Sunday, 10 November 2013

PROMISED LAND

Let my people come to Deseret!
"Christus", copy of statue sculpted by Bertel Thorvaldsen
On a warm Summer mountain day in July, a Prophet and great leader of the Faithful kept turning over wearily in a feverish sleep instigated by mountain sickness. He was bedded on a carriage, drawn by oxen, laboring on high rocky passes over stones hitherto untrodden by man. In his fever dreams, suddenly, a moment of clarity was blessing him, as if God Almighty himself were addressing his humble servant. In his inner eye he beheld a view of immense beauty. 

As if teleported to a mountain's uttermost promontory he saw a seemingly endless plane. Below his feet the plane was adorned by a broad band of intense green that soon turned into brown and eventually into the blueness of a vast body of water. The blue melted into cyan farther in the distance and finally ended in a silver sheen that merged with the azure lightness of a shimmering sky. Far mountain ranges seemed to sail like galeons on the blinding white in the far beyond. To his left he beheld another, smaller lake, with more intense blue, out of which a broad river was born that was meandering towards the greater water. 

Sunrise over Wasatch Range
The Lord has blessed me by gifting me a vision of the Holy Land, the Prophet thought. Surely I am looking at Kanaan, with River Jordan winding its way from Lake Genesareth to the Dead Sea. This MUST be the land promised by God Almighty to the Faithful.

Just a few days later, he was approaching, with trembling knees and supported by two disciples, the last vestiges of the mountain range the Faithful had been journeying across for so many days. Suddenly, a turn on the stony descent, and he go a first overview of the land beyond. "This is the Place" he acclaimed – recalling his recent vision – for the City of Zion, and he repeated for himself the great revelation of the First Prophet: "Verily this is the word of the Lord, that the City of New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the Saints …".

Mormon girl admiring Pioneer Monument on Temple Square, Salt Lake City
What am I doing here? Isn't this supposed to be a blog post about the Four-Corner Region? Why deviate into writing like I was in a religious revival meeting? Well, surprisingly enough, this writing IS about the Four-Corner Region, and about the beginning of an era that has led to the settlement of that region with lasting impact until present day! 

The scene above describes the end of a long voyage, called the Mormon Exodus. After an advance party of 150 Mormons, led by Prophet Brigham Young, had ventured across Nebraska and over the Rockies in Wyoming, they eventually arrived at the Wasatch Range bordering the Big Basin of the Southwest, with the Great Salt Lake situated at the foot of this mountain range.  From there, Brigham beheld, on 24 July 1847 the view described in the beginning of the post, which in turn put into motion the settlement and civilization of a major part of the American Southwest.

Mustangs in the sagebrush plains near San Juan
The Mormon Faith had been founded in the beginning of the 1830s and subsequently developed by its first Prophet, Joseph Smith. His was a rather complex personality, combining in one person the character of a confidence man, visionary, writer and empire builder. It is said that he began his career in his teens by supplementing the meager incomes of his parents' farm as a treasure hunter, making believe that he possessed the ability to locate lost possessions through using a seer stone, placed in his stovepipe hat. 

But he soon went on to greater things. In his early twenties he laid down a voluminous book of epic content, claiming that he was not its originator; that he was only translating a text having been entrusted to him by an Angel – called Moroni – in the form of golden sheets. The content of this book, called Book of Mormon, is considered, by the believers, as God's fundamental revelation to the Faithful. One core message therein – further elaborated by subsequent revelations to the Prophet – tells us that, upon Judgement Day, only the true believers, baptized in the Faith of the Church and entering into a covenant with God, will accede to Heaven to reign, as truly exalted beings, together with Jesus over his Millennial Kingdom. 

Joseph Smith receiving the golden plates from Angel Moroni
Painting "The Hill Cumorah", by C.C.A. Christensen
In the early days of Mormonism, the Latter Day Saints (as the Faithful were called eventually) believed the Day of Judgement to be imminent, and that proper preparation, within the covenant, should be carried out by the them by building — and living together in – a replica of the Heavenly City of Zion on Earth, also called the "New Jerusalem". This was from the outset conceived as a city. Its site was first foreseen to lie in Missouri and subsequently in Illinois. But persecution drove the Mormons out of both these locations, in the latter case following the lynching of Prophet Joseph Smith in 1844.

After his death, governance of the Church was formalized to be carried out by a Quorum of Twelve Apostles, with the foremost of them acting as Prophet and Church President. The Church had the good fortune of electing Brigham Young as President, a man who proved to be a great statesman and leader of men, as well as apt organizer and administrator. After having experienced the turmoils inherited from his sometimes erratic predecessor he feared that the Faith had no future in already settled parts of the continent and sought an apt refuge for it in virgin terrains. To the Faith's good fortune immense swathes of land in the Southwest – mostly desert – were still "unspoiled" by white man, even if formally under the reign of Mexico. So Brigham decided to move his tribe to those barren regions and establish the New Jerusalem therein. 

