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 Post subject: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Tue Oct 17, 2017 7:52 am 
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This thread is inspired by some comments from the thread about Quinn's new book in the Terrestrial forum.

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That's pretty funny. On the other hand, I think it reflects a problem I see on this thread: the assumption that there is a single, uncontroversial Christian/Gospel/Mormon teaching about wealth that the Church is violating, rendering it guilty of hypocrisy in Christian terms and therefore deserving our condemnation


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I suspect what Christopher Hitchens said of Theresa of Calcutta was probably true of Jesus: he didn't love the poor, he loved poverty. It was certainly true of some later Christian fanatics, but obviously has not been true of any institution that calls itself Christian. And the subsequent history of wealth and those ecclesiastical institutions in Christianity doesn't make the LDS Church look any less Christian to me, and therefore I don't really see any hypocrisy.


Credit for these quotes goes to Symmachus.

It is indeed a notorious fact that there is no "single, uncontroversial Christian/Gospel/Mormon teaching about wealth". If you Google "Apostolic poverty", you will see that one of the great controversies of mediaeval Christianity was a bitter row about wealth and poverty. The greatest upset in the history of Christendom - the Reformation (sorry, Joseph) - was sparked off by a dispute over the late mediaeval church's attempt to turn forgiveness into a revenue stream through the sale of indulgences. The tension between different ideas about wealth and its place in Christian ethics runs through history. The controversies over the LDS Church's wealth, and indeed over Mother Teresa, sit comfortably in this tradition.

The interesting thing about the LDS church in this regard is that it has executed something close to a 180 degree turn on this matter. Let's leave aside the notion - true though it no doubt is - that early Mormondom was a mechanism for self-enrichment by the Smith family. What really stands out to me about early Mormonism is the presence of a radical doctrine of primitive communism, embodied in the United Order. This orientation may go back to the Book of Mormon itself. Karen Armstrong has interpreted the Book of Mormon as a frontier farmer's polemic against the economic injustice of 19th century American life.

Contrast that with the modern LDS church. It is almost a cliché to liken it to a multinational corporation, which sends out a sales force to raise revenue which is then invested, managed and spent by a besuited bureaucracy made up of recruits from the worlds of business and finance.

Let me throw out a question. When did the switchover happen? When did the LDS church drop its experiments with religious socialism and embrace the rigours of free enterprise and wealth acquisition?

The historic Christian church went through the same change, and I'm still not sure where we can locate the tipping point. When I was a young fellow, it was fashionable to locate it in the 4th century. There was a lot of talk of "the Church of Constantine", as distinct from the humble church of the gospels. Late antique anti-Christian polemic contains the trope of Christians as slaves and paupers, which is consistent with the idea that the gospel was unsullied by Mammon for several centuries.

My feeling is that this is a bit too generous. Clement of Alexandria was already, in the 2nd/3r century, trying to water down the radicalism of Jesus' teachings in "Who is the rich man that shall be saved"? And in the New Testament itself, we can see a kind of embourgeoisement setting in as early as the Pastoral Epistles. The birth of suburban Churchianity is right there in the post-Pauline period, bound into the later books of the dear old KJV.

Anyway, I'm rambling now. As Heine(?) said, I am sorry that this message is so long. I didn't have time to make it shorter.


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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Tue Oct 17, 2017 10:01 am 
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Johannes wrote:

Let me throw out a question. When did the switchover happen? When did the LDS church drop its experiments with religious socialism and embrace the rigours of free enterprise and wealth acquisition?



Short answer is when Brigham Young took over though I am not sure he was a big admirer of free enterprise since the church or church leadership owned pretty much all the businesses in Utah for many years. But he was certainly in favor of making as much money as he could for himself and the church.

by the way, I believe the evils of wealth are easily supportable by the LDS canon, however in practice, wealth is seen as an admirable trait by Mormons in general. The majority of all leadership I have seen are selected from the wealthier levels of the church at all levels. Just a quick glance at the general authorities confirms that.

