Mormonism’s Possible Political Theologies: Reading the Constitution through a Lens of Continuing Revelation, Part I

By July 30, 2013

Though one can trace a correspondence between Mormon scriptural and legal hermeneutics back to Joseph Smith, that indirect correlation has evolved in relation to ecclesiastical schisms and shifts and broader social and political developments. Despite recent criticisms, the equation between Mormonism and constitutional conservatism that developed in the wake of the Cold War era and that found embodiment in the person of Ezra Taft Benson remains a truism for some Latter-day Saints, many of whom embrace a scriptural literalism. A number of Saints uphold the Constitution as “A Heavenly Banner,” to be placed alongside the LDS canon. Indeed, mistrust of executive, legislative, and judicial interpreters leads some to insist on originalist interpretations (which, of course, are still interpretations) of the Constitution, while evidencing an openness to non-originalist interpretations of scripture, or at least to the readings of their leaders, which might be understood as literal.[1] While one can formulate defensible arguments that scriptural literalism and conservative constitutionalism are fruits of Mormonism, I want to suggest that the seeds of quite different approaches to sacred scriptural and legal texts can be found in the rich soil of early Mormon thought. Within the Mormon framework, accepting a text as sacred does not necessarily demand strict or literalist readings and may even call for alternative approaches. Before tracing out these potentialities in a subsequent post, here I aim to suggest that they may relate to broader intellectual trends and developments in antebellum biblical and constitutional interpretation.[2]

Though not the only force directing constitutional thought in the antebellum period, the South’s peculiar institution uniquely forced many Americans to reconsider the Constitution’s place in the present. Since the 1830s, a number of radical abolitionists concluded that the nation’s preeminent legal document had worn out its welcome and joined William Lloyd Garrison in dismissing it as a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with Hell.”[3] Such figures accepted the proslavery interpretation of their opponents as historically accurate and then condemned the Constitution as an outdated and immoral creed. They proved willing to throw out the Bible as well.[4] Other abolitionists, including Gerrit Smith and Frederick Douglass, advanced antislavery readings of the Constitution. Like Garrison, they appealed to the Declaration of Independence, but they read Madison’s text in light of Jefferson’s.[5] Static proslavery and antislavery readings dominated antebellum constitutional interpretation, leading to pro- and anti-constitutional readings, but some interpreters began to propose readings that valued the Constitution as an adaptable document “suited to time,” a kind of “raft, which should bend and yield, take the very shape of the waves, let the water in and out freely through its seams and junctures, and by its loose couplings and elastic movement divide and dissipate the force of any sudden shock.”[6]

The emerging view of the Constitution as malleable corresponded to a view of the Bible as a moldable book, a discussion that arose in relation to historical examinations of the biblical text. This relationship can be seen in Unitarian-turned-Transcendentalist Theodore Parker’s writings. His deep engagement with biblical criticism led him to distinguish between transient and permanent biblical truths and nourished his belief in divine communication.[7] Parker believed in the Bible’s usefulness as the historical expression of true religion, but the truth he privileged most rested in a Christ that aimed to foster future Christs. Indeed, Parker echoed Emerson in suggesting that by making Christ “the Son of God in a peculiar and exclusive sense–much of the significance of his character is gone.”[8] His religion was not restricted to a place, a past, a book, or a man, but “the inward Christ, which alone abideth forever, has much to say which the Bible never told,” or, as he added in a later edition, “much which the historical Jesus never knew.”[9] Parker’s abstract and minimalist beliefs freed him from allegiance to literalist and static meanings and allowed him to posit the Bible’s malleability. When biblical scholars used historical reasoning to interpret Paul’s decision to send a slave back to his owner and to then assert a clear correspondence between that decision and the Fugitive Slave Act, it was Parker’s engagement with biblical criticism and his deep-seated belief in an innate religious guide and the progress of religion that led him to accept that interpretation as historically accurate and to then dismiss it as historically dated. In the early 1840s, he lamented that “men justify slavery out of the New Testament, because Paul had not his eye open to the evil, but sent back a fugitive. It is dangerous,” he warned, “to rely on a troubled fountain for the water of life.”[10]

