Mormonism and the American Dream
Order, the value Puritans prized above all others, could not be maintained in the immensities of America. The very geography induced diversity in cultures and ways of life. (p.2)
More Puritan than Yankee, Joseph Smith consciously sought to stay the forces which threatened to disrupt the ordered rural village life of the early nineteenth century. His was not, however, just a rearguard holding action. In some respects it could be said that his aim was to realize the Christian commonwealth which had been the idea of John Winthrop. (p.3)Based on his converts, the authors argue, one sees many of the principles that later became part of the revealed religion prefigured:
Found among these groups were beliefs in an eventual restoration of an unsullied primitive church, a conviction that the Lord's return was imminent, a desire to adjust prevailing social and economic patterns to conform more closely to some form of Christian communalism, a fondness for spiritual manifestations, and a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, all of which became in some form a part of the revealed religion. (p.3)The authors suggest to resist the temptation to connect Smith with the radical reformation [[as some of his 19th century critics have done, RCK]], though many of his early followers had ties to communities inspired by these (p.4). Another source of possible inspiration might be Robert Owen, whose community in New Harmony, Pennsylvania, had started in 1825 (p.4). Though Owen claimed to abolish religion, his value system was so Christian that transporting it into religious reform was simple (p.4).
Certainly he encouraged many Americans in the optimistic hope that the traditions of the past need impose no limits upon their ability to build a better society. (p.4)Clearly Joseph Smith was practical and experimental in the way Robert Owen was (p.4). But there is little advantage to drilling open the dependencies and inspirations (p.5).
A detailed genealogy of possible influences upon the Prophet would not explain his successes or his failures. The combination of ideas that he took into his system became, by his joining them together, logically and appropriately his. (p.5)And, like Klaus Hansen, the authors see Smith as envisioning to extending his governance to the world.
No pietistic recluse, he was planning a system that he and his followers confidently expected would take over the reins of the world government. He consciously pursued power in earthly political realms as a preliminary to eventual world dominion. His design for the city of Zion included a plan for the proliferation of satellite cities in indefinite numbers destined to fill up the inland stretches of the North American continent from the Missouri to the Pacific. (p.5)The authors then point out an interesting difference between Mormonism and modern reform movements.
Living under ideal institutions is not, in the Mormon view, an experience that perfects man. Rather, it is an evidence that man has achieved perfection. (p.8)There was only a limited appreciation of beneficent institutions allowing one to make progress toward becoming better (p.8). Institutions were not instruments of reform; that instrument of change was faith (p.9).
In looking at the failure of Brigham Young's efforts, the authors remind us that Joseph Smith had set out in a very different America (p.12).
The Prophet's experiments took place during the heyday of communal experimentation in America. Though singularly far-reaching in design, they fit appropriately into a society where social ferment was proliferating communes in unprecedented numbers. (p.12)Brigham Young's anti-capitalist idealism collided straight with a time that thought Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were heroes (p.12).
Smith Jr's communitarianism was also not anarchical and egocentric, like the social experiments of the 1960s and 1970s in the USA.
Deference to high church authority and obedience within a clearcut hierarchy of church offices and responsibilities have become prominent aspects of Mormon group character. (p.13)These aspects caused the well-known economist Richard T. Ely in 1903 to compare the "perfect piece of social mechanism" of the Mormons to the German Army (p.13).
Communitarianism under JS
Of the law of consecration of 1831, the authors offer the following characterization:
Briefly, the law was a prescription for transforming the highly individualistic economic order of Jacksonian America into a system characterized by economic equality, socialization of surplus incomes, freedom of enterprise, and group economic self-sufficiency. (p.15)Explaining the basic pattern of giving a consecration and then receiving a stewardship from the bishop, the authors note:
The stewardship might be a farm, building lot, store, workshop, or mill. It was expected that in some cases the consecrations would considerably exceed the stewardships. Out of the surplus thus made possible the bishop would grant stewardships to the poorer and younger members of the church who had no property to consecrate. (p.15)The main idea was to provide an equal footing for all members (p.16).
