By Jacob Bender
THE SUMMER BEFORE grad school, I worked installing security systems. I didn’t mean to. I’d been put off by home security companies while a missionary in Puerto Rico, where I met RMs who’d once testified of Christ but who were now shilling for shoddy systems no one really needed. In Rexburg, recruiters for these companies were so irritating that “the summer begins when Pinnacle leaves” became a byword.
But after college I was a flat-broke college grad at the dawn of a recession, living with my dad, working as a substitute teacher, sleeping alone while my ex was engaged. Frustrated and discouraged, I considered: Might I have been hasty in condemning these companies? Perhaps they were legitimate sources of income. Now, I didn’t believe these thoughts, but I was hungry for a way out—“not an escape,” as Kafka writes, “but a way out . . . I purposefully do not say freedom . . . I made no other demand; even if the way out were a delusion; the demand was a small one, the delusion wouldn’t be any bigger.”1 Hence, when a friend of a friend called me about installing security systems that summer, I was at last willing to listen.
Three months later, I was driving through the wastes of southern Wyoming to Denver, Colorado, where I would encounter the Protestant spirit of capitalism in Mormonism.
This spirit of capitalism is defined by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as “an ethos” wherein the “duty of the individual . . . [is] the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself.”2 That is: capital is not accrued as a means to an end, but for its own sake. Weber claims this ethos is “overwhelmingly Protestant” since capitalism is embraced more fully in Protestant nations like England, Germany, Holland, and the United States, than in Catholic countries like France, Spain, and Latin America.
Weber theorizes that the spirit of capitalism is derived from John Calvin’s doctrine of pre-destination, wherein God has pre-ordained each soul for salvation or damnation—works being irrelevant. The Calvinist can never earn salvation; in fact, one cannot even know if one is of the elect. One’s priest cannot tell you, and God will not. The Calvinist is thus left in a terrible state of irresolvable tension concerning his state of grace. To resolve this tension, the Calvinist must prove to himself that he is one of the elect by acting as though he were one of the elect at all times.
Weber’s Calvinist reasons that since God has predetermined the individual’s status in both this world and the next, then “the only way of living acceptably to God was . . . through the fulfillment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world.”3 Thus, if the duty imposed on one is to push security systems each summer, then the sales rep must push those systems at every opportunity, by every means. Any failure to do so will prove that the rep is not fulfilling his or her imposed calling, and thus cannot be of the elect. The Calvinist salesman sells not just for livelihood or even avarice, but out of holy terror.
This sense of calling is evident during security companies’ recruitment drives and morning meetings where recruiters often show clips from sports biopics and war movies, and tell stories from their LDS missions. The implicit message is very Calvinistic: if God controls all things and works are irrelevant, then a revolutionary, an Olympic athlete, and even a missionary are functionally no different from a salesman; all that matters is that one fulfils one’s role to the utmost, for “Unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace.”4 The recruiter’s declaration that “There is no limit to how much money you can make this summer, as long as you’re willing to work for it,” is not just a promise but a divine threat.
But why not apply this work ethic to science, or art, or humanitarianism? If these roles are available to destitute college students, that is fine, but a sales position is the usually the closest they can get at first. And if God “shows one of his elect a chance of profit, he must do so with a purpose. Hence, the faithful Christian must follow the call by taking advantage of every opportunity.”5
Admittedly, I wasn’t consciously pondering Calvinism while preparing to install security systems. I thought I was obeying my church’s counsel to get an education and “pay thy debts . . . release thyself from bondage” (D&C 104:78). Summer sales appeared to resolve the difficulty of exiting college debt-free. I was trying to be a good Mormon.
I DECIDED TO work installations instead of sales, hoping that installing would keep me from having to participate in the ethically questionable tactics of the sales rep. But I was wrong—the installers are very much involved in the sale, often repeating and covering for the half-truths and outright lies spun by the sales reps. I found myself being asked to confirm a salesman’s unfounded story that there had been a recent rash of burglaries on the customer’s street, or that the motion sensor we were installing could magically see through walls, or that a downstairs glass-break sensor could detect breakages upstairs, or that the customer’s was one of only four houses we were installing that day.
A sales rep would often sell a system by claiming that he was giving the security system away free to one house on the street in order to get publicity in the neighborhood. All the rep asked was that the customer place a sign advertizing the security system on their lawn, and enter into a 5-year, $3,000 contract (one that could not be exited without incurring a $2,000 fee). That is, there was nothing free about this system. I sometimes found myself installing one in the home of someone impoverished, elderly, deaf, or blind.
