Mormonism as hierarchical and democratic–requesting help with sources!

By September 13, 2010

In preparation for a dissertation prospectus on race in Mormon history, I’m working on a project that takes a look at a particular late-nineteenth century relief society. I’m hoping to study how members of this society access and practice power. My understanding of Mormonism’s power structures (and by “power structures” I intend both ecclesiastical power structures and more theoretical, Foucault-inspired understanding of the term) is that power is distributed mostly vertically (through the hierarchy) but also horizontally (through the “universal” priesthood). Thus, put overly simply there exists a tension (even a dialectic) between Mormonism as a democratic organization and a hierarchical one. A perfect example of this is the ritual sustaining of the new Church president, with each successive rung of the church hierarchy rising to stand as a symbol of their support for his elevation (from the Quorum of the Twelve all the way down to the entire Church community). Yes, ostensibly each member has a say but each vote is not equal.

This is obviously complicated for a women who do not have direct access to the power of the priesthood. My understanding so far of this particular relief society (and something that is common–at least this non-Mormon thinks it is–throughout Mormonism) is that these women derive their relative political standing in the women’s community through their husbands’  relative standing within the hierarchy (i.e. it’s easier for a bishop’s wife to become a local rs president). This precedent of course is set at the top with Emma Hale Smith being the first RS president and Eliza R. Snow, then Zina D. H. Young etc.

My questions for the JI community are:

1. Am I right about the Relief Society, that the wives of high ranking men have an easier time being set apart for leadership office? (This isn’t a uniquely Mormon thing of course…Hillary Clinton’s elevation was at least facilitated by her husband’s place in the White House). I’m more curious if you all know of this being true in the nineteenth century than more recently, and if so if you could point me to some research on this.

2. And more importantly, do we know of any good sources that take up this idea of the Church existing as both a hierarchy and democracy (Has anyone taken up the question of “sustaining” votes for the leadership at General Conference or in local communities as an example of practicing “democracy”? )? Any good theoretical work on Mormonism’s hierarchy in general?

Any thoughts would help!

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. To #1, my experience tells me this is not so in the 20th century. In fact, if a man is serving as bishop or as another leader in the ward (Young Men’s president, Elder’s Quorum president, bishopric counselor, etc), it is common for his wife to NOT hold a leadership position (RS or otherwise) as not to strain the family too much with too may church meetings. Certainly there are exceptions, but this has been my experience.

    Comment by Bret — September 13, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

  2. I think that Quinn has done the most with familial relations and power dynamics. Also see Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, “‘The Leading Sisters’: A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth Century Mormon Society,” Journal of Mormon History 9 (1982). I generally think Women and Authority is meh. I would definately check out some local areas outside of Salt Lake, though. There are so many RS minutes available begging to be analyzed. I would also read most everything by Derr, Beecher, and Madsen.

    Kris’s and my paper on female liturgical authority comes out in at the beginning of the year. Though we don’t touch on it in this paper, I think the role of Temple matron is something you should check out (they weren’t the temple president’s wife until the 1920s).

    Is it Bushman (or Givens) that has spoken recently on the tension between Hierarchy and Democracy? Hatch was talking about this back in the day (though he definitely leans toward Democracy as it fits his thesis).

    complicated for a women who do not have direct access to the power of the priesthood.

    I think that you need to be very careful in your approach to these terms (“power” and “priesthood”). There is so much presentism in most approaches and the terms are contested. They also mean very different things to different people.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 13, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

  3. Crapo, Quinn (From Sacred Grove to Sacral Power Structure et al) come to mind.

    Comment by justin — September 13, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

  4. Bushman addresses the hierarchy/democracy tension in RSR a bit, especially in regards to the development of councils and a bit in relation to common consent.

    Comment by David G. — September 13, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

  5. Wish I could shed some light on (1), but it is out of my field. J would be the best person to get advice from, however.

