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The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power

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A Mormon historian traces the evolution of the Latter-day Saints' organizational structure from the original, egalitarian "priesthood of believers" to an elaborately hierarchical institution. Quinn also documents the alterations in the historical record which obscured these developments and analyzes the five presiding quorums of the LDS hierarchy.

686 pages, Hardcover

First published December 1, 1994

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D. Michael Quinn

28 books54 followers

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5 stars
121 (40%)
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121 (40%)
3 stars
46 (15%)
2 stars
7 (2%)
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5 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 40 reviews
Profile Image for Jeffrey Howard.
352 reviews61 followers
June 9, 2017
Joseph Smith, Mormonism's King, once stated "No man knows my history. I cannot tell it; I shall never undertake it." Many powerhouse historians like D. Michael Quinn are doing the work instead, and we are beginning to really see a far more complete and unobscured picture of "America's Religion." Quinn demystifies the theocratic movement's true dynamics.

It's deliciously fascinating to read the history. As a reader who knows 21st century Mormonism's Official History, learning how thoroughly it contradicts the original unfolding of Mormonism's origins felt like a child discovering, before all the other child, that Santa Claus is not real, and rather than being devastated by the lie, he's delighted! Most non-apologetic historians have been in the know for years. Most Mormons still just don't know their own history.

So many compiled contradictions and missing links in the Official History make sense under Quinn's analysis. He's thoroughly captivating, capturing the difficult relationship 21st century Mormons must confront with their founding prophet: "In a tradition that claims primacy for the latest word from church headquarters[revelation], the intent of the founder has become largely irrelevant. Mormons can venerate Joseph Smith from a safe distance as an ideal and avoid the burden of accepting him as a complex and disturbing fact of history."

Smith's controversial history is best described in this incredibly lengthy sentence by Quinn: "Some may feel uncomfortable when confronted with the full scope of Joseph Smith's activities as youthful mystic, treasure-seeker, visionary, a loving husband who decived his wife regarding about forty of his polygamous marriages, a man for whom friendship and loyalty meant everything but who provoked disaffection by 'testing' the loyalty of his devoted associates, an anti-Mason who became a Master Mason, church president who physically assaulted both Mormons and Non-Mormons for insulting him, a devoted father who loved to care for his own children and those of others, temperance leader and social drinker, Bible revisionist and esoteric philosopher, city planner, pacifist and commander-in-chief, student of Hebrew and Egyptology, bank president, jail escapee, healer, land speculator, mayor, judge and fugitive from justice, guarantor of religious freedom but limiter of freedom of speech and press, preacher and street-wrestler, polygamist and advocate of women's rights, husband of other men's wives, a declared bankrupt who was the trustee-in-trust of church finances, political horse-trader, U.S. presidential candidate, abolitionist, theocratic king, inciter to riot, and unwilling martyr."

Half of this volume contains Quinn's footnotes, and appendices, many of which are somehow more fascinating than the main text itself--which is absolutely impressive!

In the first book of this 3 part series, we see that Mormonism developed in the context of magical thinking consistent with 19th century minds, primarily driven by the actions of charismatic and power-grabbing individuals. Origins of Power shows time and time again how much Mormon theology and positions of power were predicated upon a person's loyalty to Joseph Smith and what enabled him to concentrate power, eventually having his secret theocratic Council of 50 ordain him King of the World. Brigham Young followed similar patterns as he led roughly half of the Mormons who survived Smith's martyrdom to Utah territory. Many other reasonable successors to the Mormon Prophet's mantle made similar powerplays and lost out to bullying Brigham. During his lifetime Smith made numerous contradicting statements and revelations over who should succeed him, which allowed for over a dozen justified individuals to stake their claim to the Mormon throne. Quinn makes a rather convincing case for Nauvoo, Illinois Stake President, William Marks, as the most obvious successor. Sadly, he's hardly a familiar name in contemporary Mormons' ears.

Mormon origins are filled with all the kind of intrigue you would expect from a government or criminal organization: sexual liaisons, bribery, revisionist history, secret combinations, propagandists, murder ordered by leadership councils, dissenters bullied and abused, and a largely dedicated mass of followers oblivious to the real workings of their chosen authority on earth (see Council of Fifty and Anointed Quorum). At its height, Nauvoo was the 2nd largest city in Illinois, with the largest militia in the state, a militia which stood just a few thousand men smaller than the US army! Smith and his Council of Fifty built a theocracy they hoped would rival any other nation or kingdom on the earth.

