Tuesday, May 5, 2009

From the Vault

The Pure in Heart:
Mormon Zionism and the
Market Revolution

***In light of my recent post below on religion and the Market Revolution, I thought I would bring this post out of the archives and re-post it here on the main page. Hopefully it will explain a little better some of the history surrounding the Market Revolution and its impact on religion -- a topic that I am very interested in.***


As I have mentioned in a previous post, the Market Revolution of the early 1800s forced Americans to adopt a different outlook on religion. By "establishing capitalist hegemony over economy, politics and culture," the Market Revolution introduced American society to the tempting world of profit-seeking and worldly wealth (Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution, 5).

As attractive as the quest for monetary wealth was for the common American, a rising number of citizens rose in opposition to the Market Revolution’s dramatic upheaval of traditional practices, claiming that its influence was a detriment to society. One young man in particular, who was destined to become the founder of one of America’s fastest growing religions, stood defiant against the Market Revolution’s doctrine of economic individualism. While in his youth, Joseph Smith became a fateful witness not only to his family’s financial woes, but also to the economic plight of the average citizen. While living in New York, Smith also observed first-hand the dramatic surge in religious revivalism that sought to oppose the presumed evils of the Market Revolution. As the founder of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith, like so many other religious leaders of his time, took an antagonistic stance against the encroaching forces of capitalism. In an effort to safeguard his followers from the fires of capitalist corruption, Joseph Smith endeavored to create a religious Utopia, or as he called it, Zion. Though originally conceived in the economic quandary of his childhood family and his alleged communion with the supernatural, Joseph Smith’s concept of Zion was to be further molded from its original role as a physical safe haven from the evil influences of the Market Revolution, into an eternal object of heavenly aspiration for his followers.

One of the best ways to understand the roots of Mormon Zionism is to understand the place in which they were born. While still in his youth, Joseph Smith and his family decided to move to Palmyra, New York, which was a small community that fell victim to the sweeping fires of religious enthusiasm. It comes as no surprise that the great 19th century evangelist preacher, Charles Finney, would nickname the region as "The Burned-over District." Though still in his youth, Joseph Smith was keenly aware of the religious fanaticism that was sweeping the countryside. As he would later write in his personal history:

There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of the country, indeed the whole district of the Country seemed affected by it and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people…Priest contended against priest, and convert against convert so that all their good feelings one for another were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions (Joseph Smith, Jr., “1839 History,” The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. I, 269-270).
Western New York was not only a witness to a spiritual revival, but also a capitalist one as well. As mentioned before, the sweeping changes of the Market Revolution were quickly spreading across the American landscape. In New York, thousands of immigrants hoped to find an economic solace that had been lacking in other regions of the republic. With the construction of the Erie Canal completed in 1825, the interior lands of New York -- including Smith's hometown of Palmyra -- were quickly catapulted to the forefront of economic affairs. New York quickly passed other port towns like New Orleans and Charlestown to become America's premiere economic juggernaut.

As is often the case with any major change, a large percentage of the American populace began to see the Market Revolution as a destructive force. The communal subsistence culture, which had tied family members and neighbors together in a tight web of economic and social interdependence, was quickly being replaced by the profit-driven mentality of the Market Revolution. As a result, hundreds of American families sought to reclaim the "lost" communal dependence and purity of the pre-Market Revolution era.

For a young and ambitious man like Joseph Smith, the religious atmosphere in and around western New York must have been intoxicating. With scores of "fire-breathing" ministers flooding the "Burned-over district" with their doctrine of hell, fire and damnation, it comes as no surprise that Smith would be confused about the eternal future of his soul. As Smith stated, "In the midst of this war of words, and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself, what is to be done? Who of all these parties is right…and how shall I know?" (Joseph Smith, Jr., “1839 History,” The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. I, 271).

After experiencing a number of alleged visions and communications with the divine, Joseph Smith later proclaimed himself to be a prophet. By so doing, he set himself up as the quintessential 19th century leader of his time. After all, experiencing heavenly visions and claiming to have communed with God was anything but atypical of Smith's time. As mentioned before, western New York was a literal hotbed of religious radicalism in the early years of the nineteenth century. Religious enthusiasts like Ann Lee, who became the founder of the Shaker movement, inspired her followers to embrace a communal lifestyle of celibacy and nonresistance, claiming that she had received a divine manifestation of Christ’s impending return. Jemima Wilkinson, who founded the Community of the Publick Universal Friend, also claimed divine revelation, and insisted that Christ had chosen her as his personal messenger, sent to prepare the world for millennial glory. Like Ann Lee, Wilkinson also established a communal order of celibacy and economic equality. The New Israelites, led by a man named Winchell and Oliver Cowdery, also preached divine revelation that pointed to an impending millennial apocalypse. When put in the light of his contemporaries, Joseph Smith’s paranormal claims seem less atypical and more mainstream.

Having endured the struggles of economic poverty and religious uncertainty, Joseph Smith's prophetic appeal resonated with literally thousands of others that had endured the same hardships, or as Smith biographer, Richard Bushman put it, "He had endured the agonies of thousands in his generation and could speak to their sorrows" (Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 55). His alleged visitations had solidified Smith's resolve to follow God's admonition to "Seek to bring forth and establish my Zion" (Doctrine & Covenants 14:6).

