The Church is a Democracy

While reading an interesting article in Dialogue about dissent in the church (you can read it here), I came upon an even more interesting statement by Joseph F. Smith:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the most democratic institution in the world.

Improvement Era, December 1917, p. 100

Proceeding on the assumption that it is best to take statements from church presidents seriously, how are we to understand this statement?


  1. If people ever tell you to get with the program because the church isn’t a democracy, you can now reply with this authoritative statement from a prophet. So even if you don’t understand or agree with Pres. Smith, the statement has value, right? I welcome your thanks, but I welcome your paypal contributions even more.

  2. I’ve always thought of the Church as a theocracy.

  3. Jared, I think most of us do. But there are instances of callings being withdrawn when the congregation withheld its sustaining vote.

  4. Unless we could have the members could have gotten rid of the priesthood ban before the GA’s did in June of 1978, it’s a lie pure and simple.

  5. I recommend Nathan Hatch, the Democratization of American Christianity as extremely useful historical and cultural background for this discussion. Joseph Smith called the church a “theodemocracy,” which I think speaks to some of the tensions in this thread. DKL’s claim in 4 seems to me an inflammatory overstatement.

  6. DKL, I’m not so sure. If the priesthood ban had been put to a vote of the church membership in May, 1978 with a secret ballot, it isn’t clear to me that a majority would have voted in favor of lifting the ban.

    That is why I’m unwilling to dismiss Pres. Smith’s statement out of hand. If we subjected every major decision in the church to a majority rule vote, which is probably the most elemental definition of democracy, I’m not sure the church would look much different than it does now.

  7. I have posted these quotes once before on NCT, but I think they are pretty useful in understanding what Joseph F. Smith had in mind. When he was hauled before Congress to testify in the Reed Smoot hearings, he said the following:

    Mr. Tayler. I think this would be as good a time as any, as to the method in which a revelation is received and its binding or authoritative force upon the people.
    Mr. Smith. I will say this, Mr. Chairman, that no revelation given through the head of the church ever becomes binding and authoritative upon the members of the church until is has been presented to the church and accepted by them.
    Mr. Worthington. What do you mean by being presented to the church?
    Mr. Smith. Presented in conference.
    Mr. Tayler. Do you mean by that that the church in conference may say to you, Joseph F. Smith, the first president of the church, “We deny that God has told you to tell us this?”
    Mr. Smith. They can say that if they choose.
    Mr. Tayler. They can say it?
    Mr. Smith. Yes, sir; they can. And it is not binding upon them as members of the church until they accept it. (Committee on Privileges and Elections of the United States Senate in the Matter of the Protests Against the Right of Hon. Reed Smoot, a Senator from the State of Utah, to Hold His Seat. Vol. 1 pg. 98)

    This creates a bit of a free-for-all in what we are entitled to believe, which he acknowledged and embraced:

    Mr. Smith: I should like to say to the honorable gentlemen that the members of the Mormon Church are among the freest and most independent people of all the Christian denominations. They are not all united on every principle. Every man is entitled to his own opinion and his own views and his own conceptions of right and wrong so long as they do not come in conflict with the standard principles of the church. If a man assumes to deny God and to become an infidel we withdraw fellowship from him. If a man commits adultery we withdraw fellowship from him. If men steal or lie or bear false witness against their neighbors or violate the cardinal principles of the Gospel, we withdraw our fellowship. The church withdraws its fellowship from that man and he ceases to be a member of the church. But so long as a man or a woman is honest and virtuous and believes in God and has a little faith in the church organization, so long we nurture and aid that person to continue faithfully as a member of the church, though he may not believe all that is revealed.

  8. I think it is illustrative that it is JFS. It made me think of a talk he gave at a Utah Stake conference in 1896 (though I haven’t yet looked up what it was that they were voting on):

    Now, we are going to have read before this conference the declaration of this principle as it was formulated by the Presidency of the Church, the Twelve Apostles, and the Seventies, as it was read before the general conference. We are going to present it to you, to see whether you will sustain this doctrine. If you do not like it; if you do not believe in the doctrine; if you think it is false doctrine; if you think it is superfluous, or unnecessary, you have perfect liberty to vote against it. But if you have the Spirit of the Gospel in your hearts; if you desire the perpetuity of the institutions of Zion; if you want to consummate the purposes of God in establishing the Church upon the earth for the last time, then you will vote, not with one hand alone, but with both hands and with your whole heart to sustain this doctrine as it was enunciated to the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For that is what it means—no more, no less; and that is what we want to be understood. We want the people to take action on it at this conference, and at all other conferences, until it goes before the whole people. And let us see whether the children of Zion will reject this principle which underlies the very foundation of the government of God in the earth. If you reject that principle, you reject the principle of government in the Church; and you become like the man-made churches in the world, that have a form of godliness and deny the power thereof.

    …We want the people to vote just as they feel in regard to this document. It should be presented here according to the action that was taken at the General Conference, and you can vote just as you please. The Presidency of the Stake will know how the vote stands, whether it is unanimously in favor or unanimously against it, or whether there are many against it, or whatever the facts may be. But I want to repeat again, that the principle of it is good for all the members of the Church, in the way and to the extent that I have explained, in proportion to the responsibility held by the members, so far as the general discipline of the Church is concerned. Yet it is intended only for the government of the Latter-day Saints, and that the power of God may be manifest and the way be prepared for the ushering in of the kingdom of God, which shall never be left to another people, and which shall never fall. May God grant it. Amen.

