Mormon Myths as Transferable Charisma

Aaron R. aka Ricochurch, doctrine, faith, Folklore, General Authorities, historicity, LDS, Leaders, Mormon, President Monson, prophets 19 Comments

Richard Bushman has recently given a presentation on ‘Joseph Smith and the Routinization of Charisma’. One of Bushman’s arguments seems to be that Charisma was located in the office rather than the person. That these divine or supernatural powers were transferred to whoever held a particular office.  Moreover, it was through this coupling of bureaucracy and charisma that Joseph led the early Church and through which it was transferred to Brigham Young. Yet, as the bureaucracy and membership grew it would seem that the ability of both members and leaders to draw upon or demonstrate this office-based charisma became more limited. Many Latter-day Saints will spend their whole lives never seeing a Prophet in person. Instead, therefore, my contention is that Mormon myths serve as a form of transferable Charisma. They become one of the mechanisms for demonstrating the type of office-based Charisma that Bushman observes.

I want to explore these myths using the office of Prophet/President.  The centrality of his position hierarchically, the significant role he plays in the faith of many members of the Church and also the infrequency of contact with the general membership make this an apt example.

These myths come in many varieties.  There are stories about the Holy of Holies, about paintings of the Saviour and about mantle experiences. Now all of these may well be true, in whole or in part, or they may be completely fabricated. I am not concerned with their truth claims, rather I think that what is essential in the dynamic of these stories is the way that they become transferable between Prophets.

It is possible to trace a number of these stories (or variants of them) through many leaders, especially prophets, of the Church. This does not add to their fallacious nature rather it serves to reinforce what Bushman noted, which is that the office is endowed with charismatic gifts and not the person. Therefore it is probable, even expected, that these charismatic gifts are manifest by diverse men who hold the same office.

For example, the ‘This is the Place’ myth is re-cycled in England regularly but in a context far removed from Utah. Instead this myth focuses on the construction of the Preston Temple. Simply stated, a number sites were discussed but one site had a number of people who always resisted building permission. Yet, President Hinckley had asked for a Temple to built in Preston and when he saw the different sites he said… Yes, you guessed it. Then, though there were problems, the Temple went ahead. I am sure other similar stories abound.

My point is this, the process of re-cycling and repeating these mythic stories is one mechanism for maintaining the dynamism of a charismatic office, specifically the Prophet, in a Church where the general membership is so far removed from the individual. This is not to say that miraculous things do not happen, but these stories play an important sociological role in reinforcing this key notion that is rooted so firmly to the earliest days of the Church. These Mormon myths serve as a form of transferable charisma for an otherwise distant office.

Comments 19

  1. Is the thought that because the myths themselves are transferable that the charisma is also? Do these myths become types, then? In the Preston Temple example, do we assume because Brigham declared it about the Salt Lake Valley, and someone else declared it about the Jerusalem Center and President Hinckley (therefore) declared it about the Preston Temple site?

    Perhaps we’re saying the same thing. But I wonder which is cause and which is effect. Do we ascribe these types to our prophets because of the charisma which the office holds for us, or does the office hold the charisma because of the types we see (or claim to see)?

  2. Thanks for your comment. I am not sure I clearly understand the distinction that you are referring to. I think this primarily might be because I do not see the two processes you describe as possible to untangle. I think this is an aporia, which is why I am not so interested in the veracity of such events. If I have mis-understood I apologise.

  3. I think this is a common thread in all religions or groups. Because our lives are generally so mundane, we want to “touch God” or reach for something of the divine in our leaders. Catholics reach out vicariously to God through various saints. Buddhists have various bodhisattvas. We reach out to God through stories of the prophets – JS and the First Vision, Lorenzo Snow and the SL Temple, The Preston temple as you mentioned, etc. But it’s nothing new. Nephi reached out to stories of Moses to prove his points. Jews reach back to Abraham. Muslims reach to stories of Mohammed. Egyptians looked to the pharaohs as divinity on earth. We all reach out to stories of whatever leaders/religious figures we happen to believe in as a conduit to divinity.

  4. While only half on-topic, there’s one Mormon myth I’ve heard numerous times in the past that just needs to be dissolved here and now:

    Allegedly Joseph Smith was retreating from a mob and came to the banks of the Mississippi river at a point where the width was a mile between shores, where he encountered Mark Twain, who told him that he would only give Joseph a ride on his boat if he could find a verse in the “Mormon Bible” that told him to do so. The punchline (literally) is 3 Nephi 12:41. While it makes for a nice joke, it is not historical fact as I’ve heard some people claim.
    Here’s why: Samuel Clemens, who adopted Mark Twain as his pen name, wasn’t even born until 1835.

