THE MOST OBVIOUS MEANS of joining the nation was, of course, to become involved in politics by running for office. Indeed, it was the trial in 1904-1907 of elected U.S. Senator Reed Smoot, a church member from Utah who met with fierce resistance to being seated, that precipitated the realization from church leaders that a broader campaign for acceptance would need to be launched. If Mormons were to become citizens, they would need to find a variety of ways to ensure their membership. Smoot eventually was seated, and he served in Congress into the 1930s. But the resistance to his claims, brought not because of anything he had done himself but because of his leadership in a church that was still suspected of breaking federal laws by harboring polygamists, was a lesson learned well by the Saints. Instead, they looked to other modes of inclusion.
Building on the perceived success of the Utah state exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Mormon leaders wagered that culture gatherings such as World’s Fairs and Expositions offered a non-threatening way to present a positive image to the American public and to emphasize contributions of the Mormons to the nation. Their first approaches quite purposefully diverted public attention from overtly religious practices. Whereas a focus on religion might have prompted consideration of recent battles over the legacy of polygamy or unusual practices such as baptisms for the dead, early exhibitors instead steered the public gaze toward the economic, agricultural, and technological achievements of Utah (still majority Mormon) and its surrounding areas. In 1904, for example, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition was held in St. Louis, then the fourth largest city in the United States. Utah officials erected a reproduction of Little Zion Valley, showing small farms ringed with mountains, as its agricultural offering. In the Exhibition Palace the Utah displays won prizes in education, mining, metallurgy, and irrigation. A year later the state garnered even more acclaim in Portland, Oregon at the Lewis and Clark Exposition, when the Ogden-based Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed to sold-out crowds. The piece they sang, composed by a fellow church member, was entitled the “Irrigation Ode”—dexterously honoring local technologies and simultaneously showcasing the superior musical skills of the choir. More than 1,000 people were turned away from their final concert, and Mormon leaders considered the show a rousing success in increasing national acceptance of the church.
After a dozen similar forays into public exhibitions, Mormons felt emboldened to present themselves not simply as technological wizards or superior irrigation specialists, but as participants with a religion. By the time of the second World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, Mormon contributions more overtly addressed the church’s religious distinctiveness. Volunteers distributed religious literature, recited the 100-year history of the church, and proudly displayed a miniature replica of the Salt Lake Tabernacle and Organ to approximately 4,000 visitors per day in the Hall of Religions. Church members clearly saw this achievement as the ideal union of evangelism and positive public relations: One LDS visitor exclaimed about the possibilities: “Twenty-three hundred forty pulsating hours of human contact! One hundred and forty thousand precious minutes of continuous revealment! Hundreds of thousands of tracts and pamphlets distributed to truth seekers!” George S. Romney, great-uncle to Mitt and mission president for the Chicago region, noted how ably the exhibits showcased Mormon family life (now safely monogamous and nuclear in structure), and remarked on how “hungry” visitors seemed to be for the Mormon message.
A SECOND CHARACTERISTIC mode of assimilation employed by Mormon leaders was outreach through educational spokespersons, church members who had been trained outside of the Salt Lake Basin and could serve as bridge builders through both personal connections and common academic interests. Mormons had always valued education, so this seemed like a natural place to forge substantive ties that could help with other enterprises. The most prominent example of this trend can be seen in the career of James Talmage. A British-born convert to the faith, Talmage migrated to Provo, Utah with his family in 1877. After high school Talmage left for the east coast, where he studied chemistry and geology at Lehigh and Johns Hopkins Universities before receiving a PhD from Illinois Wesleyan in 1896. Returning west, Talmage joined the faculty at the University of Utah, where he taught geology. In 1911 he was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the highest level of leadership underneath the Presidency), and served there until 1933.
