In 1844 when Joseph Smith was running for president of the United States, he proposed a system of gradual emancipation for all slaves. How did that message go over in the South? Hint: not well. In our next conversation, Dr. Derek Sainsbury will tell us some of the stories of these missionaries, and some of the surprising receptiveness to the message in some cases.
GT: I think the interesting thing for me, especially I served my mission in South Carolina, so I’m very familiar with Southern Baptists and Pentecostals and all sorts of things. But, in 1844, slavery was legal and Joseph Smith is talking about freeing the slaves. I don’t think that went very well in the South.
Derek: It didn’t. The one blind spot that I have is, as a historian with this is none of the ones that went in the deep South kept a journal.
GT: Oh really?
Derek: Here’s that same George Miller, a couple days later is walking and a guy stops him in the street and he says, “You best get out of here, because my slaves have been told if they see you, to lynch you, to put you up on the tree and lynch you.” So he’s like, “hmm, I’m moving on to the next town.”
It wasn’t always violent however opposition.
Derek: Right, but this is when it started was in the 40s, 1840, 1844. They’d have these huge barbecues and whiskey and get people to show up and listen. Well, he goes to the other end of the square and stands up on a tree trunk and starts…
GT: The stump. That what they actually called a stump speech.
Derek: That’s right. He starts preaching Joseph Smith, he’s not preaching the gospel. He’s doing electioneer stuff about General Joseph Smith’s run for the presidency. By the time he’s done, the entire crowd is shifted, and is listening to him. When it’s over, they’re saying, “You don’t want any of this guy’s barbecue,” and they take him to the tavern, give him a big meal. He writes about how many of them liked the ideas, even though some of them disliked, well, a lot of them disliked Joseph. This was a common thread not just in the Upper South, but everywhere.
GT: What state was this in?
Derek: This was Kentucky, but even as far up as in Massachusetts, in Boston, there were a lot of people that liked the ideas in the pamphlet, but not so much, Joseph. They would have these conferences where they would come up with these resolutions, for lack of a better word, and they were both Mormon and non-Mormon together, that agreed with these principles. So there was more acceptance than we really knew. Not overwhelming, but there were some out there that also didn’t like the two-party system, didn’t like the Democrats and the Whigs, were looking for another way forward.
Are you surprised to hear about some successes?
Following Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young tried to implement theo-democracy in the Territory of Deseret, which is now known as Utah. Dr. Derek Sainsbury talks about how successful Brigham Young was in implementing Joseph’s view of government.
Derek: When the Civil War breaks out, they see that as a natural–Section 87, the revelation about the Civil War, a civil war starting. They see that as fulfillment of that [revelation] obviously, but also of the rejection of political salvation that Joseph Smith offered them in 1844. While we don’t join the Confederacy, we don’t really join the Union, we kind of sit on the sidelines, hoping for some (not all) that it all falls apart. In fact, Brigham Young continues this Council of Fifty, this Governing Council, political Council, he continues that they kind of lead the theo-democracy in the Deseret era.
Then after theo-democracy is established, they [Council of Fifty] kind of go away. They stopped meeting because they have the structure set up. It’s inherent now in the actual system they have. But during the Civil War, he brings it back. He brings the council back and they create their own legislature, which is the exact same people. After every single legislature session during the Civil War, they do a second one with the legislature of Deseret, and they do the exact same thing. It’s like a shadow government, if you will. In the public speeches that Brigham Young and other leaders of the church give, they start to talk again. They start to bring back and talk more about this idea of the Kingdom of God, which meant a lot different than it means now. It meant the political Kingdom of God is coming back and they saw in the fulfillment of the Civil War that this might happen, and we need to be ready to govern ourselves when the country collapses, and then spread that government. You hear during the Civil War, in a lot of the discourses that are given by the leaders of the church, that idea. They even start to talk about, “Hey, this government is here. It’s been here. It’s just waiting for the right time.” Then, of course, the Civil War doesn’t lead to the collapse of United States, and we have to go back to trying to get along with the United States.
Derek: When reconstruction is done, then the Republicans turn to us, the other twin relic of barbarism, polygamy. That’s when the real difficult relationship with the federal government begins through the 1870s and the 1880s, leading up to the Manifesto and the creation of the State of Utah and all that other stuff, which really is all trying to destroy the theo-democracy. Plural marriage is great for them to attack. Polygamy is great for them to attack because it’s sensational, it’s great. But what the really trying to do, because it’s seen as un-American, is break up the relationship between church and state.
