Establishing Zion
Eugene E. Campbell

Chapter 8.
Pioneer Economics

[p.135]Of the many dictionary definitions of economics, the following probably best describes the Mormon situation during the pioneers’ first decades in the Rocky Mountains: “Any practical system in which the means are adjusted to the ends.” In an 1859 General Conference address, Brigham Young clearly restated the pioneers’ “ends” when he avowed, “Our faith must be concentrated in one great work—the building up of the Kingdom of God on Earth.” Believing that the advent of Christ’s millennial reign on earth depended upon their establishing an acceptable nucleus of the kingdom, Young and other leaders instituted a wide variety of programs to achieve their desired goal. These included the colonization efforts discussed in earlier chapters; proselyting missions to the United States, Canada, the British Isles, western Europe, and elsewhere; and organized emigrating systems to “gather” the converted to the Great Basin to help build the kingdom.

The “means” to achieve these ends were primarily the volunteer labor and donations of Mormon converts, the wealth acquired and developed in colonizing the Great Basin, and the economic “windfalls” brought into the region by gold seekers and U.S. Army contingents. These means were collected primarily through the tithing system of the church and were administered by leaders to support public works, agricultural programs, merchandising, banking organizations, industrial developments, and transportation and communication systems—all of which were designed to build the earthly kingdom and make it self-sufficient.

[p.136] To understand Mormon economic activities during this period, one must be aware of certain concepts and beliefs held by the Latter-day Saints. First, they believed that Christ’s millennial reign was imminent—likely to begin in their lifetimes—which engendered tremendous energy and a willingness to sacrifice. It encouraged them to accept calls to leave settled communities and valuable property to begin building the kingdom in other areas; to labor with primitive, half-civilized Indians; or to leave families and travel to distant parts of the world to warn the inhabitants of “the impending doom.”

Second, there was no division between the spiritual and the temporal in Latter-day Saint philosophy, for with God all things are spiritual. According to Mormon historian Leonard J. Arrington, church members were taught that “digging canals, tending herds, cultivating crops and constructing telegraph lines, railroads, and factory-buildings were acts of religious devotion fully equal in God’s sight to prayer and worship.” The construction of a water ditch was as much a part of Mormonism as water baptism, and the redemption of the land was as important as the redemption of one’s soul. Some observers have asserted that because all things were spiritual, ultimately nothing was spiritual; that Mormonism became most proficient at developing practical, material programs; and that this was the essence of the religion. Whatever the case, few would question the fact that religious devotion enabled the Latter-day Saints to accomplish an economic miracle in the Great Basin.

Another important concept in discussing Mormon economics was the idea that the “earth is the Lord’s” and that men and women are only stewards of their property, not absolute owners. This enabled the “Lord’s representatives” not only to take Indian lands without compensation but to dictate policies concerning land distribution and use; control of natural resources such as water, timber, and mineral wealth; and the accumulation and distribution of surplus wealth in order to promote unity, equality, and self-sufficiency.

It is difficult to know how extensive a kingdom the church leaders believed must be established to usher in Christ’s reign on earth. As noted previously, Brigham Young initially wanted to colonize much of the southwestern part of the United States but gradually was forced to modify his plans. It is unlikely that Young and others had clearly or even fully defined what needed to be accomplished, only that the world had to be warned, the faithful gathered to Zion, and the nucleus of a self-sufficient kingdom established. Planned villages filled with hard-working, God-fearing Latter-day Saint families engaged in building homes, chapels, and temples would continue until God decided [p.137] that the time was right for his son’s reign on earth. Those who paid tithing to the church were promised that they would not be consumed by the fires that would destroy the wicked at the Second Coming.

Instituted in July 1838 to replace the largely unsuccessful law of consecration and stewardship, the Law of Tithing was officially accepted by church members in 1841. As initially implemented, it required that members donate to the church the equivalent of one-tenth of their possessions at the time of their conversion and one-tenth of their annual increase thereafter. Because of the unsettled conditions and the fact that many pioneers experienced a decrease rather than an increase during the trek west, the system proved rather ineffective during the early years, from 1846 to 1849, even though efforts were also made to collect donations in England and elsewhere.

Collecting tithes was also difficult because more than 70 percent of all donations were made in agricultural produce or livestock, both of which were difficult to care for during migration. Some collections were made in the Salt Lake Valley in 1848 and 1849, but an effective system was not established until 1850, when a General Tithing Office and Bishops’ Storehouse was built in Salt Lake City and an elaborate network of local tithing houses was organized in each community. Church farms were located at strategic points to care for the herds of horses, cattle, and sheep received by the Presiding Bishop as tithing.

