Common Consent: Democracy or Prophetocracy?

Aaron R. aka Ricochurch, Culture, LDS, Mormon, Mormons 19 Comments

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 statments 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 a cceptance of a Covenant, it is a democratic principle of support or is it something else all together?


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.

Comments 19

  1. I remember thinking during the sustaining vote of GC, what would happen if somebody actually dissented in the Conference Center? I remember specifically hearing Elder Eyring state, “the voting appears unanimous.” Even with regards to the Manifesto, it was accepted unanimously, although there were elements who rejected the Manifesto. Sometimes it seems such common consent is a sham.

  2. I thought that in Quinn’s essay he highlighted that it was not unanimous. I agree that it can seem like a sham. Although I do sometimes like the opportunity to express my support of my leaders. I think that the distinction between this type of common consent from perhaps when policy decisions would be made would give greater emphasis to the opportunities to disagree.

  3. I had written a substantial comment which my little has kindly deleted during my one loo break. So I will summarise my points as my will is eroding.

    The question of belief in the validity of the gift of the Holy Ghost is central to this topic. Many decisions will be taken in the Church by people who are supposed to be inspired in God’s calling-specific inspiration way. Now, there might be a tendency to faithfully allocate complete immunity to human errance to the 12 and 1st Pcy, but not the others. Some decisions will require this faith (a new Temple worth £300,000,000 on the tithe payer), others will challenge us and lead us to think they should be made in a more democratic fashion (how to use a Ward budget, some callings…).
    Allow me to use an example with regard to Mutual Consent. A while ago a brother and friend was to be advanced to MP in a Stake Cce mmeting. I knew he was far too casual in his observance of the commandements to deserve a sustaining vote, qui plus est an anonymous vote. What could I do? Raise my hand to sustain him in spite of my knowledge and abdicating my democratic right to take a stand? Raise my hand to oppose and publicly shame him before 500 +, perhaps pushing towards the one-way out and denying my covenant to not judge and love unconditionally? I found a middle way: I didn’t oppose (boooooooooooh!!!), but I didn’t sustain either. The point here is that the Church lacks a pathway for democratic expression in this instance.
    Now, I wish to state that being carnal and fallen creatures, we are prompt to observe that we can retain an honorable Church membership while minimising effort and personal input into the affairs of our Ward and Church as a whole. This blog, for example, is a good example of helpful act of proactivity as it stimulates the bloggers and teaches them important things (by the way, not a substitute for spiritual food chaps!). But we are ever so ‘OK’ allowing oter people to make decisions and remain lukewarm in our engagement. A bit like voters apathy in local elections, we may be seen as slack. So we shouldn’t complain if undemocratic/unappreciated/self political orientation unfriendly decisions are made when we are not around a table which has a chair with our name on it. We can care to the point of communicating nicely our views.

    Perhaps messy thoughts, but my initial ‘deleted by child’ text was Professorship material.

  4. And all things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith, for all things you shall receive by faith. Amen. (D&C 26:2)

    Sustaining is not exactly “all things”…

  5. Rico, I suspect Quinn is probably right. However, when reading the Official Declaration 1 in the current D&C, it says,

    President Lorenzo Snow offered the following:

    “I move that, recognizing Wilford Woodruff as the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the only man on the earth at the present time who holds the keys of the sealing ordinances, we consider him fully authorized by virtue of his position to issue the Manifesto which has been read in our hearing, and which is dated September 24th, 1890, and that as a Church in General Conference assembled, we accept his declaration concerning plural marriages as authoritative and binding.”

    The vote to sustain the foregoing motion was unanimous.

    Salt Lake City, Utah, October 6, 1890.

  6. I will add that I have been in church in a few instances, and have been told where members of the congregation did not consent to a particular calling on a certain individual. It is rare, but there are instances when voting is not unanimous.

  7. Interesting reference to Pres. Woodruff. It is my understanding that when John Taylor died, some of the apostles wanted to skip over Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow and elevate Joseph F. Smith to the presidency. One of those doing so was Heber J. Grant who later regretted what he had done but said it was his belief at the time that the presidency of the church should go back to the Smith family. Since no sons of Joseph were in the church, the next best was the son of Hyrum.

  8. I’m not sure I’m qualified, or prepared to answer Rico’s questions. Clearly the role of Common Consent has changed over the years.

    However, I have some ideas on what it means to me. I have a tendency to take most principles like this and apply them personally. Accordingly, my take is that common consent is really for me. As has been pointed out, revelation is revelation, and it’s going to be applied regardless of whether or not I sustain it. Some people have pointed out that common consent is a sham. It’s only a sham, in my book, if we consider is to actually be a mechanism for having a voice in the church, or to ratify something. To me, that is not the purpose (despite that we sometimes give it this lip service). Rather, common consent is the mechanism by which I give my consent, or approval, or acceptance of whatever is being proposed. Taken in this way, it’s more like a covenant than a democratic process. If viewed in this light it becomes more meaningful for me as I “sustain” the brethren, and/or other callings.

  9. Thanks for your comments, especially over a weekend when there is a lot to do for most of us.

    #3 – Your raise an interesting point, which is probably more for another time about whether worthiness is measured by what we do or what we don’t do. I too would probably not oppose the vote, because my feelings that this person is not doing enough are obviously not significant enough to have warranted his leaders to have stopped the ordination, I assume that they knew. I agree with your point about the spirit and think that this connects with what JMB275 says about it is not supposed to give members a voice but is an opportunity to manifest that support. If you believe in the spirit directing all acts then it is exactly that. I guess that my minimal leadership experience has taught me that not all acts are directed by the spirit and that therefore some sort of participation on a more open level is important.

