ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Unlike many white families in the southern United States, who to this day remember and even celebrate the defiance of the Confederacy, Mormons have no “lost cause” mentality in their collective identity, despite the unpopular practice of polygamy in the church’s early history.
That's according to Clyde A. Milner II, a historian and professor of history emeritus at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. He was a plenary speaker Saturday at the annual Mormon History Association Conference convened this year at the St. Charles Convention Center.
Milner, who is not Mormon, pointed out that the lost-cause sentiment persists among many southerners, whose consciousness of the Civil War and its aftermath is shown in battle re-enactments, marble statues and “the ubiquitous ‘stars and bars’ of the rebel flag.”
Not so with Mormons, Milner said.
“Latter-day Saints in their Great Basin kingdom had an opportunity to forge their own lost cause in the collective memory of federal actions toward their church and its members,” he said.
But by the 1890s, when the lost cause became well established across the South, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had issued the Manifesto officially ending the sanctioning of plural marriage and statehood finally came for Utah.
“Why didn’t Latter-day Saints end up like present-day white southerners?” Milner asked. “Why aren’t Mormons lost in their own lost cause?”
In his presentation at the conference, he sought to answer that question. He found it through pioneer memories and the celebration of Pioneer Day in Utah, which observes the settlement of the state and the founding of Salt Lake City by the Mormons.
Rather than retaining a memory of resistance to federal-government oppression over polygamy, Mormons “affirmed a distinctly patriotic mainstream national identity that highlighted another narrative: their trek to the far west Great Basin as pioneers,” Milner said.
The formal celebration of the settlement began in 1849, just two years after their arrival in the valley of the Great Salt Lake on July 24, 1847, he noted.
“The initial Pioneer Day had an inclusive character,” he recounted. “Numerous visitors attended, many on their way to California gold fields.”
He said the first Pioneer Day observance reflected social, religious and even geographic alienation from the United States, but did not produce a call for political independence. “In fact, three days after the July 24 celebration, Almon Babbitt, the state of Deseret’s purported delegate to the U.S. Congress, departed Salt Lake City carrying a petition for statehood. … Brigham Young wanted Mormons to govern themselves in their own state within the United States. Efforts to gain statehood would continue for decades, as would the annual Pioneer Day celebrations.”
Despite vigorous prosecution by federal officials of residents in the Utah territory for the practice of plural marriage, “Mormons did not give up their annual celebration of Pioneer Day or turn it into an unrepentant expression of rebellion against federal oppression,” Milner observed. “Mormons continued to see themselves as heroic pioneers and not as unreconstructed rebels.”
Indeed, by the 1890s, the Mormons had begun to assert their place in mainstream American culture, he added, as demonstrated in the Utah exhibit in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Two major events helped expand and solidify the pioneer identity of Latter-day Saints in the American West, he said.
“First was the tragically foolhardy, yet heroic story of the handcart companies that trekked to the Great Basin kingdom, especially in the fateful year 1856.
“And then, the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit meant that Mormons had a uniquely focused chronology for their western pioneer era, beginning in 1847 and ending with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.”
By 1897, the year of the Utah Pioneer Jubilee, an interweaving of the Mormon pioneer experience with the broader history of the settlement of the American West seemed complete, Milner said.
“More than 100,000 people came to Salt Lake City, where they could view five massive parades, concerts, plays, baseball games, horse races, a rodeo (called at the time a cowboy tournament), and much more.”