Mormon Utah in the Progressive-Era West: Reviewing Two Recent Works

By May 27, 2010

Religion, Politics, and Sugar: The Mormon Church, the Federal Government, and the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1907-1921. By Matthew C. Godfrey. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2007.

Necessary Fraud: Progressive Reform and Utah Coal. By Nancy J. Taniguchi. Legal History of North America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Most historians are familiar with the Turner Thesis, Frederick Jackson Turner’s once-dominant argument that American history was made on its margins, on the frontier, and that historians who put slavery and the east coast at the center of the nation’s past were off the mark. Turner’s Thesis influenced generations of American historians, including several Mormon scholars who saw Turner’s work as a means to connect Latter-day Saint history to the nineteenth-century westward movement of white settlers. Lesser known is the Nash Thesis, developed by the historian Gerald D. Nash, in his 1973 The American West in the Twentieth Century: A Short History of an Urban Oasis, which attempted to remedy one of Turner’s basic flaws: by privileging the frontier, Turner had necessarily handicapped future historians who would write the history of the American West after the frontier had passed from existence.

Nash’s view of the post-frontier West prior to World War II was not nearly as optimistic as Turner’s. Rather than interpreting the region as being central to American history, he concluded that it was a colonial backwater, resource rich yet economically dependent on Eastern capital and distant markets for survival. Westerners tried and failed to accumulate enough capital to form regionally-based corporations, but ultimately bankers and corporations in New York, Boston, and London controlled much of the money that flowed in and out of the West. Nash contended that World War II transformed the region, as the federal government injected more money into the region per capita than any other section of the country. The wartime West, which already was the most urbanized region of the nation, witnessed major urban booms in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, and even Salt Lake City. With continued federal spending in the form of defense contracts, the West after the war emerged as a major trendsetter for the nation in political, scientific, cultural, and architectural innovations. While subsequent scholars have chipped away at many of the individual components of Nash’s thesis, by arguing that the federal government had a far larger role in the region prior to the war than he acknowledged, that California already had a decent economy prior to the war, and that the war and post-war spending really only transformed urban areas while leaving rural areas impoverished, the general outline has remained the dominant mode of interpretation for scholars interested in situating the modern West within a national context.

Matthew C. Godfrey’s Religion, Politics, and Sugar: The Mormon Church, the Federal Government, and the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1907-1921, although not directly engaging Nash’s thesis, fits in well with Nash’s depiction of the early decades of the twentieth century. Godfrey’s work, being an economic history, lacks the sexiness of other books on this this period of Mormon history such as Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity, Ethan Yorgason’s The Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region, and the period’s classic treatment, Tom Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition. However, Godfrey, who won the Mormon History Association’s best first book award for Religion, Politics, and Sugar, demonstrates how Mormons participated in regional and even national narratives during the Progressive Era as they transitioned from the theocratic cooperative economic nature of the nineteenth-century church to full integration into the national market economy.

Central to Godfrey’s story is the church’s involvement in sugar cultivation and federal investigations of monopolistic business practices of church leaders. The church-owned Utah-Idaho Sugar Company dominated western sugar production, and church leaders saw the company as an inspired way to provide jobs for Utah’s residents and financial stability for the church, an outgrowth of the earlier cooperative worldview. Within the new economic context of the early twentieth century, the company had close ties to the eastern-based Sugar Trust as well as California-based sugar firms, ties that influenced how church leaders such as Heber J. Grant practiced business. The Sugar Trust was a prime example of Progressive Era corporate malfeasance in its efforts to drive competitors out of business. Rather than repudiate its partner’s unethical practices, the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company’s directors (who included several apostles), embraced them and used the church’s influence over its members to encourage them to buy only from church-approved sources and donate to the company, the exact type of ecclesiastical meddling in political and economic affairs that had alarmed eastern Americans and federal officials in the late nineteenth century. As such, Congress, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Trade Commission each conducted investigations of the company’s practices during the period of Godfrey’s study.

