Material Values in the Book of Mormon

ABSTRACT - This article investigates material values in the Book of Mormon, the central volume of scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). The Book of Mormon suggests that the acquisition of wealth reflects righteousness, but it also suggests that once people obtain wealth and material possessions, they turn away from God, who then punishes them by stripping them of their wealth. The paper concludes with an examination of structural constraints that may inhibit materialism among contemporary Mormons.


Newell D. Wright and Val Larsen (1992) ,"Material Values in the Book of Mormon", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 50-55.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 50-55


Newell D. Wright, Department of Marketing, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Val Larsen, Department of Marketing, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


This article investigates material values in the Book of Mormon, the central volume of scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). The Book of Mormon suggests that the acquisition of wealth reflects righteousness, but it also suggests that once people obtain wealth and material possessions, they turn away from God, who then punishes them by stripping them of their wealth. The paper concludes with an examination of structural constraints that may inhibit materialism among contemporary Mormons.


Consumer researchers have investigated materialism and material values in the comics (Belk 1987), in advertisements (Belk and Pollay 1985), in popular literature (Friedman 1985), and in biographies of- and publications targeted to very wealthy consumers (Hirschman 1990). Kluckhohn (1949) has noted that cultural values such as materialism can also be studied in religious documents. For example, scholars outside consumer research have investigated material values in the Bible (Boerma 1979) and the texts and traditions of Buddhism (Sizemore and Swearer 1990). This article reports the results of a hermeneutical analysis of materialism and material values in the Book of Mormon, the central volume of scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Organized religions have produced the broadest and most sustained criticisms of materialism. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam have all condemned materialism both because it is difficult to be dedicated to God and to wealth and because preoccupation with material things may preclude other esteemed virtues such as charity (Belk 1983). However, recent research, reflecting the Calvinist conception of righteousness, has suggested that in the United States certain religious groups have successfully blended religion and materialism by teaching that the wealthy are loved and blessed by God (O'Guinn and Belk 1989). Such may be the ca with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-the Mormon church-because of its belief in the Book of Mormon. [Mormons are also referred to as "Latter-day Saints," or LDS for short.]

There are three principle reasons to believe that materialism has been incorporated into Mormonism. First, philosophical materialism is clearly a feature of Mormon theology. Thus, the ontology of Mormonism lays a foundation for positive attitudes toward the possession and consumption of material goods, for more than any other Christian religion, Mormonism is built upon materialist foundations (McMurrin 1965). Joseph Smith, the first Mormon prophet, rejected the concept of immaterial substance, an idea that has been extraordinarily important in western theological and philosophical thought (McMurrin 1965, p. 6). He claimed that even spirit is matter, writing in the canonized work, Doctrine and Covenants (hereafter D&C), 'There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure and can only be discerned by purer eyes" (D&C section 131, verses 7 and 8). Prophets in Mormon scripture communicate with God through material objects such as the Liahona, a bail of finely-worked bran (II Nephi 16: 10-27). [This refers to verses in books within the Book of Mormon, and reads like Luke 2:10 would read in reference to a verse in the New Testament.] God himself is hold by Mormons to have a physical body (D&C section 130, verse 22), so the body and the deepest forms of spirituality are not seen as being at odds with each other. Indeed, Mormons believe that if human beings achieve perfection through works and grace, they may become like God, creating and populating worlds of their own (McConkie 1972), the ultimate form of production and consumption.

Second, Mormons have exemplified the protestant work ethic by working hard and becoming prosperous in the process (DePillis 1991). Brodie (1945) pointed out some time ago that Mormonism is a materialistic, not an ascetic religion. The Mormon church is widely regarded as being wealthy (Now York rimes 1991) and most of its members, at least in the United States and Canada, are middle class (Bahr 1992). Bemuse Mormon families place a heavy emphasis on education, Mormon young people enter college with unparalleled frequency (Ferguson 1991), which strongly contributes to the large proportion of middle class families. Inclined to be materialistic to begin with, Mormon middle class families, as DePillis (1991) observed, have not been immune to the post World War 11 trend toward materialistic and hedonistic consumption.