Parker’s approach to the Bible informed his interpretation of the Constitution. In response to Moses Stuart’s proslavery Conscience and the Constitution (1850), he suggested that “there is a “short and easy method” with Professor Stuart, and all other men who defend slavery out of the Bible. If the Bible defends slavery, it is not so much better for slavery, but so much the worse for the Bible.”[11] Parker was no respecter of founding documents. He asserted that “if the Constitution of the United States will not allow [the nation to end slavery], there is another Constitution that will.”[12] In referencing a higher law, Parker made it clear that he preferred “conscience to cotton,” the Bible, and the Constitution.[13] In his view, historical research evidenced that these texts contained outdated moral and legal teachings, but rather than joining Garrison in jettisoning them, he ultimately maintained that these founding texts also conveyed transcendent religious and legal truths. While dismissing strict literalist readings, Parker claimed the spirit of these sacred religious and legal texts, which allowed him posit their inherent capacity to adapt to historical change and modern circumstances.

Much separates Theodore Parker’s hermeneutics from Joseph Smith’s, and the relationship between scriptural and constitutional exegesis is much clearer in the Transcendentalist’s thought than in the Mormon Prophet’s. While holding in mind important distinctions and differences between early Mormon thought and broader developments in biblical and constitutional interpretation, we might consider whether Smith’s unique critique of the Bible and his emphatic assertion of new revelation might allow for and even demand a reading of sacred texts, both religious and legal, in light of historical change and development. In other words, does early Mormon thought call for a reading of the Constitution through the lens of continuing revelation? And, if so, what does that look like? I leave you to consider these questions, and hope to address them in part, at least, in a subsequent post.


[1] As Stanley Fish explains, the gesture to “disavow interpretation in favor of simply presenting the text” is actually a gesture in which one set of interpretive principles is replaced by another that happens to claim for itself the virtue of not being an interpretation at all.” In this article, Fish famously concluded that “interpretation is the only game in town.” Stanley Fish, “What Makes Interpretation Acceptable,” in Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), 353, 355.

[2] On the relationship between biblical and constitutional hermeneutics, see Jaroslav Pelikan, Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

[3] William Lloyd Garrison to Rev. Samuel J. May, July 17, 1845, in Walter M. Merrill, ed. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973): 3:303.

[4] See, for example, William E. Cain, ed., William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight against Slavery: Selections from the Liberator (Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 29-36.

[5] For an outline of these positions and a discussion of Douglass’s slow and studied adoption of Smith’s position, see David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 26-35.

[6] “A Chapter on Slavery,” The North American Review 92 (April 1861): 492-93, quotes on 493.

[7] See Parker, “A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” in The Critical and Miscellaneous Writings of Theodore Parker, Minister of the Second Church in Roxbury (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1843). On Parker’s prolonged engagement with biblical criticism, including the writings of figures such as De Wette and Strauss, see Dean Grodzins, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[8] Parker, “A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” 158.

[9] Parker, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion, 376. See Parker, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion, 4th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856), 354.

