Article — From the October 2011 issue

Pennies from Heaven

How Mormon economics shape the G.O.P

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“Joseph Smith had the poor man’s awe of gold,” writes his biographer Fawn Brodie, “and it crept into his concept of Heaven.” Even by the put-upon standard of upstate New York in the early nineteenth century, Smith’s family was dogged by unique bad fortune. Itinerant farmers who had first gone bust when they tried to export wild ginseng to China, the Smiths were forced to move repeatedly during Joseph’s youth.

By the time they reached the upstate hamlet of Palmyra in 1816, when Smith was eleven, the Second Great Awakening was in full swing. Some frontier revivalists of the day, such as the circuit-riding Methodists of the American South, preached a harsh gospel of individual reward and punishment, which equated a believer’s social station with the condition of his or her soul. More polished evangelical figures, such as the Baptist minister Charles Grandison Finney, spelled out a doctrine of social reform, arguing that the abolition of slavery or the advent of women’s suffrage would pave the way for Christ’s Second Coming.

By Smith’s own account, the intense spiritual ferment of the Second Great Awakening left him bewildered. He wrestled with the question of how all—or any—of the claimants to absolute truth in the Christian tradition could be right. In 1823, however, a revelation led him to the buried gold tablets inscribed, in his account, with a history of the lost tribes of Israel in the New World. He spent much of the next seven years transcribing and translating the plates, often with creditors at his door. And in 1830, with a young wife and with a child on the way, he persuaded one of his early followers to mortgage his farm to pay for the scripture’s publication.

The Book of Mormon neatly resolved distress of both the religious and the mundane variety by emphasizing how perfectly the ideal of prosperity meshed with the divine plan for Creation. Smith’s earliest disciples tended to be small farmers or tradesmen eking out unstable livings on the American frontier. What could be more attractive to them than a theology of New World abundance? And while other sectarian movements promoted austerity or social reform, Mormon scripture stressed the close alignment of wealth and virtue—­a neat inversion of the New Testament ethic of self-sacrificing service. The idea is not so much to be a suffering servant, but rather a well-fixed one, who spreads the gospel on roughly the same model as the Kiwanis Club. “Think of your brethren like unto yourselves,” the Book of Mormon counsels, “and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.”

is the author of <em>Rich People Things</em> (Haymarket, 2011), the editor of the Yahoo! News blogs, and an editor of <em>Bookforum.</em>

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October 2019