In addition to his personal revelations regarding the establishment of Zion, Joseph Smith's Utopian ideology was further molded by his alleged translation of the "Golden Plates," which later became the infamous Book of Mormon. As one of its central theses, The Book of Mormon relates the tale of two rival societies, whose peace and prosperity are solely determined by the communal faith and devotion of their respective populace. On numerous occasions, The Book of Mormon makes specific mention of how God intends to grant specific blessings, which are exclusively reserved for those that seek to establish Zion:

"And blessed are they who shall seek to bring forth my Zion at that day, for they shall have the gift and the power of the Holy Ghost; and if they endure unto the end they shall be lifted up at the last day, and shall be saved in the everlasting kingdom of the Lamb" (1 Nephi 13:37).
In addition to everlasting life, the God of The Book of Mormon promises worldly protection against the foes of his elect people:

"And every nation which shall war against thee, O house of Israel, shall be turned one against another, and they shall fall into the pit which they digged to ensnare the people of the Lord. And all that fight against Zion shall be destroyed, and that great whore, who hath perverted the right ways of the Lord, yea, that great and abominable church, shall tumble to the dust and great shall be the fall of it." (1 Nephi 22:14)
Despite these promises, the God of The Book of Mormon does not neglect to mention the punishments that await the unfaithful disciple of this Utopian community:

"But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish…Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion!" (2 Nephi 28:24).
For a young man who had endured economic turmoil and religious fanaticism while in his youth, the doctrine of The Book of Mormon provided both clarity and purpose. The Market Revolution’s emphasis on personal gain and worldly wealth was now shrouded in the evil vanities mentioned in The Book of Mormon. For Joseph Smith and his followers, God’s biblical admonition to, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world" took on a new meaning in the emerging capitalist climate of the early nineteenth century (1 John 2:15). By placing their faith in the idea that, “the Lord hath founded Zion, and the poor of his people shall trust in it,” scores of downtrodden citizens found a glimmer of hope in the newly emerging doctrine of Mormon Zionism (2 Nephi 24:32).

For these early Mormons, establishing a communal society proved a much more daunting task than initially thought. The emerging market society of western New York, combined with its hostile reception of the doctrine contained in The Book of Mormon forced Joseph Smith and his followers to look elsewhere for their blessed Zion. In response to these problems, Joseph Smith again laid claim to divine intervention that commanded the Mormon prophet to move his flock west into Ohio (Doctrine & Covenants 38:32) In response to Smith’s alleged revelation, hundreds of early Mormon converts sold their homes and made their way to the town of Kirtland, Ohio, where Smith promised his followers the communal peace they had longed for. A short time later, Smith claimed to have received another revelation, which proclaimed Jackson County, Missouri to be the place for God's holy Zion (Doctrine & Covenants 57: 2-3).

To further the special nature of this holy land located on the fringe of American society, Joseph Smith claimed that God intended Zion to become a “New Jerusalem,” where he would prepare the world for the anticipated return of Christ and the commencement of his millennial reign. As Joseph Smith stated in his Thirteen Articles of Mormon Faith, "We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes. That Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent." (Joseph Smith, Jr., “1839 History,” The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. I, 437).

The idea of a “New Jerusalem” brought additional meaning to the Mormon concept of Zion. In a manner similar to John Winthrop’s proclamation of Massachusetts as a “city on a hill,” Joseph Smith’s “New Jerusalem” was to not only be a communal society of pious disciples, but an “ensign unto the people” of every nation (Doctrine & Covenants 64: 42).

With such a bold proclamation as to its heavenly purpose, it comes as no surprise that the quest to establish God’s “New Jerusalem” became the premiere doctrine of Mormon Theology. The drive to establish a Utopian world free from the discord of worldly affairs was an appealing alternative when juxtaposed with the cutthroat nature of the emerging market society. It is therefore no surprise that the Mormon community found scores of new converts that were willing to embrace a communal lifestyle, which shunned the malevolence of the world around them. In conjunction with their anticipation of millennial ecstasy, the Mormon message became a powerful beacon of hope in a world of cruelty. The Mormon hymn O Saints of Zion provides an in-depth look into how these feelings of millennial anticipation and communal devotion helped shape Mormon identity:

O saints of Zion, hear the voice Of Him from courts on high.
Prepare the pathway of the Lord; His reign on earth is nigh.
Prepare the supper of the Lamb; Invite the world to dine.
Behold the mighty Bridegroom comes In majesty divine.

Behold the glory of the Lord Sets Zion’s mount aglow.
For Zion is an ensign pure; All nations to her flow.
O Saints of Zion tread the paths Your faithful fathers trod.
Lift up your hears in gratitude And serve the living God
One can only imagine the feelings of excitement and apprehension that gripped the earliest Mormon settlers of Zion. Their arrival to Independence, Missouri, which was nothing more than a remote outpost on America’s frontier, must have reminded many of them of their Pilgrim ancestors who had migrated across the Atlantic to establish a religious Utopia of their own. With only a handful of fur trappers and Native American traders, Independence was a far cry from what the Mormons had experienced in Kirtland. Though most of the state was still considered frontier land, the early advances of the Market Revolution had begun to take hold in Missouri as well. Thanks to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state, thousands of slave-owners migrated west in an effort to stake their claim. In addition, scores of zealous fur traders, who anxiously hoped to expand their business westward, used Missouri as an access point of sorts. As a result, Missouri’s population swelled to roughly 140,000 in 1830. By 1840, the population had more than doubled to over 300,000. Missouri’s reputation as the “Gateway State” obviously had an appeal that included much more than the Mormon population. Joseph Smith’s Utopian hopes had yet again landed the Mormons in the center of an emerging market-centered community (For a detailed look at the census records of Missouri in the early 1800s click here).

