p. 816. Nineteenth-century Utah
- Richard Lyman Bushman
After Smith's death the movement split, the largest group being led by Brigham Young. Throughout the 19th century, Utah was the destination of more than 80,000 Mormons who migrated from the eastern United States and Europe, often driven by persecution. Brigham Young became an expert colonizer, setting up all the necessary institutions of civic life in a blend of church and state. Plural marriage reached its peak in the decade after its announcement in 1852, the main reason being religious, but it also integrated single immigrant women without other support into the society. Young 's plans foundered after the government required the church to dismantle the theocracy and polygamy.
When Joseph Smith died in June 1844, he left no clear line of succession—or rather he left too many potential successors. He had taken great pride in the councils he had organized to manage various units of the church, foremost among them the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, whose senior member at the time of his death was Brigham Young. In the succession controversy in the summer of 1844, Young put forward the case for the Twelve Apostles, with himself as their head, to lead the church—a kind of Peter of the latter days.
Besides commissioning the Twelve, Smith had spoken of priesthood descending through family lines, and he was said to have given blessings to his son Joseph Smith III promising him a leading role. In addition, Joseph Smith's longtime colleague and unwavering counselor in the First Presidency, Sidney Rigdon, aspired to succeed the Prophet. At a public meeting in Nauvoo on August 8, 1844, two months after Smith's death, Rigdon made his case for his right to lead as former counselor to the Prophet. Rigdon spoke for an hour and a half in the morning, and that afternoon Brigham Young spoke for himself and the Twelve. Young claimed that Smith had conferred the governing priesthood authority on the Twelve Apostles. When the p. 82↵congregation was asked to vote, they raised their hands for the Apostles. A month later Rigdon was still asserting his superiority to the Twelve and was excommunicated. The following spring he organized his own church with its own apostles and prophet. Ignoring his other rivals, Young took charge of the main body of the church as it prepared for its western exodus.
p. 83Although Young asserted his authority over the most coherent group of Mormons at the time, the succession question remained alive. Large numbers of Smith's followers did not accept Young and the Twelve as the legitimate heirs to Joseph Smith. A variety of claims arose in Smith's wake, the most successful initially being that of James J. Strang, a recent convert to Mormonism who reported revelations and opened a colony on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Strang gathered a surprising number of onetime Mormons to his fold before, going from excess to excess, he was shot to death by two disillusioned followers, and his church collapsed.
Subsequently, the most successful attempt to form an alternative to Young and the Utah Mormons was the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) formed in the late 1850s. This movement sprang up among scattered Mormons who chose not to go west but still desired the spiritual satisfactions of Smith's restoration. The organizers of this movement, led by Jason W. Briggs and Zenos H. Gurley, eventually persuaded Joseph Smith III to acknowledge his legacy as the Prophet's firstborn and take the presidency. Along with her son, Emma Smith, now married to Lewis Bidamon, joined the movement.
Always smaller and milder than the Utah Mormons, the Reorganized Church offered an alternative version of Joseph Smith's restoration for the thousands of Mormons who were uneasy with plural marriage, temple rites, and Brigham Young. To the end of the century, the Utah leadership worried about the claims of Joseph's firstborn to the church presidency. The RLDS Church claims were strong enough to win court cases over legal succession, giving them control of major Mormon sites such as the temple in Kirtland and Smith's property in Nauvoo. The RLDS eventually made Independence, Missouri, the original Zion, its headquarters and established a presence in the Midwest. For a century and a half, a direct descendant of Joseph Smith governed the RLDS Church until precedent was broken in 1996, when a p. 84↵leader was chosen on the basis of experience and competence rather than descent.
After Smith's death, the Nauvoo Saints under Brigham Young hoped for a respite from the persecution that had plagued them while Smith lived. He had been the target of the most intense opposition; would his removal dissipate the enmity? To the Mormons' dismay, the anger and fear only increased. In the fall of 1845, the governor of Illinois informed Young that the Mormons had to go or be exposed to further vigilante attacks. The body of Mormons was still large enough to control many county offices, and the same individuals who had directed their fire against Smith now turned on the Mormons as a whole. When their enemies burned two hundred houses and barns, the Mormons saw they must leave. By January 1845, Young was planning an exodus beyond the borders of the United States to a yet undetermined destination. Texas, Upper California, and Oregon were all given consideration. Gradually Upper California emerged as the most suitable site for a Mormon colony.
