The Political Threat of Priestcraft

Cover for the pamphlet “The Crimes of the Clergy; or The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken,” London, 1823

I am not entirely sure that the world of Mormon blogs needs another post defining “priestcraft.” The current status of the word as a fill-in-the-blank insult that means something like “making money from a religious belief that I disagree with” has been a frequent topic of Morminish blogs. Here, all the way from 2012, is Sam Brunson wondering if Deseret Book is engaging in priestcraft by profiting from religious books. And, from 2017, here is Blair Hodges wondering the same about BCC Press.  

But I am writing this post anyway, as none of the definitions I have seen actually answer what, for me, is the most important question about priestcraft in the Book of Mormon. When Alma sentences Nehor to death for enforcing priestcraft by the sword, he makes the following comment:

Behold, this is the first time that priestcraft has been introduced among this people. And behold, thou art not only guilty of priestcraft, but hast endeavored to enforce it by the sword; and were priestcraft to be enforced among this people it would prove their entire destruction. (Alma 1:12)

What strikes me about this passage is the very last line: that priestcraft, if enforced, would prove the entire destruction of the people. It is, in other words, a political threat rather than a religious one. It is hard to tease out the difference between a civic and a religious principle when Alma is speaking, as he holds three distinct offices at the same time. He is the high priest of the church, the chief judge of the state, and a prophet of God.

But in sentencing Nehor, Alma must act solely as chief judge, not as prophet or priest, as Nephite law “could have no power on any man for his belief” (Alma 1:17). Alma could have ignored the priestcraft issue altogether and tried Nehor for the murder of Gideon. But he felt compelled to make “enforcing priestcraft” an integral part of the trial. From this, we must conclude either that Alma is breaking his own laws or that he saw priestcraft as a political threat that could be separated from its religious nature. So this is my big question: what about priestcraft constitutes a grave, existential threat to the body politic?

The standard Latter-day Saint definitions of “priestcraft” come from 2 Nephi 26:29 and normally include “preaching to get gain,” “setting oneself up for a light unto the world,” and “seeking not the welfare of Zion.” I think that modern readers, for whom “priestcraft” is an unfamiliar word, read this passage as a complete definition in a way that original readers would not have. For people who already had a working understanding of “priestcraft,” Nephi’s definition would have added shades of meaning to a concept that they already understood, but it would not have replaced the meaning that the word had in 1830.

Along these lines, the casting of priestcraft as a civil danger is completely consistent with the way that the word was used in the early nineteenth century that first encountered the Book of Mormon. Until Latter-day Saints got their hands on the word and turned it into a standard insult for people who sell gold-plated CTR rings,”priestcraft” was almost always used to define a threat to the state rather than a kind of false religion.

So, let’s look at the history of the word. According to Cambridge Professor Mark Goldie, the term “priestcraft” emerged from the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century and became a standard part of the Whig vocabulary in the 1690s. The word was coined to describe the Roman Catholic clergy (which routinely went by the name “Popery” in Protestant discourse). It soon became a way to talk about what the Anglican Church should avoid becoming—namely, an organized network of popular priests who were not loyal to the government.

But here is the thing, the different sides in the civil wars saw “not becoming like the Papists” very differently. For dissenting Protestants, it meant decreasing the presence of the Established Church for the sake of dissenting Protestants, while maintaining a hard line against the Church of Rome. For Anglican Whigs, on the other hand, it meant maintaining state control of the Established Church. To this day, the English monarch is the head of the Church of England for the same reason that the President of the United States is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. In both cases, the designers believed that the most powerful institutions in society (the established church and the military) should always be subordinated to the civil authority.

The Google n-gram chart below shows the distribution of the term “priestcraft” from 1650 to 2019. As we can see, it begins in the late seventeenth century, has wide usage throughout the eighteenth century, and reaches its highest point in 1824, and then falls dramatically until the late 20th century, likely because of an increase in books about the Book of Mormon’s use of the term.  


The highest use of the word in print occurs in the America of Joseph Smith—which did not have an established church. The term “priestcraft” was a staple of the day’s substantial anti-Catholic rhetoric. For much of our nation’s history, Roman Catholics have been seen as politically suspect. All of the original British colonies in America had anti-Catholic ordinances, and seven of the original state Constitution prohibited Catholics from holding public office. The threats that Americans perceived from Catholicism stemmed from the belief that the priests were loyal to the aristocratic, theocratic, European world that they came from—and that an organized Catholic priesthood in America would create a large, influential, and highly organized network of priests whose loyalties (people felt) lay with the nation’s enemies.  

Priestcraft, in other words, was a political term that designated a certain subset of religious practices as “enemies of the state” and therefore exempt from laws designed to protect religious freedom. The mere fact of a paid religious preacher—even of an extremely popular preacher who uses religion to gain great wealth and adulation—seems unlikely to cause the destruction of an entire civilization. But a highly organized network of popular, influential priests whose loyalties lay with the enemies of the government and the established church could very well destroy a civilization by providing a way to organize dissidents and revolutionaries.

Nehor represents exactly such a threat. By the time that Alma sees him, he has already amassed a large following, and most of his followers come from the Mulekite population, which is largely opposed to Alma’s judgeship, but which has no way to organize this opposition until Nehor comes along. Nehor carries with him the seeds of the schism and the religious war that will occupy Alma for the rest of his term in office, not by becoming popular himself, but by creating an instituition capable of organizing opposition to the established institutions.  

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Michael. I think that when we read the Books of Mormon, we often miss the very fragile and tenuous nature of their state. It’s ready to fall basically in a light breeze. But we read it in light of our modern view of states which, for the last couple hundred years at least have largely been stable and resilient. In that vein, to your “priestcraft” I’d add a “contention.” We often read the Book of Mormon to say that argument is bad. But I’m basically every situation that it uses “contention” it’s talking about not just disagreement, but a disagreement that threatens to destabilize and destroy the fragile community that they’ve established. Like “priestcraft,” we’ve read down the definition of the harms the Book of Mormon condemns.

  2. I don’t remember “priestcraft” itself being used, but I remember very similar thoughts and arguments about U.S. political candidates and leaders who were suspected of being more allegiant to the Pope or other church leader than to the nation or the constitution or the electorate. Including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact, speaking from somewhere on the inside it is very easy to imagine.

  3. David Vermette does a wonderful job of explaining the American anti-Catholic mindset. In his book A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans, the author sent shivers up my spine. He describes the racism and language used against the immigrant French by groups like the KKK. After reading this section, a week later, I heard Margery Taylor Greene use the exact same words in the exact same type of context. Her reference to saving Anglo-Saxon culture means anti-Catholic, exactly in the same way that it did in 1900. Sometimes I wonder if Trump’s preference for Norwegian immigrants vs. Latinx immigrants has a religious implication, not just a racial one.

  4. I think it’s Sharon Harris who points out that “contention” in the Book of Mormon is most often found in connection with bloodshed, violence, or even war, not merely intellectual argument, however warm.

  5. So what foreign government was Nehor loyal to?

  6. Not a foreign government. The faction in Zarahemla that did not accept Alma as their leader. In Chapter 2, Amlici, a Nehorite, leads a revolt that turns into a civil war. At that point it is clear that a non-trivial portion of Zarahemla does not support the new government or the Nephite church. Some evidence suggests that this faction comes from the original Mulekite population that did not accept Nephite rule as fully as the text in Omni ssuggests. They appear to dominate in some of the surrounding cities and to have a strong presence in Zarahemla. From their perspective, Alma is the foreign government.

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