Ordering Antinomy: An Analysis of Early Mormonism’s Priestly Offices, Councils, and Kinship

Where “two or three are gathered together in my name,” God is present, the Christian faithful are promised. Where many more are gathered, it seems less of a sure thing. Large numbers appear to inspire the presence of an earthly, not heavenly hierarchy. This is the predicament faced by all would-be holy assemblies. How does one properly govern a human community dedicated to divine purposes? The American answer, from its earliest Pilgrim beginnings, was that one does not; rather, all do. American Protestant ecclesiology was largely a creation of the various types of congregational revolt against England’s religious establishment, as well as Reformation opposition to Rome’s assertion of priestly prerogatives. The ideal brought to British North America was that of a distinctly local church. Though it may have shared purposes and loose affiliations with other congregations, the church was subject to the will of its own congregants. Even among the state-established Anglicans in the southern colonies, the wildness and breadth of the land, together with the scarcity of ministers, made episcopal oversight tenuous at best. Time and political revolution would only increase this democratic tendency. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, Enlightenment principles and revivalist practice had come together to create a radically populist and anti-authoritarian pattern of church government. This final assertion is Nathan Hatch’s widely accepted explanation of religion in antebellum America. American religion was populist in its structure, as well as its spirit.

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Kathleen Flake, in Journal of Religion and American Culture, 26, 2 (Summer, 2016).