One exceptional sales rep sold 17 systems this way on one street. An irate customer counted the 17 signs and confronted the rep who shrugged off the criticism with, “Hey, I’m a salesman, what’d you expect?” For indeed, what could one expect? In the Calvinist mindset, one’s first duty is not toward the customer, or even toward honesty, but toward the opportunity for profit God has granted. Failure to pursue any chance of a sale by whatever means necessary is to refuse God’s grace and risk damnation. However, this rep was not a Calvinist; he was a Mormon. Like me, he wished to be hard-working, independent, self-reliant, and free of debt, as our Church taught us. How had the Protestant spirit of capitalism gained such a foothold in him?
According to Hugh Nibley, this Calvinist spirit is nothing new in the LDS Church. In Approaching Zion, he catalogues how in May 1831, the Church hardly a year old, Joseph Smith rebuked the membership for “the spirit of speculation in lands and property of all kinds” in Missouri Mormon settlements.6 In 1877, Brigham Young condemned those “Elders in this Church who would take the widow’s last cow for five dollars, and then kneel down and thank God for the fine bargain they had made.”7 Numerous Biblical, Book of Mormon, and prophetic statements flatly condemn avarice and dishonesty. Yet even today, Utah notoriously swarms with pyramid schemes, Ponzi scams, and federally-protected lands being sold to the highest bidder. Security system companies sponsor huge banners reading “Integrity” and “Honor” at LaVell Edwards Stadium at BYU while making their money using questionable methods. These companies are not outliers; they are quite comfortable in Utah Mormon culture.
I’m careful to specify Utah Mormon culture because this Protestant commitment to the spirit of capitalism seems largely absent among many other Mormon sub-groups. For example, F. LaMond Tullis details how Latin-American Mormons see “Capitalism and free enterprise . . . [as] not of God . . . if not of the Devil,” for whom “the Anglo-American Mormon’s frequent ‘religious’ commitment to capitalism . . . makes no sense at all,” and the pro-capitalism of the “flag-waving, let’s-all-get-back-to-the-principles-upon-which-this-nation-was-founded Anglo-American Mormon does indeed present a curious, if not incomprehensible, picture.”8 But then, Latin America is predominantly Catholic, and therefore Latin-American converts would bring with them no prior commitment to the Protestant spirit of capitalism.
In my observations, Latino converts to Mormonism generally preserve their Catholic suspicion of capitalism. Likewise, Utah Mormons carry with them the same theological proclivities as their Protestant forbears; for although Mormonism claims little theological kinship with Protestantism, its earliest converts did.
IN HIS PERSONAL history, Joseph Smith indicates that before his First Vision, “my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them” (JSH 1:8). Brigham Young was likewise a New Englander of Calvinist Puritan extraction, as were most of Mormonism’s first converts. In fact, the one region of America where Mormonism failed to garner initial converts was in decidedly non-Puritan Missouri, part of the South where, says Weber, “capitalism remained far less developed” than in “the New England colonies . . . founded by preachers.”9 Weber scholar Lowell Bennion likewise notes that “the adherents to Mormonism, [came] chiefly from the United States of America, Canada, England, and the Protestant countries of Europe,”10 thus preserving the Protestant ethic among the entire initial membership of the early Mormon Church. Calvinist Protestantism became integrated into the Mormon ethos, still haunting our interpretation of scripture today.
All reading is inherently selective, and we tend to exclude inconvenient scriptures while focusing on others that justify our own proclivities. Weber points out how Calvinists selected scriptures to justify their capitalism, such as the “parable of the servant who was rejected because he did not increase the talent which was entrusted to him,”11 and how “emphasis was placed on those parts of the Old Testament which praise formal legality as a sign of conduct pleasing God.”12
Bennion similarly notes how readings of select scriptures have influenced the development of what he calls “a Mormon ethic,” singling out three LDS scriptures as examples:
And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. (D&C 130:18–21)
Thou shalt not idle away thy time, neither shalt thou bury thy talent that it may not be known. (D&C 60:13)
Cease to be idle; cease to be unclean; cease to find fault one with another; cease to sleep longer than is needful. (D&C 88:124)
“The Mormons have been exhorted to industry from the very beginning,” Bennion concludes.13 Indeed, the above cited scriptures are precisely the kind a Calvinist convert to Mormonism might latch onto when attempting to reconcile his new beliefs with his old ones.
