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On April 6, 1830, when formally establishing the Church of Christ, Joseph Smith, Jr., also announced that the Lord had commanded him: “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.” The people who became known as “Mormons” were nothing if not faithful to this commandment. Indeed, never have the origin and development of a major world religion been so thoroughly documented as have Mormonism’s. Founded in western New York during an era of mass communication as well as mass transportation, the church and its members documented their every move there and in the American Midwest, the Great Basin, the greater West, and beyond—and so, too, did outside observers document and comment upon them. The materials assembled from Gale’s Utah and the Mormons, a microfilm set turned digital for the online project Religions of America, represent key moments in this developmental and documentary history, showing how Mormonism rose to prominence in and through the crucibles of American observation, controversy, and acts of comparative religions.
Consider some of the earliest materials in this collection. Not only is there an original edition of The Book of Mormon (1830) here, but there are also newspapers published by and about Mormons in England (The Latter Day Saints Millennial Star*), Missouri (Times and Seasons), Ohio (The Evening and Mormon Star and others), and elsewhere, the likes of which afford much insight into the substance of its missionary appeal and local concern as church members worked to plat and populate settlements in the American Midwest. By comparing these documents with contemporaneous anti-Mormon reports and reviews of the Book of Mormon, for instance by Alexander Campbell and fellow participants in the Disciples of Christ movement, readers see not only how Mormonism figured in a broader field of new religious formations, but also how external commentary mapped over and against Mormon self-reportage.
Among the strengths of this collection is its inclusion of both Mormon and non-Mormon sources, the likes of which enable readers to compare the social, religious, and political claims made by different groups amid the shifting terrain of the so-called Second Great Awakening. By this era’s end, a spate of anti-Mormon titles would appear such as Origen Bacheler’s Mormonism Exposed, Internally and Externally (1838) and Methodist minister La Roy Sunderland’s Mormonism Exposed and Refuted (1838), among others. Both of these works were published in the same year as the Missouri Mormon War, when anti-Mormon violence forced Saints to relocate in Illinois; and they were met in turn by a number of vigorous defenses such as Parley P. Pratt’s Mormonism Unveiled (1838) and Elder Moses Martins’ A Treatise on the Fulness of the Everlasting Gospel … (1842). Moreover, by including different voices from the succession crisis that followed upon Joseph Smith’s own murder in 1844, Utah and the Mormons illustrates how the nature and future of Mormonism was itself a matter of much internal debate during the antebellum era. Indeed, one need only consult certain writings by James Jesse Strang and Sidney Rigdon to see that neither Brigham Young’s succession to the presidency of what would become the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints nor its relocation to Utah was a foregone conclusion when Joseph Smith died in 1844. Nor was polygamy yet established as an orthodox Mormon practice, as evident in publications by the group that became known as the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, which opted also to remain in the Midwest rather than move to Utah.
Mormon polygamy was the stuff of considerable speculation well before 1852, when “plural marriage” was officially recognized and promoted by the LDS Church in Utah. John C. Bennett accused Joseph Smith of polygamy and other crimes in his 1842 exposé The History of the Saints; or, an Expose of Joe Smith and Mormonism, and non-Mormon territorial officials in Utah also spoke of polygamy in late-1840s and early-1850s reports to politicians in Washington, D.C. Such reports fed governmental concerns about Mormon power and practices in the West, notwithstanding Mormons’ eventual public defenses of the practice, such as Benjamin F. Johnson’s Why the “Latter Day Saints” Marry a Plurality of Wives… (1854) and Parley P. Pratt’s Scriptural Evidences in Support of Polygamy… (1856). Mormonism was regarded as un-American in several respects, its detractors asserted. Most glaringly, according to their argument, it was religious and political in manners unbefitting the modernity embodied and advanced in America. Mormonism was monarchic rather than democratic, affording little to no opportunity for dissent or freedom of thought; likewise, it was deemed barbaric rather than enlightened.
