Individualism, Communalism, and the Foreign Past of Mormonism

For verily I say unto you, the time has come, and is now at hand; and behold, and lo, it must needs be that there be an organization of my people, in regulating and establishing the affairs of the storehouse for the poor of my people, both in this place and in the land of Zion.

For a permanent and everlasting establishment and order unto my church, to advance the cause, which ye have espoused, to the salvation of man, and to the glory of your Father who is in heaven;

That you may be equal in the bonds of heavenly things, yea, and earthly things also, for the obtaining of heavenly things.

For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things.

Doctrine and Covenants 78:3-6


You didn’t build that.” This one-line quip of Barack Obama has received plenty of attention. The topic of pundit television shows, talk radio, and a plethora of made-for-Facebook posters, that brief sentence has struck a nerve amongst the American ideal, based on the myths of Andrew Carnegie and Donald Trump, of self-made man. In this country, our national myth declares, one’s potential is only limited by desire and effort. This is a narrative founded by Benjamin Franklin, sacralized by the Transcendentalists, and crystalized by Henry Ford. This particularly “American” mind-set has also been adopted as a core of Mormon culture in the 20th and 21st centuries: the hard-working, forward-moving, and success-attaining image so poignantly represented in Mitt Romney.

Yet such an individualistic refrain has an unusually communal religious pedigree. The verses quoted in the epigraph, which represent a large thrust of Joseph Smith’s expanded scripture, were part of a revelation Smith received in March of 1832. Prior to that, he had previously received a handful of revelations outlining an economic worldview hinged upon communal sharing, principles that were referred to as the Law of Consecration. 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 believe in private ownership was to overlook the hand of Providence, and to assume personal precedence over communal need was a severe sin.

The God of early Mormonism was forthright and bold in denouncing the individualistic culture of the age: “every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god,” an earlier revelation declared, “whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon” (D&C 1:16). Even in the Book of Mormon, a prominent “Anti-Christ” was condemned for claiming that “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength” (Alma 30:17). These foils were contrasted with the followers of God, disciples devoted to placing the community’s needs over their own accomplishments.

These ideals were more than just abstract notions without practical application, but introduced a long and dynamic Mormon tradition of fighting against individualism. Around the same time these divine commands were received, William W. Phelps, ecclesiastical leader in the settlement of Jackson County, Missouri, and editor of the church’s newspaper, complained to Joseph Smith about reimbursement for the press’s materials. In response, Smith gently chided,

Bro. William–You say ‘my press, my types, &c.’ W[h]ere, our brethren ask, did you get them & how came they to be ‘yours’?  No hardness, but a caution, for you know that it is We, not I, and all things are the Lord’s, and he opened the hearts of his Church to furnish these things, or we should not have been privileged with using them.

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, each focused on locating the individual within a much larger, and sacred, society. In early Utah, Brigham Young continued to emphasize—even more earnestly, perhaps—community over the individual. “I have heard Elders say they were not dependant upon any man,” he once chafed. This was a gross misunderstanding of the gospel, he explained, “for I consider that we are all dependent one upon another for our exhalta-tion & that our interest is insperably connected.” Remnants of this communitarian strand still remain, although in muted forms, today, as seen through things as abstract as Mormon tribalism as well as things as concrete as the church’s welfare program.

These historic pronouncements were, of course, speaking to a specific culture. The Jacksonian period—the era in which Mormonism was birthed—has been identified as the time in which capitalistic society and individualistic ethics came to the foreground. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the “age of the first person singular”; he also coined the phrase “self-reliance,” a term that has since been considered as American as apple pie. The industrialized age brought havoc to traditional social structures, the progressive era correlated these now-considered “American” traits, and today’s consumer society only perpetuates such values. This is one of the reasons pundits often have to warp quotes and ideas from the Founding Fathers and other early American luminaries: we are reading them through the lens of American individualism, a worldview not solidified until the nation reached its centennial but yet is now taken for granted.

Mormonism, in many ways, embodied this shift. Though tragically ironic that LDS cultured ended up embracing the very individualistic mind-set it originally positioned itself against, it is yet another example of how religious ideas are often packed in and understood by particular cultural contexts—a sobering fact that should always be considered by a believer who’s part of a vibrant faith.

This post is not to designed to be a condemnation of today’s society or a passionate plea to return to nineteenth-century Mormon economic principles; far from it. Nor is it a denouncement of only one political outlook; indeed, both sides of the political divide are lacking a communalistic ethic. Rather, it is merely a reminder of the chasm between today and years past—a chasm that provides ironies, lessons, discomfort, and difficulty in squaring past traditions with today’s world; a reminder that things we assume is natural today has not always been that way. This is an especially complicated issue in a tradition that claims both prophetic authority as well as progressive revelation, causing issues that can often be difficult to solve.

