“They Call Me the Working Man”: Hints of a Mormon Theology of Work

Our fearless leader Christopher Smith recently shared an insightful bit from his forthcoming dissertation on his Facebook wall. The paragraph in part describes the use of Edenic imagery by Mormon settlers of the Salt Lake Valley and the need to restore the creation to its pre-fallen condition through labor and development. Over the last couple years, I’ve taken a growing interest in constructing a Mormon theology of work/labor.* The views expressed by early Mormon Utahns regarding the duty of Mormons to “beautify” and “cultivate” the creation are important for understanding Mormonism’s sacralizing of the mundane. Last February, I was privileged to participate in the fifth biennial Faith & Knowledge Conference at the University of Virginia and presented a paper titled “‘Labour…Is Their Religion”: Toward a Mormon Theology of Work.” Those who are familiar with my posts over the last couple years might recognize material from previous posts, some of which has been expanded and is currently under review at a couple different publications. My prevailing interest in both economics/business and Mormon Studies has pushed me into what I hope to be a fruitful and somewhat unique endeavor. So without further ado, I give you some of my first inklings of a Mormon theology of work:



Peter Drucker

The late Peter Drucker (1909-2005) is one of the most influential management thinkers of all time as well as “the most cited management writer in the textbooks, exceeding that of Abraham Maslow, Max Weber, and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth…”[1] His influence has been felt worldwide, particularly in Japan during the post-war boom.[2] His outlook on management was that of a liberal art—“‘liberal’ because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; ‘art’ because it is also concerned with practice and application.”[3] When Drucker was asked why he was turning his attention from corporate management to churches in his later years, he politely corrected them: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the other way around. I became interested in management because of my interest in religion and institutions.”[4] Drucker’s views on management, corporations, and the like were heavily influenced by his reading of Soren Kierkegaard. “Key to Kierkegaard’s philosophy (and to Drucker’s understanding of it) is the emphasis that Kierkegaard placed on living in the material realm.”[5] Drucker’s search for existential purpose within the material realm of organizations can also be traced to his German intellectual and cultural background. Some researchers have viewed him as “a secularized German theologian” bucking against “‘the fall’ of modernity…”[6] For many German scholars, “modernity meant an abandonment of tradition, coupled with a loss of meaning and faith…”[7] Thus, Drucker believed that organizations and managers had “secularized theological duties; …moral duties in a world devoid of meaning[.]”[8] In essence, work within an organization became a kind of worship; a way to tap into a higher purpose. As Drucker summarized,

Management always lives, works, and practices in and for an institution, which is a human community held together by the bond that, next to the tie of family, is the most powerful human bond: the work bond. And precisely because the object of management is a human community held together by the work bond for a common purpose, management always deals with the Nature of Man, and…with Good and Evil as well. I have learned more theology as a practicing management consultant than I did when I taught religion.[9]

If Drucker is any indication, the quest for meaning in the lone and dreary world of day-to-day work has become a point of increasing interest among management experts and organizational theorists. In the Gallup-published book Wellbeing, the authors point to research that demonstrates that, given a few years, people recover from tragic events (like the death of a spouse) to the same level of wellbeing prior to the tragedy. “But this was not the case for those who were unemployed for a prolonged period of time—particularly not for men. Our wellbeing actually recovers more rapidly from the death of a spouse than it does from a sustained period of unemployment.”[10] Based on data from the General Social Survey, economist Arthur Brooks also found that one of the key elements for achieving happiness and self-fulfillment is work.[11] This is due to its connection to what Brooks calls “earned success”: the ability to create value in our lives and in the lives of others.[12] This value creation takes on various forms and is experienced in different stages. What management researchers have found is the prevalence of both intrinsic motivation and prosocial motivation within these stages. As Wharton professor Adam Grant explains, “[P]sychologists have demonstrated that prosocial and intrinsic motivations involve different reasons for expending effort. For intrinsically motivated individuals, effort is based on interest and enjoyment; for prosocially motivated individuals, effort is based on a desire to benefit others.”[13]

Business author Daniel Pink has identified three key components to employee motivation: (1) autonomy, (2) mastery, and (3) purpose.[14] The first two are related to intrinsic motivation and include concepts of flow, engagement, and progress in meaningful work.[15] These concepts involve intense focus and immersion in the task at hand,[16] long-term stimulation, dedication, and engrossment,[17] and the positive influence of incremental “small wins” in one’s various projects.[18] These different experiences are not only important to productivity, but human flourishing as well. Pink’s third component—“purpose”—is relational in nature and seeks to make a difference in the world and contribute to the lives of others. For Drucker, “there is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.”[19] Though the common word “customer” masks the true meaning behind Drucker’s point, it must be remembered that a customer is one who needs or wants a specified good or service provided by a business. Ultimately, this outlook reminds and realigns business as a social institution whose purpose is to serve people. This more prosocial view of business has become fairly popular among both academics and businessmen in recent years.[20] Research has also found that prosocial motivation can actually drive performance, persistence, productivity, and even creativity, especially when it is coupled with intrinsic motivation.[21]

Now what does this have to do with Mormonism?