    Also in regards to “This is the place,” if I remember correctly Brigham Young said that about the Salt Lake Valley, not the temple site. At that time he simply marked a spot on the ground and said, “Here we will build the temple of our God.”

    One final example is simply a problem of people not attributing quotes and statements properly. For example, who’s heard the one that claims that when people of this dispensation die, they’ll be in the spirit world and, after they say “I lived in the days of Gordon B. Hinckley.” that a silence would befall the crowd and everyone bow down to them? I’m still looking for an attributable source on that. Even President Eyring has told people that attributed statements to him that he had never said such a thing.

  5. Post

    #3 – Mike S, I think you raise a valid point. I think what is different is this distinction between person and office. In the examples you cite people focused upon the individual as the repository of that charismatic power. What these stories do, or what I am arguing they do, is focus the power on the office. Thus we here stories of Bishops who no loner receive revelation in the same way after they released because the power is linked with an office rather than a person.

    #4 – I was not claiming that BY said that phrase regarding the temple. In fact, speaking of Mormon myths, that whole story has been called into question. I was merely illustrating how that story comes to function in a particular way. Finally, that quote you have referred to has been publically denounced which why you are unlikely to find a source for it.

  6. I see your point and I unfortunately mixed my examples. But I still see the concept as being age-old. Egyptians revered the pharaohs as an office. Buddhists revere the Dali Lama as an office. Muslims revere their iman, etc.

    I think people want to feel a “connection” with the divine that isn’t present in the normal world, so these are ways to “touch” the divine.

  7. Excellent points. I have personally watched the development of a Mormon “myth” in the past two years that serves as an example of elevating both the office of president of the church and also the temple.

    As near as I can figure out, it began with President Hinckley stating that he knew the Savior had approved the new Draper Temple. My feelings on hearing this was that the holy ghost had borne witness to President Hinckley of this fact. But soon it became circulated the Jesus had appeared to President Hinckley had told him in person that he had approved of the temple. The next step occurred when it was spoken throughout the Wasatch Front (I’ve heard it twice from the pulpit) that President Hinckley had said that Jesus had personally walked through the halls of the Draper Temple and approved it. Then, not to be outdone, it was then said – again from the pulpit by “significant” leaders who I’m not going to mention – that both The Father and The Son had walked through the halls of the most recently built Oquirrh Mountain Temple and approved it.

    Again, like yourself, I can neither confirm nor deny where Jesus and the Father did or did not walk. But I know it has added to the aura surrounding both temples.

  8. #4: “The punchline (literally) is 3 Nephi 12:41.”


    #7: Interesting. There are statements by Brigham Young and Joseph F. Smith to the effect that neither of them had actually seen the Lord, in daylight vision. I believe Joseph Smith is the only prophet to have declared to have done so. From that, I conclude that he is the only prophet who actually did. (The idea that his successors have had such visions, but hid their light under a bushel, doesn’t convince me — if such a vision would be “too sacred” for a recent prophet to speak of, why was it not too sacred for Joseph?)

    And that leads back to my impression that Bushman’s thoughts about LDS charisma being a function of the office, not the man, isn’t entirely persuasive: Joseph remains a particularly mythic figure, by orders of magnitude more so than his successors. We don’t sing “Praise to the Man” about Harold B. Lee.

  9. Rico, there’s scriptural precedence for what you describe. Remember the story of Elijah passing the mantle to Elisha? Elijah’s time was up, and the “prophets” watched as he crossed the water by throwing down his mantle and he and Elisha passed on through. When, Elisha came back alone, he wore Elijah’s mantle, which he used to cross the water as Elijah had done, also in full view of the prophets.

  10. I think Bushman and the OP tries to explain with confusing venacular what are simple religious concepts.

    The story of the shadow of Peter in Acts is crucial to the New Testament; it demonstrates that what once was Jesus as the healer became Peter the healer. The gifts and mantle followed Peter.

    As well, Acts talks about the Twelve complaining about “waiting tables” and calling the bishops to assist — essentially, the bishops became table waiters and helped the common folk. Thus, we read, the prophets and apostles are beyond the normal experience.

  11. Charisma was part of the early LDS church as Joseph Smith added one thing on another as a way, I think, to confirm in people’s minds that they were special and chosen. Now people are asked to rely on the stories of the past or participate in reenactments as a way to do he same. Interestingly I’ve heard that members are discouraged from expecting spiritual manifestations when seeking a testimony or answer to prayer and are told to expect something more quiet and personal. We don’t expect much more than inspiration or good counsel now. Anything that is very charismatic in the old sense would be greeted today with a good deal of discomfort and skepticism. Sort of like if a pentacostal drops in to fast meeting and decides to take part.

