Most of this chapter comprises extracts from a sermon Lorenzo Snow delivered just after he had been called as president of the Quorum of the Twelve in April 1889. That date, that period, is significant because many of the conditions that prevailed some fifty years earlier were again being experienced by the Mormon Church.
In her seminal biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, the historian Fawn M Brodie wrote:
“Mormon theology was never burdened with otherworldliness…Wealth and power [Mormons] considered basic among the blessing both of earth and of heaven…” (No Man Knows My History, 1966 ed. pub. Alfred A Knopf, p.p. 187/8)
A quote from an 1831 letter throws light on the Saints’ view of wealth and entitlement:
“It passes for a current fact that there are immense treasures in the earth, especially in those places in the State of New York from whence many of the Mormonites emigrated last spring; and when they become sufficiently purified, these treasures are to be poured into the lap of their church; to use their own language, they are to be the richest people in the world.” (Ezra Booth, letter written late in 1831. Quoted in Brodie p. 187)
This understanding has bearing on the subject of Snow’s sermon. Here are the salient facts surrounding both periods, 1835 and 1889:
By 1835 Joseph Smith had built his own little kingdom in Kirtland
By 1877, the time of his death, Brigham Young had built a kingdom in the Salt Lake Valley
In 1835 rumours of polygamy were causing problems for the church and Joseph Smith was forced to deny the rumours, even though his denial was a palpable lie.
In 1887 the Edmunds-Tucker Act allowed the government to effectively dissolve the Mormon Church as a legal entity because of the practice of polygamy and, in 1890, it was this that forced the hand of church president Wilford Woodruff who issued the Manifesto abandoning polygamy.
In 1835 a new temple had been completed and had drained church resources
By 1890 the Salt Lake temple was completed and had drained church resources
So, what did the Saints do in 1835 to solve their financial problems? What caused Lorenzo Snow to refer to an apostasy?
Land-Grabs and Dodgy Banking
in the mid 1830’s Mormons entered a period of frenzied land speculation led by Joseph Smith himself. In other words, if there was an apostasy, Joseph was chief heretic. There was a huge influx of immigration that caused the population in and around Kirtland to jump 62 percent and the question of where they would all live had dollar signs spinning in the eyes of those able to buy and sell property.
In Kirtland, lots jumped from $50 to $2,000, and surrounding farms from $10 and $15 an acre to $150. Joseph began buying and selling land with the rest. His credit, backed by the collateral of the new temple built for some $70,000, was good so he borrowed, speculated to accumulate. Along with three others, he began a frenzy of borrowing and purchasing, hoping to make riches from the incoming Mormon population. Of course, this created a property bubble that couldn’t last but that didn’t seem to trouble the prophet.
Mormon apostle, Parley P Pratt was so concerned he wrote a letter to Joseph Smith in which he declared himself, “…fully convinced that you, and president Rigdon, both by precept and example, have been the principle means in leading this people astray, in these particulars, and having myself been led astray and caught in the same snare by your example, and by false prophesying and preaching, from your own mouths, yea, having done many things wrong and plunged myself and family, and others, well nigh into destruction, I have awoke to an awful sense of my situation, and now resolve to retrace my steps and get out of the snare, and make restitution as far as I can.” (quoted in Tanner, Mormonism-Shadow or Reality, p.528)
The level and extent of speculation was so damaging it depreciated paper money going into the United States Treasury. On July 11, 1836 Andrew Jackson issued a specie circular, forbidding agents to accept anything but gold and silver for the sale of public land (specie is a term for money in the form of coins and paper)
According to the History of the Church, Joseph Smith had marked September 11, 1836 as the day God would redeem Zion. Quoting in part Isaiah, he said, “Then, for brass the Lord will bring gold, and for iron silver, and for wood brass…and then the land will be worth possessing and the world fit to live in.” Unfortunately, the prospect facing the Saints was bleak, and they faced being driven out of Missouri as those who once were pleased to shelter them now lost all sympathy for them.
Money had to be gained from somewhere, but the specie ban made it very difficult. It was then that news of buried treasure reached Joseph, first in the form of a story in the Painesville Telegraph.
War treasure was said to be buried beneath a house in Salem, Massachusetts, and a convert named Burgess claimed he was the only one who remembered its exact location. I know what your thinking; he surely isn’t going to fall for this. Well, the pull of the old days was just too strong, the promise of buried treasure too tempting, and he arrived in Salem early in August, 1836.
Joseph’s true objective could not be revealed and in this he faced a dilemma. His initial explanation was that this was a mission tour. The truth had to come out at some time however and, as so often before, he solved his problem by receiving a revelation, Doctrine & Covenants 111 which begins:
“I, the Lord your God, am not displeased with your coming this journey, notwithstanding your follies. I have much treasure in this city for you, for the benefit of Zion, and many people in this city, whom I will gather out in due time for the benefit of Zion, through your instrumentality.
