Patrick Mason is one of our newest Dialogue guests. He may or may not be related to one of our permabloggers.
Priesthood organization isn’t a very sexy topic. I mean, who really gets excited about the reorganization of the Quorums of the Seventy? When BCC readers get all starry-eyed about Joseph Smith, it’s usually for his metaphysics, or his radical challenge to individualism and market capitalism, or something along those lines. The architecture of priesthood government? Yawn. Somebody wake me up with a little King Follett Discourse (or KFD, as the kids say).
Unsexy as it is, I’ve been thinking about the council system of the church. (I can hear Homer Simpson now: “Bor-ing.”) Although it doesn’t get the headlines of, say, God and Jesus being separate beings, I think it’s one of Joseph’s most important innovations. Joseph is usually seen as the mystic, the dreamer, the prophet, while Brigham is the practical, pragmatic implementer. But the council system of the church, which was established in roughly the same form we have today by 1835, has to be counted as one of Joseph’s enduring legacies, one of his most remarkable contributions, and one of the main reasons why the church has been so successful for nearly 200 years and will continue to be so indefinitely.
In my mind, the genius of councils is in the following:
1. Councils democratize revelation. As Richard Bushman says in Rough Stone Rolling, the central “conundrum of Joseph Smith’s Mormonism” is that “an authoritarian religion [could] distribute so much power to individual members.” The brilliance of Joseph’s vision of church government, organized in overlapping layers of priesthood councils (later extended to auxiliaries such as Relief Society and Primary presidencies), is that “individual priesthood holders were allowed a voice in church governance, giving them ownership of the kingdom to which they had subjected themselves.” Bushman argues that it’s no coincidence that immediately after Smith finalized the basic structure of church councils some five years after the church’s founding, “the frequency of canonical revelations dropped precipitously. . . . At the moment when Joseph’s own revelatory powers were at their peak, he divested himself of sole responsibility for revealing the will of God and invested that gift in the councils of the Church, making it a charismatic bureaucracy” (252, 257-58).
Rather than a single prophetic figure or a central governing body holding all the charismatic authority or receiving all the revelation for the entire group, the multiple layers of church councils mean that in today’s church literally tens of thousands of people are called and set apart to receive revelation through their participation in councils (actually, it extends to every member of the church–and beyond–if you count family councils). In this way, the most hierarchical structure this side of Rome paradoxically becomes the most democratic, with the ultimate power–the power to commune with God and speak and act on His behalf–given to more of “the people” in more significant ways than any other church would ever dream (or have nightmares) of.
2. Councils check individual personality without squelching individual voices. Except in the rare cases in which the presiding authority utters a “thus saith the Lord,” councils are designed for everyone to give their best, educated, faithful opinions, discuss the various options, and then seek the inspiration of the Lord in confirming the council’s deliberations. Ideally, individual quirks and idiosyncrasies are subsumed in the wisdom of the council and the desire to achieve the greater good, without silencing any individual voice, no matter how quixotic.
3. Councils prevent much (though not all) abuse of priesthood authority. Since I’ve been fortunate that my own interactions with priesthood councils have been, by and large, entirely benevolent, I hadn’t considered this very much until I read the most recent issue of Dialogue (40:1 / Spring 2007). In a fascinating article, author Marianne T. Watson recounts the origins of “placement marriage” within the Fundamentalist LDS Church (FLDS). It is an illuminating if poignant and sad narrative of communities and families being torn apart by the increasingly overbearing and arbitrary exercise of priesthood authority–the kind of thing that critics of Mormonism have always warned is possible when you actually think you get your marching orders from God. Watson shows how since the mid-20th century, the central leadership of the FLDS, and particularly Rulon and then Warren Jeffs, gradually concentrated their autocratic power by progressively undermining and eventually dismantling other priesthood councils that had previously acted as checks on the more authoritarian aspects of prophetic leadership. Hers is a cautionary tale of what happens when prophethood runs amok, but also a revealing glimpse into the importance of robust and functioning church councils on all levels. The absolutely essential nature of the council system of the church is in this case proven in its absence.
In the end, church government is a lot like baseball umpires — you only know they’re doing a good job if you don’t notice them. The fact that we don’t pay a lot of attention to church councils suggests that maybe there’s more to them than we usually think.