- Historic Sites
From Poverty and Persecution to Prosperity and Power
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
In the month of February, 1846, when conditions for travel were as unpropitious as possible, the Mormons began moving out of their newly built city of Nauvoo, Illinois, in order to cross the ice-strewn Mississippi, on the first leg of a long and uncertain journey. A forced abandoning of barely completed homes, this time with the loss of much property and the necessity for travel in the dead of winter, was no new experience for the adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Twice before, in Ohio and Missouri, the violence of their non-Mormon neighbors had forced the “Saints” to give up newly established colonies, but Nauvoo was the worst disaster yet, for in 1844 an Illinois lynching mob had murdered Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, the man who claimed to have talked with God and angels, the man who claimed to have found and translated the golden tablets on which the Book of Mormon was engraved, the man who had directed—some would say dictated—every social, economic, political, and religious aspect of Mormon daily life.
As her family’s laden wagons struggled down to the shore of the icebound Mississippi, the awesome dangers of the venture were all too clear to Sarah D. Rich, who later recorded her emotions in an appealingly misspelled manuscript:
“To start out on such a jeorney in the winter as it ware and in our state of poverty it would seam like walking into the jaws of death. But we had faith in our heavenly father and we put our trust in him, feeling that we ware his chosen people and had imbraced his gospel and insted of sorrow we felt to rejoice that the day of deliverence had come.”
A “chosen people,” the elect of God, the only true believers—such phrases characterized the Mormons as they saw themselves. The confident faith that inspired such thinking was at once a force that held the Mormons together and an irritant that antagonized those who were not Mormons (“Gentiles,” as the Saints called them). Despite, or perhaps because of, the Mormons’ remarkable success in creating a vigorously independent and thriving city at Nauvoo, the assaults of the Gentiles had made life in Illinois too dangerous and costly to be endured. Smith’s principal successor, Brigham Young, had taken the lead in determining that the Mormons must begin a massive folk migration that would carry them far beyond contact with non-Mormons. The plan finally decided upon was to cross the vast emptiness of the Great Plains to some as yet uncertain point just beyond the Rockies. It would be a huge undertaking that would require several years, for ultimately over fifteen thousand people and whatever belongings they had salvaged in their enforced winter exodus had to be moved more than a thousand miles and resettled in a desert.
To any dispassionate observer, a folk migration begun in the worst time of year and with shortages of wagons, teams, and food must have seemed truly a case of “walking into the jaws of death,” as Mrs. Rich expressed it. By all logic, this should have been the moment for Mormonism to break up. With their prophet and original organizer murdered, their homes lost, and signs of dissidence among them, the Mormons in this dreary winter of 1846 should have been ready to follow many another new sect into disintegration and ineffectuality.
But what in fact is the status of the Mormons today, more than 130 years after their trek to the land of Zion in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah? They are one of the fastest-growing and most prosperous denominations in the country. They claim nearly 2,500,000 adherents within the United States and another million overseas, and thanks to energetic proselytizing at home and abroad, their numbers increase almost daily. So does their influence. The Mormons, who were unsophisticated, poorly educated rural folk in 1846, have joined the general American trend by turning away from the countryside to dwell in suburbs and cities, and away from farming and simple crafts to the professions, commerce, finance, and industry.
Today more than half of the American Mormons live outside Utah and its immediate neighbors, and they are as likely to be found directing major businesses and real-estate operations in Los Angeles, Detroit, or New York as working in Salt Lake City. Nor do they confine themselves to private business. They have contributed senators, congressmen, governors, and presidential candidates. In local affairs they have won membership on school boards, city councils, and citizens’ advisory groups. Their attitudes are precisely those one would expect of an affluent, confident middle class blessed with homes of visible comfort. While there are liberals among them, most, especially among the leaders, are political conservatives. Unlike their forefathers of three generations ago, they no longer favor social or economic experimentation, be it in town building, irrigation systems, or multiple wives. They still have a remarkable cohesiveness, but much of their force is directed inward now, toward strengthening the church by conserving its membership, rather than outward toward meeting widely felt social or economic needs.