One of the benefits of working for a multinational company is that one gets to see a lot of places one might never have visited otherwise. Like Salt Lake City. Had it not been because of work, chances are I’d never have gone there – it sort of didn’t make my bucket list, no matter that I knew it was a city founded by Mormons back in the 19th century when everyone was persecuting Mormons. The tenacious forefathers of today’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) decided to go really, really far west, which is how they ended up in Godforsaken desert by a huge body of salt water.
Not so Godforsaken, it would turn out. Once Brigham Young et al decided to settle in this arid wasteland they performed irrigational miracles, and soon enough the desert flowered. It still does, come to think of it, and Salt Lake City is not only a nicely green city, it is also one of those cities that is readily accessible to those that walk – assuming, of course, you can handle the heat. Hot enough to fry that proverbial egg – or so it feels when you’ve committed the mistake of going out for a walk around noon in July.
These days, Salt Lake City is a city pushing the million or so, and approximately 50 – 60% are practising members of LDS. Once upon a time, it was nothing but a plain of shimmering heat – and flies, because the Great Salt Lake attracts them in droves. When those first intrepid settlers crossed the daunting Wasatch mountains, they found a harsh land, the Ute Indian eeking out a sad hand-to-mouth existence.
But let’s take a step back, and try to understand just what it was that drove these men – and women – to undertake an arduous journey over unchartered terrain to start a colony in the back of beyond. The obvious starting point would be Joseph Smith, founder and first prophet of the Mormon church, but I actually think we need to look even further back, to the social tensions and unrest caused by the combination of the industrialisation and the end of the Napoleonic wars.
As a consequence of the industrialisation, people moved from the country to the cities, thereby severing their ties to the communities and customs that had regulated human life and interaction for centuries. Promises were made, a bright new world was there for the taking, and labourers came in their thousands to work in the factories – only to realise this new world of theirs was mostly dirty and harsh, endless hours spent working one machine or another. The wars at the turn of the 18th to 19th century created an increasing demand for more weapons, more cloth, and factories popped up like mushrooms.
And then, to quote Abba “at Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender”. The wars that had consumed such a huge share of the industrial output were over. Some factories had to close down, and when the men returned from the front it was to a world where there were no jobs to be found. Social unrest followed – in England, the Peterloo Massacre was a result of all this, the powers that were refusing to recognise the needs of the downtrodden.
When societies go through difficult times, spiritual movements thrive. Desperate people who cannot find what they need here, on Earth, turn more and more to God, hoping to find in Heaven what was denied them while alive. Others decide to take matters into their own hands, attempting to recreate perfect, egalitarian societies that emulate Utopia. And voilà, here – albeit in a very simplified form – you have the background for the Utopian movement that swept the world – and in particular America – in the 19th century.
Utopian movements were generally the brainchild of one very convinced – and convincing – person, who succeeded in attracting a number of lost and restless souls by promising them a new start in life. Some of these prophets were not interested in starting a new religion, they just wanted to create a community that lived by its own rules – like the New Harmony commune in Indiana, founded by a Welsh industrialist named Robert Owens. Others had religious overtones, such as the Amana Colony, led by the charismatic German Herr Metz, who brought his Christian flock with him from Germany to escape religious persecution and start anew, first in Buffalo, NY, and subsequently in Iowa.
And then we have the most successful of the utopian movements, namely the Mormon Church – the present day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – which rather neatly brings us back to Joseph Smith, born in 1805. When he was about eleven, his family moved to Palmyra, NY. At the time, the American nation was in the grips of the global religious fervour sweeping the Western world – the so called Second Awakening – and various branches of the Christian church were proselyting somewhat aggressively. Joseph is described as being a seeker in his youth, but he was purportedly more than confused by all these preachers representing various denominations.
Smith came from a devout family, and both his father and grandfather had experienced visions, so I’m guessing the fifteen-year-old Joseph took it in stride when God appeared to him in the woods, telling the adolescent to eschew all religious teaching but that contained in the Holy Book. The gospel, God said, contained the truth – the only truth. Not a controversial statement for a confirmed Christian, but it did give Joseph some spiritual guidance in the years to come.
Some years later, Joseph was visited by the angel Moroni – a new acquaintance for those only familiar with the angels of the Bible – and directed to a spot near his home where the angel said he’d find a book of golden plates containing the history of a lost American people. Initially, the angel did not allow Joseph to dig up the plates – and it was not until Joseph was twenty-two and married that he was finally able to unearth the buried treasure. The Book of Mormon had seen the light of day.
Very many people – 20 million, give or take – believe in the Book of Mormon. They genuinely believe that Joseph Smith found several golden plates engraved in a language akin to ancient Egyptian. They also believe that Joseph, guided by heavenly inspiration, translated these plates into English and published them. While the plates themselves disappeared once Joseph had finished the translation – Moroni took them back – as many as eleven witnesses have attested to seeing them. Personally, I remain somewhat doubtful as to the whole gold plate thing – nor do I find the Book of Mormon an easy read, the language cumbersome and repetitive – but undoubtedly many, many people find guidance in Joseph Smith’s publication.
The Book of Mormon is the story of one Lehi, who with his sons sets out on a journey across the ocean, guided by God. He arrives in present day Mexico, where the new arrivals establish a colony. Over the years, the previously so godly people divide into Nephites and Lamanites, fall into sin and war constantly with each other, and despite a visitation by Jesus after his resurrection, ultimately the descendants of Lehi destroy themselves, the whole story committed to the golden plates by Mormon, last scion of this ancient race. Well, second to last, as Mormon entrusts the plates to his son, Moroni – who, after his death, becomes an angel – and he adds a few final bits and pieces before burying them in northern USA.
