The Tensions of Church and State, Public and Private: Tracing Mormonism’s Political Theology in the 19th Century

By March 8, 2012

As the “world is governed too much” and as there is not a nation or dynasty, now occupying the earth, which acknowledges Almighty God as their law giver, and as “crown won by blood, by blood must be maintained,” I go emphatically, virtuously, and humanely, for a THEODEMOCRACY, where God and the people hold the power to conduct the affairs of men in righteousness.               -Joseph Smith, 1844

I was at dinner a couple nights ago with some American historians discussing the current GOP election. Someone made the astute point that one reason this year’s primaries will likely go longer than previous elections—including the possibility that there won’t be a winner prior to the convention—is that the election rules have changed, most especially the way votes are proportioned in each contest. Typical protocols and boundaries, it seems, are now gone, leading to the rambunctious and contested situation we are currently in. Among those typical rules that have disappeared, someone jokingly added, was the separation of church and state. We all laughed, but at the same time sighed because we knew there was more truth in that quip than we would like to admit.

Of course, America has long dealt with the dynamic and amorphous relationship between religion and government, so this is nothing new. And like most American religions, Mormonism has often attempted to navigate these troubled waters. While much work has been done on tracing the development of LDS political theology, there is certainly much left to do. Since it is a hot topic nowadays—including an outstanding conference on this very topic held in february (videos here)—I thought it might prove useful to give an overview of the relevant historiography (see the appendix below) and, more importantly, highlight two phenomenal articles from the last year that add much to the discussion.

The first article is Patrick Mason’s “God and the People: Theodemocracy in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism,” Journal of Church and State 53, no. 2: 349-375. (An earlier version won MHA’s best graduate paper award several years ago.) Mason, recently appointed the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, explores the tensions inherent within early Mormonism’s embrace of, on the one hand, God’s kingdom realized on earth, and, on the other, America’s democratic principles. “Proclaiming their allegiance to God in all human affairs while also maintaining a sincere faith in American republicanism,” he writes, “early Mormons…sought to create a sociopolitical order that combined the virtues of government by God (theocracy) and by the people (democracy).” While such a combination appears ludicrous to many today—sans folk like Santorum, anyway—“[Joseph] Smith and his followers viewed them as complimentary,” and maintained a belief that “theos and demos were in fact part of an organic system of government that permeated not only earthly but also heavenly realms” (350). This collapse of divine and mundane has long been identified as central to Mormon culture, and included important repercussions in the political realm.

In “God and the People,” Mason seeks to do three things: first, outline the tensions within Joseph Smith’s political thought during the final years of his life; second, trace how these tensions played out in Smith’s three immediate successors (Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff); and finally, explore how Mormon thinkers sought to balance the will of God and the will of the people. Though I wish he could have spent more time on the middle of these three topics and tease out the implications of situational and chronological transitions—darn you, page/word restrictions!—Mason succeeds triumphantly on the others. While we may never know the particulars of Joseph Smith’s radical political vision until someone unlocks the Council of Fifty minutes, I imagine Mason has established a framework to understanding this fascinating topic that should last for quite some time. And his reconstruction of the Mormon conception of theodemocracy as a cogent sociopolitical order—especially his look at how Mormon political thinkers conceptualized “liberty” and “freedom”—is a masterpiece of political and intellectual history that draws from sophisticated theoretical tools, and is an example of the rich analysis promised by the young generation of Mormon scholars. The article ends with theodemocracy’s retreat from the public sphere—he rightly notes how “the nineteenth-century Mormon concept of theodeomocracy…proved a poor fit for the pluralistic, liberal democratic culture of the modern American polity” (375)—and the reframing of the Mormon political order that accommodated American disestablishment while still reaffirming ecclesiastical order within the Mormon world.

The second article is Christine Talbot’s provocative and sophisticated “The Church Family in Nineteenth-Century America: Mormonism and the Public/Private Divide,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 208-257. Building on her award-winning dissertation, Talbot, an assistant professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Northern Colorado, argues that a distinct and important element of Mormonism’s political theology is how they “disavowed the divide between public and private by amalgamating religion, family, civic life, economics, and government as a single entity in God’s kingdom” (210). Indeed, a prime instigator to the anti-Mormon backlash during the second half of the nineteenth-century was their audacity to trouble the public/private divide, inverting its meaning, and accommodating its purposes. In response to an American culture that increasingly saw a boundary between the domestic on the politic, Mormons claimed that there was no such thing as private and that God’s kingdom encompassed everything in equal degrees. Here we witness, once again, the ramifications of Mormonism’s collapse of sacred and secular on their political theology.

After a very helpful overview of the public/private debate in nineteenth-century America, Talbot engages the two areas in which Mormonism attacked the divide the most: polygamy and consecration. “Polygamy,” she astutely writes, “united God’s people and remade Mormon society as a broad, community-wide family that was also a political community: God’s polity.” This move both “privatized” God’s kingdom by locating it in the home while at the same time “publicized” the family by “making it a polity” (222). With consecration, Mormons “worked against middle-class concepts of private property and the heads of household who possessed it on behalf of the private family” (232). By emphasizing “stewardship” over “ownership,” LDS offered a cogent challenged against and increasingly capitalist nation based on property and individualism. Talbot goes on to further elucidate Moronism’s “political dualism” that sought to both demonstrate the kingdom’s compatibility with American political institutions while still offering a sizeable challenge that subverted and reoriented its very framework. Importantly, Talbot also moves beyond the abstract principles of this issue and examines the lived realities that came as a result, including the appearance of Mormon women into the public sphere. We should all be excited for Talbot’s future work.

