Zion's Enemies : Boundaries and the Forging of Mormon Identity in the American West
Salt Lake City, UT
University of Utah
From its beginning, Mormonism set itself apart from the rest of the world. Opposition and "the other" played central roles in the construction of a Mormon identity. Joseph Smith sought to restore a pure Christianity to a depraved, wicked world. Months after his organization of the Church of Christ, Smith commanded his followers to flee Babylon and "gather" to Zion. Over the ensuing decade, he established boundaries, cultural as well as physical, that set the Latter-day Saints apart from everyone else. During his short life, Joseph Smith nurtured a distinct people.
Joseph Smith was murdered in the summer of 1844. Brigham Young claimed church leadership and led thousands of Smith's followers to the Great Basin of the American West. Here, Young cemented boundaries and led the Mormon people further from the American mainstream. Sermons and church-run institutions reinforced a binary worldview that divided the world between good and evil. The church stood in opposition to America's political, economic, and religious systems. Plural marriage, publically acknowledged in 1852, shocked the American people. Editors, politicians, and religious leaders considered the Mormon theocracy un-American and inadvertently contributed to Mormon distinctiveness. Anti-Mormon rhetoric and actions fed Mormons' belief that they were God's persecuted people.
Church leaders created a narrative and institutions to maintain Mormon identity. Increasingly, Mormons lived hundreds of miles from their core in Utah. Sociologist Frederick Barth argued that a group is formed not by what its members hold in common, but what sets them apart from everyone else. Boundaries that separate "us" from "them" are essential in identity formation and maintenance. This study examines the saint-making process not at Mormonism's core, but at its periphery where Latter-day Saints interacted with the non-Mormon other. It considers the experiences of Latter-day Saints in four Mormon towns: Brigham City, Utah; Mesa, Arizona; Manassa, Colorado; and Rexburg, Idaho. Each community brought its own story to the construction of a shared religious identity. On the streets and in the homes, stores, and churches of these communities, individuals determined the shape and character of the Mormon people.