No Man Knows My Historiography: Joseph Smith’s Utopian Vision

Jon Anderson


This paper sketches the development of early Mormon utopianism against the background of 19th century American history. It begins with an overview of the emergence of the Latter Day Saint movement as an element of the millenarian wave of the Second Great Awakening. Joseph Smith’s insistence on enacting Biblical types, including the building of a geophysical Zion, forms the background to experiments in communal ownership during the movement’s initial Midwestern phase. This also provided the ideological underpinning for the Saints’ economic activities after the exodus to Utah. Collective action formed a practical necessity for developing an arid region, but was also favoured by the Brigham Young administration as a means of building a closed economy which would minimise gentile influence on the isolated pioneer society.
The paper will seek to illuminate the history of a minority group which today is stereotypically perceived as conservative, capitalist and super-patriotic; yet which was popularly seen for much of its history as subversive and un-American, as was demonstrated by the Reed Smoot Senate hearings in the early 20th century. Finally, it will show that the earlier phase – in particular the prosperity built up by collective action – provided the basis for the community to transition into the American mainstream in the second phase.

religion - utopianism - american history