To help “persuade” these religious “radicals” of their errors, the Mormon opposition in Missouri resorted to violence. Mormon churches, homes and businesses were regularly destroyed and then blamed on the Mormon leadership. Joseph Smith and other leaders were routinely imprisoned, tarred and feathered, and given poison while incarcerated. Mormon women, some of whom were still in their youth, were the unfortunate victims of mob rape. One woman in particular was left bound and naked in a Mormon church, where sixteen men repeatedly raped her (Hyrum Smith "The Testimony of Hyrum Smith," from History of the Church, vol.3, 422). The persecution eventually became so intense that the Missouri government prohibited Mormons from voting or owning property. This anti-Mormon sentiment even permeated the executive office of the state, where Governor Lilburn Boggs declared that, “the Mormons must be subdued…and if it should become necessary for the public peace…should be exterminated or expelled from the state” (Governor Lilburn Boggs to General Lucas, Oct. 27, 1838, from History of the Church, vol.3, 422).

With mounting persecution and no means to seek redress, Joseph Smith and his followers were forced to abdicate their landholdings in Jackson County. Those who had willingly given up all of their property and assets for the construction of Zion were left completely destitute with little to no prospects of reclaiming their wealth. Understandably, a large number of these early Mormon converts forsook their faith and returned to their roots. After all, Zion had been the principle component of early Mormon theology. In many respects it was the equivalent of what the Kaaba is for the Muslim or the Vatican is for the Catholic. For many Mormons, Zion’s defeat essentially signified a defeat of Mormonism. Virtually all of one’s faith, hope and salvation were dependant upon Zion’s success, or as one revelation put it, “For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things” (Doctrine & Covenants 78: 6). Simply put for the faithful Mormon, without Zion there could be no salvation.

Faced with such a daunting challenge, it comes as no surprise that Joseph Smith, yet again, received a divine manifestation that would forever change the scope of Zion’s appeal. After the loss of their lands in Missouri, Joseph Smith claimed to have received a holy revelation, which proclaimed Zion to be an indestructible institution, where the faithful would forever bask in the glory of God himself. As the revelation stated, “Zion is the city of our God, and surely Zion cannot fall, neither be moved out of her place, for God is there, and the hand of the Lord is there” (Doctrine & Covenants 97: 19) But how could this be? Zion’s demise in Missouri had been a certain outcome of mob violence and political negligence. How could Zion possibly return in the wake of such hostility? It was here that Smith’s alleged revelation made a startling proclamation that forever changed the concept of Mormon Zionism: “Therefore, verily, thus saith the Lord, let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—The Pure in Heart.” (Doctrine & Covenants 97: 21). On the surface, Smith’s revelation seems to be nothing more than a play on semantics. A deeper inquiry, however, reveals that this simple proclamation, “The Pure in Heart,” was actually a complete overhaul of the Mormon conception of Zionism. Instead of being conceived as a palpable reality of the physical world, Zion became a metaphysical object of personal and heavenly worth. In essence, “The Pure in Heart” signified an individualistic approach to becoming one with both God and community.

Uncovering the true motivations behind Mormon Zionism is a difficult undertaking to say the least. In posing such an inquiry, one naturally desires to question the validity of Joseph Smith’s alleged revelations, along with his self-proclaimed prophetic mission. Naturally, there are those who will proclaim Smith to be nothing more than, “a mythmaker of prodigious talent,” who sought nothing more than to redeem his family from financial distress (Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, ix). Others, however, will insist that Smith’s life was spent in the labor of his fellow men, as a true prophet of God. Determining the validity of either argument is unquestionably a futile effort, and therefore becomes an irrelevant argument to the historical inquiry. Instead, Joseph Smith and the movement he created should be understood from the perspective of their era. The explosion of capitalist economics at the beginning of the nineteenth-century set the foundation upon which Joseph Smith would construct his Utopian philosophy. The economic plight of his childhood became the initial string of rebellion, which Joseph Smith would eventually weave into a tapestry of capitalist defiance. With the addition of his alleged heavenly revelations and prophetic destiny, Joseph Smith effectively established a utopian doctrine of communal dependence and market defiance. The widespread appeal of his message helped Smith effectively establish a Mormon safe haven in Zion, where the faithful were nurtured in a spirit of communalism. Once confronted by market enthusiasm and anti-Mormon hostility, Smith’s quest to establish Zion was transformed from a physical place of refuge into a heavenly object of eternal desire. By successfully adopting a new concept of utopian existence, Mormon Zionism was equipped to survive into far into the 21st century and beyond.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The Mormon theology-of-capitalism controversy.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks for the article, Tom. I look forward to reading it. I'll make some comments on it when I am done. Off the top of my head I think the author is dead wrong about early church leaders supporting capitalism it's clear that Smith and Brigham Young did not.

It's interesting that you posted this here. During my oral boards for grad school we talked quite a bit about the "evolution" of Mormon sentiment regarding capitalism. It's interesting that the church went from being a staunch anti-capitalist community to one of the biggest supporters of capitalism today.

Brad Hart said...

Ok, so I just finished the article (thanks again for posting it, Tom). Overall, I agree with most of what the author states. However, I completely disagree with his assertion that early leaders of the Mormon Church were ardent supporters of capitalism. I just don’t see any proof for such a claim.

One important note: I would not call this the “Mormon theology of capitalism” as you have entitled above. This certainly isn’t any official declaration from the church, but is simply the author’s opinion.