In his landmark study of the Mormon financial system during this period, Great Basin Kingdom, Arrington found that five different kinds of payments were used, including property, labor, produce and stock, cash, and institutional tithing. Since one-tenth of a convert’s possessions at the time of his or her conversion was required, the initial donation was more likely to be paid in the form of property or livestock. Because the system had not functioned effectively in Winter Quarters, or during the early years in the Great Basin, members resolved in the September 1851 General Conference to require that each member to donate one-tenth of his or her assessed property at that time, regardless of earlier contributions. According to the account in Brigham Young’s unpublished manuscript history, the resolution included a time limit, a threat of excommunication, and some millennial warnings:

Conference also voted to commence anew with their tithing and consecrations and that within 30 days the saints should make a consecration of one-tenth of his property and one-tenth of his interest or increase ever [p.138] after and that those who will not thus tithe themselves be cut off from the church. A fire is kindling in the earth and who can quench it. A light is shining and who shall extinguish it. The nations of the earth are fearing and trembling. Fire burns and the light dazzles but they know not what to make of it. God has set his hand to restore Israel and the remnants of Ephraim. They know it not. The oldest and most powerful governments are shaken to their center and the kings know not the cause. The way is fast preparing for the introduction to China, Japan, and other nations.

Such appeals must have been effective. Four and one-half years later, on 30 April 1852, church leaders reported that they had received during the preceding four and one-half years $244,747.03 in tithing (mostly property) and $145,513.78 in loans and from other sources, for a total of $390,260.81. During this same period they had expended $353,765.69, which left a total in church reserves of $36,495.12.

Tithing in the form of labor involved donating every tenth day toward various church building projects, such as forts, meetinghouses, irrigation canals, roads, and other public works. The bishop was in charge of these projects when they were local; otherwise the trustee-in-trust or superintendent of public works directed the work. The church thus employed several hundred men each year in the Salt Lake City area and proportionately fewer elsewhere.

Arrington’s detailed study of the tithing system in northern Cache Valley revealed that 15.4 percent of all donations were in labor. Some wealthier members paid their labor tithing by hiring others to work on church projects in their behalf. Others, craftsmen for example, used their own merchandise as tithing. This merchandise, in turn, supported the men on the public works projects. “We would not wish our tradesmen to leave their shops to work out their labor tithing in common labor with the shovel, the pick, and etc.,” explained the local superintendent of public works. “We want them to pay their tithing in the kind of labor they are constantly employed at, and the products of this we can place to an excellent use.”

Produce and stock tithing forced each local bishop and branch president to set up a tithing house with adjoining barns and corrals. The Cache Valley study showed that 71.8 percent of tithing paid was in the form of stock and produce. Thus the local bishop was required to collect, store, evaluate, and distribute local products. Eventually, the Mormon tithing house served its community as a storehouse, a merchandising establishment, a bank, a manufacturing plant, and, in some cases, an inn. This type of operation required a great deal of the local leader’s time and energy. The church soon allowed the [p.139] bishop to keep as recompense a certain percentage of the tithing collected.

Produce and stock tithing was used to take care of local Saints in need, such as widows, the elderly, the handicapped, and families of men who were on missions. It was also used to help Indians in the region. The policy of “feeding rather than fighting” was implemented only after the Mormons’ first few years in the Great Basin (see chaps. 6 and 7). Men who were called to labor on church and public buildings or to colonize a new region were permitted to draw needed food from the nearest tithing office. Much of the produce and stock tithing was forwarded to the General Tithing Office in Salt Lake City where it was converted into cash by sales to local citizens or by organized stock drives to California where prices were much higher.

As surplus goods over and above tithing donations were turned in for credit or in exchange for some needed items, the bishop was required to set a price on the commodities. In order to facilitate exchanges and to pay those who were spending their full time on church-sponsored building projects, a form of paper money called “tithing scrip” was printed. Thus the church had a kind of internal monetary system. The churchwide tithing organization made it possible for a man in England to make a donation in Liverpool and have his family receive the equivalent value from the Tithing House in Salt Lake City or in some smaller community.

Cash tithing in the form of U.S. currency or in the currency of the locality where members resided or in gold dust was especially welcome, since there was a constant demand for items that could only be purchased in the east or on the west coast. In Cache Valley the cash donations during the period 1863-1900 averaged only 12.8 percent of the total tithing paid.1

Another important source of income was the Perpetual Emigrating Fund (PEF) Company. Organized in 1849 to aid church members in Iowa to migrate to the Great Basin, the PEF used monies donated by church members for the specific purpose of aiding emigration. In theory, the recipients of the aid would repay the loan, thus making it possible to use the money to aid other converts to come to Zion. These contributions were in addition to the tithing donations described above.

