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Religion Library: Mormonism

Community Organization

Written by: Stephen Taysom

Like many of the religious movements that originated in the early years of the American Republic, Mormonism experimented with a form of communal living. In the 1830s and 1840s, Mormons built headquarter cities, first in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and later in Utah, where the bulk of Mormons gathered. Around the larger cities, smaller Mormon villages also developed.

In the early 1830s, Joseph Smith introduced what he called the United Order of Enoch. Under this system, Mormons would donate, or "consecrate," all of their possessions to the local Mormon bishop. The bishop would then determine the needs of the individual or family and would return to them the amount of material goods necessary to live as a stewardship. The surplus would be placed in a storehouse and distributed to those members of the order who were in need.  In contrast to most communal societies, however, the Mormons retained a capitalistic element. Each individual was expected to continue to work at whatever trade he (typically it was men who received stewardships) had previously been engaged in. Each year, the surplus was again consecrated to the bishop.

This attempt at communal organization never functioned satisfactorily, largely because of the difficulty of reaching an objective standard by which to judge the needs of an individual or family and the lack of resources among the generally poor participants. Although the United Order collapsed, Mormons tended to patronize Mormon-owned stores and farms whenever possible and cooperate in communal economic projects. In Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Mormons set up a headquarters city from 1839-1846, the Church exercised control over political and judicial functions by virtue of their strong city charter. At elections Mormons voted as a bloc. After the Church moved to the American West in 1847, Mormon cities and towns were built along a line extending from Utah as far south as northern Mexico and as far north as western Canada.

Throughout most of the 19th century in most areas of the Mormon culture region, social structures were a composite of civil and ecclesiastical elements. Only in the smallest and most remote Mormon settlements, however, did Mormon dominance approach the levels that were evident in Nauvoo in the 1840s. In places like Salt Lake City, Mormons coexisted with "gentiles," as outsiders were called, from fairly early on in the city's history. Thus while 19th-century Mormon communities in the West were heavily influenced by the presence of the Church, there was no formal attempt to build and manage civil governments through strictly ecclesiastical power.  The institutions of government conformed to American patterns with Mormons occupying most of the elected offices.

In modern Mormonism, although the communities being built are strictly ecclesiastical in nature, the pioneer heritage is still manifest in interesting ways. The basic Mormon congregation is the ward (although in more remote areas smaller units called branches may be organized). Wards meet weekly in chapels or rented spaces. In contrast to the way in which many other Christians choose a congregation to attend, individual Mormons are assigned a ward to attend based solely on the location of his or her home, a practice that stems from the 19th century.

The ward, which typically has about 250-600 members, is the center of Mormon religious life, but it also is the center of a variety of social and cultural activities designed to build a sense of community. The local ecclesiastical leader, known as a bishop, is often referred to as the "father of the ward"—a title that conveys the familial sense that ideally should attach to this faith community. Ward members not only worship together, but they also provide service for one another. Common service projects include the provision of meals to families who have just welcomed a new baby or are ailing, and assistance in moving offered to persons leaving the ward as well as to Mormons moving in. Mormons also frequently contact other members of the LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church in areas where they may be moving in an effort to gather information about the area, quality of schools, and the relative advantages of certain neighborhoods. Welfare aid to the poor comes from regional Church "storehouses" where Church-produced goods are kept.           


Study Questions:
1.     What early aspect of Mormonism could be considered a counter measure to capitalism? Why?
2.     What is the contemporary relationship between Mormonism and civic government?
3.     What are wards? How are they communal?

 
     
     
     

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