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The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power–A Review

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by Garn LeBaron Jr.

copyright © Garn LeBaron Jr., 1995 – 2013, all rights reserved


D. Michael Quinn has created a historical tour dé 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. (p. 9-14)

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.” (p. 38)

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 to Illinois.

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. (pp. 173-182)

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 future eventualities.

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.

Written by Garn LeBaron

June 1, 2010 at 1:12 pm

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