However, there is a key difference between the Calvinist ethic and the Mormon ethic. The Doctrine & Covenants asserts, contrary to John Calvin, that not only can one know the state of one’s election, one must know: “The more sure word of prophecy means a man’s knowing that he is sealed up into eternal life, by revelation and the spirit of prophecy, through the power of the Holy Priesthood. It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:5–6). The Calvinist anxiety has here been laid to rest. One does not convince one’s self of one’s salvation by acting as if one were of the elect, one actually knows through personal revelation directly from God.
One might hope that this scripture would exorcise the Calvinist spirit from Mormonism. Surely we no longer need to punish ourselves with relentless door-to-door sales in the blistering sun to be assured of our election.
But no. While grace is privileged over works, works are still required for Mormon salvation. The Book of Mormon reads: “For we labor diligently . . . for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). The Calvinist inside every Utah Mormon now knows rather than hopes that his works indicate his salvation. But what kinds of works? The Calvinist unconsciously assumes that one’s professional obligations and profiteering are still the works necessary for salvation. Indeed, the Book of Mormon assures the Calvinist that “because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need” (Alma 1:29), and that “after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches” (Jacob 2:19). Material wealth in one’s profession is again interpreted as the sure sign of divine approval.
Also, since grace is acquired by “all we can do,” then if the Calvinist has not followed every chance to profit presented by God—if the sales rep has not knocked on every door, pushed on every customer, whether elderly, disabled, or impoverished, by whatever means necessary, ethical or otherwise—then he has not actually done all he could do. Gain for its own sake once again ensures grace, and the Protestant ethic remains in full effect.
Other LDS scriptures can likewise support this Calvinist reading, such as: “He that is slothful shall not be counted worthy to stand, and he that learns not his duty and shows himself not approved shall not be counted worthy to stand” (D&C 107:100). Never mind that one’s duty is to “seek not for riches but for wisdom” (D&C 6:7) and to “impart of your substance to the poor” (D&C 42:31), it is easier to measure our righteousness through how well one is prospering in the land.
The structure of summer sales further resonates with the Mormon Calvinist by presenting the kingdoms of glory in a concrete form. A recruiter receives a cut of each recruit’s income, moving up a level with each new batch of recruits. Replace “levels” with “estates,” and imagine what a recruiter might make of the following from the Pearl of Great Price:
And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. (Abraham 3:26)
One level is added onto another, leading inevitably to an ever-increasing gain, forever and ever. The pyramid scheme seems to follow the very order of heaven.
In this manner does the Mormon Calvinist in Utah construct LDS doctrine in his own image, just as his Calvinist forbears did the Bible in northern Europe and New England. These summer sales companies are staffed by Mormons only nominally. In their hearts, they are all Calvinists.
I TRIED TO quit once during that awful summer, but found out that, like our customers, I had signed a contract that would cost me dearly to exit. I felt more trapped than ever. But early in August, I got a call from my dad who told me that I was the recipient of a sudden cash windfall. As with the Atonement, I received these unexpected funds through no worthiness of my own. The money was enough to get me started in grad school. It was also more money than the company I had slaved for had promised I’d make that summer.
I quit shortly thereafter. Instead of retracing my path through southern Wyoming, I drove through much more scenic southern Colorado, glorying in the beauty of nature and reflecting that if I’d had the faith to quit in July like I’d wanted to—like I should have—then “all things would have worked together for [my] good” (D&C 90:24). I would’ve been fed like the “fowls of the air” that “sow not, neither do they reap” (Matthew 6:26). The Lord would have cared for me, and I would have retained my self-respect.
During my first day of class at the University of Utah, a clean-cut young man in a pressed shirt and tie waved at me as if I were an old friend. I waved back, wondering if I knew him from my mission, perhaps. When we met, he looked me squarely in the eye and asked warmly, “Are you interested in new ways of making money?” I looked him squarely back and said, “No. No I am not,” and kept walking.
1. Franz Kafka, “A Report to an Academy,” The Metamorphosis and Other Stories (New York: Dover Publications, 1996), 84.
2. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), 51.
3. Ibid., 81.
4. Ibid., 159.
5. Ibid., 162.
6. Hugh Nibley. Approaching Zion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1989), 345.
7. Ibid., 334.
8. F. LaMond Tullis, “Three Myths About Mormons in Latin America,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7, No. 1 (Spring 1972): 84–85.
9. Weber, The Protestant Ethic, 55.
10. Lowell L. Bennion, Max Weber’s Methodology (Paris: Les Presses Modernes, 1933), 128.
11. Weber, The Protestant Ethic, 163.
12. Ibid., 165.
13. Bennion, Max Weber’s Methodology, 131.