And think not to say within yourselves,We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
The mythos of the Latter-day Saint royalty that I bought into while growing up in the Utah of Utah went something like this: some families happened to give rise to a lot of functional, financially successful church leaders because their family had some spiritual special sauce that was transmitted from generation to generation, and this special sauce leads to both occupational and spiritual successes as a natural outgrowth of being super spiritual.
I’m not going to blame the Church for this childhood belief since one would be hard pressed to see it taught anywhere, but I do have the sense that this narrative is still in the cultural air even if it is less of a thing now than it was in the past, so it is worth addressing why and how it is false.
In his Mormon Hierarchy series Michael Quinn ran the numbers for how many early Church leaders were related to other Church leaders, and it does look like in pioneer-era Utah there were a lot of within-family appointments. If there was an era when dynastic, royal Mormonism was a reality it was then. Furthermore, the boundaries between the political, business, and religious were much more porous, so religious status often accompanied financial and political status and the “royalty” analogy was true in a number of different ways.
Overall, an argument could be made that within-family appointments did not have the best track record: John Willard Young, who would have become Church President had they not modified the succession rules at the last minute, was a complete disaster after being appointed by his father to the apostleship when he was extremely young. While on one hand we had Brigham Young Jr., Joseph F. Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Bruce R. McConkie, on the other hand John W. Taylor and two of the only three-generation sequence of apostles in the Church (Amasa Lyman, Francis Lyman, and Richard Lyman) were excommunicated. [Correction: actually, there were two other three-generation sequences of apostles, see comments below].
Additionally, the cases of within-family succession and stability contrasted with those of leaders that had family members that were publicly antagonistic to the Church (Frank J. Cannon, Steve Benson, Ann Eliza Young, etc.), which additionally mitigates the “royal families” mythos. (Growing up in the Orem/Provo area I knew several grandchildren-of-Apostles families, and in my anecdotal, small sample, just as many left the Church as stayed in and did all the things.)
Again, this isn’t a “gotcha,” it’s not like Church leaders themselves are promoting the idea that they have some special sauce in their family lives more than just striving to live the gospel like anybody else. Rather, the mythos is a natural outgrowth of some aspects of Latter-day Saint culture in some areas. When I was young I wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall of one particularly prominent three-generation church leader family, but as I got older I realized that it probably wouldn’t be all that different from being a fly on the wall of any other family that had consistent family prayer.
Nowadays there aren’t many royal families in the Church hierarchy. (I suspect some of this has to do with the fact that the Church is just a much larger and diverse place now). Of the top fifteen leaders, as far as I know only two of them come from what I would identify as “royal families,” and in both cases they are far enough removed from their family’s source of prestige that I doubt their family ties had much to do with their positions. On a non-apostle level, while there is the occasional two-generation streak at BYU and/or Church positions of cultural or administrative authority, even these are rather rare. Inasmuch as there is an occasional interrelation between temporal status, religious status, and family, I’m now more inclined to read that as evidence of networking or intergenerational transmission of privilege or cultural capital more than the result of some secret sauce of super spirituality.
While this might seem like a cynical view, it is actually quite comforting. On our end, it reduces everything down to the basics; the gospel really isn’t that complicated. There aren’t any special tricks the elites have access to that we don’t. Additionally, a common riposte against church leaders is that they live in some kind of bubble and don’t know what it’s like to be in a family that doesn’t fit the template, as if they don’t know what it’s like to be in a part-member family (Elder Bednar), raised by a single mother (President Oaks), have an inactive father (President Nelson and Elder Holland), or have a gay child (Elder Gong). In terms of backgrounds I suspect that the Quorum of the 12 and First Presidency collectively have more in common with the family whose dad drinks beer and watches football during church than the multigenerational royal family of spiritual privilege with Del Parsons artwork all over the walls of their million dollar home.
While we (somewhat understandably) put stable, functional families on pedestals in the Church, the fact is that the prophet God called to restore the Church came from a family that in many ways could be described as dysfunctional, and I wonder if Joseph Smith became Joseph Smith not in spite of his father’s drinking, William Smith’s violent temper, and his marital strains with Emma, but in part because of them.