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Theodemocracy was a theocratic political system that included elements of democracy. It was theorized by Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Latter Day Saint movement (Mormonism). According to Smith, theodemocracy was meant to be a fusion of traditional republican democratic rights under the United States Constitution with theocratic principles.
Smith described it as a system under which God and the people held the power to rule in righteousness. Smith believed that this would be the form of government that would rule the world upon the Second Coming of Christ, which he believed was imminent. This polity would constitute the "Kingdom of God" which was foretold by the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. Theodemocracy was an influence for the short lived State of Deseret in the American Old West.
Smith's political ideal
Early Latter Day Saints (Mormons) were typically Jacksonian Democrats and were highly involved in representative republican political processes. According to historian Marvin S. Hill, "the Latter-day Saints saw the maelstrom of competing faiths and social institutions in the early nineteenth century as evidence of social upheaval and found confirmation in the rioting and violence that characterized Jacksonian America." Smith wrote in 1842 that earthly governments "have failed in all their attempts to promote eternal peace and happiness...[Even the United States] is rent, from center to circumference, with party strife, political intrigues, and sectional interest."
Smith's belief was that only a government led by deity could banish the destructiveness of unlimited faction and bring order and happiness to the earth. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt stated in 1855, the government of God "is a government of union." Smith believed that a theodemocratic polity would be the literal fulfillment of Christ's prayer in the Gospel of Matthew, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven."
Further, Smith taught that the Kingdom of God, which he called the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, would hold dominion in the last days over all other kingdoms as foretold in the Book of Daniel. Smith stated in May 1844, "I calculate to be one of the instruments of setting up the kingdom of Daniel by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the world...It will not be by sword or gun that this kingdom will roll on: the power of truth is such that all nations will be under the necessity of obeying the Gospel."
In 1859, LDS President Brigham Young equated the terms "republican theocracy" and "democratic theocracy", and expressed his understanding of them when he taught, "The kingdom that the Almighty will set up in the latter days will have its officers, and those officers will be peace. Every man that officiates in a public capacity will be filled with the Spirit of God, with the light of God, with the power of God, and will understand right from wrong, truth from error, light from darkness, that which tends to life and that which tends to death.... They will say... '[T]he Lord does not, neither will we control you in the least in the exercise of your agency. We place the principles of life before you. Do as you please, and we will protect you in your rights....'"
The theodemocratic system was to be based on principles extant in the United States Constitution, and held sacred the will of the people and individual rights. Indeed, the United States and the Constitution in particular were revered by Smith and his followers. However, in a theodemocratic system, God was to be the ultimate power and would give law to the people which they would be free to accept or reject, presumably based on republican principles. Somewhat analogous to a federal system within a theodemocracy, sovereignty would reside jointly with the people and with God. Various inconsistencies exist in this framework, such as how humans could resist the laws of an all-powerful God, or how citizens could be assured that the authority of God rather than the humans interpreting His will was being exercised. While Christ would be the "king of kings" and "lord of lords," He would only intermittently reside on Earth and the government would largely be left in the hands of mortal men.
Young explained that a theodemocracy would consist of "many officers and branches...as there are now to that of the United States." It is known that the Council of Fifty, which Smith organized in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1844, was meant to be the central municipal body within such a system. The Council was led by Smith and included many members of the LDS central leadership. However it also included several prominent non-Mormons. Full consensus was required for the Council to pass any measures, and each participant was encouraged and in fact commanded to fully speak their minds on all issues brought before the body. Debate would continue until consensus could be reached. However, if consensus could not be reached, then Smith would "seek the will of the Lord" and break the deadlock through divine revelation.
Although theodemocracy was envisioned to be a unifying force which would minimize faction, it should not be viewed as a repudiation of the individualistic principles underlying American Liberalism. According to James T. McHugh, Mormon theology was "comfortable…with [the] human-centric vision of both the Protestant Reformation and the liberal Enlightenment…" Smith's political ideal still held sacred Mormon beliefs in the immutability of individual moral agency. This required most importantly religious freedom and other basic liberties for all people.
Therefore, such a government was never meant to be imposed on the unwilling, nor to be monoreligious. Instead, Smith believed that theodemocracy would be freely chosen by all, whether or not they were Latter-day Saints. This would be especially true when secular governments had dissolved and given way to universal anarchy and violence in the days preceding the Millennium. In fact, Smith and his successors believed that in the religiously pluralistic society which would continue even after Christ's return, theodemocracy demanded the representation of non-Mormons by non-Mormons.
