Saturday, April 18, 2009

Great Basin Kingdom

I just finished reading Great Basin Kingdom by Leonard Arrington. It was written as a PhD dissertation in the late 50's. The basic idea is that the Mormon economic structure made the settlement of the Great Basin possible. Arrington describes in detail how the Church supported efforts and self sufficiency and home industry. He also made subtle links between modern Church policy and the economic necessities for the colonization of the Great Basin.

For example, Brigham Young's push to make the Word of Wisdom a commandment was in part due to the desire to reduce the amount of cash being paid to the outside world. Tobacco, coffee, and whisky were some of the items Mormons imported in great quantities (sugar and iron were big too).

The structure could be characterized as "communal" at first which then evolved into "cooperative" enterprises as more and more "gentiles" moved in. It also claimed that although this structure has many elements in common with antebellum America, after the war this structure was completely at odds with the economic structure of the rest of the United States.

We usually learn about the persecution of polygamy and the Manifesto. But that was only one part of the conflict between the Mormons and the rest of the US. Private property, banking, and the like were not compatible with a market economy. In addition to the Manifesto, the Church negotiated an agreement to back off from dominating the economy of Utah.

Arrington touches every event in Utah Mormon history and interprets it in terms of the economics involved.

When read in combination with Rough Stone Rolling, the two give a nearly complete non-traditional history of the church. RSR is light on the early Missouri period, and other events for which Joseph Smith was not present. GBK is light on anything that happened outside of the American west. But if I had to pick two books to give a detailed, scholarly and fair treatment of Mormon history, I could do much worse that these two.

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