Socialism and United Order

I stumbled across a few LDS socialist stories when I was writing my MA thesis. Imagine my surprise when I read paragraphs like this from an 1893 short story:

“ ‘But,’ interrupted the pale man at his side, ‘capital, at length, ignoring the lessons taught by the experience of other communities, and working through the same old selfish principles and methods of monopoly, placed its hand upon the materials of production, at each new accession of power, riveting new restrictions upon the rights of labor, and the result was—‘”

Or this:

“Any one coming to Salt Lake at the present time, and moving only in the central and eastern part of the city, would possibly gain no hint of the existence of an element of poverty and discontent. Our Capitol Hill and principal avenues are crowded with palaces, and the distant street and suburbs with respectable mansions and cottages; but afar at the base of the Oquirrhs, and in the canyons above them has grown up a town of tenements and hovels, apart and almost distinct from the city in the eastern part of the valley.”
“What Chinatown was once to San Francisco, and the Italian quarter to New Orleans, so our ‘Labortown,’ as we choose to style it, is to the city of Salt Lake. The only difference is that in this case the entire population is organized into a society pledged to wage incessant and deadly warfare against capital and its class.”

There are a small handful of stories along similar lines. I know the socialist party wasn’t in Utah pre-1900. Do any of you historians know how/where/why the author (young, single, LDS female) would come to these ideas? University of Deseret?

Also what is/was the philosophical connection between the United Order and socialism? When I read the above, I’m seeing socialist ideals. Is there any way that such phrasing was United Order ideals, instead?

21 comments for “Socialism and United Order

  1. CraigH
    August 6, 2008 at 12:34 am

    I don’t have a reference for it, and I’m pulling out my hair to try to remember specifics, but there is some nice work about how one of the attractions of Mormonism to working-class European converts was that they saw it as friendly to socialism. My point is, the sentiments you cite weren’t unique or even unusual, but I’ll have to try to remember where I read this. Maybe it was something by Tom Alexander. Sorry to be so vague.

  2. August 6, 2008 at 1:00 am

    I don’t see it. What the United Order and socialism had in common was an ideal where there were to be no class-based divisions of rich and poor.
    The United Order ideal is expressed in scriptures such as “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness, and there was no poor among them”; (Moses 7:18) and :” ..there were no contentions or disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another. And they had all things in common among them; therefore they were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Ne. 2-3)
    How this could get transmogrified into “incessant and deadly warfare against capital and its class” almost defies the imagination.

  3. August 6, 2008 at 1:19 am

    I’ve got a rather lengthy footnote in my dissertation that sort of kind of deals with this. Here’s the relevant footnote (in the current form – we’ll see if the committee makes any changes) – for background, my dissertation is on Edward Bellamy and his best selling socialist utopian novel Looking Backward (and a special shout out to Ardis Parshall, who graciously informed me about the Josiah Francis Gibbs quote):

    Another interesting but loose connection between Bellamy and Mormons can be found in a September 7, 1895 editorial of a small Utah paper (The Blade, edited by Josiah Francis Gibbs) that explores Bellamy’s ideas, which the article claims “need not be enlarged upon to the people of Utah” because the Mormons in Utah “have ever held it as a tenet of their faith. This editorial also suggests that Looking Backward was read widely in Utah: “Nearly all of our readers, probably, have read Edgar Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ and are, therefore, somewhat acquainted with the social principles therein set forth and of the ideal condition of society which Mr. Bellamy depicts.” I have been unable to determine for myself if the claim about Bellamy’s reception in Utah is accurate. There are some mentions of Bellamy in Utah papers, though usually they are versions of articles easily found in the Eastern press (i.e. notices of Bellamy’s illness and death, or advertisements for his books). However, one particular article of interest comes from the Mormon church owned Deseret News: The Feb. 29, 1896 edition mentions a failed Bellamy colony, which the newspaper uses to argue that communal experiments must be based on God’s word to succeed (9). Several such articles can be found in the Deseret News, usually arguing that Bellamy’s ideas are secular and that the true order of things has already been revealed to the Mormons.


