When were Mormons Socialists?


When Were Mormons Socialists?

D. E. Neighbors

28 May 2012

7 And behold, there was peace in all the land, insomuch that the Nephites did go into whatsoever part of the land they would, whether among the Nephites or the Lamanites.

8 And it came to pass that the Lamanites did also go whithersoever they would, whether it were among the Lamanites or among the Nephites; and thus they did have free intercourse one with another, to buy and to sell, and to get gain, according to their desire.

9 And it came to pass that they became exceedingly rich, both the Lamanites and the Nephites; and they did have an exceeding plenty of gold, and of silver, and of all manner of precious metals, both in the land south and in the land north. (Helaman 6:7-9)

It’s hard to read Troy Williams’ “When Mormons Were Socialist,” which appeared on the Salon website April 15, 2012[1] without giving into a temptation simply to dismiss it as anti-Mormon screed. It seems, in fact, to be little more than a rehash of a similar article that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune in February 2011[2], though the Salon article is updated somewhat to bring it in line with the current Presidential campaign, which happens to feature a Republican Latter-day Saint candidate.

Back in college while taking a course on folklore, we studied several critical analyses of “Cinderella,” one of which was written by a folklorist with a painfully obvious Marxist-Leninist perspective. To this day, I can’t quite wrap my brain around how any symbol of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat could be derived from a fairy tale, but that good comrade managed to do it. I see rather the same thing going on in Williams’ simplistic take on the Book of Mormon. I discovered, as I did a little reading on my own to chase down some of Mr. Williams’ incited quotes, that “shallow” is also an accurate descriptor of his take on the LDS canon and other LDS sources as a whole. I have also discovered a group of blogosphere denizens who have begun looking for socialists under LDS rocks, much as we believed communists were to be found lurking in every dark corner during the Cold War, back when I was a kid. What is less clear is whether or not we modern LDS should duck and cover like the turtle taught us to do way back when. [3]

Williams attempts to employ the Book of Mormon, part of the LDS canon, to show that socialism was the accepted way of life in Book of Mormon times, but while quoting bits and pieces of the Book of Mormon, he has a nasty habit of failing to cite them. From the way he employs Book of Mormon passages, it is simply easier for him to appear to make a point without cluttering up his wasteland of a tale otherwise empty of important details. Take this passage from his Salon article, for instance:

“God had called Samuel to essentially Occupy Zarahemla, to stand up and speak out against corporate greed and wealth accumulation. For his trouble, he was promptly thrown out the front gates. Undeterred, he bravely scaled the city’s exterior wall, evading a barrage of arrows and stones to stand defiant. He offered Zarahemla a choice: repent or be destroyed by God. Like any of us who have ever witnessed the ranting of a doomsday prophet, the Nephites couldn’t be bothered. Four hundred years later, Samuel’s prophecy would sorely come to pass. After decades of perpetual wars and extreme environmental upheavals, the inhabitants of Zarahemla were wiped completely off the continent and out of history.” [4]

The rest of the story, as it were, is that Williams fails to call into account how the people of Zarahemla had come to be so evil. Anyone may do this by reading from (at least) Helaman 6 forward. In fact, it soon becomes clear that most of the people of Zarahemla had built their prosperity out of good, honest, hard work. As we so often see in history, there are always those who become envious and even jealous of the accomplishments of others, and we also know from other “cautionary tales” and history itself that people like the Gadianton robbers will slink in and take what is not rightfully theirs. The people of Zarahemla were getting only a tiny taste of the blessings of righteous living (one of which can be, but is not necessarily, prosperity) when the Gadianton robbers threw their system out of balance. But in trying to make his point, Williams plays hopscotch with the story of Zarahemla, overlooking 3 Nephi, which tells of the coming of the Savior to the New World and the results of that visit. Instead, he fails to offer even a thumbnail sketch of roughly forty years of Nephite history before jumping headlong into 4 Nephi 1:3, which he quotes without citing.[5] While one could argue that the civilization that followed immediately on the heels of the Savior’s ministry was as close to a “classless utopia” (as Williams puts it) as has ever been seen in Scripture, I personally think Mr. Williams has read his copy of The Communist Manifesto two or three times too many.

One point with which I agree with Williams is his assessment of the corrupt forces that brought down Zarahemla, and in turn the United Order of a more modern time. It is entirely true that if we “set our hearts on riches and ignore the poor, we will be destroyed.” Perhaps the Book of Mormon does indeed weave a cautionary tale, but such tends to be the bailiwick of holy writ. After all, we see similar messages from Old Testament Prophets such as Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and in turn, we receive from the Messiah a basic plan, which, if carefully followed, will prevent the travails such as those suffered by the Israelites and the Nephites in their separate parts pf the world. Would that his use of sources always be so agreeable.

