Some time ago, as a guest I wrote a post entitled ‘Academic freedom in the Church‘ which tried to explore some of liberalizing tendencies seen in LDS culture since the September Six, but particularly over the last decade. Having recently read an excellent (as usual) article by D. Michael Quinn on the development of the ‘Sacral Power Structure‘ of Mormonism, I wanted to re-visit this issue as a result of some of the reasons he gives for the increasing authoritarianism and conservatism in the Church. Quinn argues that the expansive growth of the Church during the 1950-1970’s led the hierarchy to emphasize an ‘unquestioning rank-and-file obedience to Church directives’ which is rooted in the ‘inherent fear of centrifugal tendencies of enormous Church growth'.
One way this tendency has been manifested is the shifting practice concerning Common Consent, which I previously discussed here. Quinn also argues that during the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, sustaining votes were sometimes used to reject the proposed candidate. This was encouraged in the context of a voluntary obedience. However, following the presidencies of Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee, the discourse around common consent became associated with the idea that a vote against a leadership decision was a rejection of the will of the Lord. Thus, Church leader’s fears of losing control completely of the membership may have led them to emphasis a new type of relationship with Church authorities. Quinn argues that this can be seen through a concern that some leaders had that the Church would be run by specialists rather than priesthood authority, thus the increased emphasis upon the ‘brethren’.
What does this mean for the Church currently and its membership? Much has been said both officially, at GC, and unofficially, among the membership, about Church growth. In general it has slowed (or flat-lined) over the last decade across the world. It is possible therefore, that as Church growth slows or remains constant that we will see reversals in the way the Church approaches the issues of authoritarianism and doctrine. I am not trying to argue that the Church is ever wholly conservative or liberal. My point however is that as new ideas, practices and technologies are assimilated in the Church’s power structure there will inevitably be the emergence of new assemblages of power and new types of discourse. In the same way that new conservative mechanisms where emphasised and solidifed throught the development of new media, so it is possible that these same changes could provide more liberalising assemblages/discourses. Thus it is possible that as the Church, and its culture, become more firmly established its Leaders may become more relaxed about ‘the centrifugal tendencies’ Quinn observes.
However, the problem with this hypothesis is that Church growth is not equal across the world. We have already seen these fears manifest themselves in the Church’s response to exponential growth in areas such as Chile and Philippines (where in each case they sent Apostles to specifically preside over those areas). Contrastingly, the emphasis on finding local leadership at the general level (Area Authority Seventies – and the like) may result in increased scope for variation and interpretation. Thus it is possible that in those areas like Western Europe (where I am from) where the Church is established and hardly growing, there might be increasing tendency toward liberalism, while in areas of relative instability the emphasis will remain on unquestioning obedience. However such differences are of course mediated by whether the Church wants to retain a unified approach across the globe (a fact which some have posited will be a major restriction to Church growth.
It is possible that the previous liberalisation toward academia, argued for in my previous post, may be part of a wider dynamic linked to the slowing down of Church growth?
Do you think this is plausible?
1. D. Michael Quinn, From Sacred Grove to Sacral Power Structure in Dialogue, vol. 17, no. 2 [Salt Lake city, UT.: Dialogue Foundation, 1984] p. 29.
2. Armand L. Mauss, Can there be a Second Harvest? in International Journal of Mormon Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, [online, 2008], pp. 1-59.
3. Douglas J. Davies, World Religion: Dynamics & Constraints at The Worlds of Joseph Smith Conference.