[10]  Parker, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown 1842), 375. Others, including William Ellery Channing, contended that Paul, in fact, advanced antislavery sentiment, but slavery “had so penetrated society” in New Testament times that Paul “satisfied himself with spreading principles which, however slowly, could not but work its destruction.” Channing, Slavery (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1835), 111. On the New Testament debate over slavery, see Albert J. Harrill, “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 10, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 149-186. Channing’s interpretation was a kind of originalist argument based on the New Testament authors’ original expectations of change. A similar kind of argument emerged in relation to the Constitution. This originalist expectation of change found expression, for example, in the dissenting opinions of the Dred Scott decision (1857). John McLean wrote that “our independence was a great epoch in the history of freedom, and while I admit the Government was not made especially for the colored race, yet many of them were citizens of the New England States, and exercised, the rights of suffrage when the Constitution was adopted, and it was not doubted by any intelligent person that its tendencies would greatly ameliorate their condition.” Similarly, in reference to the founders, Benjamin Robbins Curtis contended that “that a calm comparison of these assertions of universal abstract truths and of their own individual opinions and acts would not leave these men under any reproach of inconsistency; that the great truths they asserted on that solemn occasion, they were ready and anxious to make effectual, wherever a necessary regard to circumstances, which no statesman can disregard without producing more evil than good, would allow; and that it would not be just to them nor true in itself to allege that they intended to say that the Creator of all men had endowed the white race, exclusively, with the great natural rights which the Declaration of Independence asserts.” Dred Scott v. John F A. Sandford, 60 US (19 Howard) 393, 537, 574-75 (1857).

[11] Parker, “The Slave Power,” in The Works of Theodore Parker, Centennial Edition, 15 vols. (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1907-1913), 11:272.

[12] Parker, “The Slave Power,” 11:285.

[13] Parker, “The Slave Power,” 286.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Phenomenal, Jordan!

    I think the idea that the Constitution needed to be “saved” suggests that early Mormons saw it as open to interpretation through continuing revelation. The White Horse Thepry has been disavowed, but that doesn’t mean that the sentiments weren’t popular among Mormons in the 19th century.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 30, 2013 @ 10:22 am

  2. J Stuart: Church Presidents from Joseph Smith to Ezra Taft Benson, from 1830 to 1994, all said the U.S. Constitution would need to be “saved.” This was not limited to the 19th century.

    During Ezra Taft Benson’s administration as 13th Church President, a book was published that contains 487 statements about the U.S. Constitution made by him and the 12 Prophets who preceded him. Donald Q. Cannon, the book’s editor, wrote in its introduction:

    “Joseph Smith and the other twelve prophets of this dispensation have all said that at some time in the future the Constitution would be in jeopardy, and it would be rescued by the Elders of Israel.” (Latter-day Prophets and the United States Constitution, Donald Q. Cannon, ed., Provo, BYU Religious Studies Center, 1991.)

    Comment by R. Gary — July 30, 2013 @ 11:06 am

  3. Does early Mormon thought call for a reading of the Constitution through the lens of continuing revelation?

    A provocative question and a great post. Your discussion of abolitionism and Biblical interpretation reminds me of Molly Oshatz’s relatively recent book Slavery and Sin (OUP, 2011), which argues that slavery and abolitionist responses to it actually forced new interpretive approaches to the Bible and led to the development of “liberal Christianity” in America.

    As you acknowledge, there were major distinctions between antebellum liberal Christians/Transcendentalists and Mormons, not only religiously but culturally. In my mind, it would have been far more natural for the former group, with its cosmopolitan exposure to foreign thought, its literary culture, and native progressivism to accept the idea of a fluid hermeneutics. By contrast, the predominance of Mormon converts were, like the rest of the country, swept up in the period’s widespread biblical literalism. Joseph seems to have been pretty exceptional in the way he conceived and handled scripture.

    Comment by Ryan T — July 30, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

  4. Nice, Jordan. And good to see you around here again.

    Comment by Christopher — July 30, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

  5. Only thing better than Mormon political theologies is Theodore Parker, so this is a win in my book.

    Comment by Ben P — July 30, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

  6. Thanks, folks.

    J Stuart, I think you’re right to draw attention to the pro-constitutional sentiment of early Mormons and, as R. Gary suggests, that sentiment has persisted. As you note, Joey, this raises hermeneutical questions, though I wonder if the sense of saving the Constitution might relate the idea that incorrect interpretations and constructions have corrupted original meanings. In other words, perhaps some of this sentiment corresponds to a critique of loose readings. This is something worth engaging further.

