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Communitarianism and Consecration in Mormonism

Abstract and Keywords

Throughout their tumultuous history, Mormons have sporadically invoked a flexible practice of property donation—or “consecration”—to provide for community needs, to insulate themselves economically from the host society, and to assimilate into that society. This chapter traces Mormon communitarianism across LDS history, from its radical beginnings amidst the ferment of pre–Civil War religious awakenings to its reformulation during the Cold War era, when Mormons largely integrated within the ranks of American political and economic conservatives. Over that span, Mormons were inspired by, fought over, depended upon, ignored, revived, and almost forgot their distinctive communitarian principles. Moreover, the living of the Mormon communitarian vision has been complicated by internal divisions (often involving the communitarian specifics themselves), changing relations with the American nation state, and economic transformations within and outside the church.

Keywords: communitarianism, community, consecration, conservatism, economics

Introduction: The Communitarian Vision and Its Discontents

The early Mormon communitarian formula was simple enough. In a move emblematic of his habit of simultaneously validating and assaulting traditional Christianity, founding prophet Joseph Smith bowed at the altar of the Bible and then altered it to fit his seeric vision. In what he viewed as an inspired expansion of Genesis, Smith extended its brief reference to Enoch and provided his infant Church of Christ a template for its leap into sacred time and space. God called Enoch’s ancient holy city and people “Zion,” his extended text read, “because they were of one heart and of one mind and dwelt in righteousness and there was no poor among them.” The tripartite longing for a people characterized by unity, righteousness, and socioeconomic equality did not necessarily represent a radical departure from previous Christian communitarian experiments, but Mormon implementation of Smith’s vision nevertheless proved controversial in the extreme. The text itself hinted at future trouble. First, if Enoch was one of Smith’s model-analogs, and there is evidence he was, then Americans would have to reckon with a community led by an Old Testament–style prophet, not merely another enthusiastic frontier preacher. Second, if Smith’s revisionist text was indeed scripture, an already crowded religious landscape now had a radically anti-individualistic voice to contend with. Third, if Zion named both a people and a literal holy place apart, Smith’s vision was inescapably political at its core. Early Mormon communities, in other words, complicated already heated American contests over religion, authority, economy, and politics.1

(p. 578) Smith and the early Mormons hoped his Zionic ideals would salve proliferating divisions in American life, but they proved divisive, not only between Mormons and unbelievers, but bitterly so among Latter-day Saints themselves. Indeed, the means to Smith’s visionary ends split the community in successive rounds. What emerges from the Mormon past is not a unitary set of strategies for realizing the goals articulated in the early texts and sermons. Rather, broad principles were themselves set in complicated relationships in documents deemed sacred by various groups, across decades and in diverse locations. From that unwieldy canonical effusion flowed an evolving and contested inventory of ideas and attempts to define a holy community. Though most Mormons across the spectrum of traditions tracing their roots to Joseph Smith would still assent to unity, righteousness, and socioeconomic equality as defining institutional goals, the fractious nineteenth-century ecclesiastical family was thoroughly bedeviled by the communitarian details.

In the early rounds of intra-Mormon wrangling over the parameters of the Zionic city, a central tension became clear. Future LDS Church president Wilford Woodruff recorded a memorable entry in his journal that marked his commitment to the Mormon project as he understood it. On the last day of 1834, Woodruff wrote: “Be it known that I Wilford Woodruff do freely covenant with my God that I freely consecrate and dedicate myself together with all my properties and affects unto the Lord for the purpose of assisting in building up his kingdom even Zion on the earth that I may keep his law and lay all things before the bishop of his Church that I may be a lawful heir to the Kingdom of God.” This total devotion of self and property to the cause not only marked Woodruff as a loyalist during the disputes of 1837–38 and 1842–45, it anticipated his success among like-minded successors to Smith. Voicing his opposition to just this kind of complete commitment to Smith’s directives, Warren Cowdery editorialized in the Mormon paper two and a half years after Woodruff’s vow. After narrating the financial disaster that had rocked the Ohio LDS community, Cowdery questioned fellow Latter-day Saints’ trust in Smith’s economic direction. “If we give all our privileges to one man, we virtually give him our money and our liberties, and make him a monarch, absolute and despotic, and ourselves abject slaves or fawning sycophants.” In Cowdery’s mind, Smith had overstepped his role and brought the church into conflict with American liberty in the process. “Who does not see a principle of popery and religious tyranny involved in such an order of things?” Mormonism could scarcely hold together given such bitter differences over communal definition. At no point did Mormons resolve these fundamental paradoxes; rather, ongoing and often divisive engagement with them has long shaped the LDS communal experience.2

