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At the Crossways
In 1897, the Church, freed of proscription, with its people enjoying the sovereignty of their state rights, had - as I have already said - only one further enfranchisement to desire: and that was its freedom from debt. The informal "finance committee" of which I was a member, had succeeded in concentrating the bulk of the indebtedness in the East, on short term loans, and had brought a certain order out of the confusion of the older methods of administration. But, in 1897, my father proposed a comprehensive plan of Church finance that included the issuance of Church bonds and the formation of responsible committees to regulate and manage the business affairs of the Church, so that the bonds might be made a normal investment for Eastern capital by having a normal business method of administration to back them. The idea was tentatively approved by the Presidency, and I was asked to draw up the plan in detail.
To this end there were placed in my hands sheets showing the assets, liabilities, revenues and disbursements of the Church. They gave a total cash indebtedness of $1,200,000, approximately. The revenues from tithes for the year 1897 were estimated at a trifle more than a million dollars - the total being low because of the financial depression from which the country was just recovering. The available property holdings - exclusive of premises used for religious worship, for educational and benevolent work, and such kindred purposes - were valued at several millions (from four to six), although there was no definite appraisal or means of obtaining appraisal, since the values would largely attach only when the properties were brought into business use. I was advised that the incomes of the Church would probably increase at the rate of ten per cent per annum, but I do not know by what calculations this ratio was reached.
The disbursements were chiefly for interest on debt, for the maintenance of the temples and tabernacles, for educational and charitable work, for missionary headquarters in other countries, and for the return of released missionaries. The missionaries themselves received no compensation; they were supposed to travel "without purse or scrip;" their expenses were defrayed by their relatives, and they had to pay out of their own pockets for the printed tracts which they distributed. Neither the President nor any of the general authorities received salaries. There was an order that each apostle should be paid $2,000 a year, but this rule had been suspended, except, perhaps, in the cases of men who had to give their whole time to religious work and who had no independent incomes. Some occasional appropriations had been made for meeting houses in communities that had been unable to erect their own chapels of worship, but for the most part there were few calls made upon the Church revenues to support its religious activities, its priests or its propaganda.
Our proposed committees, therefore, were a committee on missionary work, one on publication, one on colonization, one on political protective work for the Mormons in foreign countries, and most important - a finance committee selected from the body of apostles, with the addition of some able men connected with financial institutions. As a basis for the work of the finance committee, we proposed the establishment of an interest fund, a sinking fund, and a scale of percentage disbursements for the various community purposes. These committees were to be appointed by the Conferences of the people, and the committee reports were to be public. President Woodruff eagerly accepted the plan as relieving the Presidency of administrative cares that were becoming too great for the quorum to carry. Joseph F. Smith did not at once awake to the real meaning of the proposal; but when the scheme was submitted in its matured details, he spoke of the danger of allowing power to pass from the hands of the "trustee in trust " in business matters. His idea was sufficiently clear in its resistance to any diffusion of authority, but it was correspondingly void of any suggestion of substitute. For the time being he was pacified by the assurance that the "Kingdom of God" and the rule of its prophets would not be endangered by the organization of committees and the submission of financial plans to the general knowledge, and even to the consent, of the people.
It was, of course, evident to the First Councilor that this scheme of Church administration would give the Mormon people a measure of responsible government, and the proposal was a part of his wisdom as a community leader seeking the common welfare. While we had been a people on whom the whole world seemed to be making war, a dictatorship had been necessary; but now that we had arrived at peace and liberty, a concentration of irresponsible power would surely become dangerous to progress. Without, therefore, impairing the religious authority of the Prophet, the First Councilor was willing to divide the temporal power of the Church among its members.
He was as silent, about these aims, with me as with all others; but I had learned to understand him in his silences; and, in joining with him in his work of reform, I was as sure of his purpose as I have since been sure of the disaster to the Mormon people that has come of the failure to effect the reform.
When the Presidency had approved of the flotation of bonds, I went with my father to New York to aid him in interesting Eastern capitalists in the investment. We interviewed Judge John F. Dillon and Mr. Winslow Pierce, of the law firm of Dillon and Pierce, attorneys for some of the Union Pacific interests; and through them we met Mr. Edward H. Harriman, Mr. George J. Gould and members of the firm of Kuhn Loeb and Company. It was interesting to watch the encounters between the Mormon prophet and some of these astutest of the nation's financiers; for it was as if one of the ancient patriarchs had stepped down from the days of early Israel to discuss the financial problems of his people with a modern "captain of industry." He described a condition of society that was, to Wall Street, archaic. He spoke with a serene assurance that the order of affairs in Utah was constituted in the wisdom of the word of God. He was listened to, with the interest of curiosity, as the chief living exponent of the Mormon movement, its processes and its aims; and I was impressed by the fact that these men of the world had a large and splendid sympathy for any wholesome social effort designed to abolish poverty and establish a quicker justice in the practical affairs of the race.
