Regime Change in the LDS Church

I recently finished America’s Three Regimes: A New Political History (OUP, 2007) by Morton Keller, a retired history prof at Brandeis. The author suggests there have been three enduring American political regimes: a deferential-republican regime that lasted from the Revolution until the emergence of true party politics (Whigs and Democrats) during the 1830s; a party-democratic regime marked by strong party identification and increasing voter mobilization that lasted until roughly the Great Depression; and a populist-bureaucratic regime that saw the rise of big government, the rise of the independent media, and the decline of party identification and effectiveness. Can LDS history be parsed the same way? Are there successive LDS regimes (using “regime” in the same sense as Keller did, an enduring, stable arrangement of institutions and practices) that display significantly different ways of running the Church or of constituting the Church as an organization?

One significant transition that I think amounts to a change of regime is the change in leadership that occurred beteen 1844 and 1847. It started with the succession crisis that occurred upon the death of Joseph Smith and the dissolution of the First Presidency in June 1844; it lasted through three difficult years for the Saints, during which time the Church was directed by the Quorum of the Twelve and by Brigham Young as president of that quorum; and it culminated in the reestablishment of the First Presidency in late 1847, with Brigham Young as President of the Church and with two apostles drawn from the Quorum of the Twelve, Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards, as his counselors.

As I read the history, the First Presidency reconstituted in late 1847 was not the same First Presidency as existed before June 1844. The reconstituted First Presidency is essentially an executive committee of the Quorum of the Twelve, composed of three apostles drawn from that quorum. While it is theoretically possible for one who is not an apostle to be called as a counselor, in practice this is almost never done. In contrast, members of the original First Presidency were not apostles and were not called from the Quorum of the Twelve. The original First Presidency represented a separate and distinct quorum. The authority of those in the First Presidency was not in any way a function of their being an apostle. A separate First Presidency quorum might hold different views on issues of interest to the senior leadership of the Church than did the apostles and the Quorum of the Twelve. After 1847, however, the First Presidency was simply an extension of the Quorum of the Twelve, composed of men who spent many years in the Quorum of the Twelve before moving to the First Presidency. (The decline of the Seventies as a separate senior leadership quorum proceeded more slowly, but by the mid-20th century that quorum, too, was simply a committee that was selected and controlled by the Quorum of the Twelve.)

So I would describe the 1844-47 transition as a regime change: the Church really was contituted and run differently after 1847 than it was during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. That is a description, not a criticism — I don’t think the Church could possibly have continued to be run as it was between 1830 and 1844 because Joseph occupied a unique position of authority that simply could not be duplicated. Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve were wise to wait three years before reconstituting a modified First Presidency. The successful management of an ever-growing Church from 1847-2011, including surviving several serious confrontations with the US government in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is evidence of the effectiveness and stability of the new regime. And while there was a succession crisis following the death of Joseph in 1844, there have not been any after 1847.

An open question is whether any event or development has occurred between 1847 and 2011 that might also amount to a regime change or a significant break with how the Church is constituted. Perhaps some readers have a candidate event to propose.

19 comments for “Regime Change in the LDS Church

  1. B
    April 6, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Dave, I say when David O. McKay added Brown and Tanner as his counselors, he was trying to return some power to the FP from the Q12 or some of it’s members(?)

  2. Bob
    April 6, 2011 at 10:45 am

    That’s ‘Bob’, not B.

  3. Dustin
    April 6, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Perhaps correlation would fit into the category of a regime change. It took the auxiliaries and quorums that had been run by their several officers and brought the church into a more fully hierarchal leadership structure (i.e. the Bishop is responsible for ultimately everything in his ward, the Stake President for his stake, etc.) The Stake President now functions as the president of the high priests’ quorum, for example. Many functions are now handled by church departments and committees rather than the General Authorities handling the day to day affairs (although General Authorities are still in charge of these committees and departments).

