Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Authority (Part 6: Priesthood as Institutional Authority)
Because priesthood is an abstract principle in modern Mormondom, it does not necessarily have to be attached to the institutional Church, although in our day this is always the case. Joseph and Oliver, for instance, were not members of the Church when they received authority that was later termed priesthood, nor were they members when they baptized each other, but we explain this fact by observing that they had to receive the authority first in order to establish the Church; otherwise, the organization would not have been authorized by the Lord. Nevertheless, since the founding of the Church in the latter days, priesthood has always been bestowed and exercised within its institutional confines. Indeed, Orson Hyde, in a May 1844 article titled “Priesthood What Is It,” declared that priesthood “is the right and the power to establish and govern the Church of the Living God, and is the same to that body, that government is to the nation.”1 This definition entirely sidesteps the more elementary and historical notion that priesthood has a necessary connection to being a priest and performing priestly rituals; it is instead the authority to establish an organization and then govern it. It is institutional authority.
Michael Quinn makes this insightful observation: “When the Church was organized in April 1830, there was still little sense of hierarchy. Smith was seen as one prophet among potentially many. Neither was there a structured sense of authority or priesthood. . . . It was priesthood—and eventually a highly structured priesthood—which required the hierarchical institution that Mormonism became.”2 Priesthood and hierarchy are inextricably intertwined in the modern Church. One does not exist without the other. In fact, one spawns the other.
The Organizational Impulse
Priesthood in modern Mormonism has spawned a hierarchical institution that is, organizationally speaking, on steroids. The LDS Church is so massively organized that it makes even the Roman Catholic Church look like amateur hour. Even if we completely ignore the general Church hierarchy of First Presidency, Apostles, Seventies, and general auxiliary presidencies as well as all area- and stake-level officers, we still see that each fully staffed ward in the Church has not just a bishop and his counselors, but a high priest group leader with two assistants, twelve (yes twelve) presidents with two counselors each (if you count the bishop as president of the priests quorum with his two assistants), a handful of clerks, a ward mission leader, an employment specialist, a music chairperson, dozens of teachers, secretaries, advisers, and other assorted official positions. This irrepressible organizational impulse makes Mormonism easily the most highly structured religion on earth, but it also opens the door to several significant and as yet unanswered questions regarding authority. One very simple question is, how much of this organization is absolutely necessary? This is a question that has been studiously avoided. The idea of giving every member a “calling” has certainly trumped every call for organizational reduction and simplification.
Returning to the idea that priesthood and institutional hierarchy are inseparable in modern Mormonism, I should point out that it is, of course, theoretically possible for the Lord to bestow priesthood authority upon someone not baptized into the Church, but as far as we know, this has not happened since the Church was organized. In earlier dispensations, however, prophets sometimes received authority and spoke and acted in the Lord’s name without any sort of corresponding formal organizational structure (Moses in exile and Abinadi among the apostate colony of King Noah, for instance), but this pattern does not prevail in our day—the priesthood and the Church are inseparable. Without the priesthood, there is no authorized church, and without the Church, there is no valid framework within which the priesthood can operate, although this framework has changed and evolved significantly since the early days of the Restoration.3
At times in the ancient world, priesthood was directly responsible for leading the people, not just performing sacred rituals. At the time of Jesus’s ministry, for instance, the religious leader of the Jewish people was the high priest. As I understand it, this is because the Temple was the central pillar of the Jewish religion, and the high priest was the chief of the priests who performed sacrifices in the Temple. A similar situation prevailed at times among the Nephites, but the direct connection to priestly rituals is missing from the record. Alma1 and his successors in the office of high priest did function as head of the church, but just how the Nephite temple figured into this arrangement is unclear. Indeed, there is only one mention in the Book of Mormon of sacrifices being performed in connection with Nephite temples, and this was long before the church was established. It is also not a very specific or clear connection: “And . . . the people gathered themselves together throughout all the land, that they might go up to the temple to hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them. . . . And they also took of the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses” (Mosiah 2:1, 3). The temple here is only tangentially connected to priestly rituals (priests and priesthood are not even mentioned). The temple is a place where the king taught the people. We must assume, since the Nephites followed the Law of Moses, that they performed sacrifices in their temples, but the specifics of this practice are not mentioned. In the Book of Mormon, as opposed to the Bible, the temple is not ever directly connected to either priesthood or the office of high priest. In the Nephite record, at least after Alma1 founded the church of Christ, priesthood served as a form of institutional religious authority. In this particular regard, the Book of Mormon church is similar to the modern LDS Church, even though the concept of priesthood among the Nephites differed from our understanding of priesthood today.
