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The Rise of Mormonism and the Birth of Modern Society

“Extraordinary claims should be backed by extraordinary evidence.”

Carl Sagan

“A stone was cut out without hands…and…became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.”

Daniel 2:34-35

“And, as I, the Lord, in the beginning cursed the land, even so in the last days have I blessed it, in its time, for the use of my saints, that they may partake the fatness thereof.”

Doctrine and Covenants 61:17

In the early 1990s, I picked up a tome with an intriguing title, The Birth of the Modern (Harper Collins, 1991), by the eminent British historian Paul Johnson. His previous work, Modern Times, a one-volume history of the twentieth century, was captivating and significantly changed my view of world history.

What caught my attention about this particular book was the fact that Johnson had written an extraordinary chronicle of over a thousand pages detailing a mere fifteen years that literally changed the course of world history. Johnson states that these fifteen years formed the foundation of the modern world. It was a period when art and music flourished, new ideas and new inventions dazzled the world, and the industrial revolution brought forth rapid economic growth.

What was this period? Johnson’s subtitle was “World Society, 1815-1830.” Undoubtedly most readers might be puzzled and a bit disappointed by the time selected, and in fact, his book was not a bestseller as were his previous works. But members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are amazed by Johnson’s title. For it was precisely during 1815-1830 that the Prophet Joseph Smith established a whole new creed known as “Mormonism.” Joseph Smith’s first vision occurred in 1820 and the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, the same year the Church was founded.

As an economic historian, I too have noticed the dramatic rise in sustained economic growth and standard of living starting in the early 1800s. In the area of science and technology, the vast majority of advances have occurred since 1830. The World Book Encyclopedia, for example, chronicles the major inventions throughout history. Over 70% occurred since the LDS Church was organized. Progress prior to 1830 was slow and plodding. Afterwards, it was dramatic. Material life prior to 1830 was about the same as it was a thousand years earlier. But the standard of living after 1830 has increased incredibly for the better.

Before 1830, inventions included paper and moveable type, the microscope and the telescope, the steam engine and the locomotive, cannon and firearms, and the spinning wheel.

Here’s a partial list of major inventions after 1830: photography, reaper and cotton gin, telegraph, gas refrigeration, rubber tire, sewing machine, elevator, hypodermic needle, internal-combustion engine, dynamite, typewriter, automobile, phonograph, light bulb, airplane, radio and television, anesthesia and Novocain, air conditioning, nuclear reactor, xerox machine, fax machine, computers, and the Internet.

Was this all co-incidence? Or was it related to what the Mormons call the restitution and the fullness of times? According to the Mormons, the Lord spoke through the Prophet Joseph Smith and ushered in the final dispensation, the fullness of times, also known as the last days. It is the final dispensation in mortality, before the great millennial day when Christ reigns on the earth for a thousand years.

According to the Latter-day Saints, Isaiah’s vision of a “marvelous work and a wonder” (Isaiah 29:14) and Daniel’s prophecy that a “stone without hands” (Daniel 2:34) would roll forth to fill the whole earth had specific reference to the Latter-day work. And Peter spoke of the “restitution of all things” in the last days. (Acts 3:20-21). Apparently the Lord’s blessing of abundance and restitution extended to temporal things as well as spiritual things in the last days. He revealed not only religious truth, but truth about science, law, economics, and psychology.

In the preface to the modern-day LDS Doctrine and Covenants, delivered in 1831, the Lord said He restored the “fullness of the gospel,” including new revelations and new scriptures like the Book of Mormon, “that faith also might increase in the earth” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:21). And faith in free markets (which Adam Smith called the “invisible hand”) has indeed flourished in the “latter days.” The first section of the Doctrine and Covenants is brimming with optimism about the “last days” (normally viewed as apocalyptic). So is Section 61, which talks about the “fatness” of the earth: “And, as I, the Lord, in the beginning cursed the land, even so in the last days have I blessed it, in its time, for the use of my saints, that they may partake the fatness thereof” (Doctrine and Covenants 61:17). I believe that the LDS faith has had a lot to do with the growth of religion and faith in the world since 1830.

The influence of the Mormon Church did not go unnoticed by the historian Paul Johnson, although, being a practicing Catholic, he chose to underplay its significance. On page 821, he wrote a single sentence: “It was a great age for new creeds: In 1830 Joseph Smith (1805-44) had the first of his revelations, in Manchester, New York, about the Book of Mormon, the foundation document for his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Yet what appeared to be a mere footnote in history has become a whole book of religious work. “And out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (Doctrine and Covenants 64:33).

