The Holy Person in Mormonism?

Eve’s recent post at ZD on the magical GA got me thinking about how such a phenomenon fits in the larger history of Christianity. The LDS conception of religious potency is so closely intertwined with hierarchical leadership that it is not surprising that these businessmen and lawyers are able to receive such devotion by those seeking ecstatic or thaumaturgic experiences. What is interesting to me is whether or not the religiously potent can exist outside of the structures of LDS authority, as it has in so many other Christian traditions. If such a condition does not presently exist, can we expect it as a phenomenon that inevitably spills over?

The demand for extra-ecclesial religious potency has been a relatively consistent phenomenon in Christian history. (I speak of Christian history because that is what I am most familiar with.) Whether it be in the form of esoteric teaching, ecstatic or visionary experiences, or healing, Christians have frequently sought other kinds of experiences which exceed the capacities of ordinary church life offered by official leadership. Indeed, this is precisely the environment in which Mormonism was born, and Mormonism itself has benefited from converts who were willing to look outside their religious structures. Today, the missionaries attempt to replicate and produce extra-ecclesial authority for non-Mormons.

In the broader scope of Christian history, the monastic communities have often found themselves in tension with sacerdotal authority. The monks drew their authority from ascetic or ecstatic closeness to God, or their devotion to the poor, or perhaps even their great learning (hence the numerous monastic orders). These monastic orders have oscillated from para-church organizations, to contra-church organizations throughout Catholic history. In some sense, they even started as extra-church organizations, and were only later incorporated and tolerated by the church.

The priests, in contrast, drew their authority from the order of the church itself. They were authorized to perform ordinances such as the Eucharist and baptism. They ran the affairs of the church and church services for the laity. They had no claim to special knowledge, or particular levels of devotion, or other external marks of qualification. They had the authority simply because they had it.

This same tension is manifest between itinerant preachers and pastors. One relies on the authority that they can generate around themselves, while the other holds the authority because of the office.

It seems that this latter model, the sacerdotal, has primary dominance within the LDS church. At the same time, informal leaders have emerged with special charismatic qualities, or perhaps special knowledge. I would love to be able to think through how different types of power and authority manifest themselves outside of or around LDS church structure.

Perhaps the increasingly secular context of Mormonism sufficiently reduces the demand for such religious power that the hierarchy is able to satisfy it? Are we content to be managed rather than ministered to? Or does management produce its own kind of ministry that satisfies our spiritual needs enough to kill the demand for extra- or para-church authority?

13 Replies to “The Holy Person in Mormonism?”

  1. TT, my initial reaction is that we get the management from the hierarchical, global Church and the ministering (both giving and receiving) from the more lateral, local Church. The global leadership, after all, is understood primarily to be “witnesses of Christ” – not “ministers” in the classic sense.

    I think if you asked the vast majority of active members, they would say that they feel the ministering structure is in place; the real question is whether it actually occurs in any given ward or branch. While there is “doctrinal power” in the centralized and correlated global hierarchy, frankly, I believe most of the “practical power” in the Church resides in the local units. Most of the serious difficulties likewise reside there, imo. The power delegated to the lay ministry – extended throughout and shared by nearly all active membership – is both the genius *and* the dysfunctionality of the Church, I believe.

  2. It seems this is all pretty regionally dependent. I remember on GA (forget which) said that far too Americans view leadership primarily in terms of management rather than spiritual ‘leadership.’ Whereas in many third world nations it’s reversed. You get more people amazingly in tune with the spirit and revelatory but poor managers. (I suspect we saw that with Joseph Smith)

    Of course in any particular region it varies. And sometimes when you get some people with a kind evangelical authority which undercuts leaders who perhaps aren’t quite as competent in their management it can cause lots of problems. (I think we’ve all seen that – and of course there are plenty of examples in Church history especially in terms of the de-emphasis of natural seers)

  3. Two great posts in a row. Our religious tradition has role models of the “mystical wanderer”; the individual who is outside of the main ecclesiastical order who seems to come from nowhere, has the Spirit of God, delivers a powerful message, and is gone. Many of the Old Testament prophets – like Elijah the Tishbite – fall in this category; as does Samuel the Lamanite in the BOM and Agabus in the NT. Some of my favorite Christian writings are by individuals outside of the “power structure”, like Thomas a Kampis, St. John of the Cross, and Theresa of Avila.