[p.140] In 1850, the PEF began raising funds to help approximately 30,000 members in England emigrate. Contributions by wealthy converts and tithing paid by European members were used to establish the fund, which was also augmented by the commissions LDS agents received from shipping lines. Brigham Young even contributed the ten dollars per case he received from granting church divorces—a contribution which gradually amounted to more than $16,000. Contributions were gathered from the Mormons who were seeking gold in the California gold fields. But the principal source of revenue was in contributions made by members already established in the Great Basin. Most of these donations were “in kind” and were collected by or delivered to block teachers and bishops throughout the territory. Through the PEF, church leaders assisted more than 51,000 Mormons to migrate to the Great Basin by the end of the 1860s.

The accumulation of community wealth in the tithing houses enabled church leaders to offer new immigrants immediate employment through the organization of Public Works. The office of Superintendent of Public Works was established in January 1850, with Daniel H. Wells designated head of the organization. Prominent in military, civic, and church affairs, Superintendent Wells served effectively throughout the 1850s and 1860s, employing an average of 200 to 500 men during the 1850s. These men were first employed in a carpenter’s shop, a paint shop, a stone cutter’s shop, a blacksmith shop, and an adobe yard. Later a machine shop, a foundry, and a nail factory were added. Ultimately Wells was called to supervise a variety of enterprises such as a paper mill and a sugar factory as part of the Public Works.

This organization not only enabled the immigrants to find immediate employment but also utilized their skills in building needed edifices. The Council House, the old Tabernacle, the Social Hall, the Endowment House, a bath house at the warm springs north of the city, a General Tithing Store, and a storehouse, as well as a number of other walls, residences, schools, and church buildings were all built in the 1850s.

The desire for self-sufficiency led Brigham Young to subsidize a number of floundering industrial experiments. These resulted in the loss of sizable sums of tithing money, many hours of hard work, and some additional private funds. Pottery, paper, sugar, wool, iron, and lead industries were all attempted during the Saints’ first decade in the Great Basin, and while some of them enjoyed a measure of success, all must be classified as unsuccessful if judged by the goal of economic growth and self-sufficiency.

[p.141] Perhaps the most dramatic example of the church’s involvement in industrial experimentation was the attempt to supply the sugar needs of the region by developing a beet-sugar industry. This involved not only investing substantial capital in machinery and a building for a sugar refining factory but also encouraging the farmers of the region to engage in the difficult task of raising and harvesting sugar beets.

The program began in typical Mormon fashion, with the leaders sensing the need and “calling” someone to address that need. Isolated as the Mormons were, it soon became apparent to Young that purchasing enough sugar at 40 cents per pound to satisfy the needs of the growing population in the Great Basin would require an expenditure of $270,000 in 1852 alone. Of course this sum would only increase as more members emigrated to the region. Attempts to find substitutes by boiling parsnips, carrots, beets, and watermelons proved unsatisfactory. Appeals for ideas to solve the problem led Apostle John Taylor, then in Europe, to investigate the sugar beet industry in France. Aided by a young convert from the Isle of Jersey, Phillip De La Mare, Apostle Taylor became convinced the sugar industry could succeed in Utah. The Deseret Manufacturing Company was organized under Taylor’s direction. Several converts put up capital for the company, including De La Mare, who invested approximately $5,000, and Isaac Russell, a Scottish ship builder, who subscribed in excess of $40,000, not all of which was in ready cash. They secured “1200 pounds of the best French beet seed” and ordered the necessary machinery from a Liverpool manufacturer. They sent the seed to the Salt Lake Valley so that a beet crop would be ready when the refining machinery arrived. They enlisted several men who could operate the factory and sent them with the machinery on the ship Rockaway in March 1852.

After this promising start, the story of the venture is filled with heartache and failure. Following a seven-week ocean voyage, the machinery arrived in New Orleans, where the investors were required to pay a heavy duty. Church agents took care of this and also purchased heavy Santa Fe schooners to transport the wrought-iron fabrications across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains to the Mormon Zion.

Crossing the plains was long and difficult, but after arriving in the valley no one could be found to assemble and operate the machinery. Handicapped by delays in erecting the factory and pressed by eastern creditors for payments of debts, the investors called on [p.142] Brigham Young to assume their obligations and take over their properties under the Public Works supervision. Repeated attempts were made between 1853 and 1855 to refine the beet juice, but these were unsuccessful. On 29 March 1855, according to Young’s unpublished history, it was announced that “the sugar works have stopped for a season, having ground over 23,000 bushels of beets into molasses during the seven weeks they were operating.”

