Tuesday, March 31, 2015
The Church IS a Democracy
I thought that might get your attention. So now that you’re here, let me qualify that title, twice.
1. The Church is a democracy, too.
2. The Church is a democracy, too, . . . in theory.
I know, I know. “The Church is not a democracy” is one of the favorite platitudes among twenty-first-century Mormons, but it is a one-dimensional claim that you will not find in scripture or in early Church history. What you do find is some really interesting stuff.
The Double Hybrid Organization
I’ve spent the past few weeks discussing how the Church is a hybrid—both an ecclesiastical community and a corporation. But the Church is a hybrid in a second and very different way. It is both a theocracy and a democracy—at least in theory. We believe that the Lord guides the Church, at all levels, through leaders he has called by revelation. And we believe that those leaders oversee his work for the most part by inspiration. Conversely, we also believe in the law of common consent.
“All things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith” (D&C 26:2, emphasis added).
“No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church” (D&C 20:65, emphasis added).
Voting in the Church has been more or less perfunctory for decades now—a discussion-free ratification of decisions that have been prayerfully made by an individual leader or a group of leaders. Indeed, there exists now a distinct stigma for any active Latter-day Saint who would dare vote against a person proposed for a calling by ward, stake, or general Church leaders. And this is not an inadvertent development. It represents a definite shift in the Church’s official interpretation of institutional authority. In recent decades, we have been taught from the pulpit and in Church publications that sustaining votes indicate our acceptance of the Lord’s will and our commitment to support those who have been called by inspiration.1 It has also been suggested that if we vote negatively, we are placing ourselves in opposition to our leaders and we should seek their help, presumably to assist us in repenting for our dissent.
But the law of common consent was not always interpreted in this way. The Saints of Joseph Smith’s day took the right and responsibility of voting seriously. At a conference of the Saints in Far West, Missouri, on November 7, 1837, for instance, the Prophet nominated Sidney Rigdon to be one of his counselors. Rigdon was sustained unanimously. Joseph then nominated Frederick G. Williams to be his second counselor, but Lyman Wight objected because of a letter Williams had written. Thomas B. Marsh, President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, also objected. Bishop Edward Partridge seconded the nomination because, as he argued, the letter had nothing criminal in it. After more discussion, Sidney Rigdon nominated Hyrum Smith to take Williams’s place. Marsh, the moderator of this Church business, called for a vote of the conference attendees, and Williams was rejected, even though the Prophet had nominated him. Marsh then called for a vote on Hyrum Smith, and the conference unanimously approved him.2 This all sounds strangely democratic when compared with the sustaining of Church officers today; even the terminology of “nominating” leaders sounds foreign to us in the twenty-first-century Church, but the organization of Joseph’s day was at times more openly democratic than the institution that has evolved from it.
This more democratic understanding of the law of common consent persisted for decades. In a 1980 article, Michael Quinn, then a professor at BYU, recounted some highlights of this earlier understanding. In 1843, for instance, “Joseph Smith instructed an assembled conference of thousands of Church members that he wanted them to vote against the continued presence of Sidney Rigdon as a counselor in the First Presidency. Instead, the assembled multitude voted to retain Rigdon in his position.”3 Quinn also quoted Joseph F. Smith’s testimony in the Reed Smoot Senate hearings, in which President Smith related an instance when a ward’s members refused to allow Brigham Young to release their aging bishop, Jacob Weiler, and to install a new bishop. Of course President Smith was trying to convince the Senate that Reed Smoot would not be just a puppet in his hand and that Mormons had the autonomy to overrule their leaders at times, but the relevant point for us is that apparently this event did indeed happen. In another instance, President Young tried to install a new stake president, only to have the man voted down by the congregation. After the members were consulted, another man was proposed and sustained. Similar dissent was shown—not in negative votes, but in thousands of abstentions—when the manifesto to end polygamy was voted upon and approved “unanimously” in the Tabernacle in October 1890.4 Such open resistance against leaders is unheard of in today’s Church, but that just shows how drastically things have changed over the past century.