O'Guinn and Belk (1989) suggested that such prosperity leads to the alignment of religions with the Now Right political movement, since conservatives view the accumulation of wealth as the just reward for industrious and hard working people, a potent rationalization for materialism. Again, this may be the case with the Mormon church. Ezra Taft Benson, the current prophet and president of the church, is known for his conservatism, having served for eight years as secretary of agriculture under President Esenhower (Benson 1962; Dew 1987). Mormons as a whole are very conservative (Magelby 1992), and there is evidence that the church functions as a significant conservative reference group for residents of Utah, the majority of whom are Mormon (Wirthlin and Merrill 1968). As Magelby (1992, p. 1108) pointed out, church members in the United States in "the late 20th century are generally Republicans, often strong Republicans.'

Finally, as a lay church, most Mormon leadership is provided by members who already have full time jobs and not by a professional clergy. In the church hierarchy there is a strong correlation between success in secular endeavors and success in attaining positions of leadership (Knowlton 1989). This suggests that material achievements are an important factor determining who is chosen to lead and direct the church. This also suggests that wealthy members are hold in high esteem by other Mormons. [An alternative interpretation for this correlation is that those chosen for positions of leadership are righteous and loved of God, and, hence, rich. Thus, they are selected for being righteous, and their success in secular endeavors is further indication of their standing before God.]

While there is considerable evidence that Mormons are materialistic, there is also evidence that they may be less materialistic than other populations. Belk (1985) found that Mormon students enrolled in a religious institute at the University of Utah were the least  materialistic of five groups he surveyed. [Since Utah is predominately Mormon, another interpretation of this finding is that Mormon students enrolled in religious institute classes are less materialistic than other groups consisting predominately of Mormons.] Ozanne and colleagues found that Mormon missions for young men served as a powerful socializing force against materialism (Ozanne 1992; Ozanne, Hill, and Wright 1992). However, Ozanne at al. (1992) pointed out that Mormonism does not forbid the accumulation of material wealth, it only relegates wealth to a subordinate place in a person's life. As long as wealth is subordinate to other more important values, Mormons can expect and enjoy material comforts.

To see how this emphasis on materialism and material wealth is reflected in Mormon scriptures, [Mormons recognize three additional volumes-of scripture in addition to the Bible, but the Book of Mormon is the central volume of Mormon scripture (Benson 1988).] we conducted a hermeneutical analysis of material values in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is described by Joseph Smith, the first Mormon prophet, as "the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion' (as quoted in Benson 1988, p. 10). The influence of the Book of Mormon in the United States is evident from two recent events. First, in a national survey by the Book of the Month Club on the most influential books respondents had read, The Book of Mormon appeared among the top ton books (Publishers Weekly 1991). Second, Orson Scott Card, an award-winning and widely read science fiction author, has recently begun a five volume series of novels directly based on the story-line of the Book of Mormon (Card 1992).


Hermeneutical analysis views society as a "text" (Ricoeur 1981; Scholes 1982) and analyzes cultural artifacts, in this case the Book of Mormon, as an embodiment of cultural values and beliefs (see Hirschman 1990 for an application). This particular analysis of the Book of Mormon involved an iterative reading of the text, for instead of the fixed categories used in traditional content analysis (Kassarjian 1977), hermeneutical analysis uses evolving categories which expand as the data are iteratively analyzed.

We closely read the Book of Mormon, taking notes in the margins and marking pertinent verses. These marked scriptures were tagged and downloaded from LDSVIEW (1991), a computer program containing the Mormon scriptures, to produce a text containing ail the references to material wealth, possessions, and riches. This text was then hermeneutically analyzed to identity and extensively exemplify specific themes. Several readings were needed to challenge and expand the evolving themes and to form from them a coherent interpretation. The following section details the themes that emerged from the analysis.


The Book of Mormon

The narrative in the Book of Mormon begins with Lehi, a resident of Jerusalem circa 600 B.C. (1 Nephi 10:4), who is commanded of the Lord to take his family and leave Jerusalem before it is destroyed. The family journeys across Arabia, builds a ship, and sails for a new promised land, the American continent. The Book of Mormon records the history of the Nephites and the Lamanites, two rival groups named after two of Lehi's sons, Nephi and Laman. The book also contains a record of the Jaredites, a people who left the old world for the new at the time of the tower of Babel (Ether 1:33-43).


