About that claim that the Church favored socialism in the 1930s….

Another week, another false claim about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

You may have seen this post or a meme related to it. The title claims that the Church “endorsed” socialism based on a little-read priesthood manual from 1939. Farther down in the post, the author implies that President Heber J. Grant himself “advocated for” socialism.

Let us be very, very clear: as I point out in this post, nearly every LDS prophet, including President Grant, has spoken out against systems of government-based charity. What the Church favors is voluntary, personal charity.

But let me go further: the Church was vehemently opposed to government-based welfare programs during the 1930s and reformed its own welfare system to encourage 1)more voluntary charity by latter-day Saints and 2)a private system of giving and receiving that would emphasize self-reliance.

As many readers may know, in the 1930s, most Mormons lived in the inter-mountain West. That area suffered greatly during the Great Depression. In response, the federal government and state governments set up public assistance programs. The Church was unwaveringly opposed to these programs, which they felt encouraged idleness and dependence. The Church emphasizes thrift and self-reliance, instead of what it called “the evils of the dole.” (“Dole” is a word that was used in the 1930s to refer to public welfare programs).

In General Conference in 1933, President Grant said he was worried that latter-day Saints were succumbing to what the Brethren called the “dole mentality.”

Many people have said….’Well, others are getting some (government relief), why should not I get some of it?’ I believe there is a growing disposition among the people to try to get something from the government of the United States with little hope of every paying it back. I think this is all wrong.” (Source: Conference report, Oct. 1933, p. 5).

In 1935, the First Presidency assigned Harold B. Lee the task of introducing a new Church welfare program. President David O. McKay, then second counselor to the prophet, was also involved in the welfare program committee. One of the greatest concerns of the Church leaders was that one-sixth of the membership was being supported by some form of public relief. A key concern: members were not required to work in exchange for their assistance. The Presidency instructed local leaders to “build again within the ranks of Latter-day Saints a feeling of financial independence.” (Source: Church News, 25 April 1936, p. 1).

The Brethren wanted the truly needy to take part in Church welfare programs rather than accept public assistance. The Church encouraged ward teachers (later known as home teachers) to work with the Relief Society to find areas of need. Members were encouraged to increase fast offerings. The goal was to provide food and clothing to all Church members in need.

In the October 1936 general conference, President Grant said the following:

Our primary purpose was to set up, in so far as it might be possible, a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self respect be once more established amongst our people. The aim of the Church is to help the people help themselves. (Source, Conference report, Oct. 1936, p. 3)

Church members responded. Expenditures for welfare increased more than one-third from 1935 to 1936. More and more members paid fast offerings. In 1938, the Church began the Deseret Industries program. Members donated clothing, furniture, appliances, newspapers, magazines and other items. The Church put unemployed people in jobs sorting these items, and the used goods were sold at the Deseret stores. Instead of being dependent on the dole, Church members would work for modest salaries.

Let us emphasize: the righteous alternative to the evils of the dole was a private, voluntary system of mutual aid where people freely gave. The people who received Church assistance worked in a Church position until they could find another job.

President Grant was a vocal opponent of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he considered a dangerous left-wing radical. He urged latter-day Saints to vote against FDR and for Republican candidates, but unfortunately Utahans voted for FDR all four times he ran for president. As I point out in this post, President Grant once became so animated discussing FDR that he broke a glass tabletop with his cane.

President Grant was not alone in his disdain for the left-wing FDR:

12 April 1945: Roosevelt dies in office. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith writes, “there are some of us who have felt that it is really an act of providence.” President J. Reuben Clark Jr. quips, “The Lord gave the people of the United States four elections in order to get rid of him, that they failed to do so in these four elections, so He held an election of His own and cast one vote, and then took him away.” (Source: “Presidents and Prophets” by Michael K. Winder).