  9. The church can’t be a democracy. If it was, we’d have all the women voting for priesthood rights and the Gay Mafia would vote to accept the gay lifestyle not only as worthy but superior to that of the heterosexual lifestyle. From my undersstanding, some baptist denominations have a so called democratic process. That’s why some baptist denominations have gay pastors. Going down this religious, democratic road you have to at one point stop calling it religion and call it government.



  10. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the most democratic institution in the world.

    Perhaps that should have been “Democratic” rather than “democratic”? Was this during the time period when Mormon were more likely to be Democrats than Republicans?

  11. It’s fascinating to read the history of the Church and see a time, pre-WW2, when members and leaders were much more outspoken and public in their disagreements.

    I think something happened, starting in the 1940s, to downplay independent thought and replace it with deference to authority. (I see this in church as well as in politics.)

  12. My #10 is missing a smiley face. :-)

  13. The other thing to keep in mind is that the church needn’t be a perfect democracy for the statement to be true. It just needs to be more democratic than other institutions.

  14. Here’s some fuel for the fire:

    “Presiding quorums of the Church are not representative assemblies. Each leader has been called to face the people as a representative of the Lord, not the other way around.” (Elder Russell M. Nelson, General Conference, May 1996.)

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    The only way I can make sense of the statement is to subject it to a belief/action dichotomy (much like the rationale of the Reynolds case). I am perfectly free to believe that we should not oppose gay marriage and we should ordain women to the priesthood. Indeed, I do in fact hold those beliefs, and yet I am considered an active and faithful member of the Church. If I take vigorous public action in opposition to the Church’s stated positions on these issues, I risk Church discipline and having my fellowship with the Saints withdrawn. Even if I managed to assemble a majority of like-minded liberal Saints on these subjects, there would be no mechanism for us to assert our will (other than schism).

    If the statement is referring to the principle of common consent, as seems likely, we certainly have to acknowledge that that principle is more of a perfunctory formality these days than it used to be.

  16. Kevin, I think you are getting to the reason this statement seems strange to us. We expect democracies to respect dissent, and we don’t have a way to do that in the church.

    But I think it is hard to argue that the church is not more or less what a majority of its members want it to be.

  17. Frankly, most wards in which I have lived are very democratic in the way that was described in the quotes in #7. My perspective changes depending on what “Church” we are discussing – the Church of the hierarchical, Priesthood structure or the Church of the local congregations. Having said that, the Church hierarchical structures I have observed that have worked the best invariably maintain and foster a very democratic spirit among those who “govern” within them.

  18. But there are instances of callings being withdrawn when the congregation withheld its sustaining vote.

    My understanding is that it only will be withdrawn if the people withholding their sustaining vote have new information about the worthiness of the individual being sustained for that particular calling.

    If you think about the law of consecration isn’t the Church the most socialist institution in the world?

  19. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 16
    A majority of its active members, perhaps. Members do vote, but with their feet. Until the Church finds a way to respect internal dissent somehow, convert retention and activity rates will remain abysmal.

  20. While I think the doctrinal foundation is there for substantially different culture, in practice it seems to me that the Church is (by far) one of the least democratic institutions in the world.

    For example, virtually everything about the operations of the Church is disseminated on a strict need-to-know-basis:

    1. The Church Handbook of Instructions for wards and stakes (to say nothing of higher level instutions) is considered a classified document.

    2. Financial and budgetary information at all levels is held in the strictest confidence.

    3. Church employees are generally instructed to keep as silent with regard to any project they are working on. Some of them might take input, but will be unable to give any feedback on how or why it might be received or neglected.

    4. Volunteering for anything at the general level (no matter how doctrinally insignificant) is a waste of breath.

    5. Any directives that come down through the hierarchy will inevitably be completely lacking any rationale or documentation as to the reasons for why the policy was instituted.

    6. The records of any decision making bodies (even what decisions they made) will be held confidential for at least a century.

    To mention a few more:

    1. Reverse channels for concerns about even minor administrative details (software problems, design issues, ..) are either non-existent or demonstrate first class hostility.

    2. Priesthood / administrative culture is hostile to any sense of representation. Priesthood leaders are to represent the hierarchy not those they preside over.

    3. Sustaining votes are about as significant as elections in a communist country.

    Now of course there is a philosophy of revelation behind all this behavior. The only question is that revelation infallible enough in every detail to compensate for the downsides of a command and control economy.

  21. StillConfused says:

    As far as churches go, I think that the LDS faith is unique in the lay ministry and volunteer service. While that isn’t democracy, I think it highlights the amount of member participation, much like what is seen in democratic governments.

  22. I think the key here is to recognize that “democracy” means many different things to different people. A common idea of democracy is that leaders under the system derive their legitimacy from the people. That’s clearly not true in Mormonism. Another common idea of democracy is that it is the system of incorporating popular participation in decision-making processes. Once again, clearly not true of Mormonism. A third concept involves the idea of open, neutral, contested elections for power. This idea, as with the first two, is totally foreign to our church. So, for these common concepts of democracy, Joseph F. Smith’s statement is simply mistaken.

    However, there are other concepts of democracy. The Cuban conception, for example, is one in which rank-and-file people’s participation in the implementation of policy and government power at the grass roots is the meaning of democracy. Clearly, this concept of democracy very much applies to the Mormon experience, in which top-down program mandates are implemented through the participation of the rank and file, rather than by professional bureaucrats.

