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New Perspectives in Mormon Studies
Creating and Crossing Boundaries
By Quincy D. Newell, Eric F. Mason
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Profits of a Prophet
TOWARD JOSEPH SMITH'S POLITICAL ECONOMY
David Charles Gore
Like Moses, Muhammad, and prophets in all ages of the world, Joseph Smith spoke often about economic justice, including the plight of the oppressed, helpless, and imprisoned. Numerous scholars have commented at length about the failures of Joseph Smith's personal economies, including the failed Kirtland Safety Society and other economic hardships suffered by the early Latter-day Saints. Collectively, these works attend primarily to economic practice rather than economic ideas or rhetoric. But political economy is more than what we do with our money. It includes how we talk about money and how we think about ourselves in relation to matter. Richard Bushman has recently argued that "Joseph had no language of political economy" because he "did not base his reforms on a diagnosis of a diseased economic system." Although perhaps not a systematic theory of political economy, Joseph Smith's prophetic rhetoric regarding matter and social and class distinction illuminates his political economy by way of his political theology.
What does Joseph Smith's prophetic rhetoric, as contained in Latter-day Saint scripture, say about economics and economic justice? What can Smith's prophetic approach teach about the relation between theology and economics? The subject of Smith's political economy is at the nexus of several disciplines and several contested historical facts. It is not the same thing as asking about Smith's economic praxis. The rhetorical level, the level at which we focus on words and their persuasive and argumentative effect, is at once ideal, abstract, and practical. Examining Smith's prophetic style and purpose as rhetoric reveals his reason-making process, which leads this analysis to the subject of political theology—the ways in which beliefs about God influence political, social, and economic matters. Many hold intense opinions about economics, politics, and religion, and this analysis puts all three in play. Another complication is that political economy is regarded today as a secular social science, a study in political a-theology. With few exceptions, the discipline of economics has largely argued against theological explanations of materiality, choosing instead to see materiality as the driver of human behavior. The intersection of religion and economics is understudied, and there hardly exists an idiom for it, in part because political economy was itself a direct challenge to theological explanations. Related to this lacuna is the contested nature of Smith's theology and its economic consequences. Many in Smith's day considered any fall in profit evidence that he was a fallen prophet. Smith's political economy is not systematic and does not resemble the words of most political economists.
However, Smith's words, like other theologies, provide grounds from which to see the social and material world. Classical political economy depends on an abstraction of preferences derived from human behavior in a context of scarcity. This abstraction sets aside religious and political persuasion. Where Adam Smith and Karl Marx share materialism in common, Joseph Smith deepens the meaning of matter to include all unseen things, injecting matter with spirit. Smith's emphasis on the unseen, his strong preference for social equality, and his focus on the importance of oikos, or the household, to political economy underscores how theology can shape economic understanding. To illustrate this point I discuss explanations of political economy about Smith's time, I examine the material aspects of Smith's theology, and I read closely Mormon scripture to show that economic themes are a significant element of his theology.
Political Economy in the Time of Mormon Origins
The work already done showing the distance between Mormon economic ideals and Mormon practice is helpful, but it never highlights how discourse works to bring seemingly disparate ideas together. Smith's sense of equality is always partly economic, partly theological, and partly political. He appears more interested in souls than money, but he clearly sees equality as a way of purifying souls. The economy Smith envisioned is a function of his vision of eternity, not simply an outgrowth of his economic circumstance. This section reviews economic explanations of Smith's political economy and introduces a rhetorical approach to Smith's discourse.
Leonard J. Arrington's powerful Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 takes seriously Mormon economic practice and ideals. Arrington's aim is to elaborate on how Mormon economic principles were expressed in practice. This focus naturally renders Smith's economic discourse less prominent. Still, Arrington notes that Smith was "a social theorist of no mean ability" because of his basic economic goals and the organizational structure of the church he founded. Arrington's work ends with a somber note about "the great capitulation," the turn away from a self-sufficient kingdom to full integration with the American economy. It is a story of retreat from ideals to capitalistic practice. Arrington acknowledges, but does not explain, the remaining rhetorical power of Smith's economic ideas. The distance between ideal and practice is a consistent feature of human experience, and the rhetoric of Mormon scripture is one way to grasp Smith's power as a social theorist.
