Notes From the BYU Church History Symposium, 2010: Richard Bushman on Joseph Smith and the Routinization of Charisma

By February 26, 2010

As always, this is not a transcript, but my own notes, typed as fast as I can, edited, and reformulated for clarity. I will have notes forthcoming this weekend from five other presentations: Casey Griffiths, “Joseph F. Merrill and the Transformation of the Church Educational System”; John P. Livingston on “N. Eldon Tanner and LDS Church Administration”; Matthew Heiss, “The Annual History: The Origins of Local Unit Record Keeping”; William G. Hartley & Theodore Moore, “Our Churches and Hoes Shall Be Beautiful: The LDS Church’s beautification movement, 1938-47”; and Mark L. Grover, “The Beginning of the Church Construction Program in South America.” In addition, BHodges will have notes from a number of the presentations he attended (different from mine–we tired to coordinate on this) at his blog, Life on Gold Plates.


If I have the story straight, this started with Reid Nielson, in BYU, he transferred to Church History depart in Salt Lake. I was delighted to accept Reid?s invitation to speak, as the introduction suggested, I?ve been a profound admirer of Joseph Smith?s organizational sense. But it was not until I saw the program that I saw the genius of Reid?s original suggestion. The breadth of the topic of organizational history of the church I think will lead to a flurry of scholarship. Most people who have lived a Mormon life have seen church government as a marvel,  perhaps as a miracle, how can congregations function well without professional leadership? How can we release bishops every 5 years and find someone in the congregation to fulfill the assignment? How can we trust leaders with our money, our tims, and our most personal problems??The system functions much the same way where ever we go. How can we account for the success of this lay led church that seems to run against all exceptions?

In an attempt to assess the genius of it, the church has been compared to a lot of things. When I was young, to the German army. The epitome of efficiency. Of course far more voluntary and far less well trained. If not an army, is it a monarchy? I?ve heard that said many times. The comparison is not quite right when it?s run by a president, an American office. Alternatively, since Mormonism grew up under American democracy, does its lay priesthood produce an anti-elitist government as Nathan Hatch argues? If not that, what is this church? The eminent German sociologist Max Weber, tried to categorize the various forms of organizational legitimacy the question he asked was why is it that people submit to a government as if the government had a right to rule over us and command us, what gives it that legitimacy? The category that applies best to early Mormonism is charismatic authority. A divine endowment of a divine gift. He defined it as a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and tremendously endowed with exceptional superhuman powers or qualities. The description seems to fit Joseph Smith to a T. Throws light on why converts found his leadership legitimate. He ruled by virtue of his divine gift. Weber considered charismatic authority least stable. In addition to the charismatic, there were  other traditional sources of authority. Monarchy, when authority descends from father to child, the rational or bureaucratic, modern business, and comparison to these other two, charismatic authority is fragile. If the exceptional powers of the leader are brought into question, or after he dies, a struggle may ensue among his successors less gifted charismatically, charismatic leaders collect followers but do not devise organization. The followers have to do that to replace the gifts which they may lack. The followers may have to routinize the charisma. It turns into an organization based on routines to determine who has authority and who does not. Supernatural powers  turn into accepted roles for leaders and followers, the creation of a bureaucratic or rational government,  Here, authority comes with the office, not with the personal gifts, but the office of president or whatever office. Charismatic government must evolve into bureaucratic government or the movement will disintegrate after the death or fall of the leader. Weber?s analysis has been applied to Joseph Smith, who was by all accounts a charismatic leader. What about the evolution of authority after Joseph?  It is commonly said that the first prophet?s authority was routinized and Brigham Young is  assigned the role of that tast, it is typically said. BY, it is said, led by administrative genius. Young took in hand the energetic but young and chaotic church and made it a smoothly run corporate bureaucracy. That ?s a thesis that some have followed. This account of administrative development overlooks JS?s preoccupation with organization from the beginning. He didn? t just institute a movement, he instituted a church, with officers. The rev. given at the organization of the Church, Sec .20 said more about office than doctrine. JS saw the development of the organization as one of his major achievements. He thought of himself as an organizational man. Besides his titles of prophet, seer, and revelator, charismatic titles, he was called to be an apostle, elder of the church, these are bureaucratic offices. The major features of church organization were in place by the time JS died.