With tumultuous internal conflict nearly halving the community every few years, Latter-day Saints also found themselves at odds with nonbelievers. Mormon communal history existed in dynamic tension with broader narratives and developments, sometimes parallel and sometimes crosscutting. Clearly, Mormons hoped to redeem what they regarded as a society wracked with factions, hyperindividualism, and economic exploitation. By aggressively addressing those evils as they did, Mormons can be seen as swimming against strong cultural currents. They never transcended their received (p. 579) culture, however. Given their minority status and the power differentials that defined the nineteenth century, Mormons seemed inexorably pulled toward the centers of American life. In many ways, nineteenth-century Mormons seem tenaciously anachronistic, existing just behind the powerful, contested processes of capitalist elaboration and secularizing modernity. Moreover, because their economic activities were lashed so tightly with their controversial family arrangements, attacks on the latter could, and did, devastate the former. And Mormons ultimately found attractive opportunities closer to the centers of cultural power. The push of American courts, hostile federal officials, reform crusaders, and social critics was arguably matched by the pull of potential growth, cultural influence, and institutional coherence. Near the turn of the twentieth century, Mormon communitarianism was dramatically refashioned in the heat of national outrage and under the weight of the Saints’ own modernist aspirations.

The Ebb and Flow of Early Mormon Community Building

Against the backdrop of surging market elaboration and widespread valorization of politicoeconomic individualism in antebellum culture, Mormons can be cast as radical dissenters. Communitarianism was but another way that they stood apart, in their own minds, from a world ripening in iniquity. Early LDS communities were born in the shadow of Christian antecedents and developed in an age of communal experimentation. Their forms owed general direction to the broad expressions of Smith’s revelations, but few, least of all Smith himself, indulged in rigidity or legalism with the details. Mormons mostly pulled back from communalism of property, unlike the Shakers, and were publicly sensitive to charges that they trafficked in a “common-stock” system. Also in distinction to other contemporary communal societies, Mormons mostly resisted shared living arrangements, preferring instead individual family dwellings. These moderate positions, however, are mitigated by the sheer scale of Brigham Young’s efforts, discussed below, to hold back the capitalist tide and to remake the economy of the entire Great Basin region along the lines of Smith’s early revelations.3

Early Mormons physically “gathered” together into new communities. The successive Mormon centers existed at the intersection of a millennial timetable and the hope for urban spaces wholly dedicated to righteousness. Joseph Smith’s infant church was called to social order by an 1831 revelation instructing New York believers to join with those in Ohio. Subsequent revelations marked western Missouri as the eschatological center, the place for the holy city and a temple to be built for the returning Christ. A capital and satellite model was glossed with Old Testament language: a center place would be secured with outlying “stakes” to form the canopy of God’s earthly kingdom (Isaiah 54:2). An 1833 city plat provided Smith’s vision in brick-and-mortar terms: the “New Jerusalem” would evoke the ancient Israelite capital’s centrality in sacred space. To drive the point (p. 580) home, streets in the Missouri city were to be named “Jerusalem Street” and “Bethlehem Street.” Three concentric zones collapsed on a temple complex, which would function as the Mormons’ axis mundi. In designing his city this way, Smith’s vision captured competing impulses in antebellum culture. The farmer-prophet envisioned a city, not a hamlet. Its residential zone evinced a profound egalitarianism; lots were identical for those receiving a share in the new Zion. Even so, the temple anchored the city, and the Mormon priesthood, it was understood, would guide the community in its totality. This Zion mixed strong models of authority with pronounced leveling and populist protest against the market and churchly elites that, Latter-day Saints said, threatened to wreck the nation’s righteous promise.4