A few years later I came across another fat book, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press, 2007), by UCLA historian Daniel Walker Howe. His book is part of the multi-volume “Oxford History of the United States.” And it won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2008. Like Johnson, Howe is not a Mormon, but, in his exhaustive 904-page work, he spends more than twenty pages describing in detail the growth of the LDS Church.

A third volume, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created, by financial economist William J. Bernstein (McGraw Hill, 2004), caught my interest. Relying on the data-laden work of Scottish economist Angus Maddison entitled Monitoring the World Economy, 1820-1992, Bernstein pinpoints 1820 as “the” year that economic growth took off in the modern world. The year 1820 has significance in Mormon history—it’s the year that Joseph Smith said he had his first vision when he was only fourteen years of age.

I keep these large volumes in my entryway and welcome the opportunity to explain why to visitors in our home.

Another book of significance is Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Mormonism (Columbia University Press, 2005), wherein Stark (a sociologist at Baylor University) contends that the Mormon faith is a legitimate new “world religion” like Christianity and Islam and is likely to fill the whole earth. In his first essay, written in 1984, Stark made the “crazy” prediction that by 2080 the Mormons would have no fewer than 64 million members and possibly as many as 267 million. Over two decades later, it appears that Stark’s prediction is relatively modest, although the well-known law of diminishing returns could set in.

Stark grew up a Lutheran, but now calls himself an “independent Christian” and is the co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. A non-Mormon, he contends that Joseph Smith was neither a liar nor a lunatic, but a man who genuinely believed that he had been given divine revelation. In the chapter “Joseph Smith Among the Revelators,” Stark compares Smith to Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, and finds a common pattern. All four belonged to close-knit, supportive families from whom they got their first converts. From that beginning, Stark finds other striking similarities. Each of the major world religions claims a prophet who claimed personal revelation and authority from God and published a book of scripture (Torah, New Testament, Koran, Book of Mormon). Stark flatly rejects the “Liar or Lunatic” explanation for religious revelation, arguing that the four religious revelators (Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Smith) all honestly believed they had been the recipients of divine revelation. He further goes on to argue that the reality of those revelations cannot be disproven by science, and that it is not irrational to believe that any one of them (or all of them) actually received divine revelations.

Stark is a prolific economic sociologist who has written several penetrating works, including The Rise of Christianity (HarperOne, 1997) and The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Success (Random House, 2006), and co-authored one of my favorites, The Churching of America, 1776-1990 (Rutgers University Press, 1992), where he brilliantly applies the economic principles of competition and choice to the rise and fall of religious faith.

As far as my personal journey is concerned, I have been a part of this religious movement from my childhood, and have been actively involved all my life. I have no doubt that I am a Mormon because I was born into the religion, but everyone must work out his own salvation, and there are no guarantees that one born in a religion will stay in it. Everyone must gain his own testimony of his or her religion, or abandon it. There’s seldom a middle ground.

I was born in 1947, the hundredth anniversary of Pioneer Day—the day on which the Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, also the same year the US government issued its first postage stamps of Washington and Franklin. My mother, Helen Skousen, was a convert and a direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin. (Thus my lifelong interest in Franklin and the Founding Fathers.) My father, Leroy Skousen, a lifelong Mormon, was, like his older and better-known brother, Cleon, an FBI agent, a lawyer, and politically conservative in the anti-Communist movement. My parents had ten children—the first three being Royal, Joel, and me. We grew up in Portland, Oregon, a good intellectual environment.

When my father died suddenly of lung cancer at the age of 46, my mother moved us ten children (ages 18 to 2) down to Utah, making it easier for us to attend BYU, and soon thereafter I went on a full-time mission for two and a half years (1967-1970) to Central America, Venezuela, and Colombia. It was there that I determined to get a testimony of the Church, having had many doubts prior to going on a mission. I was blessed with several spiritual experiences that confirmed to me that God lives, that there is an afterlife and judgment, and that the Book of Mormon is scripture. This testimony has kept me active since then, even when I’ve occasionally questioned the decisions of Church leaders, the controversial history of the Church, and the various doctrines proposed by members. My testimony is not complete, by any means, and I still have lots of questions. Since my mission, I’ve experienced a variety of spiritual experiences from time to time confirming my testimony. Science has taught me that without repeated demonstrations of evidence, faith in any theory or doctrine wanes. It applies to one’s religion too.