So far, Quinn's presentation of Mormon origins is the most consistent, reasonable, and complete telling of this fantastic American tale. He makes sense of the faith from a naturalist's view even though he remains a believer himself (he has been excommunicated from the LDS church since 1993).

It doesn't get much better than D. Michael Quinn!
Profile Image for Samuel.
Author 2 books28 followers
May 31, 2012
It's more a 4.5 than a full 5, given that I think Quinn occasionally reads more into a given fact than is actually present. But this fearsomely-researched text -- well over half of it is footnotes and appendices -- shines a bright light on the development of the hierarchical structure of the LDS church. Using primary sources from people with a dizzying variety of views on and involvement with Mormonism, Quinn shows that the development of the LDS hierarchy was a far cry from the orderly, unambiguous story presented in the heavily edited and redacted official histories. Rather, it changed repeatedly, based on Joseph Smith's theological alterations and personal friendships, which left the succession options at Smith's death far from clear. Threats, violence, bribery, prevarication, and possibly even murder swirled around the movement before Brigham Young emerged as the unequivocal leader of the majority of the church. All of this is laid out clearly in this book, with the evidence to back it up.

A must-read for anyone interested in the history of one of the most interesting of the American religious movements to come out of the 19th century.

Profile Image for Austin Archibald.
59 reviews11 followers
July 23, 2014
Again, don't agree with all his conclusions, but this was such a fascinating look at the early church and its development. So many fascinating and little-known accounts with eye-opening nuggets of info, all packed in a relatively concise book. Not afraid to share controversial accounts, no matter the implications, though his interpretation/conclusion may sometimes jump the gun.
46 reviews2 followers
December 2, 2009
Disturbing reading to the faithful, but certainly details the conflicts and shows a fuller picture than you will ever get in Sunday School or Seminary. Many feel like his footnotes are not accurate and that he has tainted the history to reflect his own personal views.
Profile Image for Leanne.
809 reviews53 followers
June 8, 2015
I love history. I especially love LDS history because it is so full of surprises. I mean most most Mormons (myself included) grew up believing that between the primary song memorization and seminary graduation, we had the full of back story of our church. Consequently, even scratching the mere surface of church-approved history will cause the average member a huge startle reaction.....which of course is what makes me want to share this book with all sorts of relatives and friends who rather experience startle reactions only at Lagoon. I love hearing, "What? Where did you get that?"

It takes little more than one direct quote from Oliver Cowdery for many Mormons to panic that they are under the influence of "anti-Mormon" literature. I wish I could convince people that "little known" is not the same as "anti-Mormon." But that can be a pretty hard sell.

Seriously D. Michael Quinn's research policy appears to be: "Why use one source to reveal an unknown fact when you can supply six?" Nevertheless most people aren't truly interested in the source....they just want to end the conversation.

But I don't. I love Quinn's calm, even way of discussing Mormon origins in both his writing and his teaching. He was one of my favorite professors in college because of his frank curiosity, careful preparation, and tenacity to the truth.

The text is definitely dense, but I find the whole read fascinating.
Profile Image for Erik.
43 reviews3 followers
September 17, 2011
This books offers a detailed look at the evolution of the early Mormon hierarchical structures. I found it to be very interesting, especially the part about the succession crisis. While sometimes it seemed like Quinn was a little too confident in his historical conclusions, overall I found it to be extremely well researched (the end notes make up more than half of the book). I'm not sure if I would recommend this book to someone just getting into Church history because of the necessity of a foundational academic understanding of Mormon history. However, for those way interested in Mormon history, this is a must read.
Profile Image for Joey.
153 reviews4 followers
August 26, 2021
The first volume of Quinn's "Mormon Hierarchy" trilogy is hard to describe as anything short of exhaustive. Virtually each anecdote and assertion is carefully footnoted, and many footnotes contain meaty background and contextual information. This work, then, is impossible to dismiss as a half-cocked potshot at the orthodox narrative of the mainstream LDS church. It is very thoroughly researched and Quinn presents his findings and conclusions in a relatively dispassionate manner, considering Mr Quinn's rocky history and relationship with the church's hierarchy, the foundations of which he closely examines in this book.