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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Tue Oct 17, 2017 10:10 am 
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Yes, I can well believe that. My impression was that that was the case.

As for Brother Brigham, wasn't he the inspiration for Hugh Nibley's left-wing critique of Mormon culture? I haven't read this part of Nibley's works, so I'm going at second hand here.


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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Tue Oct 17, 2017 3:56 pm 
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There's a lot to tackle in this post, and I'm not sure I have the chops to do it. I think I would add only a few points.

First, the strain of critique within Christianity that you cite really doesn't appear until the high middle ages, when the productive capacity of the European economy was really ignited by technological developments in agriculture, the end of a low grade ice age that had lasted for a few centuries, the increasing power of individual states at the expense of ecclesiastical hegemony, and especially the rise of banking and the growth of international trade. I think the crusades also were an important ideological factor in igniting a rereading and rethinking of Christianity, but can you think of any movements against clerical and ecclesiastical wealth before the eleventh century? In short, I think critiques of institutional wealth in Christianity operated in tandem with the defeudalization of Western Europe. As far as I know (and I may be wrong) they are mostly a western European phenomenon anyway (e.g. not Byzantine, or Nestorian, which had the largest populations of Christians until the middle of the second millennium).

When I look at Late Antiquity in the west, I see a lot about the renunciation of wealth, but among private individuals (e.g. Paulinus of Nola, Melania the Younger—oh what a contrast with the Melanias of today—and so on). I don't detect much anxiety about the church's rapidly growing wealth in Late Antiquity, except to the extent that a particular bishop is guilyt of graft or something. They are anxieties in a post-reformation world, but in my view they are retrojected onto a past that didn't have them. One reason why was because of the patronage of the Roman state. In terms of lavish buildings for the state religion, the transition to Christianity doesn't seem to have been that troubling, especially since the fourth century was probably the century of most rapid Christianization, so most of the new Christians had already lived in a world where the emperor's god was housed in a gaudy building. Of course, as the Church assumed more and more of the functions of the state in proportion to state's decline (at least in the west), it picked up the slack (e.g. the end of free grain at Rome is happening around the same time as Augustine is promoting almsgiving etc.).

Critique occurs from a distance, and I think most people were so intimately dependent on the church until the 11th century—even for their security (e.g. the so-called "truce of god" and similar kinds of interventions by the church)—that critique would not have met a fertile ground.

None of these dynamics are at play, in my view, in early Mormonism. Earliest Mormonism in the Book of Mormon does make some sense along the lines of Karen Armstrong that you mention, but isn't remarkable how quickly it shifted to a full-throated capitalism? Maybe. On the other hand, it is a typical frontier, rags-to-riches story. And I would put the change as early as the Ohio period, so 1831. All that united order stuff sure looks like a socialist experiment, if that's what you're looking for, but it looks to me more like a corporation, even a cartel (basically what ZCMI was): put all our resources together for investment, and then distribute the profits to the share-holders. In other words, modern corporate LDS Mormonism is different in style, not in substance. But early Mormonism looks to function like the East India company to me.

The attempts at the united order were about alleviating poverty to an extent, but they did so in the way that a corporation makes profits, with the Twelve and First Presidency as the board of directors and chief officers. Getting rid of the united order just meant that the population of share holders shrunk to encompass only the board and its officers. Modern members aren't investors in a Mormon economic machine as their forbears were; nowadays, they just pay a variable entrance fee to the temple.

LDS Mormonism has always and only been capitalist in its economic orientation. Quotes from Brigham Young and others should always be set within his worldview and his behavior, which was that of an enterprising 19th century capitalist (something Leonard Arrington's biography really brings out), and I think there is a lot of selective reading going on with Mormon liberals who are eager to find support for their political views. If Brigham Young were alive today, he'd be castigating them all in the crudest terms for not patronizing City Creek Mall...exclusively. The leaders today are different only insofar as they are more generous than he was, for they don't insist you shop at City Creek to be a good Mormon. That's how progressive LDS Mormonism is.

