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By Martha Emery
February 12, 1938
Vol. 146, No. 7, p. 182-183
Not since the old polygamy days have the Latter Day Saints made the headlines as frequently as they have in the last eighteen months with their program to take 88,000 Mormons off the dole. Cries against federal spending have everywhere been vociferous and unending, but the only project organized solely to free Americans from the burden of government relief, and advertised as such, has been the Mormon Security Plan. "No man should ask for charity from the government," declared the Mormon president, who is reputed to have a finger in banking, insurance, real estate, mining, and industry and an ear cocked to a short-wave set tuned in to heaven. "I am sorry that some of our men would not work for $30 a month when they could get $35 by lying down and being lazy."
Although it ridiculed federal work projects, the church attempted to solve the unemployment problem among Mormons by creating projects of its own. These varied from coal mining and sugar-beet raising to temple-clothing manufacture. Publicity agents found no difficulty in selling the story. Conservative magazines and newspapers in America not only publicized but glorified the undertaking. Yet in spite of twenty months of propaganda, the creation of 700 projects which run practically without administrative costs, and an expenditure of more than half a million dollars amassed from voluntary donations, there are today in Utah 32 per cent more workers on WPA projects than in the nation as a whole, 45 per cent more in the CCC, 50 per cent more in the NYA, 175 per cent more receiving student aid, and 60 per cent more in the PWA. Skeptics are asking, "What has the church been doing?"
The answer is a simple one. The church is getting an incredible amount of favorable publicity and at the same time, far from endangering its solid financial structure, is actually the gainer from the security plan. This success has resulted from three lines of action. First, the church limited the number eligible for relief by forbidding members to give up WPA jobs for church aid. In addition, it guaranteed work only to those "who have been faithful in the payment of fast offerings and tithing and in living unspotted from the sins of the world." Second, by invoking the rich and thickly sentimentalized tradition of its pioneers, the church drew from the cupboards, closets, and pocket-books of its 541,000 "stake" members over half a million dollars in addition to regular tithing, as well as 200,000 quarts of fruits and vegetables, 364,000 articles of clothing, 24,000 pounds of meat, and considerable quantities of flour, grain, sugar, lumber, potatoes, wool, hay, and coal. Third, it actually pared down its relief expenditures from the amount required in the worst depression years. In 1934 and 1936, before the Security Plan was launched, church relief sums dropped 31 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively, from the 1931 level. In the first year of the Security Plan, though there were extra donations and a much-vaunted tithing increase, relief expenditures were only $544,000, as compared with a $594,000 average for the former six years.
Only one significant increase was reported in all church expenditures. The building program was increased by $500,000. This would appear a useful work project until one learns that the wards, or parishes, were forced to raise an additional $513,000 in order to get the original grant, that union wages were for the most part denied to the skilled laborers, and that a considerable portion of the labor was donated by ward members who were assessed a specified amount of free labor as well as cash. And the total sum was $100,000 less than the church Spent for building in 1930.
The voluntary labor and donations have come in large measure from the most pious Mormons, the poorer classes, who are already heavily taxed. Let us look at the situation of an average Mormon, say Nils Neilson, a convert emigrant from Sweden. For twenty years Nils has faithfully parted with $100 out of his $1,000 annual wage. He has also contributed freely to the maintenance of his chapel, and has paid a monthly "fast offering" and annual dues to auxiliary church organizationsnever to a labor union, for the church frowns on them. He has paid genealogy experts to discover members of his lowly family tree so that he can perform rituals for their salvation in the temples. Every spare penny has gone to support his eldest son, who for three years will be preaching Mormonism abroadin Czechoslovakia perhaps, or Tahiti.
Until lately Nils Neilson was content. The more he gave the more devout he grew. The church is a vested interest, attachment to which is fostered by its exactions. Nils's dividends have been the "countless blessings" which have flowed from the seat of the Most High. But three years ago he was laid off and became dependent on the WPA. Now the sermons on Sunday night make him uncomfortable with their derision of government relief, their pleadings for new contributions and payment of an "honest tithe."
Are the secure and wealthy Mormons likewise uncomfortable before the pulpit solicitations? Perhaps. But there has been little overt protest from any class to the new demand for increased offerings and free labor. To all appearances the Saints have accepted it without complaint, without understanding its social implications or that it was an ultra-conservative gesture of withdrawal into the old isolation which in the past was a major source of the church's strength. Nils, however, cannot be the only Mormon who is beginning to realize that his heavy contributions have materially lowered his capacity for saving and investing, and for tiding himself over unemployment. The fact that in 1935 there were proportionally 25 per cent more Mormons than Gentiles on relief in Salt Lake County is an indication of the serious depletion in personal resources resulting from the church's exactions from its members, for they cannot truthfully be said to be less thrifty or industrious than are their Gentile neighbors.
Without doubt the Mormon Security Plan won the support of the Saints because the Mormon gospel, to its believers, is the full plan of salvation, the only complete way of life. There have been minor squalls in some communities, such as the resentment aroused over the sugar-beet project, which seemed to be a deliberate church effort to break the farmers' strike against the price offered by the church-owned beet factory, but irritation has been soothed by the glowing press accounts which are read from the pulpits on Sunday night.
Now at last, however, the Mormon preachers, be they politicians or business men, have reason for worry. Federal relief is being curtailed. The heavy hand of economy is reaching toward the Great Basin. The Mormons have been preparing for the day of want. The day of want is upon them.