The cover image for the new Amazon Prime documentary series “LuLaRich” features a woman with her hands raised up as though she is praying or giving praise. The series’ subject matter isn’t overtly religious, however. It’s about leggings.
Or, to be more specific, the sale of leggings. “LuLaRich” documents the conception and meteoric rise of LuLaRoe, a direct-sales or multilevel marketing (MLM) company that generated massive profits for its owners and brought many thousands of people, mostly women, onboard to sell colorful leggings and other clothing to women in their own social networks.
At the heart of the story are attitudes about work, gender and the American Dream. But another, less remarked upon part of the saga of LuLaRoe and other MLMs is their place in recent American religious history and, in particular, the way this company has tapped into the culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to build its own power.
Very early on we learn that LuLaRoe’s founders, Mark and DeAnne Stidham, are LDS members. Although the company was secular, the founders’ religious identity was also central to its operation. One sales person describes a company retreat where “Mark began quoting the Book of Mormon.” Both Stidhams grew up in Utah and later moved to Southern California. Utah is seeding ground for MLMs, with more per capita than any other state. Understanding the history of Mormons in America is essential for understanding the appeal of MLMs to Mormon women today.
In the mid-19th century, Latter-day Saints traveled west to escape religious persecution and gain independence. Converts gathered together and built communities — often insular communities, sometimes growing at an alarming rate in the eyes of others nearby. Sometimes they chose to leave their homes in the east, while other times they were pushed out by state-sponsored expulsion. Cloistered spiritually and economically, a fear of difference led some to question whether Mormonism was a religion at all, while others feared Mormons’ economic and political power. Those fears converged violently. After their prophet, Joseph Smith, was killed in 1844 in Illinois, the Saints chose to leave the area and colonize Native American land in the West, in what became Utah territory. Forged in a kind of exile, Latter-day Saints were always community builders.
LDS women of the 19th century were often required to care for their families alone while husbands were away on missions. Some were in polygamous marriages with absentee husbands or husbands with attentions stretched thin, and so women did a lot for themselves. Some LDS women, especially those with absentee husbands, managed farms and families alone. Home industry — selling straw hats, oil cloths and homespun material — became a significant part of the economy in Utah, helping the LDS community become independent from outside influences in the latter half of the 19th century. LDS women found community together and supported one another economically.
After the Mormon practice of polygamy ended, the emphasis on family endured. While women were encouraged to get an education, it was never supposed to come at the expense of family.