Material Wealth and the Land

In the Book of Mormon there is a clear link between material wealth and the land. Within this context, two subthemes emerged that are particularly important with respect to material wealth: 1) keeping commandments leads to prosperity in the land; and 2) disobeying the commandments leads to the cursing of the land.

Keeping Commandments Leads to Prosperity in the Land. The promised land is described in the Book of Mormon as a choice land, rich in gold, silver, and other natural resources (11 Nephi 18:22-25). However, inhabitants of the promised land must live righteously or their prosperity and their lands will be taken away from them (2 Nephl 1:9-11). This theme is manifest in dozens of passages, such as the following.

Wherefore, because thou hast been faithful thy seed... shall dwell in prosperity long upon the face of this land; and nothing, save it shall be iniquity among them, shall harm or disturb their prosperity upon the face of the land forever (2 Nephi 1: 31).

The Book of Mormon chronicles several cycles of in which righteousness leads to prosperity, prosperity to wickedness, and wickedness to the loss of prosperity. This cycle is described in the following passage.

And thus we can behold how false and also the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men; yea, we can see that the Lord in his great infinite goodness doth bless and prosper those who put their trust in him. Yea, and we may see at the very time when he doth prosper his people, yea, in the increase of their fields, their flocks and their herds, and in gold, and in silver, and in all manner of precious things of every kind and art; sparing their lives and delivering them out of the hand of their enemies; softening the hearts of their enemies that they would not declare wars against them; yea, and in fine, doing all things for the welfare and happiness of his people; yea, then is the time that they do harden their hearts and do forget the Lord their God and do trample under their feet the Holy One-yea, and this because of their ease and their exceedingly great prosperity.... 0 how foolish, and how vain, and how evil, and devilish, and how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men; yea, how quick to hearken unto the words of the evil one, and to set their hearts on the vain things of the world! (Helaman 12:1-4).

Though their wealth is repeatedly destroyed, when the people repent of their sins and turn back to the Lord, they again prosper (Helaman 4:15-16; Ether 7:26) and the cycle continues.

Disobedience Leads to the Cursing of the Land. According to the Book of Mormon, the promised land was set aside for the righteous. The righteous will have precious lands but the land of the wicked will be cursed (1 Nephi 17:36-38). Alma, one of the major prophets in the Book of Mormon, blessed the land for the righteous' sake and cursed the land of the wicked, referring to this as "the blessing and the cursing of the land' (Alma 45:15-16). Not only the land but also the riches of the wicked are cursed, as the following passage indicates.

For I will, saith the Lord, that they shall hide up their treasures unto me; and cursed be they who hide not up their treasures unto me; for none hideth up their treasures unto me save it be the righteous; and he that hideth not up his treasures unto me, cursed is he, and also the treasure, and none shall redeem it because of the curse of the land.... (Hearken unto the words which the Lord saith; for behold, he saith that ye are cursed because of your riches, and also are your riches cursed because ye have set your hearts upon them, and have not hearkened unto the words of him who gave them unto you. Ye do not remember the Lord your God in the things which he hath blessed you, but ye do always remember your riches, not to thank the Lord your God for them; yea, your hearts are not drawn out unto the Lord, but they do swell with great pride, unto boasting, and unto great swelling, envyings, strifes, malice, persecutions, and murders, and all manner of iniquities. For this cause hath the Lord God caused that a curse should come upon the land, and also upon your riches, and this because of your iniquities (Helaman 13:16-23).]

Thus, the land and the riches of the wicked are cursed because they turn away from the Lord, become prideful, then persecute and murder others for the sake of their riches.

Summary. A paradox becomes evident in this section. On the one hand, the righteous are blessed with material bounty, an idea similar to the Calvinist doctrine of pro"rity discussed by O'Guinn and Belk (1989). On the other hand, once the righteous prosper, they turn away from God and to their riches. Consequently, they are chastised by the Lord and lose their wealth, for their lands and riches become cursed. They are blessed because of their righteousness, but this very blessing leads to their downfall. This suggests that material wealth must be used property if one is to avoid failing into iniquity.


In the Book of Mormon, there are explicit instructions about and many examples of the proper and improper use of wealth. This section will examine 1) the righteous use of wealth; and 2) the consequences of an unrighteous use of wealth.

