To most outsiders with little actual knowledge of the faith or its history, the most distinctive feature of Mormonism is likely polygamy. Indeed, the practice of taking multiple wives is the most well-known casualty of Utah’s incorporation into the United States, and of Mormonism’s drift toward mainstream Christianity. But, as John Turner’s new biography of Brigham Young helps us to see, the most radical social experimentation of early Mormonism may have been its anti-capitalism, not its deregulation of the marriage market.
Writing at the LA Review of Books, Mike Davis (who knows from radical social movements), takes from Turner’s book the notion that Mormonism before Young’s death represented “the most ambitious” social experiment in American history, the creation of a society that “explicitly rejected the core values of Victorian capitalism.” As Davis highlights, exposure to the fallout of that Victorian capitalism during his missionary work in England may have helped to shape Young’s stance. From Turner:
Young had known grinding poverty and periodic hunger throughout much of his life, but the squalor of English cities still gave him pause. “I for get how menny bagers [beggars] I saw,” he told Mary Ann, “but enuph to take all the pennes [pennies] and copers I can get.” The United States had not yet recovered from the banking panic of 1837, but the English situation was far bleaker. “[W]hen I look at the difrents betwene poore People here and in America,” he concluded to Mary Ann, “I rejoice that you and the children are there.”
As Davis recounts, back across the Atlantic Brigham Young “tirelessly preached the impossibility of coexistence between the communitarian values of Zion and the greed-driven capitalism of Babylon (the United States).” What we have in Turner’s book, then, in addition to an even-handed account of Mormonism’s leading light, is a depiction of the Church’s mostly forgotten socialist past. And while much common skepticism of Mormonism focuses on the undergarments and the vague occultism, Davis dismisses all that as just so much “religious mumbo-jumbo,” a common mark of any secretive set. To Davis, “the real scandal” of Mormonism is how far its current believers have come from the fiery communitarian vision of Young.
In a long piece on Mormonism’s history and meanings, based on readings of Turner’s book and several others, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik characterizes the evolution of Mormonism as a “victory of Gilded Age capitalism over Great Awakening spiritualism,” a “squalid turn toward vulgar prosperity” that doubled as a “sane turn toward social peace” in its resolution of the conflict between Young’s Utah and the United States. As Gopnik puts it, “this sublimation of the energy of the faith into the energy of commerce seems always to have marked (Mormonism) afterward.”
Of course, the most famous of the latter-day Latter-Day Saints is presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, no one’s idea of a socialist. And so, in closing his piece, Gopnik asks the present vantage’s logical question: “To what degree is Mormonism responsible for Mitt Romney?”
(C)lass surely tells more than creed when it comes to American manners, and Romney is better understood as a late-twentieth-century American tycoon than as any kind of believer… In another way, though, this is precisely where faith really does walk in, since commerce and belief seem complementary in Romney’s tradition. It’s just that this tradition is not merely Mormon. Joseph Smith’s strange faith has become a denomination within the bigger creed of commerce… Then again, almost every American religion sooner or later becomes a Gospel of Wealth… this gospel of prosperity is the one American faith that will never fail, even when its promises seem ruined. Elsewhere among the Western democracies, the bursting of the last bubble has led to doubts about the system that blows them. Here the people who seem likely to inherit power are those who want to blow still bigger ones, who believe in the bubble even after it has burst, and who hold its perfection as a faith so gleaming and secure and unbreakable that it might once have been written down somewhere by angels, on solid-gold plates.
That a faith can paper over its roots and evolve to oppose the views of its pioneer prophet doesn’t mean its followers lose the will to believe.