By 1856 the industry was entirely abandoned and Young turned to sorghum cane as a source of molasses that would satisfy the inhabitants. This enterprise cost the church and investors at least $100,000 and the beet growers themselves an additional $50,000. Ironically, in 1890 the Utah Sugar Company, owned by the Mormon church, succeeded in refining beet-sugar in Lehi, Utah, thus establishing what would become one of the leading industries in the region.2

The high cost of these industrial ventures, plus increased expenditures in emigration programs and colonizing efforts, led church leaders to reinstate the “higher” law of consecration and stewardship in 1854. As Arrington has noted, the failure to receive funds from the federal government for territorial governmental costs and a disappointing response on the part of the Saints in California to their leaders’ appeal for financial help may also have contributed to the decision.

The program required church members to deed all of their property to the trustee-in-trust of the church who would then assign each member an inheritance, or stewardship, according to his or her needs. In practice, the forfeiture of personal wealth was often just a good will gesture on the part of the member, since most usually received back as an inheritance the same properties donated to the church, with the right to pass them on to their heirs or to retain them if they should leave the church. However, church leaders did acquire the right to control surplus more effectively and gain some wealth for immediate needs. Young himself listed his property to be consecrated to the church at $199,624. This was a considerable sum to have [p.143] acquired in six years and demonstrates the inequality that had become evident in the valley.

Proposed and promoted in 1854, the consecration movement was delayed until 1855 when the following printed form was distributed among the Saints:

Be it known by these presents that I, ______________of ______________in the County of ____________, and Territory of Utah; for and in consideration of the good will which I have to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, give and convey unto Brigham Young, Trustee-in-Trust for said Church, his successors in office and assigns, all my claim to, and ownership of the following described property…

While approximately 40 percent of the 7,000 heads of families in the territory deeded their property to the church, none of the property was actually taken over by the church, and the program was abandoned in 1857 with the approach of Johnston’s Army. For non-Mormons, the movement was evidence of an oppressive theocracy “snuffing out all prospect of free enterprise and private property in Utah.” Congress had not yet passed laws granting land ownership in Utah, and non-Mormons threatened to oppose passage of such legislation if the Mormon church confiscated its members’ property.

But there were other reasons for postponing the redistribution of wealth. The grasshopper attacks in the summer of 1855 wiped out whatever surplus food existed in the region, and the drought that followed made survival essential. Depending on the locality, the fall 1855 harvest was less than one-third to two-thirds of previous harvests. These natural disasters were followed by a bitterly cold winter—the worst the colonists had experienced since coming to the Great Basin. Heber C. Kimball estimated that about half the cattle in the territory died as a result of the snow and severe cold.

The following summer the Saints experienced another bad grasshopper attack, and the 1856 harvest was less than that of 1855. So the Law of Consecration and Stewardship of the mid-1850s suffered the same fate that it had experienced in the 1830s, and for a similar reason: it simply was not given a chance at success. However, it did stimulate the spirit of self-sacrifice and helped to increase public willingness for greater contributions to the public purse.3

[p.144] The attempt to obey the law of consecration also led to a practice that still remains in the Mormon church: “fast offerings” (see chap. 10). During the winter of 1855-56, church leaders asked members to fast for twenty-four hours on the first Thursday of each month and to contribute the food thus saved to help the poor. Fasting was a time-honored practice for purifying the soul and communing with God, and when combined with a free-will offering to less fortunate brothers and sisters and with a “testimony” meeting in which the Saints could give extemporaneous expressions of thanksgiving and religious conviction, the monthly “fast meetings” became an accepted regular practice among the Mormons.

One of the factors leading to the industrial experiments of the 1850s and 1860s was the high cost of freighting goods from the Missouri River to the Great Basin. Brigham Young proposed and organized a large freighting and colonizing company, one that could dominate the transporting of people and materials as well as the U.S. mail from the Missouri River to the Mormon communities. Known as the Brigham Young Express and Carrying Company (BYX Co.), the organization proposed to establish a series of colonies—mile-square villages, complete with farms, mills, shops, storehouses, corrals, and other needs for community living, approximately fifty miles apart all the way from Salt Lake City to Beaver Creek, Nebraska (about 100 miles west of Winter Quarters and near the juncture of the trail north from Independence, Missouri). This company was to enable immigrants coming from Europe to make the trek to Salt Lake Valley in greater safety, less expensively, and in greater comfort. It was also to reduce the cost of freighting needed supplies for the building of the kingdom and bring added income if the U.S. mail contract could be obtained.