The critiques of the church's wealth will always fall flat for the membership so long as that membership does not maintain a distance from capitalism.

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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Tue Oct 17, 2017 10:31 pm 
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Johannes wrote:
I have a question wrote:
The story of the Good Samaritan may not have been as impactful if he’d simply told the beaten and robbed man “sorry mate, you need to be self-reliant”.

Margaret Thatcher claimed that the lesson of that story was that it was a good job that the Samaritan was rich enough to help.



For my mind this encompases the center of the problem.

I was checking out Arrington "Brigham Young American Moses" and thinking of typing out relevant quotes. I will sumerize briefly instead. 1873 Brigham pushes to establish communitarian economic systems in various locations in Utah. He clearly thought this was to establish more economically productive situations. People found it too restictive and neighbors were sometimes more economically successful so by the time of Brighams death the experiments were being abandoned. People found Orderville too orderly.Subsequently people tried to maintain some of the ideals without the rigid forms.


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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Wed Oct 18, 2017 1:07 pm 
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Some interesting thoughts. Thanks, chaps.

Symmachus wrote:
First, the strain of critique within Christianity that you cite really doesn't appear until the high middle ages, when the productive capacity of the European economy was really ignited by technological developments in agriculture, the end of a low grade ice age that had lasted for a few centuries, the increasing power of individual states at the expense of ecclesiastical hegemony, and especially the rise of banking and the growth of international trade. I think the crusades also were an important ideological factor in igniting a rereading and rethinking of Christianity, but can you think of any movements against clerical and ecclesiastical wealth before the eleventh century?


I can't, actually. Suspicion of wealth before that tends to take the form of concern for the moral welfare of the rich man (which I suspect had ties with Stoic ways of thinking) rather than indignation at social injustice. Monasticism was already in place in the pre-Constantinian period, but again, we're talking about a movement based on an ethic of individual holiness rather than a social critique (and I think, again, there was influence from pagan ascetic movements - a friend of mine wrote a book on this which I must get around to reading some day). Plus, when monasticism re-emerged in the Protestant world in the 19th century, it was as a way of opting out of industrial capitalism rather than challenging it.

Symmachus wrote:
They are anxieties in a post-reformation world, but in my view they are retrojected onto a past that didn't have them.


I'd comment here that modern politically radical Christians who are looking for historical predecessors (other than the primitive church) tend to look at movements from the High Middle Ages and after (e.g., in my country, the 17th century Diggers and Levellers). Or else they go right back to the Hebrew prophets, which I think is where Liberation Theology got the concept of structural sin. At any rate, they don't look to the Patristic period, which suggests that there isn't much to be found there.

Symmachus wrote:
None of these dynamics are at play, in my view, in early Mormonism. Earliest Mormonism in the Book of Mormon does make some sense along the lines of Karen Armstrong that you mention, but isn't remarkable how quickly it shifted to a full-throated capitalism? Maybe. On the other hand, it is a typical frontier, rags-to-riches story. And I would put the change as early as the Ohio period, so 1831.


Now that's interesting. What did you have in mind in Ohio? It did occur to me that as early as the Kirtland period you can see Smith engaging in the quintessential capitalist enterprise - starting a bank.

I'm going to have to read up some more about the United Order and think further about that.

Symmachus wrote:
LDS Mormonism has always and only been capitalist in its economic orientation. Quotes from Brigham Young and others should always be set within his worldview and his behavior, which was that of an enterprising 19th century capitalist (something Leonard Arrington's biography really brings out), and I think there is a lot of selective reading going on with Mormon liberals who are eager to find support for their political views. If Brigham Young were alive today, he'd be castigating them all in the crudest terms for not patronizing City Creek Mall...exclusively.