The system aimed at equality in consumption but not in the capital controlled or managed by individuals. (p.16)In order to stem creeping inequality, surpluses "(or residue, as it was called)" (p.16) were to be re-consecrated to the bishop (p.16). This surplus gave the bishop a way to equalize misfortune and pay for church needs such as lands in Missouri, education and publication, and similar (p.16).
... the properties placed at the disposal of each family head were to be used in producing whatever goods and services he desired, and whatever combinations of factors of production he selected, from among the limited opportunities open. (p.17)[[The authors bring the Rigdon "Family" on (p.19) for the first time. RCK]]
At the same time, it was a communitarian system "in concept and application", as early critics already noted, such as "apostate bishop" John Corrill (p.17).
Social union, in turn, was indispensable to the establishment and operation of an exemplary Mormon community whose convert-citizens would have the disposition and means to prepare the earth for the return of the Savior and the institution of the kingdom of God. (p.17)Orson Pratt offered the distinction between dividing property, and uniting property (p.18) to express the difference.
The Latter-day Saint community was to be established as the result of a "gathering" of the "faithful in heart" from "out of the bosom of Babylon" to a place designed as "Zion". ... Thus, an industrious, frugal, independent society was to be established under the direction of the priesthood. (p.18)The authors point out that the approach of the law of consecration, because it gave the legal title to the bishop [in the early period, RCK] was different from the common stock of the Shakers, Harmonists, and similar.
Both theory and practice of stewardship as it was first established in Missouri disallowed unilateral conveyance of consecrated property by a steward to other persons with whom sales and exchange might be contemplated, including wife, children, and heirs. (p.18)The authors point out that Rigdon and Campbell had fought over the communitarian aspects of the early apostolic church, and that Rigdon's group had experimented with the "Family" system, which was based on the common stock principle (p.19). Joseph Smith Jr replaced this system with the law of consecration and stewardship shortly after arriving in Kirtland from New York (p.19).
The need to suggest something positive to replace the impractical common-stock principle was one purpose of the revelation. (p.19)But there was also the need to divide up the farmland to accommodate the poor families who were coming from New York and elsewhere to Ohio (p.19).
There was undoubtedly a third and more far-reaching objective in the revelations on consecration and stewardship. As the founder of "restored Christianity", Joseph Smith saw it as his responsibility to establish the social and economic basis for a Christian society. The passage in Acts ... was doubtless a challenge to the youthful prophet, as it was to Bible-reading Christians generally. (p.20)
In addition, scriptures already brought forth by Joseph Smith portrayed Book of Mormon peoples and the citizens of the ancient city of Enoch living an ideal, communal economic order. The prophecy of Enoch was particularly powerful, holding up to the Prophet's small group of followers a perfect society "of one heart and one mind ... and there was no poor among them." (p.20)There was also such a proliferation of common law approaches at the time that it is hardly surprising that the revelation called the law of consecration "the more perfect law of the Lord." Even the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle were corresponding about communitarianism.
We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a New Community in his waistcoat pocket. (p.20)[[This also ignores that Joseph Smith's uncle was running a self-sufficient economic community in upper Canada with its own clippership. RCK]]
Thus, the Law of Consecration and Stewardship could be seen as a consequence of practical need and Christian idealism. It is not surprising that the plan should have been intensely practical in certain respects, and that it should have overestimated the possibilities of human altruism in other respects. (p.21)And maybe as the best summary provided of the law, the authors note:
It was to a degree individualistic, though with strong elements of group control and influence. (p.21)The authors then review some of the failures of the law. The first, by the Colesville Saints, in Thompson near Kirtland, Ohio, ran into troubles when the wealthier members [e.g. Copley, RCK] backed out and sued for their land back, causing such confusion that the Colesville Saints were more or less haphazardly shipped off to Missouri (p.21).
In their explanation of the second attempt to be made in Missouri, the authors talk about the intentions for the plat of Zion, which was supposed to not only provide families with homesteads, but also the farmers with land, the mechanics with tools, and the teachers & musicians & writers with a license specifying how they were to support the community [= HC 1:357-362]; but of course the plat of Zion only made it to Missouri weeks before the July 20th, 1833 Jackson County riots kicked the Mormons out (p.21).