As a cornerstone of the Zion-making project, Smith issued a revelation that set the community apart economically. Saints would “consecrate” their property for the poor’s care and the work of the church. They would deed property to the church bishop and receive a “stewardship” over an allotment in return. Any surplus (“residue”) would be kept in a “storehouse” for distribution to the poor. Many found the revelations’ underlying logic compelling: all is God’s, and human beings, as stewards, are accountable to the Maker for their use of His creative bounty. As it developed, the Missouri community received the most attention in terms of the revelation’s property redistribution passages. Church leaders originally conceived of the revelation in terms of use rights only for individuals, with the church retaining ultimate ownership, but non-Mormon judges disagreed when ex-Mormons sued. In Ohio, Smith focused his efforts, at least between 1832 and 1834, on a management company he named the United Firm, which was given supervisory responsibility over both communities. The firm proved to be a microcosm of the broader struggle to realize the Zionic ideal. Members accused each other of wrongdoing, some found fault with Smith, and the firm’s debts were inequitably settled, largely on the back of talented businessman Newell K. Whitney. After Smith implemented a series of local “high councils” to oversee the largest Mormon centers, economic direction was localized, too, and the firm was officially dissolved in 1834. (Ironically, Brigham Young adopted a code name for the firm, the “United Order,”—invoked by Smith to conceal members’ identities in the published revelation—for his cooperative initiatives in the 1870s.) By 1836, church leaders had organized a bank but failed to secure a state charter; backed mostly by real estate and chronically short of specie, it had a brief and inglorious tenure. When it failed in the panic of 1837, hundreds of Ohio Mormons turned away, convinced that Smith was a fallen prophet. For many, the banking particulars were less at issue than the feasibility of Smith’s holy-city model generally (Doctrine and Covenants [D&C] 42:1–10, 30–55; 104).5

After these abortive attempts at centralized economic control, official pronouncements in 1838 and 1841 adjusted the details but left the larger vision intact. An 1838 revelation formalized what had begun as a precipitous drop-off of initial consecrations after 1834. It stipulated that church members should give all their surplus property in an initial consecration and, thereafter, they would be required to “pay one-tenth of all their interest annually” as a “standing law.” Since the surplus donation replaced the totalizing consecrations from earlier years, some commentators in retrospect marked this 1838 text (p. 581) as the end of the Law of Consecration in Mormonism. Some of Smith’s eventual chief lieutenants in the church’s apostolic quorum did not see things this way, however. When the northern Missouri center crumbled just months following the revelation, apostle Brigham Young, left to coordinate the flight from the state, invoked the law’s principles and bound Latter-day Saints to donate all to support the removal of the ill and destitute (D&C 119:1–4).6

The subsequent Mormon capital in Illinois was less insulated than Smith’s other Zions had been, but his truncated economic program still spawned division. At times, Smith preached against socialism and communitarian experimentation. At other times, he initiated reforms that pulled the community away from capitalist or industrializing priorities. While economic development in Illinois fell short of “systematic,” leaders sporadically instituted cooperative measures to address the issues of settlement, labor markets, care for the poor and missionaries’ wives, and some key community building projects—the impressive Nauvoo Temple not the least. An 1841 revelation required the temple’s construction and, in addition, a hotel that might welcome dignitaries to the city. The call for the temple was not surprising, but the hotel marked an innovation, signaling both perhaps a less insular tone for the Illinois gathering (especially important after the Missouri disaster) and an acknowledgment that church building projects could provide needed employment for emigrating converts. Smith had imagined holy cities from the start, but some within and outside the church puzzled that the city’s economy seemed distracted with the mere housing and feeding of the Saints; its industrial and manufacturing potential seemed perpetually untapped. Its agrarian orientation irked some prosperous Mormons. Once theological disputes and, especially, Smith’s clandestine polygamy were added to the mix, some of Nauvoo’s leading citizens fashioned a protest movement from their distaste for polygamy’s scandal and their sense that Smith’s economic and political direction amounted to tyranny. When dissenters published the first issue of a renegade paper, their concerns were clear enough. Along with charges of polygamy and political machination, they worried over their economic autonomy: they would “oppose the sacrifice of the Liberty, the Property, and the Happiness of the many, to the pride and ambition of the few.” This line, of course, inverted the church leader’s official narrative, which held that the restraint of personal ambition might rile the selfish, but it was a necessary prerequisite for the city of holiness (D&C 124:22–27).7

