"This is the place" were the now famous words uttered by Brigham Young in 1846, establishing the Mormon Church in the area of Salt Lake City, Utah. Recently the location of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, this is also the first time the Mormon Church in Utah has had widespread exposure in the international media. Known for not drinking tea or coffee, and for men having many wives, the reality of the Mormon faith is even more complex and interesting.
Family, religion, and place are the major principles for modern Mormons living in scenically breathtaking Utah. In order to better understand the Mormon people, and their love of Utah in particular, a careful look at their history is essential. Utah’s history begins with the first Native American inhabitants, of which there were many tribes. But due to climate changes and a drought, many tribes ceased to exist, leaving the hardiest, the Utes, as the namesakes of the state. The first European settlers to arrive were not Mormons, but in fact fur trappers traveling from California in 1827. But they didn’t settle, and the barren land surrounding the Great Salt Lake remained desolate until the arrival of the Mormons. Led by Brigham Young, the first Mormon settlers survived an arduous journey of several thousand miles from northern New York State.
Joseph Smith, who wrote the Book of Mormon, for which the religion is named, founded the faith. The church itself is called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Joseph Smith and his followers became unpopular in their home in rural New York for what many there believed were ‘unnatural’ practices. So they traveled through Ohio, where they again encountered resistance to their faith. A lynch mob there killed Joseph Smith, the founding-prophet of the faith, in 1844. Brigham Young eventually became his successor, and led the 150 or so faithful members of the church to Utah.
The Mormons, who now make up over 70% of the population of Utah, remained an insular community for many generations. Utah did not become a state until 1896. In fact, the Mormon faith was forced to officially amend one of its practices and prohibit polygamy, in order for Congress to accept Utah as a state. The church, often forced by curiosity seeking media, highlights this point to this day, making unequivocally clear its position against polygamy. Yet some Utah residents have taken a lighthearted and humorous approach to this practice, even by naming a local beer in the mountains “Polygamist Porter”.
Modern Utah resembles most other states in the US. But there still remain some notable differences. Families remain large, and there is the occasional evidence of polygamy. Several thousand family units are still thought to be living like this in Utah. The Mormons abstain from consuming alcohol, using tobacco in any form, and from drinking hot tea and coffee, as prescribed in the Book of Mormon. They also never use swear words. However, these principles do not apply to non-Mormons in Utah, and I can attest, that there is no shortage of cafes or coffee in Salt Lake City, which has a roughly 50% Mormon population. Beer, however, is a slightly different story, and the maximum alcohol content in certain counties in the state may not exceed 3.2%, a standard that many stronger beers do not meet. Such beers are thus not sold in the particular county, or are available through a limited network of state-owned liquor stores, along with hard liquors and wine. Some counties have even enacted “dry” legislation, whereby no alcohol of any kind is sold in the county!
Another unique aspect of the Mormon faith is the duty for most young Mormon men, and some women, to go on a 2-year mission abroad. After receiving language and country specific training, usually for a few months, the young missionaries typically leave Utah after completing high school. They then try to educate anyone who is interested in the Mormon faith, even if this means going door-to-door like a traveling salesman. And if this results in some people converting to become practicing Mormons, the church is all the happier. This has helped to boost the number of Mormons worldwide to over 10 million followers, with over 45 temples constructed. The church also has an unwritten guideline that members donate as much as 10% of their income to the church, although this aspect in not entirely cut-and-dry.
But Mormons are by no means on the economic and social fringe in the US. Quite to the contrary, church members are regarded as extremely hardworking, loyal, modest, and stable workers by many US employers. In fact, Mormons founded many major companies in the U.S., and most, not surprisingly, remain owned by the same families that started them. From hotel chains that span the globe to computer software companies, these companies are names most people know, but rarely associate with the Mormons or Utah.
Modern technology has had a tremendous impact on Utah’s economy, and the Mormon community in particular. More that 1700 technology companies are based in Utah, and Provo, a town south of Salt Lake City, is termed the “Silicon Valley of the Rockies”. Mormons have also played an important role in the U.S. defense industry, indicated by large number of defense projects located in Utah. A Washington insider once told me “These are the last, die hard patriotic America has left. What other civilian group would be as loyal as they?” There is a point in this, as after all, America is a melting pot, a blend of practices and cultures, where some loyalties to native traditions and countries may remain. The Mormon culture, in contrast, has both a certain set of principles unique to it, and is closely connected to the land in Utah.
Salt Lake City thus remains the historic and current center of the Mormon faith, as it is the location of the impressive Mormon Tabernacle, the main church of the religion. Occupying a central position in Salt Lake City, it is open only to practicing Mormons. Already the fastest growing religion in the US, we are certain to hear of and meet more Mormons in the coming years.
arduous - very tough, exhaustive (ciężki, żmudny)
insular - inward looking, self contained (wyspiarski, ciasny w poglądach)
polygamy - the practice of taking many wives, simultaneously (poligamia)
(to) attest - to show that sth is true (zaświadczyć)
legislation - laws or regulations (prawodawstwo)
door-to-door - usually done by a salesman, the practice of knocking on stranger's doors to try to establish a relationship, transactions, etc. (od drzwi do drzwi, po domach)
cut-and-dry - very clear or unambiguous (jasny, jednoznaczny)