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UTAH: A Peculiar People

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As God’s chosen people (which they believe themselves to be), the Mormons think they have a direct line of communication to the Almighty. In the church’s turbulent early years its leaders were able to report direct and literal heavenly guidance on even such mundane subjects as Illinois real estate. But a divine revelation in 1947 would amaze no man more than Mormonism’s tall, white-bearded, 77-year-old President George Albert Smith, seventh successor to the prophet Joseph Smith, and the mortal instrument through which a heavenly message would be received.

Mormons today do not expect divine intervention in this sinful world before they have exhausted their own final resources. And 100 years after the Mormons’ perilous trek to Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is far from being exhausted. In its self-made oasis on the Western desert, it is flourishing like a green bay tree.

The once hostile Gentile* world no longer howls for Mormon blood. This week a Mormon party of 143 men, three women and two children—the exact complement of Brigham Young’s advance guard in the great trek of 1847—started west from Nauvoo, Ill. to commemorate that event. They anticipated nothing more dangerous than flat tires and Chamber of Commerce luncheons. Their shiny new Buick and Studebaker automobiles were disguised by plywood oxen and white canvas tops. To please the church’s publicity department, they camped out every night.

The Holy City. Mountain-rimmed Salt Lake City (pop. 183,000) is no longer a fortress and a prison. Last week the town which Brigham Young laid out “foursquare with the compass” with wide streets and ten-acre blocks, was a center of Western commerce and trade, hub of three railroads, four airlines, four main highways. It is one of the cleanest and friendliest cities in the U.S., and one of the healthiest. The descendants of the lean and desperate Mormon pioneers have a well-fed, well-dressed, freshly scrubbed and glowing look. Mormon women walk with a high-bosomed and girdleless litheness which seems a little startling to visitors.

It is still a Holy City, the Zion of the faithful, but as such it is as peculiarly American as Mormonism itself; to most U.S. citizens Salt Lake City is a “tourist attraction.” When Mormons observe their Utah Centennial next week with parades, dances, music, speeches and religious services, thousands of non-Mormons will crowd the bunting-hung streets. They will stare at the multi-towered Mormon Temple, marvel at the acoustical wonders of that famed and enormous Quonset hut, the Mormon Tabernacle, where the Mormon choir thunders out hymns. But what will most awe them will be the spectacular manifestations of Mormon diligence and industry.

Plowshares & Perfume. As commander of temporal as well as spiritual affairs, kindly old President George Smith presides over an enormous going concern. The church, as owner of the big and prosperous Z.C.M.I. (Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution), Salt Lake City’s first department store, deals in everything from plowshares to perfume. It owns Salt Lake City’s top-rung Hotel Utah and its next-best Temple Square Hotel. It owns one of the city’s daily newspapers, the Deseret News, and its biggest transmitter, radio station KSL. The church’s Utah Idaho-Sugar Co. operates eight refineries; it owns 14,000 acres of land, buys the sugar-beet crops of private farmers in Utah, Idaho, Washington, Montana and

South Dakota. The church is the possessor of great parcels of urban real estate and, as one of the West’s prime financial institutions, owns the Utah State National Bank, Zion’s Savings Bank & Trust Co. and the Beneficial Life Insurance Co.

Green Valleys. In 100 years the Mormons have won their war with wastes of sagebrush, sun-parched alkali flats and barren mountains. Their desert has indeed blossomed like the rose. Orchards, dairies and sugar-beet fields in green Utah valleys are a tribute to their skill at irrigation, and great stands of wheat prove the worth of their dry farming. Utah’s 555,000 cattle and 1,646,000 sheep stem mostly from Mormon herds. Mormons built roads, farms, towns and temples across the West.

In 100 years they increased from 20,000 to a million people. The million composes one of the most tightly organized and smoothly functioning organizations on earth. The church has no clergy in the usual sense, but a vast pyramid of lay orders to which every male is expected to belong and to which a full 250,000 do. Boys become deacons and begin taking part in religious services when they are twelve. As they grow older they may become, successively, teachers, priests, elders, members of a Council of Seventy, and high priests. Women only “share in their husbands’ priesthood,” although they are duty-bound to take a vigorous part in subsidiary church work.

There are four Mormon temples in Utah, others in Hawaii, in Alberta (Canada), Arizona and Idaho; there are Mormon congregations in every state in the Union. There are Mormons overseas.

This tremendously active and democratic religious cooperative is ruled by an autocratic hierarchy: a Council of Twelve Apostles, two counselors in presidency and, at its apex, the president, George Albert Smith.

Triumph. To the Latter-day Saints, who once expected the nations of the earth to rally unto them, and who are still fond of calling themselves “a peculiar people,” these tangible triumphs constitute only a partial fulfillment of destiny. But, considered coldly, they seem almost incredible.

