The Truth: How 19th-century Mormon Collectivists Became Great Capitalists

One of the things we try to do here is show the backstory of Mormonism–the kind of story that journalists don’t really care to tell (it’s inconvenient and, frankly, often undermines what they’re trying to do).  While this response is a little slow to the match, it’s a story that hasn’t been told.

In an article published by Businessweek entitled, “How the Mormons Make Money,” the author essentially argues that Mormonism is basically a multinational corporation.  We only talk like people who believe; at the end of the day, the suits at the Church Office Building ultimately follow the God of the Almighty Buck.   Accentuating their piece is a cover image portraying John the Baptist giving Joseph Smith priesthood authority while  he directs Joseph to get rich.

Stage One: Easy Credit and Refugees
The author would like us to believe that Mormonism has been about the $$$ from day one.  If so, Joseph did a terrible job of following the business-savy angels instructions. For all of Joseph Smith’s days, financial troubles haunted him.  He contracted large debts to fund the building his various city projects in Missouri and Nauvoo, Illinois.  Even more, Joseph had little interest in forcing his followers to pay him back.  When Joseph built a store, contemporaries–including Joseph’s close friends–scratched their heads as Joseph extended credit to customers clearly in no position to pay him back. Joseph Smith filed bankruptcy in February 1844, only months before his death.  When the Saints left Illinois in spring 1846, their encampments on the Mississippi looked more like the cover pamphlet to a Christian Children’s Fund they did millionaires in the making.

Stage Two: Utah
When the Saints arrived in Utah, capital was so limited that the idea of developing a thriving outpost of the free market was ludicrous.  Under Brigham Young’s guidance, the Saints established a wide array of public works projects: mills, observatories, roads, to say nothing of a temple site.  They did not want complete isolation; for years, they begged Congress to build railroads and telegraphs to the region.  But they wanted economic integration on their own terms.  Never again would they find themselves as refugees driven from their own property; Missouri and Illinois were more than enough to frighten all of them into a kind of ongoing vigilance against the machinations of all outsiders: capitalist entrepeneurs and government bureaucrats alike.

Their first genuine encounter with the American economy came when President James Buchanan ordered 2,500 troops to crack down on what had been rumored to be a Mormon rebellion.  The conflict ended with virtually no bloodshed, and for the first time, the Saints had access to a real market and real capital.  The Saints sold their wares to a army bored stiff as they waited to put down the so-called Mormon rebellion.  One soldier wrote that “Mormonism is a scheme for making money” and “a “monstrous cross between Religion and Mammon, between New England Puritanism, and New England…shrewdness in money-getting” (JW Phelps letter, April 13, 1859).  In the meantime, the Saints were constantly annoyed by army groupies and federal bureaucrats attempting to overwhelm the Saints’ society.

Stage Three: The Transcontinental Railroad                                                                                                                                                     By the late 1860s, the Saints had established themselves in the heart of the Great Basin and had successfully attained a degree of self-sustenance. But a new era was dawning: the era of the railroads.  Fearful that their “mountain home” would be teeming with foreign “Irish” laborers, Young contracted with Union Pacific to grade the land in preparation for the Utah section of the railroad.   Hopefully, he thought, the Saints could keep the land and economic resources in Mormon hands.

Young’s efforts to hold back Eastern capitalism turned former friends against him.  And the economic forces  of the Industrial Revolution were too powerful for the Saints to stave off.  The railroads eventually fell into non-Mormon hands, and Eastern society seeped into Mormon Utah through sewing machines, dance halls (“the wicked waltz”), suits, and dresses.  Federal efforts to crack down on Mormon polygamy in the 1880s were gravy–Mormon acquiescence to American norms were already well underway.

Conclusion                                                                                                                                                                                                                               By the early 20th-century, the Saints found themselves in a new Utah.  They had gone from being a territorial outpost to a newly-formed state.  But admission came with a  price.  The Mormons had to embrace American values, the political system, and the free market.  The first Mormon senator of note, Reed Smoot (who also happened to be in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the second-highest governing body for the Church) became famously boring for his economic conservatism and play-by-the-GOP-rules approach mentality.

Faced with a barrage of outside forces seeking to undermine them on all fronts, the Saints have sought not to be rich but to be independent.  Throughout the 19th-century, they have struggled to maintain their identity in the face of mob violence, military onslaught, and economic predominance.  When forced to accept American capitalism, they treated the capitalists like they treated Johnston’s Army.  If you can’t beat them, out-haggle them or join them.  And then beat them.