Seizing Power by political scientist Naunihal Singh is the preeminent scholarly work on coups d’etat. In it, Singh pairs in-depth investigations of coup attempts in Africa and Russia with a quantitative analysis of correlates of successful coups worldwide. He finds that coups can largely be characterized as coordination games, where military commanders often join the side that they think will win. If they choose correctly their power increases, if they choose wrongly they will probably be executed or imprisoned, so perception becomes everything and both sides of a coup have an incentive to exaggerate their level of support within the state apparatus.
This is all fascinating but, to paraphrase Elder Uchtdorf, “what does this have to do with the Church?”
Below are several episodes in Church history where the themes discussed in Singh’s work were at play. As a disclaimer, I am NOT comparing Spencer W. Kimball or (most of) the others in this list to military coup leaders, and I do not want to overdraw the comparison between the Church and an unstable government. Rather, the point here is the principles involved even if the contexts are vastly different.
Attempted Take Over of the Kirtland Temple
With that disclaimer, this episode is the one that could probably be accurately described as an attempted coup. During the Kirtland Safety Society debacle, The Martin Harris/Waren Parish splinter group literally tried to occupy the Kirtland temple with weapons. Singh discusses how symbolic centers of power are important to capture in the early stages of a coup to bestow continuity and legitimacy on the plotters. The symbolic importance of the Kirtland Temple presumably made it important for establishing their group’s legitimacy as the rightful possessors of Mormonism’s crown jewel. After the Saints left Kirtland this same group did actually successfully take possession of the temple, but by then of course the core of the Church had already moved.
At some point before the Church left Kirtland there was a conspiracy of Church leaders trying to overthrow Joseph Smith as leader. Like Gorbachev on vacation, they took advantage of his absence to coordinate their action, but Brigham Young had his own Yeltsin-on-the-tank moment.
“I rose up, and in a plain and forcible manner told them that Joseph was a Prophet, and I knew it, and they might rail and slander him as much as they pleased, they could not destroy the appointment of the Prophet of God, they could only destroy their own authority, cut the thread that bound them to the Prophet and to God and sink themselves to hell. Many were highly enraged at my decided opposition to their measure…”
Rigdon vs. Young Succession Crisis
I’m not going to automatically frame either Sidney Rigdon or Brigham Young as the coup leader; in the legal chaos of post-martyrdom Nauvoo they were all coup leaders. However, Sidney Rigdon’s promulgation of a revelation appointing him as the leader before Brigham Young rushed back to Nauvoo could be seen as an example of what Singh termed “making a fact,” or an attempt by a coup leader to establish that their seizure of power was a done deal. If the leader can do this then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the factions sitting on the sideline will come around to their side. For a few days the people in Nauvoo only had the former second-in-command and his revelation as their guidance for next steps. Rigdon had essentially seized the radio station. At the Conference after Young arrived a few days later Rigdon suffered a blow when he asked WW Phelps to provide his rebuttal to Brigham Young, but Phelps used his time to argue for Young. I’m not aware of the finer interpersonal details, but in coup attempts getting the right leaders on one’s side is crucial, and Phelps’ defection probably didn’t help.
Changing the Rules of Succession and John Willard Young’s Return to Utah
John Willard Young was Brigham Young’s ne’er-do-well son who was ordained as an Apostle–but not a member of the Quorum of the 12–when he was 11. Despite constant entreaties by Church leadership to take his office more seriously, he insisted on living in New York City away from Church headquarters, and he maintained bad relations with the other General Authorities, eventually leading to his dismissal from official positions. However, he was still an ordained Apostle, and after Lorenzo Snow the most senior ordained one at that. Consequently, in order to avoid a disastrous John Willard Young presidency, before he died Lorenzo Snow made sure to change/clarify the policy of succession, stipulating that the Presidency would past to the senior most member of the Quorum of the 12, thus removing John Willard from the line of succession. Still, after Snow died Young returned to Utah. If it was his intent to claim the presidency, it was a lackadaisical coup attempt. By then he had burned all of his connections to Church leadership to the ground, and had virtually no support in Salt Lake City. Additionally, his geographic distance from headquarters made it easy for the First Presidency to comfortably meet and change the rules of succession (as Singh notes, government leaders of coup-prone armies often make it difficult for them to meet alone, for obvious reasons). After his foray to Utah John returned to New York City to live out the rest of his life.
The Post-Polygamy Dismissals
The history of the transition away from polygamy is well documented and, as many readers probably already know, was a gradual process with its final coda happening under Joseph F. Smith’s watch in the shadow of the Smoot hearings. While the transition period may have helped cushion the impact and hedge against any serious splintering, even so there were still two Apostles who hung on to polygamy and were pressured into resigning: John W. Taylor and Matthias W. Cowley. While dissent on this issue had been tolerated before the Second Manifesto, in order to solidify the anti-polygamy reality of the Church Joseph F. Smith found it necessary to assure that all the high leadership was on the same page. Additionally, as members of the 12, presumably both Cowley and Taylor were in line for the Church Presidency, and the spirit of the Second Manifesto would presumably have been in jeopardy had they ascended to the top position. They had to be sacked like rebellious military leaders to assure the post-polygamy future of the Church.
The 1978 Revelation
The spiritually powerful meeting in the temple among the Quorum of the 12 that led to the 1978 Revelation began with President Kimball asking each member of the 12 their opinion about the priesthood and temple ban, after which they all joined in prayer on the issue. If the Revelation was ever vulnerable, and to be clear I don’t think it ever was, but if it ever was it would have been during this meeting when the question was initially an open one. However, two of the Apostles who would have most likely challenged it, Elder Mark E. Petersen and Elder Delbert Stapley, were both gone (Petersen in the hospital and Stapley on assignment). Perhaps it was intentional, perhaps not, but if it was it was the old trick of waiting until the problematic leader is out of town to make a move. Their absence allowed for a unanimity that might not have existed, and by the time the Revelation was presented to them it was more or a less a fait accompli. Kimball had “made a fact,” in Singh’s terms, making it a done deal by the time it got to the desk of the people who might have impeded it. Because of their absence at that point they were in the position of either supporting the Prophet and combined Church leadership or not.
Earlier I speculated about potential future existential threats to the Church, with one being the possibility that the President of the Church loses his faculties in a significant, non-ignorable way, thus necessitating his removal. If that were to happen, and I don’t think it will, but if it did, some of the same dynamics would be at play here. The other leaders would have to coordinate and get on the same page, they would have to build up a base of support, and presumably they would have to derive some sort of legal-theological rationale. Again, not likely, but if it does happen after all the messiness and all the dust settles I have faith that the Church will continue to fulfill its prophetic mission and destiny. Despite the very earthy, this-worldly political dynamics sometimes at play in the Church’s history, “as well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.”