Plan for the City of Zion, sent in a letter to the Mormons in Independence, Missouri
   Source:  Cornell University  Library
Just four days after his arrival at the fringe of the Great Salt Lake in July 1847, Brigham put the spade to ground for the building of the Temple of Zion and the surrounding City. The building plan followed loosely a master plan for the City of Zion, prepared already in 1833 – following a revelation to the Prophet – and sent to the Mormons in Defiance, Missouri, to assist in their town planning. 

But by now, Church Doctrine had developed further, so Brigham Young was already – as a true statesman –  laying down a Master Plan for the creation of a Kingdom of God in the barren Southwest. Even in that respect he could rely on earlier revelations by the First Prophet, who increasingly perceived God's Zion on Earth not as an isolated city or a virtual Community of Saints, but rather as a territorial entity, aptly envisaged as a tent – with the New Jerusalem as the central pole upholding the construct –, which was being enhanced by an uncounted number of stakes driven into Earth, each indicating a settlement as dependency of the Heavenly City on Earth. This collection of settlements would be governed by the Church as an Earthly Theocracy and, in the thinking of the Saints, would act as preparation for the Millennial Theocracy: the Saints, being subjects of and educated within that Earthly Kingdom, would thereby be enabled to alleviate the Troubles, foreseen to precede the imminent second coming of Lord Jesus and his Millennial Reign.

Angel Moroni on Temple Tower, Temple Square, Salt Lake City
Faith can move mountains! Or in the present context make deserts bloom. The Southwest consists to a great extent of semi-arid plains, canyons and river valleys. Water was a scarce resource when trying to settle the area. So Brigham Young dispatched scouting parties throughout the territory, with the task of finding sources of water amenable to settlement. As soon as a reliable source was found, Mormon pioneers were sent out immediately, with necessary supplies, to settle the new-found place in accordance to a common settlement plan. The pioneers followed more or less – the specific location permitting – the master plan originally conceived in the First Prophet's revelation, mentioned earlier. 

Messages were dispatched to all Mormons in the world, in the US as well as in Europe, to come and populate the Promised Land. And come they did, in the thousands and ten thousands. Those who could afford it, payed for their own passage from overseas and travelled in wagon trains across the Rockies. The poor were not left behind: the Church advanced them the ship fare from Europe, as well as funds sufficient for buying supplies, together with a wheel barrel for transporting their belongings on foot over the prairie and the mountains. Many died along the way, but the great majority made it and filled the Sagebrush plains with people, all settled in communities built according to the Master Plan.

Pioneer wagon and cabin near Moab
Within a period of some twenty years, Brigham Young and the Church could look with pride upon their Kingdom, which Brigham baptised DESERET. It was a sizable Realm of the size of France, ranging from the Southern Idaho mountains in the North to the Gila River close to the border to Mexico in the South, and from the Wasatch Range in the East to the Sierrra Nevada mountains in California to the West. Most present towns in that region stem from original Mormon settlements. Even a small stretch on the Pacific Coast was part of the territory. It lay north of where the Great Colorado River is spending his waters to the Sea, with San Bernardino, close to present day LA, having being founded as sea harbor by the Saints. The Gentile named the region Mormon Corridor.

How did this Theocracy fare in contact with the Gentile World? The territories in question were ceded to the US by Mexico as outcome of the war of 1846-48 between the two Nations. Brigham Young – statesman as he was – tried to accommodate the Mormon Realm to these new circumstances by proposing, that his large territory be integrated into the US as the Federal State of Deseret. Congress, cognisant of multiple conflicts between the Mormons and the Gentiles over the years, refused this generous offer; instead, it formed, in 1850, the Utah Territory that already from the outset was considerably smaller than Brigham Young's Divine Kingdom; it did not include the areas in Arizona, New Mexico and California contained in the Kingdom. Congress did however accommodate Brigham Young by installing him as Governor of the new Territory. 

The Dividing-Up of Utah Territory                Source: Wikipedia
But matters were not allowed to be put at ease with this initial decision. Many Gentiles moved into the Territory in following decades, drawn to the riches in the mountains and the need to improve transportation East-West, not least by building the Trans-Pacific Railroad. Conflicts between raucous Mammon and pious Kingdom increased over time and led Congress to dismember the vast Territory step-by-step. It was almost halved in 1961, when the Territory of Nevada was created. Subsequently, Nevada was granted additional land to cater for the miners of rich silver deposits in the Great Basin and, as result, a much smaller Utah Territory emerged by the end of the 'sixties, contained roughly within the present borders of Utah State. 