Obviously, the above carried quite some resonance with the people of America, most of whom were descendants of colonists. Here was a religion rooted ON the American continent, and people were intrigued. Not everyone, seeing as Mr Smith did not have an unblemished record – he had supported himself as a treasure seeker and had even been hauled before the court for fraudulence – and many therefore saw this as yet another money-making scheme. Besides, the notion that the Bible was not the only God-given text did not always go down well, and so Smith and his acolytes saw no other option but to establish their settlements elsewhere.
Mr Smith was a charismatic man – and a handsome man, who attracted more than his fair share of female interest. He was also driven by the need to build a good society, a world in which those that had would gladly share with their less fortunate brethren. All in all, a commendable ambition, and it is no wonder so many people joined this fledgling church, even when it meant striking out into unknown lands to build a community centred round the teachings of God and Joseph.
The Mormons spent the first few years in a somewhat nomadic existence. Several years in Ohio (the first Temple was built in Kirtland) ended under something of a cloud in connection with a Mormon-run bank endeavour that went bust and after a detour through Missouri that ended rather violently in the so called Mormon War (and with Smith kicking his heels in prison for several months), Smith and his followers came to Nauvoo, Illinois, where an impressive town soon began to take shape – by 1844, it boasted 12 000 inhabitants, making it one of the more sizeable towns in the U.S.
No matter their community-building skills, the Mormons were often viewed with suspicion by other settlers who were wary of these people with their high ideals of setting the well-being of the group before that of the individual. Plus they were doubtful to this so called religion: was it not some sort of heresy to declare there were other holy texts than the Bible? And then there was the issue of polygamy.
To this day, you say the word “Mormon”, and people will say “aha, the polygamists.” This is wrong. Modern day Mormons do not hold with polygamy, have not done so since back in the 19th century. But is undoubtedly one of those things that stick in your mind, the notion of one man surrounded by a harem of wives.
As early as 1835, Smith reputedly denied charges of adultery by saying the woman in question was his wife – albeit another wife than his original wife, Emma. Over the years, there were incidents where other men accused Joseph of having designs on their wives, and in 1843 Mr Smith put in writing the revelations that made polygamy the norm for the members of his church.
Not everyone agreed. In fact, many of the members of the church were shocked to their core by the notion – both men and women. ( One of those very upset by this was Emma Smith – rather understandably, IMO) Besides, polygamy came with the major, major drawback of being socially unacceptable. The majority of the people living in the United States of America were horrified by a practice so att odds with what the established Christian churches preached, and soon enough forces were on the move to make it illegal to take multiple wives.
In one fell swoop, Joseph Smith had handed his detractors the moral weapon with which to persecute and hound his following, and hound they did, to the point that the Mormons felt obliged to fight back. (Just to clarify: Mormons were not meek and turn-the-other-cheek types. They were more than willing to take up arms in defence of their beliefs as would be proved in the Utah War in the 1850s)
In some cases it was a matter of internal strife, former close colleagues to Smith protesting volubly (and in print) against his various doctrines – including polygamy. Smith brutally squashed the protesters, and in the following aftermath Joseph Smith was arrested and locked up. Come dark, an angry mob broke into the jail and murdered Smith. The Mormon Church had lost its founding prophet – and acquired its first martyr.
It was because of all this unrest, coupled with a determination to live their lives according to what they perceived as God’s will, that the Mormons, now under the leadership of Brigham Young (and yes, he had many, many wives) decided to go west – into Mexican territory. The so called Mormon Trail starts in Nauvoo and snakes its way across Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming, crossing everything from wide open plains to craggy mountains. Not exactly a Sunday jaunt, this was an endless toiling months on end – for many of the faithful a journey undertaken on foot with their belongings in a handcart. And at the end, as they finally crested the peaks of the Wasatch mountains, there was the promised land: Salt Lake City, shimmering in the heat and, as of 1892, with the golden statue of Angel Moroni atop the temple. For those who had travelled for months on end, fuelled by their faith, I suppose it must have been one of the more beautiful sights in the world.
Thousands upon thousands of believers made the hard trek to Salt Lake City in the latter half of the nineteenth century. People from all over the world pulled up their roots and sold everything they had to move to the desert heat of Utah, there to participate in building a better place for themselves, their children and the future generations. They came with the word of God ringing in their head, they came with the Book of Mormon clutched to their heart. They came because they believed, because they hoped.
It was a harsh life. The desert flowered only due to perseverance and hard work. The heat was an issue, some years the crops failed, and on one occasion the entire Salt Lake Valley was infested by locusts – but from somewhere swooped huge flocks of gulls and ate them all. Over the last few decades of the 19th century there were also mounting tensions between the pioneering Mormons and the Federal government of the United States, which had annected Utah from Mexico.
Eventually, some sort of accord was reached – this is when the Church of Latter Day Saints abandoned polygamy and Utah became a member state of the United States – and today, the Temple Square of Salt Lake City is a tranquil oasis of white buildings, a lot of water and magnificent flowerbeds. If you are given to pondering the greater issues of life and the hereafter, this is an excellent place to do so, no matter your beliefs. And it is my very own personal opinion that no matter what denomination God holds to – and I dare say He has a pluralistic approach – He is on occasion to be found in the brightness of the Utah sky!