BY didn?t have to invent the office of apostle, JS?s revelations foreshadowed apostles before church was organized. The Q of 12 organized 9 years before his death. He was restoring the order of heaven in ancient councils. When he set up the Church organization, the most startling feature of the organization was its merger of the charismatic and bureaucratic. Joseph didn?t reserve charismatic gifts for himself; he assigned them to an office. He was appointed to the calling of a seer, translator and prophet. What is more bureaucratic than minutes, which played a large part of the concept of the organization? When Joseph claimed special authority for himself, the main argument against Hiram Page?s revelation was that these things have not been appointed to him. All things must be done in order, said one revelation. A claim to charismatic power cannot happen contrary to church covenants.

Joseph exercised the gifts because he had been appointed to the office.  The gifts were not personal, invested in him, the gifts were invested in the office by appointment. Minutes recorded this transformation, ?Brother Joseph Smith Jr.  was appointed by the voice of the church to receive and write revelations and commandments for this church.? I hope you can appreciate the marvel of that. The church is appointing someone to receive revelation. Joseph effectively bureaucratized charisma. This centered revelation in the church. Joseph also democratized the gifts. While claiming near monopoly in Hiram Page incident…every priesthood holder was to speak by gift of the Holy Ghost and whatsoever they should speak should be scripture. Minutes of the Kirtland High Council mentioned a duty to seek revelation. Revelation went with the office. Joseph admonished the 12 to keep careful minutes as covenant and doctrine. Charisma is invested in virtually every officer. In modern practice, 13 year old deacons? presidents are enjoined to seek revelation in their office.

Mormons altered Weber?s notion of charisma and made it common, at every level to seek revelation. These developments in church organization laid the groundwork for the succession. BY based his claim on the keys of the office of apostleship. He could not have won the loyalty had JS not created the office he occupied. One of my favorite [artifacts? Is a] needlework piece made immediately after Joseph?s death, depict his legacy, two items, the temple of Nauvoo around the borders, the names of the 12 apostles with Brigham Young at the top and center. That was what the seamstress calculated to be his legacy, the temple and the apostles. Without that, BY would not have succeeded.  JS formed that office. Once BY was accepted as president, attributed revelation to him, BY modestly denied he had Joseph?s gift of prophecy. He asked if anyone had heard him profess the same gifts as Joseph. He said he professed to be an apostle, he governed the church by virtue of his office in the 12. He over and over insisted he was not successor as prophet, but the people insisted he was a prophet. H. C. Kimball praised him as a living oracle. Kimball bore testimony that the work is true, BY is the legal successor and God speaks through him. Regardless of Young?s protestations, Kimball said he had to exercise the gifts because he occupied the office.

Modern Mormons live under the conviction that everyone in their office may partake of charisma. The Church was invested in the bureaucracy from the beginning. Mormons live in an anomalous structure, a charismatic bureaucracy. This peculiar construction recast the problem of power that had so vexed church leaders from the beginning, viewed from the viewpoint of modern democracy, charismatic leadership grants too much power to the central leader. Within a few years, JS was accused of authoritarian control. In 1834 it was claimed the he was ?A Pope, a King.? Inevitably, charismatic leadership checked power. In the gifts, who can restrain him? It rules out criticism of the leaders? power. Neither followers nor lieutenants can question without undermining the movement. Everyone must yield to the leader?s will since his powers sustain everything else. In milder forms, the problem affect s all revealed religions?In JS?s lifetime, the evangelist and abolitionist Charles Finney stated that no human legislation can make it right to violate any command of God. Godly principles outrank every democratic law. In a sense, this was a truism for believers of revealed religion.

