D. Michael Quinn has created a historical tour de force with his
publication, The Mormon
Hierarchy: Origins of Power. In it, he traces the history of
the power structure of the Mormon Church from its inception to succession
crisis that followed the death of Joseph Smith. Employing mind numbing
detail (notes and appendices are larger than the book itself), Quinn
recounts how the authority in the church evolved.
After a brief review of the contents of the book, this paper will
explore some of the more significant findings that Quinn details
about the origins of the church hierarchy. In chapter 1, Quinn begins
with the church as a private family religious experience, traces
the development of the concepts of "church" and "authority,"
and discusses the development of the "priesthood." In
chapter 2, he traces the development of the five presiding priesthood
quorums, which include the first presidency, presiding patriarch,
twelve apostles, quorum of seventy, and presiding bishopric. Chapter
3 examines the origins of the Mormon theocratic state by exploring
how church authority came to be transferred to civil affairs. Quinn
discusses the Mormon theology as it related to civil matters and
then considers the implementation of this theology in such organizations
as Zion's Camp and the Danites. Chapter 4 relates the more specific
implementation of this theocracy as the Mormons moved to Nauvoo.
It discusses the political system of Nauvoo, the Nauvoo Legion,
the implementation of the new Kingdom of God, and the Council of
Fifty. Quinn specifically spends a good deal of time on the relationship
between the Council of Fifty, the Danites, and Masonry.
Chapters 5-7 deal with the succession crisis that occurred after
Joseph Smith's death. In chapter 5, Quinn examines the nature of
the succession crisis, explores the various contenders to the presidency
and the nature of their claims, and then details the ascension of
Brigham Young to the leadership of the church. Chapter 6 examines
other potential successors to Smith, and explains why they did not
become leaders of the church. Chapter 7 discusses the evolution
of the apostolic succession system that exists in the church today.
The Mormon Church began with the claim by Joseph Smith that he
had a private vision of God and Jesus Christ. He then claimed that
he was given a set of gold plates which he translated with the help
of a brown seer stone (p. 4) known as the "Urim and Thummim."
This translation came to be known as the Book of Mormon. What began
as a private family religion soon attracted a number of followers
who began to help Smith in organizing the new religion. While this
first vision occurred in 1820, the actual church was not organized
until 1830. In 1828, the church was a loosely organized body of
people with no "priestly authority." In 1829, the practice
of baptism, ordinances, and church offices began. The church was
officially organized in 1830. (p. 6-7). Even up until 1835, the
structure of the church was quite fluid and claims to authority
were based on personal charisma rather than priestly authority.
Several people were given titles of "apostle" and "prophet,"
but the terms carried little of the connotations that they carry
today. Missionaries, those who had seen visions, and those who were
especially charismatic were all called apostles as late as 1833.
One of the most interesting claims made by Quinn in chapter 1
is that the Melchizedek priesthood was probably not conferred by
Peter, James and John, and that all references to this occasion
were added retroactively in 1834 and 1835. (pp. 15-30) Quinn also
claims that the origins of the various priesthood offices came about
through a process of accretion rather than from a specific plan
set down by God. In the early church, terms such as apostle, elder,
bishop, and high priest were flung around with reckless abandon
when compared with their use in the church of today. His main argument
on the origins of the priesthood is that
At first the church emphasized the authority of charisma as
evidence of God's approbation and only later stressed the authority
of ordination and office. What began as simple authority became
a single Holy Priesthood, then evolved into the multiple orders
of lineal (or patriarchal) priesthood, Aaronic (or lesser) priesthood,
and Melchizedek (or greater) priesthood. Church membership changed
from believers who knew nothing about angels restoring authority
or priesthood keys' to hierarchically-oriented Mormons who regarded
such angelic restorations as the foundation of latter-day priesthood.
