Many Saints today may be unaware that many of their Utah ancestors worked in cooperatives. The Utah Territory, at one time, was considered the premier place to observe Cooperative Free Enterprise in action. There were as many as 200 manufacturing and retail cooperatives in operation producing and selling everything from wagons, nails, and furniture, to boots, belts, and straw hats. People came from around the world to study Utah’s cooperative movement.
How did it all start? Brigham Young and the Twelve saw that the local merchants, who purchased goods back East to resell in the Utah Territory, were rapidly becoming wealthy at the expense of everyone else. These merchants would engage in what we call “price gouging” – raising prices drastically on scarce products. This practice served to drain their communities of needed currency.
Also, the merchants spent their profits on fine imported clothes, jewelry, and carriages, setting themselves up as society’s elite. This division into classes was compared to what the people in 4th Nephi did once pride crept in and ruined their Zion society. Brigham would not have it.
Another grave concern of the Brethren was the threat that concentrated wealth posed to our political liberties. They wrote that the freedoms for which our forefathers fought are endangered by the enormous influence which “wealth gives to a few individuals and a few powerful corporations”. They saw the writing of laws by the wealthy as a sure sign of national ruin for any nation.
In today’s Competitive Free Enterprise system, buying influence in government, price gouging, and living extravagantly off profits all seem normal to us. But Brigham was not going to stand for it – the Saints were under covenant to consecrate all their means to the building up of the Kingdom and for establishing Zion, unlike the non-member merchants.
Cooperatives were thriving in Brigham City under Lorenzo Snow’s direction and the Brethren wanted to expand them throughout the Church to circumvent the above-mentioned evils of unbridled Capitalism, and especially to prepare the Saints for living in United Orders. Apostle Wilford Woodruff’s statement in 1873 reflected this when he said, “We must give our earnest support to cooperation, for it is a step in advance towards establishing the Order of Enoch and the building up of the Zion of God.” We would be wise today to follow their lead.
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