The Gathering: A Symbiotic Relationship of Mormonism and Utah, Part I

Is space conquerable? How do communities transform foreign locations into recognizable and meaningful places that reflect our sense of identity?

I. Birth of Mormonism

The establishment of place has been the defining element of Mormonism throughout its creation, development, struggles, and successes. The birth of Mormonism within the American landscape emerged with the aid of the right prophet — Joseph Smith — and with the right theological foundation and backstory to attract the attentions of those disenfranchised with the available religions of the time (Hansen, 52). Further, the religious and political conditions of America in the 19th century created the perfect platform upon which Mormonism flourished.

Destined to be the land of freedom, America allowed for the establishment of new religious experiences to grow within a territory that was perceived to be open for the taking by immigrants. While the appeals of Mormonism and reasons for conversion were great, Mormonism’s ultimate success as a religion was dependent on the religious community’s locating of a place, their establishment of said place as homeland, and the Mormons’ continued struggle to maintain said place as their ultimate meeting ground in preparation for the end days.

In regards to the connection between physical location and group identity, Yi-Fu Tuan, in Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, illuminates theories of space-place relations, which ultimately help tease out the complexities between the Latter-Day Saints’ and their experience of place. This symbiotic relationship of place (Utah Territory, or “the society of Zion ”) and religious grouping (the Latter-Day Saints) is the distinguishing feature of Mormonism, integral to the Mormon identity (Holmes, 43).

The creation and initial formation of Mormonism had various appeals during the American political and religious climate of the 19th century, while the focal point of the religion rested upon the idea of establishing “a literal Kingdom of God. ” The foundation of Mormonism occurred on September 21, 1823 with the appearance of an angel sent to Joseph Smith (Arrington & Bitton, 8).

angel, moroni
The Angel, Moroni

According to Smith, the angel, Moroni, described himself as the last prophet of an extinct race that had previously inhabited the Americas; Moroni encouraged Smith to dig up a collection of gold plates containing a religious history engraved by him and his father, Mormon (14). According to Mormon faith, the book that came from the gold plates — The Book of Mormon — chronicles the lives of a small band of Jews that escaped from Jerusalem to America around 600 B.C.

Splitting into opposing groups, the band ultimately fled from America, while Moroni buried the records of his peoples in the “Hill Cumorah ” to be discovered and presented as witness “to the divinity of Christ in ‘the latter days.’ ” Within the Mormon foundation story and theology, Smith’s discovery of the history of these peoples, spurred by his visions, set in motion the necessitation to fulfill their mission to establish a place, society, and homeland for Jesus’ return (Holmes, 161).

Though the American climate set the stage for new religious expressions to grow, the foundation story of the Latter-Day Saints, with the focal point on creating a gathering site for the end days, persisted as the central appeal for conversion. The appearance of Mormonism occurred during a time of decreased religious authority on American soil, when Americans began to demand assurances of some system of hierarchy and deference (Hansen, 20).

According to Tuan, people rely on the past to create an understanding of homeland; since, “security is gained through this historical sense of continuity, ” and the American people had recently been uprooted from their sense of continuity, or homeland, it follows that their sense of security was amiss and there was a need to recreate a sense of homeland.

Yi-Fu Tuan

Essentially, the uprooting of people from Europe to America — while it may have been liberating in terms of religious freedom — created a void, a discontinuation in their historical narrative which could only be filled by the creation of a new homeland (Tuan, 153). Tuan articulates that religion creates a sense of homeland through various peoples’ relationship with ancestry; it is through historical narratives, ancestor worship, and pious connection of gods to place that the ideal of rootedness is embedded in religion (156). The disinterest many Americans felt at the time regarding the available religious groupings was synonymously expressed within Smith’s visions, wherein he gathered the understanding that no church on Earth was wholly acceptable, as there was no central location ready for the end days (Bitton, viii).

From the initial vision experienced by Smith, the symbiotic relationship between place and religion was essential. Within six months of the first Mormon church, Smith declared the people “shall be gathered in unto one place upon the face of this land, ” in the “Gathering place…upon the frontier ” (Hafen & Hafen, 17). Thus, the central message and the restored gospel of Mormonism was clear: God has spoken through the prophet, Joseph Smith, who will lead the people to a unifying homeland.

The specific personality of Smith played a central part in attracting followers as well; growing up with a sense of insecurity, Smith desired to create for himself and others a system of understanding “that would offer a sense of direction in a topsy-turvy world ” (Arrington & Bitton, 18). The complex personality of Smith forged with the powerful message — preaching a sense of security through community within a central, physical location—made for a theologically intelligent appeal. While there were various appeals to the overall Mormon movement — a sense of security in a land of uncertainty and the personality of its prophet—the defining appeal for the Latter-Day Saints’ converts was the understanding that spiritual reassurance and emotional satisfaction would be granted at the “gathering to Zion ” (Hafen & Hafen, 13).