Two of the most confusing offices in the early church were the
offices of patriarch and bishop. These titles were even confusing
to those who held the offices, and it was not until later in the
development of the church that this confusion was removed. Joseph
Smith ordained his father to be the patriarch of the church in 1834,
and John Young was ordained to be the patriarch of his family shortly
afterward. Joseph Smith, Sr. remained patriarch of the church until
his death in 1840 and was regarded on a par with the first presidency
of the church. Patriarchal blessings did not receive their prophetic
character until the late 1830's. Originally patriarchs were called
to give blessings only to those who had no father to perform the
blessing. When Hyrum Smith became presiding patriarch, he presided
over the twelve apostles and was considered to be a member of the
first presidency. (pp. 46-55)
The initial question of what the office of bishop entailed was
even more confusing. Edward Partridge became the first bishop of
the church in 1831. He was in charge of all Mormon settlers in Missouri.
Newell Whitney became a second bishop, in charge of Ohio Mormons
later that year. Whitney actually believed for a time that the office
of bishop was one of the highest in the church, similar to the position
found in other denominations. (p. 70) The confusion regarding the
duties of bishops and the role of the presiding bishop was not cleared
up until 1842. (p. 75)
The roots of the succession crisis which followed the death of
Joseph Smith in 1844 can be found in the establishment and evolution
of the five presiding quorums of the church. While the clearest
successor to Joseph Smith as leader of the church would have been
Hyrum Smith, his death complicated matters immensely when he died
with his brother at the Carthage jail. Those with competing claims
to the church presidency were members of the quorum of apostles,
the leaders of the Nauvoo Stake, members of the first presidency,
and members of the council of fifty. The confusion arose as a result
of the way the five presiding quorums were organized. They were
egalitarian rather than hierarchical groups.
When Smith organized the quorum of twelve apostles, they were
on a par with the standing stake high councils, but with a different
jurisdiction. While the first presidency presided over the entire
church, the standing high councils had jurisdiction over the areas
of the church where stakes existed. Where stakes did not yet exist,
the jurisdiction fell to the apostles, who were in charge of the
seventy and administration of missionary work. This meant that apostles
were generally accorded the same power and authority as high council
members. Initially, most of the members of the quorum of twelve
apostles were frequently overseas and engaged in missionary work.
(p. 60) The fact that these groups had little hierarchical structure
among them created confusion and the succession crisis which I will
discuss in more detail below.
The most interesting section of Quinn's book is his discussion
of the evolution of the Mormon theocratic state. Beginning with
chapter 3, he analyzes the potent mix of religious, political, and
economic authority that characterized the Mormon settlements of
Missouri and Illinois. This theocracy had its beginnings in revelations
about the "Kingdom of God," and culminated with the ordination
of Joseph Smith as "King, Priest, and Ruler over Israel on
Earth." (p. 80, 138) It was the evolution of this theocracy
that so incensed the residents of Missouri and Illinois and created
so many problems for the Mormons in those regions.
The theocracy evolved on the strength of Mormon millennial views.
The Mormons were clearly prepared for the destruction of the US
Government and the beginning of the millennial reign. They saw their
duty as preparing a political and religious system to be ready for
the return of Christ. This need to prepare a theocracy to usher
in the return of Christ led to the development of concepts such
as "religious sovereignty," where Smith declared the Mormons
a separate religious nation within the political entity of the United
States, and "theocratic ethics," where Mormon leaders
argued for their right to perform civil functions without sanction
of the state, defended their right to ignore the laws of the state
when they were in conflict with the "laws of God." This
new theocratic view created a great deal of friction and violence
between the Mormons and Gentiles of Missouri.
The Mormon response to violence was peaceable at first. The Mormons
referred to revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants which instructed
them to turn the other cheek to their enemies. The revelation in
D&C 98:23-37 instructed the Mormons to wait patiently until
the fourth attack, at which time they were justified in retaliation
"until they had avenged themselves on all their enemies, to
the third and fourth generation." (v. 37). However, once this
violence had escalated beyond four attacks, the Mormon theocratic
state took a militaristic turn.
