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The Peacemaker and Bishop’s Court

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 25, 2008

The 1912 course of study for priests (Aaronic Priesthood) was entitled First Steps in Church Government. Lessons focus on the basic functioning of the church organization on the personal level (“”Moral and Spiritual Duties,” “Citizenship in Church Government”), the family level (“Home Education”), the quorum level (“Priesthood and Office,” “The Lord’s Supper”) and the ward level (“Revenue for Church Government,”“Help for the Poor and Unfortunate”). It seems to be a well-organized plan for initiating young boys and men into the roles they will play in a church where lay members are responsible for all functions.

This is all very interesting to me, who despite a lifetime in the church, a Melchizedek Priesthood-exercising father (now deceased), and the filling of a full time mission, has never really felt like I had much of a grasp on the nuts and bolts of priesthood government. It isn’t clear to me exactly why I feel that way – I certainly see the functioning of the priesthood in the organization of the ward and stake, in the weekly administration of the sacrament and occasional witnessing of other ordinances, in the temple ritual. I have an academic understanding from scriptural, scholarly, and historically documented writings. But I always feel one step removed from the priesthood, as though not only do I not hold it, but I have no access to it, no involvement with it.

It seemed quite different to me as I read First Steps in Church Government, which addressed me (the reader, that is; the author couldn’t have known I would be a feminine reader, and it was easy to slip mentally into the position of one to whom this manual was written) with the intention of initiating me into a system of which I was or would become an integral part. I wonder if priesthood-holding readers can understand the oddity of this experience. It is like the through-the-looking-glass experience I have when I, Mormon to the bone, step outside of myself to explain some facet of Mormonism to a non-Mormon questioner – but it was in reverse, because I felt like an outsider temporarily assuming the role of an insider.

But I digress. The original purpose of this post was to share a very clear and detailed outline of the steps leading to and culminating in a bishop’s court (or a “disciplinary council” – is that the current jargon?). Unless we have reason to be personally involved in such a matter, our awareness mostly comes from the one-sided publicity of a few who call in the secular media for whatever purpose. An overview of the system as it is intended to function, not as it is sometimes distorted by the bitter or cynical, was very helpful. I appreciated this lesson for two reasons:

First, it includes the pre-hearing efforts to resolve problems (which include both temporal difficulties – “his kids trampled my tomatoes!” – and spiritual ones – “his affinity for Political Cause X is leading him to advocate open rebellion”). Too often, we either don’t think of arbitration as being part of the process, or one-sided press coverage brands as threatening a bishop’s preliminary attempts to counsel with a wayward member.

And second, it reminds me of a time in our cultural history when so many of the ordinary disputes of a community were carried to the bishop, not the civil court, for formal resolution. Today’s bishops probably don’t mind being relieved of much of that burden, coming as it would on top of heavy duties which cannot be delegated to anyone else on earth. But still, the existence of such courts to settle neighborly disagreements, and not only to try for church fellowship, was a marker of Mormon culture for several generations. I can be sentimental about that. I’m not a bishop.

The Peacemaker and Bishop’s Court.

The Purpose of Courts and Judicial Bodies – Their Antiquity – The Private Settlement of Disputes – Teachers’ Investigations – Procedure of the Bishop’s Court.

Courts of Justice form a very important branch of government. They exist for the purpose of administering justice and equity between man and man, by punishing the wrong doer, and protecting the life and property of the citizens from violence of others. Each government has its own system of courts and its own methods of dealing out justice. These institutions are necessary, because if men could not get justice in an orderly way, they would take such matters in their own hands. This would bring about a state of anarchy – which is a condition of no law and no government. Intelligent people the world over place a high estimate on courts, and such like organizations, because they mete out justice and apply the law in a regular, systematic, and satisfactory manner.

Of Ancient Origin. – Courts and councils for the trial of causes, and of the adjustment of differences, are of ancient date. We read of them in the time of Moses. Without doubt, some kind of tribunals existed even from the beginning. The most important court among the Jews was the Sanhedrin, or “The House of Judgment.” It was composed of seventy-one or seventy-two members, and presided over by the chief Priest, (Aaron’s successor) who was assisted by two counselors.

