The Rise and Fall of the ZCMI

Growing up in the Salt Lake Valley, one of my family’s favorite Christmas traditions was visiting the ZCMI storefront in Salt Lake City to see a display of large ornaments decorated with candy. While that tradition is carried on by Macy’s Salt Lake City store, ZCMI is gone. But the story of how ZCMI came to be is fascinating in its own right, with its ties to the United Orders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 19th century. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Jeffrey Paul Thompson discussed some of that history. What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

While the department store I grew up knowing as ZCMI was a department store located in Salt Lake City and other major cities in the Intermountain West, the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution at its height was a series of institutions and stores across Utah Territory. Thompson explained their origins as follows:

Joseph Smith had repeatedly tried to bring economic parity to the Saints but, for various reasons, the attempts had failed. It appears that Brigham felt that this was one thing he needed to accomplish before he died since one of the hallmarks of a Zion society is that there are “no poor among them.”

The organization of ZCMI really prepared the way for the United Order movement of the 1870s which, in some communities such as Brigham City, was very successful and proved the communitarianism could work.

The sense that the Second Coming was imminent was prevalent in the Church in the 19th century and preparing for it was a top priority. This was seen as part of the preparation.

Resistance to pure capitalism with an eye towards economic equality was a major feature of the Latter-day Saint movement in its first several decades, and the ZCMI was one of the initiatives that was launched to reflect that focus.

While some of the more thoroughgoing initiatives that sought to establish economic equality among the Latter-day Saints are better known than the ZCMI, such as the United Order of Enoch that took on various forms around Utah, ZCMI was still one aspect of that directive for the Church.

Eliminating poverty as an essential element of establishing Zion (it is mentioned in the New Testament, the Doctrine & Covenants, and in the Pearl of Great Price) and so by living what was appeared to a temporal law, they were really preparing themselves to live a higher law.

It also encouraged the community to be focused on the well-being of everyone as a whole and less on self and personal greed: if it succeeded, everybody benefited; if it failed, everyone was affected. …

The goal of the ZCMI system was to spread the wealth of the community among everyone and not let it be concentrated in just the hands of a few. This was difficult to accept for those who were already merchants.

The wonderful thing about the ZCMI system is that it did work and even people with one share benefited. It is interesting to note that the system was most successful in rural areas but not so much as in the urban areas such as Salt Lake City and Ogden.

As I remember, it was difficult to coordinate in the larger settlements and also more difficult to resist established merchants in the urban areas.  Eventually, the challenges that the Church faced in the late 19th century due to anti-polygamy legislation led to the Church abandoning the communitarian efforts and embracing capitalism as a part of their assimilation into the culture of the United States of America.

Still, the Church continued to operate at least some of the ZCMI establishments throughout the 20th century.  Just prior to the turn of the 21st century, however, the Church divested itself of ZCMI:

When the Church divested itself of its hospitals (which became the Intermountain Healthcare system) in the early 1970s, the stated reasons were that the services offered were 1) duplicative of those available elsewhere and 2) were not central to the stated mission of the Church (at that time identified as perfecting the saints, proclaiming the gospel, and redeeming the dead).

This appears to have been the basis for the Church divesting itself of ZCMI.

The Church created a lot of infrastructure in Utah in the 19th century because there was no other institution that had the capital to do so and, as the Church has grown larger and more international, resources are and will be allocated to support the mission and, subsequently, taken away from those that don’t.

Some cherished Utah institutions, like ZCMI and the Hotel Utah, unfortunately were affected by these decisions because they didn’t fit into the parameters of the three-fold mission. I think that is the lesson to take away from the application of the two-prong test.

While the Church didn’t stay away from businesses like that for long (City Creek Mall took its place by 2012), the name ZCMI is relegated to history.  Yet, in other ways, the ideals that motivated the establishment of ZCMI are still alive within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  As Thompson explained: “The establishment of the welfare program in the 1930s was viewed by many as a re-establishment of the 19th century principles that brought about ZCMI and the United Order,” citing President Marion G. Romney’s statement that: “The welfare program was set up under inspiration . . . It is, in basic principle, the same as the United Order. When we get so we can live it, we will be ready for the United Order.”

For more on the ZCMI, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the interview with Jeffrey Paul Thompson.