by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp
Is Mormonism a "western" religious tradition? I found myself mulling over that question recently after reading a blog post about teaching Mormonism in a History of the American West course.
First it brought me back to my own experience as a teaching assistant in a U.S. Western History survey, more years ago than I now care to say. We spent exactly one day on religion--and that day was, as you might have guessed, on the Mormons. Students came away from the course with startlingly little idea that other religious traditions had crossed the Mississippi. But they also departed with the impression that Mormons, by and large, lived in the American West and were shaped as a tradition by their experiences in that space.
I was, I think, rightfully bothered by the lack and selectivity of airtime for religion, something that is, as has been noted here before, lamentably true of scholarly study of the American West more generally. But my feelings are more mixed about the notion of Mormonism as a "western" religion. That framing of the tradition highlights certain features and obscures others, shapes the way we think about Mormon history, and follows a narrative that is deeply contested within the faith.
First, to highlight Mormonism as western is to focus on the 19th century. Nothing wrong with that, one might say. Those founding decades were important; the Mormon movement under both Joseph Smith, Jr. and Brigham Young migrated westward (thus participating in the westward trek that shaped much of that period of U.S. History). Strictly speaking, of course, Joseph Smith and most of the Smith family never made it very far west, and the labeling of Mormonism as western leads many people (at least the ones I talk to) to assume that the founder of the faith spent some time in the Salt Lake Basin. No, I have to explain: the Smith family made it to Missouri--the gateway to the west, as legend would have it--but no further.
Granting that the movement did not begin in the West, one can still make the point that the vast majority of Mormons ended up in Utah territory, right? Well, not exactly true, either--at least, not consistently. In some of the early years of westward movement (before 1860), the church's missionary efforts in Great Britain were so successful that more members lived there than in the U.S. They soon began immigrating in huge swells. Prior to 1868, approximately 31,000 church members migrated to Utah from Britain, and in the 1870 census the British-born comprised 24% of the territory's population. So, to describe the Mormons as an "American" tradition, and the movement as "western," certainly elides complex patterns of origin and the basic fact that considerable growth came not from native-born Americans but by dint of immigration.
My point here is that Mormonism, like Methodism and Catholicism, was a transnational movement from the beginning. Mormons were no more or less "American," and no more or less "western." Indeed, the church was international almost from its beginnings, and at times members abroad outnumbered the members in the U.S.
Nonetheless, one might still persist, something important happened in the American West. Brigham Young and subsequent LDS leaders shaped a Great Basin Zion that was, for several decades, a theocratic kingdom unto itself. Their patterns of living, economic systems, and family arrangements were unique and distinctively adapted to the material environment of the West. They achieved a remarkable level of interdependence and collective independence in their new home.
While this narrative of origins is true, it also reflects the romanticized and hopeful account of LDS believers, and avoids the splintering of the Mormon movement that gave rise to alternate, much less "western" tales of development. One-third of the Mormons living in the vicinity of Nauvoo at the time of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s murder in 1844 did not venture to the far west. They set up shop in Iowa, in Michigan, in Ohio, and eventually even Texas. Some went home to Pennsylvania or New York, and reorganized there. Many Mormons considered themselves diasporic, waiting for the day when a return to the Zion of Missouri was possible. It's not that the Utah story is not true; it just isn't the whole story, and it is a tale told by the larger, ultimately more successful branch of the family tree.
The farther away we move from the 19th century, however, the less the Utah Basin story looks like the most salient or central element of Mormon identity. Far fewer words have been written about Mormon movement out of Utah in the 20th century, or the remarkable growth of the LDS Church abroad since World War II. Yes, the church hierarchy and its institutional framework reside in Utah. But the everyday life of the church, the identity of its diverse members, and its trajectory for future development, by most measures, spring to life elsewhere. Today, calling the LDS Church a western American religious movement more closely resembles characterizing the Roman Catholic Church as Italian: it tells you something, and the label has some historical, ecclesiastical, and geographic merit, but it also leaves a gaping hole in the larger picture.
Rather than taking an up or down vote (western or not? American or not?), perhaps we can turn the questions around. What is at stake for various parties (LDS, non-LDS, scholars of religion, scholars of the West, etc.) in using the label “western”? What does it stand in for? Why does it persist in the face of countervailing trends or descriptions?