The Latter Day Saint movement has created one of the most widely distributed and long-lived tapestries of intentional communities in world history. Those familiar with Mormon history know of the United Order communities that operated for periods ranging from a few months to several years in Utah in the 1870s. Many also know of the earlier Mormon experiments in community, especially the first United Order experiment at Kirtland, Ohio, and a later version that appeared at Independence, Missouri. Although the main Mormon church has not had a strong communal presence for over 100 years, the many Latter Day Saint splinter groups that have been breaking away ever since the death of Joseph Smith have organized hundreds of communal settlements, sometimes under the historic name of the United Order. Communities were organized by such figures as James Jesse Strang in Wisconsin and then Michigan, Lyman Wight in Texas, and Alpheus Cutler in Minnesota, and the tradition of community-building has continued down to the present. Among the many LDS communal groups active today is what is commonly known as the Fundamentalist LDS Church, which among its several outposts numbers what may be the largest single-site intentional community in American history, Colorado City, Arizona, plus Hildale, Utah, whose combined population in 2000 was well over 5,000.
The most important basis for Mormon communitarianism, the Law of Consecration and Stewardship, is understood by Mormons to be revelation as received by founder Joseph Smith, Jr. Mormon scholars generally do, however, recognize a fact that historians would take for granted, that social movements are part of a historical fabric. Thus Leonard J. Arrington, Feramorz Y. Fox, and Dean L. May, in Building the City of God, their landmark work on Mormon communitarianism, argue that Smith was influenced by such dissenting Protestant groups as Shakers and Campbellites, both of which saw themselves recreating early Christian life, by the legacy of the Radical Reformation, and by the Owenite excitement of the early nineteenth century. May, in a different work, argued that the Rochdale cooperators of England and then other countries influenced the development of the United Order in Utah, and he located another social cause for Mormon communitarianism more generally in the unsettled social conditions of the time and place of the founding of Mormonism; of the early converts, May says that they “sought haven from an increasingly disorderly society.”
Nonmormon historians tend to go a bit farther than that in observing that a larger social milieu had much to do with the origins of Mormon ideas and institutions. Mario De Pillis, for example, has argued that the frontier environment of New York state and other places where the religion initially took hold was vital to the development of the new religion. Although De Pillis is arguing about the locale of the social milieu from which Mormonism emerged, his premise on which I want to try to build is simply that there is a social environment from which the religion developed.
Others have delved deeply into the cultural background of Mormonism, finding all kinds of pieces of the puzzle in events that often contradict the official Mormon view of things. Most prominently, probably, it is known that the Smith family was actively involved in digging for buried treasure and leading others to do such digging based on mystical and spiritual revelations, and that surely has great significance for the fact that the seminal event of Mormon history involved visionary experiences through which the Mormon prophet was led to dig plates of gold out of the ground. Some have tried to situate Mormon origins in other rather odd events and episodes, such as the “wood scrape affair” in Vermont around 1800, in which a mysterious man named Winchell, for a time an associate of the Mormon pioneer Oliver Cowdery, apparently was paid to lead expeditions that involved “dowsing” for gold or silver. Winchell apparently managed to talk quite a few of his neighbors into paying for treasure hunts. No treasure was ever found, it seems; in every case, just as treasure was about to be uncovered, some breaking of the spell occurred and the patrons of the expedition went home empty-handed. That the wood scrape had anything directly to do with Mormon origins has never been demonstrated conclusively, but its resemblance to the founding events of Mormonism is interesting, and it does provide a bit of insight on the milieu out of which Mormonism sprang.
It has been observed repeatedly that the crucible in which Mormonism was formed was the burned-over district of upstate New York in the early nineteenth century, known for its recurring waves of revivals and for a variety of new religions, including Spiritualism, the Christian offshoot that involves communication with the spirits of the dead, and Millerite Adventism, which anticipated an earthly Second Coming in 1844. The burned-over district also had more than its share of communal groups. One that is moderately well known was the Jerusalem community of Jemima Wilkinson. When one looks for communal antecedents to the Mormon United Order, this group is obvious, located just a few miles to the south of the sites where Mormonism was forged. Jemima Wilkinson, originally a Quaker from Rhode Island, developed a substantial intentional community called Jerusalem in New York state in 1794. Wilkinson, who like Ann Lee of the Shakers opposed slavery and taught the virtues of both celibacy and community, had had a visionary experience that led to her rebirth as the Public Universal Friend, called to preach repentance and world-denial to the masses. At Jerusalem the Friend ministered to her flock until her death in 1819, right around the time Joseph Smith’s visionary experiences began. Smith was only thirteen at the time of her death, but the Friend’s believers continued their communal life for many years afterwards, and it is inconceivable that Joseph Smith could have been unaware of one of the largest communal movements of the day virtually in his own back yard.
