Summer Review: Albert Brisbane — Joseph Smith and Eschatology

Another Oldie.

This post has been sitting around for a while, has something to do with Joseph Smith’s sermons, and in particular funeral sermons, because it poses some questions on the idea of community and eschatology, and I don’t have time to work on it more right now, so here it is.

Mormon communal adventures of the 19th century played out against a range of American civil experimentation. A major difference was the underlying eschatology of Mormonism.

Joseph Smith pushed (via revelations like Doctrine and Covenants 42) the idea of community into the lives of early Mormons, but he also pushed it into the afterlife (an early version of this is D&C 78:6 – later versions were based on sealing). Echoing Swedenborg (by coincidence rather than intent it seems) he infused doctrine with community and family.

Albert Brisbane, one of the more successful utopians in 19th century America, spread Charles Fourier’s “phalanx” movement in the Northern States. Robert Owen was a precursor – his failure stemmed from his admitting to a skeptical stance with regard to Christianity.[1] Brisbane avoided that and based his utopian picture on a Christian foundation. But the movement got away from him. Economic forces drove people into communes modeled on his manifesto, but without formal ties to him. And then prosperity drove them out. Americans seemed by nature to be expansive, not able to remain fixed for long. On the move: seeking something better.[2] Faith-based gatherings were not unusual, but almost never permanent/growing.[3]

The Latter-day Saints had their brushes with the idea of communal living in Ohio and Missouri. But they were unsuccessful for a number of specific reasons (Joseph’s revelations of the period suggest internal reasons as well as the obvious persecution). Mormon communal adventures of the 19th century played out against a range of American civil experimentation. I wonder how potent the forces that worked to scatter the phalanxes were against the Saints’ commitment.[4] What did Joseph and his fellows know of and borrow from the communal movements of the day? The LDS Zion plats of 1833 don’t really relate to the phalanx ideas, but some of the Utah communities did. (How did the Lamanite missionaries’ encounter with one such effort in Ohio effect their eventual reactions to Zion?)

In Nauvoo, at least some of the old-line Mormons expected a consecration movement to take place, but Joseph declined to initiate one. The Kirtland imperatives were replaced with a tithing system that achieved much of the same ends and proved a long term success for what would be (religiously) heterogeneous communities containing Latter-day Saints.

In general, the American “spirit” if we can call it that, worked against the “gathering.” What role did British and other immigrant Saints play in the relative stability of Utah? [5] In the 1850s, there was a steady out-flow of disillusioned Saints from Utah, but it did not come close to the number who came and stayed. Utah communal experiments seemed more successful on average than their pre-Utah (American and Mormon) counterparts. But they seemed doomed as the presence of non-believers loomed larger. Or perhaps, like the phalanxes, they were doomed by economic opportunity.[6] (The tithe system rode through and over all this — it became a lasting expression of Kirtland/Missouri consecration).

Some contemporary polygamist groups who associate themselves with historical Mormonism attempt communal experiments, but they too seem much less successful than the glowing promises their people receive when they join up. Do the American ghosts of the 1830s and 40s still haunt such enterprise? The rhetoric of American entrepreneurialism seems to say yes.[7] Moreover, early Utah economics was a reflection of antebellum Jacksonian principles rather than the adventurism of explosively expansionist American laissez-faire economics. Geography allowed for that, but technology would crush those barriers.[8]

Among several important differences between Brisbane’s movement and the Latter-day Saints, one was eschatology. Brisbane, and most utopian experiments of the age, were riding the train of the “age of improvement.” A heady time for America, participants looked upon themselves as “post-millennial” players. Man would begin the thousand years of Christian glory, terminated by the return of Jesus.[9] The Mormons on the other hand, were pre-millennialists (Jesus would come at the *beginning* of the Millennium) – in the minority of religious views of the time – and anticipated apocalyptic events which would purge the world and end with the coming of Christ: this would begin the thousand year reign of Christ on earth. Perhaps this was an advantage to the Saints, gathering for protection, rather than prospertity. However, by the time Joseph Smith was well established in Nauvoo, he seemed to consider an imminent Millennium problematic in any case. It is a testimony to the difficulties the Mormons experienced with federal anti-polygamy laws, that many thought 1891 could be the year.

This brings us to the (funeral?) sermon of March 10, 1844! [10]


[1] On Utah cooperative living compared to Owen’s effort, see R. E. Thrift, “Two Paths to Utopia: An Investigation of Robert Owen in New Lanark and Brigham Young in Salt Lake City,” Ph.D. diss. Univ. New Mexico, 1976.

[2] See Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise (1995): 83ff. (Americans still seem to have little patience with long term high-stakes enterprise. Short wars are the good ones. Even WWII wore thin. Nation-building is not well tolerated. Americans still think independently.) One sees a correspondence between the phalanx and the Mormon concept of “stake.” But stakes were always in the orbit of church headquarters.

[3] The Oneida community did last longer than most. But it was a bit weird. Certainly much weirder than the Utah Mormons I think. See Ahlstrom and Hall, A Religious History of the American People, 498ff. Styling Jewish, Irish, Italian and other ethnic immigrant group communities as communal living perhaps works on some level: I want to exclude that here. When the Lamanite missionaries got to Ohio, they had great success in some Owenite communities, including those on the Isaac Morley farm.

[4] Consider Oliver Cowdery’s criticisms in 1838 Missouri and the lure of California gold strikes for early Utah Mormons.

[5] Old-line Saints in Utah, including many church leaders, held out hope for a Smith dynasty to come to Utah. But many of those immigrant Saints probably knew little and cared less for those ambiguous traditions of Kirtland days. Nauvoo still held ideas of a Smith family inherited leadership, but they began to be marginalized after 1841. English converts were loyal to the apostles for obvious reasons. Of course if Hyrum had lived, the apostles would surely have supported him as JS’s successor. The other brothers were problematic.

[6] See Arrington’s discussion of Orderville, Utah in Kingdom 334ff, as well as his (and et al.) Building the City of God. Also see Paul Taylor, “Orderville: Experiment in Socialism,” Frontier Times, 57 (1985): 24-8.

[7] The “loss” of young men in most such polygamy groups is high. Perhaps above 60% at various periods. At least in part, this lapsing is economically motivated, but in my own experience, much of it seems to be spiritual in nature too.

[8] See for example Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, (2004): 63. I think it’s interesting that RLDS members felt little drive to emulate *that* part of Kirtland Mormonism (though some of its splinter groups did take up the gauntlet). See current Community of Christ President Veazey’s discussion of historical gathering ideas.

[9] See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought (2007): 294ff.

[10] 1891 was a Kirtland echo reflected from Nauvoo. See the Parallel Joseph, for April 2, 1843, April 6, 1843 and March 10, 1844 (as well as February 15, 1834). Also, see the 1876 Doctrine and Covenants, (now section 130 in the LDS edition): April 2, 1843 remarks of JS above.

2 Responses to Summer Review: Albert Brisbane — Joseph Smith and Eschatology

  1. Eric Bakly says:

    I was searching “office of the messiah” which was mentioned in HC 6:254 discourse on March 10, 1844 as the prophet said he would “speak of hereafter,” but I have not seen a reference of his discussion of this subject. I thank you for your site I compared the text at
    Thanks again for your work and if you know of any reference please let me know.

    • WVS says:

      Eric, he didn’t return to the subject by name, however I think the implied creative aspects of his remarks are addressed in some subsequent sermons, for example, April 7, 1844, May 12, 1844 and June 16, 1844, though these are ostensibly driven by other events.

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