Mormonism and Communal Studies

February 17, 2009 | 9 comments
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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?

9 Responses to Mormonism and Communal Studies

  1. Ardis E. Parshall on February 17, 2009 at 10:22 am

    I’ll always be fond of the Communal Studies Association, because my very first professional paper was delivered not in a Mormon venue but at a CSA meeting. They were the first ones to give me a break, and they responded with genuine interest to the story of a man living in one of Utah’s United Order communities.

    “Does placing the study of Mormonism in this context make sense?” Of course; more than many of us realize. If we have even a general, non-scholarly understanding of the many ways that cooperative behavior shaped Mormon thought and life in the past, anyone can get a clearer understanding of some of the reasons we were marginalized and treated as different. We were different. Think for a moment of the gut reaction most of us have toward hippies and Moonies and the Branch Davidians and Charles Manson’s “Family” and white supremacist “compounds” and eastern religious ashrams in the Northwest and polygamous communities, and we have an idea of how mainstream America looked at us. Sure, part of our reaction is to what we know, or think we know, of such groups’ violence and brainwashing and weird sex practices — but that’s what people saw in our communal life, too. Much of the “weirdness” in any communal group is compounded by the fact that they live apart and differently in all ways from the mainstream. If the Moonies weren’t communal, we’d think their brainwashing was not much different from, say, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we’d accept it. If the FLDS weren’t communal, we might not even notice their polygamy as any different from your neighbor’s different-girl-on-every-weekend lifestyle.

    Awareness of our communal tendencies might also help modern Mormons understand a growing conflict within our own community: Some of us look to our church community for a great deal beyond mere Sunday worship, and others find that community stifling (I’m thinking of those who resent visits from home/visiting teachers, or who think weeknight activities are an intrusion on personal time). Some of us look to communal associations as the best way to finance relief efforts (beyond tithing and fast offerings; I’m thinking here of government- or community-sponsored social services), while others consider every such program to be an unconstitutional, ungodly extraction by force of their personal, private property).

    I dread seeing how long this comment will look on screen. Sorry. But I appreciate the direction of this post, Matt. Thanks.

  2. Ben on February 17, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Thanks for this, Matt. I have dealt with communalism while working the the Transcendentalists and their Brook Farm (and, of course, early Mormonism). I attended the joint conference with JWHA in 2007 and really enjoyed it–they were a great group.

    I am fascinated by how American communal experiments included more individualistic aspects to it–that the American ideal “self-reliance” (thanks Emerson) still had a place in their utopia. This is something I think is different from European examples. Mormonism, of course, is a great example of this, and O’Dea mentioned how the church came the closest at merging cooperative efforts and individual responsibility.

  3. Christopher on February 17, 2009 at 10:49 am

    I attended my first CSA meeting in 2007 when it was held in conjunction with JWHA in Kirtland. I attended a handful of the sessions and really enjoyed myself. My sense, however, was that the organization was in desperate need of attracting a younger generation of scholars. The group seemed to be composed primarily of an older generation. Can you speak to this at all, Matt?

    And I’m with Ardis regarding the importance of “placing the study of Mormonism in this context.” It seems like there is still a number of fruitful avenues that could be explored, not only in utilizing Mormonism in comparative frameworks with other communal groups, but also in exploring (as Ardis gets at in her second to last paragraph) the lingering effects of early Mormon communalism on the church today, the way that Mormon Fundamentalists today have used communal practices as a boundary marker and litmus test of orthodoxy to establish their own identity as the “true church,” the relationship between Mormon communalism and other significant aspects of early Mormon identiy (polygamy, for instance), etc.

    Thanks for this post, and the work you’re doing at the CCS, Matt.

  4. Matthew Grow on February 17, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Thanks. I’m off to class in just a minute, but want to respond to a few things.

    Christopher: We’ve heard a lot about the “graying” of Mormon studies. A similar dynamic can certainly be seen in the Communal studies Association. However, there does seem to be a strong group of younger scholars participating with the CSA (both the current president and vice-president are in this category), and I think they would be thrilled to see more students and younger people involved. I just finished reading the entries to our student paper contest–there’s lots of great work being done out there by students on these topics. (Older scholars often dominate at most scholarly meetings, as they are more likely to have the resources to attend.)

    Ardis: Great thoughts. You make a persuasive case (better than I could have done) for placing Mormonism within communal studies. Also, the tensions that you mention are very perceptive (though I think they exist not only between individuals, but within individuals as well). Some of this is just human nature, but some is also a reflection of the Mormon heritage.

    Ben: Interesting thought on how American communal groups have tried to balance the tensions between individualism and communalism.

    One more question: I’m teaching a course in Communal Groups and Utopias next fall. It’s a senior-level course that will have students from all of the Liberal Arts majors. Any recommendations on what books you would assign (I’d like at least one book to represent the Mormon experience, but I’m happy to hear other suggestions as well)?

  5. J. Stapley on February 17, 2009 at 11:22 am

    I’ve not followed the CSA; however, after reading one of Paul Reeve’s papers that he presented at one of the meetings (“‘The Devil Was Determined to Kill the Babies': Matters of Communal Health in a Nineteenth-Century Mormon Town,” CSA Conf., St. George,Utah, September 25, 1999), it got me interested. I still haven’t done enough digging, but I appreciate the post and the comments.

  6. Ardis Parshall on February 17, 2009 at 11:50 am

    I’d like at least one book to represent the Mormon experience

    I think you should use the United Order Journal of Kingston that I’ve edited for USU, but I don’t suppose it will be off the press — if the press is still there — in time. :)

  7. clark on February 17, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Ardis, I think the tensions you see in wards and then applying that to the issue of communitarianism is quite enlightening and perceptive. I’ll have to think about that more as I’d never made that connection. But I think you are correct.

    I also think this then ties to issues of people leaving Church. Those who grumble a lot about Church when leaving or whom leave due to loneliness probably value the communitarian aspects. That is they think the Church should be telling them all these odd historical issues rather than learning on their own or they think the Church should be providing a rich and fulfilling social life for them. I’m torn. I do think the Church could do more to be socially engaging for more people as well as helping people learn. But I also think that people tend to put too much weight on the Church for such matters. So to me I really don’t care if a Bishop is an idiot. (Mine isn’t for the record – but I’ve had some in the past who were) But those who place all this communial weight on the ward are much more likely to be offended by an idiot or two.

  8. Mark D. on February 17, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    The mid-late nineteenth century United Order experiments may have lasted a lot longer if there wasn’t such a push for economic autarky. I find it amazing to consider that such a group of experienced individuals thought that a policy of economic autarky was likely to succeed in the first place.

  9. Matt Grow on February 17, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    Ardis: I had thought about pairing your forthcoming book with a biography of a Shaker (Glendyne Wergland’s One Shaker Life: Isaac Newton Young, 1793-1865) and one of the edited diaries of the Oneida community. But I guess I’ll have to wait another year or two. And I hope the press is still there!

    J. Stapley: I’m a newcomer to communal studies, but my impression is the CSA conferences always have lots of intriguing papers like Paul Reeve’s.

    Clark: Thanks for the further thoughts on the legacy of communitarianism and contemporary Mormonism.

    Marc: Interesting point about the United Orders.