The first contingent of Mormons left Nauvoo when trails to the West were not yet open and before the grass for cattle was growing. After frantic preparations for departure in the fall and winter, Young led the first party across the Mississippi on February 4, 1846. For the next three months a pitiful string of Mormon wagons worked its way across Iowa to the Missouri River, where they built winter quarters and gathered their forces for a year before continuing the journey to Utah. In July 1847, after a 1,300-mile journey, Brigham Young led the first party of Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley, where he established headquarters for the migrants who were to follow.
Through the nineteenth century, Utah was the destination of more than eighty thousand Mormons who migrated from their p. 85↵homelands in the eastern United States and Europe to the new Zion. Brigham Young became an expert colonizer, famed in American history. He planted hundreds of settlements from Idaho to Arizona and as far away as California. Accustomed to thinking of themselves as a society, the Mormons combined civic and ecclesiastical organizations to keep the peace, build irrigation canals, regulate water distribution, organize schools, and handle every aspect of civil government. Well before the United States established a territorial government, the Mormons, building on the tradition of the City of Zion, set up all the necessary institutions of civic life in a smooth blend of church and state.
These pioneering years had far less impact on Mormonism than the immensely creative period of the founding under Joseph Smith. Modern Mormons still reach back to Smith's revelations to authenticate their beliefs and practices. No church leader since Smith has shaped Mormon culture so definitively. But Brigham Young and his successors in nineteenth-century Utah left their mark. Mormons still call upon memories of Young's achievements to define themselves in the twenty-first century. Because the pioneer period tested Mormon mettle, Mormons tap the nineteenth century less for doctrine than for the definition of their character.
To this day, Mormons celebrate the 24th of July, the day Brigham Young arrived in the valley, as a Mormon festival on a par with the 4th of July. The pioneer period stands alongside the restoration of the gospel by Joseph Smith as a key episode in the heroic era of Latter-day Saint history. The oft-repeated stories of the westward trek inspire modern Mormons to develop pioneer virtues themselves. To dramatize the early Mormons' heroics, young Mormons go on “treks” during which they live a few days under pioneer conditions, sometimes pulling handcarts across difficult terrain in imitation of their forefathers' hardships. Children sing a song about the handcart pioneers having to “walk and walk and p. 86↵walk and walk.” Pioneer suffering and courage are reminders of the obligation to carry on the faith under the hardships and trials of modern times. Converts across the world are absorbed into the pioneer epic. They are depicted as modern pioneers whose difficult journey was to join the church and establish Zion in their own countries. The pioneer story is meant to imbue the coming generations with a resolve not to betray their heritage.
The practice of plural marriage, the single best known feature of Mormonism in the nineteenth century and even now, is far more difficult to assimilate into modern Mormons' self-understanding. It clashes with the church's emphasis on perfect loyalty between husband and wife and eternal companionship. Mormons have trouble explaining to themselves why the practice was instituted. Many put the doctrine on the shelf, hoping they can understand it later.
Plural marriage also raises questions about Joseph Smith. What were his motives? Mormons believe a revelation commanded him to take additional wives, but the lurid accounts by non-Mormon critics throw his character into question. Did his libido affect his judgment? Mormons are most concerned about Smith's relationship with his wife Emma, a woman he apparently loved deeply. Why did he hide his other marriages from her for so long? He seemed to sacrifice his relationship with his wife to comply with his revelation.
Joseph Smith instituted plural marriage secretly in Nauvoo in the 1840s, but by the time the Saints had established their beachhead in Utah, its existence was common knowledge. The practice was publicly announced at a church general conference in 1852. Smith had married his first plural wife in the early 1830s in response to a revelation he apparently received in 1831 but said nothing about for a decade. In 1841, he began to marry additional women until p. 87↵the number grew to more than thirty. (Incomplete records make it impossible to determine an exact number.) Smith probably understood the explosive nature of this new revelation and seems to have resisted complying himself. In 1843, in an effort to persuade his resistant first wife, Emma, he dictated a transcription of the words he claims to have received.
The revelation offered no rationale for plural marriage satisfactory to modern understanding. The chief justification was that Abraham and the ancient patriarchs had several wives, and Joseph and the church were to follow their lead as part of the restoration of all things. Smith had turned to the Hebrew Bible for the temple and priesthood; now that same search yielded plural marriage. The Book of Mormon, in a passage condemning men for taking concubines, added a little insight. Almost tangentially, it commented that monogamy was the divine standard unless God “will raise up seed unto me.” Only then would he command his people, as if plural marriage were instituted by the Lord from time to time when he wished to create a new people (Jacob 2:30).
