Teacher's Guide: History

Pioneer family on Overland journey, ca.1850s.

Pioneer family on Overland journey, ca.1850s.

The Mormons provides insights into social studies topics including religious movements and their impact on American history, Westward migration and the American frontier, the Second Great Awakening, the role of religion in American democracy, and more. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site, including a streaming version of the program, to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into four categories: history, religion, civics, and geography. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.


  1. The rapidly changing West.
    Between 1847, when the first Mormon migrants reached Utah, and 1896, when Utah officially became a state, the American West underwent dramatic changes, some of which helped shape the new Mormon community. Illustrate the changes that took place during Utah's long path to statehood by working together as a class to create two maps of the region, one representing 1847 and the other representing 1896. The maps should show not only changes in political boundaries, but the effects of developments such as the California Gold Rush, the building of the transcontinental railroad and the Indian Wars.

    When the maps are complete, compare them and discuss this question as a class: Do you think the Mormons would have been better off if their Utah settlement had remained outside of the United States? Why or why not?

  2. Violence against, and by, Mormons.
    How (if at all) should the acts of violence committed against Mormons affect how we look at the Mountain Meadows Massacre? Imagine that the massacre was not covered up, but instead was a source of open discussion among Salt Lake City's Mormons in 1857 in letters to their local newspaper. Have each student write a letter to the editor from a Mormon expressing his or her view on the massacre in light of Mormonism's beliefs as well as its history.

    Have the teacher read the letters to the class. What arguments were made for and against the idea that the violence Mormons suffered helped explain or justify the massacre?


  1. A "great awakening" of faith.
    Mormonism emerged during the Second Great Awakening, a time of religious revival in the United States. As a class, find out more about the religious movements that appeared during these decades by preparing a timeline. On one side of the timeline, list important events in the history of Mormonism between 1801 (when Brigham Young was born) and 1847 (when the Mormons reached Utah). On the other side of the timeline, list important events concerning other religious movements of this period; find information on these movements by dividing the class into small groups and assigning each group a particular time span within this period.

    When you are done, discuss as a class the similarities and differences between Mormonism and other movements that emerged during the Second Great Awakening.

  2. Wanted: leader.
    What do the careers of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young tell us about the personal qualities that make a good religious leader, or a good political leader? Divide the class into small groups and have each group examine the public careers of both men, using information from the film and this website. Groups should discuss the ways in which Smith and Young were effective (or ineffective) as religious and political leaders. Then, using information from this discussion, each group should list three personal qualities that help make someone an effective religious leader, and three personal qualities that help make someone an effective political leader.

    When the groups are done, compare the groups' lists and use them to create two "help wanted" job advertisements, one for a religious leader and one for a political leader. How different are the two ads? Do you think that a person who is good at one job would likely be good at the other?

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  1. Tocqueville and Mormonism.
    In the early 1830s, even as Mormonism was starting to gain followers, a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville was visiting the United States and gathering material for Democracy in America, regarded by many as the most accurate description of this country ever written. How might the later development of Mormonism have affected Tocqueville's views of the United States?

    Read the quotations below from Democracy in America, which cover topics such as religion in American life and American politics, Americans' belief in the importance of material goods, the power of public opinion in the United States, and the weakness of social bonds in a democracy.

    "[T]here is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America."

    "Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must nevertheless be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of free institutions... I do not know whether all the Americans have a sincere faith in their religion... but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions."

    "It may be asserted that in the United States no religious doctrine displays the slightest hostility to democratic and republican institutions."

    "In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country... [To find out why,] I questioned the members of all the different sects; and I more especially sought the society of the clergy... [T]hey mainly attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country to the separation of Church and State... I did not meet with a single individual, of the clergy or of the laity, who was not of the same opinion upon this point."

    "I learned with surprise that [the clergy] filled no public appointments; not one of them is to be met with in the administration, and they are not even represented in the legislative assemblies... And when I came to inquire into the prevailing spirit of the clergy I found that most of its members seemed to retire of their own accord from the exercise of power, and that they made it the pride of their profession to abstain from politics."

    "The American clergy... saw that they must renounce their religious influence, if they were to strive for political power; and they chose to give up the support of the State, rather than to share its vicissitudes."

    "I know of no country . . . where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men [than in the United States]."