Yes, I can see how this would fit with what we know of the man. This would locate 19th century Mormonism within capitalism in its paternalistic, cartel-ist mode, as distinct from cut-throat free enterprise. A bit like a religion run by the Bush dynasty rather than by Rand Paul.


Last edited by Johannes on Wed Oct 18, 2017 1:25 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Wed Oct 18, 2017 1:13 pm 
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huckelberry wrote:
I was checking out Arrington "Brigham Young American Moses" and thinking of typing out relevant quotes. I will sumerize briefly instead. 1873 Brigham pushes to establish communitarian economic systems in various locations in Utah. He clearly thought this was to establish more economically productive situations. People found it too restictive and neighbors were sometimes more economically successful so by the time of Brighams death the experiments were being abandoned. People found Orderville too orderly.Subsequently people tried to maintain some of the ideals without the rigid forms.


What strikes me about this is that Young was promoting the idea that a planned economy is more efficient than freemarket capitalism - an idea that didn't reach its zenith until the 1920s and 1930s - as early as the 1870s. Where did he get such an idea from? Was it just a reflexive matter of reaching for a top-down authoritarian solution for a perceived problem?


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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Wed Oct 18, 2017 6:05 pm 
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Dr. Michael Quinn said that from the earliest stages of the Church, "the business of LDS theology has always been business".

One of the rules of acquisition offered by the BYU Ferengi School of Business is that it is easier for a rich man, seated on an opulent saddle while astride a camel, to get into heaven than a poor man trying to pass through the eye of a needle.

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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Thu Oct 19, 2017 11:50 pm 
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I think the point made above that Christianity does not have one clear attitude about wealth is valid and worth second thoughts. People have sometimes thought that ridding oneself of wealth allowed focus on virtue. At least that seems to be an attitude in the monastic tradition. It does not seem to fit Mormonism as well though.

Setting aside the accusation that Brigham Young overvalued his own access to wealth, I admit to finding his interest in helping or hoping to help to develop a situation where wealth creation is made more possible to be a good goal. It strikes me as a thoughtful assault on the evil of poverty. It is in irony of political cliched imagery that his socialistic experiments were concerned with how enough capitol may be assembled by people with some shortages to get more effective production going. It is part of an admirable Mormon practicality.

Is it possible that poverty degrades the image of God in humanity and wealth better reflects its honor? Does blessed are the poor mean they must remain poor?

There is the reverse consideration however. Poverty may make people more aware of the needs of others while wealth separates people from the needs of others. With some sympathy for the monastic ideal I am thinking that this observation is important but does not complete the set of possible corrupting influences the drive for wealth may entangle a person in.


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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Fri Oct 20, 2017 1:53 pm 
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huckelberry wrote:
I think the point made above that Christianity does not have one clear attitude about wealth is valid and worth second thoughts. People have sometimes thought that ridding oneself of wealth allowed focus on virtue. At least that seems to be an attitude in the monastic tradition. It does not seem to fit Mormonism as well though.


Mormonism doesn't have a monastic or ascetic tradition, does it? That's an interesting fact in itself. I suppose that a group of men and women trying to build a new society in the wilderness had other things on their mind than renouncing the world. The ascetic ethic also doesn't sit well with the Mormon theology of marriage and polygamy.

huckelberry wrote:
Is it possible that poverty degrades the image of God in humanity and wealth better reflects its honor? Does blessed are the poor mean they must remain poor?


That can no doubt be debated endlessly. I'd be interested to know what Mormonism does with texts like "blessed are the poor". I've just looked at the Joseph Smith Translation, and he left that verse alone. He also left alone the verse proclaiming that "the love of money is the root of all evil". So it looks like Smith himself didn't have much interest in developing his teaching in that kind of area.

Another question occurs - what were Smith's economic policies when he ran for the presidency? Does anyone happen to know?


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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Fri Oct 20, 2017 2:03 pm 
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Joseph was always a prophetpreneur.