Using Fort Bridger and Fort Supply as support stations, Young called men to begin settlements in Nebraska and Wyoming. Once again, the limited resources of the people were tapped to carry out this far-sighted plan. Responding to church leaders’ requests, 400 men and women contributed labor, livestock, provision, and [p.145] supplies. Leather makers furnished boots, shoes, harness leather, saddles, and cushions. Other craftsmen supplied additional items. The contributions of individual Mormons ranged from “1 pair socks” to quilts to a revolver to “tithing office pay.” Merchants traded their wares for surplus donations or church “tithing pay.” From February to July 1857, the total value of all donations to the BYX Co. amounted to approximately $107,000.

Young succeeded in securing a four-year mail contract in October 1856, and it appeared as if the plan would actually succeed. But there was opposition from Indian agents along the route, and because some settlements would be on Indian lands this was a serious matter. But Young, in characteristic fashion, pushed ahead with the project, counting on the obvious advantages to the government to nullify any opposition. Unfortunately, a more serious obstacle was developing in Washington, D.C. President James Buchanan, convinced that the Mormons were in rebellion against the federal government, cancelled the mail contract, appointed a new governor to replace Young, and ordered U.S. troops to Utah to see that his orders were carried out. This action, which is discussed in greater detail in a later chapter, brought an end to the BYX Co. and an accompanying loss of money and manpower. This ended a promising program.

It seems clear that Young was the moving force guiding and directing the economic program of the church during the Saints’ first twenty years in the Great Basin. This might be expected since he was governor of the territory, Indian superintendent, and president of the church. But he was also trustee-in-trust of the church, having been appointed by General Conference vote in 1848.

When the church was incorporated by territorial legislative action in 1851, its charter limited the power of the church to acquire and hold property only by “the principles of righteousness or the rules of justice” and provided that such property “shall be used, managed, or disposed of for the benefit, improvement, erection of houses for public worship and instruction, and the well being of the church.” As the sole trustee, with twelve “assistant trustees,” Young had tremendous power in administering church funds. He often promoted favorite projects in his own name when he was really acting as trustee-in-trust, and using church funds without consulting other church leaders. For example, when requesting funds from Congress to construct a road from South Pass to Carson City, Nevada, Young “offered to furnish 300 miles of the road if a daily express were provided.” Arrington suggests that Young did this “presumably as trustee-in-trust,” but the distinction was not always clear. After Young’s death, [p.146] it was difficult to settle his estate because his own business affairs were intermeshed with church finances. The Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, denying the church the right to hold property valued in excess of $50,000, forced church leaders to acquire church properties in their own names, but this only accelerated the pattern established by Young.

Young’s record of failures during the 1850s must have been discouraging, not only to himself but to many of the Saints who lost sizable sums of money or property and many hours of hard labor under primitive colonizing conditions. But the programs were conceived with a desire to benefit the church and its members as well as to build up the kingdom and were carried out by and large with intelligence, courage, and fortitude. Despite all, the pioneer colonists survived, largely due to the employment opportunities and public works sustained by tithing funds and the vision of a theocratic utopia. Like many great leaders, Brigham Young was responsible for both the church’s successes and failures. [p.147]


1. Institutional tithing was a levy on the profits of shops, stores, and factories. This did not become an important source of income for the church until after 1869 and the advent of the transcontinental railroad.

2. The attempt to establish an iron industry followed a similar pattern. Calls to serve were made by church leaders, companies were organized, money was invested, expert iron makers were recruited, and colonies were established to support the workers. High grade iron ore and coal were available in the immediate vicinity. Everything seemed right for the successful production of the much-needed product. But, as previously noted, a series of misfortunes, including floods, droughts, grasshopper attacks, Indian troubles, and finally the Mountain Meadows Massacre, all contributed to the failure of a promising industrial enterprise.

3. Although 40 percent of family heads manifested a willingness to live the “higher” law, three-fifths failed to comply with the request. This brings into question the seriousness of the millennial expectations of the members and their dedication to the building of the Kingdom of God. Such reluctance may also have been a factor in Young’s inability to push the program successfully. Young’s usual approach was to threaten excommunication, as he did in 1851 when he called for obedience to the Law of Tithing or in 1855 when he called the people to a voluntary rationing program. But when 60 percent of family heads failed to comply with the program of consecration and stewardship, Young may have decided to give the plan some second thoughts.