At the turn of the twentieth century the Church employed democratic practices we would never see today. Historian Thomas Alexander recounts, for instance, how General Authorities often asked for a vote of the high council when calling a new bishop. “In several cases the priesthood of the ward cast ballots. In one of these the visiting authorities chose the brother with the highest number of votes as bishop and the next highest as his first counselor. They passed over the man with the third highest number since he served on the stake high council and chose instead the fourth highest as second counselor.”5
Standing opposite this diminishing democratic impulse in Mormonism has been a more persistent theocratic inclination. An incident from nineteenth-century Utah sheds light on this counterpoint. At the outset of the Godbeite rebellion against Brigham Young’s leadership, William Godbe was called to the podium in the Tabernacle before the regular Saturday evening meeting of the School of the Prophets. Elder Wilford Woodruff conducted a public inquiry into Godbe’s loyalties. “Do you believe,” asked Woodruff, “that President Young has the right to dictate to you in all things temporal and spiritual?”6 Woodruff’s question was not merely an indicator of Brigham Young’s autocratic rule in pioneer Utah. Historian Ronald W. Walker explains that “this was an article of faith in Mormon society since the days of founder Joseph Smith.”7
Over the years, the Church has retreated somewhat from both of these impulses. Overt democratic voting for or against Church officials is a distant memory, and the closest we come today to Wilford Woodruff’s query is a temple recommend question that asks if individual Saints sustain the President of the Church as prophet, seer, and revelator. The result of this retreat is less tension between the two poles, but that is not to say the tension does not still exist and does not create difficulties for both leaders and members from time to time.
The Name of the Church
Of particular relevance to this tension between democracy and theocracy in the Church is what happened on May 3, 1834. A conference of elders of the “Church of Christ,” as it was then called, with Joseph Smith acting as moderator, voted unanimously to change the organization’s name to “The Church of the Latter Day Saints,”8 perhaps to avoid confusion with other churches whose names were similar or identical to the “Church of Christ.” In doing so, they apparently ignored the Lord’s direction in 3 Nephi 27:8 and tipped the scales away from theocracy toward democracy, which was obviously not what the Lord desired, for four years later Jesus Christ himself, speaking through Joseph Smith, specifically designated the official name of the Church, restoring his name to the title and firmly reestablishing a balance (and, consequently, a proper tension) between theocracy and democracy (see D&C 115:3–4).9
Interestingly, most members today see neither the balance nor the tension in the name—a sort of forest and trees phenomenon. We often refer to the Church as the Lord’s Church and assume that’s all there is to it. The Lord himself often refers to the organization as “my church” (see, for example, D&C 10:54, 69; 11:16; 18:4–5; 42:11, 32, 59; 106:1; 112:27; and 133:1). But the admittedly strange name he gave this organization is a double possessive. It is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is his Church, but it is also ours. And sometimes we fail to understand the full ramifications of that fact. It is our expectation that the Lord will take care of his Church, but it is his expectation that we will do the same. When we remove ourselves from the equation, we grant too much credence to the notion that our leaders are always and in every instance inspired by God and that they do not want or need input from the rank-and-file members. This, of course, is not true and never has been.
I wrote most of the material in this post several years ago. Ironically, though, in searching for more information about the topic this week, I happened upon the following explanation from Elder James E. Talmage. I find it interesting that he said virtually the same thing ninety-six years ago.
“The compound character of the name-title—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—has elicited inquiries from many thoughtful readers. Does the organization profess to be The Church of Jesus Christ, or The Church of the Latter-day Saints?
“The answer is—both. . . .
“The early revelations given to the Church contain frequent mention of common consent or the voice of the members, as essential in matters of administration. . . .
“. . . Every prayer that is offered, every ordinance administered, every doctrine proclaimed by the Church, is voiced in the name of Him whose Church it is.
“Nevertheless, as an association of human membership, as a working body having relation with the secular law, as a religious society claiming the rights of recognition and privilege common to all, it is the people’s institution, for the operation of which, so far as such is dependent upon them, they are answerable to themselves, to the organization as a unit, and to God.
“The plan of organization and government of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that of a theodemocracy, whose organic constitution has been revealed from heaven and is accepted by the members as their guide in faith, doctrine and practice.”10
It appears that this notion of the Church being a hybrid—both theocracy and democracy—has waned over the past hundred years. This probably has something to do with the rapid growth the Church has experienced, the increasing centralization, and the vertical pressures of the organizational imperative (discussed over the past five weeks).
Leadership by Revelation or by Participation?
