Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith created a complex and hieratic priestly structure within a radically democratizing nation. His stated goal was to convey to all the faithful what he believed to be his own powers of prophecy and priestly mediation of divine presence. Thus, out of historiographic arguments about where to place Mormonism within the narrative of antebellum religious polity there arises a potentially more essential question: how did early Mormonism sustain any structural coherence, much less the order it was famous for? This essay argues that Smith avoided the atomization of his movement by creating three power structures and assigning every believer a status in each. Thus, status was not absolute or static: it shifted as the person moved among the three sites of power. Or, in other words, the degree and nature of the authority held by anyone at any give time was particular to the locus of the power – office, council, or kinship -- not the person. These shifting status relationships stabilized Mormonism’s potentially self-destructive antinomianism and, as a historiographical matter, have been mistaken for populism. The power struggles this occasioned within his movement, particularly over Smith’s inclusion of women in his priestly hierarchy, weakened his vision of reciprocal authority and shifting jurisdiction. Compromised by romanticized gender norms, but not abandoned, this power structure continues to constitute the governing structure of Mormonism, leaving it still republican in style, not substance. Historiographically, it is hoped that this closer analysis of Mormonism’s polity illuminates the existence of alternatives to regnant tropes on the nature of antebellum religion and contributes to better understanding of the means by which at least one perfectionist religion has survived notwithstanding its radically antinomian tendencies.
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