Whilst all surrounding territories were being granted Statehood in a timely fashion, this was categorically refused to Utah. The US did not, and could not, condone Mormon doctrines perceived to conflict with the Constitution, such as, the principle of Polygamy. Matters came to a climax already in 1857, when the President felt compelled to send federal groups to the State and dispose Brigham Young as Governor. The Civil War brought additional restraints to the Territory and initiated a renewed influx of Gentiles that gradually undermined the dominance of Mormons over the territory's economic and political affairs. Eventually, the Church realized that it had too much to lose by insisting on doctrines provoking the Gentiles and rescinded the scripture on Polygamy. Soon thereafter, in 1898, Utah received Statehood.

Painting "Mormon bids farewell to a once great nation", by Arnold Friberg 
Many Gentiles, reading about Mormonism and the Book of Mormon, experience a feeling of instinctive revulsion. No doubt, this has its origins in the fact that Joseph Smith claimed to have discovered an important enhancement  – in America of all places – of the venerable Bible, which after all had stood the test of time unchanged since more than two millennia back. But it would be a mistake to leave it at such feelings. I am an agnostic myself, but think that the Faith deserves more serious consideration, both of the way it was constituted and the form it took when a hostile environment forced the Saints to an Exodus into the wilderness

We should not forget that Mormonism is a new religion, not really Christian, that emerged only less than 200 years ago. As I see it, it represents a relevant and valuable subject of study, if we as scholars wish to learn more about the gestation of a new faith and the conditions, by which it is enabled to grow and become a major world movement. The life and actions of its founder, Joseph Smith are still well documented and accessible to all, in contrast to such founding fathers as Yeshua bar Yosef and Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad. The precise circumstances of the latters' life and personality, as well as of their founding actions, are hidden to us by the mist of time, thus rendering them full of religious mysticism and preventing us from understanding the processes shaping their new faith at the beginning. 

Balancing Rock in Arches National Monument
That leaves us with the question, how the Book of Mormon really came to be: was it a book written by Joseph Smith as author or was it produced as result of divine intervention? In my view, the answer lies in between those two extremes, since I do not believe that Joseph Smith, in his early twenties, would have possessed the energy and perseverance to spend two years of his life in producing a bible-like book, of more than 500 printed pages, without some extraordinary impetus. But neither do I believe that impetus to have come from Heaven. Rather, I tend to place that impetus in Joseph's brain itself: recent results from neurophysiological research have demonstrated that the human brain is perfectly capable of producing flashes of virtual experience that the brain wrongly conceives as natural events observed from the outside world. 

Joseph Smith could easily have at several occasions been subject to such flashes – akin to hallucination – in the form of an Angel speaking to him. Of course, the subsequent authoring would have been done by him, and additional attributes of the story – the golden plates and the two seer stones Urim and Thummim that allegedly permitted him to translate the scripture on the plates – invented by him in order to increase the credibility of his work. He was raised in an epoch teeming with religious revival, so the story would, all in all, not appear strange to his contemporaries, at least not to those that were being carried away by the then on-going vogue of spiritualism.

Mormon girls at Sabbath
Let's not get sidetracked unduly into theophilosophic discussion, however! There are more fascinating aspects of Mormonism for us to look at. As a warm-up, let me tell you a story from a stay in Moab within the hiking trip I participated in two weeks ago. Our hotel was placed quite far from the center. Still, I could not help noticing that the streets, even at some distance from downtown, were unusually wide, and that the building lots were large, with ample space for gardens in front and on the sides, as well as in the back of the houses. Compared to South Berkeley, you could easily have fitted in two houses on each lot instead of one. 

These specific characteristics stem from over 150 years back, when Brigham Young (mostly personally) initiated, planned and organized the settling of Deserete. Starting out from First Prophet's Plan for Zion, each new settlement was laid out according to that plan's essential characteristics: a quadratic lay-out, large streets and large plots. Furthermore, all the settlers were supposed to live within that quadratic compound, with the fields – individually owned, but collectively irrigated – lying outside. In such a way the Southwestern barren region was civilized in a manner that strongly resembles the rural village life practised in Feudal Europe – from its beginning and until the mid-fifties of last century. Of course, this doesn't mean anything to the Swedes among the readers, who already in the beginning of the 1700s had been driven out of their villages and been condemned, each of them, to live in splendid isolation in the middle of their fields, foregoing for evermore the pleasures of village life.

