I recently finished America’s Three Regimes: A New Political History (OUP, 2007) by Morton Keller, a retired history prof at Brandeis. The author suggests there have been three enduring American political regimes: a deferential-republican regime that lasted from the Revolution until the emergence of true party politics (Whigs and Democrats) during the 1830s; a party-democratic regime marked by strong party identification and increasing voter mobilization that lasted until roughly the Great Depression; and a populist-bureaucratic regime that saw the rise of big government, the rise of the independent media, and the decline of party identification and effectiveness. Can LDS history be parsed the same way? Are there successive LDS regimes (using “regime” in the same sense as Keller did, an enduring, stable arrangement of institutions and practices) that display significantly different ways of running the Church or of constituting the Church as an organization?
One significant transition that I think amounts to a change of regime is the change in leadership that occurred beteen 1844 and 1847. It started with the succession crisis that occurred upon the death of Joseph Smith and the dissolution of the First Presidency in June 1844; it lasted through three difficult years for the Saints, during which time the Church was directed by the Quorum of the Twelve and by Brigham Young as president of that quorum; and it culminated in the reestablishment of the First Presidency in late 1847, with Brigham Young as President of the Church and with two apostles drawn from the Quorum of the Twelve, Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards, as his counselors.
As I read the history, the First Presidency reconstituted in late 1847 was not the same First Presidency as existed before June 1844. The reconstituted First Presidency is essentially an executive committee of the Quorum of the Twelve, composed of three apostles drawn from that quorum. While it is theoretically possible for one who is not an apostle to be called as a counselor, in practice this is almost never done. In contrast, members of the original First Presidency were not apostles and were not called from the Quorum of the Twelve. The original First Presidency represented a separate and distinct quorum. The authority of those in the First Presidency was not in any way a function of their being an apostle. A separate First Presidency quorum might hold different views on issues of interest to the senior leadership of the Church than did the apostles and the Quorum of the Twelve. After 1847, however, the First Presidency was simply an extension of the Quorum of the Twelve, composed of men who spent many years in the Quorum of the Twelve before moving to the First Presidency. (The decline of the Seventies as a separate senior leadership quorum proceeded more slowly, but by the mid-20th century that quorum, too, was simply a committee that was selected and controlled by the Quorum of the Twelve.)
So I would describe the 1844-47 transition as a regime change: the Church really was contituted and run differently after 1847 than it was during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. That is a description, not a criticism — I don’t think the Church could possibly have continued to be run as it was between 1830 and 1844 because Joseph occupied a unique position of authority that simply could not be duplicated. Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve were wise to wait three years before reconstituting a modified First Presidency. The successful management of an ever-growing Church from 1847-2011, including surviving several serious confrontations with the US government in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is evidence of the effectiveness and stability of the new regime. And while there was a succession crisis following the death of Joseph in 1844, there have not been any after 1847.
An open question is whether any event or development has occurred between 1847 and 2011 that might also amount to a regime change or a significant break with how the Church is constituted. Perhaps some readers have a candidate event to propose.