Some reflections on “second-tier” church leaders and rank-and-file Mormons

By January 14, 2010

I recently completed reading David Clark’s biography of his great-great grandfather, Joseph Bates Noble: Polygamy and the Temple Lot Case (U of U Press, 2008). My full review of it will appear in the forthcoming issue of Nova Religio, but I want to focus here on an aspect of the book I wasn’t able to fully explore there.

In the introduction, Clark argues that figures like Noble are often overlooked by historians “because most chronicles of early members of the LDS Church focus on those who became important figures—church presidents, their counselors, and other major figures—rather than those who worked in the trenches.” These “‘regular’ members” constitute a group Clark affectionately labels “the many foot soldiers of [the] church” (p. ix-x). Yet it appears from the details of Noble’s life provided in the biography that his life as a Latter-day Saint was anything but regular. Noble traveled to Missouri as part of Zion?s camp, was a member of the original Quorum of Seventy, was initiated into the Anointed Quorum, served in the Nauvoo Legion, and was privy to the secretive discussions and practice of polygamy in the early 1840s, officiating at Joseph Smith’s 1841 plural marriage to Noble’s sister-in law Louisa Beman. Following Smith?s death, Noble traveled west with Brigham Young, overseeing a company of fifty individuals on the trek to Utah. Once there, he remained a confidant and trusted friend of other church presidents, including John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff (he spoke at Taylor’s funeral), and participated in plural marriage himself. His ecclesiastical responsibilities included service as a bishop (five separate times), a missionary, a seventy, and a patriarch. Because of his role in officiating at what was then believed to be Joseph Smith?s first plural marriage in 1841, Noble was among the group of Latter-day Saints called upon to testify at the 1892 court case between the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) that determined the rightful owner of a plot of land in Missouri that Joseph Smith dedicated for the construction of a temple, and in the minds of the many participants, the true successor of Joseph Smith?s church.

While Clark deserves credit for crafting from scant primary sources a readable sketch of his ancestor’s life and bringing to the attention of historians Noble’s involvement in so many important episodes in nineteenth century Mormon history, I think he’s missed the mark in lumping Noble together with the general rank-and-file membership of the Church. It seems to me that, instead, figures like Noble represents a lower echelon of leaders that carried out important tasks and participated to varying degrees in shaping Mormonism but for various reasons never attained the status of prophets, apostles, and other notable leaders.

Martha Sonntag Bradley seems to agree, noting in a blurb on the back cover of the book that “Noble comes from the second tier of church leaders and his life story illuminates many events in Mormon history from this unique perspective.” While reading, I was reminded of James Henry Martineau, whose journals the Religious Studies Center at BYU recently published. While Noble and Martineau converted to Mormonism at different times and in different places, they share much in common. Each regularly rubbed shoulders with the highest-ranking church leaders and each was present at numerous important ecclesiastical, political, and cultural events in Latter-day Saint history. Curiously, Noel Carmack, who is working with Charles Hatch on another edition of Martineau’s journals, concluded in a recent review of the RSC’s version that “Martineau’s extraordinary life” qualifies him “as a third-echelon Latter-day Saint settler, surveyor, engineer, chronicler, and patriarch.”[1]

I’m not quite sure what makes an individual part of the second or third or fourth or fifth tier of Mormon church leaders, and am not too interested in debating where different historical figures fall in the framework. But I do have a couple of reflections on such designations. First, I wonder whether Clark’s labeling of Noble and other second-tier ecclesiastical leaders as “regular members” who “worked in the trenches” only serves the further obscure the actual rank-and-file membership—those women and men who lived their lives quietly, whose names perhaps never show up in minutes of leadership meetings, and who weren’t on a first-name basis with apostles and prophets. Those figures, it seems to me, have much to tell us about Mormonism as it was lived and experienced at different times and in various locales.

This is not to suggest, of course, that figures like Noble and Martineau do not deserve attention. In fact, many important questions deserve to be asked of their own experiences. I’m interested, for example, in knowing what function (if any) these persons served in mediating Mormonism as it was taught and understood at leadership levels and how it was received and practiced on a local level in homes and individual lives. What else might lower-tier church leaders reveal about the Mormon experience?


[1] Noel A. Carmack, “Review of An Uncommon Common Pioneer: The Journals of James Henry Martineau, 1828-1918,” Journal of Mormon History 35:4 (2009): 274.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. What else might lower-tier church leaders reveal about the Mormon experience?

    Kathleen Flake has indicated that in her forthcoming book she is looking at how the 19th-century foot-soldiers understood and actually lived the principal of plural marriage. So, that’s one answer that popped to mind as to what these members’ lives can reveal about the overall Mormon experience.

    As to your other points about whether such designations (i.e., “second tier,” “regular member”) further obscure the Nobles of the world, what alternative titles do you like? To me, “second-tier” is useful as a designation as it seems to convey both a favorable and pejorative impression pretty equally.

