S.P.Q.M.

April 4, 2006 | 11 comments
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In the past, I have suggested that the Mormon constitution is English, but of late I have wondered whether it might be Roman. I return to my earlier constitutional claim, namely that ultimately the revealed institutional structure of the Church centers on priesthood quorums rather than the more administratively rational hierarchy of wards, stakes, and general authorities.

The Roman Republic was also organized around “quorums,” whether in the form of tribes, fraternal organizations, or various religious and political “colleges” (the distinction between the two gets so blurry that its basic anachronism should be obvious). For example, elections under the Republic were conducted on the basis of tribes, which each tribe voting separately and then casting a certain number of collective votes for the magistrate in question. Furthermore, Roman magistrates tended to have colleagues and be organized into colleges, ie groups of similar office holders. Hence, you had several tribunes of the plebes, several praetors, and even two consuls (the highest political office). Likewise, the ecclesiastical constitution of Mormonism includes various priesthood quorums. The highest councils of the Church are likewise organized along collegial lines. Although we vote as individuals during normal sustainings, it is striking that in solemn assemblies we vote, Roman-style, as members of particular groups. Furthermore, even though the Roman Republic was nominally organized around various tribal and collegial structures, as the empire grew the real lines of power were increasingly rationalized to create smoother administrative hierarchies.

Of course there are differences. Ultimately the Roman Republic fragmented power among various assemblies, although the Senate had a certain pre-eminence. Furthermore, in contrast to Mormonism, where high offices are frequently held for life, the Romans liked their magistrates to have short, one-year terms of office with no chance for re-election without a lengthy waiting period. In contrast, administrative power within the Church is centralized in the highest quorums, with lower quorums viewed very much as subordinates rather than as independent sources of authority.

The final, and most striking parallel, is the senatorial nature of Mormonism. Senate literally means “a gathering of old men.” Under the Roman Republic, praetors and consuls came and went from year to year, but the power and authority of the Senate was constant. Furthermore, consuls were drawn from the ranks of the Senate and they returned to the Senate when their consular terms were ended. In a very real way, the Quorum of the Twelve functions as a kind of Mormon Senate. It is the Quorum of the Twelve that ordains the President of the Church, and even the Prophet is a kind of first-among-equals: all of the Twelve and the First Presidency are sustained today as “prophets, seers, and revelators.” Yet one senses that the Mormon Senate is in some sense a tame body, willingly subjected to the authority of the First Presidency. It is not quite as craven as the Senate of the early Roman Empire, to say nothing of the Senate of the Dominate (the later, more autocratic Roman Imperial order). Still, the President of the Church does seem to stand someplace between the true first-among-equals authority of the Republican leader of the house, and the more or less absolute rule of Augustus’s Principate.

There is no real point to this post other than the fun of legal analogies. (And really, what could be more fun than that?!) Still, looking at one system in terms of its similarities and dissimilarities to another system gives you a new way of thinking about it. In the case of Church government, this is especially important as virtually the only analogy that Mormon intellectuals use when talking about the organization of the Church is a modern liberal democracy, from which it is either triumphantly or critically distinguished. There are, however, lots of other constitutional analogies to consider, and it would be nice to have a conversation on this topic that consisted of more than gleeful conservative statements that “the Church is not a democracy” and angst-filled and depressed liberal agreement.

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11 Responses to S.P.Q.M.

  1. Josh Kim on April 4, 2006 at 12:48 am

    For a minute there I thought you said “S.P.A.M.” Maybe it’s because I just ate some spam.

    Seriously, though, as a believer I think that the only freedom existing in the Church today is free agency. The institution itself is divine and created by God in the heavens. But in drawing the Roman analogy the Senate itself according to legend was formed by Romulus, the founder of Rome, who later became a god. The Quorum of the Twelve is also instituted by God and is the oldest continuing body of the Church.

    Very interesting analogy, Nate. Thanks for your insight.

  2. Josh Kim on April 4, 2006 at 12:59 am

    Elaborating on my freedom comment, biannual General Conferences remind us of the influence that words of the General Authorities have on our day to day life. These are literally words from the Lord.

    In the beginning days of the the Roman Republic the decrees of the Senate were also held in such esteem as the relgious ordinances and the sacrifices of the Vestal Virgins and the Pontifex Maximus were held in sync with the operations of the Senate.

