, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

  17. Exactly my point. As you mentioned in the OP you stated that methodists- ?defined agency not as freedom to do what one wants but as the freedom to do what is right.? In short, for Methodists ??agency? implied obedience and ethical responsibility as well as the freedom to make choices and act upon them.?

    This was the point I wa smaking- that agency in that proper sense adds the proper light and definition to how it is supposed to be used. Agency is a right and priveledege for those who choose the right, just as the methodists claimed it should be defined that way.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — May 18, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

  18. Rob, let me try this again:

    I’m not arguing that there is a “proper sense” of agency, or at least not that how Methodists or Mormons or anyone else understands/uses the word is any more or less proper than how secular historians use the word. My point is that how historians often use the word obscures how historical actors might have understood the word and its meanings.

    Comment by Christopher — May 18, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

  19. Ok…..and your point? I guess I am not getting it.

    You asked and I replied. You asked-

    “… how those changing historical definitions have influenced (or, perhaps a bit ironically, been influenced by) other developments in LDS thought and practice, and what that all means for Mormon theology and worship today. Any thoughts?”

    I mentioned that we have a different view of agencey as was used in the past or even in dictionary terms.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — May 18, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

  20. Rob, that is my point.

    You’ve continually assessed value judgments to various parties’ definitions of agency (“misunderstood,” “proper,” “how it is supposed to be used,” etc.). I’ve said repeatedly that such value judgments are not at all what I’m interested in.

    Comment by Christopher — May 19, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

  21. Christopher,

    With all due respect my comments have been in line with the discussion. I was commenting specifically to how we define agency may have been different in the past. Matthew’s #10 comment is where my comments fit within. Our current theology concerning agency is stuck with this satanic communistic plot to destroy our agency. But, that is not what is originally meant in the scripture text.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — May 19, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

  22. Our current theology concerning agency is stuck with this satanic communistic plot to destroy our agency. But, that is not what is originally meant in the scripture text.

    That, right there, is a value judgment and has nothing to do with the historical and academic questions Chris is trying to ask. If it makes you feel any better, Matthew’s #10 is similarly far off-topic. You’re trying to address a completely different type of inquiry, and it would probably be better found in something like the Mormon Dialogue Discussion Board.

    Comment by Ben — May 19, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

  23. I didn’t realize that my comments were bothering people so bad. Is it really off topic? Are we not discussing the differing definitions of “agency” through the years?

    I don’t get it I guess. Go figure. I guess I will go and spend my time doing other things and use that agency that the good Lord preserved for his righteous.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — May 19, 2011 @ 10:51 pm

  24. Rob, you’re more than welcome to comment here. No need to run away when you get a little pushback, though.

    Our current theology concerning agency is stuck with this satanic communistic plot to destroy our agency

    I actually think you have a solid point here, and appreciate you making it. No doubt that political concerns of the mid-twentieth century (and especially church leaders being actively involved in those political debates) shaped how Mormons have understood “agency” ever since.

    Comment by Christopher — May 19, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

  25. This is interesting, from the Church manual “Gospel Principles”-

    “If we were forced to choose the right, we would not be able to show what we would choose for ourselves. Also, we are happier doing things when we have made our own choices.” Chapter 4 of GP, “Freedom To Choose”).

    This hearkens back to the communistic plot of forcing us to do good. I have researched it for quite a while now though and have found no instance of any communistic plot that forces anyone into obedience. Communistic plots may have their own individual plots of enslavement or corruption, but never has any of them forced people to obey the commandments. So, even our manuals have been shaped by historical events and misused accordingly.

    If we were to really speak of forced obedience I would think us Mormons are as guilty as the manual speaks- do we not force our children to go to church and pressure them quite extensively to obey the commandments? I have heard many a parent say that going to church is not an option for their children as long as they live under their roof. So much for teaching children to make their own choices, eh?

    At the same time however, the manual does hint at the other side, and what I believe to be the true definition of agency. It speaks of being obedient and preserving our choice-

    “When we follow the temptations of Satan, we limit our choices. The following example suggests how this works. Imagine seeing a sign on the seashore that reads: ?Danger?whirlpool. No swimming allowed here.? We might think that is a restriction. But is it? We still have many choices. We are free to swim somewhere else. We are free to walk along the beach and pick up seashells. We are free to watch the sunset. We are free to go home. We are also free to ignore the sign and swim in the dangerous place. But once the whirlpool has us in its grasp and we are pulled under, we have very few choices. We can try to escape, or we can call for help, but we may drown.”

    Do we not get what it is saying here? It explains exactly how Satan wants to destroy our agency. But not through forced obedience, no, through causing us to sin and have more limited choices until we are held captive by him and become his slaves to his will.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — May 20, 2011 @ 10:28 am

  26. Rob – I have to agree with others. You’re kind of missing the point of the discussion. The issue is how individuals through history used the term versus how it is sometimes misused uncritically by various historians.

    In any particular text we’ll have an interplay between scriptural uses of phrases (as opposed to necessarily the meaning of the texts); the community understanding of both scripture and theology; appropriation by the community of other external texts (such as anti-Calvinist religious tracts); and then finally and I’d argue most importantly the actual oppositions and operations the words are placed within in an particularly given texts.

    You can for instance have the same general sense of a word in many scriptures but within a given text they are almost always given as somewhat unique spin due to the oppositions they are found within. That’s why the transition around 1870 or so is so interesting. Why do speakers feel the need to modify the word “agency” by adding “free” if the general community sense of the word hasn’t changed much? (I checked a bunch of BY sermons I have and the general use of the word doesn’t seem that different before 1870 from after but the rhetorical placement is different – this suggests an additional social opposition in play that makes Young and others feel the need to emphasize this.)

    Comment by Clark — May 20, 2011 @ 10:47 am

  27. I don’t believe I am missing the point at all. I understand what you are saying. If one is going to discuss a term or the definition of a term he needs to be able to look at how the semantics of the word have changed through time- how it wa sin the past, how one understood it then and of course how one uses the word in present day by different groups or upbringings.

    Comment by Rob Osborn — May 20, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

  28. Great post, interesting discussion. I’d also love to see an in-depth look at the various ways “agency” is understood throughout the history of Mormon thought, taking into account the larger cultural contexts. Interesting, too, to see questions amongst historians regarding the use of “agency.” Cool stuff.

    Comment by BHodges — May 26, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

  29. […] I’ll note that Chris recently posted on matters of agency. Brekus notes that in historical […]

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