Godfrey concludes from the evidence compiled by these federal sources that church leaders were guilty as charged, but their guilt should not be reduced to simple greed. Rather, national economic forces largely determined the price of sugar in Utah, which forced church leaders to comply or start a price war with larger companies. Also, as sugar prices rose during World War I, the company kept their prices high in order to survive, which necessitated at times resorting to ecclesiastical pressure to keep Mormon customers buying. Godfrey’s work demonstrates that although the Mormon religion at the turn of the century provided unique motivations and justifications for the Utah-Sugar Company’s actions, those actions were part of a larger story of the American West prior to the World War II, one marked by dependency on Eastern corporations and federal investigations of monopolistic practices.

Nancy J. Taniguchi‘s Necessary Fraud: Progressive Reform and Utah Coal likewise integrates Utah Progressive-Era history into economic frameworks of federal trust-busting. She discusses federal prosecutions railroad companies and their subsidiaries for fraudulently acquiring coal lands, which under the 1873 Coal Land Act could only be purchased in small divisions in order to keep coal lands in the public domain and thereby, in theory, benefiting public over private interests. Unlike Godfrey, however, Taniguchi does little to explore the importance of Mormonism or Mormons in her inquiry, although several Mormons such as David Eccles (Utah’s first millionaire) were involved with the coal companies and the federal prosecutions. She does speculate that Mormon leaders helped the railroad companies fraudulently obtain the coal land, as an under-the-table repayment for 1890s-era lobbying by the railroad companies for Utah statehood, but she’s unable to provide any solid evidence for the claim. In addition, she theorizes that Utah was specifically targeted by federal investigators because the state was so unpopular politically, due to the Smoot hearings. Mormonism is therefore present as context and background, but plays little role in her story. Although some legal histories can be interesting (especially when they involve sex. See, for example, Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally), as can histories of coal (such as Thomas G. Andrews’ Bancroft-award winning Killing for Coal), Taniguchi’s book can be painful reading, especially for those with no interest in the American West or the Progressive Era.

In conclusion, although Flake, Yorgason, and others have done much to illuminate the social, cultural, and political transformations that occurred in Utah and Mormonism during the period, these works by Godfrey and Taniguchi help illuminate less visible economic changes, as well as the growing pervasiveness of the federal government,  a major theme in the historiography of the American West. By concentrating on areas where Mormon Utah connects with broader Western and national themes, rather than solely on what makes Mormons exceptional, Godfrey and Taniguchi help ongoing efforts to plug the donut hole in the middle of Western history.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Historiography


  1. Useful review. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 28, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

  2. Thanks for this, David; even as someone who is allergic to Utah history, I found this quite enjoyable.

    Comment by Ben — May 29, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

  3. Thanks for the thorough and insightful review, David. I admit to not knowing much about Godfrey or his book (I do remember it winning best first book from MHA and the topic sounding somewhat interesting, even to an outsider to the period and place he studies like myself). Do you know if Godfrey has moved on to another research project?

    Comment by Christopher — May 30, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

  4. Thanks Edje and Ben.

    Chris, as I was poking around for biographical info on Godfrey, I found a link that mentioned he was working on a biography of Charles Nibley, so it looks like his Mormon research is staying in the same general period and topic: Progressive-era Mormon business and economic interests. And he’s following the pattern we’ve discussed before about how historians often follow up their first book with a biography of someone they learned about in the first project.

    Comment by David G. — May 31, 2010 @ 7:47 am

  5. Just getting around to reading this. Nice review, thanks David. I’m glad to hear he’s doing further work on Nibley.

    Comment by Jared T — May 31, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  6. Hi all–I just came across this–thanks for the kind words. Although I would like to do a biography of Nibley someday, I am not actively working on it, other than trying to get permission from the church archives to get into Nibley’s papers. I just recently came onboard with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, but am mulling over doing more work on both the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company and on other early 20th century enterprises in which the LDS church had an active interest.

    Comment by Matt Godfrey — November 12, 2010 @ 12:05 am

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Matt, and for the update. You’re working on the web-volumes, right?

    Comment by David G. — November 12, 2010 @ 1:17 pm


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