The notion of “Zion ” was utilized by Smith to denote the central gathering place for the faithful. As understood within Judaism, Mount Zion was a homeland for the Jewish people, a place of solace, and the center point for their religion. The theological foundation laid by Smith, claiming a connection to the lost tribe of the Jews, thus essentially united the Latter-Day Saints and the Jews with a mutual purpose (Holmes, 161). According to Mormon understanding of Jewish scripture, the Tribe of Ephraim — who is the son of Joseph — was exiled form the Kingdom of Israel during Assyrian domination; with a loss of the history of these people, the Latter-Day Saints believe themselves to be descendants of or to have been adopted into the lost tribe of Ephraim (Numbers 1:10).

Identities rediscovered, the Latter-Day Saints had a unifying, central mission to establish a place for the return of Jesus Christ (Holmes, 43). The establishment of a place of Zion was crucial for Smith, who believed in the possibility of two communities’ witnessing of the end times: those in a covenant with God at the Zion of Israel and at the Zion of America (45). The very notion of establishing a place for Jesus’ return was the defining element of religious identity for those looking to become a Latter-Day Saint.

In the New World, the Mormon idea of establishing a literal Kingdom of God represented a different Christian approach to the understanding of the Second Coming and the end times (43). The establishment of place was essential to their religious identity, worldview, and theological and philosophical conceptualization of life and death. While other Christian denominations appointed a time for Jesus’ return, Smith — and Mormonism — appointed a place (44). Within Tuan’s theoretical framework of space and place, he posits that, out of the undifferentiated movement of space, place is where one pauses (Tuan, 72).

Thus, the concept of a Zionic community and of gathering at Zion became “a peculiarly Mormon thing ” where, out of the undifferentiated space of “Babylon, ” the Saints created a homeland, a place where they could pause in reflection of their identity or purpose in the world (73). Though missionary work and nurturing others into the Mormon faith constituted a large portion of the Latter-Day Saints’ life, such that “Mormon lay missionaries seemed to be a class of men who were scarcely ever at home, [they were] among the few Americans who knew for sure where home was ” (Holmes, 44). They created a sense of familiarity with a place in their eventual settlement within Utah Territory; their emotional connection to a space turned it into a place where they could settle and begin their own homeland formation (Tuan, 73).

II. The Search For Zion

Hoping to establish the “cause of Zion ” in America, Smith banded together the disillusioned Pennsylvanians and Eastern New Yorkers within the Mormonism movement in its first official church located in Fayette, New York (Arrington & Bitton, 15, 20). Though New York as the birthplace of Mormonism, the Hill Cumorah, and the location of the First Vision were all established sacred places for the Saints, “the truly sacred places lay to the west, ” where the Mormons could build their city of Zion within the promised land (Bushman, 177). For its first seventeen years, the Mormonism movement experienced a time of dislocation within the United States, jostling from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and finally, to its ultimate gathering place: the unsettled, unpopulated land of the Great Basin, what became the state of Utah (Poll, 164).

This period of dislocation for the Latter-Day Saints was significant for the believers as they established and were uprooted from their Zion, their homeland time and time again (Taves, 24-25). Further, they experienced a time of undifferentiated space, wherein Tuan would argue the Mormons attempted to conquer space “by transforming it into a familiar world of routes and places ” (Tuan, 83).

Faith continued to remain within the Mormon movement, however, as Smith sent missionaries to England and ultimately realized the troubles they faced within the United States — mob violence, property destruction, oppression, and expulsion from various states — could be forgotten in an untamed wilderness beyond the contemporarily established United States, where they could await the final days (Arrington & Bitton, 21; Hafen & Hafen 18-19; Taves, 50).

Their migration from state to state can be illuminated further by Tuan’s theoretical conceptualization of “spaciousness ” and “crowding ” (51). While spaciousness is the freedom to act as one desires, crowding “is an awareness that one is observed, ” characterized by cross-purposes and a loss of power to organize things as one would without outside imposition (59-61). Thus, they migrated from place to place, crowded by the impositions of others, “motivated by the desire to seek opportunities in a freer and more spacious environment ” (60). Though they wandered in search of a place to call Zion for many years, the search of place was over with the beginning of the establishment of the Kingdom of God at the Great Salt Lake in 1847.

Since Smith was ultimately unable to discover the final resting place for the Latter-Day Saints as he was murdered in jail in 1844, Brigham Young established himself as leader and “piloted the vanguard of homeless Saints across the plains and into the Rocky Mountains. Looking out over a…barren valley [and] the Great Salt Lake…[he] announced: ‘This is the place’ ” (Hafen & Hafen, 21). Thus, for Young and the Saints, the Great Salt Lake and the valley became landmarks of their homeland.