  23. One thing I forgot:

    * All contributions are sent directly to headquarters. Local units budgets (which do not include physical facilities) are a very small percentage of net contributions. In other words, local financial discretionary authority is minimal.

    Case in point: If a ward clerk is unable the reconcile a transaction, the church finance department has been known to threaten to pull funding for his whole stake – clearly demonstrating the power relationship here. The stake’s donations are not considered as supporting the Church, but rather the other way around. Apparently the situation will be improved if the stake’s “lights are turned off”.

  24. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 20
    In all fairness, though, the Catholic church is also highly secretive about a lot of things. And if I’m not mistaken, doesn’t the Church release financial information about local operations in certain countries where this is required by law?

    re: 22 So GBH = Castro ?? That’s not a terribly flattering depiction of the Church, J.

  25. Name (required) says:

    I think Mark D. summarizes things fairly well.

    Sustaining votes are about as significant as elections in a communist country.

    Its possible that the church was somewhat democratic when the statement was made, but that was before the dark times…before the empire.

    But I think it is hard to argue that the church is not more or less what a majority of its members want it to be.

    I couldn’t disagree more. Dissent has been so thoroughly discouraged that people rarely speak their mind freely. Many members don’t think about possible changes would make the church better because they know that they don’t have any way to affect the change.

    If you ask members, ‘are you happy with the way the church is?’, many will respond positively. If, however, you get down to nuts and bolts and ask, ‘Would your preference be that you did a particular religious ceremony with clothes on or off?’, you would get an astounding number of ‘on’ answers. Thankfully this policy was changed within the last couple of years, but if the church was a democracy, it would have been gone a long time ago or never would have been there in the first place. This example is partially in response to #6. Do you really think that this issue put to secret vote would have lasted as long as it did?

  26. before the dark times…before the empire.

    lol, Name. No melodrama there.

    Be careful, the Danites might get you.

  27. I think there are some things about the church that could be understood as democratic.

    1. Direct access to decision makers, at least locally. Every single one of us can pick up the phone right now and request a meeting with the stake president, no questions asked.

    2. I don’t think that sustaining votes are a joke. I’ve personally seen cases where dissenting votes were noted, and in every case, the dissenter was given the chance to explain his dissent. In one case, the dissenter had information that the presiding officer did not have, and the call was withdrawn.

    3. As MikeInWeHo has pointed out, the church is popular among active members. It is circular reasoning, to be sure, but nonetheless true. I believe that if every major decision were put to a popular vote, the church would remain substantially the same.

  28. Name (required) says:

    It is circular reasoning, to be sure, but nonetheless true.

    ‘Circular reasoning sounds bad–I prefer to think of it as reasoning that doesn’t have any loose ends.’ –Dilbert

  29. Name (required) says:

    I believe that if every major decision were put to a popular vote, the church would remain substantially the same.

    OK–lets talk about some specific issues:

    1-3 hours of church. ‘Would you prefer that church was longer, shorter, or the same’, I think that you’d get a good number of ‘shorter’ answers.
    2-Geographic boundaries. ‘Would you like to be able to have your records in a ward of your choosing so that you could attend church with extended family or friends that might not be in your geographic ward boundary?’ I don’t know who would turn down the option.
    3-Tithing. ‘Assuming that the Lord was OK with whatever decision the church made, would you rather that 10% thing was raised, lowered, or stayed the same?’ Here you’d get a lot of ‘lowered’ answers.
    4-Callings. ‘Would you like more say in what callings you held? Maybe you could choose a list of your top five and the bishopric would make an effort to get you into one of them?’ Do you think that there would be a lot of opposition to this idea?

    Do you really think that if the church was democratic, it would look the same as it does now on these issues?

  30. I second Sam MB’s suggestion that Hatch’s work is especially useful in analysing the democratic aspects of Mormonism. Among other things, Hacth points out that JS used his authority to empower the uneducated and poor. Richard Bushman, echoing Hatch, explained that JS’s religion

    was by and for the people. It was not of the people–electoral democracy was absent–but if democracy means participation in government, no church was more democratic (RSR, 559).

    It is perhaps more useful, though, to see JFS’s above statement as an effort to reaffirm Mormonism’s allegiance to America and it’s (democratic) principles. The Church in 1917 was far from being accepted as just another American church.

  31. Mike #24: well, I’m not claiming that the church is Cuba. For one thing, the free medical care is better there. But more seriously, my point is that the statement that the church is democratic can be defended — if we’re willing to adopt a concept of democracy as mass participation and perhaps orientation toward the poor. This suddenly puts the church on the other side of the Cold War, as you point out.

    Mark IV #27: popularity isn’t necessarily synonymous with democracy. It seems quite likely that Fidel Castro was quite popular among Cubans for at least the first part of his rule. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is hugely popular, probably more popular in percentage terms than the church is among members of record. Yet many still want to call his centralization of power a degrading of democracy — a point that deserves scrutiny, to be sure, but nonetheless makes clear that not everybody wants to claim that popularity is particularly democratic. (For that matter, Apple is popular; is it democratic?)

    Christopher #30: again, democracy as participation is a theory associated with Leninist versions of Marxism. I’m not terribly sure how helpful that is for us.