Critics accused Smith of indulging his lusts and exercising his authority to create a harem for his own pleasure. That image does not comport with the way he went about the practice. He usually approached the relatives of his potential wives to seek permission. He did not romance women in order to persuade them but explained doctrine: They and their families would be blessed eternally if the woman would agree to marry the Prophet. If she concurred, the pair was formally married in a ceremony with witnesses. Although there is clear evidence that some sexual relations were involved, Smith did not set up a harem. The extent of his relationships with his plural wives is unclear; he could not have seen them frequently and still kept the fact hidden from Emma. No indisputable offspring resulted from the marriages, in contrast to her frequent pregnancies. DNA tests of purported male descendants have yielded only negative results. p. 88↵Except in a few instances of women already residing in his household, Smith did not take his plural wives into his home. After marriage, the women returned to live with their families, and he spent little time with them. He seems to have been motivated by a passion to be bound to people more than to indulge his sexual desires. In the same period, orphans and other children were sealed to him as their father. One passage in the marriage revelation promised that God would give him “an hundredfold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children, and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:55).
Plural marriage reached its peak in the decade after its announcement in 1852. In the decennial federal censuses, the highest percentage of the population in polygamous families was in 1860: 43.6 percent. After that the number of plural marriages declined until only 25 percent of the population was in polygamous families in 1880 and 7.1 percent in 1900. The main reason for marrying plurally was religious. The plural marriage rate shot up when church leaders emphasized the principle and declined as the preaching relaxed. The 1850s, a period of religious reformation in Utah, produced many plural marriages. If asked why they entered these relationships, both plural wives and husbands emphasized the spiritual blessings of being sealed eternally and of submitting to God's will.
Besides the doctrinal reasons, the practice made some economic sense. The close study of the marriages in one nineteenth-century Utah community revealed that a disproportionate number of plural wives were women who arrived in Utah without fathers or brothers to care for them. As immigration surged, so did plural marriages, integrating single women without other support into the society. Since better-off men more frequently married plurally, the practice distributed wealth to the poor and disconnected. Most of these polygamous families included only two wives at one time, though other wives may have been attached to the husband before p. 89↵
death or divorce. Men with higher ecclesiastical standing had three wives at a time on average.
The church renounced plural marriage in 1890 as a necessary condition for Utah to achieve statehood. It had been long denied—when the state was otherwise qualified—because of objections to the practice. The Manifesto, as the announcement by church president Wilford Woodruff was called, did not repudiate polygamy as a principle but declared only that no more plural marriages were being performed. The original plural marriage revelation is still included in the canon of Latter-day Saint scripture. The reason is that the revelation also contains the doctrine of eternal marriage, one of the preeminent tenets of contemporary Mormonism. Besides commanding Smith to take additional wives, the marriage revelation taught that marriages p. 90↵performed by the priesthood would last forever. Moreover, men and women could not reach the highest realms of heavenly glory unless bound to each other as husband and wife. If they were “sealed,” their union would last eternally, including the capacity for offspring. The highest condition humans could achieve was to be bound into eternal families.
What carried over from the nineteenth century, then, was celestial or eternal marriage minus the plurality of wives. The doctrine of eternal bonding remains, but without the obligation to take more wives. Mormons believe that the commitment for eternity strengthens marriage in this life. In practice a temple marriage is no guarantee of perfect bliss, nor does it prevent divorce. Temple-married couples can divorce civilly, freeing them to remarry, and with difficulty can be unsealed eternally, but the percentage of divorce is far lower than among the married population as a whole, partly, no doubt, the result of the common values the partners share. The idea of an eternal marriage also motivates the couple to make the marriage work.
p. 91After 1890, some Mormons resolved to continue what they called “the principle” despite the instruction of the First Presidency, wanting to retain both marriage for eternity and plurality of wives. These “fundamentalists” fractured into various sects that continue polygamy to this day. They believe that the church administration erred in abandoning a fundamental of Mormonism. To their way of thinking, the church buckled under pressure. Some claim that their founder received a special commission from an earlier church president, John Taylor, to keep the faith after the rest of the church went astray. Although they comprise a tiny fraction of all the kinds of Mormons, they generate press far out of proportion to their numbers. Some attempt to remain within the fold of the mother church in the belief that the temple rites still are valid. The church repudiates these groups and excommunicates their members if discovered.