Of course, as is the case with most themes in Mormonism, what is left for future scholarship is seeing how Mormonism’s political theology develops following the demise of polygamy and consecration, as LDS culture enters into and assimilates with the broader American polity. Is there still such a thing as a Mormon political theology? (Well, besides this, anyway.) It seems the lack of a public and sophisticated engagement with this issue since 1900—part of the privatizing process both Mason and Talbot identify at the end of the nineteenth-century—has led some to even think the past century’s political theology still remains today, which obviously misses the foundational changes that have happened since then. But what those foundational changes entail, and how they came about, need to be addressed by the next generation of Mormon scholars interested in political thought and intellectual history.


Appendix: Relevant works on Mormonism and Politics

Perhaps the best work on the relationship between Mormonism and the state is Sally Gordon’s magnificent The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth Century America (UNC, 2001), which I still maintain to be the best Mormon studies book yet written. This text engages broader American historical and legal issues better than any other book on Mormonism, and it is a must-read for any student of Church/State relations. Similarly important is Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (UNC, 2003), which engages the intersections of religion and politics during the Progressive Age.

For the foundations of Joseph Smith’s political thought, Mark Ashurst-McGee’s “Zion Rising: Joseph Smith’s Early Social and Political Thought” (PhD Dissertation: Arizona State University, 2008) is magisterial, and something valuable of his should be taken hostage until he turns it into a book and/or articles. With Smith’s later political thought, the Council of Fifty dominates the discussion. See Klaus Hansen, Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty (MSU, 1970); Andrew F. Ehat, “‘It Seems Like Heaven Began on Earth’: Joseph Smith and the Constitution of the Kingdom of God,” BYU Studies 20, no. 3 (Spring 1980). For contemporaneous and competing books on how Joseph Smith challenged the cultural and political landscape of America, see Marvin S. Hill, Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Signature, 1989) and Kenneth H. Winn, Exiles in a Land of Liberty: Mormons in America, 1830-1846 (UNC, 1989). (The former book is, as implied in the title, also in response to Hansen.) A recent and very helpful corrective to the image of Joseph Smith as a democratic revelator is Steven C. Harper, “Dictated By the Words of Christ: Joseph Smith and the Politics of Revelation,” Journal of the Early Republic 26, no. 2 (Summer 2006).

Works exploring the intersections of politics and religion in territorial Utah, as well as the broader chronological spectrum, are legion, but those that specifically deal (at least superficially) with political theology are David Bigler, The Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896 (Spokane: Arthur Clark, 1998); Hansen, Quest for Refuge; J.D. Williams, “The Separation of Church and State in Mormon Theory and Practice,” Journal of Church and State 9, no. 2 (Spring 1967); J. Keith Melville, “Theory and Practice of Church and State During the Brigham Young Era,” BYU Studies 3 (Autumn 1960); Edward Allen Warner, “Mormon Theodemocracy: Theocratic and Democratic Elements in Early Latter-Day Saint Ideology, 1827-1846” (PhD Dissertation: University of Iowa, 1973).

As noted above, there is still a lot of work to be done on the twentieth century. Thomas Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition: A History of Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Illinois UP, 1986) is the standard overview of the transition, but its scope doesn’t allow a deep engagement with politics. Same goes for Armand Mauss’s Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Illinois UP, 1994), which does similar significant work on Mormon culture in the middle to late twentieth century. Isolated works on David O McKay, J. Reuben Clark, and Ezra Taft Benson are also helpful, but they are narrow in implications for the broader culture. Patrick Mason is currently in the early stages of an intellectual and political biography of Ezra Taft Benson which will no doubt be monumental for this historiography.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Intellectual History Politics


  1. Wow, Ben. Your “appendix” is a wonderful resource. Thanks! I would only add that Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People, though a survey and synthesis of the entire Mormon story, offers some pretty provocative and useful insights in Mormons and politics, esp. in the 20th century.

    And I appreciate your report of the two articles. I still haven’t read Dr. Talbot’s and now want to re-read Pat’s.

    Comment by Christopher — March 8, 2012 @ 11:36 am

  2. Great stuff, Ben. I’d only add that the bibliography has a Quinn-shaped hole in it (his C50 article and both Hierarchy volumes address the issue).

    Comment by David G. — March 8, 2012 @ 11:42 am

  3. Nice appendix — guess I’d better hunt down a copy of the Gordon book. Say, whatever happened to the rumored second edition of Quest for Empire?

    Comment by Dave — March 8, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

  4. Thanks, all. Chris, I agree that Matt’s book merits inclusion, and I especially hope he does more on Progressive politics during the twentieth century.

    David: Yeah, his C50 article deserves attention, and his Extensions of Power gives a broad overview as well.

    Dave: I don’t think it made it very far, and I heard it’s been dropped.

    One other author I hope to hear more from on this issue: Jared Hickman. He has done some phenomenal work on political theology that has shaped how I view the topic (see here and here), and some simply tremendous work on Mormonism (which, unfortunately, hasn’t been published yet), and he just needs to merge the two.

    Comment by Ben P — March 8, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

  5. Ben, thanks for another great post. How did you know that this is exactly what I was looking for?

    Don’t forget Matthew Godfrey’s book Religion, Politics, And Sugar: The Mormon Church, the Federal Government, and the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1907-1921. Matthew won an MHA best dissertation award for the subject matter of this book.

    Comment by Susan W H — March 8, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

  6. Thanks, Susan, and a great addition.

    Comment by Ben P — March 8, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  7. This is a great overview, Ben. I’ve been especially glad to see Mason’s and Harper’s articles engage with broader contexts and go to mainline American history journals. Hope we see more of that.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 8, 2012 @ 6:47 pm


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