The Beehive and the Steel Mill: Rethinking the Protestant Work Ethic

by Jason Brown

In Mormon culture the beehive is a symbol of industriousness that embodies the work ethic as not only a temporal duty, but as proof of divine sanction. In Mormon cosmology, the final dispensation ushered in by Joseph Smith unleashed a spirit upon the earth which has inspired all of the advances of the past two centuries including the industrial revolution. Interestingly, this narrative purports that advances in technology are a sign of blessedness that has facilitated the betterment of human kind and the extraordinary growth of the Mormon Church. Technology is therefore at worst neutral and any negative consequences can be easily ascribed to human selfishness and misused agency.

The danger of this narrative is that in its praise of technology and economic progress as an organic-unraveling of God’s divine will for this last dispensation, it ignores the gross inequalities of the economic system which undergirds it (capitalism), and more importantly for this article, the ecological consequences that have followed. This set of assumptions tends to overshadow the elements of Mormon theology which could form the basis of a transformative social and ecological movement within the Church. Indeed, capitalism’s axiom of infinite material growth seems to fit nicely within the cosmological concept of infinite (individual) progression. When the advance of capitalist institutions and technology guided by its needs are assumed part of a divine plan, there is little room for constructive criticism of the negative consequences which may follow from technological and economic progress. What strikes me as ironic is that the sphere from which our inspiration for hard work is drawn, the natural world, is imperiled by the economic system which has become the dominant expression of the so-called protestant work ethic. Because capitalism and industrialism continue to wreak havoc on the earth and her inhabitants (including of course people) a new industrial paradigm and work ethic must be constructed that will not simply equate righteousness with productivity and technological progress, but with how well these fit into the boundaries set by ecological systems and meet human needs.

In this short article, I would like to lay out in basic terms my interpretation of Mormon assumptions about the work ethic as it relates to our cosmological ideas about technology. The thesis is fairly simple: Mormon theology will never be able to fully challenge structures of social inequality and ecological destruction unless traditional narratives which equate material progress with eternal progress are reevaluated and rearticulated in ways that clarify the role of technology and work in our lives, and more importantly the role of nature in our cosmology. This is then, an initial exploration, which will require additional thought and depth in the future, it is a first attempt to articulate a new work ethic that values hard work in a way that not only re-embeds humans in the natural world, but strives for technological achievement along the lines of harmony and mimicry of nature as opposed to domination, exploitation, and destruction.

The De-secration of Nature and the Spirit of Capitalism The origins of contemporary capitalism and the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic” are too complex and lengthy to relate in such a small article, but I would like to highlight two relevant ideas that were seminal to the flourishing of a capitalist society. The first has to do with the radical shift in humanity’s attitudes toward the natural world and perceived alienation from it. As Christianity took center stage in the struggle for spiritual dominance of the old world, it embarked on a war with all things “Pagan.” Paganism and indigenous traditions represent diverse cosmologies that place humans within the web of spiritual nature, rather than outside of it. Many Pagan practices were viewed by the orthodoxy of the age as idolatrous and diabolical, and countless lives were lost in witch hunts and the burning of sacred groves. The foundation for industrial capitalism’s view of nature as a “resource” instead of sacred community, began with this desecration (literally to make unsacred), of the natural world. God was a transcendent being, apart from the earth which was his creation, made for the benefit of his children. The earth was a fallen and corrupt place that many early Christians hoped to transcend and leave behind after this life. An earth divested of spirit becomes nothing more than a building block for a chosen people to realize its God given dominion over the earth.

Another important idea that contributed to the development of capitalism was the restructuring of society around the production of goods. This required a new work ethic based on the schedule of the factory, and a shift toward the accumulation of wealth. While there are many theories and complex histories about the origin and consequences of Western capitalism, one that emerged from early sociology and anthropology was proposed by Max Weber. In his controversial and important work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber fleshes out a theory for the economic and political development of the industrial age. With the emergence of industrial capitalism in Europe, the accumulation of wealth for wealth’s sake became not only a possibility, but a virtue. The shift from mercantilism to full blown capitalism made use of existing technologies, but rearranged the social structure of the old world in favor of a system that stratified society in order to unleash massive amounts of productivity in the form of manufactured goods. This spirit of capitalism is paralleled by reformation Puritanism whose emphasis on the calling abandons Catholic monastic transcendence for a moral obligation to fulfill ones worldly duties (Weber, 1976). Predestination as preached by Calvin made the doing of one’s religious duties an imperative ‘sign’ of God’s favor. The emergence of Protestantism saw a dramatic shift in spiritual attitudes toward merit, works, and sacred duty, as wealth became a sign of God’s favor as well.