It was of the abolition of poverty and the justice of the social order among the Mormons, that the First Councilor chiefly spoke. "Your clients," he said to Judge Dillon, "make their investments frequently in railroad stocks and bonds. What are the underlying bases of the values of railroad securities? Largely the industry and stability of the communities through which the railroad lines shall operate. Then, in reality, the security is valuable in proportion to the value of the community in its steadfastness, its prosperity and the safety of its productive labor. In your railroad investments you are obliged to take such considerations as a secondary security. In negotiating this Church loan with your clients, you can offer the same great values as a primary security. Probably no where else in the world is there a people at once so industrious and so stable as ours."
It was the boast of the Mormons that there had not been an almshouse or an almstaker in any of their settlements, up to the time of the escheat proceedings by the Federal officials; and this was literally true. Every man had been helped to the employment for which he was best fitted. If an immigrant, in his former estate, had been a silk-weaver, efforts were made to establish his industry and give it public support. If he had been a musician of talent, a little conservatory was founded, and patronage obtained for him. When the growth of population made it necessary to open new valleys for agriculture, the Church, out of its community fund, rendered the initial aid; in many instances the original irrigation enterprises of small settlements were thus financed; and the investments were repaid not only directly, by the return of the loan, but indirectly, many times over, by the increased productiveness and larger contributions of the people. Co-operation, in mercantile, industrial and stock-raising undertakings, assured the support and patronage of each community for its own particular enterprise, prevented destructive competition and checked the greed of the individual - for the more he toiled for himself, the larger the share of the general burden he had to carry.
It was the First Councilor's theory that when people contributed to a common fund they became interested in one another's material welfare. The man who paid less in tithes this year than last was counseled with as to why his business had been unsuccessful, and the wise men of his little circle aided him with advice and material help. The man who contributed largely was glad of a prosperity from which he yielded a part - in recognition of what the community had done for him and in a reverent gratitude to God for making him "a steward of mighty possessions" - but he was anxious that his neighbor also should be a larger contributor each year.
The whole system of tithe-paying was built upon a series of purported "revelations" received by Joseph Smith, the original Prophet. It was declared to be the will of God that all men, as stewards of their possessions, should give of their increase annually into "the storehouse of the Lord," which should always be open for the relief of the poor. Inasmuch as the man who received help - or whose widow and children did so - had been a tithe-payer during all his productive years, there was none of the feeling of personal humiliation on the part of the recipient, nor any of the feeling of condescending charity on the part of the giver, in the distribution of funds to the needy. And it was astonishing how few the needy were - because of the abstemious lives, the industry, and the thrift of the workers.
The Church tribunals heard and settled all disputes over property or personal rights not involving the criminal law. Expensive litigation was thus avoided. Society was saved the cost of innumerable courts. There were many counties in which no lawyer could be found; and everywhere, among the Mormons, it was considered an act of evil fellowship, amounting almost to apostasy, for a man to bring suit against his brother in the civil tribunals.
In short - as my father pointed out - Utah, at that time, expressed the only full-bodied social proposition in the United States. There never had been in America another community whose future, in the economic aspects, offered so clear a solution of problems which still remain generally unsettled. It was as if a segment of the great circle of modern humanity had been transported to another world, otherwise unpopulated, and there with the experience gained through centuries of human travail - had attempted the establishment of a just, beneficent and satisfying social order.
I am here repeating this argument - this exposition - because the financial absolutism of the Prophets of the Church has since ruined the whole Mormon experiment in communism, put the Mormon paupers into the public poor houses, used the tithes to support the large financial ventures of the Prophet's favorites, and turned the Church's "community enterprises" into monopolistic exploitations of the Mormon people. And this change began even while our negotiations were pending in New York - for they were prolonged, for various reasons, into the summer of 1898, and they were interrupted finally by the death of President Woodruff.
As soon as I received word of his illness I took train for Utah. The news of his death met me on the journey home. Since I derived my authority solely from him, upon my arrival in Salt Lake I went to the Cashier of the Church, gave him the keys and the password to the safety deposit box in New York, and withdrew from any further participation in the Church's financial affairs. When I came to the office of the Presidency I found that my father had removed his desk; and this was an indication to me of what was happening in the inner circles of Church intrigue.
The president of the quorum of apostles invariably succeeds to the Presidency of the Church, although it is left to the apostles to decide, and their choice is supposed to be directed by inspiration. His election is subsequently ratified by the General Conference; but this ratification is a mere form, because the conference must either accept the choice of the apostles or rebel against "the revelation of God."
Apostle Lorenzo Snow was president of the quorum of apostles, and therefore in line for the Presidency. But usually, after the death of a President, a considerable period was allowed to elapse before the selection of his successor, with the government resting in the quorum of apostles meanwhile, even for a term of years. As soon as I arrived in Salt Lake, Apostle Snow asked me to a private interview (in the same small back room of the President's offices), inquired about the financial negotiations that I had been conducting, and asked me whether it was not essential to the success of our business affairs that as soon as possible the Church should elect a President, empowered as "trustee in trust." I replied that it was. He invited me to attend a conference of the apostles and give my views upon the situation to them.