    "A native of the United States clings to this world's goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach, that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications."

    "If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the unlimited authority of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige them to have recourse to physical force. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism."

    "[T]he most absolute monarchs in Europe are unable to prevent certain notions, which are opposed to their authority, from circulating in secret throughout their dominions, and even in their courts. Such is not the case in America; as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, a submissive silence is observed, and the friends, as well as the opponents, of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety. The reason of this is perfectly clear... The authority of a king is purely physical, and it controls the actions of the subject without subduing his private will; but the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men... I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America."

    "In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own."

    "When an opinion has taken root amongst a democratic people, and established itself in the minds of the bulk of the community, it afterwards... is maintained without effort, because no one attacks it. Those who at first rejected it as false, ultimately receive it as the general impression; and those who still dispute it in their hearts, conceal their dissent; they are careful not to engage in a dangerous and useless conflict."

    "Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king: democracy breaks that chain, and severs every link of it. As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."

    Now, imagine you are Tocqueville reviewing Democracy in America in the 1850s for a new edition of the book. Select one of the quotations and write the text of a footnote Tocqueville might have written in which he explains how the development of Mormonism since he first wrote that passage affects the view he expressed there. (For example, if Mormonism appears to contradict the view expressed in the passage, Tocqueville could explain how the passage could be revised to be more accurate. Or, if Mormonism appears to support the view expressed in the passage, Tocqueville could show why that is the case.)

    Post the quotations around the room, and below each, have students post the footnote they have written to go with that quotation. Then review the quotations and footnotes as a class: Do you think the development of Mormonism is consistent with the descriptions of the United States presented in Democracy in America?

  2. Debating polygamy.
    The 19th century doctrine of polygamy created intense controversy for the Mormon Church. It also raised important questions about religious and individual freedom.

    Explore these issues as a class by holding a mock Supreme Court case on whether Congress has the right to outlaw polygamy, as it did in the Morrill Act of 1862. Assign nine students to act as the Supreme Court justices, and divide the rest of the class into two groups, one to represent the government and one to represent the Mormon Church. Have each of those two groups prepare and then deliver a ten-minute oral presentation for the justices. The justices should ask questions of the groups as they make their presentations; when the presentations are complete, the justices should meet privately and vote on the case. A member of the Court majority should write the Court's opinion on the case and read it to the class.

    Close by having each student take the online poll on whether the Mormon Church should have abandoned polygamy in 1890. How did the class as a whole vote on this issue? Were students' views influenced by the arguments they heard (or created) for the mock court case?

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  1. What was the journey like?
    One of the key events in Mormon history was the Mormons' 1,300-mile trek from Illinois to Utah in the 1840s. Find out more about that historic journey by dividing the class into small groups and having each group research a different topic, such as: What kinds of possessions did families bring with them? How did they travel -- what kinds of wagons did they use? What sorts of health risks did people face along the trail, and what happened when someone got sick or was injured? What was a typical day on the trail like? What did families use for food and fuel? What was the experience like for the many children who made the journey? Did the migrants encounter many Native Americans along the way, and what usually happened when they did?

    Have groups report their findings to the class, along with any particularly striking facts or stories they came across in their research. When the presentations are completed, discuss how this exercise has changed students' views of Mormons and Mormonism. Also ask students: If you could ask one question of a person who made this journey, what would it be?

  2. Tracing the Mormon exodus.
    Give each student a photocopy of a map of the United States showing the state borders but without the state labels. Then write the names of the following states on the board: Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Utah. Explain that these are the present-day states in which the Mormons settled at various points in their early history, and have students label the states on their maps (without consulting a map, if possible).

    Next, have students use this map to draw a line showing the Mormons' migration westward from New York to Utah between 1830 and 1847; students should also label each of the six places the Mormons lived, and when they lived there.

    Finally, have each student add some element to his or her map showing how the Mormons' westward migration reflected the westward movement of the country as a whole. For example, he or she might label each of the states and when it joined the Union, or show some of the paths migrants used to head west (such as the Oregon Trail and the transcontinental railroad), or list some of the key events during that period that marked this country's westward expansion. When students are done, have them share their maps with the class and discuss: In what ways was the Mormons' migration similar to, and different from, other American migrations?

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