D. Michael Quinn – “The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power” – book review and relevant links

D. Michael Quinn – “The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power” – book review and relevant links

After years of research and numerous published essays on the subject, D. Michael Quinn assembled, expanded, and created his masterwork on the origins and evolution of the Mormon Hierarchy. Rather than regurgitate the traditional history which has been told time and time again for the past 100+ years, Quinn’s book emphasizes (and corrects) the misinterpretations that have crept into the official (especially the Utah-LDS faction version of) history. This book, as the first portion of a two part series, deals almost exclusively with the hierarchy before the Utah period of the Brigham Young church until the final chapter which appears to be sort of a sneak preview for the second book. As such, members of the other Mormon factions should also find the contents to be important in analyzing their history–especially the succession crisis.

One area that Quinn attempts to “correct” is the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. The traditional history holds rigidly to the claim that the restoration took place before the church was formed in April of 1830. Official histories assert that the Biblical characters Peter, James, and John of the New Testament appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1829 and gave them the ‘keys’ of the Melchizedek Priesthood which they supposedly received from Jesus. Quinn clearly demonstrates that there is no evidence for such a claim. Instead, he shows some rather sketchy evidence which he promotes as supporting a date of this ‘restoration’ as occurring in 1830–months after the church was officially organized. This poses a problem for the current church since the church now asserts that Elders can only exist in the Melchizedek Priesthood and the Holy Ghost can only be given through holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood yet Elders existed and the Holy Ghost was given before the Melchizedek Priesthood was supposedly restored.

I disagree with both the official history and Quinn’s re-dating of the events to 1830. Based on the evidence, I think it is clear that the idea for creating a Melchizedek Priesthood to be retroactively dated and divinely restored by Peter, James, and John did not occur until after the Book of Commandments was published in 1833. It is possible that Joseph Smith came up with the idea (after 1833), but based on the statements of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, Oliver and Sidney Rigdon were probably the catalysts behind the creation of the story of this priesthood restoration.

On page 166, Quinn erroneously accepts the traditional history of Brigham Young magically appearing to be Joseph Smith. He states, “There were contemporary references to Young’s ‘transfiguration’.” However, none of these contemporary references that he cites state that Young was transformed into the appearance of Joseph Smith. Nothing in the statement (made in the Times and Seasons newspaper edited by one friendly to the twelve’s claim), “Elijah’s mantle had truly fallen upon the ‘Twelve'”, indicates that people witnessed a miracle. Quinn admits that many claim no miracle occurred, that some say it happened in the morning while others stated the event was in the afternoon, and that some claimed to have witnessed it who weren’t even there. Unfortunately, he didn’t further his research in this area and come away with the most reasonable conclusion. As Van Wagoner and Harper have later shown, this “miracle” was a later creation by the Utah church to help substantiate their claims. If Quinn does a revised edition, it will be interesting to see if he changes his interpretation.

I do agree with most of Quinn’s other interpretations. Perhaps the most important issue Quinn uncovers is that the 12 Apostles and Brigham Young had no more right to succeed Joseph Smith as President(s) of the entire church than several other people or quorums did. In fact, several others like Rigdon, Smith’s own family, or William Marks probably had more of a right to lead the church than Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve did. At best, the Quorum of the Twelve only had the right to preside over those areas of the church for which stakes weren’t already established.

Another interesting topic covered are the roles of the Presiding Patriarch and Presiding Bishop. Actually, there wasn’t a Presiding Bishop during this period of Mormon history although some traditional histories state that there was. In any event, neither of these offices were well defined, and they both evolved fairly dramatically over the years.

Contrary to the review published by Orson Scott Card, Quinn does not conclude that “church leaders ordered and rewarded the murder and mutilation of dissidents”. He shows evidence that it may have happened based on the statements, locations and other evidence available, but he never states that murder or mutilation was in fact ordered and rewarded. Also contrary to Card’s review, Quinn does not, “reach the definite conclusion that Joseph Smith originated and sanctioned the worst of the Danite violence in Missouri and that because of Danite violence Mormons pretty much deserved the persecution they got” as Card emphatically states. At best, Quinn states that Joseph Smith knew about the Danites and he provides ample evidence for this assertion. Quinn also provides an abundance of evidence regarding other Danite issues. Card discounts any usage by Quinn of apostate Mormon testimony–yet most of the quotes and sources Quinn uses are from Mormons who were faithful to the Utah church until death. He doesn’t say anything close to Card’s comments regarding Mormons deserving the persecution they received. Quinn actually says just the opposite in several places–especially with regard to the most violent actions taken at Haun’s Mill and Carthage. Quinn states on page 99, “Mormon marauding against non-Mormon Missourians in 1838 was mild by comparison with the brutality of the anti-Mormon militias.” Does this really sound to Card like Quinn thinks Mormons got what they deserved, or is it a case of an orthodox Mormon refusing to believe that the early Mormons could do something wrong and is offended when a historian brings some of those wrongs into the light? The falsification of Mormon history and its subsequent dissemination to the orthodox believers seems to leave Mormons like Card to think that every bit of persecution Mormons have ever received was completely and totally unprovoked.

