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Mormons and Polygamy
or, "Utah: Where Monogamy is Monotony"
A Gentile's Brief Historyof the Mormons
Who are the Mormons and what's the story with polygamy? I've done a lot of traveling in Utah over the past 20 years and I've also worked professionally with many Mormons in Salt Lake City. Although I'm not Mormon -- and have no plans of becomingone -- I've always been fascinated by the Mormons, and I'll pass on what I've learned, along withsome opinions and a bit of humor.
Firstof all, about 70% of Utahns belong to the Churchof Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, (or just "LDS"), also known asthe Mormon Church. The religion was formed in 1827 by Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York, who claimed that he received a visit from the angel Moroni, the son ofthe prophet Mormon. According to Smith, Moroni gave him golden platesinscribed with symbols which Smith translated into the Book ofMormon.
Smith and his followers, known asMormons, were persecuted for many of their beliefs, especially that of polygamy. Because of the persecution, they continually moved westward acrossAmerica seeking a place of refuge (or "Zion") and the freedom to worship. Smith claimed that Missouri was Zion and moved there, but moved his group backto Illinois after being persecuted there. In 1844, Smith was shot to death by anangry mob while being held in ajail cell in Carthage, Illinois.
After Joseph Smith's death, the Mormons splitinto two groups, one of which rejected polygamy and returned to Missouri. Thelarger group followed the new leader, Brigham Young, and headed west across the GreatPlains in 1847, many of them pulling their belongings in hand carts since they were toopoor to own oxen or horses. As they moved west, they paralleled therecently-establishedOregon Trail, though staying on the opposite bank of the Platte River, until theyreached the valley of the Great Salt Lake, hundreds of miles from the nearestsettlement. Upon gazing down into thevalley, Young is supposed to have said,"This is the place." Or maybe it was, "Good enough."
The Mormons settled primarily in an areawhich has become the present state of Utah, though they also settled in theneighboring areas of Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada. Many gentiles(non-Mormons) have movedto Utah during the past few decades, reducing the percentage of Mormons in theurban Salt Lake area to about 50%. The percentage of Mormons in ruralareas of Utah is much higher, above 90%.
EarlyMormons were quite utilitarian, reflected today in the north-south grid patternlayout of many Mormon cities and towns across Utah, with streets often havingpractical but less-than-charming names like "100 South," "200South," etc. Mormons usually laid out their towns with verywide, tree-lined streets, streets wide enough to turn a horse and cartaround. Today, if you drive around western Colorado or southern Idaho andsee wide, tree-lined streets, it indicates that the town was probably originallysettled by Mormons.
Mormonsbelieve that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that divine revelation didnot end with the disciples but continues to this day. Mormonsare also typically conservative and tend to be very family-oriented. Theyusually marry young and often have large families. Whenever I go intogrocery stores in Utah, I often see young women in their 20's (and usuallyblonde, for some reason) with four or five children tagging along, and Mormon familiesof eight or nine kids are not unusual. As an aside, and I know this soundslike astereotype, but I've always been struck at how physically attractive Mormonsare. Not to sound sexist, but I think the prettiest women in the countrylive in Utah.
Hey, maybe I will become a Mormon some day!
Above left: Hill Cumorahin Palmyra, New York. According to the Mormons, this is were Mormonfounder Joseph Smith received the Golden Tablets from the Angel Moroni, son ofthe Prophet Mormon, whichSmith later translated into the Book of Mormon. When Smith startedpracticing polygamy, though, locals gave him the boot.
Above center: This is supposedly where Joseph Smithreceived the Golden Tablets. Judging from the size, the family here is nodoubt Mormon.
Above right: The angel Moroni on Hill Cumorah.