  32. Name,

    OK, now I see what you mean. I guess I don’t see the things on your list as major decisions, which was my qualifier. I think that if the things which cause the most dissent in the church (SSM, women & priesthood, sex roles) were put to a vote among those who show up on most Sundays, the result of the vote would just ratify what we have already.

  33. Mark #32, I’m not sure you’re right. It’s just pretty much impossible to tell. We don’t have systematic data on people in the church’s positions on these issues — and we certainly never have anonymous opinion data, comparable to a secret ballot. Maybe people would ratify the status quo, but maybe not. I do know that it’s never wise to guess about the opinions of a large population without actually directly measuring those opinions; we’re wrong about such things far more often than we think.

  34. I haven’t read the article, but could he mean that the church supports democratic governments?

    On the other hand, I’ve always had a problem with the sustaining “vote”. the fact that it’s held in a manner similar to an actual vote makes me uneasy. Just call it what it is–an opportunity to demonstrate whether you support the leadership in their call of a particular person. Calling it a “vote” is disingenuous. Who’s counting hands?

  35. JNS, the purpose of my statements were not to argue that the Church is, indeed, a democracy. I do know view it as such. I read your previous comments on this thread, and don’t disagree with them. Rather, I was trying to point out historical contexts for JFS’s comment.

  36. My statement should read, I do not view it as such (not I do know view it as such.)

  37. Name (required) says:

    #32–What is SSM?

    I think that you are mostly right–if the church had a vote today on ‘should women hold the priesthood?’ The answer would be overwhelmingly ‘No’. The problem, though, is that this is largely a result of what church leaders have taught. They teach that women shouldn’t hold the priesthood, so most active members (who generally support the leaders of the church) are OK with that.

    What if the question was: ‘Assuming that the Lord has no objection to women holding the priesthood, do you think that the church should continue to deny them the priesthood?’ The answers here, I think, would be overwhelmingly in favor of women holding the priesthood.

    In our current system, the church tells us what to think and then asks us if we agree. If people don’t agree, they often leave. Its not a bad theocracy–but its not much of a democracy.

  38. ssm = same sex marriage.

  39. I think that his statement should be considered in the actual context it was said in.

    While Brigham Young was President of the Church, he would take large groups of Church leaders “on tour” among the saints to visit the more remote stakes and congregations to preach the gospel and inspect the organizations to make sure that all was going well and that the people were being taken care of. As the Church grew larger, it became difficult for such trips to continue.

    In 1917, JFS who desired to attempt a similar experience, gathered a large group of Church leaders together and they set off on a week and a half long tour of the outlying regions of Utah. They went to teach the gospel, check on the members, allow the members to meet them personally and become familiar with them, unify them and testify of their love for the saints etc. They were welcomed with open arms and loving hearts and the WRITER of the article in the “Improvement Era”- F. W. Otterstrom, Official Church Reporter- said in part:

    There are in the world potentates and ecclesiastical dignitaries who ride in costly attire at the head of gorgeous pageants, accepting the homage, if not the worship, of their fellow men, some of whom consider it an honor to kiss the hand of one of such high station. How different in the Church of Christ! What is the attitude of him who is revered and sustained as Prophet, Seer and Revelator, who presides over half a million of his fellows? He is one of the people—not apart from them; and, like the apostles of old, he mingles with them on terms of equality and fellowship. The humblest member may stand up like a man and greet him as his brother. This is but one of many points of excellence which led one of the brethren to remark:

    “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the most democratic institution in the world.”

    There is nothing in the original article indicating that JFS was “the brother” who actually said those words.
    The statement was later published in Gospel Doctrine:Selections from the sermons and writings of Joseph F. Smith but it only appears as the sentence above and indicates the source as the “Improvement Era-Vol.21 p.99”.

  40. #27: D&C 28:13 states:

    For all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith.

    Take a sustaining vote for example. For common consent to mean much more than “I believe this fellow isn’t guilty of major malfeasance”, the name of the person to be sustained to a significant office would have to be announced in advance, and it would have to be considered a legitimate exercise of agency to oppose someone for something less than child abuse or monetary embezzlement.

    And of course the verse states “all things”. All things would presumably include group discussion and consensus formation on any number of issues. This sort of discussion happens in the council system on the way down, but common consent in all things implies it should occur on the way up as well.

  41. #24: I understand that they release local data in countries where they are required to by law.

    In the United States most 501( c )(3) (tax exempt) organizations are required to file such reports (using Form 990). Churches, however, are exempted (cf. 26 USC 6033).

  42. re: 33

    If the Lord led the Church into a period of ecclesiastical glasnost, the result would be an open diversity of opinion on some of the hot topics. It might well reflect geographic and cultural differences. For example, a ward in an area like Berkeley might welcome gay couples, while that would be unthinkable in more conservative areas. Ditto women in the priesthood, etc.

    In other words, the same fissures would develop which exist in most other denominations (including the Community of Christ, btw).

    I don’t think there is a major religion on earth that has a narrower definition of adiaphora than this Church.

  43. I don’t want the Church to be a democracy. I don’t want member input on what callings they want and don’t want – in most units. I don’t want flexible boundaries that let members decide where they want to worship. I don’t want most money generated by local units to stay in those units. I don’t want a vote on major doctrinal issues.

    I don’t want to attend a Protestant church. I like being somewhere between that and the extreme of evangelism. I like the balance, although I recognize fully that the system is not perfect – mostly, if not completely, because we who administer it aren’t perfect.