Although the marriage revelation still stands among the church's canonized scriptures, neither leaders nor lay Mormons show any disposition to return to polygamy. Mormons think of nineteenth-century plural marriage as a test of devotion, one they might not pass themselves. They honor their polygamous ancestors but admire them from afar. Plural marriage is chiefly experienced as a burden in their relations with non-Mormons. The most common response to news that a fellow worker is a Mormon is the good-hearted jibe “How many wives do you have?” Mormons quickly disabuse the inquirers about plural marriage today and marvel that the old idea has survived for more than a century after polygamy was ended.
Women of Mormondom
The practice of plural marriage had a strangely contradictory effect on women in nineteenth-century Utah. In popular mythology, the plural wife was browbeaten, repressed, and backward, the victim of her patriarchal husband's dominant desires. And Mormon women did complain about having to share their p. 92↵husbands, thinking of a relationship more in keeping with the romantic ideal. Husbands sometimes distanced themselves from their wives and failed to give each one adequate attention. Many women suffered from poverty in a lean economy with many mouths to feed.
Yet Mormon women did not disappear into meek obscurity. With Brigham Young's encouragement, they asserted themselves in politics and the economy. The national critics of plural marriage thought that one solution to polygamy was to give Utah women the vote; once enfranchised, it was assumed, they would remove all pro-polygamy officeholders. But that prediction proved to be unfounded. Mormon women conducted public rallies in support of plural marriage. Whatever sufferings they may have undergone or complaints they secretly harbored, Mormon women publicly supported the principle. Confident of their backing, the Utah territorial legislature granted them the franchise in 1870, second only to the women of Wyoming. While most other women were still campaigning for this recognition, Mormon women were voting until the federal government took away the right in 1887.
Emboldened by their privileges in Utah, Mormon women enthusiastically joined the campaign for national woman suffrage. They were recognized by national suffrage leaders as among the most advanced women in the country. With the blessing of Brigham Young, Mormon women founded a journal, the Woman's Exponent, in which they voiced their opinions on every issue of the day—though they remained unfailingly loyal to church leadership.
Modern Mormon women who had largely forgotten this legacy rediscovered the Woman's Exponent in the 1970s and recognized kindred spirits in this previous generation. The modern women revived the nineteenth-century journal, calling it Exponent II, again with a basic loyalty to the church and its doctrine but committed to exploring the role of women in Mormondom. They used the example of their nineteenth-century ancestors to p. 93↵negotiate their relationship with the feminist movement of the late twentieth century. Unlike Catholic and Protestant women, few Mormons campaigned for ordination to the priesthood, which would have given them access to the higher positions of church leadership. They knew from everyday experience that women had plenty of responsibility in the lay-run congregations where there were rarely enough men and women to perform all the necessary tasks. Women preached and prayed in church, they taught classes, and they had a limited but consistent place in congregational leadership councils. What Mormon women wanted, as measured by the writings in Exponent II, was a voice. They wanted to count when decisions were made, and they insisted that attention be paid to the peculiar problems of young mothers, single women, abused women, and others in need of help.
These modern women looked to their nineteenth-century predecessors for models in claiming a larger part in church affairs. Pioneer women had exerted their influence through the Relief Society, an organization Joseph Smith had authorized in Nauvoo in 1842 with Emma Smith as president. As its name indicates, the Relief Society had a primary mission, like so many other ladies' organizations of the day, to succor those in need. In particular the Mormon women were concerned about clothing the workers building the Nauvoo temple. Smith gave them a broad charge to function as a women's version of the priesthood, ministering to all kinds of needs, including the moral rectitude of the Saints.
Brigham Young did not reinstate the Relief Society in Utah until 1867, when he brought it back into existence as part of his campaign to bolster the Utah economy. Through the Relief Society, women cultivated silkworms and spun thread for dresses, contributing to Young's program to make the Utah economy self-sufficient. The Relief Society women encouraged home industries and stored food in preparation for the periodic plagues of locusts that destroyed the crops. Young urged women to take their places behind the counters and keep the books of p. 94↵Utah businesses in order to increase their productive labor. Twentieth-century Mormon women drew inspiration from their nineteenth-century foremothers 'expansive roles in the state's economy and politics and claimed a broader sphere of action for themselves.
