In a lecture entitled ‘A Historian’s Perspective on Joseph Smith’, Richard Bushman shows an interesting trend in religious cultures that surrounded Joseph Smith. This trend centers around the tension between the Charismatic gifts and the Bureaucracy which contain them. I had an experience six months ago that made me realise that there is, in my view, a centralised view of the Spirit in the LDS Church that may restrict the spirituality of our local meetings.
Bushman highlights in this lecture a ‘Visionary Culture’ in which Joseph Smith matured, as well as many of the early converts to the Church. This culture seems to have powerfully shaped the experience of the Spiritual Gifts in the Church. As an illustration Bushman notes that the Methodist religion, prior to this period, ‘begins with this supernatural culture, or people who are yearning for visions and tongues and various demonstrations of God’s power in their lives. And the reason Joseph Smith ran into so much trouble with that minister, was not because his vision was strange and out of the way but because it was so common. The Methodist’s by 1820 were trying to calm their membership, to discourage this visionary culture’. Acknowledging that I am not a Historian, it seems to me that this same cycle has played out for the LDS Church as well. The result appears to be a centralised view of the spirit and the spiritual gifts; meaning they are something we experience when our (general) leaders speak or perhaps we experience them vicariously through the stories of our general leaders.
Six months ago I attended a Stake Conference where a member of the First Presidency and an Apostle spoke. This is fairly rare in the UK, I am not sure if it is more common in other places. I have never been in the same room as an Apostle before, let alone a member of the First Presidency. As you might expect, the excitement was tangible. After the meeting I heard many people reflect upon the significant spiritual experiences that they had felt. While I felt inspired, I did not experience what it seemed like others had felt. Now I am aware that not all people connect with certain speakers in the same way and that I may not have been ‘spiritually prepared’; but I contrasted this with a fireside, given by an LDS academic, that I attended a few weeks later where I was genuinely moved by some of the inspiring things this person said about the Life and Teachings of the Saviour. What surprised me most was that I was almost alone in my feelings.
Anecdotally at least, I sensed that perhaps there is a part of the LDS culture that expects profound spiritual experiences from the Brethren and no one else. It seems that we believe miraculous events in the lives of the leaders but are skeptical about those who are in our wards and stakes. It occurred to me that this was not always the case and that perhaps the Church, or we as members, needs to de-centralise the Spirit. I believe that I need to expect my most profound spiritual experiences to come from those people I spend most of my spiritual life with; those in my ward and in my family. I also believe that the General Leaders do not want spirituality to be centralised at Church headquarters.
Others have noticed this tension between charisma and bureaucracy. “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”. According to Ritchie we need to balance both types of culture. In my mind, this pattern of centralising the spirit is associated with security religion.
Contrastingly, growth religion would seem to “provide those conditions of the giving and receiving of influences such that there is the enlargement of the freedom of all the members to both give and receive.” Being able to experience the divine influence in our local spiritual communities would seem to be linked with this pattern of open-ness.
My Questions are these:
Has the Church moved from a explosively Charismatic movement to a bureaucratically-contained one? And why might this have happened?
Do you agree with my contention that there is a centralisation of the Spirit in the Church? If so, is this a good thing?
Are the differences between Growth and Security religion manageable on an Institutional scale or are they invariably matters for the individual?
If there is the a centralisation of the Spirit and if this is not good, how could this be changed?
1. J. Bonner Ritchie, The Institutional Church and the Individual in Sunstone [Salt Lake City, UT.: Sunstone Education Foundation, ], p. 101.
2. Bernard Loomer, “Two Conceptions of Power,” Process Studies 6, no. 1 (Spring 1976), 26- 27.