    On (2), nothing much has been done exploring those tensions in detail. Bushman’s RSR touches on it for his chapter covering 1835, as DG points out, but that’s about it. I used those competing tensions as a way to explore Mormon conceptions of heaven at MHA this last year, and I include a little bit of that here. If you’d like the whole paper, let me know.

    Comment by Ben — September 13, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

  6. In answer to question #1, I agree withy Brett. This phenomenon becomes more acute as the level of leadership increases. The wives of General Authorities have almost no leadership presence. They do however have some impact at a local level when they are called on to speak at Stake Conferences or Mission Conferences or similar situations. Moreover, this seems to be a question of spousal status. The husbands of women who are serving in General Church presidencies, i.e Relief Society, Young Womens, become relatively transparent. As an example, how many church members know Julie Bangerter Beck’s husband’s first name? The elevation of one spouse rarely is acompanied with a comensurate elevation of the other. Sometimes however, a marriage does provide a high profile platform for a spouse. Elder Russel Nelson and his current wife seem to be an example.

    Comment by Shannon Flynn — September 13, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

  7. Shannon, that may be true, but I think kinship ties are nevertheless evident, e.g., Ann Monson Dibb.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 13, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

  8. For the 20th century, I agree with Bret. I think that familial connections are not usually related to a person’s calling, and it is important to keep in mind that callings in the LDS Church are believed to be founded in revelation from the leaders with responsibility over that specific area of calling (and these leaders can be female as well as male, when it comes to areas such as callings within the Relief Society or Primary). Sometimes the connections can exist, but it seems to me that they perhaps existed more in the nineteenth century.

    Something else to consider, that I would be interested in hearing what others think about it – can we just think of this relationship in a gendered fashion? Since the beginning of the Church, many men in leadership positions in the Church have been related to other Church leaders. I am not personally sure whether or not it can be stated that this happened more or less than women in the Church married to Church leaders receiving leadership positions, but it definitely is also an aspect to ponder.

    Comment by Ardis S. — September 13, 2010 @ 11:51 pm

  9. I don’t know if this would be relevant for what you are doing (it certainly isn’t an academic source, but….). I found <a href=""this interview with Sister Julie B. Beck very interesting, particularly to see how involved she is in significant ways with multiple facets of Church functioning. (Beyond the hour mark (maybe around 1:10:00 or 1:12:00) is where she starts talking about how much of a role she has in the hierarchy in partnership with priesthood leaders, which made me think of this post.)

    Comment by michelle — September 14, 2010 @ 4:16 am

  10. oops. Forgot to close the html. Sorry.

    Comment by michelle — September 14, 2010 @ 4:16 am

  11. Thanks for the great ideas. The suggestion to look at Bushman is very helpful. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m off the mark with my contention that there is some sort of dialectic at play between hierarchy and democracy in Mormon concepts and practices of power, but I’m surprised that more theoretical work hasn’t been done here. I did do a pretty good search through the usual suspect places before I came to you all.

    J. Stapley, I appreciate your caution not to approach the issue of priesthood and power with a modern assumption that Mormon women feel like they’re wrongfully being excluded from power centers because they don’t have the priesthood. I recall Prof. Brekus’s discussion of agency here from the MHA conference. Two things, one historical and one more modern, suggest to me that there is something to this:

    1. In the RS minutes I’m studying the members talk explicitly about power and the priesthood (they use those terms–so though they have different meaning today, I’m not introducing them), for example that the local bishop appoints the new RS presidents and the women state explicitly that they don’t have such power to make their own appointments (which are “sustained” by the RS membership, which is some sort of practice of power but one that is perhaps only symbolic). No where however do I find the women complaining about this or about their lack of access to the priesthood more generally, so I agree that one must be careful not to read back malcontentment that wasn’t there.

