As the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons, struggled to gain a foothold in their new home of the Utah Territory, it was essential that they find a way to thrive, not just to survive. Brigham Young pointed out to the Saints that the building up of the kingdom of God was a temporal as well as a spiritual commandment. He continued, “The Lord has done his share of the work. He has surrounded us with the elements containing wheat, meat, flax, wool, milk, fruit and everything with which to build up, beautify and glorify the Zion of the last days, and it is our business to mold these elements to our wants and necessities according to the knowledge we now have and the wisdom we can attain from the heavens through our faithfulness. In this way will the Lord bring Zion again upon the earth, and in no other” (Outline History of Utah and the Mormons, p159).
This charge was felt keenly, and the Saints drew together in a spirit of cooperation. The goal of economic unity and independence was paramount and selfishness was abhorred. The Saints built on every facet of economy they could find, but first and foremost on agriculture. Conquering ignorance of farming in a desert environment, and overcoming plagues of drought, frost, and pests, the Saints began to thrive with their crops. They had enough to live off of, more for seed, and excess for the Saints still gathering to the valley. They mastered irrigation and even dry farming.
Others eventually recognized the potential for using the natural land for grazing animals, which, when put into practice, was also profitable and practical. Learning from mistakes was a part of this process as well. The first winter of large livestock operations, from 1855–56, incurred heavy losses for the Saints due to their lack of foresight into the necessities of winter feeding. Overcoming this obstacle, however, the introduction of alfalfa became the foundation of the livestock industry, the value of which totalled $1,516,707 in 1860 (Outline History of Utah and the Mormons, p162).
In efforts to try and eliminate any economic dependence the Saints had on anyone outside their fold, President Brigham Young encouraged the development of home industry. “Produce what you consume; draw from the native element the necessities of life; permit no vitiated taste to lead you into the indulgence of expensive luxuries, which can only be obtained by involving yourself in debt; let home industry produce every article of home consumption” (Outline History of Utah and the Mormons, p163). Intent on independence as well as self-sustainment and self-worth, Church leaders encouraged each settlement to establish mills, factories, tanneries and to manufacture all necessities, such as flour, lumber, paper, leather, cloth, hats, gunpowder, salt, and anything and everything else they might need. In 1852 the Mormons manufactured the first iron west of the Mississippi and then made tireless efforts to produce and manufacture sugar. Though this endeavor took a great deal of time, dedication, and money, it was eventually successful. Though in the beginning it may have been cheaper to import and purchase these items, George Q. Cannon pointed out that in the long run it would be cheaper to manufacture these things at home because such actions would bring economic independence sooner.
Since church and state were, at this time, so thoroughly intertwined, another large factor in the building of the economy was the principle of tithing practiced by the Saints. The law of tithing commands each individual to give back 10 percent of his annual income to the Lord; in this case the General Tithing Office. Whether paid in cash or in kind, the proceeds of tithing were used to help those who could not as yet help themselves and to build up the kingdom of God. Many paid tithing in labor as well, and the money and labor was used to help build up the community, i.e., the kingdom, by constructing public buildings, such as forts, school buildings, social halls, and the temple; roads; and bridges. The Department of Public Works worked in tandem with the tithing office to absorb and put to use the constant influx of both skilled and unskilled laborers coming into the valley. If some of the men had been trained in a particular trade that was not of use, then they would be taught a new one to enable them to support themselves and their families. As soon as immigrants arrived in the valley, they were welcomed, fed, and rested. When they were sorted according to skills, they were then assigned to whatever part of the kingdom in which they would be the most useful. This system kept everyone busy and industrious.
Another key element to the development of economy was connecting the Mormon settlements to the outside world through highways and telegraph systems. As expansion and exploration of the wider United States increased and more people moved West, Salt Lake City found itself on the main route from East Coast to West Coast. Merchantiles sprung up quickly and began to capitalize on the surplus the Saints’ industry had produced. Thus, all the Saints had worked so hard for was slipping through their fingers, as the profits from their labors went straight to the merchants’ pockets and left the valley. Church leaders began to put pressure on the Saints to only do business with friends of the Church, not meaning only other members of the Church, but those merchants who were honest and who were willing to put back into the community the money which they had gained from it. The Church organized the B. Y. Express and Carrying Company which would enable the Saints to bring in their own products from the East without paying the middleman fees. These combined efforts, along with rising political tension, led anti-Mormons to give more false reports to the government about the Mormons, which led President Buchanan to order an army of 2,500 men to go to Utah and put down what he had been informed was a rebellion. The army had already departed before Buchanan was informed that the information he had acted so hastily upon was false and that the non-Mormon (or gentile, as they were often called by the Saints) merchants in Salt Lake City had been in large part the instigators of the misunderstanding.
A transcontinental telegraph line, heavily assisted by the Church, was completed and contributed to the development of the area. The hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from the area at the dawning of the Civil War resulted in most of their supplies being sold at very low prices to the Mormons, and business boomed when different troops returned to remain in the territory during the whole of the Civil War. Brigham Young had advised the Saints against mining, encouraging them instead to focus on the other, longer-lasting areas of commerce. However, as more and more gentiles entered the valley, they could not ignore the opportunities that lay in mining. With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, this business exploded and the Mormons felt threatened by the arrival of so many people opposed to what they held most dear. After having been driven for so far and for so long, an uneasiness on the Saints’ side was understandable.
More chaos ensued as the national depression of 1873 affected Utah’s prices and increased unemployment. Brigham Young saw fit to reintroduce some variations on the United Order which had been attempted before the Saints moved West. Though the length of practice this time was fairly short, it produced the desired result: lower unemployment. As things looked up, the Church prepared to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. In the spirit of the Year of Jubilee, an old Hebrew custom of forgiving debts every fifty years, the Church set the example for its members by cancelling half of the indebtedness to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund as well as certain tithing obligations. The Church also gave one thousand cows to be distributed among some of the poor to try and ease some of the suffering of drought.
Due to the persecutions which arose from differing views on the practice of polygamy, the economy the Saints had built up by church and state took quite a beating. Severe laws had been passed by Congress to outlaw and punish the practice of polygamy, which also weakened the character of the Church in public opinion. Though the Saints were not new to such treatment, they were relieved of much of their suffering after a revelation to the current prophet, Wilford Woodruff, withdrew the commandment to practice polygamy. In a continuous battle to obtain statehood for Utah, the Church took a different stance on building the economy. Individual initiative took over the main role, which brought in more influence and capital from the East. However, the Church still struggled with debt. Lorenzo Snow, the president succeeding Wilford Woodruff, cut expenditures and sold its holdings in business enterprises. By strongly encouraging the Saints to pay full tithes, spending decreased while donations increased, and the Church was soon relieved of its debt. Now Utah has accepted and become integrated into the national economy and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is free to pursue its own interests in continuing to build up the kingdom of God.