- 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.
How do we account for this extraordinary change in the Mormons’ numbers, fortunes, and attitudes? Can an analysis of their history supply explanations that will satisfy Mormons and non-Mormons alike? The significance of the Saints makes an attempt well worth the effort, for in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Mormons were the most important single colonizing agency in settling the huge Western region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada-Cascades, and today they seem on their way to becoming leaders in the nation as a whole.
The story begins with the unity that came to the Mormons as the result of sharing an unusual faith, a faith that automatically set its believers apart from the general population. Most Protestant splinter groups merely reinterpreted the accepted King James Bible and rearranged some existing pattern of church government, but Mormonism went far beyond that, for it asserted that there had been modern revelations from God to an actual, known nine-teenth-century human being, Joseph Smith of western New York State.
Smith was the son of debt-ridden, ill-educated parents who had drifted out of New England to make a new (and ultimately unsuccessful) beginning at Palmyra, New York, a town situated between the head of the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario. This was part of the “burned-over” district, so called because during Joseph Smith’s youth wave after wave of emotional religious revivals—the fires of God—swept through the region.
Like his neighbors, Smith matured in an atmosphere of poverty and slight education, but he was notable for a high native intelligence. At some point in the iSzo’s, according to Smith’s own account, an angel in “a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness” appeared in Smith’s bedroom and informed him of the existence of a sacred book, the Book of Mormon, that was “written upon gold plates” and buried on a hill “convenient to the village of Manchester, Ontario County, New York.” After a four-year delay during which he had to purify himself, Smith believed himself divinely commissioned to translate the text of the golden tablets from an ancient language into 275,000 words of more or-less King James Version English. The huge manuscript was then set into print in 1830 on a local newspaper press and published as The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon, Upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi , by Joseph Smith, Junior, “Authorand Proprietor.”
Faith in the authenticity of that book was essential to membership in what officially became known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To accept Mormonism one had to believe literally that an angel revealed to Smith this hitherto unknown sacred book, comparable to the Bible, and, further, that thereafter God repeatedly communicated with Joseph Smith, whose revelations of God’s will were both numerous and explicit, ranging from general rules for the government of the church to highly specific instructions to named individuals. Those who were capable of literal belief in so revolutionary a set of religious assumptions inevitably set themselves apart from the skeptical or derisive majority of Americans, and thus became what the Mormons themselves called a “peculiar people.” Becoming a “peculiar people” in turn led to persecution and to the martyrdom of their prophet, Joseph Smith. Paradoxically, the assaults upon them had a unifying effect: nothing so unites a group as the sense of standing together against a hostile world.
But their ability to hold together was facilitated also by something that was as unique as the modern revelation upon which the Mormon faith was founded. Joseph Smith had created the only true theocracy that America has ever seen. One dictionary defines theocracy as a “system of government by priests claiming a divine commission.” In the Mormon Church, from Smith’s time to the present day, there have never been professional priests. Instead, every adult white male of good character is a priest and by hard work can rise to successively higher rank and responsibility in the church’s very definite hierarchy.
The individual male earns his living in a regular secular job and must manage to do his own work while meeting the church’s very heavy demands upon his time. The only exceptions are at the pinnacle of the Mormon hierarchy, where the sheer weight of responsibilities makes it necessary for the individual to give up his secular calling in order to devote full time to the church’s demands. Save at the very top, where a “living allowance” is provided, no one gets paid for doing the church’s work; on the contrary, all Mormons are expected to support this elaborate organization by paying a genuine tithe—a real 10 per cent of their income.
Women and blacks may not become priests. The women are expected to work hard as a kind of ladies’ auxiliary, but they must achieve glorification and satisfaction in the church through their husbands’ service to the church and through the bearing of children. Annie Clark Tanner, who was born in rural Utah in 1864 and raised as the daughter of Wife Number Two in a devout polygamous family, summed up the underlying philosophy in two sentences: “The Priesthood is a spiritual power which purports to give man superior wisdom. Because of this superiority in power and authority, a wife was subservient to her husband.” If such an attitude sounds absurd today, in the nineteenth century it was not very remote from views widely accepted among the general American population.
