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!