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Pioneer Economy

by Leonard J. Arrington

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the major force contributing to the economic development of the Great Basin region in the nineteenth century. This was true until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and to a large extent even through the remainder of the century. Though the railroad ended the isolation of the Great Basin and brought both economic benefits and new challenges to home industries, the Church's economic role did not decline significantly until the end of the pioneer period (see Economic History of the Church).

Church involvement in the economy was rooted in theology. According to LDS belief, building up the kingdom of God on earth—developing it and beautifying it for the return of the Savior—is a prime task of God's people. LDS pioneers believed that the Church was the agent of God and his people in building the kingdom. The responsibility to promote its progress and perfection rested upon Church officials. It thus became a religious duty to produce, to build, and to prepare for the Millennium. Digging canals, tending herds, cultivating crops, and constructing telegraph lines, railroads, and factories were all viewed as acts of religious devotion similar to prayer, worship, and other strictly religious activities.

Partly because economic activity had religious significance, it was clearly understood that all such was to be conducted in harmony with gospel principles. Precious-metal mining and other economic activities that did not contribute to basic production and stable communities were not endorsed. Individualism, profiteering, and speculation were eschewed. Instead, the individual member was enjoined to be "one with his brethren." Not only were they to work together in harmony, but Latter-day Saints were also expected to maintain relative equality in the possession and enjoyment of this world's goods.

President Brigham Young recognized early on the economic importance of women in making a harsh land productive. Not only were women partners with men in agriculture and home production—the more so with many men called away on missions—but they were also specifically encouraged by President Young to be involved as telegraph operators and shopkeepers, and he enlisted them throughout the territory to work in silk culture.

Building the pioneer kingdom required the erection of a "two-decker" economy—a foundation of agricultural and handicraft production to satisfy the most pressing wants of the settlers and the steady increment of immigrants, along with a superstructure of investment to provide for future growth. In general, programs were concerned with three types of activities. First, leaders sought to increase the agents of production by a widespread missionary program and by promotion and organization of emigration (see Immigration and Emigration; Perpetual Emigrating Fund). Between 1847 and 1880 more than 70,000 converts immigrated to the Great Basin to work on farms, in factories, and to participate in colonization projects.

Second, Church leaders sought to aid capital formation. This they did by sending out exploration parties to discover new resources, by developing these resources under Church sponsorship, by mobilizing the savings of its members in the Great Basin and in Europe, and by diverting resources from the production of consumables to the production of reproducible wealth. Sizable groups were sent to southern Utah to mine and manufacture iron, to southern Nevada to mine silver and lead, to northern and central Utah to mine coal, to southern California to establish an entrepôt, to southern Utah to raise cotton and other semitropical products, to various places in northern Utah and southern Idaho to utilize grazing lands, and to hundreds of irrigable areas throughout the Great Basin to establish colonies, construct irrigation systems, and engage in farming (see also Agriculture; City Planning).

In mobilizing savings to support these developmental projects, the basic organizational device was the office of the trustee-in-trust. Usually the president of the church, as trustee-in-trust, held, bought, and sold property; collected donations and expended them; and in general used the common fund of the community in constructing the infrastructure of communications, transportation, merchandising, and education. This was sometimes done by chartered companies such as the Deseret Iron Company, the Deseret Sugar Manufacturing Company, and the Deseret Telegraph Company. The President of the Church could also direct regionwide economic initiatives such as the 1850s consecration movement, the 1860s cooperative movement, and the 1870s united orders.

A second organizational device was the network of tithing houses, that received contributions in kind of butter, eggs, calves, chickens, hay, wheat, and other produce that were then used to support workers on school buildings, tanneries, woolen factories, gristmills, roads, and other projects. In the largely cashless pioneer economy, the tithing house system also made it possible to spend credit earned for labor or goods in one community in another. Tithing Office script and credits, ultimately controlled and reconciled through the books of the trustee-in-trust, thus helped to grease the wheels of commerce in the Great Basin.

Third, pioneer Church leaders also sought to overcome an adverse balance of trade for the region. They solicited investments by members wherever they were located and promoted sales outside the region of livestock, grain, salt, cotton, dried fruits, wool products, and other exportables. In this connection, the Church was able to turn to advantage the discovery of gold in California in 1848. The Church acquired about $150,000 in gold dust during the 1850s from returning miners, from contributions of its members in California, and from men assigned to California expressly for the purpose of obtaining specie to help boost the Utah economy.

The balance of payments problem was one reason the Church discouraged the importation of unnecessary consumables. Leaders urged Latter-day Saints to refrain from using imported tea, coffee, tobacco, liquor, or "fashionable" clothing from the East (homemade was considered more saintly). In order to prevent "outside" merchants from becoming wealthy in this trade, Church leaders bought out most of them, imposed a boycott on trading with others, and channeled the bulk of the territory's imports through the Church-controlled Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI).

The Church assumed much of the burden of promoting economic activity that, under different circumstances, might have been assumed by eastern capitalists or the federal government. By influencing the movement of population and new investment, and by controlling community pricing through the tithing houses, the Church regulated the allocation of resources to maximize the gross product. By continuously funneling new families into the various settlements and valleys, the Church also prevented the creation of a class system and contributed to a greater equality of income. In so doing, LDS leaders expressed greater confidence in the efficacy of their own administered economy than in the ability of an impersonal price system to optimally allocate resources and induce rapid and diversified economic development.

(See Daily Living home page; Church History home page; 1844-1877 home page)


Arrington, Leonard J. Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900. Cambridge, Mass., 1958.

Arrington, Leonard J. "Religion and Planning in the Great Basin, 1847-1900." Proceedings of the Thirty-second Annual Conference of the Western Economic Association, pp. 37-41. Salt Lake City, 1957.

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