Having lived most of my life outside of Utah, I have also learned to be more tolerant and open minded when it comes to other people’s religions and lifestyles. In this regard, I have gradually shifted over the years from being a staunch conservative Mormon to a more liberal Mormon (politically, I am a libertarian), and have long recognized that people of other faiths are often more dedicated to their religion than we are, and that many of them have experienced profound spiritual experiences in their own faith. As much as Joseph Smith and other Church leaders have revealed new doctrines and ways of improving one’s lifestyle, I don’t think Mormons have a monopoly on all truth, revelation, or the right way of living. I note with particular interest that, according to the Book of Mormon, Columbus, a practicing Catholic, was led by the Holy Spirit to the Americas (1 Nephi 13:12-13). We can learn much from other religions, and I sometimes take the time to visit other services and read works by non-Mormons. God does indeed work in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform, and I take seriously the latter-day scripture, “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118), whether those books are written by members or non-members.

At the same time, I believe that Mormon practices and doctrines have had a gradual, profound, and largely positive effect on other churches and society in general. Competition is good, and there is little doubt in my mind that the Mormon practice of tithing and of family home evenings, the welfare program for the needy, and the Church’s health plan (called “word of wisdom”—abstention from tobacco and alcohol) has influenced the world in a positive way.

Prior to going on my mission, and immediately afterwards, I majored in economics, and have always had a keen interest in the subject and its related fields of finance, geo-politics, mathematics, statistics, sociology, history, and journalism. My professional career in economics and history has been intertwined with my Mormon beliefs, although the learning curve has been in both directions. My religion has taught me some things about economics, and so has economics taught me about my religion. For example, my Mormon background, with emphasis on the virtues of thrift, prudence, and independence, taught me to be suspicious of the anti-saving, pro-deficit spending, and pro-welfare state doctrines taught in Paul Samuelson’s popular Keynesian textbook Economics (surprisingly the mainstay textbook at BYU throughout the sixties). Ever since then, I’ve been attracted to the free-market Chicago and Austrian schools of economics, and their confirmation of the classical policies of Adam Smith (the virtues of thrift, limited government, fiscal responsibility, entrepreneurship, sound money, and the rule of law). I have been a tireless advocate of laissez faire economics; a supporter of libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Foundation for Economic Education (Ezra Taft Benson, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and Ernest L. Wilkinson were board members; I was president in 2001-02); and the producer of FreedomFest, an annual gathering of free thinkers held in Las Vegas every July.

After my mission, I returned to BYU and took on a variety of jobs, including as an editorial page editor of the Daily Universe (BYU’s student newspaper), and as a teaching assistant in economics. I graduated with a B.A. (1971) and M.S. (1972) at BYU, both in economics, and a Ph.D. (1977) in monetary economics at George Washington University. I met my wife, Jo Ann Foster, at BYU, and we have been partners ever since, producing numerous books (twenty-five) and numerous children (five). We’ve lived in Washington, DC, for twelve years, where I worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a financial publisher. We have also traveled extensively to over fifty countries and lived in Nassau, the Bahamas; London, England; Orlando, Florida; and now New York.

My attitude toward the relationship between Mormons and other faiths can best be described in an odyssey. After I gave a talk one time about various religions on money and wealth, a gentleman approached me and asked, “What’s the difference between the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church?” He was a practicing Catholic.

Whenever I’m asked about how the Latter-day Saint religion differs from another religion, I like to start by talking about their similarities. That way we start off with what we have in common. Too often a talk about religion starts off negatively: “We have the restored Priesthood of God, and you don’t. . . . We have the true Church and you don’t. . . . Our doctrine is correct, and yours is false.” Debates ensue, and there’s often more heat generated than light. Accusations fly, and hurt feelings, even bitterness, arise because of these conflicts.

I answered by noting that both religions are of the Christian faith, and that there’s much I admire about the Catholic Church—its belief in the Trinity; that Jesus Christ is the Messiah and the Savior of the World who died for our sins; that we must worship him and partake of the Eucharist (Communion, or the Sacrament); that we must repent and be baptized and receive the Holy Ghost; that there is a Heaven and a Hell; that we must engage in faith, hope, and charity, and do good works, in order to please God; and that we must study and learn from God’s word, the Holy Bible. I also admire the fact that the Catholic Church adheres to strong doctrine and policy on birth control and abortion, the sanctity of marriage, etc.

