Utah – The Mormon Capital – American Travel

I THINK it was in Kansas City that I first became conscious of the fact that, without my knowing it, my mind had made, in advance, imaginary pictures of certain sections of the country, and that, in almost every instance, these pictures were remarkable for their untruthfulness. Kansas City itself surprised me with its hills, for I had been thinking of it in connection with the prairies. With Denver it was the other way about. Thinking of Denver as a mountain city, instead of a city near the mountains, I expected hills, but did not find them. And when I crossed the Rockies, they too afforded a surprise, not because of their height, but because of their width. Evidently I must have had some vague idea that a train, traveling west from Denver, would climb very definitely up the Rocky Mountains, cross the Great Divide, and proceed very definitely down again, upon the other side, whither a sort of long, sloping plain would lead to California. Denver itself I thought of as being placed further west upon the continent than is, in reality, the case. I did not realize at all that the city is, in fact, only a few hundred miles west of the halfway point on an imaginary line drawn from coast to coast; nor was I aware that, instead of being for the most part sloping plain, the thousand miles that intervenes between Denver and the Pacific Ocean, is made up of series after series of mountain ranges and valleys, their successive crests and hollows following one another like the waves of the sea.

In short, I had imagined that the Rockies were the whole show. I had not the faintest recollection of the Cordilleran System (of which the Rockies and all these other ranges are but a part), while as for the Sierra Nevadas, I remembered them only when I came to them and then much as one will recall a slight acquaintance who has been in jail for many years.

Are you shocked by my ignorance—or my confession of it? Then let me ask you if you know that the Uintah Mountain Range, in Utah, is the only range in the entire country which runs east and west? And have you ever heard of the Pequop Mountains, or the Cedar Mountains, or the Santa Roasas, or the Egans, or the Humboldts, or the Washoes, or the Gosiutes, or the Toyales, or the Toquimas, or the Hot Creek Mountains? And did you know that in California as well as in New Hampshire there are the White Mountains? And what do you know of the Wahsatch and Oquirrh Ranges?

Not wishing to keep the class in geography after school, I shall not tell you about all these mountains, but will satisfy myself with the statement that, in an amphitheater formed between the two last mentioned ranges, at the head of a broad, irrigated valley, is situated Salt Lake City.

The very name of Salt Lake City had a flat sound in my ears ; and in that mental album of imaginary photo-graphs of cities, to which I have referred, I saw the Mormon capital as on a sandy plain, with the Great Salt Lake on one side and the Great Salt Desert on the other. Therefore, upon arriving, I was surprised again, for the lake is not visible at all, being a dozen miles distant, and the desert is removed still farther, while instead of sandy plains the mountains rise abruptly on three sides of the city, and on the fourth is the sweet valley, covered with rich farms and orchards, and dotted here and there with minor Mormon settlements.

Like Mark Twain, who visited Salt Lake many years ago, before the railroad went there, I managed to forget the lake entirely after I had been there for a little while. I made no excursion to Saltair Beach, the playground of the neighborhood, and only saw the lake when our train crossed a portion of it after leaving the city.

I do not know that the great pavilion at Saltair Beach, of which every one has seen pictures, is a Mormon property, but it well may be, for the Mormons have never been a narrow-minded sect with regard to decent gaieties. They approve of dancing, and the ragtime craze has reached them, for, as I was walking past the Lion House, one evening, I heard the music and saw a lot of young people “trotting” gaily, in the place where formerly resided most of the twenty odd known wives of the late Brigham Young. Later a Mormon told me that dances are held in Mormon meeting-houses and that they are always opened with prayer.

Also in the cafe of the Hotel Utah there was dancing every night, and when the members of the “Honeymoon Express” Company put in an appearance there one night, we might have been on Broadway. The hotel, I was informed, is owned by Mormons; it is an excellent establishment. They do not stare at you as though they thought you an eccentric if you ask for tea at five o’clock, but bring it to you in the most approved fashion, with a kettle and a lamp, and the neatest silver tea service I have ever seen in an American hotel. But that is by the way, for I was speaking of the frivolities of Mormondom, and afternoon tea is, with me at least, a serious matter.