Just about equally close to the Mormon homeland were the Shakers. In 1826 the Shaker leadership, sensing the rich potential for converts among the thousands being burned over, purchased land in New York State on Great Sodus Bay at Lake Ontario. It just happens that the years of vigorous growth of this Shaker outpost came while Joseph Smith was allegedly having visions, allegedly digging up golden plates and translating them, and founding his new religion. It is hard to believe that a new and dynamic intentional community only forty kilometers away could have escaped his notice.
One other communal influence on the early Mormons was the congregation of Sidney Rigdon. Rigdon had been involved in the Campbellite movement, which like the slightly later Latter Day Saints saw itself as a “restoration movement” that was reinventing the early Christian church. Rigdon took to heart the communitarian passages in Acts 2 and 4 and gathered his own congregation into an intentional community called “the Family.” When Rigdon converted to Mormonism in the fall of 1830 he took some of his congregation with him. Joseph Smith later wrote that the Family had been abandoned in favor of Joseph’s own “more perfect law of the Lord,” but in any event Rigdon had great influence on Smith, and to overlook his role in the formation of Mormon communal ideas would be foolhardy.
An examination of the milieu of the formative years of Mormonism and Mormon communitarianism might well extend a bit father to the east, to the Smith family homeland in New England. There too several communal groups were thriving. Foremost among them were the Shakers, who were building their principal power base in the American Northeast. But some smaller groups that have avoided much notice had their impact as well. Here I want to take a brief look at three fairly obscure communal groups. Two were active only after the Smith family had left Vermont, but there seem to be connections between them, or some of them, and the family of Oliver Cowdery, one of Joseph Smith’s first converts, and in any event the point here is to establish a milieu of communal activity, not a direct lineal chain of connections.
One caution here: quite a bit of the rather scarce material we have on these groups is from skeptics, or in some cases outright opponents. Such material does not tend to have ideal scholarly objectivity. I have made some judgments as to which material seems more reliable, but although I am confident that this story is reasonably accurate in its general outlines, it may suffer where the devil is, in the details.
One group that made some waves in New England in the 1810s was founded and led by one Jacob Cochran. Cochran, born in Enfield, New Hampshire, in 1782, entered the scene as a nondenominational Christian preacher. In late 1816 or early 1817 he moved from Conway, New Hampshire, to Scarborough, Maine, and began preaching. He was said to have promoted the restoration of the apostolic Christian church, a sentiment that was enormously popular just then. Two bits of early Christianity he particularly espoused were miracle-working and exorcism. Soon he was healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out devils, or so his followers believed. And innovations were soon coming in rapid succession; Cochran instituted holy dancing and a frenzied activity called “reaping.” Some thought his public meetings reminiscent of Shaker worship.
In due course Cochran began to experiment with alternatives to traditional concepts of Christian matrimony. He seems to have assembled a bit of a harem by the force of his personality; since he possessed the power of life and death, and the keys to the kingdom of heaven, it would be best for the favored young ladies to join his inner sanctum. And so developed the community of Cochranites in Saco, Maine. Ephraim Stinchfield, who observed the community on a number of occasions, provided this description:
The general family consists of twelve females, besides those who visit the house occasionally. Some of these are widows, who, with the rest of the females, have surrendered their persons, character and property into the common stock; and remain in this place, as those declare who have left them, destitute, to all appearance, of any profitable business; and are, most of them, forbidden to labor with their hands for a living; and intend, as I was informed in the neighborhood, that the wicked shall maintain them.
Stinchfield later visited the Cochranites at their house, and offered some further salacious observations. Cochran, he related, had a habit of taking various young women into dark, private rooms, for extended periods of time. The little community also had several couples staying together who were not married. And so forth. Stinchfield’s account of abominations runs to sixteen pages. Joyce Butler, a more recent historian, describes such activities as a tableau of the Garden of Eden in which Adam and Eve are wearing their original clothing (none), and ecstatic worship featuring out-of-body experiences. Butler also argues that stories of Cochranite sexual practices were “suppressed as too sensational for publication.”
After some three years of these activities Cochran was reportedly convicted of gross lewdness, lascivious behavior, and adultery. After four years in prison he was released, but he died soon afterwards. Despite the vehemence of his detractors, however, they concede that his followers may have numbered in the thousands, and that a core of believers stuck together for some decades after the prophet’s imprisonment.
And does any of this have any direct bearing on Mormonism? The consensus of historians is that it does. A local historian of the Saco area wrote, decades later, that “the Cochran craze paved the way for a Mormon invasion in the Saco valley. A full-blooded Cochranite made a first-class Mormon saint. Jake Cochran was a John the Baptist for the Mormon apostles, who appeared on his old battle-ground and gathered up the spoils.” Many Cochranites, it is reported, were among those who followed Brigham Young and other missionaries off to Mormon redoubts farther west.
