Collectivists for Christ!

by Jonathan Thompson

Orderville, Utah, is a smattering of modest homes in a narrow valley on the banks of southern Utah's Virgin River. It feels both overgrown and empty: Thousands of people pass through here daily on their way between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, yet few ever stop. On a perfect September day in the thick of tourist season, the Soup Town Cafe on the main drag is quiet except for the chatter of the three women behind the counter. Only from a study of the displays in the museum next door would one gather that Orderville was once the center of perhaps the most audacious economic experiment in the American West. For Latter-day Saints, wrote historian Dean L. May, Orderville was a "near-successful effort to build the City of God on Earth."

Unlike other pioneers, who sought to strike it rich from the land's natural bounty, Brigham Young led his followers into present-day Utah in 1847 to build a homeland. That would require an approach that rubbed against the Western frontier grain, favoring cooperation and strong central planning over individualism. After 20 years of somewhat haphazard attempts, Young buckled down in the 1860s as the Transcontinental Railroad approached Utah from both sides. At the time, the nation was immersed in an all-out festival of capitalism, led by rampant railroad construction and financed with credit that the banks handed out like lollypops. Young didn't want that soiling the Holy Land.

So he formed the School of Prophets, which, writes Leonard J. Arrington, the late LDS church historian, "countered an energetic and powerful laissez-faire capitalism with a vigorous, well-organized, socially minded and theocratically directed program of economic action."

That program included creating an organization to build the section of railroad that came closest to the capital, to keep out the riffraff that might otherwise do the work. It funded the creation of cooperative furniture and wool manufacturing along with other businesses, to reduce reliance on Eastern imports. The School created the Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution and instituted uniform pricing controls to minimize competition among Mormon merchants.

The Utah Territory successfully resisted becoming a mineral colony for the Eastern industrialists, and the School disbanded in 1872. But Young, whose collectivist leanings grew as he aged, wanted yet more.

A chance for radical change emerged in September of 1873, when the Jay Cooke & Co. bank -- one of the big railroad backers -- collapsed. Other banks toppled like dominos, foreclosures were rampant, and the Panic of 1873 swept the nation and the world, leading to one of the worst depressions in history.

Utah's mining towns were hit hard. But Brigham City, a settlement of about 1,500 people, actually thrived. It had organized a mercantile cooperative in the pre-railroad days, and, by the time the Panic hit, it had expanded into a major manufacturing enterprise mostly owned by the worker/shareholders. It built houses for the poor and widows and provided labor for jobless drifters, and its leaders instituted central economic and land-use planning and zoning, dictating where houses and factories and public transit should be built. Novelist Edward Bellamy, who visited Brigham City after the Panic, reportedly drew inspiration for Looking Backward, his 1888 Utopian novel set in a socialist Boston in the year 2000, when greed and capitalism are no more.

Young didn't need to wait 112 years for Utopia. He set about spreading the Brigham City model, combined with an element of Joseph Smith's Order of Enoch wealth-redistribution plan, across Deseret.

He started in St. George and worked his way northward, converting communities to the Order as he went. Each adopted the Order in its own way, but the core principals were the same: communalism, cooperation and equal distribution of wealth. The language in the St. George United Order Constitution gives a sense of what Young was trying to do, mentioning the struggle between capital and labor, bemoaning the "oppression of monied monopolies" and railing against "a growing ... spirit for extravagant speculation and over-reaching the legitimate bounds of the credit system; resulting in financial panic and bankruptcies. ..."

Call it Occupy Utah.

"It was clear to all that the United Order," writes Arrington, in Great Basin Kingdom, "was an attempt to retard, and, if possible, to prevent the development of a market-oriented economy dependent on extensive importation and exportation." About 200 communities implemented the Order. Some, like Brigham City, took a moderate approach. Others were quite radical.