It is probably safe to say that on the whole Mormon women believe that their most significant role is in the home as nurturers of the next generation. During the feminist movement of the second half of the twentieth century, church leaders opposed the view that women could be fulfilled only outside the home, and Mormon women largely concurred. Most Mormon women think of marriage and children as the life they most desire. But single women, mothers whose children have been raised or who have lost husbands, and women who feel restive if confined strictly to the home pursue work and careers. Mormon women typically remain at home when their children are young, but many cultivate careers before and after that time—with church encouragement.
The Campaign Against Theocracy
Mormon memory is selective in what it recalls about the church's nineteenth-century history. Mormons have forgotten or actively suppressed parts of that history. The forty-year battle between the church and the U.S. government in the nineteenth century seems at odds with the enthusiastic patriotism of the Mormon heartland today. That struggle is remembered now as one more example of a beleaguered people fighting for liberty to follow their conscience. But the details are glossed over because of the ambivalence about a fight that centered on polygamy. Their ancestors fought for a cause that no longer stirs contemporary Mormons. As a result, the long political struggle, like polygamy itself, is largely ignored.
At the time, the issues were too pronounced to be long forgotten. The Protestant establishment in the United States considered p. 95↵plural marriage an unpardonable offense against Christian morality and civilized behavior. Republican campaign literature linked polygamy with slavery as one of the “twin relics of barbarism.” The horror at polygamy along with rumors of Brigham Young's theocratic rule in Utah fueled a campaign against Mormonism that lasted for the entire second half of the nineteenth century. Appalling stories of Brigham Young's one-man rule in Utah convinced officials in Washington that there would be no justice until this proto-tyrant was replaced with federally appointed territorial officials.
In 1857, the conflict grew so heated that President James Buchanan sent an army to Utah to wrest power from the hands of Brigham Young. News of its approach terrified Mormons. For more than two decades they had been harassed, stripped of property, and driven from their homes by persecuting mobs, without any protection from local or national authorities. The Mormons had moved west in hopes of escaping further persecution. In 1857, the arduous trek to Utah appeared to have been made in vain. The United States dispatched troops to dominate them again, and there was nowhere else to go. Brigham Young ordered Mormons in the northern, more settled portions of the state to migrate south and then sent Mormon military parties east along the trail to harass the approaching troops. The Mormons piled straw against the buildings in Salt Lake City and were ready to set them ablaze if the troops invaded.
In this incendiary environment, the greatest tragedy of Mormon history occurred. On September 11, 1857, in a tiny community far to the south, Mormons slaughtered around 120 non-Mormon immigrants at a place called Mountain Meadows near Cedar City, Utah. The migrants' train, made up largely of a party from Arkansas along with a few Missourians, all headed for California, had annoyed Mormons and Indians along the road coming south from Salt Lake City but had done nothing to provoke so violent a reaction.
p. 96When a few of the migrants got drunk, threatened the Mormons, and derided Joseph Smith in Cedar City, the local church and militia leaders invited the Indians to run off the immigrants' cattle and give them a scare. The situation got out of hand when an overzealous Mormon named John D. Lee, a federal appointee overseeing the Indians, fired on the train and a fall-scale Indian onslaught ensued. When word leaked out that the Mormons were involved in the attack, militia and church leaders, probably fearful of the consequences if their participation were known, decided the party must be destroyed.
The immigrants were holding off the Indians until the Mormons, under the direction of Cedar City ecclesiastical and militia leaders, lured them out with a promise of protection. As they walked unarmed in single file along the trail, the Mormons turned on the immigrants and shot them at close range or clubbed them to death. Those who tried to escape were run down and killed. Seventeen of the youngest children were saved and later placed in Mormon families. Brigham Young has been blamed for ordering this massacre at Mountain Meadows, but he was far too astute not to see the damning effect of such an event on Mormon fortunes. He may have stirred up the local leaders by preaching against the invading army, but no hard evidence that he ordered the massacre has ever been found.
For years efforts were made to locate the perpetrators, but only John D. Lee was ever convicted for the crime. After an initial effort to identify the guilty parties, Brigham Young stopped his inquiries and hushed up the reports. Mormons have no defense for this horrific deed except their fear of invasion, hysteria, and a long history of persecution. Like the men who killed Joseph Smith in 1844, the leaders of the massacre were ordinary, respectable citizens whose humanity broke down at one terrible moment.