During the 1940s, Presidents Grant and George Albert Smith made their opposition to Socialism crystal clear:

The First Presidency in 1942:
…Among the Latter-day Saints they speak of their philosophy and their plans under it, as an ushering in of the United Order. Communism and all other similar “isms” bear no relationship whatever to the United Order. They are merely the clumsy counterfeits which Satan always devises of the gospel plan. Communism debases the individual and makes him the enslaved tool of the state to whom he must look for sustenance and religion; the United Order exalts the individual, leaves him his property, “according to his family, according to his circumstances and his wants and needs,” (D&C 51:3) and provides a system by which he helps care for his less fortunate brethren; the United Order leaves every man free to choose his own religion as his conscience directs. Communism destroys man’s God-given free agency; the United Order glorifies it. Latter-day Saints cannot be true to their faith and lend aid, encouragement, or sympathy to any of these false philosophies. They will prove snares to their feet. (Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark Jr., David O. McKay, The First Presidency, CR, April, 1942, p. 90)

The First Presidency, 1941, Consisting of Heber J. Grant, J. Rubin Clark, and David O. McKay:

“We believe that our real threat comes from within and not from without, and it comes from that underlying spirit common to Nazism, Fascism, and Communism, namely, the spirit which would array class against class, which would set up a socialistic state of some sort, which would rob the people of the liberties which we possess under the Constitution.“

George Albert Smith
Consider the condition in the world, the number who are determined to take from the rich man not what belongs to themselves, but that which belongs to the others. God has permitted men to get wealth, and if they obtained it properly, it is theirs, and he will bless them in its use if they will use it properly …
We must not fall into the bad habits of other people. We must not get into the frame of mind that we will take what the other man has. Refer back to the ten commandments, and you will find one short paragraph, “Thou shaft not covet.” That is what is the matter with a good many people today.
They are coveting what somebody else has, when as a matter of fact, many of them have been cared for and provided with means to live by those very ones from whom they would take property. (President George Albert Smith, Prophets, Principles and National Survival, p. 343 [compiled by Jay Newquist], CR-10/49:171-2)

So, it would be a very strange contradiction indeed for the Church to support socialism in one book in 1939. But of course the book involved does not do this this. Not at all.

The book is called “Priesthood and Church Welfare: A Study Course of the Quorums of the Melchizedek Priesthood for the Year 1939, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939).” It was written by George Stewart, Dilworth Walker, and E. Cecil McGavin, and was about 300 pages.

Read with any context, the book is clearly a primer intended to provoke discussions about economics and the Church welfare system. The vast majority of the book supports the principles of the Church’s new program, emphasizing thrift, self-reliance and economy. One chapter of the book delves into left-wing politics, but, crucially, this chapter ends with a series of questions that show that the writers are not advocating socialism but instead are provoking discussion.

For example, the book asks, “if we eliminate the profit motive will we destroy individual initiative?” and “Is it not wrong to take wealth away from people after they have struggled so hard to acquire it?”

I think this excerpt neatly summarizes the book’s discussion of economics:

However, we must also become more conscious of the fact that each new governmental service will require additional funds, which means heavier taxation. Consequently, if we are getting concerned over the amount of our tax ‘burden,’ we shall have to curtail our demands for increased governmental service. We simply cannot continue to add new forms of education, public health service, unemployment insurance, old age pensions and work relief projects, without taxation to pay the bills. if they are necessary, and if we can afford such services, if that is the wisest way to use our surplus income, then the new program is justified – and we should not complain at high taxes, if we are paying no more than our just share.

But if the tax load is really becoming a burden, perhaps we are becoming a little governmentally extravagant, just as any other luxury expenditure, beyond our financial ability, would be considered extravagant. The problem is one for each citizen to ponder over, to study carefully, and to vote on intelligently when the opportunity presents itself.

In short, the purpose of this book clearly seems to be to provoke discussion not to “endorse” socialism, which is the claim of the post I linked at the top of the OP. I see it as a quaint pre-correlation intellectual enterprise, intended to get members to think about the Church welfare program and its place in a complex world economy.