A Cooperative Almost-Kingdom in the West

Brigham Young remained committed to Smith’s vision. He and apostles Orson Pratt and Lorenzo Snow were its most vigorous defenders and they coaxed along less enthusiastic leaders after Smith’s assassination. Young had cut his teeth as a leader during the evacuation crisis of 1838 and, in 1846, he drew on Smith’s consecration ideals for yet another (p. 582) mass removal. The famed Mormon exodus tested community resources and patience, but Young and his fellow apostles, having successfully wrested ecclesiastical control from rivals, secured a gathering place at sufficient distance from other white settlers to enable them to build God’s kingdom in peace, or so they thought. In the heady days of removal and early settlement, Mormon leaders planned a unified political, religious, and economic kingdom in imagined isolation. History exposed the separation fiction quickly: war with Mexico brought them again within the nation’s political reach in 1848, thousands of Native Americans both enabled and impeded their plans, the California gold rush brought thousands of emigrants through the territory by 1852, and, by 1858, a federal army had set up camp between the two largest LDS settlements. The linking of the transcontinental railroad in Utah in 1869 formalized what should have been clear earlier: Mormons would face the problems of integration and adaptation sooner rather than later.8

Still, the Rocky Mountain Saints persisted in their temporal kingdom building until the end of the century. Though historians argue over whether it was politics or polygamy that propelled a final showdown with the federal government, the Saints’ new economic cooperatives were deeply implicated in their tense relationships with non-Mormons, since antagonists routinely denounced centralized economic direction as a critical cog in the theocratic machine. Given both the realities of settlement in a sometimes unforgiving landscape and the threats Young perceived in “Gentile” (that is, non-Mormon) culture, in his own mind he had little choice but to press the Zionic vision with increasingly elaborate plans, eventually ranging well beyond anything Smith had implemented.

The kinds of informal, sporadic measures of the Illinois period continued to characterize Mormon efforts in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The famous Perpetual Emigrating Fund, hatched in 1849, offered a rotating source of credit to aid Mormons still gathering from the east and, eventually, from Europe. Despite its assistance to thousands of emigrants, the fund was hampered by indebtedness—over a million dollars’ worth by 1880. Though unsuccessful as a business venture, the fund fulfilled its purpose of aiding the poor in their pilgrimage to Zion. In new settlements, Mormons fenced communally, supported community fields, irrigated by means of central church direction, donated surpluses to care for the poor, and deferred to church authorities to settle economic disputes. As congregational wards increasingly became the units of ecclesiastical administration, local LDS bishops “became in practice watermasters, fence supervisors, and bridge builders.” Public projects, virtually indistinguishable from church projects for decades, gave the poor work opportunities. An ethic of sharing, saving, and avoidance of avarice was to keep the communities viable. No one was to take more land, timber, or water than he could use. Church leaders provided direction and correction in such matters. And since the church offered the most plentiful source of capital and authoritative advice on how resources might be allocated, non-Mormons in Utah found themselves often straining against powerful economic currents.9