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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Sat Oct 21, 2017 10:14 am 
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Some interesting replies and challenging questions here.

Real quick on what I meant by referencing Kirtland period, Johannes:
1. yes, the bank,
2. but also the appointment of businessmen N. K. Whitney as bishop, and the fact the United Order became the new mechanism of running Whitney's businesses and using his properties (e.g. the temple was built on his land, to take one small example)
3. and also the first attempts at Mormon colonization in Missouri (obviously that's not what the revelations called it, but that is what it was) and the subsequent land acquisition, which of course was the root of the conflicts with the local hillbillies, most of whom were probably quite poor. I always find it a telling fact that the so-called "Mormon War" involved quite a lot of stocking of the bishop's storehouse with goods and property stolen from the non-Mormons.

Obviously some of this was meant to help the poor, or at least that is the language in which the revelations that touched on these economic processes was clothed. But it's not like there was some mass of poor, an independent church, and an untapped fund of wealth that the independent church then doled out through its good offices. The United Order was the theological underpinning to what was essentially a business operation meant at enriching people who were poor, including the Smith family. And its officers (e.g. Whitney) even threatened to expel those who were deemed to dependent on the economic resources of the community. It wasn't charity like the Salvation Army or something.

Later in the Utah period it served a similar kind of function: it wasn't that Brigham Young was trying to plan the economy of Utah as much as to monopolize it for the Church's interests.

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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Sat Oct 21, 2017 1:14 pm 
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Symmachus wrote:
2. but also the appointment of businessmen N. K. Whitney as bishop, and the fact the United Order became the new mechanism of running Whitney's businesses and using his properties (e.g. the temple was built on his land, to take one small example)


I didn't know that. As for the United Order, the more I learn about it, the less surprising the modern LDS church's business interests appear. Very interesting that Brother Joseph was already appointing businessmen (as well as his own family members) to leadership positions and that church leaders were running what were in effect commercial operations whose profits were at the disposal of the church.


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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Sun Oct 22, 2017 10:37 am 
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If Uncle Dale were here (and I hope he is out there somewhere doing OK), he might say that Mormonism as a business began with the Gold Bible Company. It is my view that Joseph Smith was always happy to make a buck from what he was doing. But I think he did have an ethic about it that he believed was consistent with Christianity. Look to the example of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon. He did not believe in being idle; rather he felt it was important that the king should labor with his own hands. Joseph was never really against differences in status and wealth.

Joseph felt that so long as he benefited others it was certainly OK for him to turn a profit through his religious enterprises. Moreover, the Book of Mormon is somewhat complicated on the issue of wealth--at least more so than we might be inclined to think initially. It is certainly true that the peril existed of wealth making people prideful and forgetful of the blessings of God, and of also treating others shamefully, but I don't think that this is the same thing as a blanket condemnation of wealth.

Sidney Rigdon was perhaps the one most responsible for the early Mormon flirtation with Christian communism. He and Isaac Morley had a commune going in Ohio before the lot of them joined Joseph Smith.

I apologize for these scattered thoughts. I think this subject is fascinating. There is no easy answer for what is right in a Mormon context. Views differ. You see interesting contradictions in the lives of people like Mitt Romney. Mitt has more money that one person could ever possibly need, or one family really, but there he is attending to his piles of wealth. At the same time, he strikes me as a decent, if somewhat lopsided and selective in his knowledge and perspective, fellow. He will really go out of his way for the people in his life, if they need his help.

How do we judge Mitt Romney? I believe his wealth is excessive, but I also think he is a decent person who will help out another in a jam. I see him fitting and representing the contradictions of Mormonism quite nicely.


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 Post subject: Re: Christianity, Mormonism and wealth
PostPosted: Sun Oct 22, 2017 7:02 pm 
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It comes down to the question, "Did Jesus own the clothes He wore?"

Do people possess the patience to work and wait to achieve better economic conditions or is the only solution to rob because that's what's good for me right now?

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