Before she was twenty, Annie Clark herself became Wife Number Two of a polygamous husband, thus beginning what proved to be a singularly unhappy, unstable, yet long-continued marital relationship (ten children). Her own and her mother’s experiences led her to comment on the obvious connection between her church’s attitude toward women and its stubborn defense of its most publicized institution, polygamy. “Polygamy,” Mrs. Tanner said, “is predicated on the assumption that man is superior to woman,” and that man must be given “privileged rights in domestic affairs.”
The church’s stand on blacks has become even more anachronistic than its attitudes toward women. Blacks are encouraged to join,but unlike other males, they must not expect to enter the priesthood. According to Mormon belief, their color means that they bear a lifelong curse as the descendants of one of the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain, who in a fit of jealousy slew his brother Abel. For this bloody deed, Cain and his descendants were cursed with black skins—the “mark of Cain.” Someday, Mormon theory runs, the curse will be lifted, but until that time participation in the priesthood is forbidden to blacks, although not to some other nonwhites, such as Polynesians. For modern Mormon liberals, the church’s flat prohibition—and the blunt implication of racial inferiority—has become a heavy cross.
From the beginning the Mormon Church has thus been an organization that is staffed by unpaid white male nonprofessionals, and is supported by remarkably generous giving by all loyal Mormons. The church is organized into successively higher levels of authority, beginning at the level of the local congregation, which is called a “ward” and is presided over by a layman called a “bishop,” and rising up through a larger geographical entity called a “stake,” above which are the central authorities of the church, who have operated out of Salt Lake City ever since the Mormons have been in Utah. Twice a year there is a huge meeting in Salt Lake City to which the faithful are earnestly urged to come. It is at those semiannual meetings that the faithful are told what their leaders have decided.
How are officials chosen for these different levels? Joseph Smith declared that his church was to be not so much a theocracy but rather what he termed a “theo-democracy.” In practice this has meant that the leaders of the church select some promising Mormon for a post, and then ask the people of the particular group he will lead to ratify the choice by a show of hands in meeting. The approval so given is known as the “sustaining vote.” Normally it is forthcoming, since the voting group knows that the nomination represents their leaders’ wishes and, as Mrs. Tanner remarked, “obedience was the basis of our religion.” From Joseph Smith’s time to the present this elaborate church structure has provided a definite place and role for every active Mormon. The energies, the enthusiasms, and money of each member are enlisted.
The church has dominated not only the religious life of its members but also their social life, frequently their political life, and at times their economic activities. After the Mormons moved to Utah, the church created and controlled the only government Utah had until 1850. When Congress established a territorial form of government in that year, Brigham Young became the first governor, and the church remained a de facto force in government at all levels. Nor did the church’s influence in government cease after the federal government displaced Brigham Young as territorial governor in 1857.
This theocracy could operate the more easily because from the beginning the Mormons had shown a remarkable spirit of communitarian cooperation. Because the early Mormons were too poor and too limited in education and experience to undertake big projects as individuals, they learned to work together under the leadership of their church. By pooling their labor under church direction, and employing only the simplest tools and equipment, they planned and built towns, irrigation canals, roads, and factories—without accumulating a large capital debt.
Joseph Smith initiated these arrangements and developed a cadre of effective leaders who served as his immediate subordinates. For his administrative accomplishments he deserves more credit than he has usually received. At his death in 1844 Joseph Smith was succeeded by one of the outstanding organizers of the nineteenth century, Brigham Young, who ruled the church until his own death in 1877. If the circumstances of his life had worked out differently, Brigham Young might have become a captain of industry—an Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller or perhaps a railroad builder.
