Days 175-181/ Aug 28th-Sep 3rd – Salt Lake City, UT: Mormons Inc.

‘…there before us lay the valley we had come so far to see.  Some were moved to tears for thankfulness, others were so disappointed with the looks of the place, all sagebrush, dry, treeless plain.  I felt… as blue as blue could be, but we went on and down the little mountain and across… to the city.’ – Jonathan Ellis Layne, in Salt Lake City, September 1852

Salt Lake Bees at Spring Mobile Ballpark

The Salt Lake Bees at bat at Spring Mobile Ballpark

After an arduous three-month journey from Iowa to Utah in the summer of 1847, across land still barely visited, let alone settled, by Europeans, Brigham Young and the first company of Mormon pioneers arrived at the site of modern-day Salt Lake City on July 24th.  An advance party had already planted crops in the narrow, fertile valley between the High Plains to the east and the scorching desert to the west, and within a few days the city’s street plan had been laid out and a site selected for the Mormons’ new Temple, which they hoped would be the hub of their new state of Deseret.  By the time winter came, more than 1,600 people had arrived in the nascent city, which had already become, as it still is today, the largest place for more than 500 miles in every direction.

We arrived in Salt Lake City after thirteen hours of walking over the Wasatch Range, and so knew something of the relief of the Mormon pioneers, whose precise route we had followed from Iowa.  As we walked to our hotel through groups of catcalling Friday night revellers, we were thrown by Brigham Young’s street plan, which prescribed seven blocks to a mile rather than the more usual ten, and put down to exhaustion the fact that it seemed to be taking us so long to get across town.  The streets are wide, as well as widely-spaced – Young declared that wagons should be able to turn around ‘without resorting to profanity’ – giving them a curiously South American or Muscovite feel, as though designed to accommodate large parades of military matériel.

Street view in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City streets: Just begging for a convoy of missiles and tanks

At the centre of the grid, the point from which all streets are numbered, the Ground Zero of Salt Lake City, Utah and the Mormon religion itself, is the Temple, a bright, white, neo-Gothic wedding cake standing out from the mirrored high-rises downtown.  It’s off-limits to non-Mormons, so we had to be content with a look around the Visitors’ Center, a domed building in which a smiling receptionist sat at a vast round desk surrounded by a substantial acreage of beige carpeting and some strikingly bad art.  It had the distinct feel of a corporate headquarters, albeit one with a rotunda containing a twelve-foot white statue of Christ standing, arms outstretched, beneath a fantastical turquoise starscape.

Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah

The Temple: HQ of a very American religion

On the far wall was a moodily-lit photograph of a smiling, distinguished-looking, elderly man, reminiscent of those founders’ portraits that you sometimes see in chain hotels.  Above the picture, raised lettering spelled out ‘The Living Prophet’.  This was Thomas Monson, the current President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (you could spend a long time in Utah without hearing the word ‘Mormon’; the acronym ‘LDS’ seems to be preferred, much as ‘African-American’ sometimes is to ‘black’).

In many ways, he resembles nothing so much as a corporate CEO, presiding over the First Presidency, a governing body that meets annually – the board of directors, the AGM – in a sacrosanct chamber within the Temple, whose long oval table and oils of past Presidents around the walls recall precisely a company boardroom.  Annual increases in worldwide Church membership are tabulated and proudly published in pamphlets at the Center, like growing revenues in an annual report.  Where Monson differs from most company presidents, perhaps, is in the periodic revelations that he receives from God about how to run the Church – though cynics might say that there are more than a few CEOs who see themselves as having a direct and privileged link to the divine.

Statue of Christ at Salt Lake Temple visitor centre

The chairman of the board of the LDS Church

Like any successful corporation, the Mormons have changed their strategy – or rather, their doctrine – in significant ways during their short existence.  In its early days, the Church was militarised and belligerent; now, it passionately espouses pacifism.  Once infamous for their polygamy, the Mormons formally renounced the practice well over a century ago (even their first prophet, Joseph Smith, publicly repudiated it, though his thirty wives somewhat undermined the integrity of this message).  And despite a theology that for many years associated black people with ‘Cain’s seed’ and even with Satan, a new divine revelation received by the then President in the 1970s prompted the opening up of the priesthood to them at last.  Even God has to move with the times.

This corporate structure is hardly a surprise in this most American of religions.  At the heart of the Book of Mormon is the story of how a lost tribe of Israel navigated to North America in roughly the age of the ancient Greeks, and how, after his death and resurrection, Christ visited and preached to them there.  The nationalistic appeal is obvious – the land of the free becomes also the Holy Land – and so it’s surprising how successful Mormonism has been overseas; in fact, roughly half of its 13 million adherents live outside the United States.  Their visits and emigrations to Zion have made Salt Lake City among the most multicultural of American cities, the first place where we heard foreign languages – and the first place for a thousand miles where we saw black faces – in the street.

Adam and Eve statues in Salt Lake Temple

Adam and Eve in the Salt Lake Temple, during one of their frequent Eden toga parties

And yet, according to America’s census-takers and psephologists, Utah is at once both the youngest and the most conservative state in the Union.  There’s something powerfully depressing about that combination, and it’s made manifest in the parks and squares of Salt Lake City, where 24-year-old couples in chinos and dress shirts promenade in the evenings, each with several children in tow, apparently having progressed from high school to a nine-to-five nuclear family with nothing in between.

Much of the population dresses as though a Banana Republic warehouse has recently exploded over the city, but there’s also a sort of civically mandated non-conformity in operation.  Look at almost any group of young Utahns in their khakis and sensible shoes, and there’s always one of their number with bright pink hair, facial tattoos and a bone through his ear.  It’s as though a small cohort of brave volunteers has agreed to shoulder the burden of maintaining an acceptable quotient of quirkiness in the city’s population.

Panties licence plate in Utah

Utah: A bastion of Mormon rectitude

We took a long break in Salt Lake City, marvelling at almost-forgotten luxuries like lifts, asparagus and bookshops, and admiring the spectacular mountains that hem it in on three sides.  They appear without warning in almost every view, and contribute to occasional ‘inversions’ that foul  the city’s air and send its wealthier residents scurrying to their houses in the hills.  But on most days, the city sparkles under the hard, clean desert sunlight, a handsome and liveable place, for all its religious quirks.  There was no getting around the fact, though, that it was eight hundred miles from San Francisco, and so after a week of idle leisure that would have horrified the Mormon pioneers, we set out from Deseret and into the desert.

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One Response to “Days 175-181/ Aug 28th-Sep 3rd – Salt Lake City, UT: Mormons Inc.”

  1. Steve Edwards Says:

    Hi Rick, I’ve just read your Salt Lake City commentary (and some of the rest of your travelogue (which I’m now determined to finish)) and I wanted to congratulate you on such a well observed record. I’ve been to Salt Lake several times and often wondered what our ‘HQ’ must seem like to outsiders; turns out that it doesn’t fare too badly. I took some eBay colleagues around Temple Square on a visit to the Draper offices in 2010 and (maybe because it was minus 10 degrees) they weren’t very animated about the whole thing. I’m glad you are both back safe and well and that you’ve now found your way home to the eBay/PayPal family once more. Best of everything for the future.

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