The Acts of the Mormons

by Andrew McLeod

The economy has been this election’s overarching theme, but neither Democrats nor Republicans really address the core issue that perpetuates and expands poverty and strife: the concentration of wealth and power.

Ultimately, the electoral struggle is to control an imperial power that has much in common with biblical Rome. Christian candidates’ ambitions are thus ultimately in conflict with Jesus’ central teachings and the practices of his first followers, who took inspiration from earlier Jewish struggles as they grappled with how to live within a wicked system. Most remarkably, they did this by sharing resources amongst themselves in the spirit of the Jubilee.

Ironically, Mitt Romney’s background as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides a fascinating case study for how to build an economy of faith. His position at the doorway to great power provides a chance for all of us to reflect on this history.

Mormons spent most of the 19th Century building their own economy based on radical sharing of resources, first in the Midwest and later in Utah. Although the results were mixed and Babylon ultimately regained control of the Mormon Zion, the Saints’ attempt to create Christ’s commonwealth are worth some attention. It was modeled after the biblical book of Acts and went well beyond anything described in that account.

Whatever its historical or theological shortcomings, Mormonism has been much more robust than any of the other Christian-based movements that sprang out of the revivalism of the 1820s and 30s. This was due to a confluence of factors, including a charismatic prophet with a compelling revelation. But Joseph Smith was not unique, so why did his teachings survive and grow?

Early immigrants to the Americas were a religious bunch, and many quickly discerned that they had not fully escaped the old ways of Europe, even as they attempted to form a new nation based on their highest ideals. Before long, separatist religious communes began to spring up like mushrooms, often with spiritually charged names like New Jerusalem or Zoar (see Gen 19:21-2). Most of these frontier groups were quite ephemeral, but one in Ohio, led by a preacher named Sidney Rigdon, provided fertile soil for the seed planted by Joseph Smith. The results were the United States’ most significant contribution to world religions – with more than 6 million members in its home country and 14 million members worldwide.

The early Saints used a collectivist approach to property, similar to how Jesus’ first followers “sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need” (Acts 2:45). But while Acts briefly mentions sharing of resources, there is no biblical record of the early church engaging in collective production of resources (indeed, Peter went right back to fishing and Paul made tents to support his travels). This lack of productivity likely contributed to the early church’s downfall: Its growing membership became increasingly dependent on wealthy new members handing over their property, which soon led to the sorts of tension decried by James (2:1-9) and Paul (1 Cor 11:17-34). The biblical book of Acts provides a few tantalizing clues of how Jesus’ first followers committed radical sharing of resources (4:32-5), chose their leaders (6:1-6) and sometimes gathered in huge general assemblies (15:1-31), but the details are mainly lost.

In contrast, the Mormons wrote everything down. Their archives in Salt Lake City contain newspapers and minutes from the meetings of their myriad organizations, as well as the personal diaries of many members. Thus, we can learn a lot more about the specific tactics the Mormons used in building up their alternative economy.

The Mormons employed something called the Law of Consecration, which called for believers to turn over their property and then be granted back a sufficient amount for their own support; this was the foundation for the Mormon commonwealth. The church also played a major role in economic development through its Perpetual Emigrating Company, which was tasked with “gathering the saints” to Utah from as far as Europe, providing subsidized passage for the poor on chartered ships, and organizing overland expeditions along cooperative lines.

Once in Utah, Mormons worked every tenth day based on the calling of religious leaders, while practicing radical redistribution of wealth – both voluntary and involuntary – to ensure that there were no poor among those who had made it to the new Zion. They created community-owned enterprises for wholesale, distribution and retail, as well as production of all sorts of goods. Communities minted their own money, usually stamped “Holiness to the Lord.” Members were strongly encouraged to abstain from imported goods – including alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee – in order to stave off the threat posed by the merchants of Babylon.

Leonard J. Arrington’s 1958 book Great Basin Kingdom presented this obscure history in great detail. This 400-page account showed how the Latter-day Saints responded to religious persecution with a sustained program of intense interdependence, and how that program was ended by federal intervention – partly at the urging of profiteers who were frustrated by this alternative economy getting in the way of their ambitions.

Today the church still controls a large network of enterprises that are worth many billions of dollars. But while the Mormon holdings now closely resemble a typical corporation in their activities and legal structure, they all originally stem from the radical sharing practiced by Mormons over a century ago.

Christians should give credit to the Mormons for their historic efforts to struggle together and build commonwealth. Modern Christians are not likely to copy all of it, as most of us face conditions quite different than frontier Utah. Additionally, we may believe that some parts of Mormon history are not worth reproducing. The Mormons did not adequately address concentration of power, but their work at sharing resources was noble indeed. By studying their work through the lens of Acts, we may find a way forward in troubled times.

Christians should prayerfully study this history in order to discern which parts might best address today’s economic challenges, and we should reach out to those Mormons who are interested in recapturing the spirit of our nation’s greatest experiment in building a New Jerusalem.