With that said, here is why I disagree with his claim that early church leaders defended capitalism:

1.)Virtually everything Joseph Smith did in the early years of his ministry was to create a Utopian society that was “set apart” from the rest of the world. Whenever worldly influences seemed to creep up and threaten his flock, Smith made sure to relocate to another area just out of the reach of society. In fact, while in Missouri, Smith boldly proclaimed that the town of Independence was to be their “Zion.” Smith also made no qualms about the fact that this “Zion” would be a communal haven.

2.)While in Missouri, Smith implemented the “Law of Consecration” which stipulated that all loyal members of the church were to “consecrate all they possessed” to the church. As smith stated, “a man is bound by the law of the Church to consecrate to the Bishop, before he can be considered a legal heir to the kingdom of Zion…and unless he does this, he cannot be acknowledged before the Lord” (Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church, vol. 1, 364).

3.)Even after being expelled from Missouri, the Mormons maintained a communal society where economic dependence was based on the group as opposed to any capitalist concept. When settling in Salt Lake City, President Brigham Young made sure to allocate lands based on a communal model of economics. Even the establishment of various businesses was done without much thought being given to capitalism.

Now, the author is right about the more modern leaders of the church. Many of them have publicly proclaimed the benefits of capitalist society while condemning communism and socialism. However, this is representative of recent leaders (since the late 1800s perhaps) and NOT true of early Mormon leadership.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I recognize that everyone 'plays out" differently where it concerns faith (revelation) and reason.

I think that human beings are meant to be human beings, which means that eveyone will understand their realities differently. But, I also think it is dangerous to have revelation "trump" any reason, as then there is no accountable way of appeal to a person, which borders on mental illness and can be dangerous to society or those within the confines of a closed community.

If this is God's world, then all of it is to be embraced, in its proper use. We may disagree as to some of the definitions of "proper use", but there are some ways of maintaining an order or structure in society. This is where social contract lies in discussion, negotiating, and "friendship".

Tom Van Dyke said...

Got it. I labeled it a "controversy," is all. I ran across something on the first Mormon factory in 1850, that made sugar from sugar beets, a long-lived but now evaporated Mormon industry.

Ray Soller said...

Brad, here's a snippet from Liberty Men & Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760 - 1820, by Alan Taylor:

The Settlers (page 82)-

Treasure-seeking was no unchanged legacy from a timeless, irrational past; it developed & proliferated in the American backcountry after the Revolution in association with the expanding culture of capitalism. A syncretism of traditional superstitions & new impulses, the treasure fantasy attests to the settlers' ambivalent response to capitalism. They had begun to succumb to its promise that every hardworking man deserved not merely sustenance but riches (and to its anxiety that those who did not acquire wealth had proved themselves unworthy); yet they remained skeptical of its injunctions to pursue sustained, disciplined labor & to delay gratification as the means to certain reward. Rewards never been certain in their experience. So they practiced capitalism where its promise of unlimited returns seemed to make the most sense: the realm of spirits & treasure chests. Of course, gentlemen committed to encouraging greater labor discipline among the common folk regarded treasure-seeking as a perversion of true enterprise, as disturbing evidence that rural folk were all too ready to forsake the sustained industry that was their proper duty. Kendall quoted a disgusted gentleman, the treasure-seekers "become insolent & saucy, neglect economy & industry, & every benefit to society; & moral habits decay wherever these ideas prevail." As with the Great Proprietors reacting to settler speculations in possession rights, this indignant gentleman thought that the poorer yeomanry needed to be taught to subordinate their acquisitiveness to purposeful, mundane labor. [end snippet]

Do you have any comment regarding how Joseph Smith and his family's quest for economic improvement fit into Taylor's description of the "expanding culture of capitalism" in the "American backcountry" in the post-revolutionary period?

Brad Hart said...

Great snippet. I love Alan Taylor. Yes, this quest for hidden treasure was very real in the northern part of the United States. Richard Bushman and Whitney Cross speak of it in their books. With that said, we should not simply take Taylor's comments and assume they apply to J. Smith. I've written in the past about how Smith's family experience as a child turned him off to market economics. After all, they had almost left his father and mother destitute. As a result, Smith prefered communal economics, as did most poor farm families of the time.

Ray Soller said...

Brad, you wrote, "Smith's family experience as a child turned him off to market economics." Can you either point me to what experiences "turned him off" or give me an example?

Brad Hart said...


This is a bit long, but it should have the answers you are looking for. It's from a grad school paper I wrote last year:

The early life experiences of Joseph Smith’s ancestors are critical components in helping to shape the Mormon prophet’s Zionistic ideology. On both his father and mother’s side, Smith’s ancestors dwelled for several generations in the New England area as farmers. Though never blessed with great wealth, the majority of Smith’s ancestors were able to eke out a comfortable existence for their respective families. Smith’s parents, Joseph, Sr. and Lucy Mack, began their marriage on relatively good financial terms. Just prior to their union, Joseph, Sr. received a small farm in Tunbridge, Vermont, from his father, Asael, while Lucy was given a generous wedding gift of $1,000 from her brother and his business partner. After roughly six years of “tilling the earth for our livelihood,” Joseph, Sr. and Lucy decided to rent out their farm and move their family (now augmented by the births of two boys: Alvin and Hyrum) to nearby Randolph, where Joseph, Sr. hoped to profit by opening a “mercantile establishment.”

By relocating his family to Randolph and renting out his farm back home, Joseph, Sr. and Lucy Smith made the conscious decision to disregard their family’s traditional farming lifestyle, and to seek the riches of market capitalism. Such an endeavor was not atypical of their time, however. As the Market Revolution’s influence spread across the American landscape, its ringing appeal began to resonate with many who wanted more than a mere subsistence lifestyle. Historian Gordon Wood alludes to this fact when he writes, “The struggles of individuals to rise from humble origins and achieve respectability and wealth became in time part of America’s folklore.”