    Comment by Hunter — January 14, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

  2. I’m sorry I wasn’t more clear, Hunter. I don’t necessarily think labeling a group of individuals as “second-tier” is a bad thing at all. What I tried to highlight in the post was that in my thinking “second-tier leader” does not equate with “regular member,” and that pretending it does does little to address the lack of attention paid to actual regular members.

    Comment by Christopher — January 14, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

  3. Thanks for your thoughts here, Christopher. The elite left the records (for the most part) in early Mormonism. It’s difficult to get to the regular membership. Most of my ancestors who were LDS, are virtually anonymous with little if any surviving records. Fortunately, some of their children wrote briefly about them, but their opinions and receipt of doctrine and practice, etc. are nearly impossible to see directly. I’m really looking forward to Kathleen Flake’s book for that reason in particular.

    Comment by WVS — January 14, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

  4. I’m thinking about this in terms of my work on Philadelphia. There seems to be a self-chosen division between those who became leaders (second tier or otherwise) and those who did not. Leaders were the ones who chose to be missionaries while most didn’t. The missionaries seemed to then “move-up” in the ranks of leadership. Yet the “rank and file” were essential to the work of the self-appointed missionaries: gave them food, money, and lodging.

    Perhaps that’s too simplistic though, many of the non-missionaries became bishops in Utah. The non-missionaries seemed to be more financially secure. Again, speaking in generalities, I’ll need to flesh this out. Thanks for the idea.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 14, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

  5. Thanks, Chris. I’m reading the Watt bio right now and share some of your thoughts (I’ll have a review when I’m done). Ron has done a great job at fleshing out a person that many current members might not recognize, but he was still a very important person. He went through some interesting progressions of belief, sometimes due to his proximity to “first-tier” authorities, and sometimes not. Still, especially during his missions in Britain, I wondered what the rank and file were thinking/doing.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 14, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

  6. Great questions, Chris. They brought to mind a poignant scene in the PBS “The Mormons” documentary where “rank-and-file” Mormon men looked around – apparently stunned – at the carnage of their handiwork following the Mountain Meadows Massacre. A commentator (I think Judith Freeman) explains her sympathy for the men in their plight as “the victims of their own devotion.” Clearly this episode displays one (extreme) aspect of the relations between church members and local leaders. There was (and I think still is) an interesting tension in the authority of intermediate leaders. How absolute is it? Clearly the common Mormon had some regard for the prophets and leaders of the Church. But how did they (especially in the settlements of the Utah period, or among the communities of the diasporic Saints ) regard those who implemented and oversaw?

    (Steve may be able to engage this in terms of Philadelphia. I’d be interested to know if anything on these issues has surface in your work on Saints in the south, Chris.)

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 15, 2010 @ 2:26 am

  7. Ryan, in the early days on the periphery, local branches chose their own leaders. They wouldn’t replace them at will, but this created a different dynamic. When the local leader (Benjamin Winchester) got heavy handed, the members essentially revolted, went over his head to the leaders at Nauvoo and broke into two factions. See my article.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 15, 2010 @ 8:46 am

  8. My Family History shows three types of local/Zion leaders: Church, business, and ‘clan’. Sometimes they were the same guy. Often not. Most/all were good Mormons. These three types would deal face to face with BY. Often with him staying in their homes.

    Comment by Bob — January 15, 2010 @ 9:31 am

  9. That’s an interesting classification, Bob. Could you elaborate on what you mean by “clan”?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 15, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

  10. That is, give examples of who a clan leader was and what he did.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 15, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  11. Thanks, everyone, for the great responses.

    Ryan, in my limited research on the church in the South, I hadn’t even thought about this sort of stuff until very recently, so I don’t have a good answer for you at this point. I’ll follow up when I return to that research. I should admit that further motivation for this post came as a result of John Wigger’s intriguing analysis of lower-ranking leaders in early American Methodism as described in his recent bio of Francis Asbury. The relationships at play between Asbury and the other Bishops, second-tier leaders (presiding elders), circuit preachers, and local membership was fascinating, and I wondered if there was similar dynamics at play in Mormonism.

    Steve, your Philadelphia example is really interesting, and exactly the sort of stuff I’m interested in with this post. Thanks.

    Bob, let me second Steve’s request for further explanation of what you mean by “clan” and the three-tiered division of leaders you note.

    Comment by Christopher — January 15, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

  12. #9,10: Think of The Kennedy Clan and a little of the Godfather movies. For my mother, she was born a Tolman. lead by the bothers Judson Tolman and Cyrus Tolman. (Judson the most powerful). Her mother was a Loveland lead by Col. Chester Loveland. Her grandmother was a Harper lead by Thomas Harper. Loveland and Harper were foremen for Anson Call. You can Google these guys and see what I mean.
    My father was of the Draper clan lead by William Draper and his son William Jr.
    My wife of the Hale clan, first lead by Jonathan H. Hale (Bishop of Nauvoo), Then Solmon H. Hale.
    Again, these clans saw to your welfair and life needs as much as the Church did.

