“Cooperative Movement,” Church History Topics
After the American Civil War in the 1860s, businesses based in the eastern United States set their sights on growing markets in the West. Brigham Young and other Church leaders worried that bankers and traders would take advantage of Utah’s frontier economy, flooding markets with imported products, driving up prices, and threatening some local producers.
Brigham Young had sought to establish Utah’s economy based on revealed principles of consecration, stewardship, and the Saints’ covenant obligation to one another.1 He believed these principles would provide a moral foundation for exchange and labor, and he was wary of the pursuit of profit because it often led to the enriching of a small few. Foreseeing how the rapidly growing railroad system would bring more outside enterprise to local communities, Brigham urged the Saints in 1865 to conduct business only with fellow Church members. He hoped this would ensure the Saints’ local economy remained self-sustaining and answered the needs of the poor.
Demand for imported goods continued, however, and non-Latter-day Saint merchants prospered. In 1867 the School of the Prophets reconvened to consider new economic policies.2 The School devised a plan: the Saints could form exclusive cooperative agreements between producers and merchants. Such a cooperative system, they figured, could protect local economies from the abuses of outside businessmen and minimize the inequality between Church members.3
In Salt Lake City in 1868, Brigham Young and other local entrepreneurs formed Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI). In addition to selling clothing and household goods to Latter-day Saints, the store supplied other cooperative establishments with wholesale items. The network grew to several wholesalers and hundreds of smaller stores throughout Latter-day Saint settlements. A few businessmen cried foul at the initial success of the cooperative stores, contending that Brigham Young monopolized the free market through religious control.4 Nevertheless, some Latter-day Saint communities wanted to realize greater economic cooperation and formed “united orders” in the 1870s based on communal consecration, local production, and isolation from larger markets.5
The cooperative network of the 1870s dwindled under pressures from antipolygamy legislation in the 1880s and an economic depression in the 1890s.6 Church leaders, however, maintained many former cooperative enterprises as business entities, the most notable being ZCMI. During the early 20th century, the same underlying principles of caring for the poor that had motivated the cooperative movement inspired a successful welfare program. The Church maintained a controlling interest in ZCMI until 1999, when it was sold to another department store chain.