"Established Agreeable to the Laws of Our Country": Mormonism, Church Corporations, and the Long Legacy of America's First Disestablishment
Journal of Law & Religion (forthcoming)
42 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2021
Date Written: April 27, 2021
This article provides the first history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a legal entity. It makes two contributions. First, this history recasts the story of the so-called “first disestablishment,” revealing that it was longer and more contentious than is often assumed. Disestablishment produced a body of corporate law encoded with strong theological assumptions. Because corporate law was the primary mechanism for regulating churches, this created problems for groups like Roman Catholics and Latter-day Saints who did not share the law’s theological commitments. Far from being settled in the early 1830s, the first disestablishment continued to spawn bitter legal battles into the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Second, this article reveals legal personality as one of the key points of conflict between the Latter-day Saints and American society. This is a useful corrective to accounts that emphasize polygamy and theocracy as the points of legal contention. An understanding of the history of the Church as a legal entity supplements these stories by revealing how the hard-fought legal battles of the late-nineteenth century can be seen as an extension of the process of legal disestablishment that began during the American Revolution.
Keywords: religion, corporations, Latter-day Saints, churches, Mormonism, establishment, disestablishment
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