  44. Mark,

    But what about the fact that we get a chance to re-sustain our leaders every six months unlike a governmental democracy that allows for a US President to remain in office even when the majority of citizens don’t like him or approve of his leadership. Even when “elected” by ballot, half the country ends up not being satisfied with the person elected and can’t do anything about it for 4 years…if then.

    Say you aren’t sure about sustaining a Church officer so you don’t. You do home, pray about it, study his work and beliefs, and later come to believe he is called of God. The next time his name is read, you can sustain him willingly, OR if you’ve found evidence that he isn’t worthy to be in office, present that information to the public for their consideration prior to the next conference. It is a genuine exercise of agency between ourselves and God to sustain or not.

    The gospel is based on faith not personal satisfaction. Faith that the Prophet IS called of God. Once you have a testimony of that (and you have a right to have that made clear to you by the Holy Ghost) you work on your testimony of the 12. We have the right and the duty to determine that current church authorities ARE honorable, worthy, inspired men that are leading the Church in the manner God desires, and when we come to that understanding, we are bound by covenant to support those men.

    It is OUR responsibility to be worthy of, and then seek to gain, a testimony that these men are called of God, not theirs to prove that they have been.

  45. Mike, don’t you mean a *broader* definition of adiaphoria?

  46. #42

    There’s a term for that….um….er….The Great Apostasy. :-)


    You da man.

  47. #29

    While you are at it, my husband wants me to ask you to petition for having the Sabbath moved to Wednesdays, the canon of the Church to be reduced to just the Conference editions of the Ensign, and putting your assigned families on your clean-joke email list to be considered home teaching.

    *sorry…I couldn’t help it* :-)

  48. #43: What about minor issues?:

    Can the Boy Scouts conduct fund raising drives?
    Can wards have ward campouts?
    Can organizations accept contributions to support specific activities?
    Can singles over 30 attend a single adult ward?
    Should the Church accept online donations?
    Can food be prepared in the kitchen?
    Should the church share its family history data?
    Should clerk’s offices have photocopiers?
    Should ward websites have public sections?
    Should ward websites be accessible to members not of the same stake?
    Should the ward or stake be able to specify which is which?
    Should the bishop have real discretion over fast offering funds?
    Who should review his expenditures – stake leaders or remote bureaucrats?
    What kind of instruments are acceptable in sacrament meeting?
    What hymns should be nominated for inclusion in the next edition of the hymnbook?

  49. #46 I agree it will not do to have the Church fracture on doctrinal lines. However, there are a large number of issues that the Church or any of its units could have any number of positions on without jeopardizing doctrinal integrity.

    I believe that the law of common consent is more optimal than top down dictate for those sort of issues. Indeed, in historical memory Church administration has been far more decentralized than it is today. The last big change I am aware of is the replacement of ward budget contributions by tithing appropriations. More efficient, more equality, less burden – but also minimal budgets, dissapearance of many activities, greater centralization, less local control.

    There are numerous scriptures that indicate that we are to impart one to another according to both our needs and our wants (Mosiah 18:29, D&C 82:17, etc). We have the needs part pretty well down.

    On the other hand it is difficult to believe that anything is done according to members wants, when no one ever asks their opinion on anything and voluntary feedback is largely futile.

  50. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 45
    No, I meant what I said. In a Church where a man can be labeled a rebel by wearing a blue shirt on Sunday, where every lesson manual is correlated, where meaningful dissent is impossible…..there is precious little adiaphora indeed. (My understanding is that adiaphora mostly deals with praxis, not doctrine.)

    This is difficult to understand. You can have all kinds of crazy ideas about the nature of God and still be a Mormon in good standing, but in many wards the wrong garb or coif can render you a virtual apostate.

  51. Name (required) says:

    #47–Sabbath on Wednesdays, reduced cannon, email hometeaching:

    I’d put in a request for these things, but we are almost there already:

    -The Sabbath on Sunday is arbitrary. If the world redefined the calendar for Wednesday to be the first day of the week, then Wednesday would be the new Sabbath. Does anyone here really believe that if you go back an integer number of 7-day periods the resurrection would have occurred on a Sunday?
    -Reduced cannon. Since conference talks override anything in the scriptures, we effectively already have tossed the scriptures and replaced them with conference talks.
    -Hometeaching: What’s wrong with email hometeaching? My ward just had a better than average hometeaching month because knocking on someone’s door and saying ‘trick or treat’ gets counted as hometeaching.

  52. Mark D, from everything you’ve written, I would say that you have had a bad experience with leaders, not necessarily with the Church. You sited several “examples” of instances where the Church is secret in its approach. For one, you mention the Church Handbook (CH) as being secreted from the members. Not so; I am presently serving as a Bishop for the third time and have never heard any prohibitions to exposing members to the CH. Neither does the book itself prohibit its open use. “Financial and budgetary information at all levels is held in the strictest confidence” is another partially incorrect statement. In our Ward Council meetings there is full disclosure of our financial status. In Ward Welfare Meeting, the members of the committee are advised of donations received and financial support given. Several of your comments lack specific support, but are offered as general but seemingly authoritative statements

  53. Dave, regarding the secrecy of the Church Handbook of Instructions — if it isn’t secret, why can’t members purchase a copy or read it on

  54. re:50
    The problem is that in every ward we are dealing with imperfect people who determine for themselves what is important and what isn’t. In our ward, a priesthood leader was upset because a deacon touched the sacrament cloth to simply straigten out a wrinkle. I had to remind him that the sacrament table is not the ark of the covenant and that the goal of the Church is to bring souls unto Christ. Sometimes we have to look past the shortcomings of others and their nearsightedness if WE are to become like Christ.

