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.