An often overlooked element of early Mormon history is the fact that the earliest enactment of what we often call the Law of Consecration was a business institution known as the United Firm.[22] This dynamic enterprise was established to generate funds and incorporate the temporal affairs of the Church. These affairs included a mercantile branch, a publishing enterprise, farms, a brickyard, a stone quarry, an ashery, a sawmill, and real estate. Prior to the development of quorums and high councils, the United Firm was headed by a board of—not priests or apostles—but managers. More important to my point is what Christopher Smith calls the “inspired fictionalization” of the United Firm revelations. The 1835 edition of these revelations substituted the names of the firm’s officers and operational details with various pseudonyms and replacement words that read as if within an Adamic context. Smith explains that “the fictionalization of these texts is…a fascinating historical case study in Joseph Smith’s tendency to blend practical and mystical concerns. The changes to the revelations were a way of keeping an important secret from outsiders, but they also represented a sort of mystical fusion of the modern Mormon community with the ancient city of Enoch.”[23] Beyond the ancient pseudonyms given to those mentioned in the texts (such as Enoch for Joseph Smith), “modern terminology not appropriate to an Adamic context was generally replaced with more neutral or ancient vocabulary. Thus, for example, the “firm” became the “order.”…In one instance the word “business” was replaced with “purpose,” and in another “printing” became “proclaiming.” One reference to “the literary and Mercantile concerns” was supplanted by “the affairs of the poor.””[24] It is striking to see business—a secular institution that is often held in suspicion—elevated to the very embodiment of Zion. In other words, a business institution was originally meant to build the Kingdom of God here on earth: the highest purpose of which an organization is capable. Though the firm was eventually terminated and its assets redistributed among its officers, this sacralizing of the mundane—what Terryl Givens refers to as “the collapse of sacred distance”[25]—continued to play a major role in Mormon theology and metaphysics. If the divine as an abstraction was on its deathbed with the teachings of Joseph Smith, it met its ultimate demise at the hands of Brigham Young. “In the mind of God,” said Young, “there is no such a thing as dividing spiritual from temporal, or temporal from spiritual; for they are one in the Lord.”[26] President Young saw the “work of building up Zion” as “a practical work” and “not a mere theory.”[27] The saints were “not going to wait for angels, or for Enoch and his company to come and build up Zion, but we are going to build it.”[28] He preached that if the saints were to “ever walk in streets paved with gold,” they would have to mine and lay the gold themselves, just as “angels that now walk in their golden streets” did. “When we enjoy a Zion in its beauty and glory,” he said, “it will be when we have built it.”[29] Essentially, part of the joy of Zion is found in the work that goes into it.

In Young’s mind, the literal work of the marvelous work and a wonder was integral to the doctrine of eternal progression. The “principle of improvement,” he taught, was “the mainspring of all action…the grand moving principle and cause of the actions of the children of men.”[30] According to Young, sacred tasks of improvement and mastery could range from “preaching, praying, laboring with [one’s] hands for an honorable support; whether [one is] in the field, mechanic’s shop, or following mercantile business, or wherever duty calls, [he is] serving God as much in one place as another; and so it is with all, each in his place, turn and time.”[31] The Mormon religion “incorporates every act and word of man,” said Young. “No man should go to merchandising unless he does it in God; no man should go to farming or any other business unless he does it in the Lord…Our work, our everyday labor, our whole lives are within the scope of our religion.”[32] Young was convinced that as Latter-day Saints, we should “not allow ourselves to go into a field to plough without taking our religion with us; we do not go into an office, behind the counter to deal out goods, into a counting house with the books, or anywhere to attend to or transact any business without taking our religion with us. If we are railroading or on a pleasure trip our God and our religion must be with us.”[33] To engage in one’s work was to engage the Spirit and thus the sacred.

