D. Michael Quinn – The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power – book review

D. Michael Quinn – The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power – book review

The following review was posted on a.r.m by R.W. Rasband

This massive book in the conclusion of Quinn’s two-volume history of the Latter-day Saint general authorities. It is written very much in the spirit of recent Association of Mormon Letters honoree Leonard Arrington, who wrote as if candor were the best way to promote faith. In the preface, the author describes his work as “primarily descriptive” rather than analytical. And on the basis of information alone, this book is staggering The notes, chronology, and brief biographies are a gold mine for researchers and anyone seriously interested in LDS history.

Many histories written by Mormons emphasize consensus and unity among the leadership. Quinn’s book balances these accounts by outlining the conflicts, disagreements, and human foibles found among the general authorities. Here you will find many tales of political, financial, and theological clashes. In this sense, Quinn’s work demands that the reader have a testimony firm enough to confront the image of leaders acting like fallible human beings. I can only tell you that from my perspective that I breathe a huge sigh of relief when I learn that one of the Lord’s servants is capable of making mistakes. It means there’s hope for me yet:-) Quinn has been criticized for dwelling exclusively on the negative, but this book is not the work of a bitter apostate. There is a description in the first chapter of a spiritual experience of Hugh B. Brown’s that will leave you astonished and gratified. And while I personally believe that the church was justified in its campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Quinn’s chapter on this troubled time strikes me as reasonable in raising questions about the price paid for such political involvements.

This book is not without flaws. Because of its mostly “descriptive” nature, it sometimes seems choked with data; the writing becomes disjointed and cumbersome. Compare chapter 3, which concerns President Ezra Taft Benson, with Quinn’s similar essay published in “Dialogue” in 1993, and I think that you will find the book version is inferior. Much valuable insight is lost. (Signature Books or the University of Illinois Press would provide a great service if they would collect several of Quinn’s fine essays, where he is at his best, into book form.)

I took a few classes from Quinn when I was a student at BYU. At that time, he was a fine teacher and seemed like a good guy. I did not care for his last book about same-sex dynamics in 19th century culture. It was a tendentious mess with large parts that were virtually unreadable. When he sticks to his great strength, the inside history of the hierarchy, he is invaluable. “Extensions of Power” is a major contribution to our understanding of how God works in our history. And if you are still worried about depictions of general authorities as less than perfect, consider this story about the great satirist (and devout Catholic) Evelyn Waugh. He was approached by a fellow churchgoer who said, “Mr. Waugh, you are a monster. I can’t believe you consider yourself a Christian and still write the terrible things you do.” Waugh replied, “Madam, I attend mass every morning. If I were not a Christian, I would scarcely be human at all.” Or as someone else once said, “The church is a hospital for sinners rather than a museum for saints.”

from the 1 April issue of Library Journal, page 99:

Quinn’s first volume of The Mormon Hierarchy (The Origins of Power, Signature, 1994) was a landmark in Mormon studies. This latest volume demonstrates the ways and methods by witch the leadership maintains and applies its authority. Some believers may not be pleased with the portrait Quinn paints, but his documentation is so thorough and indisputable that few will be able to challenge his arguments. Some chapters are case studies in the rise to leadership of individuals, most notably Ezra Taft Benson (13th president/prophet of the church and Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture), and their employment of power. Other chapters look at the means by which power is exercised in governance. The biographical and chronological appendixes are worth the cost of the book. Quinn, now an independent scholar, is unquestionably Mormonism’s leading historian. A magisterial study; recommended for all libraries with collections in American history.
— David S. Azzolina, Univ. of Pennsylvania Libs., Philadelphia

from the publisher:
The Mormon church today is led by an elite group of older men, nearly three-quarters of whom are related to current or past general church authorities. This dynastic hierarchy meets in private; neither its minutes nor the church’s finances are available for public review. Members are reassured by public relations spokesmen that all is well and that harmony prevails among the brethren. But by interviewing former church aides, examining hundreds of diaries, and drawing from his own past experience as an insider within the Latter-day Saint historical department, Michael Quinn presents a fuller view. His extensive research documents how the governing apostles, seventies, and presiding bishops are strong-willed, independent men (much like the directors of a large corporation) who lobby their colleagues, forge alliances, out-maneuver opponents, and broker compromises.

Quinn’s The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions Of Power reveals clandestine political activities, investigative and punitive actions by church security forces, personal “loans” from church coffers (later written off as bad debts), and other privileged power-vested activities. The Mormon Hierarchy considers the changing role and attitude of the leadership toward visionary experiences, the momentous events which have shaped quorum protocol and doctrine, and day-to-day bureaucratic intrigue from the time of Brigham Young to the dawn of the twenty-first century.

The FARMS review paints a better picture of FARMS itself when it says that Quinn is guilty of “(a) blatant misquoting, (b) altering the tone of original reports, (c) making claims (some of them provocative) without documentation, (d) stretching interpretations of incidents to support claims, (e) ignoring obvious explanations for supposed “problems,” (f) reaching false conclusions due to insufficient research, (g) omitting evidence contrary to claims, (h) fabricating supposed “contradictions,” (i) clinging to apparent contradictions that are resolved by even the slightest serious thinking, (j) drawing conclusions contradicted by the book’s own evidence, and (k) actually distorting the record to support a thesis”.