In the days of ancient Israel, and since then, when God has had a people and authorized servants, the head Priests of the Lesser Priesthood have taken a prominent part in the settlement of disagreements between members, and the administering of the law of God to the evildoers.

The Best Way to Settle disputes, Etc. – Sometimes men may settle their own disputes without coming to trial. This is the best of all known ways. “Let not the sun go down upon thy wrath,” was the wise counsel of Paul to the Ephesian Saints. Jesus also said, “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and he alone; if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained a brother.”

Now if this splendid counsel were followed by everyone who has difficulty with his neighbor, there would be no need of peacemakers, or of courts. Disputes thus settled are usually settled for all time.

The Teacher’s Part. – In our day the rule of the Church for members to follow who have committed offenses against each other, is to make peace privately, where the nature of the case will admit it. Failing in this they are to follow the instructions of Christ: “But if he” – the unrelenting brother – “will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church.”

One of the express duties of the Teachers is to act as peacemakers, and to help the brethren to be reconciled. The Teachers do not hold a trial; they hold only an investigation; and endeavor to find the real cause for dispute or angry feelings between members. Then with love in their hearts, and a desire for peace and good will, they try to bring about an understanding of the differences and to clear the way for reconciliation. When Teachers are not successful in doing this, then the matter in controversy may be taken before the Church in the ordained way; namely, before the Bishop and his counselors.

The Bishop’s Court. – This court consists of the Bishop as judge, who is assisted by his two counselors; and the clerk. The Bishop is styled a common judge in Israel.

The first steps taken toward bringing a case into the Bishop’s court is by a complaint. A complaint is a written statement made by a member of the church, charging another member for dereliction of duty, for a wrong done, or for a crime committed. The complaint is always signed by the person injured or aggrieved, or by a Teacher who knows of the offense. The person charged is given a copy of the complaint, so that he may know what he is accused of, and how to meet the charge.

In due time the bishop sends a Teacher with a summons, which is a paper notifying the accused person to come to trial, on a given day at a certain place.

The defendant, or the accused, brings with him his witnesses, if he have any. The other party, also, comes with witnesses, and whatever evidence he may have to offer.

When all the parties are present and ready for trial, the court is opened by prayer. Then the bishop reads the complaint; and asks the accused person if the charges against him are true, or not true. If he says they are true, then there is no need for further inquiry, and the Bishop states what the penalty is. If the accused says the charges are not true, either in the whole or in part, in other words if he pleads “not guilty” – then the trial goes on.

The one who has made the complaint or charge, (called the “accuser”) proceeds to show by witnesses, and otherwise, that the defendant is guilty as charged. This the bishopric patiently hears, and they also try to bring out the truth by asking questions. For the truth and the truth only, is what a court of this kind desires to know.

Next comes the accused with his defense. His endeavor will be to show that he is not guilty. His witnesses, and other evidences are also carefully examined. Witnesses for both parties are asked questions by the principals on either side. The accuser and the accused are both permitted to speak on their own behalf. After all the evidence has been brought forward that might have a bearing on the case, the Bishop may render his decision.

This he may do there and then, or at some future time. The decision of the Bishop’s court is made in writing, and the parties thereto are given a copy. The bishop then makes a report to the High Council, if the case is important. This body is a higher court, consisting of twelve High Priests, presided over by the Presidency of the Stake. Either of the parties if they are not satisfied with the decision of the Bishop, may appeal to the High Council.

The extreme penalty that a Bishop’s Court can inflict on a guilty member, is to cut him or her off the Church; except in the case of a man’s holding the Melchisedek Priesthood, this court can only disfellowship.

In the above explanation, you have been briefly informed of the methods by which disputes, differences, and the wrong doing of members, are settled in Church government. There are other tribunals of a higher order, but the Lesser Priesthood takes no official part in them. Of these you may learn something later on. It is sufficient to say here, that in the Church and government of God, there is a complete system of tribunals, so that the misconduct of any member, or any officer thereof, from the least to the greatest, may be investigated.