This cosmological monism (to borrow another Givens phrase)[34] can be seen in other late 19th-century Mormon publications. The October 1897 Millennial Star talked of a Mormon Indian colony on the Malad River in Box-Elder County, where the local natives were being urged to dig an irrigation ditch. With the Elder’s upcoming absence in a meeting, one of the locals was asked to conduct. When the Elder asked what the subject would be, the native replied, “O, me preach ‘em heap water ditch, water ditch!”:

The Lamanite had partaken of the spirit and genius of Mormonism. “Water ditch” and water baptism are both vital principles of that religion. The redemption of the soul, the body and the home of man is its purpose… The Lamanite who had grasped the need of a water ditch by means of which toredeem a portion of the earth’s surface that was a desert had grasped a vital principle of the Gospel of Christ.[35]

Here, the digging of an irrigation ditch is in a sense raised to the same level as baptism, a salvific ordinance. Redemption could be found both in sacred rituals and one’s consecrated labor. Spiritual edification could also be found in the midst of industriousness. The minutes of the 1853 General Conference report the following: “Elder George A. Smith was called upon to preach “an Iron Sermon,” who rose, took in the stand one of the Fire-irons [the first productions of the Utah foundries], holding the same over his head, cried out, “Stereotype edition,” and descended, amid the cheers of the Saints.”[36]

This conflation of the temporal and spiritual was also recognized by non-Mormon visitors to Utah. “The Gospel which they proclaim,” reported one article, “consists of directions for emigration, instructions for the setting up of machinery, the management of iron-works, the manufacture of nails, the spinning of cotton-yarn, and the breeding of stock.”[37] Some were critical of this overlap, declaring it as evidence of “the grossly secular and sensuous character of Mormon worship.”[38] In an 1868 review of William Dixon’s New America, there is a large section devoted to the portion about Mormonism. The “Mormon life is not a life of ease and pleasure;” the review notes, “on the contrary, it is essentially a life of labour and toil; nay, we may say that hand-labour is the essence of every-day religion; with them is far more realised the old saying, [to work is to pray], then anywhere else… Labour, in fact, is their religion; they have a creed, it is true, and they have their peculiar doctrines; but the cultivating the land, building of houses, and making the land profitable and their homes comfortable, is the real religion of the Mormons. Without such a religion…life would be impossible in the Salt Lake Valley.”[39]

While the doctrines of Zion and eternal progression are intertwined throughout these various sources, an interesting pattern begins to emerge: not only do these examples depict everyday work as a religious affair, but they all are in one way or another related to intrinsic and/or prosocial motivation. Human flourishing and continual betterment fits comfortably with notions of flow, engagement, and the increasing mastery of various skills and knowledge. Building “the City of Holiness, even Zion” where they are “of one heart and one mind” with “no poor among them” (Moses 7:18-19) encapsulates higher meaning and purpose. In short, eternal progression is intrinsic motivation on an infinite scale, while Zion building is prosocial motivation from an eternal perspective. The positive outcomes of both intrinsic and prosocial motivation can have major effects at both the individual and communal level. According to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, these positive emotions “generate “upward spirals” toward optimal functioning and enhanced emotional well-being….”[40] Positive emotions are contagious and “propagate within organizations…because positive emotions stem from—and create—meaningful interpersonal encounters.” Her research suggests “that positive emotions in organizational settings not only produce individuals who function at higher levels, but may also produce organizations that function at high levels.”[41] Though practical books have been written on the subject (think The Mormon Way of Doing Business),[42] a theological understanding of work has been lacking in Mormon discourse. Instead of separating our everyday employment from the work of the Kingdom, we should seek to transform it, to consecrate it. Joseph Smith is recorded to have said that “if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it.”[43] Similarly, if we must go to Babylon, we can turn the devils out of doors and make a Zion of it. Toward the end of his brilliant book For Zion, Joseph Spencer observed, “There is no “system” [of consecration] coming at a later date, no announcement that needs anticipating, and nothing in the past worthy of our nostalgic fantasy. There is only the task of consecrating now…”[44] Rather than being an act of drudgery or a mere paycheck, work can become an act of eternity; a progressive acquisition of skills and knowledge: “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection” (D&C 130:18). Also, recognizing an organization as a community of people whose purpose is to serve others can influence the way we conduct our business, from frontline workers to top executives. Looking after the well-being of both an organization’s employees and customers can not only lead to a more successful and innovative organization, but one that comes closer in line with Zion principles. As Mormon Studies continues to grow, research from management and organizational theory can shed light on both the Church’s current institution and its ideal goal of Zion as well as provide insightful models for a Mormon theology of work and eternal progression.


*Additional sources and insights on this topic are most welcome.



1. Patricia G. McLaren, Albert J. Mills, Gabrielle Durepos, “Disseminating Drucker: Knowledge, Tropes and the North American Management Textbook,” Journal of Management History 15:4 (2009): 391.

