Multiple Authorities

The notion of authority can imply a range of ideas. Among this range it can mean “the power to act in behalf of”, as well “the possession of specialized knowledge”. An authority in the former sense would be a decision/policy maker for an organization or a representative of an organization. An authority in the latter sense would be an expert or reliable source of information on a particular topic.

In my opinion it seems that the Church (and LDSs) are continuing to move toward a refinement of the notion of authority which places the leadership of the Church in the former category rather than the latter. In other words, leaders of the Church are representatives of the Church, but are not necessarily reliable sources of information on particular topics (although they may of course be reliable sources of information on policy). An interesting question would be which topics  are they still considered to be reliable sources of information on; and is this body of topics narrowing? But perhaps that can be addressed in a future post. Rather in this post I would like to focus on the question of whether or not this refinement is something others are noticing as well; and if so, who is filling the space of the “expert”?

While this is somewhat of an over simplification, I think it does present enough of a picture to raise the issue of whether or not this shift in the notion of authority, opens space for those not representing the Church in a leadership capacity, yet are “experts” in particular bodies of knowledge, to have some “authority” within Mormondom.

To illustrate this with a concrete example (and of course no quantifiable data), if one has an interpretational question about the scriptures, who does one turn to? My sense is that less and less people are turning to leaders in the Church, and more and more people are turning to “authorities” in the “expert” sense.

This space, which has probably existed for some time, has traditionally been filled by Deseret Book and CES, both of course operating within the structure of the Church. My question, however, is whether or not we can sense either a broadening of this space to include more non-Church affiliated “experts”, many of which bringing more “academic” approaches, or at least a shift within this space where these approaches of those doing work on Mormonism have a stronger hold than those traditionally occupying this space.

Based primarily on personal (and mostly random) observation, it seems that Church leaders are becoming increasingly comfortable with this division of authority (although perhaps not in word), thereby increasing the space for authorities in the “expert” sense. At the same time, academic approaches (some from those employed by Church institutions such as BYU) have begun to fill this space and now compete with Deseret Book and company. I might even go so far as to speculate that this approach seems to be making up ground, or taking marketing share away from other “authorities”.

15 Replies to “Multiple Authorities”

  1. In terms of JS, I’d say that we’ve seen this shift. In the 19th century, an apostle, George Q. Cannon, was seen as the authority on the Prophet’s life. By the late 20th century, however, Truman Madsen (a BYU professor who published with Deseret Book) took on that role, and (hopefully) Bushman is now doing so (whose affiliation with BYU has been minimal and doesn’t publish with DesBook).

  2. Yes, some signs point in this direction. The cooperation given to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism project is one. Bringing FARMS under the BYU umbrella, then renaming it in honor of Elder Maxwell, also suggests an official recognition of the value of expertise and a willingness to give scholars room to act in the general interest of the Church.

    On the other hand, I noted a few years ago that Ensign articles stopped listing the professional or scholarly qualifications of non-GA authors, even when writing on topics within their expertise, suggesting an unwillingness to recognize secular expertise as an alternative source of authority. I thought it was a major step backward for the Ensign.

  3. I think that there is another thing to consider in this shift, namely that those who are “experts” are no longer called to the rank of GA.

  4. Regardless of how many experts in a given field there may be, church leadership can always trump the experts by appealing to revelatory authority for insight and information.

    However, with information and research becoming more accessible to the masses, I would venture to say that people in a position of church leadership are more careful in offering their insights and explanations (at least, I hope they are!)

  5. This post reminds me of a similar discussion that occurred on Mogget’s “Get Thee to a Grad School” post. Julie M. Smith provided an interesting quote that I thought I would repeat here. I don’t know if it is true, but if so it might be relevant to your discussion. Julie said:

    “I love what Elder McConkie’s brother [supposedly] said to him: “You might be a General Authority, but that doesn’t mean you are an authority in general.””


  6. I am not sure I see this shift. Although if you look at who is called to be an apostle these days they still come heavily from BYU but have trended away from religious studies. So that could support your theory. Most of them still talk like they are the authority of knowledge and most members still give more weight to their words than others. Also any time there is any disagreement in opinion the highest ranking person from what I have seen is always given the benefit of the doubt and his words win.