Any fair person looking at the historical record can only come the following conclusions: 1)The Church vehemently opposed socialism and all government welfare programs in the 1930s and 1940s 2)The Church favored private, voluntary charity and beefed up its own welfare program to encourage people to get off of public assistance and 3)the claims that the Church endorsed socialism through the “Church and Priesthood Welfare” book are completely false.

And as I show in this post, the Church continues to oppose socialism and government welfare programs today. The Church’s position has been consistent. Instead, the Church encourages private, voluntary charity.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

23 thoughts on “About that claim that the Church favored socialism in the 1930s….

  1. I’m so glad you are on top of this subject. Thank you for your work on this. Both posts have been very good.

  2. Geoff B,

    In fairness, the author of the link you posted did make it clear that she wasn’t claiming official Church doctrine or that Heber J Grant himself voiced this opinion. Though the Facebook meme I’ve seen is not nearly as honest. And you are right that her claims about the what the text said are not substantiated.


  3. Hi Geoff,

    I read the link you provided, and the accompanying comments on that post and I believe that there is a great misunderstanding about the historical use of the word “socialism.” In the 1800’s the word was used by a broad spectrum of “Utopian Socialists” from Charles Fourier to Robert Owen. A few of Owens’ ideas probably inspired some LDS efforts, including the establishment of cooperative ventures (like ZCMI). They are very much a part of the Romantic philosophical movement of the period, and their efforts reflect similar actions by the LDS Church largely because they were reacting to similar problems in the same time period. “Socialism” was also appropriated by Marxist thinkers and the budding labor movement. So there is a muddle of “socialist” thought from the period, many elements of which are contradictory.

    These concepts roll into the 20th century, along with political “progressivism,” Comte’s Positivism and other ideologies. Quite simply, it is hard to tell what the Brethren are railing against unless you understand the time and context of their thoughts. While I agree with your criticism of the linked post, we (members across the political spectrum) should take care not to pit prophets against each other or use a prophet’s quote out of context in order to support our own views.


  4. Kevin L, you write:

    “or that Heber J Grant himself voiced this opinion.”

    Read the post again. The author says that President Grant “advocated” socialism and claims that the prophet said the “benefits of this system would far outweigh the costs and that it mirrors divine laws.” The entire post is an attempt to claim that Pres. Grant would feel the Bern. So, if Pres. Grant hated FDR, what possible reason would there be to believe that he would like Sanders?

    As for your other points, I really am not interested in such tangents. I would prefer to keep to the specific historical issues involved. This is why I edited your comment.

  5. Old Man, I appreciate your comment, but I edited it because once again I am not really interested in this post going in that direction. One of the reasons I have come to moderate many of my posts is that I like to keep the discussion focused on the OP.

  6. Ok. On a third re-read, yes she does over-reach to claim that earlier Leaders would support Bernie. I do not believe that they would. And I don’t think her out-of-context chapter supports that claim at all.

  7. Thanks for clarifying the quote. I don’t peruse Facebook, but have seen this topic surfacing on other bloggernacle sites.

  8. Kevin L, yes. Here is a quick story from the book “President and Prophets.”

    “As the 1936 election drew near, an unsigned, front-page editorial in the Church-owned Deseret News accused FDR of knowingly promoting unconstitutional laws and advocating Communism…Former First Presidency member Marion G. Romney, a staunch Democrat committed to vote for Roosevelt, was deeply torn…After fasting and three hours of prayer Marion concluded that the editorial was inspired and given through the Lord’s prophet. He then reversed his political loyalties and labored to dissuade his friends from voting for Roosevelt.”

    I went through a similar conversion from liberal Democrat before I was baptized in the 1990s to conservative/libertarian now. Some of this is just age and learning more about the world. But the primary factor was that I felt that my political beliefs were not compatible with the Gospel. How could I possibly support abortion on demand? How could I possibly support gay marriage? How could I possibly support a taxation and wealth transfer system in the name of “charity” when the prophets have clearly opposed such a system?