Young’s beginnings in rural Vermont and New York State were as humble as Joseph Smith’s. He once declared that he had had only eleven days of formal schooling. Yet in adult life, when he stood at the head of the Mormon Church, he impressed his visitors. In 1860, Sir Richard Burton, the famous British world traveler, found him “at once affable and impressive, simple and courteous: his want of pretension contrasts favorably with certain pseudo-prophets that I have seen. … He impresses a stranger with a certain sense of power. … He can use all the weapons of ridicule to direful effect” and can reprimand his followers “in purposely violent language.“Albert D. Richardson, the journalist, added his own evaluation in 1867:
“With an affable and dignified manner he manifests the unmistakable egotism of one having authority. In little ebullitions of earnestness he speaks right at people, using his dexter forefinger with emphasis, to point a moral. He treats the brethren with warmth, throwing his arm caressingly about them and asking carefully after the wives and babies.
“Provincialisms of his Vermont boyhood and his western manhood still cling to him. He says ‘leetle,’ ‘beyend’ and ‘disremember.’ An irrepressible conflict between his nominatives and verbs, crops out in expressions like’they was.’ ”
This able, energetic, earthy man became the absolute ruler and the revered, genuinely loved father figure of all Mormons everywhere. He used the church hierarchy as the instrument through which he ruled, and from among the church leaders he selected the captains and lieutenants he needed to carry out his purposes. But Young himself was a master of detail who kept in touch with everything. In his letters to his sons he constantly exhorted his progeny to observe, improve, work, and be useful. He held himself to those same exacting standards. Whenever he traveled, which he did frequently, he always knew a great deal about not only each town he visited but also many of the individuals who lived there. To a hard-working rural Mormon, it meant everything that the ruler of the church knew that Sister Eliza had had an unusually hard time after the birth of her sixth child, or that Brother Isaiah had been the principal carpenter in rebuilding the local church after it had suffered storm damage.
His visits to local communities were rustic versions of a royal progress. All of the townsmen put on their best clothes, buildings were decorated, the street strewn with flowers, the brass band played, and the school children sang:
Young could be ruthless and crude, but he had many qualities more notable than his most publicized achievement, which was the admittedly impressive catalog of his wives—ultimately he married twenty-seven women. The most reliable statisticians credit Young with fifty-six or fifty-seven children by sixteen of those wives. Even with the separate apartments that he maintained for them, Young’s ability to keep so many wives from quarreling and so many children from overwhelming him would in itself prove that he must have been a remarkable, not to say masterful, diplomat.
During the thirty years between the Mormons’ arrival in Utah in 1847 and 1877, Young directed the founding of 350 towns in the Southwest. A modern historian has remarked that the two most important forces in settling the intermountain West were the Union Pacific Railroad and the Mormon Church—two large, well-organized, and centrally directed institutions. In such a harsh geographic setting, the job could not possibly have been done by exclusive reliance upon the efforts of unorganized individuals.
How the process worked was illustrated by the founding of the town of Springville, southeast of Salt Lake. Although two Mormon militiamen discovered the site early in 1849, Brigham Young decreed that settlement must await the arrival of Bishop Aaron Johnson, who was to lead a wagon train across the plains to Utah during the summer of 1850. Johnson, who like so many of the early Mormons was of New England ancestry (Connecticut-born), was just the kind of proven leader to whom Brigham Young habitually turned when a difficult new task was at hand.
A Mormon since 1836, only six years after Joseph Smith had founded the denomination, Johnson had risen to successively higher responsibilities during the Mormons’ town-building in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois and during their exodus from Nauvoo. When the bearded bishop finally brought his train of 135 wagons safely to Salt Lake City, Brigham Young came to greet the newcomers and arbitrarily “cut out” the first eight wagons, announcing to their drivers that they were to go with Johnson to found Springville. From his own family Johnson, in turn, selected two of his wives and three of his sons to accompany him with this advance detachment.
The chosen site was a lovely one. Tall wild grasses covered a strip of virgin land that had the massive Wasatch Range of the Rockies at its back, and the glittering waters of Utah Lake before it, while Hobble Creek, flowing out from the mountain canyons, gave assurance of water for irrigation.