    2. In my understanding of major Church decisions, like the elevation of a new president, the body in conference sustains this decision down the hierarchical line of the priesthood: the presidency down to the Aaronic priesthood and then and only then do members of the RS society stand to sustain ( So in this case a twelve year old boy sustains the new president before President Julie Beck. I’m less interested in this latter case, but I do think something is there to investigate, not to muckrake as much as to further examine the meaning of the priesthood in Mormonism and the gendered nature of it, one that places adolescent boys ahead of leading women of the church.

    And to Ardis’s point, I totally agree that this idea of familial leadership doesn’t just have to be gendered. The prominence of the Smith’ in both the Utah Church and the RLDS historically and prominence of male relatives of Church leaders in the 20th century needs to be explored beyond facile descriptions of this as “nepotism”.

    Comment by Max — September 14, 2010 @ 5:48 am

  12. I’ve always found it interesting to consider a woman who has achieved great standing in the temporal world — a general in the military, or a corporate CEO, for example. If she were to become Relief Society president she could not do anything without a man’s approval. OK, so this is hypothetical at the moment. It’s still interesting.

    Comment by Jan — September 14, 2010 @ 8:03 am

  13. If she were to become Relief Society president she could not do anything without a man?s approval.

    I think it’s all a little more nuanced than that, but the same situation exists for men who work in auxiliary offices as well.

    Comment by michelle — September 14, 2010 @ 9:45 am

  14. I have not read RSR, but Bushman does address the issue in Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. My guess is that he says the same thing. Does anyone here know?

    Comment by Chris H. — September 14, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  15. Again, this is just focusing on the early Mormon tradition so it may be out of your range, but Steven Harper has an excellent article exploring these issues and particularly takes Hatch’s democratization thesis to task: “‘Dictated by the Words of Christ’: Joseph Smith and the Politics of Revelation,” Journal of the Early Republic 26 (Summer 2006): 275-304. (Online access, with subscription, here.)

    Comment by Ben — September 14, 2010 @ 10:44 am

  16. Doesn’t Givens address the tension between authoritarianism and democratic participation in People of Paradox at least a little?

    Comment by Joel — September 14, 2010 @ 11:43 am

  17. With respect to your second question, Richard Burton addressed the issue in his The City of the Saints wherein he noted that during the semi-annual conferences “every male has a vote,” though Burton proceeded to explain that they “all live under an iron sway.” Burton, who seemed to admire Young and the Utah Mormons’ form of government, shocking evangelical readers, pleasantly observed that each man possessed “all the harmless pleasure of voting, without the danger of injuring himself by his vote,” 215-216. Burton undoubtedly found the hierarchical, even autocratic, aspects of Mormonism, to be more significant than the perceived democratic practices, though he thought the latter played an important role on the Mormon male psyche.

    Comment by Jordan W. — September 14, 2010 @ 11:44 am

  18. I agree that there is a tension between vertical and horizontal in the LDS tradition. That tension can be seen in the very name of the Church: The Church (1) of Jesus Christ (vertical) (2) of Latter-day Saints (horizontal). I think that, while common consent is a core principle from Restoration, differentiating Mormons from some other hierarchical churches, I think in the minds of most members, very little power resides in the “people” of the Church. Some of this may be the result on social-control centripetal forces in any organization.

    I do think, though, that, in practice, “common consent” “bottom up” principles remain in the Church. Some of my thoughts on this are at

    Comment by DavidH — September 14, 2010 @ 11:46 am

  19. I feel like there’s a lot of sociology-driven work on this topic. There’s the classic sociologist take on mother in heaven (that is actually more perceptive than the historians have been)–I think it’s Neenan and coauthors but could look if someone doesn’t have it conveniently at hand. There’s the work on polygamy that has a purple dustjacket that gives some background (?Embry?). What about that new book on female involvement in early Utah politics that’s out from the architecture professor/historian? what about that old classic about prostitution and female power in early utah from about 10 years ago?
    Seems like people have been writing about the tension between democracy and theocracy since Phelps coined “theodemocracy” for Smith. Does Mark Ashurst-McGee’s PhD diss deal with this? What about the recent diss on Republican party alignment–seems like there wd be a lot about these themes there. I just read someone who was quibbling with Hatch over democratization… Does Moore, Outsiders, deal with this much? don’t remember that it does. What about the devotional literature from disaffiliated 20th-cent. LDS? Not sure whether they would have references to older literature. Does Kathy Daynes have data on Manti from her polygamy research?

