Mario S De Pillis. Encyclopedia of Community. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson, Volume 3, Sage Reference, 2003.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called Mormons, originated in the 1820s in the Burned-Over district of western New York. The religion had its beginning in the visions and revelations received by Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844). Smith intended to restore the primitive Christianity of Christ’s time to find salvation and prepare himself and his followers for the imminent return of Christ in the Last Days.

Joseph Smith and the Early Mormons

Like the Shakers and many other millennial sectarians in the northeast United States at that time, the early Mormons attempted to establish a new social order based on the Christian communism of Acts 2 and 4. Smith initiated the new system in 1831, shortly after the publication of the Book of Mormon (March 1830) and the organization of the Church (April 1830). The Prophet (one of Smith’s titles) called his new system for communal living the “more perfect law of the Lord,” that is, more perfect than the austere communism and celibacy of the Shakers.

The New Jerusalem

The appeal of this perfect society to early Mormon converts is inseparable from the appeal of Smith’s visions, revelations, and leadership. His rapidly growing body of believers exploded from about 100 at the organization of the Church in 1830 to about 2,000 in 1832 and well over 20,000 by 1844.

Smith’s career had begun as a visionary in 1820, when he was barely fifteen. In the spring of that year, Smith, confused by the “tumult” of voices among the warring preachers of his home area in the Burned-Over district of western New York, asked himself the question: “Who of all these parties are right?”—that is, who has the authority to define the road to salvation? Finding himself wrenched by spiritual hunger, he turned to James 1:5, which promised to answer the prayers of anyone “seeking wisdom.” He retired in prayer and supplication to a copse near the temporary log cabin of his family’s farm in Manchester, New York. After a preliminary bout with Satan, who threw him to the ground, the Almighty answered his question. Two personages appeared to him in a brilliant pillar of light. One referred to the other, saying, “This my Beloved Son. Hear him!” The answer he received was “that I must join none of [the competing sects], for they were all wrong.”

Smith’s egalitarian socioeconomic system was less demanding than that of the Shakers in that it allowed considerable ownership of private property. It came to be called the United Order of Enoch, because in accordance with other revelations, Smith wished to build a New Jerusalem, also called the City of Zion and the Center Place. His plans for the New Jerusalem were found not in the Book of Mormon but in subsequent revelations issued to his followers between 1831 and 1838. In citing the Enoch of the Old Testament Smith intended the City of Zion to echo an ideal “City of Enoch,” which according to the revelations that he regularly issued to his followers, was a holy, ancient Hebrew City of God, a perfect city that God took up into heaven, along with Enoch. This bodily translation was Smith’s elaboration of Genesis 5:24. Genesis merely states: “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” The Book of Mormon contained only general references to the New Jerusalem, most notably the prediction of the “Jaredite” prophet Ether, who stated that “a New Jerusalem should be built up upon this land [North America] unto the remnant of the seed of Joseph” (Ether 13:6).

For the building and operation of his New Jerusalem, Smith issued a series of revelations setting up the socioeconomic system of the United Order. These revelations were written down as he received them and published as the Doctrine and Covenants in ever-expanding editions between 1833 and his death in 1844. In a separate vision (1831) that exists only in manuscript, the Prophet received a detailed plan for the City of Zion, down to the width of the streets and the placement of houses. He called it the Plat of the City of Zion. In short, early Mormonism was a millennial, communitarian sect bent on establishing what popular and scholarly writers often term a “utopian community.” Conservative modern Mormons, eager to down-play the radical communal element of their early history, often refer to the Plat as an outstanding example of “city planning.” For the early Saints, as Mormons are called, however, the Plat represented not a pleasant suburban development, but the veritable City of God, the perfect millennial society, where they could safely await the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

The Prophet’s vision of the Plat of the City of Zion contained a detailed drawing accompanied by explanatory text. It provided for a perfect millennial city of 15,000 to 20,000 people (a goal actually reached in the Mormon city of Nauvoo by 1844). Each City would cover an area of 640 acres, or one square mile, a unit that seemed perfectly logical; for under its secular name of “section,” one square mile formed the basic unit of the official federal square survey of all of the public domain west of Pennsylvania.