The beginnings of more systemic and church-wide provisions developed in response to Young’s sense of economic vulnerability. He feared the outbreak of gold fever and chafed at the presence of Gentile traders, sure that that their prices were exorbitant and (p. 583) their motives were foul. Defectors also frustrated him. In response, in 1854 he initiated an abortive program of consecration in which LDS property might be brought under centralized control. Consecrations were indeed recorded across the territory, but the fact that no property appears to have changed hands would make the move appear symbolic were it not for subsequent developments. With those in mind, the so-called consecration movement looks more like the first stirrings of Young’s yearning to realize Smith’s communitarian dream. The “Utah War” crisis derailed elaboration of the plan and Young was forced to put off additional innovations until the nation was distracted by the Civil War.10

In the 1860s, leaders put forward measures intended to increase self-sufficiency, weaken Gentile economic power, and insulate the Saints from corrosive elements of “eastern” society. To provide for the need for finished goods and unavailable staples, Young orchestrated a two-pronged plan: consumer associations and a boycott of Gentile merchants. Both were controversial. Young worried that if simply integrated into the national economy, Mormons would ever be at a disadvantage, forced to buy manufactured goods at a mark-up while letting resources bleed out of the territory. Early on, he restricted Mormons from trade altogether, but underestimated the consequences—he unwittingly had provided the gentiles sole possession of the field.

In the mid-1860s, he reversed course and attempted a Mormon monopoly of trade, which naturally sent non-Mormons into an uproar. LDS missionaries and converts had witnessed the success of a consumers’ cooperative in Rochdale, England, and Mormon leaders seem to have taken their cue in part from English precedents. Lorenzo Snow established an extensive and successful cooperative at Brigham City in northern Utah. His goal, simply put, was for the community to manufacture all that it consumed. A cooperative store came first, in 1864, with a generous commodity dividend structure that made subscription attractive. A two-story tannery, a wool factory, sawmills, brick and adobe shops, a limekiln, blacksmith and furniture shops (all built by community labor), and community herds of sheep, cattle, and hogs followed. By 1874, Snow’s dream was a virtual reality. The 400-odd families in the community were more or less self-sufficient; 372 shareholders owned the Brigham City Co-op. Its success was itself an eventual liability, however, as growth and its diversity of operations severely taxed community organizational and administrative resources. In 1877, chronic scarcities of cash, a crop nearly wiped out by grasshoppers, and a devastating fire in the woolen mill all took their toll. A year later, the US Collector of Internal Revenue levied a stiff penalty tax on the Co-op script. Never able to fully recover from the turbulent two-year reversal of fortune, the Brigham City experience nonetheless profoundly shaped Brigham Young’s hopes for church-wide program.11

Four years after the inauguration of the Brigham City project, leaders in Salt Lake City established Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) to secure manufactured goods at reasonable prices. Such an institution met with Young’s approval because it tended, in his view, to check the covetousness of the few and to enrich the many. It also guarded church members from exploitation. Under the plan, individuals could buy stock in the institution, which would negotiate prices and offer goods through a central (p. 584) store in Salt Lake City, which then functioned as a wholesale distributer to branches throughout the territory. Since there was no restriction on the sale of shares (the wealthy could amass large holdings) and since voting rights were based on the numbers of shares owned, ZCMI bred less socioeconomic leveling than Young had hoped for, however. He capitulated on these matters to entice the most well-to-do Mormons to invest in the project’s success. The institution achieved modest success for decades and, if the central store was more a joint-stock company, some of the retail stores veered toward a more cooperative framework.12

Against the backdrop of a national financial crisis in 1873, Brigham Young pushed ahead with even more daring arrangements in 1874. In a profusion of sermons, LDS leaders challenged Mormons with equal parts of the rhetoric of agrarian dissent (worries about speculation, credit manipulation) and the language of Mormon revelation (unity, care for the poor). Young had long been wary of the lure of Gentile mines and luxuries and, faced with reports that southern Utah communities were increasingly dependent on Nevada mining, he and other Mormon leaders reenvisioned cooperation. They dubbed the new system the United Order of Enoch or, simply, the United Order—admittedly amorphous terms invoked to describe a wide array of measures—and proposed a fundamental restructuring of the Mormon economy. Each urban ward or rural village would constitute an individual “order,” bound by covenant to live piously and to pool both capital and labor. Local church authorities, or the boards they appointed, would provide centralized direction. Early talk seemed to jettison the notion of private property altogether; members would transfer property to the board and agree to assume those duties assigned to them. Disparities between rich and poor would evaporate. Simple living and renunciation of materialism would provide the excess capital needed to spur local production and, finally, insulate the Saints from dependency and ruin. As both a marker of the order’s new realities and a symbol of its uniting of the sacred and temporal, individuals entering the orders were often rebaptized.13