Along with his skills in science, Talmage was a master of public relations. In 1911 the LDS Church had discovered that the interior of the Salt Lake Temple, considered a sacred site, had secretly been photographed; the perpetrators demanded a $100,000 ransom for the photos. Church leaders agonized over their options until Talmage proposed that the Saints commission their own photos and publish them, a brilliant suggestion that once again gave the Mormons the upper hand in controlling their public image. That same year, the First Presidency—the governing body of the LDS Church—appointed Talmage as an Apostle, and thereafter he served as an exceptionally effective spokesperson. A staunch conservative on matters of scripture, he nonetheless held his own on the speaking circuit of interreligious conferences and exhibitions. In 1915 Talmage orchestrated an invitation to speak as the Church’s representative at the Congress of Religious Philosophies, held in San Francisco as part of the Panama Pacific International Exposition. There, activists such as Emma Goldman held forth on atheism and Murshida Rabia Martin presented on Sufism. Talmage spoke in a session alongside Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant luminaries; his paper on “The Philosophical Basis of Mormonism” was later prepared for missionary distribution. In each of these settings, Talmage presented Mormonism as a viable religious option among others, and in this regard his performance of civic parity with other religious leaders was as significant as the words he spoke.
One evident effect of these forged intellectual connections was a score of friendly outsiders who began to publish sympathetic accounts of the church. The Case Against Mormonism (which was, despite its title, a congenial rendering and close analysis of what the author called the “lies” perpetrated against the Saints) appeared in 1915; the author, who used the pen name Robert C. Webb, advertised the book as the product of a “non-Mormon,” and everything in its pages seemed addressed to an educated audience well versed in the fields of economics, sociology, and theology: “What is needed in the premises is a careful and conscientious examination of the origin and claims of ‘Mormonism,’ in order that intelligent people may oppose it intelligently, if so disposed, or, in any event, estimate at a fair appraisal this system of teaching and practice.” Using anti-Mormon excitement as evidence of the significance of the subject, he criticized Christians who would easily dismiss the claims of the faith. “The candid observer of all this can scarcely fail to conclude that there must be something really interesting in a system, in opposition to which people will thus stultify themselves and lie, as so many anti-Mormon writers have done, and which, in spite of the contemptible character ascribed to it, still seems sufficiently important to excite so great antipathy.” The author was, it turned out, an Episcopalian and Harvard Divinity School graduate named James Edward Homans; during the course of writing his defense of the faith, he had lunched occasionally with James Talmage and shared his labors with him—thus demonstrating the efficacy of intellectual ties.
Increasing numbers of Mormons by the 1920s and 1930s forged paths similar to James Talmage, traveling roads that eventually led to positions in business and the government. By the 1930s, church member J. Reuben Clark served as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Clark had received a law degree from Columbia, and had then served as an attorney in department of state and undersecretary of state for Calvin Coolidge. After years of public service he returned to administration within the LDS Church itself, bringing years of bureaucratic experience back to his role as a counselor in the First Presidency. In this way, through the use of channels of education, the world of Mormon Utah inched ever closer to the networks of academic and professional power, forging ties cemented by shared intellectual sensibilities and liberal religious sympathies.
THE THIRD MODE OF entry into citizenship presented by far the hardest challenge for the Mormons: acceptance into the world of American Christian leadership. Liberal Christians and academics may have been willing to take on their cause in the interest of fairness and inclusion, but evangelical Christians continued to have little use for the LDS Church. Nonetheless, the Saints tried, remaining certain that acceptance from American evangelicals would solidify their inclusion in public life. After all, some members surmised, they had a great deal in common with evangelicals in the 1910s, and they found themselves on the same side of a number of moral crusades, most notably the temperance movement. So it seemed logical for the Saints to join gatherings of evangelicals, to band together in a public display of Christian unity.
This story may sound deeply familiar to those who have followed Mitt Romney’s campaign and his early entanglements with unsympathetic evangelicals, but I want to remain in the early twentieth century just a bit longer to underscore the similarities of that moment with the current one. In 1919 the National Reform Association, an evangelical group formed during the Civil War to encourage the incorporation of explicitly Christian values into national life, held an international congress in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. James Talmage, just a few years removed from his appearance at the San Francisco Congress, seized on this meeting as an ideal time to spread his message of Mormon arrival among Christian organizations. Talmage, one of several members of the LDS Church who registered for the conference, brought with him credentials from Utah’s governor and the mayor of Salt Lake City, attesting to the fact that he was an official delegate. Initially he was delighted to be brought into the fold of concerned Christians. “It was my privilege to attend several of the meetings; and I was much impressed by the able presentation of the principal subjects, and by the liberal provision made for discussion,” he later reported.