    But I don’t see the “informal leaders (who) have emerged with special chrismatic qualities, or…special knowledge”. I hope you’re not talking about BYU professors like Millet and Skinner who have dominated the LDS bookstore shelves of late. I suppose Hugh Nibley was an OT
    prophet of sorts. We do get “special knowledge” from some of the LDS historians and poets, but I don’t view them as informal leaders. I guess I’m not holding my breathe for the day when a chrismatic wanderer comes to the podium in General Conference, speaking maybe a few words in an unknown tongue, then delivers a message universally accepted by the congregation as from God, and them dramatically departs – his or her mission finished. Would that be cool, or what?

  4. Actually I think some of the theologians like Millet or Robison or even Ostler would fit to a degree. Certainly Nibley would. Arguably othere would as well. Although there just aren’t as good 20th century examples as 19th century ones.

  5. Sorry for the delay in comments. I need to stop writing posts right before I won’t have time to engage the comments…

    I think that you are obviously right with respect to management and ministry, though I realize that my own language here was not as specific as I would like. Of course, in the Catholic parallel, these same “needs” are met in the ecclesiastical structure, which is analogous to our own. However, this doesn’t explain the rise of monasticism and other religious orders. My question then is more about whether or not there are LDS analogies to extra- or para-church religious authorities similar to those found in both Catholic and Protestant traditions.

    Clark 2,
    I agree completely. How do you explain that phenomenon?

    Todd, I am afraid I have no idea what you are talking about.

    I think that the scholar can in some cases function as a religious “authority”, and this may be a special kind of modern, secularized charismatic authority, but I am not totally sure about that. It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind, but I could be persuaded. If Clark (5) is right that such figures in Mormonism, are analogous to someone like Francis of Assisi or St. Anthony or Rene Guenon, then I think that this says something very interesting about Mormonism. At the same time, I wonder if these LDS figures are really more like Bultmann and Barth, intellectuals who fit into a different category of para-church authority.

  6. I am afraid I don’t quite understand this:

    Today, the missionaries attempt to replicate and produce extra-ecclesial authority for non-Mormons

    Don’t we have an AoF that explicitly requires that teachers be appointed by church authority? Or have I missed your point?

  7. I think part of the reason there aren’t as many is because the 19th century Utah apostles more or less stopped competing authority.

  8. Mogget,

    I think his point is that to some who are not of our faith the missionaries appear to be holy people from outside, and seem to have extra-ecclesiastical authority, appearing as do many other wandering holy men in Christian tradition.

    I don’t think he is suggesting that they don’t follow strict ecclesiastical authority for our church, but that in the eyes of a non-member they could fit this pattern as stranger/outsider bearers of truth.

  9. Yes, perhaps that’s it; I inquire just to make sure I understand his intent

    Although anecdote is not data, in this post-Reformation age I think that they are actually perceived as representatives of another ecclesiastical authority rather than as extra-ecclesial. After all, denominations are just the Protestant method of dealing with diversity and religious pluralism. 😉

    Over the history of Christianity there have been charismatic figures and groups who operated beyond the boundaries of any recognized church authority. Our missionaries are not really part of this group but the start-up of our church does, I think, fit the bill.

    In any case, I don’t disagree with his major premises or points I’m just working on the details. Now I will stop with the nit-picking and go back to work.

  10. I think that they are actually perceived as representatives of another ecclesiastical authority rather than as extra-ecclesial.

    I completely agree with this in certain contexts, such as among most White Americans. At the same time, in other contexts they might be perceived quite differently, especially where Mormons are not known well at all. In any case, if we look back to late-antique relationship between monastic and ecclesial orders, it is not that these groups didn’t both have institutions, but that their authority was produced differently by these institutions.

  11. TT, wander around an MHA some time and watch how people treat the senior luminaries like Richard Bushman or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Neither has major ecclesiastical office, but both are treasured in a way sometimes approaching the sacred.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *