Would We Recognize the Early LDS Church?

13 Oct

In a similar vein to the last posting the Mormon Heretic wonders about why the modern Church is so different from the way it was at the beginning of this dispensation:

… If we moderns were to travel back in time, would we recognize them?

I’ve just finished reading Great Basin Kingdom by former Church Historian Leonard Arrington.  The book is subtitled “An Economic History of Latter-Day Saints 1830-1900″.  I liked the book, but it can get bogged down in the some boring economic details.  I was amazed to see how differently wards functioned than they do today.  It was interesting to see that Brigham Young tried a more limited form of Consecration.  Different forms of United Orders were established.  These are not exactly the same as the Law of Consecration, though there are quite a few similarities.

ZCMI is a famous department store in Utah, which shut down and sold it’s assets to Meier and Frank.  Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution comes from this early pioneer history, and often bought goods produced by the wards.  Check out this list of items produced by the wards!  I’ve changed the formatting for readability, but it is an exact quote from page 333, which talks about ward (and specifically economic) structure in 1870’s as the church was dealing with a nationwide depression.

  • In Salt Lake City, for example, the Eighth Ward operated a hat factory;
  • the Eleventh Ward, a tailor’s shop;
  • the Nineteenth Ward, a soap manufactory;
  • and the Twentieth Ward, a boot and shoe shop, all of which were referred to United Order enterprises.
  • In Logan, the First Ward initiated a large foundary and machine shop in which were produced sawmills, planing machines, and various kinds of agricultural implements and tools;
  • the Second Ward, in turn, operated a planing mill and woodworking shop in connection with seven sawmills, and a United Order store;
  • and the Third Ward owned a diary.

Most of these specialized U.O. enterprises lasted until the middle 1880’s, when the anti-polygamy “Raid” and other factors compelled the abandonment of such group projects.

It is hard for me to fathom that everyone in the ward participated in building a business.  I work 45 minutes away from home, and never see the people in my ward at church.

These United Order enterprises were extremely effective in helping to create an efficient workforce, producing needed products, and keeping people employed.  It certainly was not the free market economy we’ve come to expect today.  Mormons were encouraged to be self-sufficient.  Brigham Young started many of these enterprises, but died in 1877.  John Taylor kept them going, and they were helpful.  Both Young and Taylor did not want to import anything if possible, which did create some hard feelings with non-Mormons.  Many of these anti-polygamy feelings can be traced to non-Mormons wanting to break into the Mormon market, which was essentially a monopoly.

Even within these United Orders, there was some interesting dynamics.  There was an interesting story about a pair of pants.  From page 335,

Orderville had been founded in an atmosphere of dire poverty, and the common action which took place in the Order made it possible for members to eat and dress better than they had for years–better, in fact, than many residents in surrounding settlements where United Orders had not functioned successfully.  When the Utah Southern Railroad was completed to Milford, Utah, however, the rich mines at Silver Reef, nto far from Orderville were exploited to the full.  Within five years, more than $10,000,000 worth of silver was extracted.  Orderville’s neighbors, profiting from this boom, suddenly found themselves able to buy imported clothing and other store commodities.  The Saints at Orderville became “old fashioned”….Orderville adolescents began to envy the young people in the communities….

A young man wanted a new set of pants, but the rules of Orderville said that all clothing must come from the same bolt of cloth.  (All were equal, and there was no inequality among them.)  His pants had no holes, and his request for new pants was denied.  His community raised sheep.  From page 336,

When the lambs’ tails were docked, the young brother surreptitiously gathered them and sheared off the wool which he stored in sacks.  When he was assigned to take a load of wool to Nephi, he secretly took the lambs’ tail wool with his load and exchanged it for a pair of store paints.  On his return, he wore his new pants to the next dance.  His entrance caused a sensation.  The story is that one young lady rushed to him, embraced and kissed him.  The president of the Order demanded an explanation, and when it was truthfully given, he said:  “According to your own story these pants belong to the Order.  You are requested to appear before the Board of Management tomorrow evening at half past eight, and to bring the store pants with you.”

At the meeting, the young brother was commended for his enterprise, but was reminded that all pants must be made of cloth from the same bolt.  However, to prove its good will, the Board of Management agree to have the store pants unseamed and used as a pattern for all pants made in the future, and further, the young man in question would get the first pair.

As time went on these United Orders were dissolved in 1885 due to growing anti-polygamy prosecution.  From page 337,

With the disintegration of their collective institutions, after ten years of “cooperative living,” the older members began to reflect on the advantages of their previously enjoyed communal experience over the encroaching spirit of competitive individualism.  The chafing under restrictive regulation, the disagreements, the yearning for privacy were all forgotten, and their memories were sweet.  Almost every published reminiscence of life under the Order mentions it as the closes approximation to a well-ordered, supremely happy Christian life that was possible of achievement in human society.

This story made me laugh, but I think illustrates well some of the problems we don’t think about in “utopian” societies.  Do we really want equality in our society, where there are no poor and no rich among us?

The original article with comments can be read here

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Posted by on October 13, 2009 in History


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