    Comment by Bob — January 15, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

  13. Thanks, Steve. That is different. Interesting that that’s probably what should have happened at Mountain Meadows, too. Thanks for the link to your article.

    Yeah, let me know what comes up, Chris. I think places away from Utah would provide the most stark indications of these relationships were like.

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 15, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

  14. I?m interested, for example, in knowing what function (if any) these persons served in mediating Mormonism as it was taught and understood at leadership levels and how it was received and practiced on a local level in homes and individual lives.

    The new Watt bio that J. Stapley mentions is right on point here. While I have no thought about how GDWatt’s activity did or did not shape thinking at the top, I think, frankly, that he his life work has resulted in a church that would be very, very, different without him. Without GDWatt, whom we’d probably rank as below leadership level although he was closely associated with leaders and was present at extraordinary events, our knowledge of the teachings of Brigham Young and John Taylor and the Twelve of their administrations, and who knows how far into the future, would probably be in the same state as our knowledge of Joseph Smith’s teachings. We’d have to piece them together from sources of mixed quality, and there would be huge, regrettable gaps.

    But because of GDWatt, we have word-for-word transcriptions of a vast body of sermons. More importantly, we got in the habit of expecting our major sermons to be published and available for reference. Think of how much the church has been shaped in the past couple of generations by access to the conference talks not only in ward library sets but in every home. I think that is a direct legacy of GDWatt, and a clear example of a lower-level member having a huge influence on the church, its teachings, and practices.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 15, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  15. …my thinking ?second-tier leader? does not equate with ?regular member,? and that pretending it does does little to address the lack of attention paid to actual regular members.

    I haven’t read this one, but similar sentiments appear in the Amasa Lyman bio and the George Watt bio (not in the exact same way, I don’t recall talk of second-tier ideas specifically.) It seems to me these authors may be making an overgeneralized way to promote their work. If the general feeling is that the tales of the common people make for new insightful reading, perhaps they hope to capitalize on it to generate some interest. In other words, it seems like a half-limp way to say “you’ve read other Mormon history before, but this is something a little bit different!” (Interestingly, all three of these books were written by direct descendants too.)

    Comment by BHodges — January 15, 2010 @ 6:07 pm

  16. I should add, aside from the possible rhetorical function of the discussion of the second-tier (or everyman) nature of the subjects of these books, I think your questions are really interesting, Christopher. I hadn’t consciously considered looking for any sort of patterns regarding such relationships in the last few books I read, but I don’t believe the authors spent a good deal of time on it either. So the field seems ripe, as it were.

    Comment by BHodges — January 15, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

  17. If we are talking about 19C Utah/Idaho, then I feel the ideas of “Second-tier” or “Rank and File” were not felt by most Regular members living lives outside Salt Lake.
    It was more “All politics is local” in the Mormon Villages. A lot of “big fish in little ponds”. They were isolated. Contact came mostly visits to them (BY would have had a lot of sky-miles). This ended with railroad spurs, cars, phones, radios, and the changes to farm life.

    Comment by Bob — January 15, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

  18. Bob, there was an incredible amount of travel between Salt Lake City the distant colonies in Utah and beyond, for Conference and political business and trade and meeting immigrants and going for sealings before temples were built. The Brigham Young office files are stuffed to overflowing with outgoing AND incoming mail that shows an extremely intimate acquaintance between leaders and led. Whatever emotional or political or status differences might have been felt, physical distance was hardly a blip on the radar. 19th century Mormondom was a small, intimate community despite geography (which is why I’m bugged by historians who don’t recognize family and social relationships when they’re relevant).

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 15, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

  19. #18: Ardis, you are correct about the travel and correspondence between Salt Lake and the Mormon Villages. That why I said BY would have had a lot of sky-miles. You are correct that there was loyalty to Mormonism.
    I am less sure about “Mormondom was a small, intimate community despite geography”. I see more diversity between say Dixie Utah and the Sanpete Valley. Also “physical distance was hardly a blip on the radar”. For my father as a boy, Salt Lake City was a hard two and a half day wagon ride from Moroni thru Nephi. After a railroad spur…two hours. He and his brothers and sisters got jobs in SLC during the week then back to work the farm on the weekends.
    My mother’s Tolman ‘Clan’ is still very much alive and headquartered in Bountiful, Utah. They have their own building, staffed by Tolmans doing Family History only of the Tolmans. You will not find many GAs listed there. But lots of mayors, judges, sheriffs, businessmen, and local leaders of the Mormon Villages.

    Comment by Bob — January 16, 2010 @ 12:45 pm


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