Righteous Use of Wealth. The Book of Mormon teaches that there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to the church of the devil (1 Nephi 14:10).

In a vision, an angel shows Nephi the "great and abominable" church of the devil. It is instructive to note the attitude of members of this church toward material wealth and possessions.

And it came to pass that I beheld this great and abominable church; and I saw the devil that he was the founder of it. And I also saw gold, and silver, and silks, and scarlets, and fine-twined linen, and all manner of precious clothing; and I saw many harlots. And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the gold, and the silver, and the silks, and the scarlets, and the fine-twined linen, and the precious clothing, and the harlots are the desires of this great and abominable church (11 Nephi 13:6-8).

Contrast this with instructions given to members of the church of the Lamb of God with respect to possessions.

Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you. But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good-to clothe the naked, and to food the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted (Jacob 2:17-19).

Members of the primitive church are here counseled to seek first the kingdom of God; riches they should seek only secondarily and with the intent to do good. The Book of Mormon contains other versions of this admonition to food the hungry, clothe the naked, liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and afflicted. For example, Alma 34:24-28 indicates that it is acceptable to pray to the Lord for wealth if it is to be used for the above mentioned purposes. Mosiah 4:16-26 Instructs members not to turn away beggars, but to give liberally to them in order to retain a remission of sins.

When people in the Book of Mormon use their wealth charitably, they become even wealthier, as the following passage illustrates.

And (the members of the church] did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.... And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need-an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things, and abundance of fine twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth. And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need. And thus they did prosper and become far more wealthy than those who did not belong to their church (Alma 1:27-31).

Members of the church were enriched materially because they shared their substance with those who were in need. Notice that this was largely a classless society. They did not distinguish between different people based on class, gender, age, or membership in the church. They treated everyone more or less equally. This passage reflects a notion similar to the "seed faith" concept discussed by O'Guinn and Belk (1989 p. 235) whereby members "invest" a small amount of money for righteous purposes and yield a great return for their efforts. The return is evidence of their faith, obedience, and favor in God's eyes. The Book of Mormon also explains how the righteous should go about obtaining their wealth: by working with their own hands. Consider, for example, the words of Benjamin, a righteous king:

I say unto you that as I have been suffered to spend my days in your service, even up to this time, and have not sought gold nor silver nor any manner of riches from you.... and even 1, myself, have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes (Mosiah 2:12, 14).

This ethic of laboring with one's hands to earn wealth is also evident in discussion of the clergy (Alma 1:26; Mosiah 18:24) and other church members (Mosiah 27:3-4). In direct contrast, the Lamanites are often described as a wicked and idolatrous people who do not labor with their own hands.

[The Lamanites were] a wild and a hardened and a ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites, and robbing and plundering them-, and their hearts were set upon riches, or gold and silver, and precious stones; yet they sought them to obtain these things by murdering and plundering, that they might not labor for them with their own hands (Alma 17:14).

Unlike the righteous Nephites, the Lamanites wanted to achieve gain without working for it, a theme that is repeated throughout the Book of Mormon.

Unrighteous Uses of Wealth. The unrighteous use of wealth is the mirror image of the righteous use, for when members of the church use their wealth unrighteously, they behave like members of the great and abominable church of the devil described above.

But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also (2 Nephi 9:30).

When the peoples in the Book of Mormon set their hearts on treasures and turn away from the Lord, pride creeps into the church; they begin despising the poor and withholding their substance from them, and class distinctions re-emerge. Consider again the church that became very rich by sharing their wealth. A mere six years later, many members of the church had once again become wicked.

And it came to pass in the eighth year of the reign of the judges, that the people of the church began to wax proud, because of their exceeding riches, and their fine silks, and their fine twined linen, and because of their many flocks and herds, and their gold and their silver, and all manner of precious things, which they had obtained by their industry; and in ail these things were they lifted up in the pride of their eyes, for they began to wear very costly apparel.... [The people of the church began to... set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one toward another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure. [And there was] great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry and those who were athirst and those who were sick and afflicted (Alma 4:6-12).

