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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Did pioneer-era Latter-day Saints really split their congregations by party lines?

Popular rumors about political divisions promote the false cultural script that Americans are equally divided and diametrically opposed — obscuring a richer history behind the politics of the West

SHARE Did pioneer-era Latter-day Saints really split their congregations by party lines?
SHARE Did pioneer-era Latter-day Saints really split their congregations by party lines?

It’s autumn in an election year, which means it’s rumor time. During the next few weeks, the chances increase dramatically for hearing a member of your family tell a story that goes something like this: Latter-day Saints all belonged to one political party until Brigham Young went around and split congregations down the middle aisle, with those on the left assigned to be Democrats and those on the right as Republicans. Or, maybe a member of your church congregation will tell you about a time when neighborhoods across Utah were divided into two parties, home by home.

From Wallace Bennett to more contemporary politicians, sundry versions of this story have served as both punchlines and benign tales to make sense of how the West became more Republican. But, upon investigation, these stories aren’t just surprisingly hard to verify, they act to obscure the richer and more complicated political history of transition that not only involved religion but larger national partisan forces and personal conscience.

The fact that so many of these tales of arbitrary divisions persist today speaks to an ongoing quest for political meaning in a world increasingly defined by tribalism and party polarization.

The first step to tracing the origin of any story is to look for details that can be linked to specific sources. But many of these stories are frustratingly vague. Which church leader divided a congregation into opposing political ideologies? Where? When?

A dive into the histories of Utah politics reveals few details about any specific event. Only in digging around in the fringes of folklore did I encounter two relevant rumors: One man in Beaver, Utah, allegedly left an affidavit testifying to such a division, but when critic Josiah Gibbs tracked it down more than a decade later, the document turned out to be somewhat mundane. So Gibbs simply filled in the gap by inventing a congregational division sermon that “would doubtless have continued as follows.”

A second potential source, Joseph Nelson, former head of the Saltair Corporation, was supposedly present when his ward was divided, but the closest we can get to this account is thirdhand knowledge.

Though the details about congregations or neighborhoods being arbitrarily split along partisan lines are hard to pin down, the rumors strongly indicate — something was going on in Utah politics in the early 1890s.

“Utah’s local political parties knew they needed to blend into the national party system if they ever hoped for favors, protection, and statehood.”

Latter-day Saint congregations in the 1800s grew against a backdrop of changing political parties. The church emerged after the nation’s first party system had witnessed the triumph of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party over the Federalists, and early Latter-day Saint votes in the 1830s and 1840s sometimes swung between Democrats and Whigs, with a general tendency toward the Democrats.

The Whig Party soon disintegrated and a new party — Republicans — became the primary opposition to the Democrats. But because Republicans expressly targeted polygamy for eradication and worked 30 years toward that end, the Saints were left with little practical choice in voting if they wanted to maintain their way of life. So they became even more closely aligned with Democrats until most of the Democrats seceded from the nation during the Civil War. In the resulting vacuum, Republicans dominated national politics and the Saints attempted to remain aloof.

When a growing population of non-Latter-day Saint voters in Utah organized the Liberal Party in the territory in 1870, the Saints responded by organizing the People’s Party to protect their local interests. The People’s Party dominated most Utah elections over the next two decades with the vigorous support of the Deseret News. When the end of Reconstruction gave faint new life to Democrats in 1876, both of Utah’s local political parties knew they needed to blend into the national party system if they ever hoped for favors, protection and statehood.

But how?

The first attempt played out at the grassroots level. Utah’s Democratic Party was organized in 1890 and a local Republican Party followed the next year. In May of 1891, leaders of the People’s Party conferred with the First Presidency, who shared the desire for statehood and encouraged them to dissolve the local party — urging their members to join the national parties. But most Latter-day Saints still remembered the Republican Party’s more than 30-year legislative onslaught against polygamy and the church, so they quickly filed into the Democratic Party.

That year Democrats won two-thirds of the seats and Republicans won none. Even a newly called member of the Quorum of the Twelve — Anthon H. Lund — ran unsuccessfully as a Republican in Sanpete County. The Southern-based Democrats remained markedly weaker on the national landscape and any hope for statehood would require Republican assistance. Republicans had admitted four new states in the West in 1889, and they ratcheted up their aspirations for economic development and imperial expansion.

Leaders of the new statewide political parties as well as church leaders of the time hoped that a more even distribution of party affiliation in the territory would make statehood more likely. For their part, church leaders hoped for neutrality in principle, and parity in practice.

They asked prominent Democratic church members to refrain from active politicking. They also encouraged some of their number to publicly align with Republicans, including both counselors in the First Presidency, four members of the Twelve, and three prominent Relief Society and suffrage leaders. Finally, president of the church, Wilford Woodruff, permitted Republican church leaders to recruit while traveling on church business.

“Leaders of the new statewide political parties as well as church leaders of the time hoped that a more even distribution of party affiliation in the territory would make statehood more likely.”

The man in Beaver, rumored to have remembered a congregational division, actually kept a diary that provided a more tempered view of the approach he witnessed. Elders Francis Lyman and Abraham Cannon of the Quorum of the Twelve convened a meeting to encourage affiliation with Republicans for “those who had not already declared themselves Democrat and could conscientiously do so.” When Lyman got excited in his pitch to meeting attendees, Cannon intervened by saying, “don’t go too far.”

In a time of shifting national party strength, the dissolution of local parties, and the looming danger of perpetuating former faith-based divisions, church leaders urged parity for the sake of statehood, but also adherence to conscience.

Over the coming decade, Democratic national policies would cripple local farmers and launch a lengthy recession, thus swaying even more Utahns toward the Republican fold. 

As affiliations shifted, Latter-day Saints increased politically partisan attacks on each other that employed the same either-or zeal common to sectarian preaching — dueling op-eds, calculated hit pieces, claiming Jesus as a Democrat and Lucifer as a Republican.

The sudden surge of partisan vitriol led President Woodruff to plead at the April 1892 general conference, “Don’t throw filth and dirt and nonsense at one another because of any difference on political matters.” Today, the church has publicly stated that it’s “neutral in matters of party politics,” while encouraging church members to participate in the political process in “an informed and civil manner, respecting the fact that members of the Church come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and may have differences of opinion in partisan political matters.”

So why is the congregational division story retold so often? And what might this story tell us about other rumors that circulate amongst us?

In the first place, the story’s structure is very simple. There is one actor and one simple action carried out in a concrete setting — a church leader divides a congregation in half. Next, the simple story about the past conveniently maps directly onto something of interest in the present — the two modern political parties. Finally, the simplified and present-oriented story offers an explanation of why things are the way they are — it entices us into thinking we know what things mean, especially as we look toward the future with uncertainty. And all the better that this story ends with a snappy little punchline, making it memorable to hear and gratifying to retell.

“But there are dangers in telling oversimplified stories.”

But there are dangers in telling oversimplified stories. This one misrepresents the past by omitting complexities, such as the strange and forgotten local parties — Liberal and People’s — as well as the Saints’ tortured relationship with the Republican Party. It also invents the entire setting of a congregational divide.

In the end, omission and exaggeration become tools for sharpening present partisan division, making storytellers unwitting pawns in the false cultural script that Americans are equally divided and diametrically opposed. These blinders then hamper our ability to work together to improve our communities and our lives.

Looking back from our era of intense polarization, we might be telling the wrong story. Perhaps, rather than an oversimplified tale about congregations divided down the aisle, we’d be better off remembering Wilford Woodruff’s call to unity in the face of political partisanship.

Keith A. Erekson is the author of “Real vs. Rumor: How to Dispel Latter-day Myths.