To Americans, Utah means “Mormons” – one of the most surprising religious groups in the USA. To this day, Mormons largely run Utah, as they have done since their ancestors first colonized the state in the 19th century. And even if, today, there are more and more non-Mormons living in Utah, it is still Mormons who govern many aspects of life in this part of the Mountain West.

Churches tend to play a major role in American life; while religion plays a relatively small part in people’s lives in modern day Europe, it is still a major force in the USA – and perhaps no more so than in Utah, in the mountains of America’s far west.

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The great Mormon temple in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah, is a remarkable city, one whose center is not a high-rise business quarter, but a temple. The Great Temple, the heart of the city of Salt Lake, is the building around which the whole city was designed, and the spiritual headquarters of one of the strangest, yet most active churches in America, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. To many people, this church, which has four million followers in the USA, is considered more as a sect, and better known, simply, as “the Mormons”.

There are plenty of weird and wonderful religious groups in the USA; the quest for religious freedom was, after all, one of the reasons that caused the first pilgrims and colonists to leave Europe in search of a new life beyond the Atlantic.  Since those days, religious freedom has been a corner stone of American societies, and many unusual religious groups have been established over time.

The Mormons are one of the more surprising of these. This church, with its peculiar mixture of Christianity and apparent mythology, has survived and prospered, becoming one of the most powerful churches in America, controlling (as it always has done) the state of Utah, and possessing enormous wealth. The Mormon church itself has an annual income estimated at $8.7 billion (enough to make place it among the biggest 60 corporations in the USA!). Furthermore, Mormons control a number of the biggest corporations in the USA, including the Hyatt and Marriott hotel chains.

For an outsider, Mormonism may seem like an absurd (or a worrying) joke. The introduction to the “Book of Mormon”, the third testament of the Mormon Bible opens with these words: “The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas.”

For a non-Mormon, the story of the book of Mormon is rather hard to believe. According to the legend, the book, engraved on plates of gold, was discovered by a man called Joseph Smith in 1823, on a mountain top near New York.  Inspired by God, Smith was able to translate these books written in an unknown language, into English, and bring the translation down from the mountain. Unfortunately for the credibility of the Mormon church, Smith then hid the “golden tablets” where he found them, leading many people to concluded that he was really just a rather slick power-hungry charlatan.  No-one else ever saw the tablets, and no part of the original text in the mysterious language has ever been revealed!

Be that as it may, Smith quickly managed to persuade thousands of people that he was authentic, and soon built up a strong band of followers, whose devotion to their leader was total.

Persecuted and often ridiculed by other Americans, Smith led the Mormons on one of the biggest and most remarkable internal migrations in the history of the United States. After settling initially in Missouri, he was later forced to move his people on to Illinois, where his megalomania became even more apparent. His decision, in 1844, to run for the US Presidency provoked a surge of anger against the Mormons, as well as criticism from his own followers; and after a riot in the Mormon city of Nauvoo, the father of Mormonism was executed by local militiamen.

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Brigham Young

Smith’s place was taken by a new leader, Brigham Young, revered as a saint by Mormons, mocked as a dictatorial tyrant by their opponents. Saint or tyrant, he was certainly not a calm and gentle man, but a leader who was willing to push his followers to the limits, and would not tolerate opposition to his views.

He it was who decided to uproot the Mormons once more, and take them in search of “the new Zion”, a land in which they could establish their own independent state, undisturbed by anyone else. And thus, under his orders, thousands and thousands of “Latter Day Saints” trekked on foot with their carts across the American West, eventually reaching one of the driest and most inhospitable spots in the whole of North America, the shores of the Great Salt Lake.

Here, Young ordered them to establish their new Zion; in the place he named Deseret. The Saints were astonished at the news, as they had been led to believe they were going to fine farming country. Yet thanks to Young’s determination, and to the streams flowing from the mountains, the settlers did actually manage to turn the desert into green pastures, and before long, a prosperous and well ordered community grew up.

 

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In 1853, once the community was well established, the first stone of the great temple was laid: forty years later, in 1893, the building was finally completed.

Since then, Utah, largely populated by Mormons, has become a prosperous state, and the Mormon Church one of the richest organizations in the USA.

If the founders of Mormonism appear to many observers as successful charlatans, their followers tended to be very devout people, and remain so to this day. Most Mormons live very sober lives, respect strict codes of moral behavior, and give a tenth of their income to the church. Visitors to Salt Lake City may complain that they find it hard to buy alcoholic drinks, but they appreciate the city’s low crime rate and its clean streets, and are full of praise for Mormon hospitality and helpfulness.  On the negative side though, Utah has one of the highest rates of suicide and depression in the United States.
Many non-Mormons find it very hard to understand how it is that so many rational, intelligent and sincere Americans can, in today’s world; follow a religion (many call it a “sect”) whose beliefs are founded on a basis as dubious and implausible as the story of Joseph Smith.

WORDS:

Charlatan: fraud, person who is not what he pretends to be – credibility: facility of being believed – dealings: negotiations, discussions – devout: religious – dubious: doubtful – founder: creator – holy: divine, sacred – implausible: improbable – inhospitable spot: place that is not suitable for living in – quest: search – riot: public disorder – slick: smooth, clever, smart – surge: wave — weird: bizarre – wealth: riches –