Book Review: Building the City of God Community and Cooperation among the Mormons

by Leonard Arrington, Review by Jason Brown

If there is one book that every Latter-day Saint should read (besides of course the scriptures) it would be Leonard Arrington’s Building the City of God. In his practically encyclopedic coverage of early Mormon cooperative efforts, Arrington lays out the good, the bad and the ugly of Zion Building in the American West of the 19th Century.

Arrington begins his book by laying out the historical context in which Joseph Smith emerged as a religious leader. In a United States where religious pluralism and laizze-faire individualism were boiling over, the 19th century saw an explosion of utopian and apocalyptic communal religious societies; what might today be called intentional communities. There were so many experimental communities during this time, that Ralph Waldo Emerson famously stated “we are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a New Community in his waistcoat pocket.”

In this context, Joseph Smith began to assemble the elements that would become Mormonism. He envisioned a social and economic base in which followers would be of “one heart and one mind,” and where there would be no poor among them (and not just because the poor would be excluded). According to Arrington, many Mormon converts came from more radical Christian backgrounds that envisioned a communal society more in line with the teachings of primitive Christianity.

The revelation that enunciated the Law of Consecration and Stewardship, or the United Order, was revealed in 1831. In it Smith calls for the consecration of all personal property to a ward Bishop, which would then be redistributed to the steward according to his/her needs. This system allowed for individual creativity and freedoms, while at the same time providing for the numerous poor that were joining the church. According to Arrington, implementation of the Order was inhibited and shaped by existing land tenure laws and the unwillingness of some saints to consecrate their properties. Unfortunately, these early attempts to live the Law of Consecration under Joseph Smith’s leadership were mostly a failure. Intense persecution of Mormon communities, first in Ohio and then Missouri, made implementing the United Order difficult as well.

However, by the time Brigham Young attempted to establish consumer cooperatives (like ZCMI) in the 1860s, and re-implement the Law of Consecration by creating United Order communities in the 1870s, the social upheaval that was characteristic of Joseph Smith’s time was giving way to a capitalist economy, in which anything communal or cooperative was looked down upon. What is striking about Brigham Young’s United Order Movement is the fiery anti-capitalistic instinct that Young exhibits. He was vehemently opposed to imports into the Utah territory by what he called “the merchants of Babylon” fearing that if Latter-day Saints grew to depend on outside imports, they would become slaves to “gentile” merchants who profited at their expense. He refused to let Utah become a supply of raw materials to the United States, and pushed saints to set up their own cooperative home industries so that the territory would become a net exporter of value added goods. In addition to his economic policies, Young carried a deep commitment to social justice and believed that the Saints were preparing the earth for the return of Christ, and were therefore charged with building a Zion society, one in which all lived in harmony and equality.

Arrington takes the reader through Cooperative and United Order Experiments in over twelve Latter-day Saint communities, expounding on the detail and drama of formation, trouble shooting, and dissolution of each. Most communities relied exclusively on voluntary compliance of members through ecclesiastical persuasions and each had to deal with balancing the leveling impulses of the Order with the desire for individual freedom and creativity. As Arrington illustrates with firsthand accounts of members of the order, it was a time of great unity among the Saints.

Though the United Order has failed in leaving any real institutional legacy, the spirit of solidarity and unity that prevails in Latter-day Saint communities is pointed out by Arrington as being a strong feature of contemporary Mormon culture. As Mormon social and environmental activists, this volume is an essential collection of case studies to analyze, test, and reformulate into new ideas as we contemplate making a Zion society in our day, through institutions of voluntary association and cooperation.