- Historic Sites
From Poverty and Persecution to Prosperity and Power
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Before she was twenty, Annie Clark herself became Wife Number Two of a polygamous husband, thus beginning what proved to be a singularly unhappy, unstable, yet long-continued marital relationship (ten children). Her own and her mother’s experiences led her to comment on the obvious connection between her church’s attitude toward women and its stubborn defense of its most publicized institution, polygamy. “Polygamy,” Mrs. Tanner said, “is predicated on the assumption that man is superior to woman,” and that man must be given “privileged rights in domestic affairs.”
The church’s stand on blacks has become even more anachronistic than its attitudes toward women. Blacks are encouraged to join,but unlike other males, they must not expect to enter the priesthood. According to Mormon belief, their color means that they bear a lifelong curse as the descendants of one of the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain, who in a fit of jealousy slew his brother Abel. For this bloody deed, Cain and his descendants were cursed with black skins—the “mark of Cain.” Someday, Mormon theory runs, the curse will be lifted, but until that time participation in the priesthood is forbidden to blacks, although not to some other nonwhites, such as Polynesians. For modern Mormon liberals, the church’s flat prohibition—and the blunt implication of racial inferiority—has become a heavy cross.
From the beginning the Mormon Church has thus been an organization that is staffed by unpaid white male nonprofessionals, and is supported by remarkably generous giving by all loyal Mormons. The church is organized into successively higher levels of authority, beginning at the level of the local congregation, which is called a “ward” and is presided over by a layman called a “bishop,” and rising up through a larger geographical entity called a “stake,” above which are the central authorities of the church, who have operated out of Salt Lake City ever since the Mormons have been in Utah. Twice a year there is a huge meeting in Salt Lake City to which the faithful are earnestly urged to come. It is at those semiannual meetings that the faithful are told what their leaders have decided.
How are officials chosen for these different levels? Joseph Smith declared that his church was to be not so much a theocracy but rather what he termed a “theo-democracy.” In practice this has meant that the leaders of the church select some promising Mormon for a post, and then ask the people of the particular group he will lead to ratify the choice by a show of hands in meeting. The approval so given is known as the “sustaining vote.” Normally it is forthcoming, since the voting group knows that the nomination represents their leaders’ wishes and, as Mrs. Tanner remarked, “obedience was the basis of our religion.” From Joseph Smith’s time to the present this elaborate church structure has provided a definite place and role for every active Mormon. The energies, the enthusiasms, and money of each member are enlisted.
The church has dominated not only the religious life of its members but also their social life, frequently their political life, and at times their economic activities. After the Mormons moved to Utah, the church created and controlled the only government Utah had until 1850. When Congress established a territorial form of government in that year, Brigham Young became the first governor, and the church remained a de facto force in government at all levels. Nor did the church’s influence in government cease after the federal government displaced Brigham Young as territorial governor in 1857.
This theocracy could operate the more easily because from the beginning the Mormons had shown a remarkable spirit of communitarian cooperation. Because the early Mormons were too poor and too limited in education and experience to undertake big projects as individuals, they learned to work together under the leadership of their church. By pooling their labor under church direction, and employing only the simplest tools and equipment, they planned and built towns, irrigation canals, roads, and factories—without accumulating a large capital debt.
Joseph Smith initiated these arrangements and developed a cadre of effective leaders who served as his immediate subordinates. For his administrative accomplishments he deserves more credit than he has usually received. At his death in 1844 Joseph Smith was succeeded by one of the outstanding organizers of the nineteenth century, Brigham Young, who ruled the church until his own death in 1877. If the circumstances of his life had worked out differently, Brigham Young might have become a captain of industry—an Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller or perhaps a railroad builder.
Young’s beginnings in rural Vermont and New York State were as humble as Joseph Smith’s. He once declared that he had had only eleven days of formal schooling. Yet in adult life, when he stood at the head of the Mormon Church, he impressed his visitors. In 1860, Sir Richard Burton, the famous British world traveler, found him “at once affable and impressive, simple and courteous: his want of pretension contrasts favorably with certain pseudo-prophets that I have seen. … He impresses a stranger with a certain sense of power. … He can use all the weapons of ridicule to direful effect” and can reprimand his followers “in purposely violent language.“Albert D. Richardson, the journalist, added his own evaluation in 1867: