UTBOH is written by John Krakauer, who also wrote Into The Wild and Into Thin Air, two books I have never read, because they have always seemed a little too “Oprah's Book Club”-ish for my tastes. But since I had a trip planned that included Salt Lake City, I figured why not learn a little about it's dominant cultural feature: Mormonism. I will have to reevaluate my judgment of Krakauer, because UTBOH is a very good, very informative, and very well written book.
UTBOH uses the murder of a mother and daughter to frame a general history of the Mormon religion. That the the woman was a Mormon (sorry, I refuse to call a toddler a Mormon, Catholic, or any other religion), murdered by her fundamentalist Mormon brothers-in-law, in the name of God, serves to underscore the fine balance between religious devotion and insanity.
I admittedly didn't know much about Mormonism before reading the book. I just knew all the stereotypical things (no caffeine, etc.) that get joked about. During my lifetime Mormonism has a enjoyed a sunny, innocent, quirky reputation. So I was very surprised to learn that in many aspects the religion is much "quirkier", and much more violent, than I ever imagined.
From its inception, Mormonism has had aspects which made me incredulous why anyone would join. Magic underwear, magic glasses. The Garden of Eden being in Missouri. Just goofy, harmless stuff. But its historical roots go beyond that sort of goofiness into darker aspects. Mormons today might try to argue the point, but really there is no argument: Mormonism was founded as a racist, sexist, and violent religion.
I knew that Mormonism was a white religion, with the occasional Samoan thrown in for some reason, but I had no idea why. Well, now I do: because it was incredibly racist. In the Book of Mormon, “black skin” is explained as a curse placed upon the children of Cain (the “Mark Of Cain”). Some non-Mormon religious people held this belief also, but that hardly seems like an excuse to me. As with many Biblical issues, there is room for debate as to what was meant by all of this. But Brigham Young erased any doubts on where the Church stood in regards to blacks.
"What is that mark? you will see it on the countenance of every African you ever did see upon the face of the earth, or ever will see.... I tell you, this people that are commonly called negroes are the children of old Cain."Young also used the Cain argument to support slavery, even though Joseph Smith was anti-slavery.
"Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race—that they should be the 'servant of servants;' and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree."Furthermore, when Utah was granted statehood, Young made sure that it was admitted as a slave state, again even though church founder Joseph Smith was anti-slavery (he was of the “separate but equal” mindset). So, during the Civil War, the sympathies of the Mormon church laid with the Confederacy, although one supposes this was partly because of the Mormon “oath of vengeance” against the United States (we'll get to that later).
The result of all this was that blacks were not allowed into the priesthood until 1978. Undoubtedly, the Church has made a lot of progress righting its historic wrongs, but today's Mormon fundamentalists kick it old school, with people such as Prophet Onias, who wrote that blacks are,
"beasts of the field, which were the most intelligent of all the animals that were created, for they did walk upright as a man doeth and had the power of speech."SEXISM
UTBOH also makes it clear that the early Church and its modern day fundamentalist sect saw women as wholly inferior to men. Joseph Smith actually wrote,
“Here, the wife is pronounced the husband's property, as much so as his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, or his horse...”This outlook towards women would manifest itself in the most controversial aspect of Mormonism: polygamy.
Polygamy is one of Mormonism's core tenets. There's simply no denying it. Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion, was pro-polygamy. Brigham Young? Pro-polygamy, going so far to say that those who denied plurality of wives would be damned. The shift away from polygamy was simply a political move to gain mainstream acceptance. In the same manner that individual Mormons use revelations from God as a means to an end (more on that later), the Church as an institution did the same to back out of its pro-polygamy stand. In 1880, Prophet John Taylor was defiant, saying,
God is greater than the United States, and when government conflicts with heaven we will be ranged under the banner of heaven against the government. The United States says we cannot marry more than one wife. God says different.Yet just 10 years later, owing to increased government hostility to polygamy, Prophet Wilford Woodruff spoke to God, who told him it was His will that the church stop sanctifying plural marriage.
As the church lady would say, how conveeeeeenient. Sure sounds to me like God relented to the United States.
As I mentioned, another one of the key tenets of Mormonism is that revelations from God are not reserved for priests or other holy men. Anyone can receive a revelation directly from God. Often, the revelations are used simply to codify the obvious, such as when, in 1830, Joseph Smith “received a revelation in which God, noting the hostility in the New York air, commanded him to move his flock to Ohio.” Ah. Kind of like the time I was walking down a darkened alley, and I saw some mean looking dudes with baseball bats, and God commanded me to run like the motherfucking wind.
