Liberty, Equality, and Hierarchy in Mormonism

Liberty and equality are routinely said to be conflicting foundational values in America. For example, a policy in favor of equality in the form of a high minimum wage law restricts liberties: the liberty of potential employers to hire workers at a lower wage and the liberty of workers to accept very poorly paid contracts. Whatever normative weight a given individual may attach to these two value poles in a given situation, we may often be able to agree that the two values create trade-offs. Does such a trade-off between liberty and equality arise within the Mormon polity? If so, which value is most heavily favored by our scriptural texts?

On many issues, the Mormon community is structured in ways that emphasize neither liberty nor equality. The aspects of Mormon thought, tradition, and practice that are especially hierarchical are most relevant here. When the rights and importance of our highest church leadership are given central attention, that attention stresses spiritual and organizational differences between the average church member and the leadership. Such difference obviously tends against equality. At the same time, the common emphasis on the importance of following and obeying leadership stands in some real tension with the value of liberty. At the margin, the Mormon leadership may enforce its instructions by excluding — or threatening to exclude — from the community those who choose to disobey. Yet even when such total enforcement is not at stake, social pressure within the Mormon community, the prospect of losing opportunities for service in the church, and the very standing of the leadership marginally erode individual liberty.

Indeed, it appears to me that liberty is not generally a privileged value within the Mormon community. One of the few domains in which Mormonism has a tradition of liberty involves freedom of doctrine and belief. This freedom is emphasized in the Book of Mormon society’s legal system:

…the law could have no power on any man for his belief. (Alma 1:17)

A large collection of quotations from early Mormon leaders applies this idea to the Mormon community in particular. In one particularly famous example, Joseph Smith stated:

…I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like methodism and not like Latter day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled. It dont prove that a man is not a good man, because he errs in doctrine. (8 April 1843 Conference Report by William Clayton)

Aside from freedom of belief, however, the Mormon tradition emphasizes equality far more extensively than it does freedom. Indeed, the Mormon scriptures imagine the good society primarily in terms of social and economic equality. Thus, 4 Nephi describes the paradisaical Nephite community in the wake of Jesus Christ’s visit in terms of a lack of contention and of class division, and in terms of community ownership of all property. Little or nothing is said about freedom in this book; curiously, the text also has no time for issues of hierarchy.

Likewise, the Book of Moses describes Enoch’s City of Zion in the following terms:

[the people of the city were] of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. (Moses 7:18)

Here, once again, there is a significant stress on equality — one heart, one mind, no poverty. The text does not emphasize either liberty or hierarchy.

If the conclusions drawn from this scriptural sketch are correct, then Mormonism emphasizes equality far more than it does liberty. However, hierarchy may play a much greater role as a central value in Mormon life than in American politics, for example. While hierarchy is not stressed in the Mormon scriptural accounts of the good society, it is emphasized in Mormon culture, organization, and current discourse.

In American life, the value of equality is often not fully realized at least in part because of tensions with various aspects of liberty. Evidently, that is not the case within Mormonism. Even so, themes of equality often seem less emphasized in the day-to-day church than in the scriptures. Might the reason lie in a tension between equality and hierarchy?

At the abstract level, this is obviously plausible. Hierarchy and equality are not fully compatible in a logical sense. But rather than working through these linkages, it seems to me that our effort might be better placed in finding ways to bring equality more centrally into view within our current hierarchical worldview.


  1. You are leaving out what I believe is the most significant example of the tension between liberty and equality, the choice between the competing plans in the premortal council.

    Satan’s plan offered equality at the expense of liberty.

    Christ/Heavenly Father’s plan offered liberty at the expense of equality.

    We all know what plan was chosen.

    When you compare the two types of equality: The City of Enoch, versus the mortal existence that Satan envisioned it seems to me that liberty is a necessary requirement in order for “divine” equality to be achieved. The ultimate goal is not equality, the ultimate goal is for each one of us to become perfected. But that perfection is shown in our desire to work towards a Zion like community.

    In other words, I don’t think the reason that the City of Enoch was translated was because of it’s equality. I think it was the condition of the hearts of the individuals in the community which was reflected in that they all chose that equality, they were not forced into it.