Another example in a different time (one hundred years later) and place illustrates the same wicked use of wealth. As in the previous example, the once righteous members of the church again become wicked because of  their many possessions. This time, however, the covetousness of the people leads to the downfall of the church.

And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.... And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up.... Now the cause of this iniquity of the people was this-Satan had great power, unto the stirring up of the people to do all manner of iniquity, and to the puffing them up with pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world (3 Nephi 6:12-15).

The unrighteous use of wealth results in pride, the creation of class distinctions, the turning away of the poor and needy. And these developments bring down upon the Nephites the wrath of the Lord. In the Book of Mormon context, "the wrath of the Lord" usually means that the Lamanites make war against the Nephites and destroy their prosperity (Helaman 4:12-14). Here the Book of Mormon doctrine on materialism closely resembles that of other organized religions (Belk 1983). Setting their hearts upon the treasures of the world leads the formerly righteous Nephites away from virtues such as charity.

Summary. The righteous use of wealth comes after members of the church have obtained a faith in Christ. It involves administering relief to the poor, sick, and hungry. When members do this, their investment yields a great return and they become even wealthier. But wealthy members who do not use their wealth righteously become prideful and stop sharing their abundance with the less fortunate. They begin to create class distinctions by wearing costly apparel and become "rips for destruction" (Helaman 13:14) at the hands of the Lamanites.


The Book of Mormon develops a basic paradox when it discusses material wealth. The Lord bestows material bounty on the righteous; however, this prosperity generally leads to their downfall. Members of the church are instructed to be generous with their wealth, to share with the less fortunate. When they do this, their investments yield great returns and they become even wealthier. But when they become wealthy, they stop needing the Lord and start relying on their own industry and endeavors for success. They become prideful, withhold their abundance from those in need, and turn away from the church. Consequently, the Lord humbles them through wars and other tribulations. Given this cycle, wealth is paradoxically both a blessing and a curse at the same time, both a reward and a stumbling block. In the context of this cycle, it is difficult to say whether wealth is a good or a bad thing.

The resolution of this paradox is found in the doctrine of stewardship. While the Book of Mormon repeatedly condemns the Nephites for making their treasures their gods, it also shows that people do not inevitably begin to worship their wealth. The founder, Lehi, provides an example of the proper relationship between a person and his or her possessions. [Other examples include Amulek (Alma 5), King Benjamin (Mosiah 2-4), Coriantum (Ether 9), and Morianton, Levi, and Lib (Ether 10).] Lehi was a wealthy Jewish merchant living in Jerusalem around 600 B.C. His wealth was so great that it made Laban, a wealthy but minor Jewish governor (Nibley 1987), "lust" after it and attempt to kill Lehi's sons in order to obtain his it (1 Nephi 3:25-25). However, when the Lord commanded Lehi to leave his wealth behind and floe into the wilderness, he left it and fled with no second thoughts.

And it came to pass that the Lord commanded my father, even in a dream, that he should take his family and depart into the wilderness. And it came to pass that he was obedient unto the word of the Lord, wherefore he did as the Lord commanded him. And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness (11 Nephi 2:2-4).

Although very wealthy, Lehi relied on the Lord and not on his own abilities and wealth. He was not so attached to his possessions that he hesitated to leave them when asked to do so by God. Of course, Lehi was told by the Lord that if he would leave his riches behind, he would be sent to a now promised land containing wealth in abundance (1 Nephi 2:20). So he may have been sacrificing present wealth and delaying present consumption for the promise of even greater wealth and consumption in the future. Leaving his riches behind would thus be yet another example of seed faith, with an interval of several years between investment and return. But regardless of whether he focused on the return or not, Lehi realized that 'since God created the earth and its resources, all things belong to God and man is merely a custodian or steward rather than an owner of 'possessions" (Belk 1983, p. 515).

Lehi's life thus reveals the central message of the Book of Mormon with respect to riches and abundance. it is "stewardship," rather than conspicuous consumption, that constitutes the proper relationship of humankind to material wealth (Benson 1987a). As stewards, the people in the Book of Mormon were obligated to responsibly manage the material riches and possessions given to them and to promote the temporal welfare of others. When they faithfully did this, their efforts yielded even greater wealth. Like Lehi, they needed to be "righteous" enough to accumulate great wealth, but humble enough to use it as the Lord commanded.