Predictably, dissent issued immediately from both within and outside the church. Non-Mormons in Utah decried the enhanced controls against trade and charged Young with constructing an un-American monopoly. Others gleefully noted that not even all church leaders had put their property in the communal pot. Indeed, resistance seemed most pointed at the Mormon capital: though orders were organized in every Salt Lake City ward (that is, its twenty individual congregations), only one actually incorporated. The orders were more successful in the rural Mormon villages, but at the ecclesiastical and cultural center, the faith’s intelligentsia and business leaders responded coolly to the new program. At one end of the spectrum came questions about the order’s relationship to Smith’s revelations. What of the early scriptural emphasis on individual “stewardships”? some asked. At the other end, dissidents coupled their outrage over the order with broader critiques of Young’s leadership or of Mormonism’s perceived hostility to individuality and free thought. A small but influential group of Salt Lake City elites had become mouthpieces for dissent in the late 1860s and they intensified their criticisms as the orders developed. Speaking to a crowd in Salt Lake City in 1874, leaders of the resistance denounced Young’s “last swindle” to rapturous applause.14

(p. 585) In response to the criticism, Mormon leaders granted that times had changed since the 1830s, adjusted particulars to allow for privatization in some quarters, and gave local orders latitude in working out details. As a result, the orders varied in form and success depending on local circumstances. Few lasted more than a couple of years, but some could point to notable achievements. In St. George, site of the first order, the Mormons’ first western temple stood as its crowning achievement, and, like ritual rebaptism, a telling symbol of their monism. The famed commune at Orderville in southern Utah enjoyed marked success for a few years and represented the far end of mid-century communitarianism: private property was abolished and members lived, ate, and worked communally until internal divisions and, especially, prosecution of polygamists forced restructuring. In modified form, the cooperative limped along until the end of the century. All told, the United Order movement numbered scores of local orders stretching from Idaho to Mexico.15

Despite Young’s nagging suspicion that individualism had kept the orders from success, other developments ultimately doomed them. Most significantly, the hammer blows of federal resistance to Mormon power, ostensibly aimed at polygamy but nevertheless devastating to the church’s economic activities, dictated the final end. Even earlier, though, Young’s death and his successor’s more market-friendly views had shifted the field. John Taylor, who had been born in England and raised in Canada, lacked Young’s zeal for the orders and stressed that while the principles of cooperation remained in force, changing times would continue to necessitate adjustments. Taylor organized Zion’s Central Board of Trade, with local boards throughout Mormondom, to coordinate major economic initiatives, but by the early 1880s it was clear that a fundamental transition away from the United Order had taken place. Rather than turn economic direction over to local ecclesiastical leaders, as Young had done, Taylor instead populated his board with leading LDS businessmen. His relative openness to broader markets and private initiative set the Saints on a course that was accelerated after the fiercest period of antipolygamy activism. Facing mounting debt and Saints unwilling to donate for fear of federal confiscation, Taylor’s successor, Lorenzo Snow, famously instituted the “tithe,” a standing one-tenth donation for all church members, as the means to rescue the church from financial ruin. By the 1920s, the church had largely recovered, but the “unifying cooperative ethic” of the previous century had unquestionably been stunted.16