Another interesting comment of Card’s is, “The only annoyance is that Quinn can’t stop harping on Joseph Smith’s habit of revising earlier revelations. To me, it seems perfectly logical that instead of leaving older revelations intact and publishing new ones that contradicted them, Joseph Smith, upon receiving further light and knowledge, simply revised the previous revelation to coincide with his later understanding.” Apparently Card feels that Joseph Smith forgot about Peter, James, and John when he first published the revelations. It is also curious that if the revelations were indeed ‘from God’ as Joseph Smith stated why a new revelation from the same God would contradict the former. Even if Joseph Smith was merely revealing things based on his “further light and knowledge” as time went on, why did he do so secretly rather than frankly admit that changes were being made? Does Card think that a historian should ignore the changes made to the revelations? To do so would change Quinn’s position from that of historian into that of an apologist.

This book is a must for those interested in the (early) history and (to a lesser extent the) doctrines of Mormonism. The appendix alone is worth the price. It contains almost 200 pages and includes all of the general officers of the church between 1830-47 with biographical sketches, the Mormon security forces between 1833-47, a partial (yet well documented) list of the 1838 Danites, the meetings and initiations of the “Holy Order”, biographies of all the first 50+ members of the Council of Fifty, and a 50 page chronology of the first 17 years of the church.

from the publisher:
A Mormon historian traces the evolution of the Latter-day Saints’ organizational structure from the original, egalitarian “priesthood of believers” to an elaborately hierarchical institution. Quinn also documents the alterations in the historical record which obscured these developments and analyzes the five presiding quorums of the LDS hierarchy.

Converts to Joseph Smith’s 1828 Mormon restoration movement were attracted to the non-hierarchical nature of the venture. It was precisely because there were no priests, ordinances, or dogma that people were drawn in such numbers. Smith intended everyone to be a prophet, and anyone who felt called was invited to minister freely without formal office. Not until seven years later did Mormons first learn of authority restored by angels or of the need for a hierarchy attempting to mirror primitive Christianity. That same year (1835) a Quorum of Twelve Apostles was organized, but their jurisdiction was limited to areas outside established stakes (dioceses). Stakes were led by a president who oversaw spiritual development and a bishop who supervised temporal needs. At Smith’s martyrdom in 1844 the church had five leading quorums of authority. The most obvious successor to Smith, Illinois stake president William Marks, opposed the secret rites of polygamy, anointing, endowments, and clandestine political activity. The secret Council of Fifty had recently ordained Smith as King on Earth and sent ambassadors abroad to form alliances against the United States. Although the majority of church members knew nothing of these developments, Brigham Young as head of the Quorum of the Twelve moved decisively to eliminate contenders for the presidency and continue Smith’s political and doctrinal innovations and social stratification.

Young’s twentieth-century legacy is a well-defined structure without the charismatic spontaneity or egalitarian chaos of early Mormonism.

Historian D. Michael Quinn examines the contradictions and confusion of the first two tumultuous decades of Latter-day Saint history. He demonstrates how events and doctrines were silently, retroactively inserted into the published form of scriptures and official records to smooth out an often stormy and haphazard development. The bureaucratization of Mormonism was inevitable, but the manner in which this occurred was unpredictable and is fascinating.

D. Michael Quinn is a former professor of history at Brigham Young University. His accolades include the Samuel F. Bemis, the George W. Egleston, and the Frederick W. Beinecke prizes; Best Book and Best Article awards from the Mormon History Association; “Outstanding Teacher” by vote of graduating BYU seniors; and invitations to lecture at the University of Paris’s Fondation de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and other similar venues. He is the author of J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years; Early Mormonism and the Magic World View; The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power; The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power; and Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example. He is the editor of The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past and a contributing author to American National Biography; Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History; Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education; Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West; Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past; and Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism. His research honorariums include grants from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Henry E. Huntington Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, Yale University, and others.

Also see Garn LeBaron Jr.’s review of this book.