High on the Mountaintop a Banner is Unfurled: Capitalism, Community, and Latter-day Saints' Twentieth-Century Economic Vision

Kelley, Allison, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace

In 2013, technology news outlet PandoDaily released an article titled: “The Book of Mormon: Why The World’s Most Capitalist Religion Breeds so Many Entrepreneurs.” Author Hamish McKenzie describes Latter-day Saints’ entrepreneurial success as “a phenomenon that can be traced back to [Mormon] pioneers.” “The riches, the drive, the emphasis on self-reliance, [and] the entrepreneurial spirit,” explain why Utah ranks number one in the United States in “economic competitiveness.” As facile as these assumptions may seem, many scholars have similarly attributed Latter-day Saints’ modern capitalist ethos to their purported pull-yourself up-by-the-bootstraps, nineteenth-century, pioneer heritage.

My dissertation dismantles this myth. First, I reveal how Joseph Smith founded the Church as a communitarian project premised on material equality. Latter-day Saint pioneers were thus not pursuing “riches,” in the way McKenzie describes. Instead, they sought to build Zion, a utopian community “of one heart and one mind” where there was “no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). I then explain how the federal government aided Saints numerous times across the twentieth century. Latter-day Saints’ celebration of an unbroken history of “individualism” and “self-sufficiency” thus serves Saints’ modern capitalist agenda more than it accounts for their past. Finally, my research reveals how Saints’ embrace of capitalism has fundamentally altered the mores and institutions that originally structured their existence. Capitalism has continually proven a potentially fatal threat to the sociality of this tight-knit religious community. However, Saints have managed to simultaneously support an economic system that creates material inequality and a religious project premised on material equality and religious “brotherhood.” Rather than a testament to “self-reliance,” then, Latter-day Saints’ economic history between 1930-1970 explains how this once communitarian religious group justifies and normalizes the individualized pursuit of material gain.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Mormonism, Capitalism, History of Conservatism
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