Salt Lake City was, until a few years ago, a “wide open town.” The “stockade” was famous among the red-light institutions of the country. But that is gone, having been washed away by our national “wave of reform,” and the town has now a rather orderly appearance, although it is not without its night cafes, one of them being the inevitable “Maxim’s,” without which, it would appear, no American city is now complete.

One of the first things the Mormons did, on establishing their city, was to build an amusement hall, and as long as fifty years ago, this was superseded by the Salt Lake Theatre, a picturesque old playhouse which is still standing, and which looks, inside and out, like an old wartime wood-cut of Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Even before the railroads came the best actors and actresses in the country played in this theater, drawn there by the strong financial inducements which the Mormons offered, and it is interesting to note that many stage favorites of to-day made their first appearances in this playhouse. If I am not mistaken, Edwin Milton Royle made his debut as an actor there, and both Maude Adams and Ada Dwyer were born in Salt Lake City, and appeared upon the stage for the first time at the Salt Lake Theatre. Yes, it is an interesting and historic playhouse, and I hope that when it burns up, as I have no doubt it ultimately will, no audience will be present, for I think that it will go like tinder. And although I still bemoan the money which I spent to see there, a maudlin entertainment called “The Honeymoon Express,” direct from that home of banal vulgarities, the New York Winter Garden, I cannot quite bring myself to hope that when the Salt Lake Theatre burns, the man who wrote “The Honeymoon Express,” the manager who produced it, and the company which played it, will be rehearsing there. For all their sins, I should not like to see them burned, though as to being roasted—well, that is a different thing.

Whatever may be one’s opinion of the matrimonial industry of Brigham Young, the visitor to Salt Lake City will not dispute that the late leader of the Mormons knew, far better than most men of his day, how a town should be laid out. The blocks of Salt Lake City are rectangular ; the lots are large, the streets wide and admirably paved with asphalt, almost all the houses are low, and stand in their own green grounds, and perhaps the most characteristic note of all is given by the poplars and box elders which grow everywhere, not only in the city, but throughout the valley.

Besides my preconceptions as to the city, I arrived in Salt Lake City with certain preconceptions as to Mormons. I expected them to be radically different, somehow, from all other people I had met. I anticipated finding them deceitful and evasive : furtive people, wandering in devious ways and disappearing into mysterious houses, at dead of night. I wanted to see them, I wanted to talk with them, but I wondered, nervously, whether one might speak to them about themselves and their religion, and more especially, whether one might use the words “Mormon” and “polygamy” without giving offense.

It was not without misgivings, therefore, that my companion and I went to keep an appointment with Joseph F. Smith, head of the Mormon Church—or, to give it its official title, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We found the President, with several high officials of the church, in his office at the Lion House—the large adobe building in which, as I have said, formerly resided the rank and file of Brigham Young’s wives; although Amelia lived by herself, in the so called “Amelia Palace,” across the street.

Mr. Smith is a tall, dignified man who comes far from looking his full seventy-six years. The nose upon which he wears his gold rimmed spectacles is the dominant feature of his face, being one of those great, strong, mountainous, indomitable noses. His eyes are dark, large and keen, and he wears a flowing gray beard and dresses in a black frock-coat. He and the men around him looked like a group of strong, prosperous, dogmatically religious New Englanders, such as one might find at a directors’ meeting in the back room of some very solid old bank in Maine or Massachusetts. Clearly they were executives and men of wealth. As for religion, had I not known that they were Mormons, I should have judged them to be either Baptists, .Methodists or Presbyterians.

The occasion did not prove to be a gay one. I tried to explain to the Mormons that I was writing impressions of my travels and that I had desired to meet them because, in Salt Lake City, the Mormons seemed to sup-ply the greatest interest.

But even after I had explained my mission, a frigid air prevailed, and I felt that here, at least, I would get but scant material. Their attitude perplexed me. I could not believe they were embarrassed, although I knew that I was.

Then presently the mystery was cleared up, for President Smith launched out upon a statement of his opinion regarding “Collier’s Weekly”—the paper in which many of these chapters first appeared—and I became suddenly and painfully aware that I was being mistaken for a muck-raker.