    #5 – Your are of course correct. I guess I assumed that they take unanimous as everyone voted for no one voted against, but did not count the people who abstained.

    #7&9 – I believe the article is in BYU Studies and is entitled Grant’s Watershed, os something similar. It is v. good.

    #8 – I agree that with callings, I enjoy the opportunity to express my support for them, but also feel that there is some scope for creating situations where this type of practice might be included. Maybe we should distinguish between the practice of ‘sustaining’ and ‘common consent’.

  10. Two experiences:
    (1) When I was working as a juvenile probation officer in Utah (early 1990s), I was aware that a young man in the ward had been arrested for robbery, which happened to involve threatening a younger boy at knifepoint. There was no question that the charges were valid. This young man was presented in front of the ward for advancement in the aaronic priesthood, and I ended up leaving the chapel, rather than sustaining the action. Soon after, I spoke with an elderly member of the bishopric in hypothetical terms, noting that I sometimes had information about a young person that was legally confidential, but which impacted significantly on “worthiness,” and that this left me uncertain about my proper response to a call for sustaining. The bishopric member reacted with great offense, expressing his indignation that I would in any way question the intended action of the bishop in the first place, and told me that it was my ecclesiastical duty to keep my mouth shut about it.

    (2) When I served as a stake executive secretary (2003-2006), my otherwise very rational and wise stake president repeatedly asserted that the call for a sustaining vote was a test of the “voting” member’s faithfulness. If a member voted to oppose the proposed action, that member’s righteousness, faithfulness, and loyalty were in question, rather than the worthiness of the person being put forth for sustaining.

    Based on these and other experiences, it is my opinion that “common consent” in the LDS church has evolved to become a test of the person asked to sustained, and has little or no so-called “democratic” aspect in modern times.

  11. “Taken in this way, it’s more like a covenant than a democratic process. If viewed in this light it becomes more meaningful for me as I “sustain” the brethren, and/or other callings.” I have always viewed it as does jmb for sustainings. However, I think it’s interesting to consider how the CoC successfully uses the common consent concept while also believing in revelation. The other thing that struck me as I looked at this was that council leadership is probably just as good as representative democracy. I’m not sure taking everything to a referendum (as in the CoC) is really the best, especially not given how ill-informed so many are. I’d rather have 12 people who have really looked into something have a say in it than 13 million who don’t know what they heck they are even voting on.

  12. I don’t know if common consent was ever supposed to be a democratic process, but an effort to reveal the amount of support a person had to assume a calling. If the majority could not support that person, I suppose the calling was rescinded. Nowadays, it is taught that common consent is a reflection of the membership’s commitment to support that person, not necessarily worthiness or qualification. That appears to be assumed because the leadership made the call. I’ve heard of people dissenting on a vote for sustaining, but I’ve never seen it happen.

  13. There have been times that, like Nothingbettertodo (#4), I have refrained from voting at all when I’ve not been sure about the person being called. I have also told one Stake President that the only reason I supported the bishop at that time (who went right into D&C 121-type “unrighteous dominion” the instant he was called) was that I supported the Stake President in calling him. I still believe the man was unfit for his calling.

  14. #12 – I think your point regarding the 12 being representative is interesting. I agree that not taking everything to referendum is not practical. In fact I am not sure it should be done at Church-wide level. I am interested in the dynamic that it could have at lower levels. Even Ward Councils don’t seem to use common consent, decisions are just assumed to be whatever the Bishop says at the end of the discussion.

    #13 – I think that it was. The method that the early brethren used in creating revelations suggests that there was a democratic process and also, people like William Law left the Church (or began becoming disaffected) with shifts that he perceived in how this democratic process was being used, even then. So although I do not think it was clear-cut either way I do sense that common consent was intended to be sort-of democratic.

    #14 – I think it is good that you expressed that, and that you were able to support the calling… situations like that are difficult.

  15. Aaron Reeves, your back. Your like a super hero who’s mask keeps slipping down.

    Home Teaching list would be a good example of using Common Consent, of course sensitive issues should not be discussed but there are members of the ward with far more experience and information regarding certain less actives.

  16. Aaron, #15, We’ve heard a number of stories from the highest councils of the church that if a member of the council was not comfortable with a decision, it was deferred. you do not necessarily see that in Ward Council, though I have experienced it in bishopric meeting regarding a calling or other decision. But, usually, it was because the bishop was not comfortable. Decision making is typically left to the bishop and everyone defers. Another area is in Disciplinary Councils. Typically, the Stake President has decided on the probable course of action before the council convenes. I am not sure sometimes why it is held except that it is supposed to be held.

  17. Post

    #16 – haha… i think not, unless my name would be super slow. Home tecahing would be an interesting example. I wonder whether people would try and just home teach people they like. I could see that becoming chaos. The other side to my suggestion is a time thing. The more people you get invovled, the harder it is to get them together.

    #17 – I agree that it is the way, but it does depend on the Bishop. I have seen Bishop’s who defer because the a counselor is not happy. Disciplinary Councils surprise me. Although in some ways, I can see how that is difficult. I mean it would not be great to keep them deliberating for hours and then say to the person waiting sorry we can’t decide come back tomorrow.

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