The basic plan had been for the settlers to bring something to consecrate that could then be exchanged for an inheritance (p.22). The bishop had a storehouse operational [the Gilbert & Whitney store, RCK] in 1831, and a printing establishment soon thereafter [the Literary Firm, RCK] (p.22). By July 1832, somewhere between 300-400 church members were in Jackson County, Missouri, "almost all of whom were located upon their inheritances" (p.22). By July 1833, one year later, 1,200 had gathered in Zion, about 700 of whom were converted Latter-day Saints (p.22) [= Morning & Evening Star 2 (July 1833): 110, "The Elders Stationed in Zion to the Church Abroad, in Love, Greeting"].
[[The authors are trying to interpret a very obtuse passage: "At present, we have not the exact number of the disciples, but suppose that there are near seven hundred. - Include these, with their children, and those who belong to families, and the number will probably amount to more than twelve hundred souls." Are disciples to be only the men? But then what about the women? Given that most families had more than one kid, 500 for all the children for 350 families is a very low estimate. Who else would belong to the families but not be a disciple? Grandparents? Maids? RCK]]
The authors also wonder about idleness in the community of the Zion inhabitants, which occasionally is mentioned in the sources.
Perhaps some of the immigrants, filled with the millenarian spirit of the times, did not understand the necessity of laboring to build up Zion. (p.22)Though some would later recall the Zion times fondly---cf. Parley P. Pratt autobiography---(p.22_ there were two serious problems (p.23), the legal status of the properties and the size of the inheritances (p.23). Partridge had come up with a way to lease the land out to the immigrants, to ensure that opportunism or free-loading were checked and that standards of quality could be maintained (p.23). [[See also the photocopies that I brought back from BYU, RCK]]
The authors then discuss some of the few deeds that have survived, which enumerated the responsibilities of both parties (p.23). The granting of the gift is itemized; in the case of James Lee, for example, that list included "household furnishings and clothing as well as livestock, farming equipment, and artisan's tools" (p.23). The specific items are
"... saddler tools, one candlestick & one washbowl valued seven dollars twenty five cents; --- also saddler's stock, trunks and harness work values twenty four dollars; --- also extra clothing valued three dollars" -- possessions totaling $34.25 in value. (p.24)The wealthiest example, George W. Pitkin, gifted
... "sundry articles of furniture values forty seven dollars thirty seven cents,---also three beds, bedding and extra clothing valued sixty eight dollars,---also sundry farming tools valued eleven dollars and fifty cents,---also two horses, one harness, one waggon, two cows and one calf valued one hundred and eighty one dollars"---the total worth $307.87 according to the evaluation agreed upon by himself and the bishop. (p.24)In return, the member received a loan and a lease of property.
Mormons would probably have called this document, printed on the other half of the form, a deed of stewardship or a stewardship agreement. In civil law it would be described as simply a lease-and-loan agreement. (p.24)
Only four completed land descriptions are known to have survived, leasing inheritances as small as carpenter Joseph Knight's village lot of 1.8 acres and as large as Levi Jackman's farm of 33 acres. (p.24)There are also cases of the consecration of an individual, where all the gift was returned as loan and lease--a system that could not have worked in the general case (p.24).
A widow could enter the system on her husband's terms, and minors until their coming of age had "a claim upon the property for their support" (p.25). Grown children started out like new converts, thus inheriting nothing from their parents (p.25).
A steward could not by his own decision expand the productive facilities of either farm or workshop, for each year his surplus would be taken into the common fund, unless the bishop decided otherwise. (p.25)The authors sum up the description with a historical comparison.
The economic system Joseph Smith offered his followers, especially his system of land tenure, would have fit more comfortably into medieval England than into Jacksonian America. (p.25)The approach did not translate well into the legal thinking of the frontier.
Judges on the frontier viewed properties held in trust with noticeable disfavor. Some apostates successfully sued in the courts for the return of their consecrated properties. (p.25)As Mario DePillis first pointed out in his dissertation (p.434 Fn 42), sometime after October 12th, 1832, when the Joseph Knight contract was dated, and before July 1833, when the Mormons were evicted from Jackson County, the format of the deeds changed, possibly in response to the legal challenges (p.26). In the face of such resistance, Joseph Smith Jr instructed Partridge on May 2nd, 1833 (p.26) to issue real deeds to the members for their inheritance. But it is not clear that the changes in the printed deeds were in reaction to the Prophet's instructions (p.27), because they came so late in the time frame and because the modifications to the wording are not completely in line with the Prophet's instructions (pp.27-28). The instructions of the prophet did arrive though, because the Church prepared its members (p.30) in June 1833 that they would be receiving "a warranty deed securing to himself and heirs, his inheritance in fee simple forever" [= Editorial in Morning and Evening Star, June 1833, p.100] (p.30).