The President’s opinion of “Collier’s” was more frank than flattering, and though one or two of the other Mormons, who seemed to understand our aims, tried to smooth matters over in the interests of harmony, he would not be mollified, but insisted vigorously that “Collier’s” had printed outrageous lies about him. This was all news to me, for, as it happened, I had not read the articles to which he referred, and for which, as a representative of “Collier’s,” I was now, apparently, being held responsible. I explained that to the President of the Church, whereupon he simmered down somewhat, but I think he still regarded my companion and me with suspicion, and was glad to see us go.

Thus did we suffer for the sins of Sarah Comstock.

It may not seem necessary to add that the subject of polygamy was not mentioned in that conversation.

In thinking over our encounter with these leading Mormons I could not feel surprised, for all that I have read about this sect has been in the nature of attacks. Mark Twain tells about what was called a “Destroying Angel” of the Mormon Church, stating that, “as I understand it, they are Latter Day Saints who are set apart by the Church to conduct permanent disappearances of obnoxious citizens.” He characterizes the one he met as “a loud, profane, offensive old blackguard.” But Mormon Destroying Angels are things of the past, as, I believe, are Mormon visions of Empire, and Mormon aggressions of all kinds. Another book, Harry Leon Wilson’s novel, “The Lions of the Lord,” was not calculated to soothe the Mormon sensibilities, and of the numerous articles in magazines and newspapers which I have read—most of them with regard to polygamy—I recall none that has not dealt with them severely.

Now, remembering that whatever we may believe, the Mormons believe devoutly in their religion, what must be their point of view about all this? Their story is not different from any other in that it has two sides. If they did commit aggressions in the early days, which seems to have been the case, they were also the victims of persecution from the very start, and it is difficult to determine, at this late day, whether they, or those who made their lives in the East unbearable, were most at fault.

According to Mormon history the church had its very beginnings in religious dissension. It is recounted by the Mormons that Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the church (he was the uncle of the present President), attended revival meetings in Manchester, Vermont, and was so confused by the differences of opinion and the ill-feeling between different sects that he prayed to the Lord to tell him which was the true religion. In regard to this, Smith wrote that after his prayer, “a mysterious power of darkness overcame me. I could not speak and I felt myself in the grasp of an unseen personage of darkness. My soul went up in an unuttered prayer for deliverance, and as I was about despairing, the gloom rolled away and I saw a pillar of light descending from heaven, approaching me.”

Smith then tells of a vision of a Glorious Being, who informed him that none of the warring religious sects had the right version. Then : “The light vanished, the personages withdrew and recovering myself, I found myself lying on my back gazing up into heaven.”

Apropos of this, and of other similar visions which Smith said he had, it is interesting to note that there is a theory, founded upon a considerable investigation, that Smith was an epileptic.

After his first vision Smith had others, and according to the Mormon belief, he finally had revealed to him the Hill Cumorah (twenty-five miles southwest of Rochester, N. Y.) where he ultimately found, with the aid of the Angel Moroni, the gold plates containing the Book of Mormon, together with the Urirn and Thummim, the stone spectacles through which he read the plates and translated them. After making his translation, Smith returned the plates to the angel, but before doing so, showed them to eight witnesses who certified to having seen them.

As time went on Smith had more visions until at last the Mormon Church was organized in 1830. Revelations continued. The church grew. Branches were established in various places, but according to their history, the Mormons were persecuted by members of other religious sects and driven from place to place. For a time they were in Kirtland, Ohio. Later they went to Jackson County, Mo., but their houses were burned and they were driven on again. In 1838 “the Lord made known to him (Smith) that Adam had dwelt in America, and that the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Mo.” For a time they were in Nauvoo, Ill., where it seems their political activities got them into trouble, and at last Joseph Smith and his brother Hiram were shot and killed by a mob, at Carthage, Ill. That was in 1844. There were then 10,000 Mormons, over whom Brigham Young became the leading power. Soon after this the westward movement began. They established various settlements in Iowa, and in 1847 Young and his pioneer band of 143 men, 3 women and 2 children, entered the valley of Salt Lake, where they immediately set up tents and cabins and began to plow and plant, and where they started what the Mormons say was the first irrigation system in the United States.