Brigham Young
Brigham Young

Tuan discusses the importance of these landmarks: “these visible signs serve to enhance a people’s sense of identity, ” and sense of loyalty to a place (159). Though the Mormons were not the first people to the Great Basin, they were the first with the intention of establishing a permanent sanctuary, a shining city, a settled religious community waiting for the end times (Taves, 67). For the Latter-Day Saints, the settlement in Utah Territory was a permanent pause from the “chance and flux everywhere, ” and it signified an opportunity to strengthen the frailty they saw within themselves (Tuan, 154).

The search for Zion was over, while the establishment and continued fight for their community remained to be seen. The territory of the unsettled Great Basin offered the promise of a new world to the persecuted and unwanted Latter-Day Saints, despite its barrenness and potential for hostile relations with the Native Americans (Arrington & Bitton, 109). To the Mormons, this land—unattractive to anyone else, other than the Native Americans—offered a place for development without interference from other settlers (110).

The initial appeal of its landmarks created a sense of comfortability and emotional connection for the Saints, such that they designated it a place to pause from the movement of all the vast, unused space of the West (Tuan, 159). While there were many challenges the Latter-Day Saints still faced, the establishment of their community and home occurred in two broad ways: with the desire for self-sufficiency and the success of The Perpetual Emigrating Fund (Taves, 118-121).

Entering the valley of the Great Salt Lake, Young declared his intention for little to no trade with the Gentile world, instead seeking economic separatism for their homeland (121). Essentially, the non-Mormon world — or “Babylon ” — could not be relied upon for supplies due to the division of the country regarding the issue of slavery and its eventual self-destruction. Further, church doctrine — as articulated by Smith on February 9, 1831 — dictated that all clothing must be self-made. Thus, the newly recognized Kingdom of Zion sought to establish self-sufficiency by securing three basic necessities — food, clothing, and shelter — within the valley.

It was quickly discerned that food could be grown abundantly in the valley, though droughts and plagues persisted within the first ten years of their settlement. Iron and sugar could be produced, but not efficiently or consistently. Further, numerous other industries—pottery, paper, lead, and transporting of machinery—proved difficult and failed for various reasons, leading to the understanding that the Latter-Day Saints’ drive for industrial self-sufficiency was premature, despite their diligent work ethic (Taves, 126).

The failing industries were great due to the audacity of the hope for relatively technically unskilled, but faithful followers to build a kingdom of saints devoid of the necessary resources, expertise, or connections required to make such a self-sufficient home. Despite the failures, the effort and faith required to attempt, and partially succeed at, such an endeavor speaks to the importance of establishing a homeland for the Latter-Day Saints.

The physical relationship that the Latter-Day Saints had with the valley — in regards to their reshaping of space into a place of emotional connection— transformed the Utah Territory into a “mythical space ” that was very attractive to all Mormons living outside of Zion (Tuan, 85). Tuan discusses the theoretical concept of the creation of mythical space, wherein “the knowledge we have as…members of a particular society remains very limited. ” The Latter-Day Saints, in attempting to establish self-sufficiency, worked with the land to create a “terrestrial paradise, ” or a mythical space that became a place of yearning for all Mormons throughout the world (86).

Essentially, the Mormons created a “spatial component of a world view ” — Mormonism in Utah — and created a place of homeland, “of localized values within which people carry on their practical activities. ” This mythical space was a “response of feeling and imagination to [their] fundamental human needs, ” such that all Mormons sought to be at the gathering at Zion, their homeland (99).

While, at the beginning of the Gold Rush, there were 6,000 Mormons living in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, the clear majority of Saints were still living in Missouri (Taves, 118). The proclamation of homeland and assemblage at Zion was not unappealing to these Saints living outside of the Great Salt Lake; troubles persisted in the gathering of all Mormons since most Mormons were poor and unable to buy wagons or other necessary means for travel and survival.

Thus, Young established The Perpetual Emigrating Fund (PEF) in 1849 which provided the necessary funds and materials to those who needed it to make the journey, with the understanding that supplies were given as a loan and the emigrants were expected to repay the loan — “usually by various public works for the church ” — upon reaching the valley. The assemblage of all Saints in Zion to await the last days was essential to the identity of the Latter-Day Saint; without the relationship to homeland, to the place defined as “Zion, ” a Latter-Day Saint was displaced and dislocated in the world. Thus, with the success of the PEF, almost all the Missouri Mormons were gathered in the valley by the end of 1852 (119).

With a large population of Mormons in Europe in 1852 — approximately 30,000 — the PEF could bring over 2,400 in 1853, with 1,000 paying their own way, 1,000 utilizing a specific payment plan, and 400 carried entirely by the PEF. While there were still large populations of Mormons outside of the established society of Zion, the great efforts made to unite as many Saints as possible to their central nucleus highlights the defining ideology of the Latter-Day Saints:

religious faith was a place, and that place was Zion at the Great Salt Lake, Utah.

(Holmes, 43)

Read Part II here.

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