"The authority of my servants" : authority in the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Benjamin Raymond McClain Menzies
May 14, 2014
Department or Program
Much scholarship on early Mormonism has been devoted to biographical and doctrinal details of the presidencies of Joseph Smith, Jr., and Brigham Young, but little work has compared the divergent means by which each legitimized their authority over the church as a whole. I argue that each exercised similar forms of authority with different justifications and to different ends. I divide the authority exercised by both into three forms: revelatory authority, ritual authority, and administrative authority. Revelatory authority is the power to deliver messages from God. Ritual authority is the power to perform key rituals conferring spiritual benefits upon participating Saints. Administrative authority is the power to control the material business of the LDS Church. Each of these forms of authority produced symbolic capital for Smith and Young and their ability to control these authorities was integral to their continued leadership over the LDS Church. I argue that each of these forms of authority originates in Smith’s first presidency over the church. Unique to Smith is the emphasis he places upon revelatory authority as the root of his other forms of authority, but he also establishes a system of rituals available only to a worthy few, inaugurating a form of ritual authority, and a complex bureaucracy for managing the property and political affairs the church, establishing administrative authority. After Smith’s death, Brigham Young would seize control of the church through effective control over the ritual and administrative authority Smith had instituted, in contrast to Smith’s emphasis upon the primacy of revelatory authority. Claiming a hermeneutical mode of revelatory authority, Young also distanced himself from Smith’s practice of issuing new revelations frequently in order to resolve problems in church governance, merely reserving the privilege of “reinterpreting” Smith’s previous revelations in order to justify his new policies as President of the church. Young followed a process of combining administrative and ritual authority throughout his Presidency as he oversaw the transformation of the church from a small community of believers to a cohesive society in Utah, during which he radically altered the appearance of the church while never claiming to alter Smith’s church in any way. While some scholars have argued Young’s use of bureaucratic institutions such as the priesthood and the church administration contrasts him with Smith’s “charismatic” prophethood, I argue that conversely it is Young’s governance of the church by expanding and reinterpreting the church bureaucracy in new contexts that marks him as a “charismatic,” or creative, prophet.