Mormonism sprang from the mind of Joseph Smith, who was born in Vermont in 1805, grew up on a Manchester, N.Y. farm, and hated to plow. He was handsome, tall, wavy-haired, had long eyelashes and a faint but unmistakable resemblance to Comic Danny Kaye. He had a fecund imagination and an instinctive sense of drama and command. At 18 he professed to be able to look into a “peep stone” and find hidden gold. He found none.

But in 1827, when he was 22, he told his wife Emma and a few intimates that he had discovered more awesome treasure. It was a pentecostal time of wild religious mysticism and hysteria. Scores of thousands of Americans were pondering the second coming of Christ, thronging into camp meetings where they danced, hopped, screeched and talked convulsively “in tongues.” Joseph Smith’s story: an angel named Moroni had told him where to unearth some golden plates covered with mystic symbols.

With them he got a pair of magic spectacles to decipher the symbols. One look by anyone else, Joseph said, would mean instant death. After months of speaking from behind a blanket while awe-stricken neighbors took down his words, Joseph Smith produced a 275,000-word document which he called The Book of Mormon. Mark Twain, the great debunker of his day, later described it as “chloroform in print.”

God’s Prophet. Joseph Smith explained that the Book of Mormon was the new expression of the everlasting Gospel. The import of this revelation was clear. Joseph Smith was God’s Prophet, Seer, Revelator and mouthpiece. On the raw frontier in Jackson County, Mo., he established the “true church.” Thousands flocked to him—and were persecuted with him—until, after eight years of moving, mobbings, house burnings and guerrilla warfare, Smith sent the Mormons into Illinois. There they began building a new temple, and a new town: Nauvoo.

Life with the prophet was always exciting. At times he received divine revelations almost monthly. He was a man as well as a prophet; he loved to laugh, wrestle and drink. In seven years Nauvoo became the biggest city (20,000) in Illinois.

But Joseph Smith and his chosen people were an affront to the whole frontier. Rumors blazed across the country. The prophet and a few intimates had secretly begun practicing polygamy, often marrying the wives of other Mormons who were handily absent on missions. In 1844, Smith ran for President of the U.S. He organized a Nauvoo Legion of 4,006 well-armed troops, donned a glittering uniform, signed himself “Lieut. General Smith,” and talked of setting up a new nation.

That same year, Illinois Governor Thomas Ford threatened to raze Nauvoo. The 38-year-old prophet surrendered himself as a hostage for his people—and sealed his own fate. A mob with their faces disguised with paint invaded Carthage jail, shot him as he tried to escape from a window. As he fell to the ground, a lyncher with a bowie knife prepared to cut off his head, despite the remonstrances of a horrified bystander (see cut). But as he died, the prophet had one more triumph; the sun blazed out, illuminating the jail yard, and the man with the knife shrank away.

The Lion of the Lord. Then a new leader arose and led them west to a final “gathering place of the saved in the last days.” The leader was Brigham Young, a broad-shouldered, big-handed Vermont-born carpenter whom the Mormons had called The Lion of the Lord.

Young was a stern and practical man. He was also a diplomat, a statesman, an empire builder and a begetter of children such as America had seldom seen.

The Mormon trail was a cruel road. The Saints began crossing the coffee-colored, ice-littered Mississippi with their cattle and goods in February. Many drowned. Many died on the plains beyond.

But the Mormons pressed on. The world had seldom seen anything to compare with this epic migration: here were a whole people with their newborn and their aged, their cattle, their faded wedding dresses, their precious hoards of gunpowder and nutmeg, unfalteringly crossing half a continent to find a kingdom in a desert.

The exodus was no haphazard expedition. Advance parties of armed men went ahead to build and garrison forts, plant crops along the route, prepare the road. Wagon trains were spaced to conserve grazing land, and the flock was cheered at night by Captain Pitts’s Brass Band, which had been converted en masse in England and had come to join the trek. ^

One day at last they moved down Emigration Canyon to the Great Salt Lake, to a sagebrush Zion on the River Jordan flowing into the Dead Sea. The day after the first group arrived they diverted a creek for irrigation, and plowed. Under Young’s relentless driving a city was laid out, farms established, dams raised, smithies, tanneries, crude flour mills set up. Young knew what the Mormons needed for survival: isolation and a chance to sink their roots. When the Mormons heard the news of the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill, he cried: “Gold is for paving streets,” and rallied the faithful to their toil.

The Golden Spike. The Mormon State of Deseret,* which encompassed Utah, a corner of California and a piece of Wyoming, prospered. But Mormon isolation was never complete. A golden railroad spike driven at Promontory, only 70 miles from their capital, shattered it almost before it had begun.

Once again, even across the distance of the great plains, Mormons felt the hostility of the U.S. people. Once more the cause was polygamy. Actually plural marriage was not widespread. Only 3% of

Mormons ever practiced it, and those who embraced it did so soberly and only after consulting the church.