It was also clear that the church was still struggling to explain to a skeptical environment that they were not doing a common-stock Quaker system (p.26). In an editorial from 1835, when reprinting the Morning and Evening Star from August 1832, Oliver Cowdery took position against this claim (p.26).
Some have said, and still say, that this Church, "has all things in common". This assertion is meant, not only to falsify on the subject of property, but to blast the reputation and moral characters of the members of the same.
The church in Jerusalem in the days of the apostles, had their earthly goods in common; the Nephites [inhabitants of ancient America described in the Book of Mormon], after the appearance of Christ, held theirs in the same way; but each government was differently organized from ours; and could admit of such a course when ours cannot. (p.26)The problem of how to assess fairly what the gift was and how much each family needed was also discussed in the May 2nd, 1833 letter, but it is doubtful that its instructions were implemented before July 1833 (pp.30-31).
The authors wonder whether the system of consecration was not flawed in that it gave to the poor more than they could handle, since they "were incapable of wise management of property" (p.31). While the bishop probably had theoretical flexibility in the amounts given out, the preponderance of poor made such a division scheme unlikely (pp.31-32). [[This tack is very surprising, that economic equalization seems to have been the driving motor of the law of consecration. RCK]]
The authors also share Brigham Young's suspicion that giving up the surplus was just not going to work.
I was present at the time the revelation came for the brethren to give their surplus property into the hands of the Bishops for the building up of Zion, but I never knew a man yet who had a dollar of surplus property. No matter how much one might have he wanted all he had for himself, for his children, his grandchildren, and so forth. [= BY, JD, 16:11] (p.32)The system was not long enough in implementation to be fully tested; persecution in Jackson County commenced in April 1833 and were in full swing in July 1833 (p.32).
In the aftermath of the Zion's Camp debacle, in a revelation from June 22, 1834 [= D&C 105], the law of consecration and stewardship was suspended until Zion could be freed with purchase rather than blood (p.32).
The authors then turn to the discussion of the new inferior law given in Far West 1838 (p.33), which was supposed to be different from the celestial because of "the pollution of the inheritances" in Jackson County (p.34), but it differed not markedly from the "celestial" version of the law. The law still required the consecration of surplus property (p.34), which "obviated the transfer and reverse transfer by requiring that he consecrate only his surplus and retain the remainder" (p.34). The law was also weakened to a tithe or a tenth of the annual increase, rather than the entire increase (p.34). What it did not obviate was some solution to how to define surplus, as people would make provisions for all that they had (p.35), as Brigham Young pointed out (p.35).
While in Far West, agricultural companies were formed, one for each compass direction (p.36); cf. also the testimony of John Corrill. Similar plans for mechanics, shopkeepers and laborers were under way (p.36). The goal was to implement "economic equality, socialization of surplus incomes, partial freedom of enterprise, and group economic self-sufficiency" (p.36). Again the eviction from Missouri, this time into Illinois, tanked the experiment.
In Nauvoo, no attempt was made to-instate the law of consecration and stewardship [= HC 4:93; 6:37f] (p.37). The authors see this as a sensible choice of the church leadership given the altered circumstances in Nauvoo.
The church had to make far larger unit investments in land in Nauvoo than it had ever been called upon to do before, and its resources, financial and otherwise, were relatively fewer, partly because of forced property sales and partly because of the heavy expenses of frequent moving and establishing service enterprises. (p.37)As a result, in 1841, the law of tithing was adopted (p.37). At the same time, some of the intentions had be left behind (p.38), namely the ability to redistribute property and equalize the economic standing.
Leonard J. ARRINGTON, Feramorz Y. FOX, Dean L. MAY, Building the City of God: Community & Cooperation among the Mormons, Salt Lake City UT (Deseret) 1976.