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Marketing to Mormons, from Joseph Smith to David O. McKay

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From CTR Rings to Lion House cookbooks, and missionary malls to food storage, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are targets for a good deal.

Marketing to Mormons has burgeoned in the 21st century. In the early days of the church goods sold and accounts receivables went directly to growing the church coffers. Now, as a worldwide church, the product outreach has grown substantially.

It’s not just products; the church is marketing itself to the nations. Examples include the I Am A Mormon campaign, the Christmas and Easter campaigns of the past few years and even advertising in the play bill of “Book of Mormon,” the musical – “You’ve seen the musical, now read the book.”

The early days

The moment Egbert B. Grandin finished printing and binding the first Book of Mormon at his Palmyra, New York printing company in March of 1830, members of the LDS Church have been in the marketing and mercantile business.

Some of those early Grandin printings were sold by Martin Harris to recoup the money he donated for their printing, but they were also sold so there would be money to help build Zion, according to Matthew Godfrey, Managing Historian of the Joseph Smith Papers.

From the earliest days of the LDS Church, the need for supporting funds to build the kingdom, aside from tithing, thrust the church and its members into for-profit enterprises.

In the beginning it was marketing to the saints themselves. In fact selling to “gentiles” was discouraged.

Over the years, that has changed with large enterprises like the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company and Zions Co-operative Mercantile Institution. There were also major investments in the salt, iron, and cotton industries. All of them, but particularly the sugar industry, helped the church become financially stable and successful, according to Godfrey.

In more recent years the Deseret Management Corporation, owned by the church, is the for profit mother ship for church media and hospitality businesses including: Deseret Book, Deseret News, Deseret Digital Media, Bonneville International, Beneficial Life and Temple Square Hospitality.

Hundreds of LDS businessmen and women have become successful over the decades. In many cases their work ethic and training can be traced to Mormon ancestors who followed a philosophy of making money to build the church and Kingdom of God first, and then thier own family. This gave the church financial footing as it move west, sought statehood, and eventually became a financial strong organization to be reckoned with.

Each time the church would find its bearings financially, mobs would come and the Saints would be forced to move on and start over again, building up storehouses, shops and edifices to the Lord including the Kirtland and Nauvoo temples.

According to Godfrey, with all he tried to do and hoped for, Joseph Smith was dogged by debt nearly all of his adult life. In 1842 the prophet declared bankruptcy.

Just two years after the church was established, the prophet was instructed to build a storehouse.

Doctrine and Covenants Section 78 preamble states the prophet and other leaders assembled to discuss church business and were instructed to organize the church’s mercantile and publishing endeavors and be creating a “firm.”

This firm, known as the United Firm, was organized in April 1832 and disbanded in 1834. Sometime after its dissolution, under the direction of Joseph Smith, the phrase “the affairs of the storehouse for the poor” replaced “mercantile and publishing establishments” in the revelation, and the word “order” replaced the word “firm”.

Godfrey noted the replacement of the word firm with the word order should not be confused with the United Order in Utah. It is not the same.

“The firm had so much bad debt it couldn’t finance a printing office,” Godfrey said.

In 1834 Joseph Smith relied on donations to fund the Kirtland temple and from 1836-37 he set up the Kirtland Safety Society, but a national panic caused a banking system failure.

This is the place

Brigham Young was the driving force for self-sufficient mercantilism and had a clear vision of what needed to happen to build the kingdom.

“He didn’t want the saints to rely on non-Mormons, but to be self-sufficient,” Godfrey said.

Young asked the women of the church to play a big part in marching the mercantile forward. Through ZCMI, many LDS wards set up mercantile systems of their own.

Women opened their own Women’s Co-operative Store Exchange from Ogden to St. George. Eliza R. Snow, following Young’s orders, opened one in 1876. It stayed open through 1890.

“Our Female Relief Societies are doing immense good now, but they can take hold and do all the trading for these wards just as well as to keep a big loafer to do it,” Young said at the April 1869 General Conference, quoted in “Building the City of God” by Leonard J. Arrington. “It is always disgusting to me to see a big, fat, lubberly fellow handing out calicoes and measuring ribbon; I would rather see the ladies do it.”

Brigham Young continued in the address and said, “The ladies can learn to keep books as well as the men; we have some few, already, who are just as good accountants as any of our brethren. Why not teach more to keep books and sell goods, and let them do this business, and let the men go to raising sheep, wheat or cattle.”

President John Taylor, who also wanted self-sufficiency, started Zion’s Central Board of Trade to help promote different professions, according to Godfrey. It was then they started marketing goods outside of Utah to produce jobs.

However, by the 1880s the church was in trouble again, according to Godfrey.

Church leaders wanted statehood and polygamy stood in the way. Church and business leaders who practiced polygamy went underground and were imprisoned. The economy took a dive.

Sweet success

In 1890 Woodruff released the Manifesto on polygamy, thus giving the church statehood, and leaders the ability to resume economic enterprises.

Woodruff lead the church’s involvement in the sugar industry, again. In an earlier attempt the sugar idea was a bust. This time leaders and business entrepreneurs learned they could make sugar out of beets. Beets grow well in Utah and Idaho.

“They went to Wilford Woodruff for money,” Godfrey said. “He said it was inspired by the Lord. The church needed to be in the sugar business. It created jobs, cash and crops for farmers. Wilford Woodruff then assigns apostles to raise money for the Utah Sugar Company.”

The Idaho Sugar Company was also making money. By 1907 Utah and Idaho amalgamated the sugar companies and it became Utah-Idaho Sugar.

The church felt the sweet success of the sugar business. However, because of the church’s involvement in sugar and its hefty profits, it received negative attention from Washington D.C.

The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission accused the church of profiteering during World War I. The FTC said the church was involved in unfair trading. In the 1920s the church received a cease and desist order on the sugar company. There was an appeal.

In 1927 the Supreme Court overturned the case on a technicality. U&I Sugar continued through 1970.

Joseph Smith and Brigham Young thought as prophets nothing was out of their purview. Both felt they were in charge of the spiritual and temporal well-being of the church.

“They were all wrapped up in trying to provide for the church,” Godfrey said. “To the detriment of our spiritual growth we put leaders on a pedestal, when they are not perfect. Brigham Young and Joseph Smith never claimed to be perfect. The saints who knew them weren’t perfect.”

According to Godfrey, it wasn’t until after World War II and the presidency of David O. McKay that the church really began looking outside of itself to market to the world and finally gained a firm financial foundation.

Daily Herald reporter Genelle Pugmire can be contacted at, (801) 344-2910, Twitter @gpugmire

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