The unusual bipolar form of organizational ownership the Lord has established creates a perplexing leadership challenge. If the Church is led purely by revelation, then many members assume it must be an autocratic institution, an authoritarian form of theocracy with rigid vertical lines of authority and a top-down management imperative. Obviously, as the organization is defined in the Doctrine and Covenants, a certain amount of hierarchy is inevitable. But we must be careful about how that hierarchical structure is administered, avoiding the authoritarian tendencies and methods that seem inherent in all hierarchies. Perhaps these authoritarian tendencies can be reined in only by the democratic impulse built into the very nature and name of the Church. If the Church is not just a theocratic hierarchy but is also to be governed by the common consent of its members in “all things,” as the revelation insists, then it must involve some sort of participative leadership and be at least partially democratic in nature. These two impulses, pulling in opposite directions, present a dilemma for those in positions of authority: How do I lead by revelation if I must also welcome the participation and request the consent of those at the rank-and-file level? The logical answer to this question (which I will deal with next week) might surprise some members. Indeed, some Church leaders have never considered this question, which unfortunately leaves them no obvious alternative than to resort to a familiar worldly fall-back position: autocratic governance, or, to use President McKay’s idiom, running the Church like a business.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell identified three basic types of leadership: manipulative, directive, and participative.11 Manipulative leadership is virtually always inappropriate. Directive leadership has certain advantages, particularly in time of crisis; indeed, a good leader must at times exercise directive leadership. The most difficult type of leadership, of course, is participative leadership, and it is therefore the approach that is too often neglected. A straight dose of participative leadership, however, is also inappropriate. Too much democracy is not only messy and inefficient, but it can also stifle individual creativity. The best leaders, therefore, invariably blend directive and participative leadership, and they also have a very good sense for when each style is most appropriate. Consider these wise thoughts from Elder Maxwell:
Participative leadership seeks to call upon the maximum resources of the group members. When it succeeds, this kind of leadership results in a higher achievement than the individual alone could produce. Participative leadership assumes that everyone has something to give. . . .
Participative leadership frees those concerned to provide helpful feedback, whereas directive leadership often suffers from the fact that as the leader acquires more prestige and power, his followers may be less and less likely to level with him even though he wishes this were not so.
The disadvantages of participative leadership are that, at times, groups focus too much on feelings and become too immobilized to take needed action. A group may listen and hear only the signal of “an uncertain trumpet.” Group problem solving can, when it miscarries, result in the stifling of individual creativity and can result in a great deal of mediocrity.
Recalling his work on the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein noted “a feeling of direction, of going straight toward something concrete.” This kind of creative insight—“going straight toward something concrete”—could, under some conditions, be stifled by participative leadership. Although discussions with his colleagues might have been helpful to Einstein, creative insights are often obtained in solitude.12
Supporting the positive aspects of participative leadership, Elder M. Russell Ballard applied these ideas to how councils ideally should work. He was speaking about family councils, but the concept applies to all organizational settings:
A council is when parents let their children help solve the problem. And when everyone agrees to a solution, everyone will have ownership of the problem. . . . Talking about the course of action makes all the difference. If it’s mandated or dictated, there will usually be resistance. But if parents will establish a climate conducive to openness, where every person is important and every opinion is valued, they can create a kind of spiritual synergism in the home, where the combined action or cooperation that results is greater than the sum of the individual parts. . . . A father, who is the priesthood bearer and patriarch in a home, has the responsibility to make the decisions. I emphasize the term responsibility—not the term authority. But it is far better if those decisions are made in a spirit of unity of purpose and pulling together as a family.13
So we have leaders, from prophets and apostles on down to auxiliary presidents and parents, who are supposed to lead both by revelation—divine mandate, as it were—and by common consent—not just the approval, but also the participation of the people over whom they preside. This is a very delicate balancing act, which is part of the reason why some leaders do it so badly and why many members are frustrated over seemingly arbitrary organizational constraints and demands. Authority in the Church is fraught with complex requirements that ordinary organizations do not generally experience—although, as you might suspect if you’ve been paying attention, perhaps they should struggle with such requirements.
Is Common Consent Obsolete?
Historically speaking, the law of common consent might be viewed as a principle borrowed from the “traditional congregational model” familiar to many early Church members.14 It can also be viewed as an idea that perhaps worked for the very early Church (before Joseph introduced a highly structured priesthood hierarchy) but quickly became obsolete as the Church expanded and evolved. While true voting for Church officers persisted for decades, the instruction given in D&C 26:2—“All things shall be done by common consent in the church”—became impractical within a very few years as the organization grew and became more complex, with greater vertical emphasis. Certainly, by the 1840s, Joseph felt no compulsion to follow this divine directive in such matters as his secretive implementation of plural marriage. So, since we no longer practice the law of common consent in either manner in today’s Church, the logical question is whether we shouldn’t just elide this revelation from the scriptural canon altogether. It has been altered in practice to the point that it is no longer recognizable.