It's hard to peg Quinn's personal opinions of major figures and divisive events in the church's history, and that's a testament to the fidelity to the historian's trade with which Quinn imbues Origins of Power. Still, I've read strictly dispassionate histories and, although it's close, this is not one of them. Here and there, turns of phrases and word choice betray Quinn's skepticism and occasional exasperation with widely held views within the mainstream church that are likely incomplete, at best, and flat out wrong at worst. I don't fault Quinn for this, but it does undercut his credibility as an impartial historian just a little.

A historian's work is always fraught with impossibility of threading together an engaging story from fragments of information that may not in reality form a cohesive narrative. Origins of Power is no different, and I couldn't help but come away from this book with the sense that, while Quinn advanced reasonable and arguably correct analysis, the history of the Mormon church -- particularly in its earliest days on which this book dwells -- is a divisive and contested field inhabited by axe-grinding critics and former church members as well as wilfully blind religious fanatics who would follow a holy man off a bridge if asked. In such a charged environment, the reality of distant events of the past will probably always be elusive. In my view, Quinn comes short of clearly conceding this unavoidable fact, choosing instead to present his findings as fact, more or less, which, as I've said before, comes across as a bit disingenuous, seeing as how we know Quinn is a top-notch historian who should really hover above religious partisanship. He mostly does so, and it's hard to fault him for not being perfect. But as the author of such a seminal work that wades into such a charged arena, he could have and should have done a hair better.
Profile Image for KC.
233 reviews9 followers
July 30, 2018
I've had this book of my shelf for years now, and have used it as reference (as it is often cited by other LDS historical articles and books) but never got around to actually reading the core chapters until now. Luckily, this phonebook-sized tome is more than 50% index, footnotes, and appendix, so reading the actually chapters straight through is actually shorter than the average non-fiction book.

Quinn shines at research. His thoroughness and ability to access obscure or off-limit documents is unparalleled. His storytelling and analysis is often a bit scattered and disjointed. Nonetheless, this is an important study, as it revisits the formation of the various leadership structures, quorums, sources of authority, and transfer of office that came to define not only the LDS Church but Mormonism's many factions.

A few key items are interest include: (1) Cloudiness surrounding the Melchizedek Priesthood restoration. The evidence relating to who Joseph's lawyer at the time was is particularly compelling in placing the event well into 1830. (2) Definition of Apostle. The office long predates the quorum, and the quorum's jurisdiction was originally mutually exclusive with the twelve of the high councils. (3) Missouri violence. Long before Mormons took up arms in their defense, Quinn identifies the instances of violence against them without retribution that qualified them (according to scripture) to start fighting back. (4) Nauvoo Secrets. Polygamy, Council of Fifty, and international diplomacy in particular. (5) Succession crisis. David Smith as the End-time Davidic king was a interesting possibility to consider.

I'll get to the rest of the series eventually. Until then, this was a good read to get caught up on.
Profile Image for Callie.
646 reviews22 followers
November 4, 2020
It started off quite dry, but quickly became fascinating. More than half this 660 page book is footnotes.

It’s an exhaustive history of the early priesthood, it’s stages and metamorphoses.

Things just evolved, ok? Things that you think are the way they are bc God said they had to be that way? No. You have personalities struggling against each other. You have Joseph Smith being contradictory and unclear about a host of important matters, not least of which was succession.

You have Brigham Young who maneuvers and bullies his way into power.

Every character is and was extremely fallible and complicated.

In religion, things harden and calcify with time, traditions get idealized and made to seem inevitable and holy.

But studying the origins is instructive bc it makes you realize nothing was inevitable, and very little seems God mandated.

So why imagine that is how things are now?
Profile Image for Nathan.
44 reviews
October 8, 2022
Great information on the Mormon succession crisis, including the activities leading up to the crisis and the aftermath. I read the book in an online book club with my father. The content of the book lends itself to detailed discussions on authority, "justified" violence, external obedience vs sustaining vs personal integrity, community bias, and other relevant topics for today's religions.

