Brigham Young : Pioneer Prophetby: John G. Turner
IN 1884 THE JOURNALIST Edward Bellamy, struggling with an idea for a utopian novel, visited the only actually-existing Communist society on earth: Utah. More precisely, he spent a week in Brigham City, seat of Box Elder County, where Apostle Lorenzo Snow (who would later become fifth LDS president and the last to have personally known Joseph Smith) showed him the workings of a dynamic community based on pooled wealth, producer and consumer cooperatives, and the use of labor scrip instead of money.
Bellamy, like many previous Gentile visitors, was greatly impressed by the Mormon gift for disciplined cooperation. A decade earlier the celebrated explorer-scientist, John Wesley Powell, had championed the Mormon principle of communal water-management in his landmark but controversial Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. But Bellamy — like Lincoln Steffens returning from Russia in 1921 — was even more enthusiastic: he had seen the future and it worked.
Looking Backward (originally published in 1888), Bellamy’s portrait of a prosperous but authoritarian socialist America in the year 2000, became a bestseller and seeded the “Nationalist” club movement that was an immediate precursor of the Socialist Party of America. (A wealthy Bellamy supporter built the iconic Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles, anticipating the architecture of that socialist future.)
The similarities between Bellamy’s collective commonwealth and the Mormon ideal of “consecrated” community — as well his “Industrial Army” for organizing production and distribution, and the semi-military organization of Young’s Deseret — have ignited controversy for more than a century. Indeed, one rabidly anti-Mormon website currently makes the claim that as Brigham City influenced Looking Backward, so did Bellamy’s novel influence Bolshevism, thus implicating the Romneys through their Church in “the horrors of communism.”
But the image of the Red Calvary going into battle with the Book of Mormon in their saddlebags is quite a stretch; most of us, on the contrary, would probably vote for Mormon socialism as the ultimate oxymoron. Millenarian ideologies — whether the Sermon on the Mount, the revelations of Joseph Smith, or the ideas of Karl Marx — have an unfortunate tendency to be co-opted by advocates of antithetical values.
John G. Turner’s new biography of Brigham Young — a scholarly and judicious book that is unlikely to be burned in Temple Square — portrays a social experiment, the most ambitious in American history, that until Young’s death in 1877 explicitly rejected the core values of Victorian capitalism: possessive individualism and Darwinian competition.
He emphasizes, for instance, that while “the nexus of American evangelicalism was individual salvation, Young’s theology, like that of Joseph Smith, centered around extended families.” “For Brigham Young, like Joseph Smith, the chief end of humankind was eternal fellowship and familial glory. ‘[If] men are not saved together, they cannot be saved at all.’” And Smith famously vowed that he would rather go to hell with the Saints than to heaven without them.
Moreover, classical Mormonism, like Pentecostalism in the twentieth century, was a religion of the poor and the ruined: h...read more