Under Johnson’s leadership, the necessary tasks were quickly assigned. Some were to harvest the wild grasses with scythes; others were to take axes and teams up into the mountains to bring out logs; while still others were to lay out a fortified settlement that would cover an acre and a half, big enough to shelter both settlers and domestic livestock from the possibility of Indian attack and the certainty of winter storms. Typical of the Mormons, one of the early buildings was a schoolhouse and another a structure large enough for dances and social gatherings, and presently for amateur theatricals, for the Mormons never let their New England heritage lead them into discouraging harmless pleasures and sociability.
There were difficult early years at Springville when poor crops reduced the pioneers to eating thistle roots, pig weed, red root, and sego bulbs, but by the time Johnson died in 1877, worn out from too many years of multivarious duties, the town had long been a decided success. Johnson had been bishop, judge, brigadier general of local militia, philanthropist to all in need, and “head of all the public affairs,” as his son expressed it. Family tradition has it that his children numbered fifty-five and his wives either eleven or thirteen. (A slight uncertainty, where the numbers are so high, can easily be forgiven.)
Most of the towns that Young caused to be founded were in arid regions that required irrigation systems and the careful use of limited supplies of water, timber, and good land, needs which the Mormons fulfilled in their own, almost revolutionary manner. For the United States as a whole this was an age of unrestrained laissez faire, in which the primary standard of judgment was private profit rather than community need, but the Mormons immediately placed social values ahead of individual desires. Towns were planned according to the old New England pattern: the residences and their attendant kitchen gardens were clustered in the middle of the town, so that the people would be close to neighbors, the school, and the church building, while the irrigable crop lands were out in the more open country beyond the settlement, and the pasture lands were still farther away. Water was declared by Brigham Young to be the property of all the people rather than private property, and was to be distributed through an irrigation system built under church leadership and by the labor of the people who would be using it. Use of the water was tied to the land that needed it and was regulated by the local people, so that water monopoly was impossible. When disputes about water arose, they were usually taken to the local bishop of the church ward for his mediation or arbitration, instead of spending time and money to file suit in the courts.
In declaring water to be the property of the whole community, and in working out this simple pattern for use, Young and his people were discarding several centuries of Anglo-American precedents developed under the common law for use in a humid climate. Elsewhere in the West a great deal of expensive litigation could have been avoided if lawyers and legislators had been more willing to throw away Blackstone’s Commentaries and follow the example set by the unsophisticated but pragmatic Mormons.
In Brigham Young’s eyes, building towns and irrigation systems was not enough. The Mormons had always wanted to make themselves economically self-sufficient, so that they would not be at the mercy of the nation’s non-Mormon majority when they needed supplies. Once they had become settled in Utah and had survived the difficult first years, they began a remarkable if unsuccessful drive to create all kinds of industries and services. Factories, mills, an iron foundry, express and teamster services, local railroads, cooperative stores, woolen mills, cotton growing, and a sugar-beet industry were examples of ventures that Young persuaded the faithful to finance through drafts upon the local congregations to supply money, labor, draft animals, and raw materials. Unfortunately, these subsidized ventures were, at best, high-cost enterprises producing for a limited market, and after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, cheaper, better-finished goods flooded in from the Middle West and East to wipe out such of the Mormon experiments as had not already failed of their own unsoundness.
The sum total of all these efforts suggests how and why the Mormons were able to hold together and indeed to grow steadily in numbers and resources through the difficult and crucial years of the i85o’s, i86o’s, and i Syo’s. They were united by accepting an unusual faith; they were led by a remarkable man who headed a theocracy that penetrated every aspect of daily life and could normally count upon obedient responses to its directives; and they were addicted to cooperative, communitarian ways of meeting all challenges. But in addition to these forces from within, they were strengthened in their loyalty to the church by the periodic attacks made upon them by the United States government, which in turn was responding to the hostile public opinion constantly being whipped up by reformers, newspaper editors, politicians, and women’s organizations. In 1857 President James Buchanan, who was soon to vacillate over coercing the seceding Southern states, did not hesitate to send the United States Army into Utah under the command of the future Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston to compel the Mormons to accept federal rule and federal law. Inevitably, a morbidly illogical act of retaliation took place: the “Mountain Meadows Massacre” of September, 1857, in which more than one hundred members of a Gentile emigrant train passing through Utah were slaughtered, almost certainly by Mormons in alliance with friendly Indians. This event, which Mormon historian Juanita Brooks has called “one of the most despicable mass murders of history,” was an aberration, a paranoid reaction that might have been expected of a harassed and persecuted people whose local leaders had been driven to the equivalent of a wartime hysteria by the “invasion” of federal troops. In any case, the massacre did nothing to alleviate tensions between the Mormons and the national government.
