Conservative critiques of capitalism are making something of a comeback. As Stephen Bainbridge notes, “While Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Bros may spring to mind when considering American anti-capitalists,” a recent Pew survey found that “39 percent of self-identified conservatives had a negative view of capitalism.” Concern is growing over whether capitalism as currently practiced strips work of its meaning and leads to cultural upheaval. As distributist thinker G.K. Chesterton put it, “Wait and see whether the religion of the Servile State is not in every case what I say: the encouragement of small virtues supporting capitalism, the discouragement of the huge virtues that defy it.”
A party that claims to support family and faith yet allows Walmart and Amazon to bulldoze small-town businesses rings hollow. Donald Trump won the presidency in part because he was seen as a traitor to his class, buoyed by an economic populism that resonated with frustrated voters. Increasingly the fusionism of Frank Meyer has lost its shine. Moreover, monopolies in technology and the white-collar world have tended to favor those most culturally hostile to conservatism.
As such, now is the perfect time to look back at one example of anti-capitalist thinking in one of the most American of religious institutions: the Mormon Church.
The Mormon Church is deeply associated with establishment American conservatism, in part due to its traditional social values but also because of a strong affinity for Reagan-style free-market capitalism and libertarian perspectives on immigration and other matters. The church emphasizes the doctrine of agency, stressing that people must have free will in their moral decision-making and more broadly in the economic realm. Yet hidden in plain view are deep roots of Mormon communalism and a help-the-poor economic model that would make Bernie Sanders fist pump like Pauly D. The early communalism of the church’s most influential group, called the United Order, flies in the face of many understandings of contemporary Mormonism. Mitt Romney would have hated it, even though he’s distantly related to one of its leading members.
The story of Mormon communalism begins with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) founder Joseph Smith and revelations he supposedly began receiving in the early 1830s. Smith was living on the farm of new convert Isaac Morley in Ohio and was concerned over people joining the church who didn’t have enough. He began to receive instructions that property be given to poor new members. Smith’s revelations are detailed in Doctrine and Covenants (104:16-18), which reads in part that
I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low. For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare…. Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.
Early Mormons distinguished themselves from many other religious denominations insofar as they became not just practitioners of another belief system but a distinct historical people, as thinkers like Harold Bloom have observed. That peoplehood involved aspects of communalism quite discordant to Mormon free-market rhetoric today. As Benjamin Park writes at Patheos:
Though tragically ironic that LDS cultured ended up embracing the very individualistic mindset it originally positioned itself against, it is yet another example of how religious ideas are often packed in and understood by particular cultural contexts….
Smith’s vision of the United Order and “the law of consecration” (promising to dedicate one’s life and sustenance to the church as necessary) was a system where the poor were to be provided for according to their needs and the affluent were to give surplus land and goods back to the church storehouse. In addition to complying with Smith’s revelation, the move to lessen economic inequality was also in keeping with the Book of Mormon as a whole, as Matthew Grow of BYU notes:
The Book of Mormon expresses a vision of a godly society which had “all things common among them” and thus “there were not rich and poor, bond and free.” The creation of an ideal society, Zion, proved persuasive to many of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, who, like him, had suffered from the economic chaos brought on by America’s entrance into a market economy in the early 1800s and by the religious confusion of the Second Great Awakening.
Smith was followed by “American Moses” Brigham Young, who helped found hundreds of early Mormon communities along communalist lines with the aim of decreasing poverty and bolstering group unity. Young certainly accrued a track record of success, helping to set up over 350 thriving communities in Utah. The United Order Mormons in Young’s era lived out a political philosophy similar in some ways to small-scale distributism. They founded various well-known communities in 1870s and 1880s Utah, including the towns of Orderville and Brigham City. The United Order sought to “live with all things in common.” As Park writes:
The basic premise was simple: all possessions, talents, and any other form of ownership are due to divine appointment, and all humans were mere stewards working toward communal stability…. To assume personal precedence over communal need was a severe sin…. While the implementation of the Law of Consecration through an organization titled the United Order was short-lived, the communal nature of Mormonism continued long afterward. Indeed, much of Joseph Smith’s late teachings and rituals were centered on the joining together of vast networks of kinship…. In early Utah, Brigham Young continued to emphasize—even more earnestly, perhaps—community over the individual.
