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Religion, Regional Self-Sufficiency, and Economic Development in Utah: 1847-1896

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  • Dwight Israelsen

Abstract

When Mormon settlers arrived in the Great Basin in 1847, the region was Mexican territory notable mainly for its isolation 1,000 miles to the nearest markets and its inhospitable environment. Under the direction of Brigham Young, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons developed a regional economic system that coined and printed its own money, engaged in foreign trade with the States, dealt with balance-of-payments problems, assimilated large numbers of immigrants, and began the process of economic development. Group economic self-sufficiency was stressed, and uncontrolled market capitalism was rejected in favor of cooperative and communitarian economic institutions and centralized theocratic direction and control. The economic isolation of Utah ended with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Between 1869 and statehood (1896), ressures toward assimilation clashed repeatedly with Mormon economic policies of cooperation, planning, and group self-sufficiency. It is the thesis of this study that the resistance of Mormon leaders to assimilation led to the development of an unusual dual-parallel economy in which the traditional Mormon sector more closely resembled the overall U.S. economy than did the modern non-Mormon mining and trading sector. It is argued that the policies of the Mormon church, though designed to prevent or retard economic assimilation, may have speeded the transition of Utah's economy to modern capitalist development. These policies provided an orderly transition from a subsistence economy based on irrigated agriculture to a diversified, modern economy experiencing rapid economic growth. This transition allowed Utah to avoid the long period of unstable, narrow-based economic colonialism experienced by other Western states in the nineteenth century.

Suggested Citation

  • Dwight Israelsen, 2005. "Religion, Regional Self-Sufficiency, and Economic Development in Utah: 1847-1896," Working Papers 2005-05, Utah State University, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:usu:wpaper:2005-05
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