But frequently, revelations from God seem to be conveniently used by men to get what they want, especially from women. In UTBOH, a great example of this comes when one of the murderers' wives threatens to leave him. He suddenly receives a revelation from God, which God tells him to give to her:
Thou are a chosen daughter, but My wrath is kindled against thee because of thy rebelliousness against thy husband, and I command thee to repent.How conveeeeeeeenient. First of all, why didn't God just give the revelation directly to her, instead of pussing out and giving it to her husband? Second, this revelation occurred in the early 80's, so what's with all the “'thee's” and “thy's”? I'm not saying God should be saying “dude”, but, come on.
Anyways, when his wife doesn't heed the revelation and leaves anyways, there's another revelation, this one to kill those responsible for aiding and abetting his wife's desire to leave: specifically, his brother's wife. The level of detail in the revelation is gruesome. It actually specifies that the victims should not be shot, but should have their throats slit.
Which brings us full circle to the theme of violence, which is the main theme of UTBOH. Violence is everywhere, and often condoned by Church leaders. Joseph Smith introduced the concept of “blood atonement” under which certain sins could only be atoned for by spilling the offenders blood, a policy which became church doctrine. In this thinking, execution by hanging or lethal injection isn't good enough, since no blood is literally spilled. Firing squad has been the preferred method in Utah, to really make sure things get good and bloody (this has been recently changed, with the permission of the church).
After Joseph Smith was killed, Brigham Young did not tell his followers to turn the other cheek, or to trust in God to get them through this difficult time. No, instead upped the ante on Smith's blood atonement by requiring Mormons to take an “oath of vengeance” which swears Mormons to “avenge the Blood of the Prophets”. This oath was directed at the United States government as a whole. So, from 1845 to 1927, almost 65 years, the official stance of the Mormon Church towards the United States was vengeance. Of course, later, the mainstream LDS Church played this aspect down, but it's all there in black in white.
But it must be said that there are many moments in the book where you feel outright sympathy for Mormons. There is no doubt that Mormons were harshly persecuted. Yet, it often seemed like their actions provoked persecution. In their defense, Mormons simply wanted a land to call their own, away from the United States, but manifest destiny scuttled that plan. But when your guiding philosophy and ultimate goal is to establish a Mormon Kingdom, there's a pretty good chance there might be tension with your non-Mormon neighbors.
But the persecution by various government officials did not go unanswered. Orrin Porter Rockwell, a Mormon hero known as the “Destroying Angel”, tried to assassinate the ex-governor of Missouri, who, as governor, has a history of Mormon harassment. Orrin Porter Rockwell plays a pretty major role in the history of Mormonism, and he was a pretty violent guy. Which begs the question, was Utah Senator Orrin Hatch named for him? It would seem pretty odd if he wasn't. Yet it also seems odd to name your future Senator kid after a violent vigilante.
As I read UTBOH, I began to think of my feelings about the Catholic Church. If you are Catholic, you should be anti-death penalty, anti-abortion, and you should not ever use birth control. Why? Because that's what the Church says, and as a Catholic, you hold the Pope, the leader of the Church, to be infallible. You can't have it both ways. So it puts me in the weird position of respecting the consistency of hardcore Catholics who I vehemently disagree with more than moderate Catholics who I often agree with. The same thing happens with Mormonism.
While portraying the fundamentalist sect of LDS as “crazier” than mainstream LDS, there is the realization that the modern LDS Church really has abandoned the core doctrines the Church was founded on. Undoubtedly, this gentrification of the church was necessary to its continued survival in the United States. One concludes that the only thing that seems to have kept mainstream Mormons from being more forceful in their beliefs in doctrines such as plural marriage, exclusion of blacks, and blood atonement is how it's viewed by the rest of the country. This seems like an awfully politically correct way to run a religion, and in a weird way makes me respect the devotion of the fundamentalist sect, who I think are awful people, more than the mainstream, who I find for the most part sincere.
So when I finished the book, I had a newfound interest in Mormonism which made my trip to Utah more interesting, although Salt Lake City wasn't nearly as bizarre as I hoped. More boring and ugly than bizarre. I learned that Steve Young, former 49er's quarterback, is a great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young. I also learned that, before moving to Utah, Missouri was where Mormons called home, since they believed the Garden of Eden to be located there.
And then I realized...my last name is Young...and my family's roots (dad's side) are in Missouri. Uh-oh. Could it be.....?