  55. 53 The fact that the CH is not online nor for sale does not in itself testify to its secrecy. It is open to all well meaning members. Maybe someday it will be online in its entirety. If you go to, under Serving in the Church, you will see more and more of it all the time. Why is it not for sale? I find that an odd question. Who would buy it since all those who need it have a copy of it for free?

  56. It is open to all well meaning members

    Dave, this is simply untrue. Women have no access to the book, except as granted by well-meaning priesthood leaders.

  57. Who would buy it since all those who need it have a copy of it for free?

    Well, this is circular indeed! Who, Dave, are those who “need” the CHI? It’s the governing document that shapes the experiences of all of us; it defines apostasy, provides the church’s official political positions, and contains the most specific available statements of our organization and day-to-day operations. So, who doesn’t need a copy? Shouldn’t all members who want a copy be able to have a copy? Yet only a handful of people in leadership positions can have a copy. That’s secrecy at its finest.

  58. Kristine, there are only four copies of Volume 1 of the CH available in any ward. The Bishopric and the Ward Clerk. The High Priest Group Leader and the Elder’s Quorum President don’t have copies. These leaders as well as any other members have access in our ward to my copy, or the other three copies. Please keep in mind that Vol 1 exists in order to help Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics as well as their various clerks act in the offices to which they are appointed. Other handbooks are written for the same purposes for all other organizations. I don’t give my copy out simply because I need it and refer to it often, but anyone can come to me and ask to see it and as long as they are sitting in my office can read it all they want. But even in doing this, it is to satisfy their curiosity more than to satisfy a need.

  59. Name (required) says:

    Dave is clearly off base here. OK–maybe some things aren’t ‘secretive’ if you are the bishop, but they are to everyone else in the ward. That may be good for somethings, but not everything.

    Until the church publishes the CHI, I just use the online copy. Do a google search and you’ll find one soon enough.

  60. Dave, you’ve made my point for me–no women get Volume 1 (which includes information about disciplinary proceedings, birth control, procedures for extending callings and setting apart, and many, many other things which are potentially profoundly important for women), and their access depends entirely on the bishop’s willingness to let them read it or on being related to one of the few men who has it (which is how I know what’s in it). See here for a discussion of some of the reasons women (and other non-bishopric/SPcy members) might need to have access to the handbook.

  61. Dave (#52),

    Are you aware the Church (Intellectual Reserve) sued Utah Lighthouse Ministries for posting the URL of a copy of the Church Handbook of Instructions found on another site?

    Ward budgets are certainly available to the ward council. But the council is composed of ward leaders not ordinary members.

    It is worth noting that general level financial information was public up until about four decades ago. It was withdrawn due to some budgetary embarassment and has never been heard of since.

  62. We should clarify that this Dave is not DMI Dave.

    He’s also wrong about the CHI being secret. Of course it’s secret; it is not open for public consumption. This Dave simply does not understand the meaning of the word “secret”.

  63. Name (required) says:

    #61–I was unaware of this. Maybe my post #59 should be deleted.

  64. Nick Literski says:

    I personally believe that restricted access to the CHI serves only one purpose—to avoid a situation where local leaders would be harassed by self-appointed “handbook lawyers,” who would tend to second-guess every leadership move with a page and paragraph reference. On the one hand, it’s easy to see this as a somewhat sinister avoidance of accountability. On the other hand, it’s simply a wise means of avoiding a real problem in functioning.

    Who would really want to serve as a bishop, with every member ready to point out their supposed mistakes with “page 67 of Handbook II says…” specifics? How many of us have served as missionaries, and had locals call our mission presidents to complain about imaginary rulebreaking, under the principle of “every member a mission president?” We had that in California, even when we weren’t breaking missionary handbook rules. It wasn’t pleasant.

    The CHI is a great resource, and as a stake executive secretary, I saw plenty of purely stupid actions by bishops who thought they were too smart (or “inspired?”) to read and follow the handbook. At the same time, forcing a leader into legalistic compliance with the CHI by making “every member a watchdog” can be equally, if not more, destructive.

  65. I have struggled with this kind of issue for years. My wife had a bad experience growing up in the Church and so has spent more of our marriage inactive than active. Because of her experience, she knows that the secret to keeping her active is to have her in a calling that requires her to actually attend Church on Sundays. There really aren’t very many of those, and of those that there are, most of them are callings to teach.

    In the two plus years we have lived in our current ward, she has received several callings, all of which can successfully be done during the week. Most of them do not even require that she ever step foot in the building. Yesterday, a sister who has been in the ward for only a few months got one of those callings my wife has been begging for for years. One of the few differences between her and my wife is their husbands. He is in the bishopric, I am the organist and Primary pianist.

    They say that one thing to watch for when looking for a new ward (ward shopping?) is to check for the last names on leadership lists. The more of those that are the same, which may be a sign of how “democratic” the branch or ward is, the more likely a newcomer won’t be welcome. The number of last names that match between our bishopric and our Primary/Relief Society has me to the point that I came to the sad realization yesterday that I don’t like our ward anymore. The correlation goes even higher (nearly one to one) if you add the last names of the Elders’ Quorum and High Priest’s Group. Although it is a relatively new development, only arising in the last few months, it has made it more clear to me that there are more of us members on the margins than there are in the inner circles with access to any decision making processes.