A military expedition in 1857–58 lessened certain but not all such congressional concerns. President James Buchanan then ordered some 2,500 troops across country to investigate claims of Mormon barbarism and sedition, and they removed Brigham Young from the governorship of Utah Territory—a position he had held since 1851—and established a military camp outside Salt Lake City. But with the exception of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in September 1857—when a group of Mormons, who were at that time still anxiously awaiting the arrival of federal troops in Utah, besieged and murdered some 120 civilian emigrants—the “Utah War” arguably resulted in little more than the excitement of Mormon militiamen and a boon to Mormon merchants, who sold expensive provisions to soldiers during their stay and then purchased their supplies cheaply when they left. The U.S. military failed to persuade Mormons of the moral benefits of monogamy, in any case. Opposition to polygamy thus remained the flagship of anti-Mormon activism well after 1858, even as it continued to catch other interests and initiatives in its wake. Polygamy was argued to be both catalyst and fruition of Mormon patriarchy and religious primitivism, the seed and shell of aberrant sensualities. On these grounds Congress attacked it, arguing that Mormonism had developed its rhetorical strategies and bureaucratic infrastructures in order to beget and defend a kind of basic, hedonistic, sensual polygamy.
Readers in these collections will find many Mormon responses to such charges, as well as writings demonstrating Mormon cultural activities that belie popular and governmental charges of cultureless barbarism. Among the most relevant resources, in these respects—and arguably the least studied to-date—is The Peep O’Day. As for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, readers will find contemporaneous coverage mainly in reports written by and for U.S. officers and government officials, such as Brevet Major James Henry Carleton’s Subject of the Massacre at the Mountain Meadows (1859) and several articles in the Salt Lake City newspaper The Valley Tan.
Readers may also note that the next spike in Mormon as well as anti-Mormon publications centered around 1869. This was not happenstance. To the contrary, the conception of a transcontinental railway—the lines of which would connect in northern Utah in May 1869—incited new concerns about different groups living along the line in the West, especially members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some commentators believed that trains and capitalism, by opening the West to free enterprise and liberal thought, would modernize Utah and weaken the institutional power of the church. Other anti-Mormon onlookers anticipated similar results through railroad-enabled increases in U.S. military and Protestant missionary presence in Utah. Still others warned that Mormons might either sabotage railroad lines or commandeer them to aid their own missionary work in the West. These concerns manifested in a number of titles that ranged widely by topic, from William Elkanah Waters‘s Life Among the Mormons… (1868) to Brevet Brigadier-General J. H. Simpson’s The Shortest Route to California... (1869) to James Bonwick’s The Mormons and the Silver Mines... (1872) to Bentham Fabian’s The Resources of Utah... (1873). In any case Mormonism once again occupied a central place in American interest and attention, as people both in and outside the church debated the ways in which transcontinental connections might alter the social, economic, religious, and political character of Utahn life.
Of course, predictions of Mormon institutional demise in the railroad era proved false. But historians generally have failed to account fully for the degree to which precisely the opposite happened: railroads in fact gave Mormonism new life, at least along certain lines. Indeed, much of my own scholarship treats the ways in which the railroad era served to mainline Mormonism in American minds and markets. There were several reasons for this and a few key media by which it occurred. For example, transcontinental railroad companies forged corporate connections early with the Mormon Church in Utah. Brigham Young was one of the major contractors for work on the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads in the Great Basin. He subcontracted grading jobs to area bishops, and he called congregants to labor along the lines. The Union Pacific especially recognized deep debts to the Saints, not only because of their labor but also because Young donated lands to establish the company hub at Ogden.
Their relationship only deepened from there, after the Union Pacific agreed to pay off some of its debts in building materials and rolling stock, which Brigham Young then used to build a branch railroad from Salt Lake to Ogden—which the Union Pacific then came to rely upon for feeder-line traffic and proceeds. In short order the LDS Church built other branch lines as well, and the Union Pacific took similar interest in them. Their relationship was not always conflict-free, but these institutions—the railroads and the LDS Church—recognized a certain institutional codependence nonetheless, and thus also a corporate friendship.