In the 1860’s and 1870’s Congress passed laws to eliminate polygamy and to take the trial of cases of alleged plural marriage out of the hands of the Mormon judges and juries, who invariably failed to convict. With the Edmunds Act of 1882 and the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, Congress began an even more vigorous attack on the Mormon Church and polygamy. Arrest and imprisonment of polygamous Mormon leaders, confiscation of church property, federal control of voting, and invasion by United States marshalls gradually reduced the Mormons’ physical ability to resist the imposition upon them of standards of behavior that would be in harmony with the majority of the United States.
Still, polygamy, so long a part of Mormon culture, was difficult to excise; it continued to be practiced, though on a much reduced scale, and the church fought the Edmunds-Tucker Act all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Finally, in 1890, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the act, and the Mormons were beaten. In September of that year, Wilford Woodruff, then president of the church, issued an official declaration: “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.” The declaration was unanimously declared “official and binding” by a vote during the October general conference, and the doctrine of plural marriage was no longer officially part of Mormon dogma.
While Woodruffs declaration did not necessarily bring an immediate end to existing polygamous relationships, nevertheless it gave promise that the church would no longer promote the institution, and with polygamy out of the way insofar as politics were concerned, Congress permitted Utah to draft a constitution and become a state in 1896.
What has happened since then is extraordinarily interesting. Having once resolved to surrender on the key issue of polygamy, the Mormon leadership decided further to reduce distrust and dislike by deliberately conforming to the rest of the United States in many other aspects of life. This meant accepting the patterns of thought of Victorian middle-class America, including laissez-faire economics and a hostility to anything that suggested socialism—despite decades of Mormon church socialism. The Mormons’ economic cooperatives were allowed to pass into private ownership, to be operated as profitseeking enterprises, sometimes as the private property of the local or general leaders of the church.
While the private profit motive grew at the expense of the old zeal for communitarian enterprises, Mormons of all levels of income continued to tithe and to devote extraordinary amounts of time to the work of the church. The church continued to be the center of their emotional and social lives. And since the church was so central to the thinking of all practicing Mormons, and since it had always given political leadership in the past, so did it continue to exercise a heavy influence on politics in the new era.
Politically the Mormons had been organized in a party of their own—the so-called Peoples’ Party—prior to making peace with the national government. Now the leaders decided that the Mormons would have more influence in Washington if they joined the national parties, dividing more or less equally between the Republicans and Democrats, so that the Mormons would have a solid bloc of votes in both camps. The faithful were solemnly instructed so to do—although in practice the leadership itself tended to find the atmosphere of the Republican party more congenial than that of the Democratic party.
This was only natural, for starting with Nauvoo and the first decade in Utah, there had been a tendency for the men at the head of the Mormon Church to become well-to-do property owners and businessmen. As Horace Greeley, the famous journalist, somewhat acidly remarked after meeting Brigham Young’s principal associates in 1859, “their Mormonism has not impoverished them. …” By the late nineteenth century this group of prosperous leaders had grown both in wealth and in influence. For them conformity to the mores of Victorian America was no problem once the divisive issue of polygamy was no longer present. In politics their natural allies were the Old Guard Republicans in Washington and in the individual states. In labor relations a comparable affiliation with well-to-do middle-class America also occurred. Since many more of the Mormon leaders ofthat day belonged to the owner or manager class than to the ranks of the workers, it is understandable why they joined Middle Western and Eastern employers in denouncing labor’s attempts to organize.
