Monday, July 8, 2013
Building the City of God
The visions leading Joseph Smith to found a new religion were a consequence of the young man's concern over religious pluralism in the upstate New York community where he spent his youth. In every surviving written account of the circumstances leading to his calling as prophet, he emphasized the anxiety caused him by the spectacle of competing religions, an anxiety no doubt exacerbated by division within his own family on religious questions. The central messages he took from his first and subsequent visions were that all churches were in error and that if he prepared himself, God would make him an instrument in restoring the one true church. A major aspect of his subsequent life's work was the effort to organize and unify for himself and his followers a structured haven in a society that seemed about to disintegrate from the excesses of individualism and pluralism. "Behold, mine house is a house of order, ... and not of confusion," God declared to Joseph Smith in an important revelation recorded in 1843 [D&C 132, 8]. The statement became one of the most oft-quoted maxims of church organization and government among Mormons.
The Law of Consecration and Stewardship, which Joseph Smith announced in February 1831, know variously as "the Lord's law," the "Order of Enoch," the "First United Order," or the "Order of Stewardship," was intended to be a major instrument in reorganizing the social and economic patterns of life among his followers. Moreover, it was to provide the model upon which all human society would be organized when the Savior returned to the latter-day Zion in Missouri. It would build unity among a people fragmented by their individualistic search for economic well-being. It would impose order upon the chaos of a society suffering from an excess of liberty. An ideal community of the Saints would be prepared to administer Christ's millennial reign - a people divested of selfishness and greed, living in square-surveyed towns, and villages, surrounded by productive farmlands. Order, unity, and community were the supreme values of the Prophet's ideal society - values strikingly at odds with those characteristic of antebellum America.
Nevertheless, the attempted establishment of ideal communities was an experience long reminding faithful Mormons of a promise unfulfilled that they might be called upon at any moment to bring to fruition. A frequently used measure against which Mormons still test their faith is to ask themselves rhetorically if they could live the United Order if called upon to do so.
Quite simply, nineteenth-century Mormons believed that God's commands to all the modern world were channeled through the mouths of Joseph Smith and his successors. To cut oneself off from that source of divine guidance was to jeopardize a chance for eternal exaltation. Were it not for that belief, the Mormons would almost certainly have failed to sustain themselves through the trials that forced upon them the necessity and ultimately the habit of cooperation. Neither institutions nor sermons alone, but a common experience endured because of faith, established the cooperative spirit for which Latter-day Saints are known.
In many respects the United Order experiment in Brigham Young's Utah may be seen as an afterclap of the social idealism of Joseph Smith. 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. Brigham Young's reprise of Mormon communitarianism was by contrast out of time and place-an unusual manifestation of anticapitalist economic idealism at a time when Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockerfeller were becoming national heroes. A federal government that earlier, in the name of states' rights, had stood by while local officials destroyed Mormon experimentation now aggressively pursued the same end in its own drive to stamp out Utah's "un-American" culture and economic values. The hundred-year period from the Civil War to the Vietnamese War was not an auspicious time for the launching of communal experiments in America.
Nevertheless, a corollary of his observations, as he pointed out [economist Richard T. Ely in 1903], is that Mormonism has been remarkably successful in teaching individuals to sacrifice their own interests for those of the group.
A powerful demonstration of Mormon selflessness occurred in the early summer of 1976 when the Teton Dam in the Snake River Valley of southeastern Idaho burst, flooding the communities and farms of approximately 40,000 persons, over 90 percent of the Latter-day Saints. Less than three hours after reports from the flood area reached Salt Lake City, trucks were dispatched from Welfare Square to supplement supplies of commodities already available in nearby bishops' storehouses.
The Church organizational structure was employed in subsequent weeks to account for missing persons, to provide temporary food and housing for more than 15,000 homeless, and, after the waters receded, to clean and repair hundreds of damaged homes. Well into the summer of 1976, crews of Latter-day Saint volunteers from areas in other parts of Idaho and in Utah were bussed regularly to assist in the massive reconstruction effort. For several weeks an average of 2,000 volunteers rode daily from Cache Valley, Utah-Idaho (200 miles away); Star Valley, Wyoming; Davis County, Utah, and elsewhere to help in the cleaning and rebuilding process. Church leaders from the flooded areas, requesting electricians, were supplied with more than 400 trained men [one of them being my paternal Grandfather] in one week, including 263 of them from the Kaysville Utah Stake, 300 miles away.
It seems likely that when the story of this disaster is fully told, the combination of Mormon priesthood structure and the instinct for cooperative endeavor among the members will be seen as the most powerful agent combatting the effects of the Teton flood. The group character displayed during the aftermath of this disaster would be essential to the successful functioning of a society that seriously attempted to distribute goods and services according to need and exact contributions according to ability. It may be that in the degree of their social achievement as well as in the scope of their design, the Mormons remain the most accomplished of all the communitarians America has produced.