Joseph, Sr. and Lucy’s attempt to open a mercantile shop was clearly an endeavor motivated by their desire to achieve something more in life than mere farming, and Randolph, Vermont was the perfect testing ground for such an enterprise. By all appearances Randolph seemed to be the typical early nineteenth-century city on the rise. The region boasted nearly 20,000 acres of the best farmland in all of New England, along with the additional economic stimulation of a waterway that gave Randolph easy access to lower Connecticut. Goods and services to and from Boston were regularly shipped across this waterway, giving the citizens of Randolph easy access to a large market.
After filling his new store with goods purchased on a line of credit from Boston, Joseph Sr. was able to sell off his store’s entire inventory in a relatively short period of time. Those who purchased Joseph, Sr.’s goods did so not with cash, but with the promise that he would receive a portion of their year-end harvest.

As strange as such an arrangement might seem, Joseph, Sr. was actually following a well-established commercial practice between buyer and seller. At the turn of the century, lines of credit were still seen as the primary means of exchange. By all appearances, it looked as though Joseph, Sr.’s initial experience with market economics was on track to making him a rich man.

Unfortunately for the Smith family, Joseph, Sr.’s luck was about to run out. Instead of waiting for his payment from the sale of his store goods to come in, Joseph, Sr. immediately jumped at the next big market opportunity to come his way. Upon hearing of a major plague in China, Joseph, Sr. decided to invest in a large quantity of ginseng root, which was selling at an exorbitant price as the only remedy for the Chinese people. After purchasing a large quantity of ginseng root on credit, Joseph, Sr. made his way to New York City to secure a means of transporting the goods. Shortly thereafter, Joseph, Sr. joined in a written agreement with a Mr. Stevens, who promised to sell the goods and return with Smith’s profits. Unfortunately for Joseph, Sr., his business partner kept the profits for himself and fled to Canada.

The financial impact of Joseph, Sr.’s financial blunder was catastrophic for the Smith family. Not only were they unable to pay for the ginseng root, but they also had no means of paying off the debts incurred from the goods purchased on credit from Boston. As a result, Joseph, Sr. was forced to sell his farm for $800, while Lucy gave up her $1,000 wedding gift to settle their debts. With one financial mistake, Joseph, Sr. had reduced his family’s status from that of successful landowners to tenant farmers and wage earners. To make matters worse, Joseph, Sr. now had no land to pass to his posterity. By nineteenth-century standards, Joseph, Sr. had become an economic failure.

It was under these tumultuous economic circumstances that Joseph Smith, Jr. entered the world. In consequence of his father’s economic follies, Joseph Smith, Jr. (along with his siblings) was to face a turbulent life of poverty. As one Smith biographer put it, “The child was born into an insecurity that in a lifetime of thirty-eight years he was never to escape.” It would be during these early and impressionable years that Joseph Smith would develop his lifelong distrust of capitalist economics. The experiences of his childhood and early adulthood were the catalysts of change, which caused Joseph Smith to equate communal economics with God’s holy institutions, and market economics with the devil’s greedy objectives.

As a young boy, Joseph Smith witnessed his parent’s plight first-hand. Instead of enjoying the fruits of an independent farming lifestyle, Joseph Smith’s parents were forced to move closer to relatives, where they became dependent upon the charity of family. During this time, virtually every member of the Smith family was required to work for the welfare of the whole. In his personal history Joseph Smith writes, “As my father’s worldly circumstances were very limited, we were under the necessity of laboring with our hands, hiring by days works and otherwise as we could get opportunity.” Though never openly critical of his father, one gets the sense that Joseph Smith, Jr. had a clear understanding of the fact that his family’s woes were the direct result of his father’s failed economic endeavors.

The road back to prosperity was a difficult one for the Smith family. Instead of gaining economic ground, the communal efforts of the Smiths seemed only to keep things afloat. As mother Lucy Smith noted, “We were compelled to strain every energy to provide for our present necessities, instead of making arrangements for the future, as we had previously contemplated.” Family sicknesses, failed crops and mounting debts kept the family fortunes from ever augmenting. With the additional hardships brought on by the War of 1812, the Smith family found themselves yet again in economic turmoil.

In the hopes that their situation might make a turn for the better, Joseph, Sr. decided to uproot the family from New England (where ancestral ties had remained strong for several generations) and head west. Joseph, Sr.’s original plan had the Smith family moving to Ohio where land was still relatively cheap. As time grew closer to the impending move, however, Joseph, Sr. had a change of heart, deciding instead to head for Palmyra, New York.

It is hard to say for certain what motivated Joseph, Sr.’s sudden change in plans, but it would not be a stretch to suggest the possibility that he was yet again excited by the prospects of western New York’s emerging market economy. As rumors and proposals continued to circulate regarding the impending construction of the Erie Canal, land speculation throughout western New York began to grow. Land that had cost merely five to seven shillings an acre in 1790 was now selling for roughly four dollars an acre in 1800, and then rose to a staggering six dollars by 1817. Joseph, Sr.’s sudden change of plans was to yet again land the Smith Family directly into the oncoming fire of capitalistic zeal.

After their arrival in Palmyra, New York, Lucy Smith recalled the desperate plight her family faced in what was then an unfamiliar land. Gathering together in a collective counsel of sorts, the Smiths once again united in a joint economic venture to secure the family’s future. “Upon our arrival we counselled together relative to the course which was best for us to adopt in our destitute circumstances, and we came to the conclusion to unite our energies in endeavoring to obtain a piece of land.”