    Ryan T., Oshatz certainly has a lot to add to this discussion, and I think that southern slavery uniquely forced the issue in both biblical and constitutional interpretation. You’re also right to point out distinctions in approaches to the Bible between Unitarians and Transcendentalists, and early Mormons. I’m wondering, though, if there are aspects of early Mormon thought which inspired or might inspire non-literalistic readings. I hope to provide a few further thoughts on the topic in a future post.

    Comment by Jordan W. — July 30, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

  7. R Gary, I am aware of such statements, but I am glad you directed me to that quote. It’s fascinating!

    Amen to your response, Jordan.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 30, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

  8. Fabulous, Jordan–can’t wait for the next installment.

    Comment by Nate R. — July 30, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

  9. Great to see you post again, Jordan. Thanks for this.

    Comment by David G. — July 30, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

  10. Very interesting, Jordan. Thanks for posting.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 30, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

  11. The problem with a fundamentalist like hermeneutic of the Constitution (which isn’t necessarily the same as originalism) is of course dealing with the very problematic parts such as slavery, women’s suffrage, and more. Also I note those adopting this quasi-fundamentalist approach have a hard time dealing with the amendments to the constitution.

    One might even suggest, delving into theology, that the constitution might have to be saved by looking at the abstract guiding principles and amending the constitution so the country lives ups to ideals it has never lived terribly well.

    Comment by Clark — July 31, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

  12. I should probably also add that my own reading, based primarily upon the July 19, 1840 sermon, is that most talk of the constitution is using it as a metonym for the government as a whole. Thus the constitution was inspired because it got agreement in place with groups of people doing distasteful things for the greater good. I think reading the constitution as akin to an innerant scriptural document rather than a way of bringing agreement among fallen people is probably going to lead one down confused paths.

    Comment by Clark — July 31, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

  13. I’ve wondered, for example, how the fairly prominent and vocal segment of libertarian leaning Mormons related to what is essentially the progressive structure of the institutional church. In discussing this with some friends the idea immerged that perhaps some people are comfortable with what is essentially infallible church leadership directing such programs, while simultaneously rejecting the possibility that a temporal government would do the same. It makes my think that it would not be difficult to hold radically divergent sets of hermeneutics for an open cannon and closed constitution.

    Really intriguing post. Thanks.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 1, 2013 @ 8:56 am

  14. Clark and J. Stapley, thanks for your comments. Clark, your second comment, in particular, reminds me of Mark A. Graber’s work, Dred Scott and Constitutional Evil (2006), which gets at the idea of the Constitution as a document resulting from compromises and accommodations, some of which, even at the time, were deemed to be evil or wrong. This, as you point out, might be an important qualification to make in thinking about how constitutional hermeneutics relate to biblical hermeneutics. However, I wonder if we might find consider the canon as containing compromises of a different sort, that between the divine and the human.

    J, I think that you’re right. Some Latter-day Saints are okay with an open canon but not with an open Constitution, in part, because they hold that inspired leaders are doing the scriptural hermeneutics or are providing the new scripture, while corrupt leaders are doing the constitutional hermeneutics or providing the amendments. But, I sense that the emphasis on a closed constitution also suggests a particular view about the nature of the Constitution itself. In other words, the Constitution should not be open for non-originalist interpretation or amendment, regardless of whose doing the interpreting. This, I think, again raises issues of the nature of continuing revelation in the Mormon tradition.

    Comment by Jordan W. — August 1, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

  15. I was thinking about this topic a few years ago. Here are my, somewhat naive, thoughts on the matter:

    Comment by Zach M. — August 2, 2013 @ 10:28 am

  16. Fascinating discussion, Zach M., thanks for the link.

    Comment by Jordan W. — August 2, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

  17. […] a previous post, I briefly explored the thought of Transcendentalist and abolitionist Theodore Parker to outline […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormonism?s Possible Political Theologies: Reading the Constitution through a Lens of Continuing Revelation, Part II — August 30, 2013 @ 9:11 am


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