Chapter 2 - Communitarianism under Joseph Smith:
The Law of Consecration and Stewardship
The beginning of Mormon communitarianism, the Law of Consecration and Stewardship, was first outlined in a revelation to Joseph Smith dated February 9, 1831. 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. Upon the basic principle that the earth and everything on it belongs to the Lord, every person who was a member of the church at the time the system was introduced or became a member thereafter was asked to "consecrate" or deed all his property, both real and personal, to the bishop of the church. The bishop would then grant and "inheritance" or "stewardship" to every family out of the properties so received, the amount depending on the wants and needs of the family, as determined jointly by the bishop and the prospective steward. 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.
John Corrill, an apostate Mormon bishop, in one of the first published histories of the Latter-day Saints, emphasized the role of the Law of Consecration and Stewardship as follows:
It is believed by them [the Latter-day Saints] that the Church ought to act in concert, and feel one general interest in building up the "great cause"; and that every man ought to consider his property as consecrated to the Lord for that purpose...
Perhaps some of the immigrants, filled with the millenarian spirit of the times, did not understand the necessity of laboring to build up Zion. Officials found it necessary to caution prospective immigrants not to give away their property before leaving for Zion. Despite these hindrances, however, some participants later wrote of the Jackson County experiment with pronounced nostalgia.
"There was a spirit of peace and union, and love and good will manifested in this little Church in the wilderness, the memory of which will be ever dear to my heart...Peace and plenty crowned their labors, and the wilderness became a fruitful field, and the solitary place began to bud and blossom as the rose...In short, there has seldom, if ever, been a happier people upon the earth than the Church of the Saints now were." - Parley P. Pratt
...the bishop of the church in Jackson County, Edward Partridge, in the allotment of land purchased for the purpose, took the attitude that the inheritances ought to be tentative, entitling each settler to a right of use only, with a lease subject to cancellation on the order of the bishop. Considering the uncertainty in the number of converts for which he would have to provide land, the temporary nature of the allotments would make it possible for Partridge to make reappointment, if necessary, to provide for new arrivals. This plan would also discourage, opportunists who might join the group to acquire an inheritance, and promptly withdraw. Finally, the non-title policy gave Partridge the power, under threat of the forfeiture of the entire stewardship, to enforce standards of workmanship, social behavior, and personal morality among those receiving inheritances. The wealth of the community would never be lost to apostates, "trouble-makers," or idlers.
When the revelation...was given in 1838, I [Brigham Young] was present, and recollect the feelings of the brethren...The brethren wished me to go among the Churches, and find out what surplus property the people had, with which to forward the building of the Temple we were commencing at Far West. I accordingly went from place to place through the country. Before I started, I asked brother Joseph, "Who shall be the judge of what is surplus property?" Said he, "Let them be the judges themselves..."
Then I replied, "I will go and ask them for their surplus property"; and I did so; I found the people said they were willing to do about as they were counseled, but, upon asking them about their surplus property, most of the men who owned land and cattle would say, "I have got so many hundred acres of land, and I have got so many boys, and I want each one of them to have eighty acres, therefore this is not surplus property." Again, "I have got so many girls, and I do not believe I shall be able to give them more than forty acres each." "Well, you have got two or three hundred acres left." "Yes, but I have a brother-in-law coming on, and he will depend on me for a living; my wife's nephew is also coming on, he is poor, and I shall have to furnish him a farm after he arrives here." I would go on to the next one, and he would have more land and cattle than he could make use of to advantage. It is a laughable idea, but is nevertheless true, men would tell me they were young and beginning in the world, and would say, "We have no children, but our prospects are good, and we think we shall have a family of children, and if we do, we want to give them eighty acres of land each; we have no surplus property." "How many cattle have you?" "So many." "How many horses?" "So many, but I have made provisions for all these, and I have use for everything I have got."
Some were disposed to do right with their surplus property, and once in a while you would find a man who had a cow which he considered surplus, but generally she was of the class that would kick a person's hat off, or eyes out, or the wolves had eaten off her teats. You would once in a while find a man who had a horse that he considered surplus, but at the same time he had the ringbone, was broken-winded, spavined in both legs, and had the pole evil at one end of the neck and a fistula at the other, and both knees sprung.
Brigham Young, who was a member of the church during most of the early period, later explained that "persons would conceal from Joseph that they had any money; and, after they had spent of lost it all, would come to him and say, 'O how I love you, Brother Joseph!' " On another occasion, many years after the system had been tried, George A. Smith said:
The Lord endeavored to establish the order of Zion then, but while some considered it a privilege to consecrate their property to the Lord, others were covetous, and thought about looking after their own interests in preference to those of the Work of God.
In counseling the faithful not to enter into communal economic ventures on their own, he [Joseph Smith] placed himself in a position of apparent opposition to the principles that had recently held so high a place in his millennial vision. It would be wrong to conclude from this, however, that he had given up the Law of Consecration and Stewardship forever. He frequently couched his remonstrances against the communalistic stirrings of the Nauvoo Saints in terms that permitted a possible future renewal of the system. Brigham Young, who probably knew Joseph's mind as well as anyone, quite obviously hoped to effect within his lifetime a return to the ideal economic system announced in 1831. Apparently the command to live the "more perfect law of the Lord" was seen by Joseph Smith to be simply in abeyance until some future time when God should again speak on the matter.
(more to come)