Certainly there were good engineers among them. Their early buildings show it—especially the famous Tabernacle in the great square they own at the center of the city. The vast arched roof of the Tabernacle is supported by wooden beams which were lashed together, no nails having been used. This building is not beautiful, but is very interesting. It contains among other things a large pipe organ which was, in its day, probably the finest in this country, although there are better organs elsewhere, now. The Mormon Trails are also recognized in the West as the best trails, with the lowest levels, and there are many other evidences of unusual engineering and mechanical skill on the part of the early settlers, including a curious wooden odometer (now in the museum at Salt Lake City) which worked in connection with the wheel of a prairie schooner, and which was marvelously accurate.

The revelation as to the practice of polygamy was made to Brigham Young, and was promulgated in Utah in 1852, soon becoming a subject of contention between the Mormons and the Government. The practice was finally suspended by a manifesto issued by President Wilford Woodruff, in 1890, and the “History of the Church,” written by Edward H. Anderson, declares that “a plurality of wives is now neither taught nor practised.”

Speaking of polygamy I was informed by Prof. Levi Edgar Young, a nephew of Brigham Young, a Harvard graduate and an authority on Mormon History, that not over 3 per cent. of men claiming membership in the Mormon Church ever had practised it. These figures surprised me, as I had imagined polygamy to be the rule, rather than the exception. Professor Young, however, assured me that a great many leading Mormons had refused from the first to accept the practice.

It must be remembered that the day of Brigham Young was not this day. He was a powerful, far-seeing and very able man, and it does seem probable that he had the idea of founding an Empire in the West. However the discovery of gold in ’48, flooded the West with settlers and brought a preponderance of “gentiles” (as the Mormons call those who are not members of their church) into all that country, making the realization of Young’s dream impossible. What the Mormon Church needed, in those early times, was increase —more men to do its work, more women to bear children—and viewed entirely from a practical standpoint, polygamy was a practice calculated to bring about this end. I met, in Salt Lake City men whose fathers had married anywhere from five or six to a dozen wives, and so far as sturdiness goes, I may say that I am convinced that plural marriages brought about no deterioration in the stock.

I am informed that the membership of the church, today, is between 500,000 and 600,000, and that less than 1 per cent. of the Mormon families are at present polygamous. It is not denied that some few polygamous marriages have been performed since the issuance of the manifesto against the practice, but these have been secret marriages without the sanction of the church, and priests who have performed such marriages have, when detected, been excommunicated.

I was told in Salt Lake City that, in the cases of some of the older Mormons, who had plural wives long before the manifesto, there was little doubt that polygamy was still being practised. Some of these men are the highest in the church, and it was explained to me that, having married their wives in good faith, they proposed to carry out what they regard as their obligations to those wives. However, these are old men, and with the rise of another generation there can be little doubt that these last remnants of polygamy will have been finally stamped out.

The modern young Mormon man or woman seems to be a perfectly normal human being with a normal point of view concerning marriage. Furthermore, the Mormons believe in education. The school buildings scattered everywhere throughout the valley are very fine, and I was informed that 80 per cent. of the whole tax income of the State of Utah was expended upon education, and that in educational percentages Utah compares favorably with Massachusetts.

What effect a broad education might have upon succeeding generations of Mormons it is difficult to say. From a literary point of view, the Book of Mormon will, not bear close scrutiny. Mark Twain described it accurately when he said, in “Roughing It”:

The book seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament. The author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James’s translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a mongrel—half modern glibness and half ancient simplicity and gravity. The latter is awkward and constrained; the former natural, but grotesque by contrast. Whenever he found his speech growing too modern—which was about every sentence or two-he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. . . . The Mormon Bible is rather stupid and tiresome to read, but there is nothing vicious in its teachings. Its code of morals is unobjectionable—it is “smouched” from the New Testament and no credit given.

Certainly there is no need to prove that education is death on dogma. That fact has been proving itself as scientific research has come more and more into play upon various dogmatic creeds. I was told, however, that the Mormon Church schools were liberal; that instead of restricting knowledge to conform to the teachings of the church, the church was showing a tendency to adapt itself to meet new conditions.

If it is doing that it is cleverer than some other churches.