2. See Chuck Ueno, “Peter Drucker’s Influence in Japan,” People and Strategy 32:4 (2009): 8-9; “Drucker in the Dug-Out,” The Economist (July 1, 2010). While the Clarke Professor of Social Sciences and Management at Claremont Graduate School, Drucker also lectured in Oriental Art at Pomona College and was appointed to the Board of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

3. Peter F. Drucker, The Essential Drucker (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 13.

4. Quoted in Peter Steinfels, “A Man’s Spiritual Journey From Kierkegaard to General Motors,” The New York Times (Nov. 19, 2005).

5. Karen E. Linkletter, Joseph A. Maciariello, “Genealogy of a Social Ecologist,” Journal of Management History 15:4 (2009): 338. For a Mormon look at Kierkegaard, see David L. Paulsen, “What Does It Mean to Be a Christian? The Views of Joseph Smith and Soren Kierkegaard,” BYU Studies 47:4 (2008): 55-100.

6. Madeline Toubiana, Gad Yair, “The Salvation of Meaning in Peter Drucker’s Oeuvre,” Journal of Management History 18:2 (2012): 179.

7. Ibid.: 182.

8. Toubiana, Yair, 2012: 179

9. Quoted in Linkletter, Maciariello, 2009: 339.

10. Tom Rath, Jim Harter, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements (New York: Gallup Press, 2010), 17 (italics original).

11. Arthur C. Brooks, Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—and How We Can Get More of It (New York: Basic Books, 2008), Ch. 7: “Happiness Is a Full-Time Job.”

12. See Arthur C. Brooks, “America and the Value of ‘Earned Success’,” The Wall Street Journal (May 8, 2012); Brooks, “A Formula for Happiness,” The New York Times (Dec. 14, 2013).

13. Adam M. Grant, “Does Intrinsic Motivation Fuel the Prosocial Fire? Motivational Synergy in Predicting Persistence, Performance, and Productivity,” Journal of Applied Psychology 93:1 (2008): 49.

14. Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009). Similarly, Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor lists the three Ms: mastery, membership, and meaning. See her “Three Things That Actually Motivate Employees,” HBR Blog Network (Oct. 23, 2013): https://hbr.org/2013/10/three-things-that-actually-motivate-employees/

15. Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer, “What Makes Work Worth Doing?HBR Blog Network (Aug. 31, 2012).

16. See Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning (New York: Penguin Books, 2003).

17. See Arnold B. Bakker, “An Evidence-Based Model of Work Engagement,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 20:4 (2011): 265-269.

18. See Teresa M. Amabile, Steven J. Kramer, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011); Amabile, Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review (May 2011): 70-80.

19. Drucker, 2001, 20.

20. For example, see John Mackey, Raj Sisodia, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

21. Grant, 2008; Grant, “How Customers Can Rally Your Troops,” Harvard Business Review (June 2011): 96-103; Grant, James W. Berry, “The Necessity of Others Is the Mother of Invention: Intrinsic and Prosocial Motivations, Perspective Taking, and Creativity,” Academy of Management Journal 54:1 (2011): 73-96.

22. See Max H. Parkin, “Joseph Smith and the United Firm: The Growth and Decline of the Church’s First Master Plan of Business and Finance, Ohio and Missouri, 1832-1834,” BYU Studies 46:3 (2007): 5-66.

23. Christopher C. Smith, “The Inspired Fictionalization of the 1835 United Firm Revelations,” Claremont Journal of Mormon Studies 1:1 (April 2011): 17.

24. Ibid.: 24-25.

25. Terryl L. Givens, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 83.

26. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 11, 18.

27. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, 284.

28. Ibid.

29. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 8, 354-355.

30. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, 90.

31. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, 260.

32. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, 60.

33. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 14, 118.

34. Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 256.

35. “A Practical Religion,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 43:59 (Oct. 28, 1897): 679.

36. “Minutes of the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 15:30 (July 23, 1853), 492. See also The Edinburgh Review or Critical Journal, Vol. XCIX (January – April 1854), 370.

37. The Edinburgh Review, 370.

38. The Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation, No. 126 (May 25, 1854), 334.

39. The Union Review: A Magazine of Catholic Literature and Art, Vol. 6 (January – December 1868), 297.

40. Barbara L. Fredrickson, “Positive Emotions and Upward Spirals in Organizations,” in Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline, ed. Kim S. Cameron, Jane E. Dutton, Robert E. Quinn (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003), 169.

41. Ibid., 174.

42. See Jeff Benedict, The Mormon Way of doing Business: How Nine Western Boys Reached the Top of Corporate America (New York: Business Plus, 2007).

43. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 316.

44. Joseph M. Spencer, For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), Kindle edition. “Zion’s Hope.”


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