Mormonism and authority

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Within Mormonism, the priesthood authority to act in God's name was said its founder, Joseph Smith, to have been removed from the primitive Christian church through a Great Apostasy, which Mormons believe occurred due to the deaths of the original apostles. Mormons maintain that this apostasy was prophesied of within the Bible to occur prior to the Second Coming of Jesus (see 2 Thessalonians 2:3) and was therefore in keeping with God's plan for mankind. Smith claimed that the priesthood authority was restored to him from angelic beings—John the Baptist and the apostles Peter, James, and John.

Some Christians have argued that a complete apostasy of the Christian church is impossible, because Christ is perfect. The Mormon belief is that Jesus, as Jehovah, also guided the Old Testament prophets and their followers, but that there are biblical descriptions of many apostasies amongst them, evidencing that Jehovah, who was perfect, did not intercede to prevent mankind from using agency and corrupting the true teachings and practices established through the prophets.[1]

Most Christians believe that the canon of scripture is closed. Mormons believe in an open canon of scripture and accept the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price as scripture. Mormons also recognize a living prophet who has the authority to propose additions to the scriptural canon.

Political structure in early Mormonism[edit]

Brigham Young
LDS Church president,
first U.S. appointed governor of Utah Territory,
regent of pre-millennial "Kingdom of God"

Early Mormonism established community legal structures as essentially theocracies (see theodemocracy). Joseph Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, presided over The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) as prophet, President of the Church, and spiritual king[2] until Christ's assumption of world kingship at his Second Coming.[3] U.S. President Millard Fillmore appointed Young governor of the Territory of Utah,[4] and there was minimal effective separation between church and state until 1858.[5]

Young envisioned a Mormon state[6] spanning from the Salt Lake Valley to the Pacific Ocean;[7] he sent church leaders to establish colonies far and wide. These colonies were governed by Mormon officials under Young's mandate to enforce "God's law" by "lay[ing] the ax at the root of the tree of sin and iniquity," while preserving individual rights.[8] Despite the distance to these outlying colonies, local Mormon leaders received frequent visits from church headquarters, and were under Young's direct doctrinal and political control.[9] Mormons were taught to obey the orders of their priesthood leaders, as long as they coincided with the church's religious principles.[10] Young's view of theocratic enforcement included a death penalty.[11] However, there are no documented cases showing that capital punishment was ever used by the Mormons. Mormon leaders taught the doctrine of blood atonement, in which Mormon "covenant breakers" could in theory gain their exaltation in heaven by having "their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins." More clearly stated, this doctrine holds that capital punishment is required to atone for murder.[12]

Commentator Thomas G. Alexander argues that most violent speech by Mormon leaders was rhetorical in nature and that statistical studies were needed to determine whether frontier Utah was more violent in reality than surrounding regions.[13] Referring to the frequent Mormon declarations that there were fewer deeds of violence in Utah than in other pioneer settlements of equal population, the Salt Lake Tribune of January 25, 1876, stated: "It is estimated that no less than 600 murders have been committed by the Mormons, in nearly every case at the instigation of their priestly leaders, during the occupation of the territory. Giving a mean average of 50,000 persons professing that faith in Utah, we have a murder committed every year to every 2500 of population. The same ratio of crime extended to the population of the United States would give 16,000 murders every year."[14] Whatever the case, there is evidence that occasionally local church leaders took the rhetoric of such doctrines seriously as they contemplated sanctionable applications of violence.[15]

According to rumors and accusations, Brigham Young sometimes enforced "God's law" through a secret cadre of avenging Danites.[16] The truth of these rumors is debated by historians. While there existed active vigilante organizations in Utah who referred to themselves as "Danites",[17] they may have been acting independently.[18] (For example, frontier Latter-day Saints Isaac C. Haight and William H. Dame were never Danites; however, Young's records indicate that in 1857 he authorized these two men to secretly execute two ex-convicts traveling through southern Utah along the California trail if they were caught stealing cattle. Dame replied to Young in a letter that "we try to live so when your finger crooks, we move."[19] Haight and/or Dame might have been involved in the subsequent ambush of part of the convicts' party just south of Mountain Meadows.)[20]


