â€œNo other organization is so perfect as the Mormon Church, except the German army.â€ 
We still occasionally hear variations of this statement (e.g., here), although nowhere nearly as frequently as we used to hear it:
1910: â€œIt is conceded that we have one of the most wonderful organizations in the world. It has been said that it is second only to the German army, and while we are pleased with that comparison, we are willing to go them one better, and say, not even the German army can compare with the organization of our Church.â€ 
1914: â€œThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is conceded to be an almost perfect system, even by men outside its pale. Such a one has said of it: â€˜It is the most perfect organization in existence, except the German army.â€™â€ 
1925: â€œIt was said a number of years ago that the two most perfect organizations in the world were the German army and the Mormon Church, and as I have said to my friends rather jocularly of late, â€˜We know what has happened to the German army; I presume we have a pretty clear claim to the title.â€™â€ 
1956: â€œI wonder, well organized as we are (years ago when the German Army was regarded as the best drilled and best officered and best organized army in the world, we used to hear an appraisal of us to this effect) whether we are as well organized as the German Army.â€ 
1958: â€œIn the olden days they used to liken this Church to the German army. You know what happened to that, but the Church is still going on.â€ 
1959: â€œSome time ago there was a statement had among us to the effect that the German Army and the Mormon Church were the two most perfect organizations in the world … the German Army failed … That leaves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the most perfect organization in the world.â€ 
It is clear from these citations that Mormons accepted the remark as flattering. Oh, we might argue our true ranking as being above that of the German army, but there was no question that the remark was received as a compliment, and that our â€œperfect organizationâ€ was being praised.
Iâ€™m not so sure it was intended as praise.
The original statement at the root of all these paraphrases is this:
So far as I can judge from what I have seen, the organization of the Mormons is the most nearly perfect piece of social mechanism with which I have ever, in any way, come in contact, excepting alone the German army. The Mormons, indeed, speak of their whole social organization as an army, the reserve being those at home, and the fighting force being the missionaries in the field. We have faith, authority, obedience, operating through this marvellous social mechanism, and touching life at all points, inasmuch as the Mormon creed recognizes no interest as external to the Church, and regards church and state as actually one. 
Elyâ€™s article summarizes the co-operative movements of the church, including the United Order, Z.C.M.I., the teamwork involved in crossing the plains, the selflessness of those who labored at irrigation and road-building and the raising of schools and churches. He notes that industry and thrift were taught as virtues, and that the Church promoted musical and dramatic arts, as well as general education. When he makes his obligatory examination of polygamy, he lists what he sees as both positive and negative economic outcomes, and while he cannot refrain from rejoicing â€œin the prospect that the blot of polygamy will in time be entirely removed, and that it may no longer serve to suppress the better feelings and emotions of those who are under the influence of Mormonism,â€ he avoids the most extreme anti-polygamy rhetoric common to his time.
All in all, the article comes across as upbeat and complimentary, chiefly because Ely writes more nearly like a modern journalist striving for objectivity â€“ his positive tone comes not so much from enthusiastic praise as it does from an absence of the nastiness so often prevailing in any article describing Mormonism.
Still, I have the nagging feeling that â€œperfect organizationâ€ is not intended as a compliment.
Ely lists the economic successes of Mormon cooperation, but notes that they are possible only because individuals put group interest ahead of individual interest. He describes Mormon geography as being fully divided into functioning wards â€“ there is no place in Mormondom for the rugged individual to plant his feet. He dwells on the training of children, both in public school which, before statehood, he reports as teaching religious values, and in church classes and activities that fill up a Mormonâ€™s leisure hours from childhood to old age. By “perfect organization,” does he mean “best possible government,” or does he mean “total control”?
Certainly non-Mormons found the comparison of the Churchâ€™s â€œperfect organizationâ€ to that of the German army as reflecting a sinister reality. Only days after the appearance of Elyâ€™s article, the Presbyterian General Assembly meeting in Los Angeles cheered the speech of Dr. Charles L. Thompson of New York: â€œNo speaker … has aroused so much enthusiasm … and brought out [such] great applause from his audience,â€ reported the wire service. Thompson said:
This describes Mormonism: Its empty promises deceive. Relentlessly, inexorably, it fastens its victims in its loathsome glue. It has one vulnerable point. It is not to be educated; it is not to be civilized; it is not to be reformed. It is to be crushed. Dr. Richard T. Ely has declared that there is nothing comparable to its system except the German army. Quietly it moves to the eastern coasts, to foreign capitals. It strangles communities; yet with what easy indifference we regard it. If 2,000 men afflicted with smallpox were turned loose upon a community, the nation would rise in a panic. We would flee or would grapple with the danger. But to be told there are 2,000 men abroad trying with deathless art to infect a nation with a religious system that is blasphemous and with practices that are subversive of social morality and destructive of the national conscience, is to awaken a mild protest here and there. … Mormons send missionaries to us far faster than we send missionaries to them. Beware of the octopus.
There is one moment in which to seize it, says Victor Hugo. It is when it thrusts forth its head. It has done it. Its high priest claims a Senatorâ€™s chair in Washington. Now is the time to strike. Perhaps to miss it now is to be lost. 
Ely was writing, and Thompson speaking, at a time when the philosophy of Herbert Spencer was much in vogue. Spencer taught that social organizations (like Mormonism, although I have found no specific reference to Mormonism in his writings) evolved much as biological organisms were believed to do. Societies, like biological life, began as simple units, which joined and combined and grew and became more complex. As biological entities evolved, units within the organism began to perform specialized functions â€“ i.e., organs developed. Likewise, as social entities evolved, subdivisions within them took on more specialized tasks. The more â€œorgan-izedâ€ a body became, the more sophisticated it became â€“ but at the same time, the units composing those organs became less and less able to function except as units within the body. Just as a heart or a stomach cannot function outside the body that sustains it, individual humans within a highly organized society lose their ability to function as individuals. They lose their autonomy, their free will, their very humanity.
So was Ely complimenting Mormonism by saying that its unity led to achievements which individuals could not have made? Or was he saying that Mormonism so perfectly organ-ized its members into a mass â€“ turned us into unthinking, dependent units of a whole â€“ that freedom and individuality were lost? Or was he going even farther, to say, as Dr. Thompson did, that Mormons were toy soldiers, tools ordered about by the hierarchy, for sinister purposes? 
 Nels L. Nelson, Scientific Aspects of Mormonism, or, Religion in Terms of Life (New York: G.P. Putnamâ€™s Sons, 1904), 1. Epigram to Chapter 1.
 C.W. Sorenson, Conference Report, October 1910, 106.
 Orson F. Whitney, Gospel Themes: A Treatise on Salient Features of â€œMormonismâ€ (Salt Lake City: The Church, 1914.
 Adam S. Bennion, Conference Report, October 1925.
 J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Conference Report, April 1956, 82.
 Legrand Richards, Conference Report, April 1958.
 Edward L. Clissold, Conference Report, April 1959.
 Richard T. Ely, â€œEconomic Aspects of Mormonism,â€ Harperâ€™s Monthly Magazine, vol. 106, no. 635 (April 1903), 668.
 â€œMormon Church Must Be Crushed to Earth, Presbyterian Minister Says It Cannot Be Educated, Civilized or Reformed,â€ Ogden Standard, 26 May 1903, 1.
 This is the â€œJ. Stapley Memorial Footnote,â€ entered to beef up the footnote count solely for J.â€™s pleasure.