Preaching to the Court House and Judging in the Temple
64 Pages Posted: 15 Feb 2008 Last revised: 26 Feb 2009
A number of American religious denominations - Quakers, Baptists, Mormons, and others - have tried with varying degrees of success to opt out of the secular legal system, resolving civil litigation between church members in church courts. Using the story of the rise and fall of the jurisdiction of Mormon courts over ordinary civil disputes, this article provides three key insights into the interaction between law and religion in nineteenth-century America. First, it dramatically illustrates the fluidity of the boundaries between law and religion early in the century and the hardening of those boundaries by its end. The Mormon courts initially arose in a context in which the professional bar had yet to establish a monopoly over adjudication. By century's end, however, the increasing complexity of the legal environment hardened the boundaries around the legal profession's claimed monopoly over adjudication. Second, the decline of the Mormon courts shows how allegiance to the common-law courts became a prerequisite of assimilation into the American mainstream. While hostility to the secular courts had been a hallmark of a major stream of American Protestantism during the colonial period and the first decades of the Republic, by the end of the nineteenth century, Mormons' rejection of those courts marked them off as dangerous outsiders. Part of the price of their acceptance into the national mainstream was the abandonment of legal distinctiveness. Finally, the story of the Mormon courts also illustrates the importance of law for the development of religious beliefs and practices. Other scholars have documented the "public law" side of this story, showing how the federal government's effort to eradicate Mormon polygamy was central to Mormon experience in the last half of the nineteenth century and ultimately forced a revolution in Mormon beliefs and practices. The rise and fall of the Mormon court system, however, shows that private law could exercise no less of a power over the religious imagination.
Keywords: Ecclesiastical Courts, Mormons, Quakers, Puritans, Baptists, Civil Disputes, ADR, Legal History, Law & Religion
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