For several months every member of the Smith family worked as hired help in the community, saving as much money as possible to purchase a plot of land. After accumulating the needed income, Joseph, Sr. decided to purchase a hundred acres of unimproved land on the outskirts of Palmyra. The agreement called for the Smith family to have the farm paid off in full within two years time. After years of financial tragedy, the Smith family was finally able to secure that which had been lost so many years earlier: farmland. Through the joint efforts of each family member, the economic blunder of Joseph, Sr. seemed to be erased. For the young and impressionable Joseph Smith, Jr., these early experiences in which his family labored together for the common good became the initial incubators of the Zionistic leanings he would later exhibit in adulthood. The economic communalism of the Smith family would essentially become a model for the soon-to-be Mormon prophet, who would later instill in his parishioners these same values, which in turn became the building blocks for Mormonism’s communal Utopia.

Ray Soller said...

I sure would like to see your paper updated and posted as a blog. You could include the economic impact on New England farming life due to the "cataclysmic eruption of Tambora Volcano in Indonesia, the most powerful eruption in recorded history. Tambora's volcanic cloud lowered global temperatures by as much as 3 degrees °C. Even a year after the eruption, most of the northern hemisphere experienced sharply cooler temperatures during the summer months. In parts of Europe and in North America, 1816 was known as 'the year without a summer.'"

I think proper consideration of what I'll call the "Taylor model" should be factored in, since many of these treasure seeking enterprises fell within the scope of being fellowship-driven enterprises tied to the spirit world.

Seth R. said...

Thanks for the article. Very interesting read. It's nice to see a discussion of Joseph Smith and Mormonism from an objective academic standpoint. Too often discussions on the subject get derailed by cries of "truth" and "fraud."

There's a lot of interesting historical inquiry in frontier religion and Mormonism in particular. But the topic is usually too radioactive to have such discussions. So thanks for that.

Brad Hart said...


It's funny that you should mention the Tambora volcano. I've been reading Daniel Walker Howe's "What Hath God Wrought" and he makes mention of just how big of an impact it had on America.


Thanks for the kind words, and please feel free to visit us any time!

Our Founding Truth said...
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Our Founding Truth said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brad Hart said...


Yeah right, bud! Like I'm going to let you blatantly attack a religion of which you obviously have no understanding or respect for. Your comments were bigoted, irresponsible, very condescending and frankly UN-CHRISTIAN.

If it were up to me I would have you permanently banned from this site. Frankly your antics show just what a complete and total hypocrite and fraud you are. Fortunately for you, we are democratic around here. But rest assured, when the majority calls for your head I will GLADLY acquiesce to their petition and ban your stupid ass forever.

Take a hike, bigot! you give all Christians a bad name!

"The Problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so sure of themselves, while wiser people are so full of doubts."~Bertrand Russell

Our Founding Truth said...
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Lindsey Shuman said...

Again, your crap is not welcome here. I'm not going to allow you to attack a faith that goes against your personal creed.

God forbid that we all don't believe as you....BIGOT!

Brad Hart said...

Dude, you are not on a crusade ok! Nobody cares what your personal feelings towards Mormonism are. This is not the place for such a pointless, wreckless, ignorant and BIGOTED view of things.

Just go away. Please.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, Lindsey! you beat me to it!

Our Founding Truth said...
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Lindsey Shuman said...

=) My pleasure!

And for the record, I am for removing OFT perminantly. All we need is 4 more votes to make it official.

Lindsey Shuman said...

Keep posting, OFT. I'll just keep deleting.

By the way, you've taught me much about religion, OFT. Particularly how fanatics can completely turn a blind eye to reason and fully embrace insanity. It's been enlightening.

Our Founding Truth said...
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Seth R. said...

Well, it was nice while it lasted anyway.

Brad Hart said...

Yeah, it was. Don't be discouraged. We can still have an intelligent conversation on this topic. Don't let OFT discourage you. The guy usually craps all over everyone's conversations around here. He's this blog's Michael Savage...i.e. he thinks he's smart, articulate, etc. but in reality is just an insensitive bigot!

Our Founding Truth said...

You're a loser Hart! You don't have the nads to be a man and say that to my face!

Brad Hart said...

Ok, here you go:

You're a fanatic! I think you're a complete and total hypocrite and that your bigotry knows no bounds. You constantly ruin the discussions on this blog. Now, you may on a rare occasion have something decent to say, but it's a rare thing indeed. The pattern of blatant bias and ridiculous commentary is annoying to say the least. Please consider this the very last comment I will ever let you make on one of my posts...and I sincerely hope to extend that to the entire blog sometime soon.

I would LOOOOVE to tell you more in person sometime. If you're ever in the Colorado Springs area let me know. I'll make sure our conversation is more "intimate," and I promise it will leave a lasting impression on you!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ban away. I've had it.

Lindsey Shuman said...

Ok, we only need 3 more votes to make it a majority. Any takers?

Our Founding Truth said...
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Seth R. said...

If you'd like, I'll vote in favor. But I'm not really a regular here, so I doubt it counts.

Ray Soller said...

OFT, It's too bad you approached the subject of Smith's treasure-seeking activities in the way you did. I tried to bring up the subject in a general way, but your approach didn't open up the subject for discussion, either. Can't you calm down?