  4. August 6, 2008 at 1:33 am

    Kylie – there was actually a pretty powerful and socialist-ish labor movement in Utah pre-1900. The Knights of Labor, who were kind of populist-socialist, were there from the 1880s, and the AFL was in Salt Lake City by 1893, certainly. The IWW (the Wobblies), a quite radical labor movement, was very powerful in Utah around the turn of the century; perhaps you’ve heard of Joe Hill?

    The United Order is certainly socialist; it’s not doctrinaire Marxism, but it’s quite akin what Marx derisively called utopian socialism, like other antebellum movements – the Oneida Community or the Fourierists, for example. These groups lacked Marx’s materialist edge, and replaced it with idealism and sometimes optimistic spirituality.

    What you’ve got here, though, strikes me as classic labor movement rhetoric.

  5. JWL
    August 6, 2008 at 2:20 am

    The following is from an Apostolic Circular issued by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve in 1875:

    One of the great evils with which our own nation is menaced at the present time is the wonderful growth of wealth in the hands of a comparatively few individuals. The very liberties for which our fathers contended so steadfastly and courageously, and which they bequeathed to us as a priceless legacy, are endangered by the monstrous power which this accumulation of wealth gives to a few individuals and a few powerful corporations…. If this evil should not be checked, and measures not taken to prevent the continued growth of riches among the class already rich, and the painful increase of destitution and want among the poor, the nation is likely to be overtaken by disaster; for, according to history, such a tendency among nations once powerful was the sure precursor of ruin. The evidence of the restiveness of the people under this condition of affairs in our times is witnessed in the formation of societies of grangers, of patrons of husbandry, trades’ unions, etc., etc., combinations of the productive and working classes against capital. Years ago it was perceived that we Latter-day Saints were open to the same dangers as those which beset the rest of the world. A condition of affairs existed among us which was favorable to the growth of riches in the hands of a few at the expense of many. … The growth of such a class was dangerous to our union. … Then it was that the Saints were counselled to enter into co-operation.

    There are numerous other examples of statements by Church leaders in the 19th C denouncing the excesses of the capitalism of the day. However, there is also a long tradition of sharply distinguishing cooperation and the United Order from socialism. One would have to say that the United Order was seen as a ‘third way,’ although they didn’t use that modern phrase.

    As for sources, Arrington, Fox and May’s “Building the City of God” is the best historical treatment of the United Order. At the risk of unseemly self-promotion, Warner Woodworth and I also tried to address some of these issues in “Working toward Zion: Principles of the United Order for the Modern World.”

  6. Velska
    August 6, 2008 at 4:26 am

    How about this “appoint unto this people their portions, every man equal according to his family, according to his circumstances and his wants and needs” (D&C 51:3) or “That you may be equal in the bonds of 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” (D&C 71:5-6) or “But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin” (D&C 49:20)?

    I think the biggest difference between ideal socialism (give people according to their needs and require of them according to their capacity) and United Order are that at least the Marxists wanted to achieve equality by violent revolution and dictatorship while United Order is based on consecration. That would mean the voluntary sharing of what you gain above your needs in order to help those who don’t have enough. Pretty close to what Jacob 2:19 says “to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted”.

    I think it is of note that 19th-century ideas of socialism were very unlikely to be within Joseph Smith’s experience and readings. It’s of course pretty impossible to know exactly what he had heard, but the most famous work, the “Communist Manifesto” by Marx was not published until 1848. Pierre Leroux published in French in 1834 while Briton Robert Owen did start an idealist experiment in New Harmony, Indiana as early as 1826. It had miserably failed before the Church was even established, so I doubt if that has given him the idea. Again, I believe in revelation, but as I realize some don’t, I speculate on whether or not something is Joseph Smith’s experience might have brought up ideas, but I find it doubtful, given his education and background. It wasn’t a time when a farm boy had the world at his fingertips.