For decades Mormons covered up the crime. Mormon children never heard of the event. Church leaders discouraged discussion. p. 97↵Locals in the vicinity of Mountain Meadows refused to talk about it. Only in recent years has the church openly acknowledged the barbarity of what happened and set up a marker in honor of the migrants. Unfortunately, the Mountain Meadows Massacre fed into the prevalent stereotype of Mormons as fanatics. Even today, critics consider it the archetypical event in Mormon history. Mormons protest in vain. The modest, ordinary lives of millions of Mormons fail to dispel this image of an inherently violent religion.
News of the massacre steeled the resolve of the U.S. Congress to stop polygamy and dissolve Mormon theocracy. In 1862, within a decade of the announcement of Mormon polygamy, Congress passed anti-bigamy legislation targeting Mormons, although for a quarter of a century this legislation did not take hold. Intent on practicing their religion despite federal opposition, Mormons found ways to elude the law. They located jurisdiction over polygamy cases in probate courts, where the territorial legislature rather than federal officials made appointments. To escape anti-bigamy laws, they defined second marriages as sealings rather than marriages, forcing Congress to legislate against cohabitation.
Following a procedure later employed successfully by the civil rights movement, the Mormons submitted cases to test the constitutionality of the anti-bigamy laws. They believed their practice was legal on the grounds of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Their hopes ended in 1879 in the case of U.S. v. Reynolds, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared the anti-bigamy laws to be constitutional. After Reynolds, Mormons had no further legal recourse. They were ground between two millstones, their belief in the plural marriage revelation and their desire to conform to the law of the land. John Taylor, the church president who succeeded Brigham Young, advised polygamist men to hide.
For a decade Mormon husbands went “underground.” Many were caught and thrown into prison for a one-year sentence. Federal p. 98↵officials obtained more than a thousand convictions for cohabitation. Mormon wives and children went to look at their husbands and fathers in striped prison garb behind the prison walls. To tighten the vise, Congress raised the ante for continued disobedience. Gradually Mormons were deprived of the rights to vote, to sit on juries, and to hold office. Church property was confiscated. By the end of the decade the church was in danger of losing its temples and other buildings. All but $50,000 of the church's $3,000,000 net worth was in jeopardy.
When Wilford Woodruff became church president after the death of John Taylor in 1887, change seemed necessary. In September 1890, Woodruff informed the Apostles that he had decided plural marriage had to be given up in order to save the church. At a general conference on October 6, 1890, he announced that no further plural marriages would be performed, and the assembled membership raised their hands in acceptance.
Some Mormons thought the announcement was no more than an expedient to relieve pressure from Washington. A people who had defined themselves by their unusual marriage practice could not yield instantly. Faithful Mormons differed on a suitable response; several Apostles, among others, continued to enter into plural marriages. In 1904, President Joseph F. Smith issued a second manifesto to reinforce the first. Although established plural families continued to exist by agreement of all concerned, no new plural marriages were contracted. The era of Mormon polygamy was at an end.
The Manifesto paved the way for Utah's statehood. Statehood put the selection of governing officials in the hands of the Utah population and removed it from the president in Washington. Home rule meant almost as much to Utah Mormons in 1896, when statehood was finally granted, as it did to the Americans who freed themselves from Britain in 1776. But, though freed from federal control, Mormons knew they could not return to the theocracy that the federal p. 99↵government had long opposed. Before statehood was granted, the church dissolved the political party that for decades had stood for pro-Mormon policies, and Mormons distributed themselves between the two national parties. The natural inclination of Mormons was toward the Democratic Party because of its emphasis on states' rights, but in order to win the support of the Republican Party, then dominant in Washington, many church leaders migrated in that direction, and lay members followed in their wake.
The outstanding issues were not settled until the seating of Reed Smoot in the U.S. Senate in 1907. In 1903, the Utah state legislature overwhelmingly chose Smoot, an Apostle but not a polygamist, for the Senate. Because of his high position in the church hierarchy, the Senate challenged his seating on grounds that he represented a church believed to be surreptitiously practicing polygamy and that he was under the thumb of the church president. The Senate investigation that followed became an occasion for the still virulent suspicion of the Mormons to vent itself. The Senate was besieged with petitions against Smoot, invoking all the bad images of Mormonism that had coursed through the anti-Mormon literature for decades.
