“United Orders,” Church History Topics
In the 1860s in Utah Territory, Brigham Young anticipated that the arrival of railroads would bring new commerce and transform the Western economy.1 To keep goods affordable and protect local producers, he and other leaders arranged an exclusive cooperative network between Latter-day Saint merchants and product suppliers.2 These cooperative establishments succeeded for a time in restraining some imports, but as the local economy grew beyond subsistence during the 1870s, more people purchased merchandise on credit and sought employment rather than producing their own goods. A market panic in 1873 confirmed many of Brigham Young’s concerns—debts and bankruptcies multiplied across the territory, and the goals of the cooperative movement seemed undercut by the commercial activities of regular consumers.3
Intending to shore up smaller communities’ resources against outside interests, local and general Church leaders developed a system by the 1880s they called the “United Order” in about 150 settlements. Unlike cooperative networks, which consisted mostly of businessmen, this new system called for all members of the community to pool their labor and income to combat rising imports, sustain local production, develop new industries, and answer the needs of the poor. Whereas Joseph Smith implemented the law of consecration through the oversight of bishops, the United Orders applied consecration covenants to all civic relationships, from employers and employees to commercial boards and investors.
In the vast majority of United Orders in Utah Territory, members contributed to a common fund, received capital stock and stock payouts, and limited their labor and commerce to the local order. Women generally shouldered the tasks of textile production, education, cooking, and medical and midwife care, while men labored on farming and infrastructure projects.4 But not all United Orders functioned the same way. In the “United Order of Enoch” in St. George, applicants signaled their covenant pledges by being rebaptized and pledging to abide by the order’s rules, and they elected a board of managers to direct the community’s various enterprises; in Brigham City, a board of managers largely extended the cooperative network to regular citizens. In Orderville and Price, members of the order aimed for complete communal living; the board of managers instituted a work schedule, assigned labor, and regulated meals and barter exchanges.5
As federal officials increased their enforcement of antipolygamy laws in the 1880s, many United Orders struggled to maintain membership amid government raids.6 Commercial enterprises continued to proliferate, and most Latter-day Saints opted to integrate into the expanding market economy. By the 1890s, both the cooperative institutions and United Orders had either closed or transitioned into private business entities.
The term United Order was applied to different systems throughout the 19th century. Between 1832 and 1834, Joseph Smith and other associates jointly administered several mercantile, printing, workshop, and real estate ventures through an organization called the United Firm, a separate enterprise from the Church system of consecration and stewardship managed by Bishop Edward Partridge. When revelations discussing the firm were first published in the Doctrine and Covenants, code names replaced real names to preserve confidentiality, and the name “United Firm” was replaced with “United Order.” Latter-day Saints who had not participated in the firm confused the term United Order with Joseph Smith’s early efforts to implement the system of consecrated property first revealed by the Lord in Doctrine and Covenants 42.7