Scholars of Mormonism (like scholars of most topics) need to find ways to connect their subject to larger scholarly debates and frameworks. Mormon academics have used frameworks from American religious history to western history to the history of family and gender to legal studies. Another possibility is communal studies.
The United States has long been identified in the popular imagination as a land of rugged individualism and free market capitalism. The individualistic tendencies of American society have nevertheless been balanced by contrary impulses towards community which have led to the creation of communal societies. Communalism has been a consistent theme throughout American history and has manifested itself in a dizzying array of groups–religious and secular, immigrant and home-grown, conservative and radical, authoritarian and anarchist, celibate and free love–from the colonial era to the present. These groups have typically included some form of joint ownership of property and communal work arrangements, though the exact nature of each has varied tremendously.
From one perspective, these groups seem marginal to the American story. They have typically existed at the fringe of society, attracted only a tiny minority of America’s population, and formed a counterculture (or, more accurately, countercultures) to the American mainstream. For most contemporary Americans, communalism conjures up images of Shaker historic communities, hippie communes, or the traces of communalism that remain in modern American material culture—Oneida silverware, Shaker furniture, and Amana appliances. Nevertheless, throughout American history, these groups have captivated, bemused, and infuriated the broader public. Their efforts have provoked deep controversy as they questioned some of the most fundamental ideals of society—private property, capitalism, republican government, traditional gender roles, mainstream clothing and diet mores, and monogamous marriages. Placing Mormonism in the context of other communal groups can help illuminate what was unique and what was typical in the American reaction to Mormonism.
Nineteenth-century Mormonism was deeply communal, drawing not only on New Testament precedent (like other communal groups) but also on its own unique scriptures. The Book of Mormon expresses a vision of a godly society which had “all things common among them” and thus “there were not rich and poor, bond and free.” The creation of an ideal society, Zion, proved persuasive to many of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, who, like him, had suffered from the economic chaos brought on by America’s entrance into a market economy in the early 1800s and by the religious confusion of the Second Great Awakening. As in other communal groups, nineteenth-century Mormons challenged traditional notions of family by embracing plural marriage.
While communalism deeply influenced Mormonism throughout the nineteenth-century, Mormons made two specific attempts to actually have “all things common.” In the early 1830s in Missouri, Mormons practiced the “Law of Consecration and Stewardship” in which they deeded all of their property to the church and then received back property to manage. This attempt at communal living suffered from both internal discord and external pressure, as local settlers twice forced the Mormons to abandon their Missouri settlements in the 1830s. The memory of the Missouri attempts to establish Zion left an indelible impression on nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints, including Brigham Young.
In Utah, Mormons engaged in a variety of cooperative economic projects under Young’s direction. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, partly as a result of the completion of the transcontinental railroad which threatened to end Utah’s isolation, Young encouraged the establishment of communal economics, known as the United Order of Enoch. In Young’s vision, the United Order would cultivate unity, free the Mormons from dependence on outside merchants, and eliminate poverty. While some of the community United Orders lasted for a decade or two, most quickly disappeared, victims of internal disorder, the lure of outside goods, and the disruption of federal polygamy prosecutions. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Mormonism moved towards a rapprochement with American society by eliminating polygamy and embracing market capitalism. Nevertheless, a strain of communalism survives in contemporary Mormon life, evidenced in part by the church welfare program.
The Communal Studies Association is the scholarly organization devoted to both historic and contemporary communal groups, intentional communities, and utopias. They publish a journal, Communal Societies, which occasionally publishes articles on Mormonism, and host an annual conference. Scholars of Mormonism such as Lawrence Foster, Mario DePillis, and Max Stanton have long participated in the CSA. In 2007, the Communal Studies Association held a joint conference in Kirtland with the John Whitmer Historical Association. The Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana, where I work, also promotes the study of communalism through student paper contests, a travel grant program, and a growing archival collection.
I went to my first CSA conference this past October, in Estero, Florida (the site of the early-twentieth-century Koreshan community, which believed we live on the inside of a hollow earth). The next CSA conference will be held at Aurora, Oregon (the site of a nineteenth-century German communal group), on October 1-3, 2009 with a theme “From Eden to Ecotopia”; the 2010 conference will be held in New Harmony, Indiana, in my own backyard. (New Harmony was the site of two communal settlements in the early 1800s, one by a German millennialist sect led by George Rapp and one inspired by the utopian socialism of industrialist Robert Owen. The Owen settlement helped inspire Sidney Rigdon’s attempts at communalism. Owen also briefly considered purchasing Nauvoo after the Mormons left.) I’d love to see other scholars of Mormonism involved.
Does placing the study of Mormonism in this context make sense? And, more broadly, how should contemporary Mormons view our communal past?