Indeed, we have moved so far away from democracy that the platitude “The Church is not a democracy” is not really a platitude anymore. It is a statement of fact. But should we give up on this idea so easily? Or are there ways we can restore some of the balance between theocracy and democracy that I believe the Lord still desires? Hint: I wouldn’t ask this question if I thought the answer was no. Stay tuned.
1. See Russell M. Nelson, “Sustaining the Prophets,” Ensign 44, no. 11 (November 2014): 74–77; Loren C. Dunn, “We Are Called of God,” Ensign 2, no. 7 (July 1972): 43; Alma P. Burton, “All in Favor, Please Signify!” Ensign 4, no. 3 (March 1974): 16.
2. Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 2:522–23 (hereafter cited as History of the Church). It is interesting to note that Frederick G. Williams was not present at this conference, where he was voted out of the First Presidency, but he was present at a conference in Kirtland, a mere two months prior to this Missouri conference, where he was sustained unanimously. See “Journal, 1832–1842,” in The Papers of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 2:217. It is also notable that when the Saints in Kirtland found out about the Missouri decision to drop Williams from the First Presidency, a vote was taken on whether or not to ratify the Missouri action. “Then the issue of the propriety of having dropped Frederick G. Williams from the presidency in Missouri was voted on to be reconsidered. Those in favor of Frederick G. Williams included Hyrum Smith himself, who had been voted to take Williams’s position in the First Presidency.” Frederick G. Williams, The Life of Dr. Frederick G. Williams: Counselor to the Prophet Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2012), 528–30. Author Williams (a great-great-grandson and namesake of Joseph’s one-time counselor) cites an unfinished letter drafted from Kirtland to Thomas B. Marsh, containing the minutes of the December 17, 1837, conference. The letter can be found in the Thomas B. Marsh papers, MS 9128, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City. The letter is in the handwriting of George W. Robinson.
3. D. Michael Quinn, “From Sacred Grove to Sacral Power Structure,” Dialogue 17, no. 2 (Summer 1984): 13, citing History of the Church, 6:49.
4. Quinn, “From Sacred Grove,” 14.
5. Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 107.
6. Ronald W. Walker, Wayward Saints (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2009), 9.
7. Walker, Wayward Saints, 9.
8. The Evening and the Morning Star 2, no. 20 (May 1834): 160; also History of the Church, 2:62–63. The conference business was to discuss “names and appellations.” The motion to change the Church’s name was made by Sydney Rigdon and seconded by Newel K. Whitney. Joseph Smith, as moderator, put the motion to a vote, and the name change “passed by unanimous voice.”
9. Although Doctrine and Covenants 115 seems to indicate that on April 26, 1838, the Lord declared for the first time that the name of the Church should be The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an incident recorded in Joseph’s History of the Church, published long after his death, suggests that some combination of the two prior names was being used before this revelation was given. Speaking of dissenters Warren Parrish, John F. Boynton, Luke S. Johnson, Joseph Coe, and others, who had “united together for the overthrow of the church,” Joseph explains that soon after his return from Kirtland on December 10, 1837, “this dissenting band openly and publicly renounced the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints and claimed themselves to be the old standard, calling themselves the Church of Christ, excluding the word ‘Saints,’ and set me at naught, and the whole Church, denouncing us as heretics.” History of the Church, 2:528. Apparently, then, the longer name of the Church that combines the older Church of Christ with the newer Church of the Latter Day Saints was in use before the revelation that made the name official
10. James E. Talmage, The Vitality of Mormonism (1919; Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1948), 38–40.
11. Neal A. Maxwell, A More Excellent Way (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1967), 19–25.
12. Maxwell, A More Excellent Way, 24–25. I should point out here that leaders sometimes need to practice a fourth type of leadership, which we might term “facilitative leadership,” in which they open doors for their followers and then get out of the way.
13. “Family Councils: A Conversation with Elder and Sister Ballard,” Ensign, June 2003, 16–17, emphasis added.
14. “Common Consent,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Common_Consent.