In terms of the two types of authority discussed in part 2 of this series, priesthood in the modern LDS Church is entirely an institutional authority. It is not an authority based on personal influence or a divine dispensation to an individual. It is conferred by and through the organization. Granted, some leaders possess a set of personal qualities that have been labeled charisma, and this may give them greater influence over those they lead than the leverage exerted by others whose personality and attributes are less alluring. But charisma alone does not give any member of the Church the right to act officially in Church affairs. It certainly does not give a person the right to preside over the organization.
After the death of Joseph Smith, there were two major noninstitutional claims to succeed him as the presiding authority in the Church and two significant institutional claims,4 as well as several marginal claims. James Strang sought to succeed Joseph Smith on the basis of a letter he claimed Joseph had sent him and visions he claimed to have had. This could be viewed as a charismatic appeal for authority. Another group held that authority to lead was a hereditary matter (a notion Joseph actually encouraged), and they eventually convinced Joseph Smith III to accept the presidency of their movement, which became the Reorganization. The largest body of Saints, however, chose to follow the Apostles, who claimed the right to succession based on their priesthood and on keys they said Joseph had conferred upon them. This was a formal institutional claim to authority. Sidney Rigdon also claimed the mantle of institutional leadership by virtue of his position in the First Presidency, which created competing priesthood claims.5 In September 1844, the Twelve excommunicated Rigdon in an attempt to extinguish his claim that he was the only ordained prophet, seer, and revelator remaining after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum. Rigdon moved to Pittsburgh with a group of his followers and continued to stake his priesthood claim to leadership. In terms of sheer numbers, though, the Apostles prevailed, and since the 1844 succession crisis, the right to preside in the LDS Church has come only through regular and formal priesthood channels, established and maintained by the Apostles.6
But are presiding and priesthood necessarily connected? Is there authority, even a form of presiding authority, in the Church that is not called priesthood? I will explore these questions in the next post.
1. Orson Hyde, “Priesthood What Is It,” The Prophet, May 25, 1844, p. 3, col. 2.
2. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 7–8.
3. See William V. Smith, “Early Mormon Priesthood Revelations: Text, Impact, and Evolution,” Dialogue 46, no. 4 (2014): 1–84, especially 13–19, 46–48.
4. Three, if you count the early effort by Emma Smith and some members of the Quorum of the Anointed to promote William Marks, president of the Nauvoo high council and an opponent of polygamy, as Joseph’s successor. This effort was nipped in the bud before the entire Quorum of the Twelve returned to Nauvoo. See Merina Smith, Revelation, Resistance, and Mormon Polygamy: The Introduction and Implementation of the Principle, 1830–1853 (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2013), 186.
5. Sidney Rigdon, who likely suffered from bipolar disorder, would have been a poor choice to lead the Church, had his claim succeeded, an assessment his son, Wycliffe, agreed with. “I do not think the Church made any mistake in placing the leadership on Brigham Young,” he wrote. “Sidney Rigdon had no executive ability, was broken down with sickness, and could not have taken charge of the Church at that time. . . . The task would have been too great for Father. I have no fault to find with the Church with doing what they did. It was the best thing they could have done under the circumstances.” Quoted in Richard S. Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 360. See pages 116–18 for a discussion of Rigdon’s mental health.
6. It is interesting to note, as Michael Quinn has point out, that before 1847, the First Presidency of the Church was not an apostolic quorum. Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy, 37–38. Four of Joseph’s counselors (Gause, Rigdon, Williams, and Law) did not come from among the Twelve, nor were they ever ordained Apostles. Amasa Lyman was ordained an Apostle and took Orson Pratt’s place in the Quorum of the Twelve when Pratt was excommunicated. When Pratt was reinstated, Lyman was bumped from the Quorum but was made a counselor in the First Presidency. Two of Joseph’s assistant presidents (Cowdery and Hyrum Smith) were ordained Apostles but never served in the Quorum of the Twelve. Assistant President John C. Bennett was not ordained an Apostle. After Joseph’s death, the First Presidency became an apostolic quorum. All members of the First Presidency (with one exception noted below) either came from the Quorum of the Twelve or were ordained Apostles shortly before or after their call to the Presidency. J. Reuben Clark Jr. and Alvin R. Dyer, for instance, never served in the Quorum of the Twelve, but they were ordained Apostles. Clark served in the First Presidency for eighteen months before being ordained an Apostle. Dyer was ordained an Apostle in October 1967 but was not added to the Quorum of the Twelve. In April 1968, he became an additional counselor to President David O. McKay, serving with First Counselor Hugh B. Brown, Second Counselor N. Eldon Tanner, and additional counselor Thorpe B. Isaacson, the only counselor since 1847 who was never ordained an Apostle.