Question: What were banks like at the time that the Kirtland Safety Society was established?

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Question: What were banks like at the time that the Kirtland Safety Society was established?

Kirtland was not alone in this struggle—hundreds of frontier communities tried to set up banks in the late 1830s

This sort of situation is difficult for a modern reader to appreciate: we have easy world-wide banking, debit cards, credit cards, mortgages, and lines of credit. Kirtland was not alone in this struggle—hundreds of frontier communities tried to set up banks in the late 1830s.

As one author remarked:

The founders of the Kirtland Bank would have avoided their distress if national and state leaders had allowed financial markets to grow in an orderly manner. One medium-sized, twenty-year mortgage would have solved most of the financial problems faced by these founders.[1]

The Saints were land rich but cash poor. Credit was scarce on the frontier, and even specie was in short supply. The Saints could not easily convert their considerable land wealth into cash to pay for purchases. (One cannot, for example, pay someone 1/10 of an acre of land for a barrel of nails!)

There were no national banks, and many Democrats were strongly anti-bank. Those on the frontier needed help desperately to keep their economies moving:

The attitude was, essentially, that "the East won't finance us and if they do, they will kill us with interest." The conclusion that frontier communities should finance themselves, whatever their hard equity, was not unique to Kirtland. Added to the economic condition of the western frontier was the Mormon impulse favoring self-sufficiency.[2]

The failure of the Kirtland bank was not unusual, especially for rural banks—fully half of the banks formed in the 1830s had failed by 1845. This was due in large part to the economic realities of the time:

Most economic historians do not believe that banks at that time were usually operated by unprincipled men for selfish ends. More typically, it is the consensus that the instability of bank credit was inherent in the structure of the banking system and involved factors beyond the control of individual banks. The main flaw in state banking in the 1830s was that it was predominantly a rural institution and had little liquidity or shift-ability. In the large cities of the East, loans could be liquidated—that is, turned into cash quickly—by simply calling for payment, but this could not be done in the outlying areas...Thus the reckless and inexperienced management of many state banks was combined with a scarcity of productive commercial loans to create a state banking system with grave weaknesses. As a consequence, most state banks fulfilled their functions at the expense of constant bank failures, violent business fluctuations, and enormous losses to noteholders and depositors.[3]

Notes

  1. Adams, 481–482.
  2. Edwin Brown Firmage and Richard Collin Mangrum, Zion in the Courts : a Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 54–58. ISBN 0252069803.
  3. Scott H. Partridge, "The Failure of the Kirtland Safety Society," Brigham Young University Studies 12 no. 4 (Summer 1972), 446–447.