    It made me deeply sad, since the openness of the ward when we first started attending was the main reason we chose it, and the main reason we kept our house search in such a relatively small geographic area. I don’t feel welcome any more, or that I belong here any more.

  66. Name (required) says:

    #64–I think that its generally a bad idea to throw away transparency, democracy, accountability for the sake of a little convenience.

    In your missionary example–things have changed. Now the ‘preach my gospel’ is published and everyone (missionaries and members) is encouraged to get a copy. It has right in there what the recommended missionary schedule is, etc. Now that everyone has the book, I’d bet that the ‘every member a mission president’ thing has actually decreased. If this model was followed with the CHI, I think that there would be a similar positive result.

    If a bishop is clearly going against the handbook, why should he have any problem explaining this to someone who calls him on it? ‘The righteous need not fear’.

  67. RE: mark (#44)

    But what about the fact that we get a chance to re-sustain our leaders every six months unlike a governmental democracy that allows for a US President to remain in office even when the majority of citizens don’t like him or approve of his leadership. Even when “elected” by ballot, half the country ends up not being satisfied with the person elected and can’t do anything about it for 4 years…if then.

    I don’t think the democratic value of the LDS sustaining vote is analogous to that of voting for leaders in public elections. First of all, the sustaining vote is not supposed to be based on how much you like or agree with a leader–we’re only “supposed” to oppose a sustaining if we have grounds to doubt the Church leader’s worthiness (and how many of us are in an informed position to judge our leaders’ personal worthiness?). Additionally, I would argue that sustaining votes, at least on the general level, are somewhat of a formality rather than a real vote. Think about it–every six months, President Monson declares that “it appears the voting is unanimous in the affirmative,” even though he can only see the members in the Conference Center, and not the thousands of other members who are voting in chapels and homes across the world.

    Furthermore, the American public can remove an elected leader from office at regularly scheduled elections, and for whatever reasons they want. The public does not have to provide hard evidence that the leader is unfit for office. They simply vote for someone else they like better. Conversely, Church members don’t really have a means to effect a leader’s removal from office (unless, of course, they can provide reliable evidence of his unworthiness). I’m not saying that they should, but I’m saying that your assertion that the LDS sustaining vote is actually more democratic than an election-based vote for public officials is probably an overstatement.

    It is OUR responsibility to be worthy of, and then seek to gain, a testimony that these men are called of God, not theirs to prove that they have been.

    While this probably does approximate LDS belief, I think it’s an interesting idea. When leaders make claims that they represent God and speak for Him, the burden of proof is on the members. Hmmm. Is it because of their authority that leaders are entitled to a presumption that their pronouncements are, in fact, of God? Are elected officials in a democracy entitled to the same presumption? I don’t think so. Generally, those in authority shouldn’t be allowed to make arbitrary decisions or pronouncements without providing some kind of rationale, proof, or justification. I think the idea that the leader must justify his actions to his constituency is a very democratic idea that is largely absent in the LDS context.

  68. re: handbook avalability,

    Although it’s distribution is limited, anyone can request access to it. Just ask your bishop / S.P. to let you look through it. They will arrange for a time and place to do so. I’ve been able to do this many times and when I have had reason to discuss any parts of it, they have been more than willing.


  69. Kristine, you made your point in the “here” link. I repent. Not sure how to do it yet but I want our members to know the policies. Thanks

  70. One thing that has been left out of the discussion has been history’s examples of the excesses of democracy (i.e. ancient Athen’s). I’m not sure any of the excesses listed above are in conflict with the very, very messy history of the practice. Perhaps we meant democratic republic? In which case, secrecy from the masses, popular changes that are unable to get on the docket for implimentation, and decisions that are made by leaders but are never put to the masses are standard practice! And might I add…stabilizing.

    Speaking only for myself, I share many frustrations with the Church listed in the comments above. I would certainly run the railroad differently were I left in charge. But, I sustain my leaders, with full knowledge that I could oppose simply by raising my hand, because those poor souls were called and not I (whew!). I strongly suspect that most of the changes I might attempt to make would fail if put to a vote of general membership anyway…this blog ain’t mainstream. More power to those serving the members on an unpaid basis just as in the time of the judges.

    All in all, a pretty good balance sheet: no pay for leaders, a leadership drawn from the membership and implimented on a local and temporary basis, the right to sustain those same leaders, and of course, I don’t have to show up. Let’s not forget the last – come next stake conference I won’t.

  71. JM–I’ve also been able to access the handbook whenever I wanted/needed to. It’s the “y.m.m.v.” that is a problem–access shouldn’t depend on geography and the good will of local leaders.

  72. TyB–to what do you refer? The ostracism that was regularly practiced on the most prominent and successful citizens? The failure of city-states to agree on such basic matters as defense? The redistribution of budgetary surplus even in times of imminent war, which eventually contributed to the lack of military preparedness and thus the conquest of the Greek city-states by Philip? Again, none of these are features of either the Church or of the Democracy with which we are most familiar (the US). Although it might be temporarily entertaining to vote people out of leadership positions/membership in a ward, I’m pretty sure it’s as bad an idea now as it was then. The other conditions you mention (secrecy from the masses, etc.) are common to any type of government and aren’t necessarily stabilizing. Stability for a government (and I think this includes a religious government) derives from the perception of the citizens/congregant/non-leaders that they are receiving a worthwhile value from the tithes, tributes, or taxes they pay their government.