When the US Government refused to intervene on behalf of the embattled
Mormons in Missouri, Joseph Smith organized Zion's Camp in Kirtland
and led a group of armed men to Missouri to avenge the attacks on
settlers there. While the effort was unsuccessful, it was a portent
of things to come in Nauvoo. Mormons were becoming a militaristic
church. Quinn argues that this has created a siege mentality among
the Mormon leadership that still exists today. (p. 93)
The next step in Mormon self defense was the organization of the
Danites. These men were extremely loyal Mormons who organized themselves
into groups of fifties and hundreds to protect the settlers from
violence and exact retribution from the perpetrators. The Danites
further escalated the tensions into the "Mormon War,"
(p. 97) until Mormon leaders eventually agreed to move their people
Once the Mormons moved to Nauvoo, the theocratic state became
a very powerful entity, controlling the church and wielding power
in the state as well. The theocracy in Nauvoo ran both religious,
civil and military affairs. The Mormon army grew to a third the
size of the United States Army, and Joseph Smith remained in charge
of the entire apparatus. Smith's actions during the Nauvoo period
served to create further confusion in terms of succession after
his death. Once the civil and religious system in Nauvoo was secure,
the practices of upper echelon leaders in the church took a dramatic
turn. A shift toward secrecy and ritual, new organizational structure,
and a new reliance on oaths, orders, keys, signs, and symbols all
signified dramatic changes in church leadership and doctrine. Smith
received revelations relating to the worldwide scope of the new
Kingdom of God, and the doctrine of Blood Atonement.
The organization of this new system of religious government relied
heavily on special ordinances, and new organizational structures
were created which would later add controversy to who should be
Smith's successor. The new and emerging theocracy was now being
designed to go far beyond the scope of local government.
Smith assigned former members of the Danite bands to be his personal
bodyguards, created an "Anointed Quorum," created the
Council of Fifty, which was designed to be a more secular governing
body, but with an emphasis on God's law, and declared himself a
candidate for the US presidency. These new organizations relied
heavily on endowments, special washings and anointings, and the
use of "signs and tokens," many of which possessed a striking
similarity to Masonic rituals. Members of these new organizations
swore oaths of secrecy, and several Mormons were bound by separate
oaths of secrecy as Danites, Masons, and their membership in the
Anointed Quorum and the Council of Fifty. Smith had succeeded in
creating a governmental system which ran counter to the US Government,
and until his death, these two governments would be in contention.
Quinn argues that,
What unified Smith's political and theocratic acts in 1844 was
his determination to use any means possible to protect the Mormon
commonwealth. He responded to the Illinois legislature's efforts
to repeal the Nauvoo charter by petitioning Congress to make Nauvoo
an independent territory. If Smith could succeed as a third party
"spoiler" in the 1844 presidential electoral vote, he
would have the power to demand concessions regarding Nauvoo from
whomever the US House of Representatives elected . . .
Even if both US efforts failed, Smith was preparing a safe retreat
for Mormon settlers to the western territories of Mexican California,
British Columbia, or the Republic of Texas. Again Smith would
send settlers wherever the theocratic ambassadors had successfully
prepared the way. (p. 136)
From these actions we can see that the Mormon hierarchy was intent
on creating its own large and growing theocratic system by whatever
means were at its disposal.
The crisis occurred in the Council of Fifty. Members who were
disgruntled over the practice of polygamy and Smith's "coronation"
as King of Israel, informed William Law about these events, and
he planned to publish them in the Nauvoo Expositor. The press was
destroyed and Smith was charged with treason. Although he escaped
from Nauvoo, he agreed to return to Carthage and face the charges,
but he was killed while in jail.
Quinn argues that Smith was exhausted by all of these developments
and was prepared to turn his back on all of these new innovations
in the church when he was killed. (pp. 145-146) He had ordered the
notes from the Council of Fifty burned, wanted to end the practice
of polygamy, and instructed members of the Anointed Quorum to destroy
their endowment garments. He probably realized that he had taken
on a system too powerful to fight and was ready to make concessions.
He had planned to continue leading the church, and his untimely
death threw the church into confusion because he had never completed
his plans for succession.
Rather than explore all of the succession claimants as Quinn does
in the book, this paper will focus on the four most legitimate claims.