Church courts and my personal angst are both fair game for discussion. If you draw on notorious cases for illustration, let’s keep ‘em general enough that this doesn’t turn to a discussion over any particular case. Thanks.



25 Comments »

  1. Haven’t read the details yet, but this certainly is timely. Also, the following is priceless:

    I can be sentimental about that. I’m not a bishop.

    Comment by Ray — September 25, 2008 @ 7:27 am

  2. It is too bad this kind of socialization does not occur any more. Our Priesthood lessons are nothing like this. Perhaps this is now done in the Bishopric inservice meetings. I have never been in a Bishopric. But even being in the priesthood since I was 12, and serving a full time mission, this makes me feel like an outsider looking in. Of course, my father didn’t exercise his Melchizedek Priesthood during my lifetime, so maybe that is what I am missing.

    Comment by BruceC — September 25, 2008 @ 7:47 am

  3. Random thoughts –

    Growing up outside Utah (although, having many, many relatives there) and living outside it now, it’s hard for me to envision an environment where the bishop needs to intercede in day-to-day non-Church affairs.

    But then I hear stories about a great-uncle who was excommunicated on dubious charges, which was then overturned by an angry President McKay, and maybe I should be grateful.

    I’m fairly private when it comes to my home and affairs — there’s a lot we don’t necessarily share with the bishop or ward members, because it’s none of their business (things like, is my dishwasher broken, is my car in the shop, etc. — I wouldn’t dream of bringing these things to the attention of the ward, because I’m not going to ask the ward to fix them.) If I have a dispute with a ward member over a non-Church issue, I can’t imagine having to get the bishop involved.

    I wonder though — are our 14-year-olds capable of carrying out the duties described above? I don’t think so.

    Comment by queuno — September 25, 2008 @ 9:07 am

  4. Very interesting. I think there is a general lack of knowledge of Priesthood government among the general population of the Church. I have recently been called into a branch presidency and have been reading the handbook of instructions. My BP and I have discussed several issues pertaining to Priesthood governance. He thinks all members should read the handbook.

    Queuno: It is hard to imagine Bishops being judges in civil matters. But in frontier Utah where the Church was the dominante social institution and there was skepticism of secular authority, this doesn’t seem too outlandish. You bring up a good point about 14 year-old teachers fullfilling the above mentioned duties. If I’m not mistaking, though, Aaronic priesthood advancements were done differently in the past. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that advancement to teacher took place when one turned 14.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 25, 2008 @ 9:22 am

  5. “I wonder though — are our 14-year-olds capable of carrying out the duties described above? I don’t think so.”

    I agree – but I wish they were trained in the system the Church intends well enough to do so, probably with adult assistance.

    I am struck by the “normality” of the entire description.

    Comment by Ray — September 25, 2008 @ 9:23 am

  6. My brain said “normalcy”, but my fingers typed “normality”. Getting old isn’t fun sometimes.

    Comment by Ray — September 25, 2008 @ 9:24 am

  7. Various family organizations have been publishing family histories taken from the journals of my ancestors, and it’s amazing the “authority” that bishops had back then. An ancestor was publicly disfellowshipped (according to his journal, from the pulpit, without the benefit of a court) because of a dispute over property the bishop wanted and he wouldn’t provide. Having now been disfellowshipped, his business dried up and he went east.

    These are probably limited in number, but I always cringe a little when I read about how the “good old days” were, because that couldn’t possibly happen today, right?

    (And then I’m reminded of a friend whose bishop insisted he bring his paystubs to tithing settlement…)

    Comment by queuno — September 25, 2008 @ 9:44 am

  8. I served in a stake presidency and found that even the members of the High Council usually did not understand the particulars of holding and participating in disciplinary councils. It is understandable though because the details of the logistics and the decision-making processes are only available in the portion of the Handbook that is not distributed even to them.

    Comment by Rick — September 25, 2008 @ 9:51 am

  9. queuno, I’ve worked to document some family history stories similar to yours, including a notorious one in my own family that involved the U.S. Senate, the Utah Supreme Court, the state mental hospital, and a SLTribune editorial cartoon. Beyond some names, not a single one of the stories I’ve investigated ended up bearing any relationship to the family lore, and that was particularly true with the blame that parties laid on bishops or stake high councils for their greed or abuse of power.