First off, I'd like to say that by your standard Paul of the NT would never have been the Gospel messenger that he turned out to be, given his record of persecution against the early christian community. I suspect it's a good thing that you're not the Supreme Judge of the world. So, if you can exercise a little forbearance, we might be able to discuss the subject in a reasonable way.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but without looking at my sources, J. Smith was convicted of being a "disorderly person," and nothing else. Josiah Stowell, the person who had employed Smith, did not seek repayment for the salary he had paid Smith for trying to find treasure on his property, because he was pleased with the services Smith had rendered. Recognize that no one, today, is convicted for similiar activites like those who engage in dowsing for water so the property owner can dig a well. Did Smith turn his life around after this encounter with the law? Perhaps, but that I suspect is an open question.

Our Founding Truth said...
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Brad Hart said...

Yes, Ray. I agree. And it's worth noting that the "disorderly person" charge was the result of his alleged "money digging," a practice that was taking place all over the countryside. As historian Richard Bushman states:

***"Money-digging was an epidemic in upstate New York...Buried treasure was tied into a great stock of magical practices exteding back many centuries."***

And historian Whitney Cross:

***“Legends of buried treasure were indeed widespread…reaching back to the first explorers of the American continent."***

This was a common practice...something that went back to C. Columbus you could argue.

Now, with this said, I am all for discussing the issue, but please know that OFT will NOT be allowed to participate. I'm sure he'll counter with, "you can't handle my superior knowledge on the matter" or some horse shit like that. However, don't expect his rebuttal to this thread. I hope that doesn't disappoint you, Ray. I've just had it with the guy.

Our Founding Truth said...
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Lindsey Shuman said...

It's official, we now have the majority of votes to cast OFT into eternal purgatory.

Goodbye, Our Founding Truth. Know that any and all of your future comments will be deleted on this blog, no matter the material, subject, etc.

bpabbott said...


I don't know whose vote counts ... but I encourage you to ban him. I have several reasons.

(1) It is common for OFT to respond to one point with a barage of logical fallacies, which are seldom addressed due to the obvious futility. When the pasta is cleaned from the wall noode by noodie, it is a futile and pointless exercise as he gains nothing from the exercise, and is eager to toss more pasta about :-(

(2) In the event OFT offers a comment that is focused, and someone does address it in a reasoned manner, he displays the kind of behavior seen on this post.

(3) Many who visit may interpret his presence as implying some sort of tolerance for, or acceptance of his fanaticism. Even if visitors don't associate his position/prejudices with the contributers his participation will not encourage others to contribute ... quite the opposite I think.

All in all, I find OFT's presence to be a net negative.

Personally, I'd like to see him banned and some more attention paid to policing comments by others (mine included). While OFT is certainly the tallest nail, there are others whose civility can stand improvement (again, mine included).

Tom Van Dyke said...

So the irony is that the Shakers, known for their wonderful hand-made chairs, have pretty much died out, but the Mormons, who got heavy into sugarbeet farms and factories, are the most successful of the new 19th century American religions. Capitalism saved Mormonism.

Well, that, and that the Shakers emphasized celibacy, whereas the Mormons went in for the "be fruitful and multiply" thing bigtime.

Incorporated in 1889, the Utah Sugar Company, which was largely financed by the LDS Church, sponsored studies, analyses, and investigations leading to the completion in 1891 of a $400,000 beet sugar factory at Lehi. Constructed by E.H. Dyer, this 350-ton capacity plant was the first beet sugar factory in the United States built with American machinery. When asked their motive in using the agency of the church to promote an enterprise of this nature, Mormon officials replied that this was one means of fulfilling their covenant to redeem the earth and build up the Kingdom of God.

The success of the Lehi factory encouraged Mormon capitalists to establish factories in other settlements. Utah had several advantages in attaining leadership in beet culture. With a high birth rate and underemployment in many towns, the state had an abundance of boys to thin, weed, and harvest the beets, as well as many men to work in factories. With the state's well-developed irrigation agriculture, and the improved practices developed by scientists at the Utah State Agricultural Experiment Station at Logan, beet growing soon became attractive and profitable. After the Lehi plant was confirmed as a technical and financial success in 1897, many new factories were established in the West, including seventeen in Utah.

Sugar beet proponents were confident that a local factory would increase employment opportunities, bring higher wages, and assure higher and more stable farm incomes. Sugar would be available for humans, the plants' tops, pulp, and molasses were fed to animals, and the roots remained in the soil to enrich and condition it. Since the sugar was a mixture of water, sunshine, and air, the beet took nothing from the soil that was not returned in the form of manure from the animals that ate its by-products. Beets were ideal for rotation with grains, vegetables, and other crops that tended to exhaust the soil. The crop lent itself to stockfeeding, improved the land, and provided the farmer participating in irrigation projects with the cash to meet his payments and buy new equipment


bpabbott said...

ahh ... sigh :-(

I need to type faster >15 minutes for that comment is just too long ;-)

Brad Hart said...

TVD writes:

***So the irony is that the Shakers, known for their wonderful hand-made chairs, have pretty much died out, but the Mormons, who got heavy into sugarbeet farms and factories, are the most successful of the new 19th century American religions. Capitalism saved Mormonism.***

With all due respect, I think you are overplaying the sugarbeet factor quite a bit. Mormons did not survive because of capitalism, they survived because they FLED the emerging capitalist economy. Going to Utah was what saved the Mormons, not a devotion to capitalism via sugarbeets.

Your point about the Shakers is a good one. As historian Richard Bushman comments, over 170 communal societies began around the same time as the Mormons. All failed. Why? Bushman argues two things: First, they failed to maintain an appeal with the poor masses. Second, the Market Revolution.