Even for the relatively radical time and place, news of Smith’s strange revelations and activities fomented fear and hatred. By early 1831, a few months after the publication of his translation of the Gold Plates of the Book of Mormon, Smith and his followers had to flee to Kirtland, Ohio, near present-day Cleveland. There, between 1831 and 1837, they built their first temple and a sizable community. Kirtland was well integrated economically, but it was not yet a planned utopia based on communal property: That new order would be reserved for the infinitely more important sister settlement of “Zion.” Smith promised to build the City of Zion or the “New Jerusalem” in Independence, Jackson County, Missouri, and the news galvanized his followers.

Already by late 1831 more than 1,200 Saints burning with millennial expectation had gathered in Jackson County, eager to begin building the City of Zion.

On the north and south sides of each city, a strip of land twenty perches (330 feet) wide and one mile long would reserve ample space for farm buildings, “so that no barns or stables will be in the city among the houses.” There would be sufficient farmland to supply all food, and the land would be partitioned into small “inheritances” averaging about thirty acres in size. The center of the plat was reserved for religious buildings, including twelve special temples, and economic activities centered on the Lord’s Storehouse and other buildings of the United Order of Enoch. The city was to be divided into 968 half-acre lots with only one house to a lot. The materials and site planning of the houses were set forth in detail. The streets were very wide—eight perches (132 feet). This scattered arrangement of single households resembled the plan of the Harmonist (Rappite) community of Economy, Pennsylvania, but was quite different from the Shaker system of dormitories. Shaker-influenced converts in Kirtland had originally helped push the Prophet toward the communitarian organization of the United Order.

The Mormons In Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois

By the time the Prophet was ready to lay the first bricks of the City in 1833, it was too late. The first of many waves of persecution had begun. Still, between 1831 and 1833 some dozen families had entered the Order by consecrating their “surplus” property to the Church and receiving “inheritances” of land in Jackson County. The Order required rich and poor alike to consecrate their surplus to the chief economic officer of the United Order, called the Presiding Bishop. In return each believer would receive an inheritance of land in Zion. The first Presiding Bishop, whose name was Edward Partridge, was to store the surplus (including money) in the Lord’s Storehouse and use it to buy more land, especially for the poor in the East, who by 1832 “got crazy to go up to Zion.” The consecrations of the few rich never balanced the needs of the many poor. Other communally supported institutions included a general store and publishing enterprises.

When driven out of Jackson County, the Mormons sought refuge in neighboring Clay and Caldwell Counties, where once again they planned United Order towns such as Far West, Missouri, based on the Plat of the City of Zion, and communally owned “big farms.” The big farms, dictated by the need for self-defense against marauding Missourians, were a departure from individual inheritances of the United Order. But impending massacre at the hands of the Missourians in 1838-1839 forced them to flee to Nauvoo on the banks of the Mississippi in Illinois, their last settlement before finally escaping to Utah.

The Mormons In Utah

Between 1847 and his death in 1877, Brigham Young, who venerated the Prophet and never lost the spirit of the United Order, encouraged the establishment of communes in Utah. Unlike many other leaders of the Utah period, Young never lost faith in the millennial doctrine and the new social order it entailed. Nor did he forsake the millennial Center Place: In his last will and testament (1873), the last sentence reads: “If I should live to go back with the Church to Jackson County, I wish to be buried there.”

Young’s millennial faith and his charismatic power insured that the United Order would be revived in Utah. In the 1870s more than 200 United Orders were founded throughout the Mormon country, beginning in 1874 with the United Order of Saint George, Young’s winter home in southern Utah. He told the local Saints that it was time to “conform to the revelations … to be one.” The new Enochian piety of the Utah Mormons stemmed in part from their fear of the hostile and corrupting influx of Gentiles (non-Mormons) on the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, together with the rise in the number of needy Saints with the onset of the depression following the panic of 1873.