Believers in the Bible believe that the voice of the prophet is voice of God. The Constitution and the Bible pitted against each other. Who rules, the people or God, or the prophets? ?Mormon belief in ongoing revelation to the President of the Church accentuates the issue. At the committee hearings on Reed Smoot when the Senators en, senators pursued the apostle relentlessly, they asked repeatedly, between law of the land and revelation–Which is more binding? Suppose a revelation is received that is in conflict with the laws of the land, which is binding? Howe can you believe in revelation and pledge allegiance to the land and its laws? What if there?s a conflict? Smoot?s opponents were afraid that the President in Salt lake would dictate Smoot?s votes. How could he not comply?  Similar issues posed to Mitt Romney, does belief in a prophet mean his policy would be dictated from Salt Lake? Under all these accusations, is the single most striking opposition between church and democratic political cultures?contrasting attitudes toward power. Democratic societies? views of power are almost polar opposites [to those espoused by charismatic organizations].

Power in democratic discourse is an aggressive force, always seeking domination, always expanding. The single greatest challenge [in political philosophy] is how to regulate power.  The Bill of Rights, freedom of speech, of the press, these democratic treasures constrain power. Democracy?s greatest virtue is the preventive function, abused power can prevail only until the next election. In the church, power is trusted,  even beloved. Mormons want to maximize the prophet?s power. They reverently, humbly, even gratefully trust power. What could be better than to conform to power. Mormons are conscious of the dangers. But abuses are anomalies to be corrected not indications of intrinsic corruption. Power is thought of as redemptive, not oppressive. The word ?rights? never appears in church discourse. Absence of restraint troubles democratic critics. Church members don?t understand how threatening the unchecked power is. Why do they not want changes in church policies through campaigning? Why does the membership not demand to examine the Church?s financial records? It is troubling that Mormons reside in both realms, of Church and democracy. Mormons are no less aware of power problems in democracy?many have libertarian leanings. Their Mormonism does not numb them to the problems of concentrated power in the state, yet the same people urge their fellows to follow the prophet. They don?t criticize or call for open debate or ask for a larger voice, they happily accept assignments without questioning and bestow a degree of confidence [in their Church leaders] that they?d never allow to the US government. How can we reconcile these opposing attitudes? Mormons would protest that there are checks. They refer to the sustaining vote. Officers are named individually and the congregation is asked for approval. A revelation to Joseph Smith specified that no one was to be ordained without the vote of the Church.  Is that not democratic? [Well,] We all know this is a ritual without teeth! [laughter]. The congregation is not given a choice. The authorities are selected in advance. There is no examination of qualifications, there is not even advance knowledge of the person being called. This is definitely not an election. It rather indicates community support of the leaders issuing the call as much as a vote in sustaining the person called. Sustaining through election would signal community decay. ?I would argue that the preeminent check on Church power is charisma itself. Paradoxically, the very factor that seems to underlie authoritarianism in the Church is the chief restraint on power. Church leaders at every level? top to bottom are believed to act in the name of God. That is the source of their legitimacy. They are not elected, they receive the call from the heavens. The authority is Godly and must be exercised in an appropriate manner.

After months of contemplating the situation in Liberty Jail, the failure to establish Zion, not the mention the likelihood of his own execution, Joseph Smith writes a long letter. He grew angry in contemplating the abuse of his people. He also waxed philosophical and reflected on what he had learned about power. He wrote, ?it is the nature and disposition of almost all men as soon as they?no power or influence?love unfeigned.? The passage frustrates the modern reader in search of some theory of Church government. Power corrupts. Here we have the premise of James Madison, Federalist 10. What is the answer to Madison?s notion of the larger republic?  To our dismay, Smith lapses into the sentimentality of priesthood ruling with gentleness [chuckles]. What good is that? These are unreliable in rulers, mere words. How can such regulate what the scriptures admit is the very nature of humans? They get a little authority?unrighteous dominion. What the critics fail to recognize is the restraining effect of the moral terms of power. All power operates in a moral framework. There is a sense of what values legitimize authority. The king must be a protector of the people or they will turn against him. The democratic politician must use his office to further the good of the people or will be forced out of office. The CEO must serve the interests of shareholders, or be displaced. The moral terms of power set up limitations that invisibly fix the channels of action open to office holders in any organization. In the church the bishop must act as an emissary of God. Those are the temporal terms of power. The people expect it of him. They may not state it vocally, but the stake president does say it when he is called. Little needs to be said, ?I am not worthy? is the standard response. The moral demands of the office are higher than the person can meet. They operate in the mind of the bishop and the congregation. They expect him to receive revelation–to inspire their young, visit the sick. The moral demands are immense, and most especially the bishop knows that if he falls, he will fail in the office as the CEO whose stock is dropping. This offers a far greater check on authority than anything else.