    PS, sorry my memories are fragmentary and I have such trouble with people’s names. a perennial problem for me.

    Comment by smb — September 14, 2010 @ 11:53 am

  20. Joel is right: Givens identifies this tension as one of the four central paradoxes of Mormonism. His People of Paradox not only dedicates a chapter to it, but it is a central theme he keeps coming back to throughout the book.

    Historically speaking, though, it is a topic that needs much more attention, especially for the nineteenth century.

    Comment by Ben — September 14, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

  21. Let me try and flesh out some of Sam’s references:

    There?s the work on polygamy that has a purple dustjacket that gives some background (?Embry?).

    Yup. Embry, Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle.

    What about that new book on female involvement in early Utah politics that?s out from the architecture professor/historian?

    That would be Martha Sonntag Bradley, Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights.

    what about that old classic about prostitution and female power in early utah from about 10 years ago?

    Jeffrey Nichols, Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power: Salt Lake City, 1847-1918?

    What about the recent diss on Republican party alignment?seems like there wd be a lot about these themes there.

    That would be Jonathan H. Moyer’s ?Dancing with the Devil: The Making of the Mormon-Republican Pact.?

    Hope that helps some.

    Comment by Christopher — September 14, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  22. Max, your comments make sense. Regarding Solemn Assemblies, I’m trying to remember the exact date, but it seems to me that women didn’t even vote until relatively recently.

    The comments about sociology reminded me of the chapter in Heaton’s compilation on women and hierarchy. I’m not sure if that was the one Sam was thinking of, but I thought it could have been better.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 14, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

  23. It looks like I am being proven wrong already. There in an article today in the Deseret News about the passing of Barbara B. Smith, former General Relief Society President. It mentions that her husband served in the Second Quorum of Seventy for a period of time. I believe that was after Barbara Smith’s tenure. It seems one could make a case for his calling being influenced greatly by his wife’s position. It would be interesting to determine how many times this has happened in the last 50 years. Then how would one make a determination of what percentage would move the phenomenon from coincidental to relational? 2%, 10%, 30%?

    Comment by Shannon Flynn — September 14, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

  24. The RS and YW first voted separately in 1995.

    Comment by Justin — September 14, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

  25. Nice pull Justin. Just dug up the chapter I was thinking of – Marie Cornwall, “The Institutional Role of Mormon Women,” in the volume she co-edited, Contemporary Mormonism.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 14, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

  26. There?s the classic sociologist take on mother in heaven (that is actually more perceptive than the historians have been)?I think it?s Neenan and coauthors but could look if someone doesn?t have it conveniently at hand.

    The Mormon Concept of Mother in Heaven

    I think it’s cited in the “Leading Sisters” article, but Derr and Derr’s “Outside the Mormon Hierarchy” also comes to mind.

    Comment by Justin — September 14, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

  27. Todd Compton’s essay in Excavating Mormon Pasts on the New Mormon Women’s History may also be helpful for possible sources.

    Comment by Justin — September 14, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

  28. Check out the notes on Bushman’s 2010 Church History Symposium paper on JS and the routinization of charisma:

    Comment by BHodges — September 14, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

  29. Christopher and Justin, thanks for correctly fleshing out the sources. Sorry I’m too distracted to get the details in.

    Comment by smb — September 14, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

  30. All–

    I’m much obliged for all her thoughtful digging in the recesses of memories. This is really helpful.

    These ideas about hierarchy and democracy will be made infinity more complicated when I add the dimension of race.

    Thanks again.

    Comment by Max — September 15, 2010 @ 7:15 am


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