    Now I realize that not everybody will come to the same conclusions that I did. Most of my close friends disagree with some elements of my conservative/libertarian beliefs, and I have great respect for them, especially when we can disagree politely. And believe it or not, sometimes during polite discussions they will even change my mind on some point or another.

    But the point is that it is simply dishonest to try to twist the prophets’ words to support your political beliefs when the overwhelming evidence is against you. I find such dishonesty highly offensive to the Spirit and an insult to the Lord’s anointed. So, yes, I believe the post trying to claim that Pres. Grant would support socialism is morally wrong in addition to being factually wrong.

    We should try to bring our beliefs in line with what the prophets believe, not try to justify our own beliefs by falsifying what the prophets believe.

  9. “We should try to bring our beliefs in line with what the prophets believe, not try to justify our own beliefs by falsifying what the prophets believe.”

    This is the only point I would even remotely disagree with in your last comment. I believe that: We should try to bring our beliefs in line with what the Lord wants us to believe-which may or may not be exactly what a prophet believes. But that NEVER gives us permission to misrepresent, much less presume to correct, prophetic teaching.

  10. Since the church has abdicated any teaching responsibility in this area out of a desire to create ‘safe spaces’ before they were a thing… (for the wilting daisies who’d get so offended they’d storm out of church if they were confronted with the truth on their political opinions). It’s no surprise this generation is confused.

    Makes me worry in one generation, we’ll rue the day the teaching wasn’t consistent on this issue…

    It’s amazing how every couple of generations we want to rehash the same mistakes. Not just the same leanings toward oppressive government, but even in our teachings we keep thinking we can refine and adjust and refocus without losing something.

    We are so quick to make the presumption we are better stewards of the gospel than the prior generation who taught us what we know. Without ever questioning that the enlightenment we claim as authority to change lessons or re/de-emphasize various teachings is only possible because we were taught how we were by the generation we claim is doing it wrong.

    Vicious cycle…

  11. Gerry, a few points:

    1)Bishops and stake presidents are clearly given instruction in 2016 that when it comes to charity the primary principles are self-reliance and independence. People with economic problems are encouraged to seek help from family and friends and to use public assistance only as a last resort. People who are given Church assistance are encouraged to see it as a temporary measure intended to help them get back on their feet.

    2)We do not hear about “the evils of the dole” today as often as people did in the 1930s. However, we do occasionally still hear at General Conference as we did in 2011 from Elder Uchtdorf that the Lord’s way is different than the world’s way and that charity is not about just receiving a government check. So, we are still hearing the same message that we did in the 1930s but with different wording. I think Church leaders are calibrating their message to a worldwide Church. In the 1930s, most members were in the inter-mountain West. Today, the majority of members are outside the United States. It is understandable that the message would change.

    3)I have seen absolutely no evidence that the Church is trying to create “safe spaces.” I think it is much more likely that the message has changed because the audience has changed (see 2).

  12. People who think the messages have materially changed need to do that General Conference challenge. Only people who are ignorant of the body of words actually spoken at conference can honestly make such assertions. If you’re willing to make dishonest assertions, then it doesn’t matter if you’ve read the General Conferences.

  13. My grandfather was a bishop under Harold B. Lee at the time they began work on the welfare program. I wish he had kept a journal or notes or anything. Do you know of any good resources to give some detail about what happened in the stake when Harold B. Lee began this program? I enjoyed your post.

  14. Bobbi, i don’t think it was too detailed, but I think I remember reading about the beginning of that welfare program in either the Heber Grant edition, or the Harold B Lee edition of the “Teachings of the Presidents” series of PH/RS manuals.

    You can also try researching the resource material in the church’s online curriculum, or maybe Welfare manuals available from Distribution Services (store.lds.org). Current welfare policies would likely be in one of the Church Handbook of Instructions (CHI), but I don’t know if it would be in the public volume (which you can download from lds.org) or in the confidential volume that is restricted to bishoprics and other leaders.

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