Then I noted the differences and some of the unique contributions of the Mormons. Our Church is, of course, a comparatively young religion, less than two hundred years old, compared to the Catholic Church, which has been around for two thousand years. The Catholic Church is much bigger, with over a billion adherents, while the Mormon Church, though growing fast, has only fifteen million followers. The Pope in the Vatican is much more famous and influential than the President of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City.

What can the Mormon faith offer the world?

The Prophet Joseph Smith once wrote a letter to the Times and Seasons about the meaning of the word Mormon, which was originally the name of the prophet and military leader who compiled the Book of Mormon. He stated:

“To the Editor of the Times & Seasons:

“Through the medium of your paper, I wish to correct an error among men that profess to be learned, liberal and wise. . . . The error I speak of, is the definition of the word ‘Mormon.’ It has been stated that this word was derived from the Greek word ‘mormo.’ This is not the case. There was no Greek or Latin upon the plates from which I, through the grace of God, translated the Book of Mormon. . . .

“Before I give a definition, however, to the word, let me say that the Bible in its widest sense, means good: for the Savior says according to the gospel of John, ‘I am the good shepherd;’ and it will not be beyond the common use of terms, to say that good is among the most important in use, and though known by various names in different languages, still its meaning is the same, and is ever in opposition to ‘bad.’ We say from the Saxon, ‘good’; the Dane, ‘god’; the Goth, ‘goda’; the German, ‘gut’; the Dutch, ‘goed’; the Latin, ‘bonus’; the Greek, ‘kalos’; the Hebrew, ‘tob’; and the Egyptian, ‘mon.’ Hence, with the addition of ‘more,’ or the contraction, ‘mor,’ we have the world ‘mormon’; which means, literally, ‘more good.’

Yours,

Joseph Smith”

Here the Prophet was humoring us, but I’d like to expand on his optimistic view that the Mormon faith is, foremost, an effort to engage in “more good” in the world, that Mormons can build on the good already being done by the Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and other Christian religions.

There are several scriptures that support this approach. In the introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord states that one of the purposes of the Restored Gospel was “to increase faith in the earth” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:21). “Increasing faith” suggests bringing “more good” in the world.

Two verses later, the Lord indicates that the restoration of the Church involved the “fullness of my gospel.” That means that the gospel of Jesus Christ was there prior to 1830, with the other Christian faiths, but not in its fullness. God saw the need for more—a fullness of the good word.

Finally, I like to think that the Book of Mormon offers “more” of the word of God, and that everyone, not just Mormons, can benefit from its teachings and stories. It’s unfortunate that non-Mormons don’t spend the time reading and benefiting from the Book of Mormon. Just because they decide not to join the LDS Church doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from its principles. They need to dust off the Gold Bible (as the Book of Mormon is sometimes called, since it was translated from gold plates) that the missionaries or a friend may have given them, and see if it has any value in their lives—even if they decide not to join the Mormon faith. As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8-9). The world would be a better place if all of us studied and drew from the works of all good religions. As Jesus said to his disciples, “For he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50).

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Mark Skousen (Ph. D., economics, George Washington University) is a professional economist, investment expert, university professor, and author of over twenty-five books. Currently, he holds the Benjamin Franklin Chair of Management at Grantham University. He has taught economics and finance at Columbia Business School, Columbia University, Barnard College, Mercy College, and Rollins College in Florida. Since 1980, Skousen has been editor in chief of Forecasts & Strategies, a popular award-winning investment newsletter (www.markskousen.com), and three trading services. He is a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a columnist for Forbes magazine, chairman of Investment U, and past president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in New York. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and the Christian Science Monitor, and has appeared on CNBC, CNN, ABC News, Fox News, and C-SPAN Book TV. His bestsellers include The Making of Modern Economics and Investing in One Lesson. His latest work is The Maxims of Wall Street. In 2006, he compiled and edited The Compleated Autobiography, by Benjamin Franklin (Regnery). He is also the producer of FreedomFest, an annual gathering of free minds, held every July in Las Vegas (www.freedomfest.com). In honor of his work in economics, finance, and management, Grantham University renamed its business school, “The Mark Skousen School of Business.”

Personal website: www.mskousen.com.

Contributions to economics: http://www.cobdencentre.org/?s=mark+skousen.

Posted August 2011