Theodemocracy is a separate concept from the ideal Mormon community of Zion. Zion was not itself a political system, but rather an association of the righteous. Theodemocracy in turn was not a religious organization, but a governmental system which would potentially include people of many religious denominations and be institutionally separate from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Even in a government led by God, Smith seemed to support separation of function between church and state. Nevertheless, while civil and ecclesiastical governments were meant to retain their individual and divided spheres of power in a theodemocratic system, leaders of the LDS Church would have important and even dominant secular roles within the political superstructure.
Smith first coined the term theodemocracy while running for President of the United States in 1844. It is also clear that this concept lay behind his organization of the secretive Council of Fifty that same year. But it is uncertain whether Smith believed that he could or should form a functioning theodemocratic government before the advent of the Second Coming and the destruction of worldly political systems.
Once formed the Council of Fifty had little actual power, and was more symbolic of preparation for God's future kingdom than a functioning political body. The town of Nauvoo where Smith organized the Council was governed according to a corporate charter received from the state of Illinois in 1841. The Nauvoo Charter granted a wide measure of home rule, but the municipality it created was strictly republican in organization. Such an arrangement may reflect the Mormon history of persecution, with the form of the Nauvoo government developing as a practical self-defense mechanism rather than as an absolute theological preference.
Despite this, later critics labeled the town a “theocracy,” mostly due to the position of many church leaders, including Joseph Smith, as elected city officials. This was a serious charge, as in Jacksonian America, anything which smacked of theocratic rule was immediately suspect and deemed an anti-republican threat to the country. Suspicions about Mormon rule in Nauvoo, combined with misunderstandings about the role of the Council of Fifty, resulted in hyperbolic rumors about Joseph Smith’s “theocratic kingdom.” This in turn added to the growing furor against the Latter-day Saints in Illinois which eventually led to Smith’s assassination in June 1844, and the Mormons' expulsion from the state in early 1846.
Even before coining the name 'theodemocracy,' Smith's teachings about a political Kingdom of God had caused friction with non-Mormons even before the Nauvoo period. As early as 1831, Smith recorded a revelatory prayer which stated that "the keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth...Wherefore, may the kingdom of God go forth, that the kingdom of heaven may come..."
In other words, Smith believed that it was necessary for the Mormons to at least lay the foundations for the Kingdom of God before the Second Coming could occur. It remains unclear what he felt those foundations must entail. Unfortunately, a lack of precise definitions sometimes confused the issue. For instance, in another 1831 revelation, the "Kingdom" seems to be synonymous with the "Church." Yet many LDS leaders went to great lengths to distinguish between the "Church of God," which was a spiritual organization which included both social and economic programs, and the "Kingdom of God," which was fully political and had yet to be fully organized.
In an 1874 sermon, Brigham Young taught that what the Mormons commonly called the "Kingdom of God" actually implied two structures. The first was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which had been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. The second was the political kingdom described by Daniel, a theodemocratic polity which would one day be fully organized, and once initiated would "protect every person, every sect, and all people upon the face of the whole earth, in their legal rights." But however defined, Smith certainly did not believe that the Saints would ever establish this kingdom by force or rebellion.
Nevertheless, the very concept of political power enforced by God through any human agency was rejected as obnoxious and highly dangerous by contemporary society. When Smith was arrested in connection with the 1838 Mormon War, he was closely questioned by the presiding judge about whether he believed in the kingdom which would subdue all others as described in the Book of Daniel. Smith's attorney Alexander Doniphan announced that if belief in such teachings were treasonous, then the Bible must be considered a treasonable publication.
The development of theodemocracy was continued along with the development of Smith's community. Nauvoo was governed by a combination of LDS church leaders and friendly non-Mormons who had been elected to serve in civil office might mark the city as a theodemocracy in embryo. Further, Smith had anticipated that the Mormons would move west long before his murder, and he may have believed that he could create a theodemocratic polity somewhere outside of the United States in anticipation of Christ's return to earth. Smith's "last charge" to the Council of Fifty before his death was to "bear[...] off the Kingdom of God to all the world."
After Smith’s death, the banner of theodemocracy was carried by his successor Brigham Young to Utah in 1847. While Young’s early conception of the State of Deseret was no doubt based on theodemocratic principles, its practical application was severely hampered after Utah was made a territory in 1850, and further eroded when Young was replaced as territorial governor after the Utah War of 1857-1858. But even at an early stage, the Utah government never fully implemented Smith's theodemocratic vision. Like in Nauvoo, theodemocratic principles were mainly expressed through the election of church leadership to territorial office through republican processes. As before, the Council of Fifty remained essentially a "government in exile" with little real power. In 1855, one LDS Apostle explained that a "nucleus" of God's political kingdom had been formed, although that in no way challenged their loyalty to the government of the United States.