The church president at the time, Joseph F. Smith, nephew of Joseph Smith, was called to testify and was repeatedly questioned about the continuation of polygamy and even more strenuously about his control of Mormon politics. The old image of theocratic government that had motivated federal government policy for half a century was brought into the open. Was it not true that as president of the church, Joseph F. Smith received revelations? Was it not therefore true that any faithful Mormon was obligated to comply with his revelations? Did it not follow that Reed Smoot would be, therefore, under the control of the church president? Repeated reassurances that Smoot was free to vote his own conscience and that the church president did not dictate policy to Mormon politicians went largely unheard. The logic of revelation seemed to lead inexorably to the dominance of church leaders.
p. 100Smoot was finally seated only when President Theodore Roosevelt intervened on his behalf.
The hearings ended, but the question of church control would not die. A century later, when Mitt Romney, the Mormon former governor of Massachusetts, announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency in 2007, the press assaulted him with the same questions. Was he free to vote his own mind, or was he not? Romney, however, had the century-long record of the Mormon Church in politics on which to rest his case. The church had occasionally taken stands on issues it considered to have moral import such as gambling or Prohibition, but it had not imposed its will on Mormon politicians or the Mormon people. Indeed, against the express wishes of the church president, Utah cast the deciding vote for the repeal of Prohibition in 1932.
Over the years, the church has made its political predilections known to politicians both Mormon and not, but it has not made compliance a condition of membership or of good standing. Having learned its lesson with Reed Smoot at the beginning of the century, the church left Mormon politicians free to vote their own consciences, even when their decisions went contrary to church political positions. The long battle with a hostile Congress had taught the church to give up the theocratic impulse that had roiled its relations with the nation through the nineteenth century.
The Ultimate Legacy
The impact of late-nineteenth-century history on modern Mormonism is at best ambiguous. Mormons would like to forget much of this past: plural marriage, the conflict with the federal government, Mountain Meadows. That history is not easily absorbed into Mormons' sense of themselves in the twenty-first century. They like to think more about the pioneers, the Brigham Young who directed settlement of a vast intermountain region, the tens of thousands of emigrants who crossed the country and settled p. 101↵in desolate little patches of the American West, and the heroic stories of ancestors who joined the church in their homelands and gave up everything to come to Utah.
The true significance of the nineteenth century in Mormon history is not always visible in the welter of many lives and many conflicts. Rising out of the thousands of individual pioneer accounts is the larger story of the creation of the Mormon people. Every year immigrants poured into Utah from all sections of the United States and from many European nations. They came speaking only Danish, German, or Dutch. They had to slough off much of their previous culture and find a place for themselves among strangers. In their little wards, they became first and foremost Mormons, bonded to the new society by their own sacrifices. Pressures from the government and hostile public opinion succeeded only in welding them all the more inseparably to their faith.
Joseph Smith's vision of Zion guided Brigham Young's plans for these people. Young wanted to create a new culture just as Smith wanted a new society. One of the early buildings erected in Salt Lake City served as a theater. The University of Deseret was organized in 1869, and Brigham Young Academy in 1875. The church founded schools and hospitals. Young was willing to go beyond standard American capitalism to experiment with economic institutions more in keeping with Joseph Smith's Zion. He formed cooperatives and communal economic orders. When he organized a department store to compete with non-Mormon merchants, Young called it Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution and inscribed the same words over its door that appeared on the temple: “Holiness to the Lord.” His aim was to sacralize every part of life.
Was all this lost in the twentieth century? Much of it was. Young's plans foundered after the government required the church to dismantle the theocracy. The Zion cooperatives were transformed into capitalist enterprises. Most schools were closed or turned over p. 102↵to the state. The church gave up its plans for constructing a complete culture and society. But the ideals could not be completely stamped out. By the time Mormons began to disperse to other parts of the nation in the twentieth century, the migrants, once a disparate conglomerate of many national groups, left Utah as Mormons. They were able to re-create Mormon culture in California, Chicago, and New York. Even without a professional clergy, Mormons formed little wards all over the United States that functioned as effectively as the congregations in the heartland.
After a century of retreat from theocratic society, Mormons today still harbor remnants of Smith's Zion ideals. In the twenty-first century, Mormon artists and writers more than ever incorporate Mormon themes into their work. Mormon journals, Mormon presses, and Mormon scholarly societies have proliferated. Mormons still think of themselves as a people as much as a church. The question is whether the traditional hopes for Zion that were fostered in nineteenth-century Utah can be pursued amidst the democratic pluralism of modern America.