I am giving the book four stars instead of five because of statements about Warren Cowdery's connection to Joseph Smith Sr. that I could not find supported by other research. This gave me pause to accept all of the conclusions reached by Quinn. However, the book is well documented, which makes following up on sources easier.
Profile Image for Christie.
505 reviews
December 24, 2020
By the time I picked up this book, I had decided the LDS church was in a state of apostasy; I just wasn't sure when it had happened. I had heard about the succession crisis and wanted to learn if that's where things went wrong. Tim freaked out when I brought this book home from the library, calling it anti-Mormon literature. He changed his mind after reading online that Quinn is a reputable source. We both found this book fascinating. I read it and shared "the good parts version" with him. Very eye opening! They won't teach you this stuff at church!
Profile Image for Jake.
739 reviews42 followers
May 26, 2022
Very interesting. Quinn did his research, I’ve seen very few books so thoroughly filled with original source material. Even those highly educated in early Mormon history will learn something. Plus it’s fun that my ancestors pop up now and then. The Stout brothers were accused of plunking a dissident in the head with a large rock at the Nauvoo temple, stabbing a man outside Brigham Young’s home, poisoning Joseph Smith’s brother to help Brigham with his succession claim, and threatening to kill an apostle (Brigham sent the apostle west asap).
Profile Image for Rob.
33 reviews
June 28, 2017
Quinn, in his usual style, explores the development and evolution of the LDS hierarchy with painstaking breadth and depth. Includes an account of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Roughly half the pages are devoted to exhaustive endnotes and detailed appendices–the latter include thorough details on the proceedings of the minutes of the Council of Fifty as well as its members, known Danites, and the activities of internal and external security forces. Appendices such as an LDS chronology and biographies of important figures may be independently useful.
Profile Image for Michael West.
149 reviews
January 4, 2022
4 stars.

A very interesting, but very dense book. Fascinating stuff...will try to review more later.
10 reviews
June 25, 2007
Quinn, a believing Mormon is a rather thorough researcher and writer of Mormon history. Until a little over ten years ago he enjoyed the privilege of access to the LDS (Mormon) Church's archives. He has also searched other archives, libraries and private sources. He backs his facts that he records with countless footnotes. Almost a third of this book consists of footnotes. His detractors complain that these are just intended to distract the reader and make it appear that these are "true" facts.

I read this book with a personal interest in the Mormon hierarch since I was a student at Brigham Young University when much of the controversy about Ezra Taft Benson and the John Birch Society was erupting across the campus and elsewhere. Later I was a witness to the LDS Church's anti-ERA activities which probably contributed to its defeat.

The book details a history of the Mormon hierarch since its inception in 1830. Quinn continues as an important, albeit, controversial historian. He was excommunicated in about 1994.
Profile Image for Nancy Rector.
Author 3 books3 followers
July 26, 2009
Non fiction book written by a very prestiged historian and professor who among other things add full access to church history records at BYU. Those who work there have access to diaries, letters, and a variety of first hand information that is not made public. They are forbidden to give out any of this information. What he found was of such a nature that he felt the need to publish his findings. Written in a very factual way with references to all his findings.

I am very much against any books that talk down other religions. This book does not do that. It simply gives facts from LDS church history, albeit many unknown ones.

Unfortunatley he is one of several LDS historians who were banished from the LDS church as soon as they made known the things they found in the history records.
113 reviews1 follower
December 2, 2021
Has some interesting historical information about early Church priesthood and authority. Definitely comes from an anti-Mormon perspective, but not overwhelmingly so.