Williams tells us:

“Mitt Romney and City Creek represent the culmination of a great transformation within Mormonism. As an outcast faith, early Mormons experimented with communal living and alternative marriages. This original brand of Mormonism was typified by their rugged frontier prophet and polygamist outsider Brigham Young. In 1848, Young famously declared, “There shall be no private ownership of the streams that come out of the canyons, nor the timber that grows on the hills. These belong to the people: all the people.”

Once again, Williams is guilty of quoting without offering a citation. However, my search for a source provided a bit of a surprise: Apparently Brigham Young has been given credit for telling an audience in 1848 “There shall be no private ownership, etc.” for a number of years, but strangely enough, no original source seems to exist. If indeed Young were to be credited with saying that, it would appear that “egalitarian separatism” was not on his mind at the time. In fact, the quote attributed to him is more reminiscent of the conservationist thinking Theodore Roosevelt would embody just over half a century later. Consider one author’s comments in the University of Denver Water Law Review:

 “As one authority remarked, ‘the way water law developed in the Territory of Utah was unique in the West.’ Utah water law strongly emphasized community interests and public ownership. Evidencing this originality, Brigham Young famously pronounced in 1848a year before the drafting of Utah’s first constitution that “[t]here shall be no private ownership of the streams that come out of the canyons, nor the timber that grows in the hills. These belong to the people: all the people.” Young’s proclamation indicates an emphasis on community values and an orientation toward natural law permeating early Utah society.[6]

An endnote tells us “Although many authors cite to this quotation, their investigations did not reveal its location in the historical record. As one author also noted, while Brigham Young always acknowledged the importance of public ownership of water, he and the early Deseret legislature regularly granted exclusive rights to private use.” It is, in fact, problematic for Mr. Williams to credit (or accuse) Brigham Young of socialism or communalism when in fact he not only saw a need for public ownership of resources, but also allowed “exclusive rights to private use.” When we get down to brass tacks, was Young pushing communalism or simple good sense?

I cannot but help comparing three men of means, two of whom made a mark in American history, and one who wishes to. These men would be Brigham Young, who was well off at more than one time in his life, only to lose his fortunes at the hands of a criminal element not only distrustful of Mormonism but also jealous of the relative thrift and prosperity typical of the Saints. The second man in this group was not LDS at all, but was a wealthy man in his own right before becoming President of the United States. That man is Teddy Roosevelt, who not only attempted to bring the giant corporations of his day to heel, but who also entertained such “socialist” (as apparently Williams defines the term) ideals as public ownership of certain lands and making one’s way in the world by the virtue of an honest day’s work. The last, a Latter-day Saint who would be President, is Mitt Romney, scion of automobile industry magnate George Romney, and successful businessman in his own right. All men have prosperity in common, all have been some sort of businessman. All three have been critically examined, even vivisected, in the light of public opinion, an ordeal that Mitt Romney is undergoing even now.

It is a stretch to claim that millionaire Mormons face any kind of “ontological dilemma. One can be wealthy and a member in good standing, though there can be no doubt wealthy Latter-day Saints face challenges the hoi polloi do not. Individual Saints such as Mitt Romney, as well as the LDS Church as an organization, all face the terrible responsibility that prosperity brings. Yet, if one studies the issues carefully, do we see the LDS Church flaunting its prosperity in its many enterprises, or do we see the corporate entities attached to the Church creating jobs? Is Williams suggesting that the LDS Church merely give its money away? It would seem that the returns to the general public from such endeavors as City Creek Mall will be much greater than any the LDS Church might receive.

As for Mitt Romney, I won’t argue one way or another about his way of running his businesses. When we do that, we are getting much closer to politics and farther away from religion. It strikes me that were Mitt Romney a faithful adherent of (name a Protestant denomination) his religious preference would not be part of the discussion. After all, this has been the case in virtually every other presidential election, with the notable exceptions of John F. Kennedy and (to a lesser extent) Jimmy Carter.

Troy Williams tries to make a religious/political point by splashing socialist paint all over Mormonism and its history. At best, I would say that Mormonism has had and even has socialistic tendencies. In other words, some of the Church’s policies and endeavors resemble socialism, but not quite. Is Mormonism the Horatio Alger story writ large? I can think of no response to that more elegant than “Pfui.”

[1] When Mormons were Socialists . The article was also referenced and discussed on the Free Republic website beginning April 15, 2012 and posted on AlterNet on April 15.

[2] Salt Lake Tribune: The Case for Book of Mormon Socialism. Neal Rappleye responded to this article in his blog, as one can read here: Does The Book of Mormon Promote Socialism?

[3] If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this video: Duck and Cover – 1951 Film

[4] See note 1.

[5] “And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.”

[6] Williamson, Jeremiah. “Stream Wars: The Constitutionality of the Utah Public Waters Access Act.” University of Denver Water Law Review . 14. (2100): 332-333. Web. 28 May. 2012. An end note tells us “Although many authors cite to this quotation, their investigations did not reveal its location in the historical record. As one author also noted, while Brigham Young always acknowledged the importance of public ownership of water, he and the early Deseret legislature regularly granted exclusive rights to private use.”


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