Mormon farm outbuildings near Capitol Reef – Note Lombardy Poplars to the left
The Mormon village life – within more than 300 settlements in the arid Southwest! – was in stark contrast to the raucous and disorderly Gentile settlement of the Southwest by ranchers, miners, traders, railroaders, gold diggers and generally fortune hunters. Indians, puzzled by this difference, went as far as believing that two different white races were infringing on their territory: "Mericats" and "Mormonee". Seen in retrospect, the Mormon possession appears as a perfect example of sustainable small scale farming in arid areas, in contrast to the violation of land and resources exercised by early and present industrialism, as well as caused by modern day urbanization of this fragile borderline land. 

But, biological advantages aside, life in those settlements provided for a rich social Community togetherness, even if planned and supervised by an authoritarian religious hierarchy. For the few hours of leisure from never-ending hard labors, there was no suppression of healthy entertainment, quite the opposite! Each settlement contained a Community Hall for singing, dancing, concerts and – of course – praying. Furthermore, life in the small did not mean a lack of perspective of the large. Each village had at least some members that had been overseas proselytizing and had come back with rich experiences from abroad to tell the backbenchers. 

Lombardy Poplars fencing in a field – sign of former Mormon settlement in Eastern Nevada
If you would have travelled in the area from the mid-1800s onwards, or for that part up to the 1950s, you would have been pleased to see villages, arising seemingly out of nowhere, with spacious streets and stately homes, each surrounded by a spacious garden in full bloom; and, outside the village, orchards bursting with fruit along green fields, fenced in by trees that made you believe you were in Italy. The latter were always Lombardy Poplars, a tree so cherished by the Mormons that it was, and still is, commonly called "Mormon Tree" in the US.

I have to confess that it brings tears to my eyes, writing this; for am I not at heart a small boy raised in a small rural village just like this? The more so since this child paradise of mine is long gone and lost forever, swallowed by progress of time and progress itself? In the same way, the Mormon settlement of yore is gone and lost, having disappeared in the great American Equalizer of freeways, business districts and Hamburger bars. Yet, there is a difference between the two. My own village is still looking like it used to, give or take a house or two. It is the people who have changed (and been exchanged) and appear to have lost their sense of Communality. Whereas, granted that the Mormon village has been dissolved in the great but shallow sea of Mammon; the descendants of those villagers still appear to entertain a virtual village mentality. Or maybe this is wishful thinking from my part, having had scant contact with the Mormons of present day, and having learned about the village Mormons of yore solely through literature, above all from reading the historian Wallace Stegner.


Lonely Church on Sagebrush Plain

I am dedicating this post to my beloved former wife Alice Elviira Katariina Ems (b. Kuismin). She was a Saint when I first met her. May she rest in peace and be resurrected to the Heaven of her choosing!




6 comments:

Richard said...

Emil, A weird story and fantastic photos. I discuss matters of faith with some believers but am mostly in line withLena K Andersson.
Best
Richard

Per Magnus Wijkman said...

Emil,
You never fail to surprise and to charm. This time by providing the reaader with fascinating insights into a quirk of US history and a touching insight into your personal history.
Many thanks
Per

Emil Ems said...

Thank you kindly, Richard and Per, for your interesting comments.

And Richard, whilst I tend to agree to most of Lena K's arguments, she is really talking about something different from what I pointed out in the blog post.

I have pointed to the possibility to learn more about the gestation of a new religion by investigating how Mormonism was formed and developed in its (still) initial phase. Through this one could, in my view, get a better understanding of, how religions are born and grow.

Thus, I have an interest in positive (contra normative) research, whereas Lena K mostly is reacting normatively to the arguments held forth by the Church.

Lars Werin said...

forTerribly interesting, and (as usual) wonderfully written. Just a little comment on the Richard/Emil "dispute". I take it for granted that by Lena K. you mean the Lena Andersson who has a weekly column in the Stockholm Daily "Dagens Nyheter" and has written a couple of very good novels. Her critical attitude towards what clergy people and theologicians say is well-known, of course; and now for my point: I don't Think it's normative, it's positive. She doesn't understand what they are saying and what they mean, and she thinks they shy away from reacting properly to those who raise questions. To my mind, such arguments should not be classified as normative.

Anonymous said...

Roligt att läsa vad du skriver om Utah m.m. Jag hade ingen aning om att mormonerna har en sådan “stor” historia. Mycket intressant. Jag har alltid tyckt att deras idéer var ännu något mer galna än de flesta andra religionsriktningars, men kanske är det inte så. Jag förblir i alla fall hedning.

Hälsningar
Lars

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