Each of these claims drew its basis from the specific order of the
church hierarchy. William Marks was the leader of the Stake High
Council, Brigham Young was the leader of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles,
Sidney Rigdon was a member of the first presidency, and Samuel Smith
was Joseph's brother.
Quinn argues that Willard Richards instructed Hosea Stout, a former
Danite and police chief of Nauvoo, to poison Samuel Smith. He died
not long after Joseph died. While most of the church leaders were
away from Nauvoo at the time, the church leadership quickly split
along the lines of polygamy. Those who favored the continued practice
of polygamy and secret ordinances were partial to Brigham Young,
and wanted to wait until the Quorum of Twelve Apostles returned
to Nauvoo before choosing a successor. Those who were opposed to
the practice of polygamy and secret ordinances favored the leadership
of William Marks. Sidney Rigdon quickly made a proposal to become
guardian of the church, and Marks threw his support behind Rigdon.
However, the day before the meeting to decide whether Rigdon should
be appointed guardian, the Apostles returned to Nauvoo.
In a meeting on August 8, 1944, both Young and Rigdon presented
their leadership claims before the church at Nauvoo. The church
voted in favor of Brigham Young, and several accounts spoke of Young's
"transfiguration" at the meeting. Others received the
impression that the "mantle of Joseph" fell on Brigham
Young. Rigdon refused to be made a counselor and left the church,
starting his own.
After Young's ascension, he moved quickly to solidify his power.
Most of the men in the church were ordained as seventies, which
moved their jurisdiction from the stake high councils to the Apostles.
Those who were antagonistic to Young's presidency were quickly intimidated
until they left Nauvoo. Young released Marks from the stake presidency
and accused him of apostasy. A new oath of vengeance to avenge the
death of the prophet became a part of the temple ceremony, and the
forces in favor of polygamy and secret ordinances carried the day.
Quinn's main purpose in The Mormon Hierarchy, is to trace the
evolution of the system of succession in the church now known as
Apostolic Succession. To accomplish this task, he details how the
organizational structure of the church evolved to the point where
the succession crisis occurred. He also illustrates that the structural
features of the church created such confusion during this crisis.
It is most interesting that in a church where revelation, heavenly
visitation, and the influence of the hand of God had played such
a role in its foundation and history, at no time during the succession
crisis did God or revelation ever play a significant role. Quinn
depicts the succession crisis in almost purely political terms.
Once the mantle of leadership fell on Brigham Young, the system
of apostolic succession was almost in place, and the apostles had
been elevated to the highest level of church leadership.
There were several events that occurred during the period of Young's
tenure and after his death that served to solidify the system of
succession. Although Young tried to create a first presidency that
was separate from the apostles, he could never gain enough support
from the quorum to do so. The first presidency became an extension
of the quorum itself. Young also never rejected the right of Joseph
Smith III, the son of Joseph Smith, to lead the church. However,
he did require that Smith come to Utah and accept polygamy as conditions
of his leadership. Smith never acquiesced to these requirements
and the church remained in the hands of the apostles.
Before Young died, he publicly repudiated John Taylor, but Taylor
remained the senior apostle. When Young died, Taylor quickly laid
claim to the presidency through his right as senior apostle. The
majority of the other apostles accepted this claim and the practice
of promoting the senior apostle to the presidency of the church
has continued ever since. Quinn argues that although this practice
of succession is not absolutely certain, and that it has never been
divinely ordained, it will probably continue into the foreseeable
future. He also contends that the original succession crisis has
led Mormon leaders to create elaborate succession plans for any
Quinn's attention to historical detail and meticulous research
has created a book of enormous import for Mormon history. This work
analyzes how structural and political factors in the church at Nauvoo
created the current hierarchical structure of the Mormon leadership.
It also provides a fascinating historical account of the origins
of the church itself, allowing the reader to better understand how
a small religious sect drifted toward a radical political and social
posture which ultimately enabled it to colonize the harsh deserts
of Utah while maintaining a faith in a leadership system that the
members believed to be called of God.