    So how about welfare state? Our own scriptures advocate a brand of welfare (which is roundly condemned as socialism), and the Church practices it as far as financially possible. I remember pres. Kimball asking members to increase their fast offerings to give “many times the value of the meals” abstained from, if they can afford it, to reap huge spiritual benefits (that’s April 1978 conference). That April ’78 talk of pres. Kimball is worth reading in many ways, since he talks a lot about building Zion. Zion means not only “the pure in heart”, but also that the Saints be one. It’s hard to unite with people you are grossly unequal with.

    And I think that all of us who live comfortably should look at Mormon 8:37 that says “For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted”. Mind you, I’m not blaming anyone – I see around me good people voluntarily sharing their wealth. But I also wonder if many of us shouldn’t look deep into our souls and ask the tough question: Is he talking about me?

  7. Paul S.
    August 6, 2008 at 9:39 am

    While I think it is a fallacy to think of the United Order as a unitary theory or set of theories, especially in Utah where Brigham Young and others were trying several different forms of the United Order, isn’t there broadly much in common between socialism and the United Order? They at least share the common thread of communalism. Though they certainly share a wide set of differences. But, at least in one town, Orderville, assets were commingled and held by the city leaders, who were also church leaders and alloted out to the citizens based on the leaders’ assessment of the citizens needs. Though important differences exist even in the Orderville permutation of the United Order, the few similarities are striking. These stories may also have been an expression of the church effort led by Brigham Young to unify against outside capital coming into Salt Lake with the worry that such capital and business would give enemies of the church power over them. This seems to have been sometimes reflected in a general animosity directed toward American capitalism generally.

  8. Jonathan Green
    August 6, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Does the author seem sympathetic or skeptical? Is the character who speaks those lines the hero or a menacing villain from outside of Utah? And who is the author, by the way? It’s really too bad Russell is gone this week, because I think he’d dig this.

  9. Kylie Turley
    August 6, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    The author’s name is Josephine Spencer and the odd thing is that those sympathetic lines are voiced by the “evil” capitalists, one of whom is the Senator from Utah. The rest of the story evolves as the Senator and his cohorts go on the offensive because they have heard rumors of labor unrest; they decide to lock the door and barricade windows at a secret labor meeting, so that the labor hall will be flooded by the Great Salt Lake waters (long story about how that could happen). In any case, a reporter (wealthy born, but sympathetic to the unionizers) hears the plans and saves the day. Spencer wrote another handful of stories along similar lines–ie, cities buying out troubled companies to save towns and poor people from oppressive capital and etc.

    The time frame makes sense because of the Depression of 1893, but I still have no idea where the author picked up the ideas or if they are tied to Mormonism.

  10. August 6, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Weird – I posted a response last night discussing the (great) strength of the labor movement in 1880s andd 1890s Utah, but it’s since vanished. Anyhow, rest assured that there was a lot of labor radicalism around for Josephine to hear about.

  11. August 6, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    And there it is again. Hmm. Clearly my computer is somehow messing with the T&S servers.

  12. Mahonri
    August 6, 2008 at 6:43 pm

    Any references? I’d love to read the stories in context.

  13. Mahonri
    August 6, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    Seems I found it (at least one of them) –

    Contributor, Vol. 13, March 1892

    It was also the title story of a compilation of Josephine Spencer’s short stories

  14. Kylie Turley
    August 6, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    There are four stories with socialist implications. Both of the quotes above are from the first story, “Senator from Utah.”

    Josephine Spencer, “The Senator From Utah,” Contributor 13 (Mar 1892): 216-229.
    ——. “A Municipal Sensation,” Contributor 16 (Dec 1894): 102-113.
    —–. “Finley Parkes’ Problem,” Contributor 16 (Apr 1895): 343-351.
    —–. “Maridon’s Experiment,” Contributor 16 (May 1895): 421-425.

    All four of those (plus a few other didactic stories) were gathered in a small book, The Senator from Utah and Other Tales of the Wasatch, Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1895. The book reviews for the book were decidedly mixed, even though such book reviews usually raved about their hometown authors. I think it was probably that reception that caused the author to shift tactics and focus her writing squarely in LDS didacticism. Fair warning, though: the stories are not that well written, but I still think the content makes them fascinating.

