THOUGH PERSECUTED early on, the Mormon religion not only survived but thrived. The faith has found a way to make God and a genius for commerce work together. The reasons begin not in business but in theology. For the Mormon God is not like other gods. God did not create the world out of nothing, as in other monotheistic traditions; according to the revelation given to Joseph Smith, God “organized it out of chaos.’’ Drawing order out of preexisting “elements… [that] may be organized and reorganized, but not destroyed,’’ God was working with what was already there.
This was an audacious assertion, one that upended a pillar of Western thought. Smith’s peculiar notion of divine activity has powerful implications for human initiative, too - with practical consequences for economics and politics in America.
The distinction between God as creator and God as organizer matters because the perennial religious call to imitate God made organizing a defining act of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Note to readers: In my last column, I omitted “Jesus Christ’’ from the formal name of the Mormon religion - a not insignificant mistake.) The Book of Mormon organizes a vast and disjointed history. Joseph Smith, and his main successor Brigham Young, who led the exodus to Utah, were men of high religious charisma, yet each had a gift for practical leadership that enabled the organizing of an historic movement.
The organizational transformation of the religion into a burgeoning social network led to exceptional success in business. Indeed, by the late 20th century, Mormons were leaders in organizational development and other business-transforming fields - with a leading Mormon, Kim B. Clark, a 21st-century dean of the Harvard Business School. Always, they remained loyal to the church organization - in 2005, Clark left Harvard to accept a church call to run a fledgling branch of Brigham Young University. Mormons, in sum, were the original organization men.
THE BOOK OF MORMON, which the young farm boy Smith received in a vision, organizes a vast history across most of a thousand years. Three ancient Hebrew families (Jaredites, Lehites, and Mulekites) made the voyage across the seas to America about six centuries before Christ, and the book tracks the history of their descendants down to the catastrophic end of each family’s story in about 400 AD. The narrative, as read by this outsider, is presented as the composition mainly of three prophets - Nephi, Mormon, and Mormon’s son Moroni, who, reincarnated as an angel, delivers the record to Smith in early 19th-century New York.
But as a written document, the Book of Mormon bespeaks the careful editing of a complex range of prior sources and the keeping of records on family sagas multiplied many times over. Whether the achievement is regarded as Mormon’s and Moroni’s or the unlikely young Smith’s, the Book of Mormon is a coherent narrative which, while relating a tragic saga, finds redemption precisely in its coherence.
Social organization followed. Central to Smith’s movement, which gathered tens of thousands of adherents in his lifetime, was the place it offered to otherwise rootless and unconnected men and women on the American frontier - many of them dispossessed immigrants from Europe. The genius of the Latter-day Saints was to offer an authority structure as a home. The organizing began with Smith himself, who established a Council of Fifty, which consecrated him as “King, Priest, and Ruler over Israel on Earth,’’ and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (one of whom was Parley P. Pratt, direct forebear of both Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman). The religion was soon so rigidly defined that each member knew his or her place, not just in a community but in the cosmos.
As the church grew, moving west under the great patriarch Brigham Young, the hierarchy crystallized as a pyramidal structure, which marks the religion to this day. By the time Young died in 1877, his New Zion settlement in Utah included about 135,000 saints, whose society was as cleanly defined as the rigid street plan Young drew up for what would become Salt Lake City. The organization holds: Jesus Christ is supreme, followed by the president and prophet, who is aided by counselors, acting within the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. There are general authorities and area presidencies, the subdivisions of wards and stakes, all resting upon the primal unit of the family. In so-called sealing rituals, a mirror-image mystical pyramid of the dead is constructed, with each Mormon placeable on a vast family tree stretching across time. All progenitors can be saved simply by being, in effect, added to a branch. A key religious act of the Latter-day Saints is to organize all those who ever lived through the Baptism of the Dead, what makes genealogy the special purview of Mormons.