Does polygamy still exist in Utah? You bet itdoes. Utah was admitted to the Union in 1896 but only under the conditionthat the Mormon Church ban polygamy, which they agreed to do. TheMormon Church remains opposed to polygamy to this day and immediatelyexcommunicates any member who is discovered to be practicing polygamy. There areseveral ultra-orthodox offshoots of the Mormon Church though, especially in rural parts of Utah, which quietly practicepolygamy today basically under a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Mostpolygamists just want to be left alone and don't want notoriety.
Perhaps the most famouspolygamist communities are Colorado City, Arizona, just south of the Utah border,and its neighboring town of Hildale, Utah. These two towns, formerly known asShort Creek, were raided by the National Guard in the 1950s in what is stillreferred to by local residents as "The Raid," and many men here were sentto prison. Images of families being torn apart resulted in a publicrelations disaster for the state of Utah and no major arrests of "poligs" have occurred sincethen. There was a made-for-TV movie about this incident many years ago called,"Child Bride of Short Creek" which starred a very young Helen Hunt,long before she was Mad About You. By the way, after the men were released from prison several yearslater, they returned to Colorado City and quietlyresumed their ultra-orthodox beliefs, including the practice of polygamy. Ionce asked a local National Park ranger if there werestill polygamists there and she avoided a direct response to myquestion by saying, "If you drive through Colorado City, you'll see alot of big houses."
If you drivethrough Colorado City, as Idid a few years ago, you'll also see a lot of women wearing long dresses andbonnets and men with long-sleeved shirts and hats, dressed just as their ancestors dida hundred years ago. I've tried to photograph them, but they're quitesuspicious of outsiders, especially I guess, outsiders like me toting big cameras. Yes, polygamy is alive and well in Utah, andestimates are that between 30,000 and 75,000 people live in polygamist familiesin Utah today (mostly in rural areas), representing about 1 to 2 percent of thestate's population. From what I've seen, I don't dispute thoseestimates.
Regardlessof my personal opposition to polygamy, being a closet genealogist I do appreciate the work the Mormon Church has done to document ancestralrecords. Right or wrong, the Mormon Church believes that souls can besaved even after they die. Therefore, Mormons have, for over 100 years,kept meticulous genealogical records of both Mormons and gentiles alike. When mostMormons reach their early 20s and before they're married (and start crankingout those huge families), they go on a "mission" inwhich they move to a distant state or country. During the next severalmonths while they live in that community, they teach, help the locals... and proselytize, trying to convertlocal residents to Mormonism. They also record family tree information and sendit backto the genealogy vaults in Salt Lake City, presumably to help save the souls of thosedeparted.
Afew years ago, the Mormon Church put much of this information on a websitecalled www.FamilySearch.org. This website is a treasure trove of genealogical data and, although my family isnot Mormon, I was able to trace my family tree back 26 continuous generationsusing this website, to about the year 1250 in England. Whether the Mormons areright or wrong about saving souls, I do appreciate their genealogy work. The only thing I don't like about their website is that darn button that pops upevery minute asking, "Do you want to convert now?" :-)
AlthoughI don't agree with the Mormon's sometimes-intolerant views, conservative values, andoccasionally-strange behaviors, I do respect their strong work ethic,independence, communalattitude, and belief in a strong family. I don't like to makegeneralizations, but while some Mormons can be a bit shy, clannish or evensuspicious towards outsiders, they can also be quite helpful in times of need, as I'vediscovered on several occasions. Although I disagree with some of their beliefs, Mormons fascinate me and, to a large degree,they have my respect.
Above left: The National Guard raided Colorado City, Arizona in the1950s, and many men were sent to prison for polygamy. The men returnedand today Colorado City has one of the most ultra-orthodox branchesof the Mormon Church. They're not real friendly to outsiders,either. Note the "big houses" on the right. I shot this in 1995.
Above right: Speaking of Mormons, Mormon Tea is a bush that's common throughout southern Utah. Early Mormon pioneers supposedly brewed the thin, stalk-like leaves of this plant to make a refreshingdrink. I brewed it a few years ago and it tasted like...hot water.