Therefore, it is expedient that you should form acquaintance with men in this city, as you shall be led, and as it shall be given you. And it shall come to pass in due time that I will give this city into your hands, that you shall have power over it, insomuch that they shall not discover your secret parts; and its wealth pertaining to gold and silver shall be yours. Concern not yourselves about your debts, for I will give you power to pay them.” (v.v 1-5)
Mormons today who get their Mormon history only from official sources will know nothing of Joseph’s true motives, of the Saints’ true financial and moral dilemma. The heading for section 111 disingenuously reads:
“Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Salem, Massachusetts, August 6, 1836. At this time the leaders of the Church were heavily in debt due to their labors (sic) in the ministry. Hearing that a large amount of money would be available to them in Salem, the Prophet, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, and Oliver Cowdery traveled (sic) there from Kirtland, Ohio, to investigate this claim, along with preaching the gospel. The brethren transacted several items of Church business and did some preaching. When it became apparent that no money was to be forthcoming, they returned to Kirtland. Several of the factors prominent in the background are reflected in the wording of this revelation.”
They were not, however, “in debt due their labours in the ministry,” they were in debt because of wild and unsustainable land and property speculations, Joseph leading the charge.
It had been ten years since he had dug for buried gold but he hadn’t left behind his simple faith in the folklore and blind superstitions that had led to his early treasure-seeking adventures in the first place. Unfortunately for him, Burgess soon abandoned this venture, claiming the city had changed so much he could no longer be sure of the treasure’s location. The biter bit? It would seem so, since Joseph had fallen victim to the same scam he had pulled on others and, like them, he walked away without the gold in which he so believed and on which he had so depended to get him out of his dilemma.
Joseph Smith didn’t come back entirely empty-handed, having negotiated more loans from companies in the East. However, he couldn’t go on living indefinitely on borrowed funds. At some point, he knew, his debts had to be liquidated and the Saints’ finances established on a more sure footing. It was now, and in the same spirit of wild speculation, that Joseph Smith established his own bank, the Kirtland Safety Society Bank Company. This wasn’t unusual at the time; the rapid expansion of the West created a demand for money that wasn’t being met by existing banking institutions.
Again, Joseph legitimised this new venture with a new revelation. The Saints were assured that Smith’s bank would “grow and flourish, and spread from the rivers to the ends of the earth, and survive when all others should be laid in ruins.” (Reported in Zion’s Watchtower, March 24, 1838)
The bank’s establishment was announced in January 1837 in the Messenger and Advocate, which issued an appeal…”We invite the brethren from abroad, to call on us, and take stock in our Safety Society; and we would remind them also of the sayings of Isaiah…’Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them, unto the name of the Lord thy God.’”
The problem was that this rapid expansion of banking facilities to meet these needs led to a chaotic banking system and on January 1, 1837, the same day the Kirtland bank’s printed bank notes were issued, the Ohio legislature refused the bank’s incorporation.
Joseph told his followers that it was because they were Mormons, but the truth was only one bank was allowed incorporation and the legislature was simply gaining control of a spiralling situation.
To get around the problem Joseph stamped his bank notes with the prefix anti and the suffix ing around the word Bank, creating the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-bank-ing Company. Now it was a quasi-bank, needn’t be incorporated and, if he could pull this off long enough to convince investors his problems might be solved.
The problem was he didn’t have the assets to back up the notes being printed. Bills were being paid, debts cleared and, for a fleeting fortnight, Kirtland was rich; but all on notes not worth their face value.
Joseph Smith confidently assured people he had $60,000 in the vaults and a further $600,000 readily accessible. The truth is he had $6,000 and access to not a penny more. He said there was no more than $10,000 in bills in circulation when, in fact, there was more than $150,000.
By January 27 merchants were refusing notes and the bills were streaming back into Kirtland. Joseph Smith redeemed the notes but soon realised a run on the bank would ruin him so stopped taking his own money. By February 1 every dollar of Kirtland money was worth no more than twelve and a half cents!
The truth is, the bank had always been illegal, the fixed penalty for the crime was $1000 with informers taking a share of the fine. Joseph Smith had enemies aplenty and it didn’t take long for one to swear a writ against him. By March 24 Joseph was on trial and ordered to pay the $1000 penalty, plus costs. The final reckoning established that the Mormon leaders owed non-Mormon individuals well over $150,000.
So, Lorenzo Snow-1889
In 1889 the Mormon Church had arrived at the same place. Church property had already been confiscated under the Edmunds-Tucker Act, the $4m temple had depleted church funds and there was another bubble, this time a railroad bubble, as well as overbuilding that would lead to the panic of 1893. Hundreds of banks would close across America, thousands of businesses go under.
Lorenzo Snow’s sermon was aimed at Mormons who might be tempted to follow the example of their founding prophet and speculate their church out of existence and themselves into “apostasy.” It is clear that he was not impressed by Joseph’s conduct, which he had witnessed first-hand. Nevertheless, he hawked around the “official” account which had been worked up over the years, and that exonerated Joseph and blamed “apostate” church members as well as some leaders.
Mormons were still facing financial ruin and would still need to resolve their financial difficulties. In 1899, now as president of the church, Lorenzo Snow toured the territories preaching tithing. You can read about that in a previous post. There the church’s subsequent change in fortune was described in this way:
“The church’s 1898 deficit of $1.25m became a net worth of $3.2m by 1904 and, while church leaders ascribed the changing fortunes of the church to God’s blessing tithe payers, it may have had more to do with the saints gaining full statehood and involvement in the rapid growth of the US economy from 1897 to 1907. Of course, the eyes of faith would have it otherwise, with the fortunes of the United States tied in with the fortunes of Mormons.”
Mike Thomas was a Mormon for 14 years, became a Christian in 1986 and for many years worked with Reachout Trust speaking and writing about Mormonism. He still researches Mormonism and occasionally posts his thoughts on Mormon issues at The Mormon Chapbook