This tendency to affiliate with the conservative, ruling, entrepreneurial elements of American society was strengthened by at least two factors. One was the relatively provincial setting of most Mormon communities at the turn of the century, even after the arrival of local railroads. The present-day dispersion of Mormons to big cities in non-Mormon regions is a phenomenon that has developed only since the Great Depression and the Second World War. Most Mormons of seventy or eighty years ago still lived in small towns and modest-sized cities that had little communication with the big national and regional centers where, in the age of Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette, liberals and progressives were arguing fiercely over new ideas about social justice and using the power of the state to curb monopoly and economic abuse.
The other factor was a practice established by Brigham Young, who perferred that at his death his successors should be chosen on the basis of seniority. By following this practice, the Mormons have acquired the oldest rulers of any organization known to modern man. To cite recent experience, David O. McKay, who was president of the church for nineteen years, died in 1970 at the age of ninety-six. His successor, Joseph Fielding Smith, was ninety-three when he took over McKay’s duties and ninety-five when he died. Smith’s successor, Harold B. Lee, was a comparatively youthful seventythree, yet survived only eighteen months in office. The present head, Spencer W. Kimball, is eighty-two. No matter how great the good will of such men, it is asking too much to expect them to comprehend the attitudes of the great majority of Americans who are young enough to be their children, grandchildren, or even erreat-ffrandchildren.
It is almost unnecessary to add that in the general drive to make peace with middle-class America, the old tendency to Mormon separatism has been replaced by an earnest patriotism. Does this mean that the modern Mormons have been fully absorbed into American society? That basic question has deeply concerned a new group of Mormon intellectuals who have become increasingly significant during the past decade. In 1966 this group founded Dialogue , a serious journal in which to thrash out the problems they faced in attempting to harmonize the faith, teachings, and practices Joseph Smith had revealed to their forefathers in the 1830’s and 1840’s, with the harshly insistent conditions of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The very first issue of this new journal started with an admirable editorial preface that declared:
“Today … most Mormons live outside Utah. … Today it is not unusual to see Mormon Congressmen in Washington, Mormon business executives in Chicago, Mormon professors at Harvard, or Mormon space scientists at Houston. Mormons are participating freely in the social, economic, and cultural currents of change sweeping twentieth-century America.”
Then, with no transition, the editorial suddenly added this assertion:
“But Mormons do remain apart from greater American society. Their experience, heritage, and tradition of years in isolation remain an integral part of Mormon belief; Mormon doctrine reinforces individual withdrawal and defiance of conformity in the face of modern convention. This new era of life in the secular world, far from the cloisters of a Rocky Mountain Zion, has created a host of dilemmas for the individual who seeks to reconcile faith and reason.”
All Americans face in some degree the problem of reconciling ancestral faith with contemporary thought and practice. But for the Mormons the problem is more difficult because Mormonism is such a complete way of life. Even though Mormons participate vigorously in the PTA, the Chamber of Commerce, local politics, business, and the professions, they still spend much of their lives in selfcontained Mormon groups. From childhood until old age they meet, talk, play, and pray in their own groups. They have their own charities, projects, entertainments. They have elaborate youth programs at high schools and colleges, as part of their campaign to hold their young people in the church (as well as gain new members) during the years when most denominations lose a high percentage of their young men and women.
Where most Americans must find their individual and often lonely ways through this confusing modern era, the Mormons can live in a warmly supportive group atmosphere, if they wish. To break with so all-embracing a pattern is a wrenching, distorting experience. For just that reason independent thinking and modern doubts have come only slowly to most Mormons. It is far easier to conform to the church’s omnipresent guidance than to challenge it. At the same time, change is coming to the world with extraordinary speed. The continued subordination of women and blacks, at a time when outside opinion has turned so drastically against discrimination, illustrates the weight of cultural lag within the Mormon community. Will the Mormons be able to work out adjustments to contemporary pressures, without sacrificing the essence of their distinctive and close-knit culture? For the moment, the answer must be in doubt, but in view of the Mormons’ record of meeting challenges in the past, it is by no means certain that they will fail.