Mormon belief in an imminent Second Coming continued throughout the 19th century, and their expectation of the violent self-destruction of governments seemed to be confirmed by such events as the American Civil War. Orson Pratt taught, "not withstanding that it has been sanctioned by the Lord...the day will come when the United States government, and all others, will be uprooted, and the kingdoms of this world will be united in one, and the kingdom of our God will govern the whole earth...if the Bible be true, and we know it to be true." Thus, while the Saints sincerely proclaimed their loyalty to the United States throughout this period, they also expected its unavoidable collapse along with other worldly governments. This in turn would require the Latter-day Saints to bring order to the resultant chaos and "save the Constitution" by implementation of a true theodemocracy.
By the turn of the 20th century, Mormon expectations of an imminent Apocalypse had largely dissipated, and Utah's admission to the Union in 1896 required the removal of the last vestiges of theodemocracy from the local government. The Council of Fifty had not met since the 1880s, and was technically extinguished when its last surviving member, Heber J. Grant, died in 1945. Thus, theodemocracy within the LDS church has slowly receded in importance. While Mormons still believe that the Kingdom of God maintains the bifurcated definition espoused by Brigham Young, both church and millennial government, its political implications are now rarely alluded to. Rather, the kingdom predicted by the Prophet Daniel is commonly identified simply with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Theodemocracy has become a principle which, when discussed at all, is relegated to an indefinite future when secular governments have already fully collapsed in the turbulent times preceding the Second Coming. Until such time, injunctions within the LDS church to "build up the Kingdom of God" refer to purely spiritual matters such as missionary work, and Joseph Smith's political ideal bears little weight in contemporary LDS political theory or objectives.
- Times and Seasons, 5:510.
- Hill 1989, p. 56.
- Hill 1989, p. xi
- Ehat 1980, p. 2
- Journal of Discourses 3:71.
- Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:365.
- Journal of Discourses 6:336-7.
- Journal of Discourses 6:345-6.
- Historian D. Michael Quinn notes that the minutes of the Council of Fifty contains hundreds of pages of Joseph Smith's teachings about the U.S. Constitution and its meaning for the Latter-day Saints.
Quinn 1980, p. 1
- Ehat 1980, p. 4
- Journal of Discourses 6:336.
- McHugh, James T. (August 1997), A Liberal Theocracy: Philosophy, Theology, and Utah Constitutional Law, Albany Law Review 60 (5)
- Firmage & Mangrum 1988, p. 11
- Quinn 1980, p. [page needed]
- Nauvoo was designed so as to give the Latter-day Saints a maximum of self-governance. For the nine years previous to their settlement in Nauvoo, the Mormons had been under the political control of non-Mormons. As a result, they had found little redress from the government on any level for mob violence and other injustices inflicted upon them. It was therefore believed that a government which they controlled (in tandem with friendly non-Mormons) could defend them from future persecution. Having relied upon their religious leaders to defend them when they were ignored by the secular government, these same ecclesiastical leaders became natural choices for positions of civic responsibility once the Mormons had gained control of their own municipality. These leaders were overwhelmingly supported in city elections, and were also given position of authority in the local militia, the Nauvoo Legion. However, this arrangement had emerged in Nauvoo years before Smith coined the term "theodemocracy" or organized the Council of Fifty. Indeed, Smith became mayor of the city only after the city's first mayor, John C. Bennett, was forced to resign his office for various improprieties.
- Hansen, Klaus J. (1996), "The Political Kingdom of God as a Source of Mormon-Gentile Conflict", in Launius, Roger D.; Halwas, John E., Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited, Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, pp. 62, 68, ISBN 978-0-252-02197-8, OCLC 32311213
- Journal of Discourses 17:156-57.
- Andrus 1999, p. 12.
- Journal of Discourses 3:72
- "Kingdom of heaven or kingdom of God", Bible Dictionary, KJV (LDS) (LDS Church)
- Andrus, Hyrum L. (1999) , Doctrines of the Kingdom, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, ISBN 1-57345-462-1, OCLC 42606090.
- Ehat, Andrew F. (1980), "It Seems Like Heaven Began on Earth": Joseph Smith and the Constitution of the Kingdom of God, BYU Studies 20 (3)
- Firmage, Edwin Brown; Mangrum, Richard Collin (1988), Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900, University of Illinois Press, ISBN 978-0-252-01498-7, OCLC 17107769
- Hill, Marvin S. (1989), Quest For Refuge, The Flight from American Pluralism, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, ISBN 978-0-941214-70-4, OCLC 493877343
- Mason, Patrick Q. (Summer 2011), God and the People: Theodemocracy in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism, Journal of Church and State 53 (3): 349–375, doi:10.1093/jcs/csq135, OCLC 4798052788
- Quinn, D. Michael (1980), The Council of Fifty and Its Members, 1844-1945, BYU Studies 20 (2)