    Also I wanted to mention that the beginnings of the Latter-day Church and it’s evolution over the years have similiarities to that of Ancient Rome. The Church was predominantly white, as it was founded in North America. The leadership of the Church, as it is done today, comes from the general membership of the Church. Anyone can become Prophet but of course, the path takes years and years of service to the Church and certain prerequisites have become precedence. For example, service as President of BYU usually (but not always) means a calling as an Apostle or some other high calling. In the ancient Senate the path to membership in the Senate and Consul took years of service as an eqestrian, Quaestor, Praetor, etc. Also the Patriarchal nature of the Church and the hierarchy is something that is also a trait of Rome although the same could be said of any ancient civilization.

  3. Ryan on April 4, 2006 at 1:52 am

    Wait a second.. I thought Ronan was English.. my how easily I gets confuseded

  4. Hellmut Lotz on April 4, 2006 at 9:16 am

    It’s probably not correct that consuls were recruited from the Senate. Even before the fourth century about a third of consuls were pleibeians, which contradicts the supposed limitation to patricians. Thus the Senate cannot have been the exclusive source of consular officers.

    The most prominent non-Senator is, of course, the infamous Marius who busted the term limits of the office and became consul seven times.

  5. Boris Max on April 4, 2006 at 9:39 am

    But what about the culture that produced Roman republicanism and imperialism? I see no parallels here. Where are the gladiators? Where are the orgies? Where are the slaves and the prostitutes? Where is the literature? How does Ovid or Vergil or Terrence or Plautus or Catullus fit into all of this? Or are you suggesting that governance exists in isolation from the day-to-day lives of the governed?

  6. Dave on April 4, 2006 at 10:10 am

    Nate, it seems like you’re making two arguments. The first is that LDS governance is built on a bunch of more-or-less independent (or at least separate) quorums. I think that was more accurate of 19th-century Mormonism, where the First Presidency was an independent quorum rather than an executive committee of the Twelve, and where quorums of Seventies were separately organized and maintained (somewhat independent of stake boundaries, I think).

    Your second idea, the senatorial one, seems more like 20th- and 21st-century LDS governance, which is much more rationalized and centralized under the direction of the Big 15. The only thing missing in your sketch is a challenge to the LDS Senate by the appearance of a Caesar …

  7. anonfornow on April 4, 2006 at 2:16 pm

    In re # 5: Where are the gladiators? – Church Ball
    Where are the orgies? – Youth dances
    Where are the slaves and the prostitutes? – Primary and Relief Society
    Where is the literature? – Deseret Books

  8. Kimball Hunt on April 4, 2006 at 8:19 pm

    It’s not a bad idea to have any rambunctious reigns of power held accountable to some traditional council of elders, sages who in their collective insitutional wisdom have long been there and often done that.

  9. Mike on April 4, 2006 at 9:08 pm

    “In a very real way, the Quorum of the Twelve functions as a kind of Mormon Senate. … Yet one senses that the Mormon Senate is in some sense a tame body, willingly subjected to the authority of the First Presidency.”

    Nate, have you thought about how this might tie with Correlation?

    We all know that Correlation has shifted more and more responsibilities to the Twelve (see Prince’s recent DOM book). I’ve actually heard one LDS author make an interesting observation that under Correlation the Church President has become more like the head of state while the President of the Twelve has become more like the head of government.

  10. Nate Oman on April 4, 2006 at 9:54 pm

    Hellmut: Marius was a member of the Senate. Many plebians were. By the time of the late Republic, the distinction between plebians and patricians was mainly religious — ie certain priesthoods could only be held by patricians. Also patricians could not be tribunes of the plebes. On the other hand, tribunes, praetors, etc. were admitted to the Senate, and I don’t think that a man could stand for consul without having first been elected praetor, which means that he would have been a member of the Senate.

    As I understand it there were more or less three categories: patricians, plebes, and nobility. Patricians and plebes were identies based on archiac distinctions that may have at one time corresponded to aristocracy and people, but by the classical period had ceased to matter except for certain offices. Nobility came from being descended from a man who had been consul. Hence, one could be from a plebian noble family or from a patrician noble family. (At least this is my understanding; if we have any real classicists among our readers, please correct me.)

    Mike: The distribution of administrative power between the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve is interesting, but I don’t know all that much about it. I also suspect that it varies a good deal based on the personality of the men holding the various callings.

  11. Jonathan Green on April 5, 2006 at 9:54 am

    (Nate: I know there is at least one classicist who is a regular reader of T&S. Now that the ink on the contract for his new job is dry, maybe he’ll stop hiding his light under a bushel.)

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