This seemed to me an act of rather shallow cunning, for I knew I was too unimportant a person to be so consulted unless he thought my report would aid his intrigue. Such intriguing was offensive to the religious traditions of the Church; and it outraged my feeling for President Woodruff, who was hardly cold in death before this personal and worldly ambition caught at the reins of his office. Snow had been a man of small weight in the government of the Church. He had known none of the responsibilities of great leadership. He was eighty-four years old.
However, it was impossible for us to maintain the Church's credit in the East unless our community were represented by some choate authority, since our credit rested on the belief that the Mormon people were ready to consecrate all their possessions at any time to the service of the Church at the command of the President. I advised the apostles of this fact. Snow was elected President on September 13, 1898, eleven days after Woodruff's death. He followed the usual precedent in choosing my father and Joseph F. Smith as his Councilor's.
But he took possession of his new authority with the manner of an heir entering upon the ownership of a personal estate for which he had long waited - and which he proposed to enjoy to the full for his remaining years. In a most literal sense he held that all the property of the people of the Church was subject to his direction, as chief earthly steward of "the Divine Monarch," and he proceeded to exercise his assumed prerogatives with an autocracy that made even Joseph F. Smith complain because the Councilor's were never asked for counsel. As resident apostle of Box Elder County and president of the Box Elder "stake of Zion," Snow had already shown his ambition as a financier, disastrously; and it was as the financial head of the Church that he was chiefly to rule during his term of absolutism.
Of all the Church leaders whom I had known he was the only man who showed none of the robustness of the Western experience. Tall, stately, white-bearded, elegant and courtly, he prided himself most obviously on his manners and his culture. He rarely spoke in any but the most subdued and silken tones of suavity. He walked with a step that was almost affected in its gentility. If he had any passions, he held them in such smooth concealment that the public credited him with neither force nor unkindness. He had been a great traveler (as a missionary); he had written his autobiography, somewhat egotistically; he was devoted to the forms of his religion, like a mediaeval Prince of the Church and an elegante. But under all the artificialities of personal vanity and exterior grace, he proved to have a cold determination that seemed more selfishly ambitious than religiously zealous.
At once, upon his accession to power, he notified us that he did not intend to carry out any such plan as we had suggested for the administration of the Church's finances. It meant a diffusion of authority; and he held that the best results had been obtained by keeping all power in the hands of the Prophet, Seer and Revelator, and of those whom he might appoint to work with him. Joseph F. Smith, at a meeting of the Presidency, was even more positive. No good, he said, could come of publishing the affairs of the community to the people of it; those affairs were purely the concern of the Prophets; the Lord revealed His will to the Prophets and they were responsible only to Him.
My father necessarily bowed to the President's decision. "It is within the authority of the Prophet of the Lord," he counseled me, "to determine how he will conduct the business of the Church. President Snow has his own ideas."
By that decision, as I see it now, an autocracy of financial power was confirmed to the President of the Mormon Church at a time when a renewal of prosperity among its people was about to make such power fatal to their liberties. It was confirmed to a man who proved himself eager for it, ambitious to increase it and secretly unscrupulous in his use of it. He proceeded at once to preach the doctrine of contribution with unexampled zeal, but he administered the "common fund," so collected, with none of the old feeling of responsibility to the people who contributed it He became the first of the new financial pontiffs of the Church who have used the "money power" as an aid to hierarchical domination.
Moreover, in his desire to fill the coffers of the Church, he engaged in "practical politics" and made a profit out of Church influence, both in business enterprises and in political campaigns. He proved himself peculiarly qualified by nature to construct and direct a secret political machine - a machine whose operations were never to be observable except to the close student of Utah's ecclesiasticism - a machine that was to be all the more effective because of its silent certainty. As the succeeding chapters of this narrative will show, although he affected a fine superiority to unclean political work and always publicly professed that the Church of Christ was holding itself aloof from the strife of partisanship, there was no political event on which he did not fix the calculating eye of his ambitious clericalism and no candidacy that he did not reach with those slender but powerful fingers that controlled the destiny of a state and trifled with the honor of a people.
His accession marked the change from the old to the new regime in Utah. Leadership was no longer a dangerous honor. Proscription no longer made the authorities of the Church strong by persecution - hardy chiefs of a poverty-stricken people - leaders as sensible of the obligations of power as their followers were faithful in their allegiance of duty. Political freedom and worldly prosperity made the office of President a luxurious sovereignty, easily tyrannical, fortified in its religious absolutism by its irresponsible power of finance, and protected in its social abuses, from the interference of the nation, by an alliance with the commercial rulers of the nation and by a duplicity that worldliness has learned to dignify with the respectability of material success.