This message is hold to be important for Mormons in today's materialistic world. Moroni, a Book of Mormon prophet, saw a vision of modern times and spoke directly to contemporary Mormons.

Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing. And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel.... For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the needy, the sick and the afflicted.... Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not? (Mormon 8:35-39).

Here Moroni is chastising the modern world in general and modern Mormons in particular for their love of things and their unrighteous use of wealth. According to these verses, contemporary Mormons are not wise stewards over the Lord's possessions for they and have not learned the lesson Lehi learned. Thus, Mormon scripture condemns the contemporary church for ignoring the teachings found in the Book of Mormon (D&C 84:55-60).


We come, then, to the paradox of contemporary Mormonism. Unless they are able to manage their riches wisely, it is better for Mormons not to be wealthy. And the central religious text of the church, the "keystone" of the religion, declares that many contemporary Mormons do not use their wealth wisely. Unsurprisingly, Mormon leaders have ambivalent feelings about the wealth of their prosperous, materialistic, middle-class members.

Responding in part to warnings in the Book of Mormon, Mormon leaders have established a number of cultural and structural constraints which inhibit church members from accumulating and ostentatiously consuming material wealth. Thus, members are actively counseled by the president of the church, whom they revere as a latter-day prophet, to avoid conspicuous consumption and to stay out of debt (Benson 1987a). All members are urged to give ton percent of their income to the church as a tithe (D&C section 119) and to contribute money beyond the ton percent to help less fortunate people both inside and outside the church (Kimball 1982, pp. 144-146).

The patterns of Mormon family life also play an important role in inhibiting wealth accumulation. Mormons are encouraged to marry young and not to put off having children. Spencer W. Kimball, a recent prophet of the church, has said:

In America and elsewhere in the world, the family limitation program is gaining much strength. Latter-day Saints do not believe in this. We believe in following the admonition of the Lord in having large families and rearing them righteously. We hope that our Latter-day Saints will not trade children for accommodation and luxury (Kimball 1982, p. 325; see also p. 308).

Following this counsel, Mormons do have largo families. They marry younger than most other groups, and among them fertility rates are higher than among any other major religious group in the United States (Heaton 1992). Because of their high fertility rates and because church leaders recommend that mothers not work outside the home (Benson 1987b), Mormons also have a lower per capita income than most other American religious or ethnic groups (Heaton 1992). This is true even though many Mormon mothers either choose or are compelled by the expense of their large family to work outside the home (Thomas 1992). In addition to the usual expense of a college education, faithful Mormon parents must bear the cost of the proselyting missions on which they are commanded to send all of their sons and many of their daughters (Russell 1991). Taken altogether, these structural constraints usually mean that Mormon families have low income to spend on material possessions than other middle class families. Though there are exceptions, e.g. the family of J. Willard Marriott of Marriott hotel fame most Mormon families find it difficult to amass a great deal of wealth.

These constraints on the accumulation of wealth may be an effective way of keeping church members from, in Book of Mormon terms, failing into disfavor with the Lord. As Ozanne et al. (1992) have suggested, the constraints encourage Mormons who follow the counsel of church leaders to subordinate material goals to spiritual goals. Faithful Mormons are free to enjoy the comforts provided by a materialistic society such as the one that exists in the United States, but only after they have demonstrated the priority of spiritual goals in their lives by sacrificing much of their wealth on the altar of their faith.


The Book of Mormon suggests that the righteous are blessed materially but that this blessing often turns into a cursing when those who are blessed are seduced by the wealth their righteousness has won for them. it is safe to be wealthy only if one is willing to sacrifice one's wealth for one's faith and for the well being of others. The Mormon tradition seeks to reinforce the priority of the spiritual over the material by requiring a substantial sacrifice of material wealth. Members are free to enjoy without moral anguish any wealth they may have beyond that which is necessary to meet their obligations to the church and the poor.

We acknowledge, finally, an important limitation of this study: the method was generally hermeneutic, not ethnographic. An ethnographic study might produce different results, since it is common for ethnographic research to uncover contradictions between what is said and believed to occur and what actually happens (Hammersly and Atkinson 1983).


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Newell D. Wright, Department of Marketing, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Val Larsen, Department of Marketing, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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