But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had help in achieving its rare cohesion - and that came from outside. Nothing more powerfully enables a group to establish itself than enemies trying to destroy it, and the Mormons always had plenty of those. Distinctive LDS convictions were forged out of defensiveness - an emphatic sense of election, millennial expectation of relief, and total devotion to the construction of Zion on earth. The saints seemed at last to find that sacred realm in Utah, but no sooner had Mormons established themselves there than, in 1869, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad was celebrated with the driving of the famous golden spike in that same place, effectively ending Mormon isolation and tying the beleaguered people to the United States, for better and for worse.
But the railroad was also an organizational boon for the Mormon kingdom. The rush to the west that marked American life in the late 19th century was funneled through Mormon territory, sparking economic booms in enterprises as diverse as merchandising, telegraph, railroad, mining, and agriculture. A church-based cooperative culture enabled Mormons to make the most of all this.
But the Mormon achievement almost came to nothing as the issue of polygamy exploded in a massive recapitulation of the hatred that had been aimed at the saints from the beginning. Young was the father of 57 children by 16 of his more than fifty wives. As the government in Washington imposed authority on the Utah territory, felonized polygamy became the point of contention between Mormons and the United States, and Young’s successors defended it. Many saints fled to Mexico, yet another exodus. Mormon colonies established there thrived for a time (Mitt Romney’s father was born in one). The crisis grew as federal law enforcement pressed in. Mormons resisted, with many fully expecting the apocalyptic end of history.
Instead, the organization adapted. In 1890, the church leader received a new revelation, and the end of polygamy was declared. Utah was admitted to the union in 1896, and today remains more than half Mormon. A minority of “fundamentalists’’ still practice plural marriage, if secretly, and the tradition is an embarrassment to mainstream church members. But a formal capitulation on the issue defined an organizational principle, rooted in a theological assumption: if God can change, so can God’s people; revelation can be a mechanism of change, and change can be a matter of survival. The needs of the organization trumped the ecstatic visions of Smith and Young, and the church went on to flourish.
IN THE FIRST HALF of the 20th century, the prosperity both of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and of its adherents, was remarkable. Financial power emerged as a way of advancing the LDS vision. The church structure, as it happened, mirrored the structure of the evolving American corporation - tall management reflected in the tall edifice of the ever-more ubiquitous Mormon Temple. Taking off from LDS holdings in agribusiness and mining, and building on an intense tradition of tithing, the church organization itself became an economic powerhouse, especially in the developing West. The church is one of the largest landowners in the nation, and has untold billions in insurance holdings and financial investments. Untold is the point, since LDS secrecy prevents any outside audit of actual worth.
But individual Mormons have become legends of the American success story. A Utah farm boy, for example, born only four years after statehood, went east to do his expected missionary service, and during a sweltering Washington summer, saw an opportunity in public thirst. He opened a root beer stand that grew into a first drive-in restaurant. Located near the rudimentary D.C. airfield, he provided sack lunches for airline passengers. During World War II, he expanded to serve meals in defense plants. Near his original root beer stand, he opened a first “motel’’ in 1957. His genius was for organization, and everything he started thrived. His name was J. Willard Marriott. His success was his - but also it was his people’s, since he so fully embodied the Mormon ethos. Today, his family continues the tradition, with the company run by J. Willard Marriott Jr. The Book of Mormon is found beside the Gideon Bible in each of organization’s 200,000 hotel rooms.
Every year, there are something like 350,000 converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More than 50,000 volunteer missionaries preach its gospel all over the globe. LDS is on track to become, in the words of the sociologist of religion Rodney Stark, “the first new world faith since Islam.’’ And every missionary is undergoing a crash course in Mormon salesmanship - positive outlook, loving mutuality, structured altruism.
As it turns out, networking and community can be seen to have mattered more to this movement than anomalies of creed or oddities of history. The business ideal and the religious ideal reinforce one another. Theologians count for less than entrepreneurs, belief for less than success. And success feeds upon itself. Outsiders attempting to understand the surprising arrival of the Latter-day Saints can do worse than to think of it as a business model - made perfectly, it turns out, for the 21st century. Made in America.