Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, July 24, 2006


Oh sure, we celebrated the 4th of July here in Salt Lake City--fireworks, parades...the whole deal. But it was little more than a warm-up for the real event: today, the twenty-fourth of July. On this date, in 1847, Brigham Young and his followers entered the Salt Lake Valley, ending a migration across most of the continent that lasted some dozen years. The church was founded in 1830, in Fayette, New York, by Joseph Smith, who claimed that God spoke to him, ordering him to restore the true gospel to Earth. Peculiar cults, especially ones that engaged in illegal activities like polygamy, were no more popular then than they are today, and Joseph and his followers soon found themselves moving west, stopping along the way just long enough to remove the tar and feathers—first to Ohio, then Missouri, than Illinois, where a number of church members were jailed. A mob was allowed to enter the facility and Smith and several others were murdered. The mantle of leadership was taken up by Brigham Young, a brilliant and authoritarian ruler, who led the group from Nauvoo, Illinois west. One hundred fifty-nine years ago today, the Mormons rolled out of my childhood home of Emigration Canyon. At the canyon's mouth, they gazed upon a wide flat plain of rabbitbrush, and Brigham was said to utter the phrase, “This is the place.”

Salt Lake is a city like no other. How a ratty little eighteenth century Jonestown before the invention of Kool-Aid was able to survive and eventually thrive into the modern day is hard to fathom. The odds were certainly against them. The settlers' first planting was attacked by a plague of huge katydids, and even out in the middle of the desert plain, the U.S. Government continued to persecute them. John Williams Gunnison, whose name graces rivers, cities, counties, islands, rodents and birds throughout this region, came to the Salt Lake Valley in 1849 with the U.S. Corp of Topographical Engineers. His group, the Stansbury party, was ostensibly here to survey the land, but there was surely an element of espionage expected of them, too. While snowed in that winter, Gunnison began documenting the Mormon culture, and eventually wrote a fine book on the subject, The Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake: A History of Their Rise and Progress, Peculiar Doctrines, Present Condition. Gunnison saw Brigham Young as little more than a shyster, and as much as said so in his book. Still, he suggested to President Fillmore that he leave the Mormons be. Persecuting them, he said, would only increase Young's power. If only contemporary presidents got such lucid advice. In 1853, Gunnison and his men were massacred near the Utah/Colorado border. The attack was officially blamed on Paiute Indians, but there is still some suspicion that this was one of several church-sanctioned hit-jobs.

Relations between the Mormons and the U.S. Government continued to be tense for some time. Young offered the occasional obsequious gesture. The state capital was named Filmore, and its county Millard. In 1862, the U.S. Army built Fort Douglas on the east side of the valley. It's my understanding that it's the only fort in the U.S. that was built with its guns trained on the city, not away from it. The Mormons have always been pragmatists in the end, though, and in 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff had a revelation that God didn't want Mormons to practice polygamy, after all. These sort of counter-revelations have appeared to subsequent prophets. Church doctrine always held that blacks were descendants of Caine, and therefore couldn't hold full membership, until a 1978 revelation cleared that little misunderstanding up. Today the church is a powerful force in the U.S. Government--Mike Leavitt, Mitt Romney, the Udall family...the list of high-profile Mormons is impressive. Over 12 million Mormons walk the Earth, more than half of them outside the U.S. I've never been to the capital of any country, from Ndjamena to Antananarivo, without spying immediately recognizable pairs of Mormon missionaries.

A popular pastime of us Salt Lake gentiles is sitting around carping about how much sway the Mormons hold around here, but I, for one, would find it really sad if this town got to the point where you couldn't tell that its very existence is the result of an amazing story. I'm happy to see them continue to run things around here; the Mormons certainly aren't all bad; they still have a great sense of community, and despite the fact that most of their members are staunch conservatives, Mormonism is fundamentally a Socialist organization, with a number of very good social programs. Sadly, though, they still pressure their members very hard to reproduce like insects. Back in 1847, when they settled in the harsh Salt Lake desert, with enemies on all sides, that policy was essential to their survival as a culture. You Mormons were told to be fruitful, and you were. You've succeeded as a culture. Look around you. It's time for another counter-revelation.
illustration: DISCIPLINE--FERRUGINOUS HAWK (1995) acrylic 40" x 30"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though I am a complete and total "Gentile", I have always found Mormons pleasant and helpful neighbors. Friends on the coasts tend to fear them.

Have you ever read Sir Richard Burton's Mormon book, The City of the Saints? He too thought Brigham Young, whom he met, a genial fraud, but being Burton rather approved of polygamy.

7:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting piece -- also glad you linked back to your earlier piece on Mormon crickets. It was excellent.

10:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great synopsis, Carel. I've been fascinated by Mormon history (and their present day influence) since I read "Lives of the Saints," by Lawrence Wright, in an issue of The New Yorker a few years back.

Even though I live on one of the coasts, I've known a couple of Mormons relatively well and, excepting their eager proselytizing, they were good people. That said, the rapid growth of the religion - I believe it's the second fastest growing religion in the world - is a little worrisome, not because Mormonism is bad, per se, but because any club or cult that grows with such rapidity disturbs me.

11:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why don't they ever make movies of these stories? All we get is the Hollywood version of America. The truth is so much more interesting.

1:56 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Steve: I have not yet read Burton's book. Gotta do that!
Bev: Glad you enjoyed it. I hope you get the chance to see a big "plague" of Mormon crickets. Really spectacular.
H.H.: As usual, your thoughts mirror my own.
Simon: There have been a few films made by Mormons that were sickeningly hero-worshipping. I agree that a really fine, objective movie could be made about Brigham Young. He was a fascinating guy.

9:57 AM  
Blogger dicentra63 said...

I know I'm several months too late, but I thought I'd comment anyway.

Karl Rove is not Mormon. He did live in Utah and attend the U of U, but he's not a member of the Church.

Harry Reid (D-Nevada), however, is.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

My only source was a friend who went to Olympus High with Rove. A bit of research reveals that you're correct. I've edited my post accordingly. Thanks.

5:25 PM  
Blogger Maine Lakefront Club said...

The problem with Mormons is that they subject their beliefs and culture on others in Utah, where there truly is little or no separation of church and state. For exaple, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Contol dictates what kind of spirits can be "imported" by the state. It's absurd that there is an organization determing what kind of wine and beer I have access to.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Mueja: You're coming in for a landing? Sending a Morse Code K from a bumpy road? ...or maybe this post has put you to sleep? My fluency in emoticon is atrocious, sorry.
Hilary: Thanks for your input, but I have to say that for as often and as loudly as your complaint is voiced, it's a pretty trifling inconvenience. I love to drink, and the Mormons have never managed to deprive me of my ability to do it. Say "hey" to Chip H.!

3:27 PM  

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