    I’m not willing to tar all bishops then or now with your broad brush. Some discretion or specific citations, please.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 25, 2008 @ 10:03 am

  10. Speaking on deep background here, but I had the following experience while I served as a bishop.

    A member of my ward came to me with a dispute between one of his member neighbors and a non-member neighbor over a property boundary and a wooden fence. The end result was that the member neighbor had taken a chain saw and whacked down the nonmembers’ offending fence. The first ward member said to me, “Bishop you need to step in and protect the good name of the church!”

    I could find no reason under any circumstances that the situation would have benefited from the intervention of religious authority, especially as chain saws were involved (but no hockey masks), nor was the Handbook of Instructions any help. I politely declined.

    Personally, I’m glad things are different now. I will echo that this kind of instruction is rare these days, and have not heard a lesson in PH about church disciplinary councils in at least a decade, if not longer. I personally think it is helpful to encourage repentance to know the process involved in those councils.

    I’m also glad that disciplinary actions are held much more confidential these days.

    Comment by kevinf — September 25, 2008 @ 10:24 am

  11. I just want to add my voice to those who are priesthood holders (and even local leaders), but still feel one step removed from the structural workings of the priesthood.

    Comment by Dane — September 25, 2008 @ 10:25 am

  12. Sorry, I didn’t mean to go into bishop-bashing. I actually have a great respect for a bishop’s role.

    As for specific citations, I’ll go look one of them up tonight; the book is in a closet in the bedroom.

    In the case I cited involving President McKay, the affected family member is still living, so I won’t cite his name. But I heard his account from his own lips. According to his own story, when it was appealed, President McKay overturned the excommunication and drafted an angry letter to the stake president and the bishop involved. I guess I look forward to the day we can all look at his journal to see what it says there. I can’t imagine the Church would release their record.

    I have other thoughts on this, so I’ll put them into a different comment and keep this one from going too long.

    Comment by queuno — September 25, 2008 @ 10:30 am

  13. The 1901 case from my own family history involved a member woman and a former-member man; it went through all the church courts, then through all the civil courts. The former-member man is the one who initiated the church court action, which I find interesting — he had to agree to submit himself to the jurisdiction of the bishop’s court, else no case could have been brought (I suppose kevinf’s ward member and neighbor theoretically could have asked him to arbitrate before the chainsaws came out, if the non-member neighbor agreed to it, but the likelihood of that seems vanishingly small!). In the later civil case, the former-member man admitted that he had chosen to bring his suit in the church court first because he (rightly) suspected that the member woman’s good standing with the church mattered more to her than any penalty the civil court could possibly have imposed.

    I’m certainly not advocating the return of active church courts for other than whatever actions might be necessary to maintain church discipline. Still, I’m a little nostalgic about the once-upon-a-time possibility of seeking justice before men who opened with prayer, who sought to resolve difficulties through fairness rather than technical detail, and whose chief goal was that both parties leave the action without bitterness and with a commitment to a more peaceful, gospel-oriented future. Can’t say that’s been the outcome of any civil matter I ever heard of.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 25, 2008 @ 10:54 am

  14. Of course even having judges who were universally respected and shared the social values of the community would go a long way toward fulfilling your nostalgia, albeit without the prayers.

    Comment by BruceC — September 25, 2008 @ 11:06 am

  15. Awesome excerpt, Ardis. Nate should be all over this.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 25, 2008 @ 11:26 am

  16. Yes, Bruce, but even that wouldn’t go far enough. I might, for instance, find a small claims judge who had all those qualities and who awarded me a fair judgment in a suit against a client who had not paid a bill. But even with that judgment in hand, the work to collect can be so difficult and drawn out that it isn’t worth the uncompensated time, effort and bitterness that result. It’s the system and the fact that the debtor still feels no need to abide by the judgment, not the respected judge, that is the problem. Theoretically, a church member would respect the decision of the bishop and value his church membership highly enough not to play the games that civil defendants play because they can so easily get away with it.

