Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Wallace Stegner and Jesse Knight

Earlier this year I was editing an article that referenced Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country. Usually our student interns do the source checks for articles, but in this particular article a piece of information was unclear even after the source check, so I wandered over to the Harold B. Lee Library and checked out Stegner’s take on the Mormons. In searching the book for the information I needed, I read enough to realize I had missed something special in ignoring Stegner for all these years, so I decided to hang onto the book for a while and read it, a few pages a day to break up the monotony of fixing punctuation and the frustration of filling in gaps that authors should have filled.
About two hundred pages in, I came to Stegner’s entertaining account of Jesse Knight, Provo’s own Warren Buffett. Knight’s tale is a good follow-up to my last post about inequality, because he wasn’t happy unless he was using his massive wealth to lift up the common people (and get the Church out of debt to boot). Jesse Knight was born the year after Joseph Smith was killed, and his family was poor. His father, Newel, died in 1847 on the trail west. It wasn’t until Jesse was about fifty years old that he “discovered” the Humbug Mine in the Tintic Mining District near Eureka. According to Stegner, Jesse didn’t just happen upon the Humbug Mine. He had a “manifestation” about it. In fact, he had lots of manifestations, and they led him to many productive veins of valuable ore. By the 1890s, of course, Brigham’s united orders had vanished, so there was nothing to prevent Uncle Jesse from accumulating as much wealth as he possibly could. Nothing, that is, except the knowledge that the wealth wasn’t his. God had made him rich, and he knew what God wanted him to do with his money.
Stegner draws a distinct contrast between the Gentile mining camps, with their saloons and bawdy-houses and frequent murders, and Knightsville, where Jesse built a ward house and an amusement hall, organized a school and hired a teacher, paid his workers 25 cents a day more than the going wage and gave them Sundays off, and prohibited tobacco and alcohol.
He didn’t stop at mining. He “built sampling plants, smelters, railroads, mills. In the second decade of the twentieth century he was probably the largest single holder of patented mining interests in the intermountain country. He had the stewardship of all the money he could want, as his initial manifestation had promised him he would. There is something very close to inspiring in the way he used that money.” First, “he paid all his back tithing, with compound interest, for the years in which he had ignored the Church.” And then he set up what today we would probably call microcredit, loaning money to “impoverished brethren.” But he decided there had to be a better way of helping the poor “than lending them money and putting them deeper in the hole.”
So he spent money to put people to work. According to Stegner, “he embarked on a many-sided program of social amelioration. He was a one-man resettlement plan, WPA, Reclamation Service, RFC, FHA, PWA, anticipating by thirty years many of the New Deal’s social experiments, doing it out of no obligation other than the obligation he felt he owed his Church and particularly his people. In other words, he felt his money keenly, and he turned it to social rather than personal uses.” He was no modern conservative, free-market, despise-the-47-percent, anti-share-the-wealth, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps brand of ideologue. “He did his best to redistribute [his wealth] where it might do some good.”
He bought a township and a half in Alberta, Canada, and four thousand head of cattle, and opened a ranch. The next year he bought 226,00 additional acres, agreed to build a beet factory and keep it open for twelve years, laid out a townsite, and sold land to Mormons for whom there was none left in Utah. “On Knight’s townsite a man could buy ten acres of plowed land, ready for planting, at ten dollars an acre with no money due for three years.” He put people to work, at his own expense. When the Canadian officials asked him what on earth he was doing, wasting his fortune like this, he pulled out President Snow’s message and read it to them: “Men and women of wealth, use your riches to give employment to the laborer! Take the idle from the crowded centers of population and place them on the untilled acres that await the hand of industry. Unlock your vault, unloose your purses.” Uncle Jesse took this message personally.
When I read this, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen today if President Monson gave a similar charge in general conference this fall. Of course, in today’s world it wouldn’t make sense to set the needy up on their own little farms. But what if the wealthy, instead of trying to minimize labor costs and maximize their own wealth, took a page from Jesse Knight’s book and hired people at more than market wages? What if they set up businesses that weren’t intended to make a profit but to provide a valuable product and employ people? How different would our economy be?
But Jesse didn’t stop even here. He sold seven electric power plants and used the proceeds (minus tithing) to set up “a personal WPA project. Because there was a good deal of unemployment around Provo, he undertook to build at his own expense . . . a scenic highline drive along the foot of the Wasatch between Provo and Springville, ornamenting it with walnut trees, grapevines, and a concrete waterway. It didn’t, as a matter of fact, get finished, but it got started, and it did the job Jesse wanted it to do.” It employed people in a meaningful endeavor.
But Jesse didn’t stop there either. I work at BYU. That university would certainly not exist today if Jesse Knight had not kept it afloat during its lean years. “He gave land, built buildings, handed over fat envelopes full of bonds, came to commencement and talked to the graduating classes on how to live a good life.” There is a building on campus named after him. I studied in it and taught in it. I’m sure he wouldn’t have asked that his name adorn a building for his donations as so many philanthropists today demand. And something in me wants to say that if you need your name on something because of your generosity, you aren’t really a philanthropist anyway. Years ago, when I was editing the Marriott School’s alumni magazine, I was in the loop on publicizing major gifts to the school. Almost every wealthy donor insisted on having his name on a chair or a professorship. But I remember one donor who refused to have anything named after him. I know his name, but I’m not going to reveal it. He insisted on giving anonymously. The professorship he funded carried an innocuous but descriptive title. I’m sure Uncle Jesse would have been proud of him.
I don’t think we’ve seen anything like Jesse Knight in all the years between his death and today. On a smaller scale perhaps Alan Ashton is following in his footsteps. Jon Huntsman too. In certain respects, so are Larry Miller and his family. There are probably others. But there should be many, many more. When push comes to shove, though, Jesse was a one of a kind.
Wallace Stegner’s conclusion to Jesse Knight’s story is sobering and thought-provoking. Jesse Knight, he says, “underlined the differences between Mormon and Gentile philosophies. His abiding sense of the group and the group’s needs, his respect for the common man, and his concept of money as an instrument of social betterment were a reflection of that part of Mormonism—unhappily weaker than it used to be—which was unerringly prophetic. And there is one of the curious facts about Mormonism in general: the prophetic elements of its doctrine, the advanced social program, all those points of belief and system which pointed toward a planned economy, have grown weaker in Mormonism as they acquired strength and followers in the world at large. As the Gentile society which in the beginning matched the profit motive against Mormonism’s hope of Heaven begins gradually to readjust itself, having gone as far as it can go, Mormonism reveals itself as an economic empire, an empire of dollars instead of the dreamed-of empire of men. By the time the world knows enough to learn from Mormonism and other societies with a similar sense of dedication to an ideal, Mormonism has been converted to the other side. At least the Church has.”
He wrote this in 1942. I wonder what he would say today.


  1. Astonishing! Thanks for sharing that story of Jesse Knight. I too wonder what Wallace Stegner would think of the Church today.

  2. Thought-provoking! Having been a student at BYU, I wish I'd been curious enough to find out about Jesse Knight instead of just ignorantly attending classes in the building that bears his name.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I grew up and still live in Raymond (the Canadian town he established and named after his son). I had some vague notions of who Jesse was but appreciate the further insights into his life and how he choose to live it.