Utah's radical history may surprise some

Nov 14 2011 - 1:07pm


Did you know that more than 110 self-described socialists were elected in towns and cities across Utah between 1900 and 1920?

Or that about 40 percent of members of Utah's socialist parties 100 years ago -- much to the chagrin of their church's leadership -- were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Or that one ancestor of today's Standard-Examiner newspaper, the Ogden Standard, ran a weekly socialist column for several years, and for a couple of years ran dueling weekly columns from the Socialist Party and the more radical Socialist Labor Party?

These are nuggets of information garnered from "A History of Utah Radicalism: Startling, Socialistic, and Decidedly Revolutionary" (Utah State University Press, 2011), written by Weber State University professor emeritus John R. Sillito and John S. McCormick, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Salt Lake Community College.

"Utah Radicalism" is an affectionate look at a long-expired love affair that Utah's working class, and a few intellectuals, had with socialism as it was defined a century ago. The authors' research can be exhausting at times. Pages are devoted -- in detail -- to Socialist picnics, dinners, speeches and campaigns. The careful detail provides the reader a sense of the outsider intimacy that defined Utah's socialists of that period.

According to Sillito and McCormick, Utah socialists who achieved elected office were best described as "respectable reformers," who didn't stray into more dogmatic socialist doctrine while serving in office. It would have been difficult to do otherwise, since the municipal responsibilities of these socialists did not extend to national or international affairs.

In Utah during the 20 years socialism competed with the mainstream, the party managed to elect majorities in several cities, including Murray and Eureka.

Nevertheless, as the authors recount, factionalism still raged inside the party. More than a few Utah socialists, after being elected, were expelled from the party for casting votes that diverged from party dogma.

Ogden's role

Ogden's railroad town roots, and its diverse population, offered socialists some success. Besides the weekly columns, socialists conducted meetings in places such as the Ogden LDS Tabernacle and the Weber County Courthouse, and held outdoor meetings. Also, Ogden had elected a mayor and city council members from the Populist Party, a precursor to socialist parties.

Prominent state socialists of that era, including Ogden resident Kate Hilliard, Henry Lawrence, Brigham City-born Virginia Snow Stephen (daughter of LDS prophet Lorenzo Snow) and clergyman William Thurston Brown, lectured, tracted and campaigned in Ogden. Junction City also had a strong union presence that socialism efforts worked to exploit.

Socialists of that era were very optimistic, according to Sillito and McCormick.

Adherents assumed that socialism, rather than the capitalism status quo, was just around the corner. Many of the things Utah socialists fought for -- eight-hour workdays, five-day work weeks, worker benefits -- are the norm today.

However, Utah's socialists were not merely radical liberals. Most loathed the two major parties as one and the same, and saw socialism as a Christ-like form of democracy that would bring happiness and prosperity.

Utah socialists also supported both Russian revolutionary movements and were staunch opponents of U.S. involvement in World War I, which they regarded as a battle between opposing exploitative interests.

The collapse

So why did socialism in Utah, which seemed to hit a peak between 1910 and 1912, collapse by 1920? The authors offer various reasons that sometimes conflict. One reason cited is that socialists, when elected to office, behaved no differently than the two major parties.

Yet, it's clear that the influence of the more radical Socialist Labor Party and the even more radical Industrial Workers of the World union (Wobblies) hurt socialism's efforts to gain or retain adherents in Utah.

Another damaging stance must have been socialists' opposition to the U.S. efforts in World War I, as well as their support of Bolshevism in Russia. Both would have been deemed unpatriotic by many.

Also, as mentioned, socialism in Utah suffered from internal strife, with members being expelled or switching to the Socialist Labor Party or the explicitly anti-Mormon American Party.

Sillito and McCormick devote two chapters to the Mormon Church's relationship with -- and strong opposition to -- socialism in Utah. Church leaders compared socialist parties, and unions, to the secret criminal organizations described in the Book of Mormon. Socialist efforts were called "satanic," and the sole Mormon leader who flirted with socialistic ideas, Moses Thatcher, was eventually dropped from the Quorum of the 12 Apostles for his divergent opinions.

The reasons for the LDS Church's strong opposition to socialism in the early 20th century, the authors explain, define the evolution of the church's moving from a utopian society to a capitalist-supporting entity.

The church had criticized earlier socialist utopias as efforts devoid of spirituality. However, as the 19th century neared an end, LDS Church leaders, facing national seizure of church assets due to anti-polygamy laws, made a conscious decision to put earlier dreams of a socialist United Order utopia and polygamy aside.

Leaders ended polygamy, embraced free enterprise and turned the United Order utopia into a vague sometime-in-the-future doctrine. The rise of socialism clashed with the LDS Church's break from the United Order and its embrace of business interests. The predictable result was fierce denunciations of socialism by church leaders and their journalistic organs.

"Utah Radicalism" is a great, informative read for students of socialism and Utah history. Others would be better off selecting particular chapters to peruse. Sillito and McCormick devote a chapter to the Ogden Morning Examiner's socialist column, another to street preaching, another to socialist rhetoric, another to life as a Utah socialist, and so on.

The authors deserve kudos for presenting in great detail, and with enthusiasm, a history of a movement previously consigned to archives.


Gibson is the Standard-Examiner's opinion editor. He can be reached at dgibson@standard.net.


1) That, between 1900 and 1920, about 115 socialists were elected to public office in Utah?

2) That, for several years, the Ogden Standard published weekly columns from Utah socialist leaders.

3) That socialists conducted Ogden meetings in the LDS tabernacle, the Ogden opera house and the Weber County Courthouse

4) That the LDS Church fiercely opposed socialism, describing it as "satanic," but nevertheless, more than 40 percent of Utah socialists were Latter-Day Saints

5) That Virginia Snow Stephen, the daughter of LDS Church president Lorenzo Snow, was a prominent Utah socialist.

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