How Socialism Helped Save the Mormon Church

By William Van Wagenen

When many people think of Mormons, wealthy advocates of capitalism like Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck often come to mind. Because of this, many people are very surprised to learn that Mormons have a long and proud socialist heritage.

The early Mormon settlers in Utah implemented a socialist economic system under the direction of Brigham Young. They never used the word “socialism,” but socialist is the only way it can really be described.

What is even more surprising is that this socialist system helped to save the members of the Church from widespread starvation in 1855. Were it not for a socialist economic system, the Church may not have survived as we know it today.

When a group of new Mormon immigrants arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in the early 1850s, Mormon Church President Brigham Young made it clear what kind of society they were entering:

“Again, with regard to labour – don’t imagine unto your selves that you are going to get rich, at once, by it. As for the poor, there are none here, neither are there any who may be called rich, but all obtain the essential comforts of life.”

Mormon pioneers crossing the plains often arrived in Utah destitute

In the Salt Lake Valley, land was distributed to the members of the community according to the principle, “equal according to circumstances, wants and needs.”

In regard to natural resources, Brigham Young explained that, “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.” The same was true of mineral resources from mining.

A public authority was appointed to oversee water use. The canals and ditches were built on a community basis. The canals were “built by the farmers, owned by the farmers, and operated by the farmers.”

Public buildings, roads, and bridges were all constructed communally. Bishops would give out building assignments in church meetings on Sundays. Church members completed these projects by donating one day out of ten to public labor as a tithe.

In Salt Lake City, exploiting workers was considered socially unacceptable. Brigham Young told the story of a bishop who stopped a member of his congregation from building a house, because the man wasn’t paying fair wages to his carpenters.

Mormon Church President Brigham Young

A system of taxation was established which gave the tax collector “discretionary power, to pin down upon the rich & penurious, and when he comes to a Poor man or widow that is honest, instead of taxing them, give them a few dollars.”

A system for donating surplus food to distribute to the poor was set up, while those who would not sell corn at reasonable prices to the poor were given a stern warning. Brigham Young said, “If those that have, do not sell to those that have not, we will just take it & distribute among the Poors, & those that have & and will not divide willingly, will be thankful their heads are not wallowing in the Snow.”

But then, in 1855, a series of natural disasters hit. First, massive numbers of grasshoppers and crickets descended on the Salt Lake Valley, eating the Mormon settlers’ crops. They descended like “snow flakes in a storm” and filled the sky “as far as the eye can reach.”

This was accompanied by a terrible late summer drought which destroyed even more crops, including between 1/3 and 2/3 of the wheat harvest, as well as much of the grass that the cattle needed for grazing.

The Mormons then had to send their cattle to higher altitude areas in Cache Valley to find food for them. This was a disaster because the winter of 1855-56 was extremely bitter and cold. About half of the cattle in the Utah territory froze to death.

Official Mormon Church historian Leonard Arrington stated that, “The destruction of both crops and livestock brought on near famine.”

Faced with starvation, the leadership of the Mormon Church implemented two new “share-the-wealth” programs. The first was called “Fast Offerings.” Even though the Mormons had long fasted (gone without food one day each month) for spiritual reasons, they now asked that everyone donate the food they saved by fasting. The bishop would then distribute this food to the poor.

The second was a food rationing program. Each father was asked to place his household on a ration of one half pound of breadstuff per day, and to use any extra food they had to feed people they employed or who were in their congregation.

Brigham Young said that those who didn’t comply would be kicked out of the Church and their excess grain taken. He introduced the program saying, “If you do not pursue a righteous course, we will separate you from the Church. Is that all? No. If necessary we will take your grain from your bin and distribute it among the poor and needy, and they shall be fed and supplied with work, and you shall receive what your grain is worth.”

Brigham himself fed 200 people per day, as well as the 60 members of his family, and all of his employees.

Even though Brigham offered to pay for any food that might be forcibly taken, this didn’t make much difference because, as Elder Heber C. Kimball noted in a letter to his son during that time, “Money will not buy flour or meal. . . . Dollars and cents do not count now.”

These programs were consistent with what the Lord said in the Doctrine and Covenants, “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 (D&C 104:16).”

Arrington commented about this period that, “The upshot of all these measures was that, while all suffered, none died of starvation.”

So, we often hear the story about how the Mormons were saved by seagulls coming to eat the grasshoppers and crickets that were eating their crops. In reality, it was the socialist economic system that redistributed wealth and made sure that the “least of these our brethren and sisters” were taken care of that saved the Mormons in Utah.

That these early Mormons practiced socialism instead of capitalism should not be surprising, given that the Book of Mormon condemns the basic principles that form the foundation of a capitalist economic system.

Korihor, one of the great villains of the Book of Mormon, tried to trick people into thinking 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; and whatsoever a man did was no crime (Alma 30:17).”

In a capitalist society, those who are strong (intelligent, have a knack for making money, or inherit wealth) get rich and prosper, while those who are weak remain poor, get little education, go without medical help, or go hungry.

In contrast, the early Mormons strove to build a society where there were no poor, nor any who could be called rich. The weak were not left to starve. Instead, food was re-distributed in times of want. Everyone was given land, rather than having to buy it. The wealth and natural resources of the community belonged to the people, all the people.

This was just like the Nephites, who, according to the Book of Mormon, established a socialist society after the resurrected Jesus descended from heaven and visited them. They established a society in which there were no classes, and where “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 (4 Nephi 3).”

So, keeping in mind this rich socialist history, as well as clear teachings advocating socialism in the Holy Scriptures, it is important for us as Mormons today to carry on this legacy. We need to fight for socialism, equality, and an end to poverty, just like our Mormon pioneer ancestors did.

Note from the author: all quotes, unless other-wise noted, are from “Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830 to 1900,” by Leonard J. Arrington, University of Nebraska Press, 1958.