The Desert Blossoms as a Rose: Colonial Utah and the Value of Work After Mormon converts had been driven from several frontier settlements, they left the United States for the relative isolation of the Great Basin, then a part of Mexico. To the prophet Brigham Young, the rugged and desiccated land was a blank canvass upon which a righteous people could begin to weave the tapestry of a Zion society, one of perfect equity and cooperation, preparing the earth for the coming of Christ. The original name given to the territory was Deseret, a word taken from the Book of Mormon which means beehive, which is today the state emblem of Utah. To Brigham Young, the honey bee represented industry, and in his vision for the fledgling colony, he saw self-sufficient farm communities that would produce goods in great abundance.

We are all familiar with the adage in the Old Testament that a righteous people will make the desert “blossom as a rose,” (Isaiah 35:1) and we have all heard the stories, visited the monuments, and seen the plaques dedicated to the pioneers who, upon arrival in the valley immediately set about rearranging the landscape to fit their European agricultural way of life, despite the stark difference in climate and topography. Settlers began digging irrigation ditches and planting grain within hours of arrival in Utah Valley. The saints were to prepare the earth for the coming of Christ, and in early colonial Utah, there was no meaningless labor. Within a few years, after many hardships, Mormon settlements were bustling with commerce, industry and agriculture.

Early on in Utah history, there were many difficulties, Indian raids, late frosts, and pestilences. The story of the miracle of the sea gulls is one of many that hold great meaning for the Mormon people. On June 9th 1848, as the saints clung to life, a swarm of crickets (Anabrus simplex) began devouring their crops. The farmers fought back with everything they could, brooms, fire, shovels. They prayed for relief from the threat of starvation should they lose the years harvest. Soon they saw a flock of sea gulls in the distance, which began to gorge themselves on the ravenous crickets, vomiting and then coming back for more. To settlers, the sea gulls were proof of divine protection by God of his chosen people and their way of life. To a subsistence agricultural colony, the crickets took on a demonic character in their challenge to God’s people. Interestingly, if you had asked the Native Americans at the time what they thought of the little black insects, they may have seen them as a boon, a reliable source of protein which required little or no work to harvest and equal proof of God’s blessings.
Industriousness and Technology in Mormon Doctrine

With regard to the building of Zion, Brigham Young stated “if we are to build the kingdom of God, or establish Zion upon the earth, we have to labor with our hands, plan with our minds, and devise ways and means to accomplish that object” (JD 3:51). Another interesting statement made by Brigham Young was that “…The angels that now walk in their golden streets, and they have the tree of life within their paradise, had to obtain that gold and put it there. When we have streets paved with gold, we will have placed them there ourselves. When we enjoy a Zion in its beauty and glory, it will be when we have built it” (JD 8:354-355). Brigham Young here expresses a unique Mormon millennial tradition, one that posits that we are not passive receptacles of Gods grace, but active participants in our own salvation, and even in the second coming of Christ and the millennium.

In contemporary Mormon discourse, hard work continues to be praised as a virtue (missionary program, the success of the BYU business school), and technology a boon. Mormon theologian Robert Millet has written, “In short, the Spirit of God—meaning the Light of Christ—has been behind the rapid intellectual, scientific, and technological developments from the time of the Industrial Revolution to our own Information Age. Joseph Smith presides over our age of enlightenment and expansion” (Millet, 1994). What this idea ignores is that the economic system which brings about these technologies is based on hierarchy and exploitation and it has had massively negative consequences on the earth. In contrast I am suggesting that we judge our society and economic system by a broader and more holistic moral standard that includes social and ecological values.

The Beehive and the Steel Mill For over 30 years, the Geneva Steel plant was a prominent site in the Utah Valley sky line. Built during the Second World War to supply steel for the American military, Utah was chosen to avoid possible coastal attacks by the Japanese. It officially opened its doors in 1944 as a US government owned plant, and began producing products for the war, namely structural parts for ships and plate steel. The steel mill was a defining symbol of an industrial economy in the 20th century, and it was hailed as a welcome and glorious achievement by the local working class. To be a steel worker in those days was a wonderful opportunity which would provide a good living for a family.

But the relative prosperity it brought came at a price. The greatest flaw of the industrial project is that it is one big externalizing machine, meaning, it is very good at creating products and profits, but not so good at accounting for the costs associated with such productivity such as air and water pollution, community, spiritual values, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. As one economist put it: “the polluter is able to internalize most of the benefits of the pollution while only bearing a portion of the costs” (Hatch, 1989). Within a few generations, the environmental effects of Geneva Steel were being felt by local residents of Utah Valley. Wetlands that used to border the entire lake were cleared and filled to make way for the developments that the industrial boom had brought with it and Utah Lake, which borders the plant, tested for unhealthy levels of PCBs and other pollutants. Fish and birds were routinely found dead near the plant, and air quality and visibility was significantly impaired.