The subsequent national financial crisis of the 1930s revived Mormon cooperation, but the details of that development show, dramatically, how fully (and quickly) the Latter-day Saints had acclimated to national norms. Early during the Depression, progressive-leaning members of the hierarchy had coordinated relief efforts in tandem with state and national agencies. With the death of ardent New Dealer Anthony W. Ivins, a counselor to church president Heber J. Grant, and the appointment of conservative J. Reuben Clark Jr., a new Security Program (later renamed the Church Welfare Plan) expanded grassroots relief efforts into a church-wide program of assistance. Grant and Clark, both deeply distrustful of Roosevelt and expanding federal power, ensured that the new program was defined apart from, and indeed in partial antagonism to, a (p. 586) rising welfare state. Mormons had deeply distrusted federal power since the 1850s, and the 1880s antipolygamy heyday had prepared the ground for the turn to the political right in the late 1930s. Mormon leaders had been leaning right, conspicuously ahead of the membership, since the 1890s, but Grant’s antisocialist instincts anticipated rampant Cold War–era Mormon conservatism. With LDS luminaries like Ezra Taft Benson joining the anticommunist chorus with gusto, memories of the 1860s and ’70s grew dim, to say the least. Where Brigham Young had railed against capitalism—he had fumed in 1876 about LDS educators who promulgated the theories of “[John Stuart] Mill and the false political economy which contends against co-operation”—leaders of the late twentieth century were almost uniformly conservative in their politics, as were most American Latter-day Saints. Only idiosyncratic or academic articulations of the older visions could be heard for long stretches of the late twentieth century. Though Mormon cooperation survived, and flourishes, in robust church welfare, education, and humanitarian aid programs, it does so firmly within the standing capitalist order.17

Echoes and Adaptations: The Continuing Negotiation of Mormon Community

The combination of polygamy and enclave economics pushed nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints onto sacred space and into sacred time, serving as they did as psychic and material thresholds into new forms of morality and community. But they had also accented their religious lives with separation and distinction. With the slow demise of both alienating elements, twentieth-century Saints had to reconceive of themselves and their relationship to the rest of the nation and world. Over time, a singular Mormon “people” became harder to conceptualize. The almost-ethnic tribalism of the previous decades seemed unfit for the forward-looking, integration-minded leadership at the turn of the century. Shorn of theocracy by force and choice, Mormons’ “kingdom” talk changed. The once “holy nation” was spiritualized and merged with a stronger sense of the LDS movement as a “church.” Mormon community more and more featured the congregational ward as its locus; in the first decade of the twentieth century, even the practice of the Salt Lake wards meeting for a common worship service at the famous Salt Lake Tabernacle had been replaced by individual ward services. “Gathering” too was spiritualized, and congregations of Mormons spread across the globe after the Second World War with little expectation that they would soon trudge to Utah en masse. The war’s turmoil helped spur new forms of community action as well, as leaders struggled to meet European members’ needs. Amidst the postwar rubble, an LDS humanitarian service was born.18

As might be expected, Mormons have dealt ambivalently with the variety, intensity, and extent of their ancestors’ communitarianism. One thread of memory and (p. 587) interpretation has held a narrow view of the “law of consecration,” defining it as the earliest Missouri arrangements only. A heading for one section in the current Doctrine and Covenants (section 119), for instance, narrates modern “tithing” as a replacement for the “law.” In this construction, consecration was a failure. Accordingly, some historians have sometimes chided it as unworkably idealistic. Mormons, however, have put this interpretation to good use, wielding it as something of an LDS “jeremiad.” In their sermonic tradition, consecration thus survives as a lever to urge Saints to greater commitment. The noble dream failed, modern Saints are told, because “we” (both “them” and “us”) lacked sufficient faith and devotion. This narrative trend arguably started with Joseph Smith himself, who, on the heels of a failed attempt to recover lost land in Missouri, offered a revelation that promised that Saints would wait a “little season” for Zion’s redemption, after the “army of Israel becomes very great.” That “holding pattern” revelation formatted many later leaders’ perceptions. Perhaps Zion and its socioeconomic egalitarianism await some future divine injunction and timetable (D&C 105:9–13, 26).19