Take Orderville, which was founded in the spring of 1875 by 25 families who had broken off from the Mount Caramel community a few miles down valley. The Orderville citizens pitched in to build houses surrounding a central plaza and common dining hall. All property was turned over to the community corporation, including land, livestock and machinery. Decision-making was centralized. The population grew to 600, with around 200 acres of communal fields. The citizens built a sawmill, cabinet shop, woolen mill, shoe shop and tannery. Wealth was distributed evenly. Everyone ate together and wore locally made uniforms.

Other communities eventually abandoned the Order, but Orderville thrived in its collective state. At least until the outside world intruded. By the early 1880s, Congress was pressuring Mormons to not only abandon polygamy, but also to stop messing with the free market. In 1885, the feds rounded up and jailed hundreds of suspected polygamists, leaving many communities leaderless. And church higher-ups urged Orderville to abandon its remaining collective ways, so as to avoid even more negative attention.

By the early 1900s, the United Order had died in practice. Still, its spirit lived on, permeating the politics and the economics of the church and the state up to today.

One such re-emergence came in the depths of the Great Depression, when a Utah Mormon banker and conservative Republican named Marriner S. Eccles was one of 46 citizens to address Congress on ways to stop or slow the downward economic spiral. Most witnesses suggested that extravagance, nature or God had caused the crash, and that balancing the federal budget was the only solution. Not Eccles. He told a dumbfounded Senate Finance Committee that the Depression's root cause was the maldistribution of wealth. There was plenty of money out there, it had just all ended up in the hands of a small group of the ultra-rich -- the original 1 percent, if you will -- leaving the other 99 percent broke, and unable to buy anything and fuel the economy.

How to fix the problem? The federal government had to raise taxes on the rich, forget balancing the budget and spend like crazy in order to redistribute the wealth. Eccles' five-point plan included allocating $500 million for unemployment and poverty relief, increasing funding to state and local governments for public works and infrastructure projects and refinancing farm mortgages.

"The orthodox capitalistic system of uncontrolled individualism ... will no longer serve our purpose," Eccles said, echoing Brigham Young and presaging John Maynard Keynes' 1936 work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money –– the basis for one of the principal schools of modern economic thought. "We must think in terms of the scientific, technological, interdependent machine age, which can only survive and function under a modified capitalistic system controlled and regulated from the top by government."

Eccles, who was not a church leader but whose family remains powerful in Utah, became the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and his theories provided the seeds of the New Deal.

In 1936, the Mormon Church created its Welfare Program, which today spans the globe, providing food, shelter, medical help and emergency aid to those in need. It had its underpinnings in the United Order. And it can't be coincidence that Utah today is the most philanthropic state, and wealth is more equally distributed here than anywhere else in the nation.

The Church adhered to the collectivist values of Smith, Young and Young's successor, John Taylor, also a strong proponent of wealth redistribution, until McCarthyism infected the nation in the 1950s. Then, maybe fearing more persecution, church leaders started an effort -- perhaps concerted, perhaps not -- to change their public image from borderline theocratic communists to full-on capitalists.

The ideological leader of this new, free-market Mormonism was Ezra Taft Benson, a rabid anti-communist who served as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of Agriculture and was LDS President for 14 years. In 1966, Apostle Marion G. Romney, Mitt's father's cousin, felt compelled to use his entire speech to the annual LDS General Conference to outline the differences between socialism and the United Order (distillation: the United Order has God, socialism doesn't). And in 1999, Phillip J. Bryson, a professor at Brigham Young University, wrote a paper called "In Defense of Capitalism" to counter some LDS scholars' anti-capitalist leanings.

It's the latter, capitalist version of Mormon history that the modern media has glommed onto. And it's not inaccurate -- under Young's leadership, the church had its hands in a number of business enterprises, just like today -- but it's also not complete. There are really two versions of Mormon and Utah history, running side by side, in direct conflict with one another. Those two versions are apparent today in Mitt Romney, who, as governor of Massachusetts implemented "Romneycare," advocated smart-growth policies and supported mass transit, as though channeling Eccles, and yet who is now running for president on an E.T. Benson-style platform that adamantly opposes all of that.

© High Country News