By mid-week, however, his reception was considerably chillier. The Congress met that year in the wake of the war, and participants registered a renewed sense of both crisis and moral possibility. The world had fallen apart, and Christians saw this as an opportunity to be the first to decide how it would be put back together. Sessions were thus organized around a series of threats to the attainment of a lasting peace: participants addressed the problems of labor, of race, of economic development, and of Mormonism as an impediment to religious progress. Talmage commented, “To this commendable order of things there was one striking exception, which by contrast with all the rest of the program stands as midnight is to sunshine, as foul license is to wholesome liberty, or as pagan superstition to Christian truth.” Here is his description of the presentations about his faith that followed:
The preannounced topics included: Report of the World Commission of Mormonism; History and Tactics of Mormon Propaganda; The Mormon Menace; Mormonism and the Swiss; Defeating Mormon Proselyting. … The estimated attendance was over two thousand during the forenoon and nearly double that number in the afternoon. The chairman in announcing the opening of the “Conference on Mormonism” made plain the fact that denunciation, not investigation, would be the key-note for the day; and the appointed speakers without exception followed this lead.
Mormon Americans such as Talmage had bumped up against the immovable object of Christian citizenship. The noted anti-Mormon British author Winifred Graham spoke first, and opened the session by comparing Mormonism to the late Kaiser and his power, emphasizing that even incipient claims to inclusion needed to be stopped before they ran out of control. As she phrased it, Mormonism “claims all the privileges of a church; and it steps outside of ecclesiasticism and claims all the privileges of a political party, a commercial corporation, a secret society, a civil government.” Graham was followed immediately by a former church member, who rehearsed the litany of Mormon beliefs that other Christians found deeply offensive: the practice of polygamy, the idea that men would become gods, the secrecy of their temple rituals, the wearing of “sacred undergarments,” and the refusal of the LDS to release a complete financial accounting. The final blow was delivered by Lulu Loveland Shepard, an evangelical powerhouse and public speaker known in her day as the Silver-tongued Orator of the Rocky Mountains. Shepard was a former president of the Women Christian’s Temperance Union and a sought-after critic of the “Mormon menace.” In her address to the delegation, she called upon Christians to wake up and stop the Mormons from engulfing the nation in another Civil War. If nothing were to change, she warned ominously, the Mormon Church would gain enough power to control the government; she predicted that the church would appoint by fiat the next president of the United States, an act that would certainly lead to a war between East and West, “unless you people awake … and throttle the power of the Mormon Church.”
Talmage was aghast at the proceedings, which he described in detail in a church periodical later that year. Most instructive for our purposes is the target of his anger: he expressed astonishment that one of the speakers criticized an LDS church member who had served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army; he also seemed astounded by the charges leveled at other American Christians for allowing Mormons to become an integral part of civic life. But he expressed particular consternation that, when he passed a note to the aisle and asked to be heard during the session, he was roundly denounced. “It was voted that I be allowed to speak for five minutes as a courtesy, but with no recognition of any right to be heard, since I, not being a Christian, had no such right.” Note here the precise object of his concern: Talmage assumed that his expression of Christian belief would allow him a voice in this public setting, and that in certifying himself as both a churchgoer and an upstanding citizen (proven through affidavits brought to the conference by a non-Mormon Utah resident), he would be allowed to participate alongside other Christians in this civic display.
Here we see, in stark relief, the limits of Mormon inclusion into the American body politic in 1919. For Talmage and other Mormons of his educational and civic attainments, this reckoning came as a shock; their previous interactions with liberal Christians, with other educators, and with admiring crowds at public exhibitions, had led them to assume that their full citizenship, including a right to speak and to participate in public life, had been won by their hard-fought efforts.