This corporate friendship benefitted the Utah-based Mormon Church in important ways. Even as disputes for and against Mormonism continued to appear, from William Sheldon’s anti-Mormon book Mormonism Examined… (1876) to Amos Milton Musser’s clever defense The Fruits of “Mormonism,” by Non-”Mormon” Witnesses (1882), railroad officials lobbied on behalf of the LDS Church in Congress, for instance, as congressmen considered different anti-polygamy acts and other anti-Mormon legislation in the 1870s and 1880s. Indeed, railroad lobbyists urged governmental restraint overall while facilitating particular bonds between Mormons and the Republican Party. They worked also with newspaper journalists to soften their anti-Mormon rhetoric, until all agreed publicly that only polygamy stood substantially in the way of accepting LDS institutional legitimacy and granting statehood for Utah (which occurred in 1896). The church’s official discontinuance of plural marriage in 1890 was no small matter in itself, of course, and it cannot be attributed solely to such negotiations. Nevertheless, railroad officials played a key role in publicizing then-president Wilford Woodruff’s “Manifesto” on polygamy—in which Woodruff revealed that God had approved a return to monogamy on earth—among politicians otherwise disinclined to accept Mormonism as a moral (and monogamous) faith.
Railroad officials advocated for Mormon acceptance among other publics as well, in addition to political groups. In fact, this may have been their most influential work and venue. For, wishing to maximize passenger receipts in and through the Great Basin, railroad agents worked to assuage certain concerns about Mormons and, through acts of religious comparison and selective promotion, to render Mormon practices more intelligible to a general American audience. Researchers working with the Utah and the Mormons collection may note an increase in travel writings after 1869, by authors inspired to visit Salt Lake City by invitation or incitement by railway agents, and in any case they will see a corresponding focus, in Mormons’ own publications, on mechanisms by which to anticipate and shape new “Gentile” experiences in Utah. (Of special interest to researchers would be Elizabeth Wood Kane’s 1874 Twelve Mormon Homes Visited in Succession on a Journey Through Utah to Arizona, which evidences a railroading overlay to preexisting family interests in Mormonism; as well as numerous articles in The Utah Magazine and The Latter Day Saints Millennial Star, which make divergent and differently Mormon appeals to Gentile attention along the railroad.) Indeed, readers may track the degree to which Mormonism itself became a matter of simultaneously local and transcontinental interest throughout the railroad era, as railroad companies both expedited, intensified, and yet tempered the terms of church-public relations along their lines.
The current archive does not focus on the industrial incorporation of Mormonism in the railroad era, per se. It does, however, contain several travel reports indicative of the ways in which tourists took interest in Mormonism as data in and for the modern project of religious adjudication in the West. For, just as Mormonism had served as data for early American projects of comparative religions, so too did it serve thus in the late nineteenth century as well. No matter whether they came to gawk at, criticize, or compliment the LDS Church, many American and European travelers found Utah to be a valuable place of religious adjudication and debate. And it was protected as such by the iron fabric of the railroads.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, prosecuted since the 1850s for its distinctive legal, political, economic, and marital practices—and finding itself to be an object of increasingly common concern among bureaucrats, industrialists, and homesteaders upon conception of a transcontinental railway—adopted a series of changes that enabled, in time, Utahn statehood (1896) and the seating of Mormon senator Reed Smoot (1903–07). Ecclesiastical alterations—especially the abandonment of polygamy, the dissolution of the Mormon political party, the redistribution of church property, and the embrace of transcontinental railway connections—contributed to, and were accompanied by, a softening of anti-Mormon rhetoric and the gradual embrace of Mormonism as an essentially American religion. Readers of this collection can trace such changes in representative sermonic, political, legal, travel, and periodical accounts through approximately 1905.
Thankfully Mormonism’s own insistence on archival preservation enables such tracing, and so too does the discursive and documentary production of contemporaneous observers. For, simply put, Mormonism’s proponents and opponents together created a massive archival base from which we, as historians, have the privilege of being able to draw, when seeking to understand the origins of Mormonism and new religious traditions generally in the modern West. Of course, I have chosen my own routes into and through this material, just as other scholars have chosen different routes. But we all look forward to seeing what new groups of students will find in this and related archival collections, as well. The material is certainly rich.
David Walker, “‘There Shall Be a Record Kept Among You’: On the Archives of Mormon History”, Religions of America, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2019.