A couple weeks ago, a student of mine came up to me after class with a question. In class, we had read the revelation quoted in the epigraph (D&C 78). “For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things.” He insisted how there doesn’t seem to be any qualification in the verse, the revelation, or even the book of scripture in general, in softening that divine and sweeping mandate. How do we square that in today’s economic and social culture?

I still have yet to come up with a satisfying response.

  • Chelsea Barney

    Zion vs. Babylon. The Lord has repeatedly taught that Zion and Babylon are pitted against one another. Babylon (the world) ie today’s economic and social culture are rooted in the principles and foundations of Babylonian (worldly) living. Looking out for “I”, “Me”, “My”, etc vs the “We”, “Ours” etc. In the Koyukon Athabascan (Native Alaskan) culture, there is not a word in the traditional language that describes oneself. Everything is expressed in a collective manner. In fact, the tribe itself calls itself “Denaa” (The People). In many aspects of traditional and modern cultural living of this society there are evidences of Zionistic/communal principles as examples of how it should be. Possessions are understood to be open and available to “the people” the “community”. Even food stores are done with the understanding that it is to be shared. Tom Shadyak award winning director recently produced a documentary called “I AM”, which teaches these principles on a scientific and spiritual level. If we are to have all things equal among us, the key focus of our personal development would be the possession of the noblest quality- Charity. It is only in possessing true charity (which is not puffed up, seeketh not her own ,etc) that we are able to have the Love to care for our brother’s needs more than our own and realize that what we possess is not “ours” but rather a gift from Our Father and an opportunity to become a Savior to someone else by assisting them with their needs in this life. Are we all not beggars? Mosiah 4. The key to becoming this kind of people is to possess true charity on an individual and collective level. As LDS we have already covenanted that we would share all that we hath. Therefore we do not need to wait for another “United Order” to be issued, but rather to “practice” these principles of sharing and charity on a daily basis, until we become perfect in love. To possess this love, it is easiest to First Love God. It is after Loving God with all our hearts that we are filled with HIS love towards our neighbor and we can see them as He sees them and bless them as He would bless them until we have all things in common among us and we are of One heart and One mind. Thanks for the article. Loved it!

  • Rich Alger

    “But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.”

    How are the rich made low in the Lord’s way? By voluntary consecration. Or in the end being forced to be humble either by circumstance or by final judgement.

    How are the poor exalted? By learning to live the way of abundance. The means consecrated by the rich are used to help the poor on their feet. The poor learn the principles of living within their means, of being trained in profitable skills and attributes.

    We must be equal in earthly things and in heavenly things by our agency, if we will. If not, the reckoning comes either in this life or the next.

  • Rich Alger

    The law of consecration embraced the idea of private property. You voluntarily gave all of it, then is was given out according to the best counsel and revelation. It was given to those and became their private property. The next year the process was repeated.

    Individual property rights allows for the best in accountability and allowing for the greatest growth.

  • Christopher

    Ben, this might be my favorite thing you’ve ever written. Well done, friend. Well done.

  • Nate Oman

    Nicely done, although I note that you tell the story of Mormon change as a declension narrative, which is hardly ideologically neutral. The shift from the more communitarian — and hierarchical and socially static — world of the early Reapublic to the more dynamic and economically individualistic world of today is also a shift from a society of widespread poverty to one of massively increased material welfare in absolute terms, a shift that was driven in large part by a movement in social attitudes and the accompanying shift in economic institutions. I like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (and the economic interpretation of them bequeathed us by Arrington) as much as the next guy, but I also really like Douglas North, Deidre McCloskey, and F.A. Hayek.

    • Benjamin Park

      I actually agree, Nate, and as I was finishing this column at about 1am this morning I realized the declension narrative and tried to soften it. (Which I didn’t fully accomplish, obviously.) I tried to emphasize that I don’t want a return to early Mormon economic and societal principles, just that I’m not quite sure what to do with the disruption in tradition between now and then, and how that should affect our reading of the Doctrine and Covenants, etc.

  • Rob H

    How much of this early communalism of the Church has to do with what was already set up at Isaac Morley’s farm, with the Family? They were living a communal lifestyle and then readily embraced the gospel message when it was presented to them. Did they then turn the Church into a communal order, or did Joseph Smith come to Kirtland with an attitude that then perfectly matched the disposition of the new converts?

  • Jessica F.

    Wonderful post. I think the answer to your student is that we are currently doing it wrong, and how would he fix it. The Book of Mormon and the D&C are incredibly constant that salvation is both temporal and spiritual. It is collective and not individual. I think forgetting the development of ideas across time is dangerous when one assumes that the present is the only true way and reflects that on the future. Human Beings imagine that the future will look like the present more when they forget the past.