GT: Yeah, because when the bishop is also the judge, the federal government has to pull in “Gentile” judges. Because they’re trying to break this theo-democracy.
Derek : Yeah, and it takes them a long time. Because one, they planted theo-democracy really well, and they’d given all kinds of powers when they created them to the probate judges and to others where they could basically put them in their own courts, if people were accused. So, it took a lot of different amendments and legislation from the US Congress to finally kind of break down all of the theo-democracy.
What are your thoughts about the theo-democracy set up by Brigham Young, and how hard it was for the feds to eradicate?
“What are your thoughts about the theo-democracy set up by Brigham Young…?”
I’m one who grew up with ideas of representative democracy and experience of abusive and wrong-headed as well as good decisions from a patriarch and from bishops, mission presidents, regional representatives, and apostles (some of whom became Church presidents). I have no thorough historical understanding of how BY’s “theo-democracy” actually worked or the extent to which the law of “common consent” actually meant anything. But I suspect that the term “theo-democracy” was likely as much a hopeful misnomer for church-state rather than God-directed-through-democratically-chosen-human-leadership-and principles as it would be if applied to the Church’s affairs in the mid-to-late 20th century. (There has been some, even if small, improvement with the recent emphasis on councils.)
I was quite interested in Patrick Mason’s 2011 article on the subject and its development:
“God and the People: Theodemocracy in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism” Patrick Q. Mason
Journal of Church and State, Volume 53, Issue 3, Summer 2011, Pages 349–375, https://academic.oup.com/jcs/article/53/3/349/1022651
“Richard Bushman has called the ‘charismatic bureaucracy’ of church councils has an empowering effect on men and women in the theodemocratic structure of Mormonism, thus bringing God and the people together in a space of genuinely shared sovereignty.69 The system does not work, however, for outsiders who do not share the assumptions or commitment to a unifying charisma and set of doctrines that inspires institutional insiders. The nineteenth-century Mormon concept of theodemocracy thus proved a poor fit for the pluralistic, liberal democratic culture of the modern American polity, while providing an antecedent for religious groups throughout the late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century world who would militate for a greater voice for God in a secularizing age.”
Based on my life experience, I expect the concept was a poor fit in BY’s day as it is now for any body politic where not everyone identifies the same ecclesiastical leaders’ ideas, whims, and decisions with the will of God.
69. See Richard Lyman Bushman, with the assistance of Jed Woodworth, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 258; see pp. 251–58 for a fuller discussion of the church’s council system as implemented by Smith. The efficacy of the church’s council system is perhaps best demonstrated in its absence, as seen in the abuses within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) after it eviscerated its priesthood councils in the mid- to late-twentieth century, thus leading to the autocratic leadership characterized by Warren Jeffs. See Marianne T. Watson, “The 1948 Secret Marriage of Louis J. Barlow: Origins of FLDS Placement Marriage,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 83–136.
If I understand my Church history correctly, Joseph Smith set up a virtual theocracy in Nauvoo. The operating premise back then was that the world and the nation were too evil and corrupt to live in from the Saints’ perspective. Thus, they would do their own thing and operate as a virtual independent state. And of course, the dream for a permanent Zion was always guiding their ambitions. I think they thought that they would maintain this kind of society until the 2nd Coming. Well, not only did the 2nd Coming not take place on schedule (it was always right around the corner), the Saints could not maintain their presence due to their actions and due to opposition.
Enter, Brigham Young. I’m not sure his vision for a theocracy was quite as aggressive in Utah as JS’s was in the MidWest, but he had a pretty good run. When you’re the richest citizen of your territory AND the governor AND the head of the largest organization, you’ve pulled off quite a task even if you haven’t declared yourself “king of the world” like your predecessor. We have to be careful in how we judge folks from other eras. Maybe BY’s power/wealth consolidation was totally appropriate. Maybe the fact that he had 50+ marriages/families to maintain wasn’t enough. I just wonder if he and the Church and Utah society would have been better off if some of the wealth and power had been distributed. Would anyone reading this want President Nelson running for governor today?