Democracy or Dictatorship?

14 Oct

Rico at Mormon Matters relates some interesting information and comments related to the practice of Common Consent:

At 10:00am on a brisk August morning in 1844 Sidney Rigdon addressed the Saints.  Brigham Young spoke briefly before the break and at length in the afternoon, at which point they voted for a new leader.  Arrington notes that the response was almost unanimous, but the subsequent disaffection from the Church shows that not all was well in Zion[1].  This experience raises interesting questions for me about the role of Common Consent in the Church.  Seeing this is General Conference weekend (and we have just had a sustaining vote), I ask: Have we moved from a democracy to prophetocracy, and is this a bad thing?

“Evidence from accounts of some early meetings and conferences indicates that many of the New England leaders of the Church felt that the membership should be directly involved in decision-making meetings, including making motions on policy issues, following standard parliamentary procedure for public meetings, and voting to finalize decisions”[2][3].  Bushman argues that one unique feature of Mormonism was that revelation and governance came through councils, and this implied Common Consent [4].  Many of the revelations included in the D&C were written in and through Council meetings and then accepted by Common Consent [5].  It seems two converging cultures have emerged from this Brigham Young Mantle experience.

As Jan Shipps is famous for saying, we can distinguish between the ‘Mountain Saints’ and the ‘Prairie Saints’.  For the Mountain Saints “as the Church grew and as new converts required greater organization, it was not possible to maintain a simple democracy where each member had equal access either to power or to revelation for the group as a whole.” [6].  But this was not a necessity, for the Prairie Saints have maintained a strong democratic culture to their religion.  One example Jan Shipps cites is a situation where the RLDS (as it was then called) wanted to publish a revised version of the Book of Mormon.  When it was ready they took the decision to a General Conference and the ideas was rejected by the membership[7].

Bonner Ritchie has written that “Security religion provides refuge. It builds an ecclesiastical wall which protects from the onslaught of questions and doubts and decisions. Growth religion, on the other hand, forces its adherents to grow, to accept responsibility to assume the burden of proof, to move beyond extrinsic constraints”[8].  Bonner Ritchie argues that we need both types or religion and that the tension between them needs to be managed.  It appears to me that how we use Common Consent is one way of utilising this tension between Growth and Security Religion.  But how could this be more fully incorporated into our Church practice?

My thinking here is that this should work on a Local and Church-wide level differently and should utilise changing mechanisms.  Moreover it seems that we should distinguish between those matters that are up for debate and those which might not be.  It seems that some votes like sustaining our leaders might not be times for debate and discussion while maybe decisions of Church policy, like the consolidated meeting schedule, might be discussed.  At a Church-wide level, what decisions could be open to discussion and even for a dissenting vote?  In addition, at a Local level are there decisions that should be open for discussion rather than just made in small council meetings?  Would this shift re-create some of the elements of Growth religion that Ritchie supports.  I am not saying that every decision should be made by Common Consent, I think this would be impractical and would negate some of the good Security religion practices that the ‘Sustaining Vote’ Common Consent provides for the Church.

The second area that I am interested in, is how we, as a Church, relate to Common Consent.  Here are two statements regarding the practice: “The Church has a right to reject or approve of revelations… Before a revelation can be accepted by the Church, as a law, it must in some form or other be presented to the Church and accepted by the Church” [9]. Interestingly Apostle Taylor (who was removed from his position for practicing polygamy after the Manifesto, explained that he never sustained the Manifesto when it was presented and therefore was not required to be obedient to that principle.  Contrastingly, George Q. Cannon has said “It seems nonsensical that the Prophet of God could not deem the revelations he received authentic until they had the approval of the different quorums of the Church” [10].  So what is the role of Common Consent, is it supposed to be a test for the membership as to whether they follow their leaders or is it intended to a mechanism to work as a check/balance to ensure the Church is on course?

My Questions again:

What was intended by the principle of Common Consent?

Could the principle be used to encourage greater ownership and growth?

Is it possible to have two types of Sustaining Vote, one with discussion and one without?  Then, if we did have votes with discussion what topics should or should not be covered?

What is the role of Common Consent in the Church: is it a test of obedience, is it an acceptance of a Covenant, it is a democratic principle of support or is it something else all together?

Read the original post and comments here


1. Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses [Urbana & Chicago, IL.: University of Illinois Press, 1986] p. 113-7.
2. Common Consent in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 297.
3. Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1844 [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 9.
4. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling [ New York: Vintage, 2007] p. 252.
5. Robert J. Woodford, How the Revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants Were Received and Compiled in Ensign, [January 1985]
6. (John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, 27 March 1990, 2 vols. [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990], 1: 164.)
7. Jan Shipps, Prophets and Prophecy at Sunstone
8. J. Bonner Ritchie, The Institutional Church and the Individual in Sunstone [Salt Lake City, UT.: Sunstone Education Foundation, ], p. 101.
9. Wilford Woodruff, cited in Von Wagoner et al, The Lectures on Faith: A Case Study in De-canonization in Dialogue, 1987, vol. 20, no. 3,  74.
10. George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, selected, arranged, and edited by Jerreld L. Newquist [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987], 258.

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Posted by on October 14, 2009 in History


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