  2. Aluwid, I think you’ve made a common but paralyzing mistake in Mormon thought. Liberty wasn’t at issue in the premortal council; agency was. Agency isn’t at issue now in the human world, since it is an ontological fact that nothing mortal can change, enhance, or erode; liberty is. In other words, it’s impossible in the human world to arrive at a situation that isn’t chosen, since we all always have choice. Liberty involves the question of whether choice is coerced or ordered, on the one hand, or left to the individual without coercion or command. Mormons tend to value command and leadership as a higher spiritual value than unlead autonomy. So, while Mormons of course have agency — that’s a fact, not a moral precept — I think we don’t really care very much about liberty within the Mormon community. (As a political principle toward the outside, of course, things can be quite different.)

  3. I have only a couple of minutes, but just for the sake of discussion – a too brief comment, in almost bulleted form:

    The natural man tends to extremes. Being willing to muddle in the middle and struggle to craft a balance of competing virtues is not a characteristic that the natural man tends to possess. Maintaining individual autonomy within a group structure that stresses the competing value of equality is not a simple, brain-less activity.

    Finally, “equality” as a concept means very different things to different people in this world. That alone complicates this discussion greatly.

  4. I believe that the Plan provides us both with the ability as well as the freedom to choose our paths. My thinking can be described best by this paragraph from Gospel Principles regarding Agency:

    Even though we are free to choose our course of action, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions. The consequences, whether good or bad, follow as a natural result of any choice we make (see Revelation 22:12). If we touch a hot flame, for example, we are burned.

    Gospel Principles Chapter 4 “Freedom to Choose”

    Any definition of liberty that requires no negative natural consequences doesn’t seem very useful to me. For example, I don’t think it makes sense to claim that we lack the liberty to not work due to the fact that when we don’t work we have no money and starve. That’s a natural consequence, not coercion. Any attempt to remove all negative natural consequences is doomed to failure, such an effort simply isn’t realistic (or worthwhile).

    The same goes for the Plan of Salvation. While it’s true that if we sin there will be a consequence to our immortal life, it is my understanding that the consequence is the natural consequence, not an arbitrarily decided punishment inflicted by God to coerce us to not choose to sin. In other words, God did not choose to make lying a sin. Rather, he knew the effect that lying had on our souls, and the impact on our eternal state, so he told us not to do it.

    While it’s true that there are specific examples in the scriptures that could be considered coercion such as the ten plagues, Jonah and the whale, and the events of the Isrealite and Nephite nations, in general men have the ability to choose wickedness without any unnatural consequence so their liberty to choose, as far as the Plan of Salvation is concerned, is intact.

  5. Ray, equality does indeed have a variety of meanings. There are also scriptural texts that give us a lot of resources toward developing a theology of equality. I don’t have the time to do that here, and it isn’t really appropriate to a comment thread, but I think the starting point lies in the concept that we ought to value others just as highly as we value ourselves. If we take that idea seriously, we would regard the outcome of some other person starving to death with just as much dismay as the outcome of us personally starving to death.

    Aluwid, I agree completely that consequences are a part of reality. The discussion you offer seems to me to be on rather a different topic than what I have discussed above. Perhaps you could clarify the connections. By “liberty” I mean choices for which human superiors make no effort to coerce or order a given outcome. When appeals to authority take the place of persuasion, then liberty has been eroded. When threats are employed, the erosion nears completion.

    Your examples of coercion strike me as wholly other; they involve divine action, not human action. God remains mysterious and holy enough that He stands outside this discussion.

  6. I tend to agree with Ray, that definitions of both liberty and equality may differ depending on the context. I can help but think think that the scriptures, for example, might support a divine level of liberty, for example, in a Zion society.

    and they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift. (4 Ne 1:1)

    Cross reference that with Galatians 5:1 (see also D&C 88:86 and a few others in the BoM as well), and we might have a different definition of liberty that is paramount to our doctrine. Maybe?

    STAND fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free….

  7. m&m, I think that a careful reading of Paul will pretty much support the current definition of liberty: for him, on my reading, liberty was nobody telling you what food to eat, etc.