In The Soul's Economy: Market Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820–1920, Jeffrey Sklansky argues that economic reform during the time of Joseph Smith "was less to transform property relations than to transcend them, to invest the existing economic structure with new social and spiritual value." Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Bushnell, and others, each in his own way, wrote to inject new energy and spiritual value into the growing industrial capitalist economy of nineteenth-century America. These thinkers welcomed "the demise of the agrarian republic as a fulfillment rather than a betrayal of freedom and democracy," and their "transcendental psychology could be understood as less a fundamental critique than a newly legitimating conception of market society." Sklansky's proposition would be a broadly true statement of Joseph Smith's economic rhetoric if it were not for the fact that Smith sought transcendence independently, and sometimes in defiance, of the existing theologico-politico-economic structure. Smith's transcendence came not through a new psychology but a new religion.
Of course, Smith was not the only nineteenth-century American to look for religious solutions to the problems presented by capitalism. The religious landscape of the Second Great Awakening was fertile ground for reform-minded movements, most of which had some kind of economic dimension. The Shakers under the leadership of Ann Lee established communities bound together by creative ways of organizing spiritual and economic life. Economically, the Shakers sought a way to avoid the rivalries created by capitalism while emphasizing craftsmanship, diligent work, and avoidance of debt. Owenites, inspired more by socialist ideas than religious impulses, were nevertheless moved to form new communities modeled after new principles of political economy. Whatever their form, it was within a reform-minded society that Joseph Smith preached a new faith that sought emancipation from old ways of organizing social and spiritual life.
Charles Sellers, the foremost historian of Jacksonian political economy, argues that the strange milieu of Jacksonian politics and the secular frustration of many of Smith's contemporaries can explain the appeal of Mormonism and its economic attitudes. The Mormons, according to Sellers, were largely repelled by "elitist," "intellectual" attempts to reinforce the emerging capitalistic order, like those referred to by Sklansky. Early Mormons, according to Sellers, did not turn to psychological explanations, but religious explanations, which they imagined to find a way out of their economic desperation. Sellers's approach reasons that markets and economic fortunes explain everything. He depicts the Smiths and Mormons as economic unfortunates, which they surely were, driven to "fantasy" and "trickery" because of economic difficulties, which is up for interpretation. Moreover, Sellers never quotes Latter-day Saint scriptures in his analysis, and when he does mention them, he reads them too quickly.
It is true that Smith's economic pronouncements came within a complicated economic and religious scene. The emergence of the Book of Mormon took place in a context fraught with economic anxieties. Smith was preoccupied with the idea of preaching for money. In the mid-1820s, the Smiths were on the brink of economic ruin because of debt and the death of their eldest son. Additionally, Smith was implicated in purported money-digging scandals and a series of court trials. Even the "goldness" of the gold plates, from which Smith translated the Book of Mormon, carried economic value. The Book of Mormon, itself, contains stories of buried treasures being cursed and made "slippery" because those who buried them did so out of a sense of selfishness (Helaman 13:31–36). Likewise, the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon required the assistance of Martin Harris, a wealthy benefactor, in order to be completed. The emergence of Mormonism is steeped in a strange milieu of poverty, money-digging, and buried treasure, but Mormonism is more than the sum of these parts.
As Bushman has remarked, Smith's revelations on economic questions "were long on principles and short on detail. They presented a theological message, not a business plan." I presume that Smith was active in shaping these texts and that the words of the text are within his comprehension and style. Some misunderstanding arises from the fact that for many the words reflect the revealed word of God. But Joseph "never considered the wording infallible. God's language stood in an indefinite relationship to the human language coming through the Prophet. The revealed preface to the Book of Commandments specified that the language of the revelations was Joseph Smith's: 'These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.' The revelations were not God's diction, dialect, or native language. They were couched in the language suitable to Joseph's time." Smith's willingness to edit the words of his revelations and the fact that the revelations are in the language of the receiver indicate that treating the words as rhetoric is entirely reasonable. They are words spoken for a persuasive effect, art emphasizing an order of desire. Of course, whether one believes they come from God through Smith or only through Smith will color their persuasive power, but not entirely determine it. Attending to how the words work provides insight into the claims, proofs, and persuasions that result.
