The Geography of Mormonism

National Geographic/September 5, 2013

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner

The Mormon faith is in the news, as a new atlas, Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History, (by Brandon S. Plewe and S. Kent Brown, editors, etal) was recently heralded by The Mormon History Association. At its conference June 7th, the organization announced that Mapping Mormonism won the “Best Book of 2012.” Perhaps more complimentary is the Cartography and Geographic Information Society’s (CaGIS) award of “Best Atlas of 2013.” Now this marvelous new atlas adds more great maps to the two below, one from Herff Jones Inc. and the other from Geography in the News.

Estimates are that there are more than 14 million members of the church worldwide with about 43 percent of those residing in the United States.

A period of religious revival that occurred in the United States in the early 1800s led to the development of several new churches associated with Christianity. Among those involved was Joseph Smith, a young farmer in upstate New York, who is credited with founding Mormonism. Smith said God visited him and an angel (Moroni) directed him to buried golden plates written with hieroglyphics. According to Smith, he translated the plates into English as the Book of Mormon in 1830, and then returned the plates to the angel.

The Book of Mormon was a scripture containing a Judeo-Christian history of ancient American civilizations. Smith then organized the Church of Christ, later called Latter-day Saints or Mormons. He believed that he should build a city called Zion where Jesus would appear in a second coming.

Beginning in 1831, Smith and his congregation began several moves westward to Ohio and Missouri. Existing Missouri settlers were disturbed by the Mormons’ lifestyles, particularly their practice of plural marriage (polygamy).

By 1837 and 1838, his Latter-day Saints were forced out of Missouri and Smith was jailed because of an armed conflict. Upon his release, he moved to Illinois where he resumed his role as spiritual leader of the group. When his followers destroyed a printing press used to publish an exposé of their culture, Smith and his heir-apparent brother Hyrum were arrested, then killed by a mob while in custody in 1844.

Brigham Young, a senior member of the Latter-day Saints took over the movement and moved his group to Nebraska, then in 1847 on to the Utah territory. The settlers endured difficult trips across the Great Plains and through the Rockies with covered wagons and later some with hand carts. They created a “commonwealth” of sorts, building a large irrigation system between the Uinta Mountains and the Great Salt Lake to create a successful settlement in the desert. They branched out and formed a net of small villages across the region.

By 1849, the Mormons were well established within Utah and they began a major missionary drive, particularly to Northern Europe. An estimated 70,000 “new” Mormons immigrated to the United States from Europe and most joined the group in Utah.

From about 1852 until the early 1900s, Mormon leaders publicized their culture’s previously secret plural marriage tradition. Almost immediately, opposition again arose with non-Mormon settlers. President James Buchanan sent a military force in 1857 to the West to keep the peace. The Mormons, however, interpreted this as an invasion of their territory.

Then, during heightened tensions in 1858, an unprovoked Mormon militia attacked an emigrant wagon train passing through and heading for California. About 120 men, women and children were massacred, leaving only 17 children alive. The Mountain Meadows massacre was one of the darkest days in the history of the Mormon Church. Brigham Young, then governor of the territory, was not directly linked to the massacre, but he was nonetheless indicted by public opinion for setting the stage with his edicts to defend his society.

Several lawsuits and church edicts disallowing or outlawing polygamy followed over the next 50 years. Not until after Utah became a U.S. state in 1896 and after 1904 was the practice officially outlawed by church doctrine under threat of member excommunication.

In the early 20th century, Mormons began integrating into the broader American culture and encouraging missionary work and solicitation of members around the world. Although the religion is open to new adherents of all races, up until the 1970s African Americans were not allowed into the priesthood (note: corrected by authors). Since then the policy has changed.

The adherents are strongly focused on mutual support of fellow Mormons, with particular emphasis on “family.” Welfare programs, Boy Scouts, youth religious education programs and disaster relief receive strong support. Objections to tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, recreational drug use, profanity and extra-marital sex are efforts to keep the society “clean” and cohesive.

The larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is rapidly expanding its worldwide reach. Its strongest influence is in North and South America, Europe, Australia and the South Pacific, but it is also gaining converts in sub-Saharan Africa, India and Russia, thanks to a well-developed missionary program. The church’s membership doubles every 15 to 20 years.

The tight-knit Mormon society is a reflection of its history of persecution. Minority cultural groups feeling extreme persecution tend to withdraw from the larger society—hoping to protect their own people by remaining isolated economically and socially within their particular group. Religious persecution is especially forceful in creating a cohesive group, as is the case with the Mormons.

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