  1. ^ Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 3, pp. 265–71.
  2. ^ See, for example, minutes of meeting of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 12 February 1849, p. 3 [LDS Archives], in Quinn 1997, p. 238.
  3. ^ Melville 1960, pp. 33–34; LDS D&C 65:2, 5–6; Joseph Smith, Jr. (1844), History of the Church 6:290, 292; Young 1855, p. 310; John Taylor (1853), JD 1:230; John D. Lee diary, 6 December 1848.
  4. ^ Fillmore 1850, p. 252
  5. ^ John Taylor (1857), JD 5:266 ("We used to have a difference between Church and State, but it is all one now. Thank God."). Removed as governor during the Utah War, Young yet retained a great deal of control until his death in 1877 Melville 1960, p. 48.
  6. ^ Called "Deseret," a word used in the Book of Mormon meaning "honeybee".
  7. ^ Hunter, Milton R. (2004), Brigham Young the Colonizer, Kessinger Publishing, ISBN 1-4179-6846-X, 70 (citing Brigham Young, Latter-day Saint Journal History, October 27, 1850, Ms.).
  8. ^ In 1856, Young said "the government of God, as administered here" may to some seem "despotic" because "[i]t lays the ax at the root of the tree of sin and iniquity; judgment is dealt out against the transgression of the law of God;" however, "does not [it] give every person his rights?" Young 1856, p. 256.
  9. ^ Quinn 2001, pp. 143–45, 147.
  10. ^ Lee 1877, p. 235; Beadle 1870, p. 495 (describing what is said to be a portion of the Mormon Endowment in which participants are commanded to "obey all orders of the priesthood, temporal and spiritual, in matters of life or death").
  11. ^ On the Mormon Trail, Young threatened adherents who had stole wagon cover strings and rail timber with having their throats cut "when they get out of the settlements where his orders could be executed" Roberts 1932, p. 597. Young also gave orders that "when a man is found to be a thief,...cut his throat & thro' him in the River" (Diary of Thomas Bullock, 13 December 1846). In Utah, Young said "a theif [sic] should not live in the Valley, for he would cut off their heads or be the means of haveing [sic] it done as the Lord lived." (See the Diary of Mary Haskin Parker Richards, 16 April 1848). The preferred method of execution was by exsanguination or decapitation, the latter being "the law of God & it shall be executed." (See the diary of Willard Richards, 20 December 1846; Watson, Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1846-1847, p. 480.)
  12. ^ Young 1856, p. 53. Yet Mormon leaders stated that this practice was not yet "in full force" (1857, pp. 219–20), but the time was "not far distant" when Mormons would be sacrificed out of love to ensure their eternal reward (Young 1856b, pp. 245–46; Kimball 1857a, p. 174; Young 1857, p. 219.)
  13. ^ Thomas G. Alexander. Review: Will Bagely. Blood of the Prophets, BYU Studies Review (2003). Alexander referenced available statistics dealing with the period from 1882 to 1903, however it was estimations of violence from earlier (Mormon Reformation period) Utah compared with neighbors such as (Bleeding Kansas period) Kansas that Alexander said was needed.
  14. ^ CONTENTdm Collection: Compound Object Viewer
  15. ^ Quinn 1997, p. 249 (referring to a request Isaac C. Haight sent to Brigham Young asking permission to enforce blood atonement against an adulterous Mormon desirous to voluntarily submit for blood atonement — a request, however, that Young eventually denied.
  16. ^ Briggs 2006, p. 320, n.26. The southern Utah pioneer and militia scout of the time John Chatterley later wrote that he had received threats from a "secret Committee, called ...'destroying angels'"
  17. ^ Young 1857c, p. 6 (warning "mobocrats" that if they came to Utah, they would find "Danites").
  18. ^ Cannon & Knapp 1913, p. 271.
  19. ^ Parshall 2005, p. 74.
  20. ^ Parshall 2005, p. 79.


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