  8. J.,

    I would take your point about hierarchy and equality even further. Hierarchy is both a present fact of existence in the Church’s organization and a eschatological condition. While the BoM and D&C aspire towards equality in our earthly living conditions, particularly in the economic realm, the PGP’s vision is completely different. The Lord said there that one intelligence was greater than the other, but that he was greater than them all. Our final condition will be a part of one of three kingdoms of glory, at least one of which has further subdivisions. This, in my mind, reinforces the idea of hierarchy as even an eternal condition. I confess some personal uneasiness with such an assertion, since the scriptural imperatives for equality are so strong in other parts of the standard works.

  9. Oh, and obviously the three kingdoms of glory do not come from the PGP, but show up in the NT and D&C 76.

  10. I’d jump to your conclusion, except that this phrase doesn’t just appear in Paul’s words, and the phrase ‘made free’ is found in 4 Ne. which is another Zion text like the one you quoted. I dunno…I just think liberty can mean something different in gospel terms. But maybe I’m not getting my brain around what you are saying….

  11. m&m, to conclude that “liberty” has various meanings, you’d need texts that define what “liberty” is. The 4 Nephi texts obviously don’t define the term, and Paul does make clear that the freedom he has in mind is freedom from the Law of Moses’s pattern of telling people what to do.

    AHLDuke, a nice point; surely we value hierarchy if we project it into the eternities. Hierarchy is in Abraham in particular a descriptive fact, while equality is always introduced as a moral norm. Yet I think we also sometimes see hierarchy as a moral norm. The puzzle, I suppose, is how we can become celestial — i.e., qualify for the higher rungs of that eternal hierarchy — when the scriptures tell us that equality is a prerequisite for that kingdom.

  12. Ugly Mahana says:

    Just this morning I was thinking “Heaven must be filled with people who are willing to give without demanding.” I mean, if the United Order failed in Missouri in part because of loafers, and people who resisted consecrating, and people who resisted consecrating because they thought others were loafers, then we know what won’t make heaven.

    On the other hand, who wouldn’t want to live in a society of hard workers who gave nonjudgmentally. That would create equality borne of liberty. And it would be heaven.

    My I’ve got some work to do!

  13. To the first comment on “liberty at the expense of equality,” I believe that’s an interesting perspective. I don’t agree with it unequivocally, and I suspect you don’t either, but the basis of your comment seems factual. Where I would explain it differently is that the concept of “equality” is different from an eternal perspective. When it all comes down to it we all have the exact same opportunity to get to know God, repent, and get back to Him. That’s equality. But doesn’t that sound sort of capitalistic? Survival of the fittest?

  14. Ugly Mahana: Check this quote by Brother Brigham, giving it to the rich and the poor who weren’t pure in heart:

    “The Lord wishes to try you; shall we say that we will hoard up the blessings of God, that we may be able to say that we have a large amount to ourselves? No, but divide them out, and do so with an honest heart, in all humility; and let those who receive blessings receive them with an honest heart, in all humility and thankfulness. Some who have, will withhold, and some of the poor are covetous and will grab a little here and there and lay it up, or waste it. If you continue in covetousness, your substance will shrink and waste away. Let the poor, those who have to depend upon their brethren for bread, after they have done all they can to obtain it themselves be thankful, and take no more than they require to use in a frugal manner. By taking such a course, no person would suffer,” (Journal of Discourses 3:362-end).

  15. ITriedHaggis says:

    First time “commenter”: My thoughts, admittedly lower in this hierarchy of intelligent beings …

    I’m not convinced that there is tension between liberty and equality in the pure gospel sense. Given the BoM motif concerning liberty and deliverance from bondage (it is splattered throughout), I would suggest that liberty is an essential pre-requisite to the type of equality God expects us to enjoy. In lower spheres, of course there will be tension due, in part, to the fact that one is always trying to optimize over the other.

    Call me naive (happens all the time), but I see hiearchy as an operational element of governance, as opposed to a state of being in the eternities. For those that qualify for exaltation, the promise is to inherit ALL that God has – an infinite inheritance shared infinitely (though I’ve heard the argument for disparities among infinite sets). The “fact” that there are various kingdoms of glory is a function of obedience and consequence, not so much a matter of governance. Perhaps my view of hiearchy is too limited – it is an element of Church, corporate, and government bureacracy.