Some of the new United Orders, mostly in the rural areas, conformed to Young’s Shaker-like ideal of common dining, common family housing, and the collective ownership and management of all resources. (A rich man, Young was painfully aware by 1875 of his apparent hypocrisy in that he had not consecrated all his property to the Lord’s Storehouse. Surely he could view his own vast family of more than twenty-four wives and at least fifty-seven children, ensconced in a large compound, as a separate commune.) Although there were many different economic and social arrangements in the Orders, the basic rule was for members to consecrate their entire “surplus” to a common pot, receiving in return wages and dividends in proportion to the amount of labor and property contributed to the group. Most United Order variations ranged from the ideal Shaker-like communalism of the settlement of Orderville (the most famous and long-lived of the United Orders) and the looser but equally successful cooperative system of Brigham City. Saints in the burgeoning commercial hub of Salt Lake City strongly resisted the United Order movement. They found it more difficult than the rural Saints to consecrate their labor and property to the common resources of the Order, and the city wards were not suitable for communal living arrangements. The urban had replaced the sacred.

Modern Mormonism

The resurgence of the United Order did not survive the death of Brigham Young. Subsequent leaders were eager to accommodate Mormon society to the uncontrolled capitalism and free enterprise of the 1880s and 1890s. By the early twentieth century Mormon leaders had suppressed the United Order movement, along with polygamy. Some twenty-first-century Mormon idealists have sometimes made weak gestures toward the radical past, but the only surviving United Orders are those established by the fundamentalist polygamous Mormon communities of Colorado City, Arizona; Hildale, Utah; and various other locations in the American West.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the heritage of the United Order was still evident, most notably in the national welfare program for dispensing food and other help to the poor in the Church. This continuation of the Lord’s Storehouse operates canneries, large farms, orchards, cattle ranches, and thrift stores. The Church hires professionals to run these units today, but many still use volunteer labor, which for many pious Saints is a gauge of communal faithfulness and brotherliness. A Presiding Bishop still administers Church property, but nowadays as a system of capitalist for-profit enterprises rather than as communal property. Local heads of wards (local congregations) are also called bishops, but act as ministers or pastors rather than as economic officials; they are important as local dispensers of economic aid from the institutional descendants of the Lord’s Storehouse. They also provide a modern kind of help in the form of counseling and social work. Until the final victory of suburbanization in the 1990s, they also administered ward farms, using volunteer labor from the ward, and giving the surplus to the Church cannery.

The utopian ideals of the United Order of Enoch still permeate Mormon culture. Although the City of Zion was never built, many Ordervilles were, and the socioeconomic system survived in Mormon memory. Moreover, for a century and a half after the murder of the Prophet in 1844, the heritage of United Order institutions and ways of thinking nurtured the Mormon penchant for living in a self-sufficient community of chosen people. Remnants of the Order persist in the wide streets of Mormon villages and cities in Utah; in the huge Church welfare system and storehouses; in the economic officer known as the Presiding Bishop (now presiding over hundreds of millions of dollars of capitalist enterprises from Florida to Hawaii); in the “emergency food stores” of Mormon families awaiting the millennium of the cataclysmic latter days; in the vast publishing enterprise of books, newspaper, television, and film (a descendant of the United Order’s “Literary Firm”); and last, in the Mormon ideal of economic justice and individual perfection often called “Zion of the heart.” While the legendary Mormon missionary system does not stem from the United Order tradition, its requirement that all nineteen-year olds devote two years of their lives to preaching throughout the world has been indispensable to the Mormon sense of community, providing a powerful cement for communal loyalty.

Theorists have described Mormonism as a church, a religion, a nation, a subculture, an ethnic group, a people, a sect, and a mystery cult. These seemingly unique, differing designations can be resolved under the rubric of community: Mormonism, viewed in its concrete non-theoretical historical and present-day reality, is still a self-sufficient communitarian society operating in a larger culture. Their continuing separateness as a people has its source in the early Saints’ millennial passion for building the City of God.