  12. #6 – I guess I agree that the concept is not so new. I think that the way Joseph did this was new for our time, moreover, I suspect that these stories do not function in other traditions, but I might be wrong. I was under the impression that the Dalai Lama was a calling from birth, is that incorrect. Moreover, I suspect that the Dalai Lama is not seen in the same way as the Prophet is. The Pharoah again was by birth-right, so although these are similar I am not convinced they are exactly similar. Moreover, this rotation in callings also works on a lower level with Bishop’s for example.

    #7 – Rick I had not heard those stories so thank you.

    #8 – I think that is an interesting comment. I can think of a few examples of people saying they have seen the Saviour, Lorenzo Snow, and Leonard Arrington collected accounts of the 1978 revelation that mentioned the Saviour being present. However, I agree that this is not common. I am not sure Bushman was trying to say that all prophets are equal but rather that we can accept people when called because the office is endowed with Charisma. This provides a steadying influence on the Church.

    #9 – I am not arguing that what I writing here is a completely unique idea, I am aware of similarities in other instances. But the specific example you cite to my mind works more in line with the individual charismatic model, as most of Israel’s prophets seemed to be.

    #11 – I agree that this process exists. I have previously analysed how I believe that the charismatic gifts have been increasingly centralised in the hierarchy of the Church and that the way this myths operate in Mormon culture reinforces that dynamic.

  13. ok, I just did some research. I get it. Actually I think there are interesting parrallels and differences here. Of course the outcomes are different as are the mechanisms. There is personal sense of charismatic that comes to be revered and recycled through reincarnation. Perhaps this could be linked with the BY mantle experience, where BY comes to take on the form, speech and manner of Joseph.

    The key difference is how these ideas are rooted in an office. I still sense that how the Dalai Lama is seen differs from how the Prophet is seen. The prophet is more than an exemplar or wise teacher, but rather is set up as a gateway for divinity. I think the latest post in the Correlation series at BCC teaches us that. Thus these charismatic gifts serve to maintain the faith of the membership in the office of a distant leader.

  14. #8 — The Lorenzo Snow example comes, I think, from his granddaughter. Evidence, but perhaps not as reliable as a first-hand, contemporaneous account, such as a statement over the pulpit.

  15. So you would propose that the constraints of modern times has limited the charismatic powers of modern day Prophets? And so Myths have been presented to compensate?
    If so are these “Moromon Myths” a good or bad thing? Interesting.
    When talking of Myths I don’t feel the membership restrict themselves to the Office, once someone reaches a Prophetic level many archetypal back stories are circulated as God preparing his Prophet.

    The propensity for the Membership to look for charismatic gifts through examples during the tenure, or archetypal preparation is natural, however I guess it can go too far and become “sign seeking”. I don’t think it is ever malicious but a desire to believe the rumour, the youth are the perfect audience for these type of “faith promoting” stories.

    I guess it is a difficult balancing act, we need to be content when charismatic gifts don’t present themselves in a Prophet but have sufficient faith for when they do. I would say the latter would be more difficult to come to terms with.

  16. I have tried to collect accounts where GA have being visited by the Savior or have had a vision of the Savior. They are relatively few and far between. In additional to the Joseph Smith accounts, contained in the D&C are the Lorenzo Snow account told to his Granddaughter, an Orson F Whitney account, retold by Melvin J. Ballard, the David B. Haight account told in General Conference in 1986. These are the one off the top of my head. You are more likely to have these stories from the general membership than told by GAs, I think. Those kind of sacred experiences are usually kept quiet and not bragged about. AS they are apt to get turned into urban legends.

    As for the Charisma thing, I think we as members, we expect each Prophet/President to take on a certain set of traits because of that role. We might expect each to act in a similar fashion to Joseph and his successors because of the Mantle they receive. Even though, from a personality standpoint, they are/were very different men.

    While each President of the Church may have accomplished something, some just naturally standout more than others. George Albert Smith does not have the same stature as Brigham Young or Heber J Grant. And Harold B. Lee is more know for what he did as an Apostle than the short time he was President.

  17. #17 – I am not sure that it has limited the charismatic powers of leaders. Rather that I believe these charismatic powers were shared in intimate settings (most often) and that as the Church has expanded the frequency that our lives cross in meaningful ways with our leaders has reduced. Consequently, myths perpetuate as a way of keeping that link with the charismatic leadership without being in their presence. I agree that if anything we are too skeptical of such gifts in other people (or perhaps that is just me).

    #18 – Thanks Jeff. I think the personality dimension is an important to come to terms with in thinking about prophetic leadership.

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