“By proving contraries,” Joseph Smith said, “truth is made manifest.”
Noted scholar Terryl Givens points to a tension within Latter-day Saint thought between the seemingly contrary notions of “authority” and “radical freedom.”
Superficially, the tension is incongruous. Yet, as the Scottish Victorian thinker Thomas Carlyle seems to suggest in a little-known essay on Mormonism, the paradox may also point toward a resolution for one of the Reformation’s most vexing riddles.
Martin Luther’s 95 Theses — which turned 500 this week — roiled the religious order of his day. More than a theological debate about indulgences or the pope’s powers over purgatory, today the Theses which sparked the Protestant Reformation have come to symbolize individualism’s conquest over authority — an adumbration of the enlightenment, the American Revolution and Western liberalism’s modern retreat from religious authority.
Luther’s central idea of justification — that a lay Christian can access God’s grace directly, and not just through a pope or priest — was radically individualist and, well, quite liberal.
Reformation Day, then, has received a secular reception as being of a piece with the progressive push for latter-day liberalism. As Ross Douthat writes “for the Lutheran and Calvinist rebellions to be worth memorializing, it must be as a means to secularizing ends — the liberation of the individual from the shackles of religious authority, which allowed scientific inquiry and capitalism to flourish, made secular politics possible, and ultimately permitted liberalism to triumph.”
Douthat, in his column for The New York Times, does a fine job pointing out that this tidy secular tale belies the bodies stacked like “cordwood,” the tyrants, the fascism and the communism, all wrought, at least in part, by Christendom’s great schism, from Protestantism’s split with religious authority.
By the 19th century, however, at least some thinkers yearned for authority’s revival.
Philosopher Thomas Carlyle, in the words of scholar Ian Campbell, was among those who became convinced that robust authoritarianism was needed to assuage “his own upset times.” Carlyle praised the reformer Luther as a herculean-type hero who “turned the purifying river into King Augeas’s stables.” And yet, he was somewhat wary of the European order (or lack thereof) that had arisen after several centuries of living in Luther’s river’s wake.
According to Campbell, Carlyle admired the authority he saw in Frederick the Great’s militaristic Prussian regime. But, he still valued freedom. “Freedom, not namad’s or ape’s Freedom, but man’s Freedom; this is indispensable,” Carlyle wrote. “We must have it, and will have it!”
The answer for Carlyle was to be found in reconciling “Despotism with Freedom.”
Here, it appears, he felt Mormonism was insightful.
In a little-known draft essay — deftly plumbed by BYU professor Paul Kerry in his article “Thomas Carlyle’s Draft Essay on the Mormons”— Carlyle observes, referring to Brigham Young, that “The Mormon Governor is supreme in Mormon Conviction; what he does and orders is what every good Mormon is longing to see done. That is the secret of just despotism, of a Despotism which can be called beneficent.” Setting aside the loose terminology, for Carlyle, Kerry writes, “the genius of Mormonism is its uniting of wills: the members hearken to their ‘King,’ and he in turn has their best interests at heart and through them has the ability to see that their needs are met.”
This balance of liberty and obedience, of freedom and authority is, Carlyle argues, the outline for the kind of good government “which men are so universally groping after at present.” The model, it would seem, is the heroic freedom bestowed by Luther suddenly thrust into an unexpected harmony with the papal authority with which that freedom once contended. In this manner Mormonism, for Carlyle, both embodies and seems to reconcile the paradox of “Despotism and Liberty” — a central tension left over from the Reformation.
“Here, sure enough,” he writes, “is Liberty: all these people are free citizens, to begin with; members of the model republic; entitled to ballotbox, caucus, free press, open vestry, open congress, fourth estate and every form of opposition, conceivable by the human mind, — nothing to limit whatever mutiny may be in them. ..." And yet, he marvels, that despite this freedom (or, perhaps, because of it) the Latter-day Saint leader Brigham Young had, in Carlyle’s estimation, a more absolute rule than the “Czar of Russia.”
While certainly a hyperbolic characterization, Carlyle's observations are sincere. For him, a radically free people, totally obedient to godly authority and God’s leader, was Mormonism’s secret. It was a kind of living solution to the now 500-year-old riddle left by the Reformation — how to collapse freedom and authority. As Carlyle would write elsewhere: “The Laws of God: all men obey these, and have no 'Freedom' at all but in obeying them. The way (to reconcile Despotism with Freedom) is already known, part of the way; — and courage and some qualities are needed for walking on it!”
Hal R. Boyd is the opinion editor for the Deseret News.