  4. Visorstuff
    April 6, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    I think that we’ve had doctrinal regime changes more often:

    Joseph Smith/Brigham Young: Expansion of doctrines (New doctrines are announced, revelations announced on all sorts of topics. Testing of Saints by the brethren common)
    Wilford Woordruff-Joseph F. Smith: Establishing of doctrines (Rise of Mormon Theologians. Doctrines are clarified, works like Priesthood and Church Government, Origin of Man, rejection of White Horse Prophecy, etc. set forth what is doctrine and what is not)
    Heber J. Grant-Spencer Kimball: Correlation of doctrines (Rise of Correlation, larger, more bureaucratic church, simplification of church materials focusing on what is known to be doctrinal, versus unconfirmed from multiple sources, retrenchment from more speculative doctrines)
    Ezra Taft Benson-present: Principles rather than Doctrines (A new focus of gospel more than doctrines as a byproduct of a renewed focus on the Book of Mormon. Focus on scriptural teachings versus past prophets teachings. Recent rise in this past decade of conference talks teaching members how to receive and write their own revelations, writing of tender mercies, becoming prophets ourselves, following the spirit and smaller handbook. As a side effect, official doctrines are harder to pin down, focus on principles instead: “principle is a concentrated truth packaged for application in a wide variety of circumstances…etc.”)


    Doctrinal divisions:
    Restoration Doctrines (Joseph Smith) [progressive wins]
    Doctrinal Establishment: Brigham Young (progressive) versus Orson Pratt (conservative/orthodoxy) [No clear winner]
    New Orthodoxy: BH Roberts/David O. McKay (progressive) versus Joseph Fielding Smith/McConkie (conservative) [Conservative wins]
    …And now we are seeing another major swing away from the McConkie/Smith [more progressive/moderate approach winning]

    (progressive/conservative is best wording i could come up with, as liberal has too much of a political connotation. perhaps these do too?)

  5. Visorstuff
    April 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Sorry those two lists were supposed to be bulleted, but the list didn’t take for some reason…

  6. Cameron
    April 6, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    I see Pres. David O. McKay being a regime change. I also see Pres. George Albert Smith paying that way, for Pres. McKay, to appear nice to the world (help In war torn Europe and solving the Mexican members rift) and then Pres. McKay put the Church on a trajectory of being more out in the world, more missionaries, Temples, members and more of a presence in the world stage. This is not to diminish one whit what other Presidents of the Church had to do which I see as building on a doctrinal foundation and building a physical base.

  7. Brad Dennis
    April 6, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    I would argue that post Brigham Young there occurred a gradual regime change. BY tried to create a self-sustaining state of Deseret. But eventually Utah was subsumed into the US and Mormonism finally divorced itself (mostly) from its socioeconomic vision under Brigham Young to become an almost strictly ecclesiastical movement (with minimal welfare system). Although I don’t have time to flesh out this argument right now (I’m sure it has some holes that could be poked in it) it is something I think you should consider.

  8. Mike
    April 6, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Jan Shipps argues that correlation was a significant change. She distinguishes the “auxiliaried church” from the “correlated church.” She emphasizes that this meant less power in auxiliaries at both local and general level (primary, RS, Sunday School), as priesthood officers take prominence. But it is also thru that there is less power in the first presidency as correlation gave the Twelve more control over priesthood lines.

  9. Bob
    April 6, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    @ Brad, Both of my parents were born into a Mormon Village in the 20c. Each had to leave when they stated to fail__ long after BY. More than the Church, the railroad changed how Mormons lived. Then the Depression began to hit the Mormom Villages in the 1920s.

  10. J.A.T.
    April 6, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    1) Restoration, Revelations and Settlement
    JS, through Joseph F. Smith 1820-1918 (98 yrs)
    2) Maintenative Period
    Heber J. Grant- Present (1918-2011-future) (93 years so far)
    Part A)Economic stabilization(overlap) Heber J- David O.
    1918- 1951
    Part B) Correlation (David O through the present)
    Part C) Missionary growth (Kimball and Benson)
    Part D) Christian mainstreaming, Provident living, and individual reflective mormonism (late Benson years through present)
    Part E) Temple building era (Hinckley-present-future)
    3) Dichotomic era (present moving into the future)
    globalized church in an era of increased disparities between the rich and poor.
    4)Apocolyptic era
    Revival of revelatory era, end of correlation, end of mainstreaming
    5) Second Coming- Reorganization

  11. Brad Dennis
    April 6, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    @Bob, I was talking about a gradual socioeconomic transformation that took place after BY. BY at one point forbade outside trade. The Godbeites, led by William Godbe and who were involved in the mining industry, attempted to grow the economy of Utah through trading with outsider in a direct violation of the principle of self-sufficiency. The church under BY initially rejected this, but once Utah was in economic crisis, it was the mining industry’s outside trade that ended up saving its economy. This prompted the church to take a turn in its policy toward integration with the US. But I’m just throwing out thoughts for now. I would actually really need to sit down and study this to make any sort of case.