The secret ingredient in the recipe is the expectation that leaders and people both feel, leaders are called of God, receive the gifts of their offices. ..Newly ordained church leaders immediately assume a bishoply manner, the ward members speak of the mantle of office falling upon them, no one can explain how the change comes about. In actuality, the transformation comes out of group wisdom, LDS know only that only leadership based in righteousness will work.  A new office holder knows it too, and must assume the office ?charisma, gift of divine power saturating the organization creates the methods in which the Church government operates. JS didn?t know the sociology of the church. He only knew he had a commission from God to form an organization led by priesthood and revelation. With confidence in his gifts and a desire to share them with the church. Although he lacked the Weberian language to describe what he?d done, he knew he had imposed an imperative?a bold experiment–an organizational form that has passed the test of time extraordinarily well.  Thank you.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Excellent and very descriptive notes as always, Jared T. Good to see you there. Not being a sociologist, I picked up on Weber’s model for understanding how charisma becomes routinized in a roundabout way from studying Nibley’s Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity. Nibley contested ideas that early Christianity was purely charismatic and therefore mostly devoid of organization or that spiritual experiences and rationality were mutually exclusive.

    That isn’t to say that I completely understand Weber. His categories make useful distinctions and help identify organizational tensions. In addition to Bushman’s address, Weber has been put to good use in Mormon Studies. The authors of the book about the office of presiding patriarch, Lost Legacy, refer to him as well.

    Comment by Keller — February 27, 2010 @ 12:33 am

  2. Thank you, Keller.

    Comment by Jared T — February 27, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

  3. Thanks Jared. My notes of Hicks’s presentation are available now too.

    Comment by BHodges — March 1, 2010 @ 10:39 am

  4. I think that there is a lot to discuss with regards to Joseph Smith’s routinization of charisma. Particularly Smith’s intense ritualization. However, I think things like the Hiram Page affair are a bit more complicate (Robin Jensen’s analysis of this in his master’s thesis is quite extraordinary, I think). Sure things are very bureaucratic now; but it has been a long time since Joseph Smith. What does it mean that after Joseph Smith’s death, there were strong trends of democratic election of Church leaders?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 1, 2010 @ 11:15 am

  5. J. on that note, i know I’ve run into at least one instance where in the Mormon colonies a congregation rejects a bishop by vote and the people are asked to vote for a new person who is then installed. They passed out pieces of paper and write names down, if I recall correctly.

    Comment by Jared T. — March 1, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

  6. Jared, if you find the sources for that voting situation let me know, that sounds interesting! Also, I put together my notes on Bushman on Friday but didn’t post them, I think I’ll throw them up sometime later this week and see how they compare. Do a little King Follett source analysis yo.

    Comment by BHodges — March 2, 2010 @ 9:51 am

  7. Voting occurred in Iowa and Utah as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 2, 2010 @ 10:24 am


Recent Comments

J. Stapley on A note on the: “A bit of an addendum, now that I have had a chance to research some more. The 1976 General Handbook included a quote from…”

J. Stapley on A note on the: “Thanks for that pointer, Clark. If I've done my math and sleuthing correctly, that would put that story in the late 1960s or early…”

The Other Clark on A note on the: “Great post. I look forward to the contributions of others to the conversation. My two cents: 1) One memorable school blessing story "on the…”

Left Field on Book Review: Jake Johnson,: “I wish the dramatic aspects of the endowment were more widely appreciated. We do more than just "witness" the sacred drama. We *enact*…”

Steve Fleming on Book Review: Jake Johnson,: “So what would you have said if you did have the time and space to unpack, "“The musical Saturday’s Warrior might well be the most…”

Ben P on 30-50 feral hogs or: “brb, trying to stop the presses so I can fit it in...”