Richard Price, a leading advocate for the Restoration Branch, a splinter from the Reorganized Latter Day Saints, or Community of Christ, who vehemently denies that Joseph Smith ever had anything at all to do with polygamy, goes a bit further:
About 1816 a man named Jacob Cochran started a small denomination which later centered at Saco, Maine. This denomination became known as the Cochranites and is best known for its practice of polygamy. By the early 1830s this group had developed a theology and some ritualism to enhance its practice, calling it “spiritual wifery.”
In 1832 the Church’s missionaries, including Orson Hyde and Brigham Young, began converting these people. A number of them moved to Kirtland, bringing their polygamous theology with them.
Price, then, not only makes the Cochranites part of the communal milieu, but the direct authors of Mormon polygamy!
Cochran seems to have had predecessors who influenced him to advocate free love, but tracing down all the lineages is beyond what I am prepared to do in twenty minutes. Instead, let me proceed by describing, briefly, one other communal group active in New England at about the same time, as yet another element of the communal milieu present when Mormon communalism commenced, a group a bit better known than the Cochranites but still rather obscure in American communal history: the Pilgrims of Isaac Bullard.
The Bullard movement arose in 1817 amid revivals and economic depression in Vermont. Seeking to return to a biblical way of life, the Pilgrims journeyed southward seeking a promised land. Bullard, who had announced his determination to devote his life to Christ after being healed of a serious illness, not only required community of property among his followers, but demanded that the faithful give up the outward trappings of civilized life and clothe themselves in bear skins. According to one detractor’s account, “The most notable characteristic was filth, to them a cardinal virtue. Finding no Scriptural command to wash, they never bathed, but delighted in rolling around in the thick dust which covers Vermont by-roads in summertime.” They continued their pilgrimage to the south and west and finally ended up on the Mississippi river, near the southeastern corner of Missouri. Exactly what happened to them is unclear.
At least one additional communal group emerged in the New York-New England area as well, in this case just before 1800. A few bits of material survive on the Dorrilites, followers of a leader named Dorril who gathered from people living in Vermont and New York state a communal group that reportedly numbered forty. Dorril reportedly claimed divine inspiration, and imposed requirements of vegetarianism and total abstinence from the use of animal products, such as leather and wool. The group’s neighbors, typically, accused them of “riotous excess and promiscuous concubinage.” Dorril’s undoing came, it is said, when someone beat him up until he cried for mercy. Since he had claimed to be totally invulnerable to such assaults, his followers were disillusioned and they dispersed.
Expand the time frame or the geographical boundaries of this survey, and more communal groups enter the picture. In the late eighteenth century the communal followers of Shadrach Ireland aroused some notice in Massachusetts, and many of them eventually became Shakers. In the early nineteenth century the Harmonists settled in western Pennsylvania and soon attracted fairly widespread attention. In short, there was plenty of communal activity in the milieu from which early Mormonism emerged. Joseph Smith had plenty of communal models on which to build. New movements are never entirely new, and no historical phenomenon emerges from a vacuum.
Leonard J. Arrington, Feramorz Y. Fox, and Dean L. May, Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation among the Mormons (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1976), 2-6.
Dean L. May, “One Heart and Mind: Communal Life and Values among the Mormons,” in American’s Communal Utopias, ed. Donald E. Pitzer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997),146, 139.
Mario S. De Pillis, “The Social Sources of Mormonism,” Church History 37:1 (March, 1968): 50-79.
For an overview of the “wood scrape,” see David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of The Book of Mormon (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000), 254-58. See also David M. Ludlum, Social Ferment in Vermont 1791-1850 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), 240-41.
Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret, second edition, 1978), I: 147.
Ephraim Stinchfield, Cochranism Delineated (Boston: Hews and Goss, 1819).
Joyce Butler, “Cochranism Delineated: A Twentieth-Century Study,” in Maine in the Early Republic: From Revolution to Statehood, ed. Charles E. Clark, James S. Leamon, and Karen Bowden (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1988), 151.
D. M. Graham, The Life of Clement Phinney (Dover, New Hampshire: William Burr, 1851), 86-90.
G. T. Ridlon, Sr., Saco Valley Settlements and Families: Historical, Biographical, Genealogical, Traditional, and Legendary (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1895), 281.
“Joseph Smith: Innocent of Polygamy,” Restoration Bookstore/Price Publishing Company website (restorationbookstore.org/articles/doctrine/js-notpoligamist.htm), accessed May 20, 2004.
Ludlam, Social Ferment in Vermont, 242-44.
Ludlum, Social Ferment in Vermont, 239-40.