Young, who could count a score of wives and 56 children, was a stern but benign husband and father. He conferred with his wives once a day. He held a daily “juvenile court” at his gabled adobe Lion House on East South Temple Street to settle differences between the children.

Although he did not object to the brigades of young men who invaded his parlor to call on his daughters, he kept a lamp burning high and terminated the courting in good time by confronting the visitors with his arms full of hats.

But, good or bad, polygamy was doomed. U.S. agents came in to hunt down “cohabs.” Wrote one Mormon: “The hounds of hell were laying in wate for me. How long will the Lord allow these wicked reches to gain power over us?”

The Government made the polygamy issue an excuse for political and economic pressure and the church was finally threatened with bankruptcy. In 1890 Wilford Woodruff, the third president in the succession from Joseph Smith, announced that by divine revelation polygamy was ended. It was the last revelation. Utah was admitted to the Union, the old enmity between Mormon and Gentile disappeared, and the modern history of the church began.

Soda Water. George Albert Smith saw the end of the old era and grew up with the new one. He was born in 1870, the son of a polygamous father. He is a distant relative of the prophet (his grandfather was Joseph Smith’s cousin), but his family was not otherwise distinguished, and George Smith himself was neither handsome, aggressive, nor brilliant.

But he was proud. And he worked. The Smith family home had no front lawn. He put one in, though it meant dipping water from an irrigation ditch every evening to keep the lawn green. He got a job at Z.C.M.I, when he was a 13-year-old schoolboy and went to work making overalls. His salary: $2 a week.

He was also a religious boy. As a youth he once went into a saloon on an impulse and bought some soda water. He suffered immediately from remorse, thought: “What if somebody had seen you coming out of that place?” He was wary of the world, but he got along in it well enough.

“I Knew I Was Safe.” He was proud of a wide-brimmed frontier hat and a suit with checks. He worked for a while on a Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad surveying party; dust and desert sun damaged his left eye and he quit. On a mission in the Alabama back country, he was surrounded by an anti-Mormon mob while he slept in a cabin. Bullets tore into the roof and broke the windows. Smith stayed in bed and called out to his cabin mates: “The Lord will take care of us.” Afterwards he said: “I knew I was safe as long as I was preaching the word of God.”

He married Lucy Woodruff, daughter of the church’s fourth leader. He became a salesman, finally a director of Z.C.M.I. Then, when he was 33, he heard news which kept him sleepless for nights. He had been named a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. Since he was young and healthy he felt that it was almost a certainty that one day he would become president. Forty-two years later he did.

Last week most Mormons—and Utah’s non-Mormons—agreed that he had done very well at it. As leader of a once militant church, he had never felt the need of weapons more lethal than his collection of old canes. He had no talent for hellfire-&-brimstone oratory. He was a polite, lively, deeply religious old man with an awareness of history and a consummate faith in the truth and power of platitudes. Samples: “Giving up cigarets will make you a far better man. . . . Recreation is a wonderful thing but it should not be spelled wreckreation.”

Somehow, in sum, he is impressive. In his quiet and earnest way Smith is a great salesman and public-relations man and one who serves the needs of the church well in 1947. People who watch him in his office—slyly popping bonbons into his mouth while he works—know that they are dealing with a force.

The church is still the greatest single power in Utah and in the lives of its members. Its hierarchy is conservative, and has not lost the feeling that life in the church is still life in a fortress. Last week, the hierarchy was concentrating hard on a welfare plan as a bulwark against depression. Its bishops’ storehouses bulged with goods.

Rebels. Mormonism, with 74% of Utah’s citizens, is still the greatest influence in the state’s politics. Utah’s two Congressmen and both its Senators are Mormons, and so is Governor Herbert B. Maw. Mormon politicians do not invariably follow the hierarchy. Neither the Governor nor Democratic Senator Elbert Thomas are “church candidates” in the sense that they represent the church’s ultra-conservative policies on such matters as labor and foreign policy. Mormon voters have a mind of their own, too. Despite the church’s opposition they gave Roosevelt a majority four times.

Like the young people of most strict faiths, the new generation of Mormons shows a tendency to drift into unorthodoxy. Many rebel against the old rule against liquor, tobacco and coffee. The number of backsliding “jack-Mormons” is increasing.

Mormonism is changing with the rest of the world. But few institutions and few peoples have succeeded as well in stamping out their own destiny and in shaping the times in which they lived. After a hundred years there is milk and honey in the land of the honeybee. There are many great monuments: green, irrigated valleys, temples, cities, and that never-to-be-forgotten reminder of Mormon faith and courage, the faint marks of the old Mormon trail.

*Mormon terminology for any non-Mormon; Salt Lake City is probably the one city in the world where a Jew is a Gentile too.

*A Mormon word meaning the land of the honey bee.

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