EDIT: Quite interesting to read this a second time, years after my first read. The first time I read this I felt Quinn was "anti-Mormon" mostly on the basis that he didn't adhere to the Church's rewriting of history. The second time I get the impression he was doing his best to write this from a believer's perspective while being true to the actual historical record. Having since read many truly anti-Mormon authors, I would no longer consider Quinn "anti" in the strictest sense, but would still warm believing members of the Church that Quinn will be highly uncomfortable for them to read as it challenges the sanitized version of history that the Church teaches.
Profile Image for Dave Winter.
24 reviews
September 28, 2009
Probably the most revealing history of the beginnings of the Mormon church. Quinn's research is thorough - nearly 1/3 the book is endnotes. There are so many gems in this book I can't list them all here. This book would be helpful for the believer due to its depth and its introduction to the other side of the story, as well as the recovering Mormon who wishes to understand the "why" and "how" of the church's constantly changing self-written history. This book is very academic in its presentation, so a word of caution to those who don't like reading non-fiction.
Profile Image for Jimmy.
24 reviews
May 8, 2011
This is the second book by Quinn that I have read and, once again, I give him props for his extensive referencing of the book. This book covers a time period from the organization of The Church in 1830 through the succession crisis in 1844 and focuses on the evolution of the Priesthood and leadership. Once again, I would differ from the author on his interpretation of facts and the leaps he makes at times in the absence of documented information, however, I think that this is an excellent read.
Profile Image for Anne.
181 reviews6 followers
September 12, 2014
Oh my, I never thought I would get through this 700 page title. Almost half of it is notes and bibliography, plus some additional material. It doesn't pull any punches about history, including the Mountain Meadows massacre, and the fight over Prop 8. It was published in 1996, and I wish he would update it to cover current controversies. A lot of warts show up here, but it is the truth. I lived through some of it, and wondered what in the world was going on. I lived in Salt Lake City, and really felt the pressure of the church on local issues, a practice that is still going on today.
Profile Image for LeGrand.
76 reviews2 followers
August 7, 2007
this is an intense look at the history of mormonism. this book explores many topics often considered taboo within mormonism.. the author was also a mormon historian at one point in his life as well.. having been raised in this religion and often having the history glossed over and spoon fed to me.. i found this book to be a good way to balance out the history of the church as it had been presented to me.
Profile Image for Rich.
101 reviews2 followers
December 27, 2011
A very interesting look into the development organizational structure of the church... especially interesting after the death of Joseph Smith when the question of who would lead the church was truly up in the air. The highlighting of council meeting notes that describe the politics behind some decisions was fascinating for someone who once thought that decisions by the church leadership were always harmonious and unanimous.
Profile Image for DrDay.
41 reviews
October 13, 2014
Fascinating look at early mormon hierarchy, yes ... But more Important, where the hierarchy was left after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum. No one talks about the possible/probable murder of Samuel Smith within days of his succession claim in Sunday school. And of course no one talks about the loose canon that was William Smith. I'd be more excited about going to church if we could talk about 'Whistlers and Whittlers'. Totally awesome.
Profile Image for Jaren.
32 reviews3 followers
November 13, 2013
While I do not agree with all of Quinn's conclusions, this book is a phenomenon of documentation. Not for the faint of heart, this is, however, a fascinating read. If I had my way, I'd adapt most of this book into a church manual and make it required reading. Thank heavens for Leonard Arrington, for were it not for his open-minded approach to the position of church historian, Quinn's research would not have been possible.
Profile Image for Barry.
64 reviews5 followers
March 11, 2008
The most complete book I've found on the origins and rise of the Mormon Church. Exhaustively referenced by former BYU history professor D. Michael Quinn. Quinn had unprecedented access to church archives when preparing this book which takes you from Joseph's childhood all the way through the martydom and the power struggle that followed. An excellent and informative book.
Profile Image for Rae.
3,551 reviews
August 7, 2008
Loads of footnotes which is a Quinn trademark. Although much of what is in the book is really interesting, Quinn's negative and almost gossipy tone (the "behind the story" stuff) and his obvious beefs with Church authorities really wore me down as a reader. I could go on. But I won't. I'm glad I own these books but I'm not going to recommend them.
27 reviews10 followers
January 28, 2013
An amazing read. I learned many new things that I didn't previously know about
early origins. Quinn is painstakingly thorough with his citations and notes. Half
the book is notes and citations. Quinn is masterful at drawing on journal entries,
affidavits, newspapers articles, etc to relate events.
712 reviews15 followers
January 20, 2014
So dense that it reads more like a technical manual at times (and even flirts with being UNreadable at times), this book is still fascinating and surely one of the most thorough looks at early Mormonism ever written. A great source of information and cultural history, despite the clunky prose and distracting parenthetical citations.
28 reviews
Want to read
April 7, 2008
I've read the first few chapters... but then it was put back on the shelf and is now packed somewhere. Well documented history of the changes in early LDS church governance. Not sure yet what to make of it from a theological point of view.
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