  7. I don’t think there is any acknowledgment of “multiple authorities” on anything remotely doctrinal or theological. I think there has been subtle acknowledgment of the idea that people can benefit from studying non-official (and non GA-authored) doctrinal and theological works as long as they do not consider them authoritative.

  8. I don’t see this shift at all. Admittedly, I am not dialed in to Mormon scholarship like the rest of you.

    That’s part of the reason I raise this issue. It’s hard to tell how generalizable our experiences are. Has my circle simply changed over the years, or is this a much larger phenomenon?

    That said, allow me to try to push back on this a little. Besides the points that David G. and Dave mention, allow me to raise at least one more.

    Compare the authors of the books that come up at Deseret Book under “Scripture Reference”: (or here’s one specifically for the NT: ) and “General Authorities”:

    The genres are markedly different. It seems like the last GA to do anything that would fall under “Scripture Reference” would be BRM. Practically all of the “Scripture Reference” books are written by academics (although granted that some of them are not trained to deal with the texts). However, if you look at most of the early “General Authority” books, most of those listed are closer in genre to “Scripture Reference” (for instance “Jesus the Christ” and “Lectures on Faith”).

    This is just one, perhaps minor, arguable point; but I think it does at least demonstrate a shift away from being “reliable sources of information” for certain kinds of (significant) bodies of knowledge which they formerly laid claim to.

  9. Smallaxe (#9), I agree, have noticed the same shift, and think it is a good thing. My quibble is with the semantics of the word “authority”.

    In the Catholic tradition for example, tradition is authoritative on all sorts of doctrinal points, but it is developed by a quasi-academic process over centuries where cardinals and the like bear naturally disproportionate influence, but cannot overturn a doctrine overnight without a lot of persuading relative to where the previous tradition got it wrong. Papal encyclicals make great reading.

    It seems to me that LDS scholars are highly respected by the general authorities for their knowledge on technical points. I think they are a long way from being respected in a way that might quasi-authoritatively resolve endless disputes about non-technical points where the Church doesn’t see fit to have a position. Not without a consensus.

    Without leadership involvement on certain methodological issues, I don’t think that a quasi-authoritative consensus on most non-technical points can even develop. And even such a consensus would never be considered authoritative by most people until it was endorsed by the Church leadership.

  10. I see the shift in a different way. I think in previous times, when communications and books, etc., were limited, it made sense to have General Authorities as the main writers and scholars.

    Given most GA books are on discussing doctrine, and not on exegesis, I don’t think there is much on the shift considered above. Nibley was allowed to play in his area of expertise, and write on it.

    We can probably name on one hand the GA/scholars that did attempt to combine religion and science(Talmage, Widstoe, Roberts, any others?). I do agree we are leaving the JFSmith/McConkie era, where their dynasty of doctrinal interpretation is slowly fading away.

    Today the GAs are moving their focus away from speculative areas and more into the direction Pres Packer has given to “teach the doctrine.” This takes us, IMO, to a place where the Church is giving scholarship back to the scholars, and retaining the determination of what is and isn’t doctrine – the things that save and exalt.

  11. #9, perhaps, then, what you are seeing is not a shift of the general membership of the Church viewing academics as authorities, as much as it is a shift of the GAs seeing academics as authorities—and deferring to them.

    (I know that if I were a GA*, I’d take into consideration the treatment BRM often receives in scholarly discussions….)

    * And if I ever am, smallaxe, then I’m making you write all my talks.

  12. TT,

    What is your reference for this shift in policy?

    “those who are “experts” are no longer called to the rank of GA.”

  13. Enoch,
    What I mean by that is that there once was a time when doctrinal proficiency, as defined by earlier standards, was a qualification for office. I’m not sure that this is the case anymore. That is to say, I think that the decline of GA’s writing important and influential theological works is not simply that they have backed away from such projects as a matter of practice, but also as a matter of the lack of skills to do so, as defined by current standards.

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