Reid Neilson. Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Review by Konden R. Smith
Back in January, Laurie Maffly-Kipp brought up the question regarding Mormonism’s status as a “western” religious tradition. Rather than answering this question, she turned the question around by asking why such labels have been so important and used in the first place. In short, what was at stake in its usage? I think an important answer to this question comes from the Mormon presence at the Chicago World’s Fair (aka. Columbian Exposition) of 1893, covered in Reid Neilson's Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 World’s Fair (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). At this fair, Utah’s non-Mormon Governor Caleb West re-introduced Mormons as loyal patriots and archetypal developers of the American West. “These pioneers of Utah blazed the way for the westward course of empire, and at the time of their first entrance into the valley of the Great Salt Lake planted the flag of the union on foreign soil.” In part due to West’s successful repositioning of Mormonism under this “western” banner, Americans began, for the first time in American history, to re-imagine Mormons as acceptably American. Recognizing this new and unprecedented national interest in Mormonism, Mormon leaders introduced themselves as “pioneers” rather than “prophets,” and their talking points were buffalos, women’s suffrage and pioneering rather than the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith or religious persecution. Defining Mormonism as a “western” religion was thus a pivotal moment in Mormon history and the history of American religious pluralism.
The argument behind Exhibiting Mormonism was straightforward: to demonstrate how Mormonism went from a narrow “missionary-minded people to a twentieth-century evangelistic and public relations juggernaut” (7). Although Neilson’s focus was largely on Mormonism’s public relations conversion and subsequent change in policy and attitude toward the outside world, Neilson recognized a broader significance of the international event and the correlated Mormon response. It was, he explains, “a larger story of the church’s accommodation and assimilation into the larger American religious mainstream,” and as such opens itself up for comparative studies of American minority relations and transformation (207). Importantly, the hinge in this pivot was in Mormonism being redefined as “western,” and thereby “American.”
By way of organization, Neilson charts Mormonism’s response to American culture in three parts. (1) 1830-46: The founding period where Mormons sought to convert, not befriend the nation and world. (2) 1847-1890: The pioneer period that was marked as largely non-violent, with the exceptions of the Utah War, 1857-58, and the three decade long “cold war” surrounding the question of Mormon politics, economy and sexuality. Public relations during this period were not important and Mormon provocations were common. (3) 1890-today: Exceptionally strong focus on public relations and education (16-17). As Neilson demonstrates, this last phase did not really take off with the surrender of polygamy in 1890, but more importantly the World’s Fair three years later.
Neilson clarifies that Mormons did not simply “attend” the fair. Their presence was rather complicated, being celebrated and cheered in one section and then rejected and insulted in another. In the chapter that outlines this acceptance, Neilson provides an overview of the size and complexities of the fair itself. In an exhibition of “Utah Territory,” Mormons displayed their “western” identity to the nation. Over two million visitors toured the Utah building, having a dramatic impact on how non-Mormons saw Mormons and how Mormons sought to present themselves. As part of this new “western” presentation, Utah was represented by way of mineral deposits and mummies, rather than Mormons and polygamy.
Perhaps most profound to the question of Mormonism’s entrance into Americana is Nielson’s chapter on Mormon women at the fair, as it was them who led this early “Mormon moment.” Whatever success Mormon leaders found at the fair, Mormon women had already “woven themselves into the larger fabric of domestic and international feminism,” and, as such, found themselves well received (102). With much less foresight, male leaders initially resisted representation at the fair and remained outside and detached from ecumenical associations, such as the Evangelical Alliance. With a desire to be part of the national female suffrage movement, Mormon women early on recognized the value of national inclusion. Ironically, popular portrayals of Mormon women were that of being slow, stupid, and mere erotic tools of Mormon male masters. Participation at the World’s Congress of Representative Women was thus not only a watershed moment for the American feminist movement, but as Neilson demonstrates, allowed Mormon feminism to merge with that of the national. The Mormon female Relief Society and the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association (YLMIA) stood side-by-side at the fair with the National Council of Women of the United States (NCW) (104).
Beyond the Mormon female presence at the fair, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Welsh Eisteddfod, an international musical competition associated with the fair, proved the magical element for healing Mormon-American relations. Welsh Americans looked to such an event as a way to demonstrate their retention of Welsh culture and musical influence within America. For Welsh Mormon immigrants, such as Mormon Tabernacle Choir conductor Evan Stephens, the choral competition represented a similar opportunity to display Welsh civilization and Americanism as filtered through the Mormon machine. Though being redefined as “western,” Mormon sophistication emerged, in part, outside the US. In an attempt to be more warmly welcomed as “Americans,” Mormons from various nationalities heartily embraced this new “western” national identity, however Danish, Welsh, or English they were. The result of this appropriation was a resounding success, as Neilson put it, “thanks in large measure to the Tabernacle Choir, the Chicago World’s Fair seemed to mark a new dawn for the public image of the church, at least as a cultural institution,…” (144).
But as Neilson explains in a later chapter, not all was well for Mormonism at the fair. Though it was true that Mormon leaders at first saw little importance with the fair, Mormon orator and leader Brigham H. Roberts was the exception. In what amounted to a story of excellent drama, Roberts convinced leaders of the Parliament of Religions to bring him on as a speaker. Parliament organizers finally agreed, but following a speech on Islam that defended the practice of polygamy, the polygamous Roberts found his speech sidelined and he left the parliament resentful and bitter. But Roberts had friends, most importantly a Roman Catholic parliament official who defended Mormonism and decried its exclusion as ignorance and prejudice.
Being largely descriptive rather than analytic, Exhibiting Religion proves an important contribution to the study of the American West. Beyond this, it is an important contribution to Mormon Studies and its larger patterns of religious accommodation, boundary maintenance and identity formation more generally. My only real criticism of Neilson’s work is that it lacks analysis in any broad way. The focus is on Mormonism and its entrance into the American heart and its consequent conversion to PR. But Neilson’s stated goal was not to bring in this national and even international religious, political, economic, and cultural context. Instead Neilson leaves intact the larger implications of this dynamic encounter of Mormonism at the fair for future scholars to dissect and elaborate on. Indeed, this is Neilson’s true contribution.
To return to the original question regarding what was at stake in being “western,” Mormonism found that a more positive relationship to the nation depended upon this new distinction. Whatever was meant by the term, it seems clear that it signified “American.” As such, instead of speaking on Mormon themes, such as the Book of Mormon, temples, and religious freedom, Mormon men and women spoke instead of settlement building and on pioneering rather than prophets and saints. In this case, “western” represented an identity that Mormons, though perhaps not Mormonism, could fit into. As Neilson put it, “the church was eventually integrated into Americana in spite of, not because of, its religious contributions” (178).
As Neilson reminds us, Mormonism’s effective PR campaign did not begin with the “Mormon moment” in 2011-2012, but rather the World’s Fair of 1893. Recognizing this early history we learn a bit about what was at stake in being defined “western” as well as the enthusiasm Americans held in its celebration. Mormonism’s success in PR has little to do with the nation beginning to appreciate religious difference, but rather because Mormons allowed them to forget their religious difference by blinding them with being “western.” In asking why presidential contender Mitt Romney rarely speaks of his faith in public, we can recognize that it likely has something to do with his recognition that America may not be ready for a “Mormon” in the Whitehouse, however much they have come to accept the idea of a president who happens to be Mormon.