  12. April 6, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    Nice post, Dave. I’d agree with the commenters who have postulated correlation as a significant shift, if not in the organization of the Q12 and the FP, then in the eroded independence of auxiliaries. The transition from John Taylor to Wilford Woodruff in 1887 has been categorized as a succession crisis, but that was more due to younger Q12 members not wanting George Q. Cannon to continue in the FP and questioning whether the president of the Q12 necessarily had to succeed the president of the church, than it was a fundamental challenge to the regime. One could also point to the gradual decline of the Presiding Patriarch from a significantly powerful figure under JS to being rendered emeritus with Eldridge Smith as a change in governing structure.

  13. Bob
    April 6, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    @ Brad,The first wave of immigration into the West was by the yeoman Farmer.(Very Jeffersonian). For a Mormon, The farmer was to live in town (Mormon Village) travel out of town to work his land__all his effort was to support him family and Church. A second wave began with the Gold Rush, transcontinental railroad, mining, and lumbering. This did in the yeoman culture for the most part.
    I don’t think BY could have stopped it from happening.

  14. April 6, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    The loss of polygamy was a huge regime change under Wilford Woodruff, IMO.

  15. Last Lemming
    April 7, 2011 at 9:40 am

    I see 4 distinct regimes in Mormonism, which I define not just in terms of governing structures:

    1. Joseph Smith–so different in so many ways from those who succeeded him;

    2. Brigham Young & John Taylor–separatists;

    3. Woodruff, Snow, JFSI & Grant–accomodationists;

    4. McKay and successors–internationalist/correlationists (the two are intertwined).

    I can imagine that in a few decades we will recognize Hinckley as a regime change (implementing a degree of glasnost not previously experienced), but the evidence is not conclusive at this point.

  16. Last Lemming
    April 7, 2011 at 9:43 am

    Oh yeah. George Albert Smith. Put him with the accommodationists (and spell it write, this time).

  17. Suleiman
    April 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    From my perspective, correlation (which was an answer to church growth) brought standardized approaches on a global scale to new converts. It was also an approach readily implemented with the media and technologies of the mid-to-late 20th century.

    Today we will probably see greater structural and institutional change. The cookie-cutter manuals and simplified doctrines of the correlation era may have hindered spiritual growth for many individuals and communities. And new technologies have challenged the correlation era structures. We also know that it simply isn’t possible to ignore scholarship and advances in history and the sciences. Church policies were on the internet faster than the church could distribute them along traditional channels. President Hinckley’s “openness” was likely a recognition (and perhaps an appreciation?) of our changing world.

    I would argue that we may be looking at a “regime change” at the local level with the advent of the new handbook. The role of the Bishop is being reduced and other leaders are being empowered. More welfare responsibilities are being assigned to Melchizedek priesthood leaders. Also look at the emphasis on community service at general conf. These are significant changes in both practice and tone. My hunch is that with so many changes in our lives, the emphasis will be on developing the local ward community and individual religiosity.

  18. April 7, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    The elimination of the 70’s at the stake level and the calling of High Priests as Seventies certainly was a significant change.

  19. Jack
    April 8, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Interesting. I would disagree on one minor point. As I understand it, when Brigham became president of the church in December of 1847, he and the quorum got into a big fight over who had the authority to name his counselors, he or the quorum. Some in the quorum didn’t want to give that much power to the president. One of their fears was that the FP would become a powerful unit above them and they would be less in control of things than they had been in the previous three years. Brigham won that battle and then demonstrated over the ensuing years that those fears were not unfounded because he pretty much ignored the twelve or simply told them what to do. It was not very collaborative. This went on for several successive presidencies, even though the twelve continued to grouse about it, until President Kimball’s presidency. Based on what little I know, the relationship between the President and the Twelve seems much closer today than it was even in the 1960s.

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