In the 1980s small particulates called PM 10 (smaller that 10 micro meters) were beginning to receive more and more attention for their negative health effects. Small particulates come from sulfur, nitrogen produced by refineries, steel mills, and power plants. Unlike larger particulates, the body has a hard time ejecting small particulates as they move past the body’s natural defenses and lodge in the lungs alveoli. In 1978 Utah County was identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a non-compliance zone, and was required to create a plan for particulate reduction. But, because of thermal inversion and the Wasatch mountain range, during winter months, air pollution was essentially being trapped in the valley, causing serious respiratory problems to local residents and an increase in health costs (Hatch, 1989). The main producer of particulates in the area was Geneva Steel which in 1988 accounted for more that 53% of particulates in the county (Hatch, 1989).

The steel mill stands as but one example of what I would call bad stewardship: namely any technology designed to manipulate the natural world that creates enormous amounts of waste while consuming vast quantities of energy. The steel mill stands at the center of a modern industrial economy, and is therefore included as part of the blessedness of which my previous examples have spoken. What is not incorporated into the theological discussion is the very real ecological and health consequences of steel mills and a myriad other industrial technologies. I would hope that an enlightened view of technology would not simply value the productivity and sophistication of a given technology, but its affect on society, human health, and creation. That stewardship, not industriousness would be the superior value.

In stark contrast to the steel mill, stands the honey bee (Apis mellifera), which like many insects and birds has co-evolved with a number of plants and trees to form a mutualistic relationship—meaning both organisms benefit from each other. Many plants have have bright colors, ultraviolet patterns and rewards of nectar to attract pollinating insects. The honey bee converts this pollen and nectar into honey which sustains the young bee broods and the colony through winter. These types of mutualistic relationships are abundantly found in the natural world, which is a perfect metaphor for what a truly stewardship-oriented work ethic might strive to emulate. One which forms mutualistic or symbiotic and regenerative relationships with the industrial activities around it, as opposed to the parasitic ones that seem to be all too common in the current industrial sector. It is a work ethic that I hope humanity will take seriously and emulate in designing future technology and industry.
Toward a New Work Ethic and Standard for Technology

The Christian concept of Stewardship holds if we are humble about our interaction with the planet we inhabit. A steward is not someone who takes the care of the earth into his or her own hands, but one who is constantly learning the language of nature, and attempting to make human activity as benign and symbiotic in her processes as possible. A truly sacred economy would be restrained and imagined within the limits of nature and value not simply the parts but the whole. Indeed the Permaculture ethics of care for the earth, care for people, and reinvesting all surplus (profit) back into these ethics seems an ideal way to think about progress and productivity. Not measuring it solely in dollars, but in quality of life, biodiversity, health of entire systems, and dare I say it, happiness.

An exciting and emerging field that is taking these ideas seriously is that of Industrial Ecology, which attempts to account for industrial processes and flows of energy and materials by creating symbiotic relationships within several types of production. Thus, the industrial process does not have to be abandoned, but the wastes created must either be eliminated or uses must be found for them by other industrial activities. The Kalundborg industrial park, located in Denmark, is the most famous example of industrial ecology in action; here an oil refinery, a power plant and a pharmaceutical manufacturer, harvest and conserve waste heat and use the byproducts of production to make plasterboard. Along similar lines, Biomimicry looks at natural technologies such as spiders’ webbing, which is even stronger than steel yet is produced at room temperature with no toxic inputs or byproducts. Urban ecologists are also beginning to look at cities as ecosystems, and managing them as such. Recently, the city of Los Angeles under the leadership of Tree People ( began planting thousands of trees on city streets and schools and working with city officials to saturate rain water into the ground instead of letting it drain into storm drains and from there the ocean, saving the city millions of dollars.

As Latter-day Saints, we cannot continue to attach industrial production to our work ethic and our cosmology. It is in stark contrast to our obligation as Earth Stewards. Instead, we must look to natural systems not simply as symbolic metaphors of a harmonious industrial society, but as models for production, parameters for our economic activity and the bedrock of our values.

Arrington, Leonard J.; Feramorz Y. Fox; Dean L May Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation among the Mormons Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1976. Hatch, Nile W. Hospital inpatient Respiratory Health Costs Due to Air Pollution in Utah County, Department of Economics BYU, 1989.
Millet, Robert L. ‘Joseph Among Prophets’ Ensign, Jun 1994, 19.
Pope, C. Arden ‘Respiratory Disease Associated with Community Air Pollution and a Steel Mill, Utah Valley’ American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 79, No. 5 May 1989.
Uchtdorf, Dieter F. ‘A Matter of a Few Degrees’ Ensign, May 2008 57-60.
Weber, Max The Protestant work ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism George Allen & Unwin, London 1976.
Widstoe, John A. (ed.) Discourses of Brigham Young: Second President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, Utah 1998.