Today we had our ward conference. I’ve wondered for years why we still have these things, but I think the reason may actually be found in this post (maybe you can find it). This Sunday, as we were invited to raise our hands in favor, or not, of certain office holders in the Church, I felt the conviction in my own mind that these people were sustained by God, and I should follow suit. I did.
At the same time, I started to consider what it means to offer consent. Its immediate foundation is in Protestantism, and especially in American Protestantism and American governmental ideals. We don’t see it much in the texts with which we claim an ancient partnership. In Mormon beginnings, early instruction suggests that ordination should not take place without consent of those who would be governed/instructed by those so ordained.
The process has undergone fundamental changes in Mormonism. Its first exercise on April 6, 1830, amounted to 4 men consenting to have 2 men be their teachers. “Yeah, we’re ok with it – status quo.” Sounds like what we practice today, doesn’t it? But in fact the process was much richer than that. Methodist and Reformed Baptist (Disciples of Christ) practice was strong in early Mormonism. Aside from the Book of Mormon being used (especially the book of Moroni) as organizational and liturgical outline, much of early praxis and terminology copied that of Protestantism.
In terms of common consent, Church meetings were organized by vote of attendees. Meetings would be chaired by, not necessarily Joseph Smith, but whoever got the vote. The recorder of proceedings was also voted in. Candidates were defined by preliminary discussion. It took a fair number of years of this before people settled on the notion that Church office should determine meeting leader. The impulse for electing presiders on the spur of the moment at gatherings was pretty strong. Imagine ward conference discussion: the meeting is open for discussion of chair. Brother Bosworth gets the vote (a vocal semi-literate member who a large number find has nice hair).
Late in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo tenure, it was pretty well established that he would conduct or assign others to conduct public Church meetings. In outlying areas however, things were not cut and dried. In any case, common consent still had the force of elective power. Witness Joseph Smith’s wish to discard Rigdon from the Church presidency. It was put to a vote. Joseph lost.
Conferences themselves were fora for debate and decision. Church discipline could be conducted in a general conference and charges brought up and considered. Good Protestant practice in some respects I might add. Common consent meant democratic vote. The Disciples’ brain trust, Walter Scott and Alex Campbell, had hard rules about congregations. The power was in the people for selection. No such thing as special priesthood. Nothing top down there. Even most Hollywood depictions of 19th century congregations show things operating this way. Common knowledge.
Of course, Mormonism is all about special priesthood. The 1829 angelic ordinations came to define Mormonism by 1835, textually, and among much of the illuminati at least. So how to reconcile the Methodist-Baptist heritage and angelic ordinations? It took a while for sure. Common consent was part of this. By Utah, Brigham Young could feel insulted if someone undertook to start a meeting for which he was late (no atomic synchronized chronometers then, so it could be anybody’s guess what the real start time was). But if the elective nature of ordination had been diluted, congregation leadership was another matter. In Mormon communities, even if leadership had stabilized to long serving bishops or “acting” bishops, the selection of such persons was often a public process, and they could be voted out the same way. After 1900, visiting authorities could still call on local active priesthood for selective votes. The current practice of “called after interviews” in stake presidency reorganization is a vestige of that idea.
Releasing established permanent officers evolved, with changes often caused by a change in public sentiment. This can still happen of course, but it’s the exception. Mostly all this now takes place under the aegis of private inspiration to the defined responsible officer. Time for a new bishop? Stake president decides that and then puts forward a name up and down the line. Calls in old bishop in private, tells him he’s done (after calling the new bishop of course). No one has a chance now to say, “no we’ll keep the old guy.” Release is done in private. Congregations do not review this, they only get the chance to indicate their perfunctory thanks, “by the same sign.” Oh for those exciting days of yore.
Along with the change in procedure came a change in perception of procedure. Selection should be done by inspiration (see article of faith 5) but the congregation was excluded from the authoritative class.
So common consent moved from the priesthood of all believers idea to the top down model implied by angelic ordination. I find this to be connected to, of all things, Wilford Woodruff’s 1894 revelation. And probably every present thrust of Mormonism is. (grin)
 Sure, you can point to instances like Exodus 24:3 or stretching a bit further, Acts 1:26. Sometimes elective process as in Mosiah 29:25 has been interpreted as common consent.
 HC 1:61.
 It hasn’t been that long since the LDS Sunday School was called the “Deseret Sunday School Union.” Yeah. Expansive Methodism here.
 There was a mild sort of regulation in D&C 20 based on pecking order of ordination. Same for D&C 107.
 I’m only being slightly silly here. Many early gatherings involved families and family loyalty often dictated vote (no voting by women). The possible egalitarian nature of leadership is illustrated by the “Hiram Page incident.” It took some time before *not* selecting JS as spur of the moment leader would be considered an insult (whatever the reasons may have been for calling foul).
 See most any issue of the Millennial Harbinger. (Ok, I can’t think of the reference I was going to put here.)
 Brigham Young and others freely ordained people without congregational acknowledgement. That practice extended to authorization to perform sealings eventually, which led, by a tortured process, to the establishment of underground 20th century polygamy and retrenchment about public authorization for most anything. Admission to the Anointed Quorum is interesting here.
 Heber J. Grant narrates one such incident regarding a stake president in parts south of Utah County.
 In Kirtland, many felt that if Joseph went astray, he could be discarded without effecting their authoritative abilities as congregants and officers. Brigham Young famously went against this idea, telling the proposers that they would lose the salvific powers and blessing of divinity by doing that. This despite the fact of a prescribed way of getting rid of the president of the high priesthood.