    Not that I speak by experience or anything. Oh, no.

    J., I am so looking forward to more of Nate’s studies of church courts, their theory and operation!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 25, 2008 @ 11:31 am

  17. I read a story in the Mormon samizdat years ago entitled Bishop’s Court. Memory is sketchy, at best, but there may have been a dispute about maintaining the headgate on the canal/irrigation ditch. The “court” involved the bishop, the disputants and others gathering at the site, with shovels, other tools, building materials, and together rebuilding the headgate. Then they all shook hands and went home.

    I have no idea where the story came from, or whether it was fiction or a record of actual events. Anyway, I’d give serious props to the person (Ardis, maybe) who could dig it up.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 25, 2008 @ 11:47 am

  18. I could find no reason under any circumstances that the situation would have benefited from the intervention of religious authority

    Our SP likes to say; We’ll take care of the spiritual, you take care of the legal.

    Comment by Howard — September 25, 2008 @ 11:54 am

  19. Ray, you’re following your inner Warren Harding in choosing “normalcy” over “normality”. The story is that the former was little used and moving even further from normality when the estimable Mr. Harding rescued it from history’s dustbin during the 1920 presidential election campaign. His “Return to Normalcy” slogan was a winner, although language snobs didn’t like the word. And, if rampant corruption is normal, it appears that Harding won on that score as well. (Would you like some Teapot Dome with your crumpets, sir?)

    Comment by Mark B. — September 25, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

  20. As I understand from reading William Hartley’s work, this manual would have been studied during the priesthood reform movement. Among other things, church leaders were concerned about the state of affairs in the lesser priesthood quorums (instruction was not correlated, activity levels were poor, boys were not being advanced to the office of priest on a regular basis, etc.).

    Comment by Justin — September 25, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  21. Justin, you must be right — I mean, aside from your track record of being right :) , the introduction to this manual (which I’m reading again today) shows quite a concern for getting the boys involved, not just stuffing their heads with information. I feel quite a sense of urgency (or urgentity, to bring in Ray and Mark) in the fervency (ferventity) of that section.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 25, 2008 @ 12:53 pm

  22. Sorry for the length, but here’s a little story from Heber J. Grant. I can provide a citation if needed.

    In early days the Bishops with their counselors were permitted to have trials and excommunicate men from the Church. One of my nearest and dearest and best beloved friends was excommunicated by the Bishopric of his Ward, and I considered it nothing short of an outrage. I desired to be present to testify in his behalf, but was not permitted to be at the meeting.

    I sat on the outside of the meeting house on the top of a high post. A fence was being built around the meeting house and the boards of the fence had not been put on, but the posts were set up and I climbed on top of one of these posts and could see and hear the people in the second story of the meeting house, and I heard the whole proceedings.

    To many of the questions that were asked of my friend, I answered: “No, I would not do any such thing,” and I felt so mad at the Bishop’s counselor who was asking the questions of my friend and it was many years before I could have any respect for him. He was a very devoted Latter-day Saint, but he was not charitable. The thing that outraged me was that my friend was put in with a crowd of boys who were really no good, and they were all excommunicated at the same time.

    Comment by Researcher — September 25, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

  23. Okay, my nostalgia is idealistic, assuming that all bishops are wise and successful at meeting the goals outlined for them, when I know better. In order to be an active Mormon today, I had to finally resolve my confusion over a bad leader, realizing that while a man may be called of God he doesn’t necessarily live up to his calling. At least the church court system provides for review and appeal, as long as an unfairly treated member can control his hurt and outrage long enough to wait for the process to work.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 25, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

  24. It’s unfortunate that HJG’s friend did not appeal. From what I’ve read, he may have had a sympathetic ear in D.H. Wells.

    Comment by Justin — September 25, 2008 @ 4:02 pm

  25. I think the realities of the Church population at the dawn of the 20th century versus even the 1950′s let alone now means that kind of world will likely never return soon.

    Comment by Clark — September 26, 2008 @ 10:21 am

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