United Order settlers voluntarily deeded their property, livestock, and homes to the community corporation and agreed to abide by a simple lifestyle of plain dress, prayer, and treating others with consideration. Members still owned their allotted pieces of property deeded back to them by the church, but as “stewards.” They could leave at any time as well as choose to pass their property on to their heirs. The communities worked to attain self-sufficiency and prioritized local trade. Surplus property and goods were given to the central leadership to be disbursed as needed. Financial records show that the 700-member community of Orderville did very well, though it slowly fell into disorder as young people lost patience with the way of life and outside pressures mounted. In Brigham City, the members bought shares in a cooperative venture, with a stake in most industries and businesses. The system was very successful and passed unscathed through Utah’s economic meltdown of 1873. In the words of Brigham Young, “I consider that we are all dependent one upon another for our exaltation and that our interest is inseparably connected.”
However, Young’s death, a federal crackdown on polygamy, the arrival of many non-members, economic changes, and other forces took their toll, and the United Order faded away almost entirely by the mid-1880s.
It’s worth noting that the United Order was originally supposed to be a permanent feature of the church until the Second Coming (“an everlasting order for the benefit of my church, and for the salvation of men until I come”) but in actuality it only lasted a short time. Indeed, Smith’s Doctrines and Covenants is not subtle in its proclamation that “if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things.” For Smith, the United Order was an economic precursor to the End Times when a select, divinely guided society of Apocalypse survivors in North America would form numerous cooperative “Zion cities” with its capital the American New Jerusalem.
As outlined in Mormon libertarian W. Cleon Skousen’s The Cleansing of America, LDS doctrine holds that a devastating plague and world war between a globalist military dictatorship and the remaining saints and people of various faiths will occur, putting an end to the “poisonous decadence” of contemporary Western culture. The future redeemed Zion will require “that each community share one another’s problems ‘in common’” and will inhere the implementation of the law of consecration on a wide scale. According to Skousen, “this does not mean sharing property in common, but it does mean sharing one another’s needs, especially in an emergency.” The new godly society will require “a spirit of mutual concern” and be open to those of all faiths and even the non-religious who “support good laws.” It will have limitations on interest, a return to gold and silver as currency, and “a sound economic system where the Golden Rule will have an appropriate part to play.” And according to an address at Brigham Young University in 1976 by LDS Bishop Victor Brown, all this “may not be very far off.”
The Mormon United Order system has spawned some breathless conspiracy theories and claims that the LDS church (“mystery Babylon”) wants to push a collectivist dictatorship on America with its “staggering resources.” Anti-Mormon activists like William Cooper claimed that the church will thrive in the debris of national sovereignty and establish “theocratic communism.” Cooper even went so far as to spuriously claim that the future theocracy will have the death penalty for interracial marriage and apostasy as Mormons established a “white, racist Aryan” homeland.
Comparisons to communism and socialism have drawn rebuke from the church, which issued a statement in 1942 denouncing all such “isms” and calling them “the clumsy counterfeits which Satan always devises of the Gospel plan.” President J. Reuben Clark protested that “the United Order was not communal, nor communistic. It was completely and intensely individualistic, with a consecration of unneeded surpluses for the support of the Church and the poor.”
Others have claimed that the United Order system (and surviving fundamentalist LDS communities organized along similar lines) are susceptible to corruption and abuse by more powerful figures in the church, as evidenced with nightmare cases such as that of child abuser and cult leader Warren Jeffs. (The deeding of property to the group with return of allotted portions has also been done in smaller fundamentalist Mormon communities like the United Apostolic Brethren and former liberal Mormon groups like the United Order Family of Christ without such negative results as the Jeffs case, however.)
Mormonism is complex and arguably circuitous, in that it attributes both uniquely binding prophetic authority to Smith and his revelations while also granting legitimacy to the updated revelations of contemporary LDS presidents (also considered modern-day prophets). In this way, Smith could reveal the necessity of polygamy but be subsequently overruled by prophets following his death. The economic goalposts can likewise always be moved. And while it isn’t realistic to think that early experiments in communalism would be effective on a wide scale today, it is fascinating to see trends of communal living and group economic solidarity displayed from the early Mormons to the Plymouth Pilgrims to the Quakers to various movements in Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism.
Is communal economic solidarity just a short-term survival mechanism for groups and faiths trying to maintain cohesion under wider economic pressures? Or does it have a more integral role to play? Attempting to unmoor even partially from the global economic machine often has unintended negative consequences, as is being seen with Trump’s tariffs and trade policies. But that does not delegitimize protecting local economies or domestic workers or the principle behind early religious communal systems like that of the United Order. If anything it only strengthens the argument that economics should be further decentralized and protected from monopolies and global trade priorities in order to foster workers’ rights, local economic health, and the preservation of culture and faith.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.