  73. Mike (#50) – adiaphoria is “failure to respond to a stimulus after a series of stimuli.” If you are applying it to the membership (not responding negatively to restrictive stimuli) or to the Church leadership (not responding to stimuli/input from the membership), I still read your comments as saying that there is widespread failure to respond – meaning broader, more widespread adiaphoria.

    Am I misunderstanding what you meant to say? Did you mean that there is much response to stimuli – perhaps that we respond to our leaders more than any other religion?

  74. Psssst Ray,

    no “i” before the “a” at the end….
    Adiaphoron (plural: adiaphora from the Greek ???????? “indifferent things”) was a concept used in Stoic philosophy in indicate things which were outside of moral law &– that is, actions which are neither morally mandated nor morally forbidden.

    Adiaphora in Christianity refer to matters not regarded as essential to faith, but nevertheless as permissible for Christians or allowed in church. What is specifically considered adiaphora depends on the specific theology in view.

  75. Psssst Ray,

    no “i” before the “a” at the end….
    Adiaphoron (plural: adiaphora from the Greek “indifferent things”) was a concept used in Stoic philosophy in indicate things which were outside of moral law &– that is, actions which are neither morally mandated nor morally forbidden.

    Adiaphora in Christianity refer to matters not regarded as essential to faith, but nevertheless as permissible for Christians or allowed in church. What is specifically considered adiaphora depends on the specific theology in view.

  76. oooooppppps! It kept rejecting the post because of the Greek letters where the ???????? showed up, so I deleted and it repeated.

  77. That makes sense. Sorry, Mike.

    I automatically thought of the medical definition. I wanted to make sure of the spelling, so I used – the quickest and easiest. It gave me adiaphoria – as well as the medical definition I posted and with which I was familiar.

  78. Democracy – people govern. Rule by the people.

    The church is run by its members. Not by a paid clergy.

  79. cdub, I think you’re technically wrong. Our church is most certainly run by a paid clergy — the general authorities.

  80. We have two churches within a Church (a dweam within a dweam): the vertical, doctrinal one, run by a paid clergy, and the horizontal, practical one, run by an unpaid clergy.

  81. Ray,
    Ya know…there’s a whole thread there in that “failure to respond to stimulus after a series of stimulus”….LOL (Maywage is wot bwings us togever today)

    The way the statement that started this thread is phrased, the word “democratic” is not a noun, it’s an adjective.
    It does not imply that the Church IS a democracy, but that it is “democratic”…as in:

    -relating to, appealing to, or available to the broad masses of the people
    -favoring social equality : not snobbish

    As far as having a paid clergy goes…depends on what you call clergy. Technically the LDS Church doesn’t apply the word to any of the positions held so whose clergy are we paying? In the most common sense-the word applies to lower ranking positions within Christian religions as a whole such as deacons, priests, bishops and/or pasters/ministers. None of those positions are paid within the LDS Church.

  82. Democratic? Are the governors necessarily and routinely responsive to interested publics? May they be replaced by, and are they rotated according to, public pressure (e.g. elections)?

  83. The general authorities get paid? I kinda thought it was like mission presidents who leave their full-time employment and live on nuts and berries until they return to real life 3 years later. Obviously, I’ve not pondered this deeply as it is not in my future.

    How do you know they get paid? Is it in the non-profit paperwork somewhere? Inquiring minds want to know?


  84. Excuse me. Make that an exclamation point! Inquiring minds want to know!

  85. Because none of them can work 9-5 full time in a career (and many of them gave up lucrative careers when called to be apostles)General Authorities receive a stipend that covers living expenses etc. I believe (I’ll have to check) the money comes from the investments/business ventures of the Church.

  86. The church is about as democratic as the communist party. They too held conventions where you could vote to sustain the proposed leaders. The difference though is that the church is based on testimony and inspiration from God and the communist party was based on fear and a secret police who would take you away if you became too bothersome.

  87. I don’t buy it. Its nice that JFS said it, but I think it is probably an example of hyperbole used in a specific context to counter criticism of the Church. I have never seen or heard of any instance where the consent (or vote) of the members played any meaningful role.

    As long as the General Authorities are inspired by God, I do not care much if the Church is democratic. I would rather see it become more liberal (not necessarily big D Democratic), more open, transparent, and tolerant of difference. And I personally believe that is what God wants too.

  88. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the most democratic institution in the world.”

    This is true the only time it isn’t true is when some power mad priesthood leader tries to hurt the poor little peoples at the bottom. I think you all have had the experience, well maybe some of you have (sometimes it can be as simple as expressing an unorthodox view, like “Wanna give women the priesthood?” I don’t know why people think I am off my rocker for that. (Didn’t somebody say they had it once before?) Could just be Mormon myths, who knows? Luckly for us we have Church counsels and governance to make sure nobody get’s hurt wrongfully…unless of course they do…but that’s the only time…so I think I agree that the church is the most democratic institution, and the only time it isn’t…is I guess when it’s not acting that way.

  89. I have a wonderful Bishop, a church school theologist, who insists that when we sustain a member to a position it is not an act of “Democracy”. (He has even told us…”You are not voting.”) The Lord has already called that man/woman to that position and we are just showing our support. Doesn’t sound to democratic to me, but at the same time something like this doesn’t move me one way or the other.