Also, the Shakers forbade sex, which, as could be expected, would greatly hurt a community's ability to survive. =)

Again, I would argue the exact opposite. It was the Mormon's disgust of the Market Revolution, which (along with other factors) caused them to flee west. This is what preserved the Mormons.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, Brad, I don't know enough about it to have an actual opinion; it's virgin territory for me. I was playfully floating the idea, tho. Could Mormonism have survived*---or more to the point grown as it has---without a good cash flow, and jobs to keep the young close to home? And missionaries cost money. Surely there's some correlation between Mormonism's relative affluence and its growth.

*The Amish, by contrast, have survived, but it seems their numbers have been fairly static. And I'm sure there were other small religious groups that headed west as the Mormons did, but never took root.

Seth R. said...

I don't know if anyone is particularly interested, but here's a link from a Mormon apologetics website outlining the details of this supposed criminal conviction that has been mentioned:


Basically, it seems a bit unlikely that there was ever a guilty verdict here, or that an actual trial ever took place. Richard Bushman has dealt with this incident in his biography of Joseph Smith as well.

Not that I expect anyone to take the word of an apologetics website as definitive. But it might provide leads for further objective historical analysis.

Brad Hart said...


I would agree with you 100% that the Mormons "converted" to a capitalist mentality, but based on the evidence, I think it's clear that this didn't happen until they were firmly established in Utah. And yes, once that happened the Mormons adoped a very pro-capitalist mentality. Or perhaps better put, the influence of the Market Revolution eventually caught up with them and they were "obligated" to evolve in order to survive.

But yes, I think you are entirely accurate in stating that the Mormons would eventually need some kind of cash flow to survive. my whole argument is that this didn't occur until sometime AFTER their settlement in Salt Lake City.


Thanks for the link. I've read Bushman's bio but don't remember any specifics regarding the trial. I'll have to go back and review it.

Seth R. said...

If you want to talk about the success of Mormonism, I don't really know.

Some have pointed to isolation and societal distinctives such as polygamy as contributors to the endurance of Mormon identity. I would point out that Utah during the late 1800s really wasn't all THAT isolated from the rest of the country.

A lot of credit has to go to the formidable organizational genius of Brigham Young (easily one of the most compelling figures in the history of the American westward expansion). While other western communities were springing up in a ramshackle and opportunistic fashion (usually around the latest gold or silver rush), Young forced a more disciplined agrarian approach.

You also have to factor in a massive influx of immigrants from the British Isles and Scandinavia (where early Mormon missionaries saw phenomenal success). Thousands of such people emigrated to Utah and provided a rock-solid foundation (you can still find a predominance of Scandinavian names in Utah communities to this day).

Brad Hart said...


I just checked the dates for that sugar company and I think we may be talking about two very different time periods here. The sugar company was several years AFTER the Mormons arrived in Utah, so yes, I am in agreement with you that by this time the Mormons were fully participating in the capitalism brought on by the Market Revolution. I would argue that the COMMUNAL era of Mormonism lasted roughly from 1830-1845...give or take a few years.

Brad Hart said...

Yes, all excellent points Seth.

I think this would make for a very interesting research topic: when and how did the Mormons convert from a ultra-communal society that feared market capitalism to one of the biggest supporters and beneficiaries of capitalism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Collectivism instead of capitalism prevailed until 1869 when Congress passed a law that land could be privately owned.

This may be of help.


Good website, it's the second time I've run across it in this.

I was wondering if capitalism [especially after 1890] led to any demographic boom, but I can't find any figures.

Brad Hart said...

Wow! They give a date that I'm not sure I agree with. I think "collectivism" ended before 1869. It would be interesting to know why they picked that date.

Thanks for the link!

bpabbott said...

Brad, I'm speculating, but perhaps it had something to do with the 14th Amendment?

What priviledges did Mormon collectivism grant Mormons priviledges that were denied to others?

Did the 14th signal the end of such sectarian priviledge?

There are those who do think so, even though they are far removed by my speculation ... for example ...

Re #29: Just so we don’t start more internet rumors: The 14th amendment was enacted after the Civil War by the same Radical Republican Congress that enacted a series of anti-Mormon laws, leading up to the complete disincorporation of the Church, the confiscation of its buildings and assets, and denial of the most basic civil rights to Mormons. Since Utah was a Federal territory, directly regulated by Congress, the 14th amendment, which regulates the States, did not apply; rather, the Bill of Rights, which directly constrains Congress, applied to these Congressional enactments that abridged freedom of religion in violation of the 1st Amendment and were uncompensated confiscations of private property without just compensation in violation of the 5th Amendment.
http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2009/02/alarmist-news/I find this individuals position rather bizarre, not to mention paranoid, but is there some truth to the effect the 14th had on Mormon collectivism?


Ray Soller said...

Since I can't address XXX anymore, I'll say this:
FYI, probably the best known person who dabbled in crystalomancy (crytal gazing) is John Dee. He was an esteemed member of the Elizabethan Court, and was honored with the position of "chancellor of St. Paul's Cathedral in London" for his service to the crown. Even with his crystal gazing activities, he was an extraordinary calendrical mathematician. It's somewhat unfortunate that we currently follow the Gregorian Calendar instead of the Dee Calendar reform. (There would be more consistency for the dates used to observe the spring equinox and Easter.)

I find it quite paradoxical that there are those who are so agitated about Joseph Smith's practice of crystal gazing, but completely nonplussed with our many presidents who have practiced bibliomancy at their presidential inaugurations.