Three Kings

… came from the East Coast. I never though I’d end 2016 writing about the assassination of a presidential candidate and  church governance in mid c19th America, but – I guess – 2016.

So that Helen Beetham (her newish blog linked there, add it to your RSS reader straight away) asked me what the deal was with the Evangelical Right and Trump. So I went and read some stuff about how some of them feel about it, and tried to make sense of how someone from such a background could get to the position of voting for him.

Turns out there are significant differences of opinion within the community: on the ethics of voting for someone who espouses a decidedly non-evangelical lifestyle, and also on the very usage of the term Evangelical – that latter perhaps drawing to a close the “Moral Majority” era that started in the 80s with Jerry Falwell.

But then it occurred to me that most of the Abrahamic religions do have an element of waiting for a King about them, or wanting to go back to having Kings again (1 Samuel 8, for example) – so perhaps there may be a religious cross-over between neo-reactionism and religion? And I found a couple of posts taking about “taking the bread pill” (even the terrifying extreme edges of the church still love dad puns). That link there is to a pretty serious racial nationalist movement, from what I can tell. So be warned.

But this seems more like a fringe curio – even though Moldbug’s use of secular Presbyterianism as a proxy for a motivating force for the American establishment does kind of build the scaffold from the other side a little (and many Holy books do lay down a pretty solid base for racism and misogyny if you read them wrong).

“What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?”

I’ve been reading a lot about the early latter day saints as a path into trying to understand governance, publication and power in America. Almost uniquely amongst major strands of religion, the followers of Joseph Smith left a great deal of documentation concerning corporate structure and legalities stemming from the organisation of the nascent Church and the separation (or otherwise, let’s not forget Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential candidacy) of Church and state.

Smith was – of course – assassinated in Nauvoo, Illinois not long after he declared his candidacy, which on a decidedly non-theocratic platform that included radical prison reform, an end to slavery, small government, Native American rights, the establishment of a central bank and the possible annexation of Texas and Canada. In a presidential race that reflected the growing controversies around what became known as Manifest Destiny and the Slave Question these were populist liberal (small-l) views presented in order to make a concerted reach for power, and emphasised Smith’s conventionality as a candidate.

The back story, of course, is a little more complex: Smith, as Mayor (or “General”) of Nauvoo sought redress for the treatment of his people in Zion, Missouri. As no other presidential candidate appeared to be willing to promise support for the Mormon people the decision was made that he would run for office.

Post-assassination (as the culmination of a hugely complex story involving the restriction of press freedom) the Mormon people sought new leadership (and possibly prophecy) from the established structures of the Church.

Over a period of month, three major claims to leadership were made – underpinned by three ideas of the nature of governance that are what I am aiming (600 words in!) to mainly talk about.

  • Sidney Rigdon was the most senior remaining Church official after Smith and his Deputy were murdered at Carthage Jail
  • Brigham Young could be seen as first-amongst-equals within a Council of Twelve – overlapping in personnel with various other bodies as senior advisors, counsel, and administrators working on behalf of Smith.
  • And James Strang‘s claim was made on the basis of spiritual revelation, a continuance of the direct prophetic tradition.

So we have hierarchy, consensus and ideology as three motivating principles for organisational decision making (which really would be a better plot for a musical…). And, as each candidate took a part of the Church with them, we can almost see how the logic of each plays out over time.

  • The Rigdonites headed east to Pennsylvania, but their alternate church did not last, sustaining through later years via claims of continued prophecy rather than hierarchy. The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite) is the surviving remnant of this strand, taking an informal name from a former Rigdonite – William Bickerton – who reorganised the Church and formalised the doctrinal split with the mainstream Latter Day Saints. (For rock trivia fans, 70s shock-rocker Alice Cooper was brought up as a Bickertonite.)
  • The Strangites headed north-east, to Michigan. Adherents were energised by a string of revelations and newly discovered scripture, and the group settled on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Strang saw his position as king rather than president, though his hyper-localised theocratic monarchy did not prevent him from sitting in the Michigan House of Representatives and founding Manitou County. The increasing commercial importance of trade in the area, and Strang’s increasingly alarming diktats (including forced conversion for all island residents and the perennially popular stipulations about the nature of ladies’ bloomers) led to his assassination by two lapsed (escaped?) church members.  Strangites do still exist in two factions, though numbers are small and no presence remains on Beaver Island.
  • The majority of Smith’s followers went with Brigham Young to what became Salt Lake City, Utah, and this branch constitutes the majority of Mormons we know today. The church grew and flourished under Young’s organisational skill and management.

So – “Kings bad (with a tendency to despotism), Hierarchy ineffective, Consensus good” is one secular lesson that could be gleaned here. Getting things done in any walk of life involves organising, motivating and managing people and it turns out that Mormons are pretty good at that even by worldly standards.

In numerous pieces about his faith written throughout his career, Clayton Christensen comes back to the idea of “state-of-the-art” Christianity. He expresses the restoration of the gospel by Joseph Smith as an example of “The Lord’s disruptive technology“. But it could also be argued that it was continuation and consensus, not disruption, that led to the success of the church.

Which is perhaps a lesson our national leaders may wish to take to heart.

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