Consider the example of an excerpt from Smith's presidential platform from 1844, the year he died. The words resemble what Kenneth Cmiel has called the "democratic idiom," a propensity to value "truth over politeness," a "middling poetics" of "calculated bluntness." The platform decries imprisonment for the abuse of some minor statute "while the duelist, the debauchee, and the defaulter for millions, and other criminals take the uppermost rooms at feasts." Smith's populism sounds indignant, sides with the poor, advocates smaller salaries for public servants and the distribution of surplus revenue to the people, and calls for people to exercise their natural propensity to fraternity. "More economy in the national and state governments," the platform says, "would make less taxes among the people; more equality through the cities, towns and country, would make less distinction among the people; and more honesty and familiarity in societies, would make less hypocrisy and flattery in all branches of community; and open, frank, candid, decorum to all men, in this boasted land of liberty, would beget esteem, confidence, union, and love; and the neighbor from any state, or from any country, of whatever color, clime, or tongue, could rejoice when he put his foot on the sacred soil of freedom, and exclaim the very name of 'American,' is fraught with friendship!" Consistent with the political style of the period, Smith pushes his long sentences to ideal and exalted extremes. The operational political enthymemes, the orator's truncated syllogisms that invite the audience to participate in their own persuasion, are delivered in rapid fashion. He calls for more government restraint, more equality, more honesty, more union, and more love. The invitation is to a politics of friendship. At the same time, Smith's platform asserts that the economy "need[s] the fostering care of government." For Smith, there seems no contradiction in buying the slave's freedom, as he advocates elsewhere in the document, with the plea for more fiscal restraint in the government. The limits of government restraint are measured, apparently, by their effect on constituting friendship, liberty, and equality rather than on the bottom line.
As this brief example shows, attending at the level of the word allows for an appreciation of how words work on more than one level. Smith's rhetoric is religious, but it is also political, social, and economic. Smith was for humbling the rich and exalting the poor, but there is no indication he thought of such humbling and exalting in limited terms (Doctrine and Covenants 84:112; 104:16). Appreciating the wide liberty Smith took with his words allows for an understanding of his political theology because it is enfolded in revelation and prophecy and carries economic effects. Additionally, this approach illustrates the limits of treating political economy as a narrow, atheistic, or a-theological category.
Material Gods, Angels, and Spirits
The LDS doctrine of a material God and physical angels, along with gold plates and seer stones, underscores a new vision of spirit and matter. The vision of fusing spiritual and physical things is integral to the Mormon mind. "For I, the Lord God, created all things of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth," including all the plants, herbs, and humans (Moses 3:5). The Doctrine and Covenants adds that "all things" to the Lord "are spiritual," including his commandments. God's commandments "are not natural nor temporal, neither carnal nor sensual" (Doctrine and Covenants 29:34–35). As Terryl Givens notes, a paradox emerges "from these contrary tendencies ... a culture that sacralizes and exalts the mundane even as it naturalizes and domesticates the sacred." This allowed Smith to practice "capitalism without the spirit of capitalism. Summing up a day of waiting on customers in the store, he mused 'I love to wait upon the Saints, and be a servant of all, hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord.'" Shopkeeping becomes a means to exaltation as the distinctions between physical and spiritual reality are dedichotomized.
"There is no such thing as immaterial matter," one revelation said. "All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes. We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter" (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7). If spirit is material, the dualisms of Western thought are rendered, if not immaterial, less important as a lens for looking at economic matters. Yet Smith speaks of a world where material distinctions are minimized in preference to spiritual necessities. Mormon theology offers a way of looking at the economy that respects matter(s) that cannot be seen or can be seen only with purer eyes. The vision of Smith's political economy gives unseen things a credibility as great as that of visible matter.
Excerpted from New Perspectives in Mormon Studies by Quincy D. Newell, Eric F. Mason. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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