Nauvoo Mormonism and the Question of Class

Joseph Smith Jr.

Joseph Smith Jr.

Early Mormons in the 1840s founded the Mississippi River town of Nauvoo, Illinois, as a stronghold of their religion. Many historians have analyzed the Nauvoo sojourn of the Mormons, and there is a long list of very good books and articles on this subject. One of the areas of investigation that I would very much like to encourage someone, or several someones, to pursue historical investigation of Mormons and the question of class in Nauvoo.

In this context we can expand our perspectives by investigating the really interesting questions of power: who holds it, and more important why they hold it and how they use it. To examine these issues in the context of Mormonism I would recommend borrowing from the social constructionism taking place in other historical specialties. An interest in these subjects would involve, of course, a commitment to the broad scholarly understanding of the nature and meaning of oppression and the inequalities of power as manifested in relation to class structures.

There should be no question, furthermore, that social, economic, educational, institutional, and other types of classes always have and continue to exist in Mormonism just as they do in the larger world. I think it probably has something to do with our longstanding fascination with individuals and elite—that is, priesthood—groups.

Howard Zinn was one of the most innovative thinkers on this issue in American history. His global comment about the United States is also appropriate for Mormon history: “There is an underside to every Age about which history does not often speak, because history is written from records left by the privileged. We learn about politics from the political leaders, about economics from the entrepreneurs, about slavery from the plantation owners, about the thinking of an age from its intellectual elite” (Howard Zinn, The Politics of History [Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1970], p. 102). 

Zinn abhorred this aspect of our culture, and argued that the power elite in America have created a system of control in which most people do not even realize they are being controlled. “With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority” (Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History [New York: HarperCollins, 2003], pp. 414).

Photograph of Nauvoo in the middle 1840s with the Mormon Temple in the background

Photograph of Nauvoo in the middle 1840s with the Mormon Temple in the background

No question, Zinn viewed the history of America as a struggle between the haves and the have nots. The haves, of course, have been enormously successful in securing their hegemony against far greater numbers in no small part because, as Zinn wrote in his People’s History, of “all-embracing symbols, physical and verbal: the flag, patriotism, democracy, national interest, national defense, national security.” Appeals to these themes have been effectively used to blunt the criticism of the system that otherwise might bring it tumbling down. Thus, in the early twenty-first century presidents have continued to appeal to flag-waving patriotism to unite a divided country and maintain control rather than deal with the underlying reasons for terrorism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and continued strife around the globe.

Could some of Zinn’s criticisms of American society find applicability in Mormon Nauvoo? How did the Mormon power elite control the people of the Mormon church, and the others outside of it? What ramifications did that have for the larger development of Mormon history and the place of Nauvoo in it? What master narrative of the Nauvoo story has been forged and solidified over time in relation to these issues? How might historians begin to unpack the past and offer new perspectives on the Nauvoo experience? I confess to having far more questions than answers.

While it is a labor intensive exercise, demographic research would be vital in learning more about class structure and its role in the development of every level of church organization from the local congregation to the general conference. It would also be extremely helpful in understanding the priesthood structure of the institution, for many questions about how the church has operated would be illuminated by a reasonable exploration of the class dynamic in the Mormon past.

A map of Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time of the Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s.

A map of Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time of the Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s.

There are many other exciting questions relating to class in Mormonism. In addition to the common economic class problems that are so much a part of American history but which have been largely ignored, one revolves around what I like to call the royal family and the court aristocracy of families of longstanding church leadership. How did members of these elite families obtain and sustain high offices in the various factions of Mormonism? How have individual members of these families fared in their ecclesiastical systems? How did other families once with members in positions of power fall from grace? What have been the interrelations of this aristocracy and how have they been played out in the history of the church? Moreover, what are its relationships vis à vis both other leaders and the rank and file?

Paul M. Edwards made an intriguing point about Mormonism’s middle class, neither the power elite nor the lowest, that deserves further study in the context of Nauvoo:

This class is not so much economic or family-oriented (even though in both the Reorganization and LDS organizations these are important). Rather it consists of persons who are tasting both power and influence—as well as professional acceptance and understanding—outside the church. And thus, who are increasingly aware of their own authority by virtue of knowledge and ability. At the same time more aware of their lack of power within the institution. This group includes the intellectuals, and closet skeptics, as well as those faithful to the tradition but not necessarily the doctrine. It also includes persons who have come to believe their opinions reflect an honest minority. These persons considered themselves challenged—and usually blocked—by those who control the majority and who are conservatives (prescriptivists) of the Edmund Burke variety. They feel excluded from power because they are neither rich enough (in terms of holding authority) nor poor enough (willing to trade obedience for protection). (Paul M. Edwards, “Ethics and Dissent in Mormonism: A Personal Essay,” in Roger D. Launius and W.B. Spillman, eds., Let Contention Cease: The Dynamics of Dissent in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Independence, MO: Graceland/Park Press, 1991), pp. 249-50).

How did this play out in dissent among the Mormons in Nauvoo; in the church leadership’s decisions to leave Nauvoo and travel to Utah or some other point? How did it relate to acceptance of esoteric doctrines in Nauvoo? For example, an intriguing hypothesis is that the power elite had much to lose by opposing Joseph Smith’s new theological conceptions, and such dissenters as William and Wilson Law lost both their place in the structure of church society and their livelihoods. So too, did those at the lowest echelons of the church’s class structure who had a better situation in a caring community than they could ever have enjoyed on the outside.

But what of those in the middle? Those with enough external status, education and understanding, and economic independence to choose their own course. Did they accept the theological innovations in Nauvoo and follow the majority of the elite to Utah? While a fruitful area of research might yield unique new understandings, I suspect that they really were the people in the middle, and many of them became a part of the alternative Reorganize Church that revolved around the sons and widow of Joseph Smith Jr., or perhaps one of other more moderate Mormon groups emerging from Nauvoo conflicts.

These are some of the possibilities that are present for students of Mormon history willing to view askew the master narrative of the Nauvoo experience. This is not a complete list of possibilities, to be sure, but it is a start at looking at some different issues.

This entry was posted in History, Mormonism, Personal, Religion, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Nauvoo Mormonism and the Question of Class

  1. Robert C Kahlert says:

    This is a very interesting and important point. It so happens that I working on my dissertation on the early years of Mormonism at the University of Vienna in Austria, EU, and one of the culminating problems that I want to look at is the rise of the Mormon elite in Nauvoo, esp in the context of the new teachings and the inside/outside codings of polygamy. If you have any additional points and suggestions that you would like to make, I would be most glad to hear them; I noticed that you edited the book that you cited. I also happen to be a huge Howard Zinn fan 🙂


    • launiusr says:

      That a great topic for a dissertation. I wish to you the best with it. I’m not sure I can be much help but please let me know how it goes.


      • Thank you for your well wishes. I meant “suggestions” in the sense of “literature suggestions”. Early Mormonism is such a vast sea, it’s easy to miss references. And it seems unwise not to ask those who have traveled the paths before 😉


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