  15. Kylie Turley
    August 6, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    For some reason a bunch of posts from last night just barely came up for me. Thanks Matt b and Ivan. She mentions populism in one of the other stories, so I guess I should check down that angle more.

    JWL, don’t worry about self-promotion. Thanks for the reference and the quote. Tom Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition quotes a 1902 Joseph F. Smith letter as saying that he saw “no harm in the wise and intelligent study of socialistic principles, such of them at least as are true and as the teachings of the Gospel and the spirit of the Lord will approve, nor in belonging to a club or society having that as its only purpose.” I didn’t realize that church leaders were saying such things as early as 1875–and it certainly makes my stories a lot more understandable.

    It seems from all the comments that there was a fairly general animosity toward “capital”–earlier and more widespread than I originally thought. It does make me wonder, then about the mixed reviews for the book. For example: “The author seems to see in the political horizon storms brewing that might perhaps be averted were wise methods adopted in the new State. Evidently she feels strongly upon the vital questions of labor and capital and sympathizes deeply with the laboring classes. It is quite a new departure for a young Utah woman . . .” The tone of the review undercuts the book at every turn: the reviewer says the author “seems to see” and she “evidently feels strongly” and that the book is a “new departure” for a “young Utah woman.” If the socialist ideas were acceptable to the general public, was it the fact that she was a “young Utah woman” that made the reviewer squeamish?

  16. Kaimi Wenger
    August 6, 2008 at 10:06 pm


    Looks like this happened again:

    I went in and fixed it.

  17. Jonovitch
    August 9, 2008 at 2:33 am

    I was raised to be a good Democrat (grew up in Minnesota, my dad was a teacher, we had VWs and a Macintosh computer), and for years I half-jokingly said communism (with a little “c”) was a great system.

    Recently I finally got around to changing my mind. It started when I read about studies that showed that conservatives are more generous with their money than liberals, despite the fact that most charitable giving came from those who had less money, and those who had more money tended to give less. I used to think that Democrats had a lock on those Christian principles by giving to the poor and helping those who can’t help themselves. Now I’m not so sure that they have it right.

    I came to the realization that while liberals (and socialists and communists) are very generous people, they are usually very generous with *your* money. They’ll spend and spend and spend until they’re blue in the face, but it’s not their own money that they’re spending. It’s very easy to be generous with somebody else’s cash.

    So unfortunately (I’m struggling to admit this), I’m leaning slightly conservative these days. (In my own defense, I’m only in favor of the 100% pork-free, restrained spending, truly fiscally responsible style of conservative — not the George W. Bush pseudo-responsible, lip-service, spend-more/tax-less style of fiscal responsibility.)

    As pointed out in another comment above, the end result in socialism and the United Order is roughly the same. The main difference is simply who calls the shots. Am I in charge of to whom and to what extent I am charitable, or does Big Brother make those decisions for me? The less choice I have in the matter, the less Christian the redistribution of my wealth seems to be.


    P.S. For what it’s worth, up to now I have typically been on the receiving end of government handouts, and I’m grateful for that. Despite having been the beneficiary of low-income assistance, I still believe I am filthy, stinking rich compared to most of the rest of humanity, so I try to be very, very charitable (of my own accord) with what I do have, when donating to the Church’s fast offering fund. Socialism can’t touch that with a ten-foot, government-mandated, no-bid-contracted, labor-union-manufactured pole that will arrive sometime next month.

  18. Velska
    August 9, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    Jon, I understand well where you come from. While I come from a country with a multiparty system, the same issues are more or less played out.

    But one clarification. Under Consecration, it’s not the donor who calls the shots (other than what’s donated), it’s the Bishop. And we’re supposed to trust that Bishop with that and not second-guess his decisions. That can be a lot tougher than giving to narrowly defined charitable causes that are a safe distance removed from us. We may actually see help given to someone we consider unworthy (as I have). But then before we get bent out of shape we should read Mosiah 4:17-18. I read that and it helped me realize what the Lord’s view is. In His eyes we are all unworthy in that we depend on Him for everything. Not a single thing we can call our own except our agency.