As the twentieth century progressed, and as Latter-day Saints grew progressively conservative in their politicoeconomic outlook, consecration took on an increasingly eschatological hue. This abstraction or subversion of communitarianism could buttress the surging political conservatism, of course: with socioeconomic equality pushed ever toward the millennium, questions of social or economic justice and civil rights could be pushed to the margins as well. Corporate models, economic individualism, and capitalistic yearning could, and did, take firm root in such a setting. Stunningly, Joseph Smith’s original vision could be almost excised in attempts to fit the past into the new frame. For example, in a recent adult Sunday school manual detailing Joseph Smith’s teachings, the absence of any references to consecration is explained this way: “this book does not discuss such topics as the Prophet’s teachings regarding the law of consecration as applied to stewardship of property. The Lord withdrew this law from the Church because the Saints were not prepared to live it.”20

But another interpretative model has persisted alongside the failure thesis. Voiced most forcefully by recent church president Gordon B. Hinckley, it features pragmatism and continuity: “the law of sacrifice and the law of consecration were not done away with and are still in effect.” This broader, more flexible, perspective acknowledges adaptability and change and helps modern Mormons makes sense of the prominent place consecration still holds in contemporary temple liturgy. (Recalling that liturgy, LDS scholar Hugh Nibley anticipated Hinckley: “The plain fact is that I have promised to keep a law, and to keep it now.”) Perhaps Latter-day Saints, in their substantial commitments of time and resources, have been living the law all along to various degrees. Such a view of consecration might also make space for enhanced Mormon action on broader social, economic, and environmental issues. Where “church welfare” and “humanitarian aid” are well-developed components of institutional Mormonism, a recent adjustment to the church’s working mission statement signals future possibilities. Whereas the church’s mission had for decades been defined as a threefold endeavor to “preach the Gospel, perfect the Saints, and redeem the dead,” the most recent edition of the church’s official handbook added a fourth: care for the poor. Viewed at wide angle, Mormon history (p. 588) not only provides for, but demands, such an adjustment. And, as in the past, Latter-day Saints will likely rally around, and contest, such a development in their search for a community of unity, righteousness, and equality.21


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                                                            (1.) Faulring, Jackson, and Matthews, Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible, 105. When Mormon leaders chose code names to disguise their identities in select published revelations, Enoch was the only one immediately recognizable among the three names Joseph Smith apparently chose for himself. Whittaker, “Substituted Names in the Published Revelations of Joseph Smith,” 103–12.

                                                            (6.) Leonard, Nauvoo, 142; Arrington, Fox, and May, Building the City of God, 41–42. Smith may have had other priorities in mind as well. See Givens and Grow, Parley P. Pratt, 175.

                                                            (7.) Leonard, Nauvoo, 123–72; Nauvoo Expositor, June 7, 1844.

                                                            (9.) Ibid., 43–60 (quoted material on p. 51); Campbell, Establishing Zion, 25–39, 135–46; Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 94.

                                                            (11.) Ibid., 79–89, 111–33.

                                                            (12.) Ibid., 91–104; Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, 293–322.

                                                            (16.) Ibid., 311–26, 337 (quoted material on 337); Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 180–211.

                                                            (17.) Mangum and Blumell, Mormons’ War on Poverty, 93–156; Alexander, Utah, 329–33; Arrington, Fox, and May, Building the City of God, 340–50; Quinn, Elder Statesman, 377–424; quotation from Simpson, “Mormons Study ‘Abroad,’” 796. As one example, iconic LDS scholar and ardent Democrat Hugh Nibley invoked Brigham Young to rebuke modern Latter-day Saints for their individualism and materialism. See Nibley, Approaching Zion; Nibley, Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints.

                                                            (21.) Quoted in Harper, “All Things Are the Lord’s,” 213; Nibley, Approaching Zion, 388; Stack, “New LDS Emphasis.” LDS apostle Henry B. Eyring recently reiterated this perspective in an LDS General Conference: “His [God’s] way of helping has at times been called living the law of consecration. In another period His way was called the united order. In our time it is called the Church welfare program”; Eyring, “Opportunities to Do Good,” 22.