  19. August 9, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    I have a fair amount I’d like to throw into this discussion, but as I’m on the road in Wyoming right now and am borrowing my wife’s aunt’s computer, this old post of mine–“Can a Good Mormon be a Socialist?”–is the best I can do.

  20. Sean
    August 22, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    I am not an expert but do know that there are significant differences between the united order and socialism. In the first place, one is completely voluntary while the other is compulsary (Have you ever tried to NOT pay your taxes?). Next, on paper the principles seem good. Who doesn’t want to help the poor and destitute? However, under the united order (or modern-day Welfare Services) one is helped briefly until they are able to get back on their feet and go right back to work. Under governmental socialism, the government keeps supporting the individual or family at taxpayer expense. I know in recent years that welfare reform has come up but its been mainly a term to make politicians look good rather than permenately removing people from the government payroll. Third, under the united order that is private ownership of property for which one must given an accounting to the Bishop annually. Under socialism, the government owns everything and provides basic needs if the services have not been depleted or in other words: if there is anything left over. Because citizens own and have virtually nothing there is no accountability on their part.
    I could go on and on. Suffice to say, the similarities between the united order and socialism are far and few and it takes a stretch of the truth to really link them. One is the Lord’s way to provide for all his people while building them up to become a Zion-like people while the other is the world’s way to bring them down to become a Babylon-like people.
    President Marion G. Romney has handled this discussion very well in several general conference talks:
    Marion G. Romney, “The Purpose of Church Welfare Services,” Ensign, May 1977, 92
    Marion G. Romney, “Church Welfare Services’ Basic Principles,” Ensign, May 1976, 120

  21. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    September 3, 2008 at 10:26 am

    Don’t you think this discussion is missing an important view point? The Book of Mormon’s point of view! So far the comparison between United Order and/or Socialism is not getting anywhere. It is cursory and leaves out, what we really are comparing. I believe it can not be compared, because of the historical connection. Each of these movements is tied to a people, a historical period and a society separated in time and purpose. Both are arrangements, albeit incomplete, on how to remove the challenge of wealth and poverty from among their followers. Both are ideals and ideals are one way to move people to do something. Both contain false promises and that is, that theirs is the answer to poverty in the world for all people.

    About socialism, it still limps along under whatever name is currently in vogue. Capitalism is also a form of socialism with a twist. It is the systematic production of goods and services for personal gain. It also has the power to attract all the good things we live for and contains the power to deter. I believe capitalism is a good thing, because it makes us productive and useful members of society and it abolishes idleness. But, here is the twist, it causes us to judge others, who are less well off, to think that they are not blessed by God, because they lack worldly possessions.

    About the United Order, it never was a viable theory. Jesus Christ’s created this earth and gave us this world to be productive members and to exercise our moral agency over our possessions. I believe, that a vocal and persitent minority, among the early Saints were more interested in solving the challenges of wealth and poverty or the United Order, than in learning of the spiritual aspects of His Words. This truncated the Mormon experience in the Eastern States and precipated the move to the West under Brgham Young.

    The scriptures are replete with individuals and people, who have gained and lost all the good things of this world. Today, we live in the age of the Masses, there are 6 billion people living on earth and it is projected to be 9 billion in 40 year. Politicians have become the prime movers of idealism in achieving the good things in this world. The idea that, we the people, must have ideals is well discussed for their own purposes and enrichment. Politicians are pre-eminent moral transgressors of immorality. They speak of ideals, but their acts do not reflect it. Their promises are like chain letters, if you keep my chain going, you will receive your own pot of gold. Disappointment inevitably follows. Most of them are without shame, when their acts of lawlessness are exposed. My question: Why do, we the people, keep voting them into office? Their outcome of is always violence, captivity and not justice.


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