The Great Accommodation

In the early part of the 20th century, the path taken by the Latter-day Saints helped them emerge as a new face of Americanism.

Kathleen Flake
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

Mormonism's identity radically changed as a result of this set of hearings over Sen. Smoot, in part because the nation stated the terms in which it would accept Mormonism, and Mormonism began to conform to those terms. For example, acting for the common good, being a good citizen -- you see this in the testimony.

In the trial they talk about how they support earthquake victims. But you see this playing out during the Depression era, and Mormons are held up as an example of self-sufficiency and generosity. In addition, Smoot himself became the poster boy of Mormonism -- not Brigham Young, this bearded patriarch with several wives, but this man who otherwise had the appearance and the emotional impact of a Babbitt. He's very rational, and he's very boring even. In fact, in the course of his work with the customs laws of the country, he is the leading voice in arguing against allowing certain kinds of literature in[to] America, D.H. Lawrence and these other works that were considered smut.

So Sen. Smoot became the voice of this very conservative morality, and that reflected on his church. And when he was called upon to define Mormonism, much to the aggravation of some of his brethren in the West, he would present it [as] this very civil religion, Protestant kind of terms, because in many ways he felt that way about it. When he presented it that way, all of this causes a shift.

And then as Latter-day Saints began to serve in the military and that becomes part of America's experience with them, and as more and more Mormons live next door to other Americans, [and] they realize they're not this caricature that they've been seeing in cartoons or dime novels or from behind other pulpits, ... people were beginning to see Mormons as kind of like them.

Greg Prince
Greg Prince is the author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and a book on the Mormon priesthood.

The onset of World War I gave us the opportunity to say, "We're not only patriotic; we're superpatriotic," and Utah oversubscribed its quota of recruits for the war. I think it was the Smoot hearings that catalyzed that transformation, pulling us back from what had identified us in the 19th century, putting us on a different trajectory to allow us to say, "We're not only Americans; we're super-Americans," and requiring, at the same time, reidentifying what we had left behind, so that we could no longer have our self-identify based in polygamy. There had to be something else. As a result, the church really got reinvented in that first decade of the 20th century. ... The old church had to die, and the new church had to rise from the ashes.

... By the 1960s, when you have the Tabernacle Choir in the forefront, singing at the inauguration of a Democrat, of Lyndon Johnson, [Mormons] become synonymous with patriotism. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" won a Grammy Award as sung by the Tabernacle Choir. That's the transformation that took place over a half-century, beginning with that turn in the road at the beginning of the [20th] century -- the Smoot hearings.

D. Michael Quinn
D. Michael Quinn is a Mormon historian who was excommunicated in 1993.

After the surrender of polygamy in the 1890s, the LDS Church began a rigorous process of conforming to the expectations of American society. There are some tremendous reversals in that, where individuals came back into power in a way that changed the directions of the LDS Church.

One of them was Lorenzo Snow. He had been imprisoned as a polygamist in the 1880s. He became president of the LDS Church in 1898 and immediately began to emphasize a tithing, requiring 10 percent of one's income to the LDS Church. ...

Diplomats began coming through Salt Lake because it was a hub for the railroad, and he began this process of diplomatic outreach, not only to people from other countries, but also within the United States. By the tithing emphasis that he made, he brought the LDS Church out of its near-destruction financially by encouraging this sacrifice on the part of LDS Church membership. As an individual he inspired a kind of confidence, because he was such a kindly looking, old patriarch-looking Abraham kind of figure. It brought a greater kind of confidence on the part of the leadership of the secular world.

Another reversal occurred with Reed Smoot. Reed Smoot had come close to being ejected from the Senate in this process of investigating him from 1903 to 1907. He survived that, but just didn't merely survive. He was an astute businessman. He was a very, very clever politician, and over a period of time in the Senate he became the most influential member of the U.S. Senate. He became the kingmaker for the U.S. presidency in a sense, because he was the one who decided at the Republican National Convention who was going to be the candidate, and during this time of Republican supremacy in the 1920s, the candidate was the president. … He became kingmaker for the presidency [and] he became kingmaker for the Cabinet under three different presidents of the United States in the 1920s. ...

Then, joined with Reed Smoot was another reversal story, and that is Heber J. Grant. Heber J. Grant had been a young polygamist who had been hiding from arrest during most of his early years as an apostle, but he was an astute businessman and ... was able to bring about, through his connections with non-Mormon businessmen in New York City, Boston and Chicago, a connection so powerful -- and it was primarily a personal interaction with them, a building of trust, handshakes that made deals. When the depression of 1893 hit the nation, he, through these contacts, saved the LDS Church from financial ruin.

Then in the 1920s, ... Reed Smoot is joined in the business activities with Heber J. Grant, who has maintained these business contacts, has built them, and to the degree that he has the United States seeing the Mormon Church and its business power as a good thing, no longer as a bad thing. He helps to move the LDS Church into sugar industry, into communications, into hotels, into insurance, into this diversified sector of influence, first regionally and then nationally, so that it not only has built up friends in the financial centers of the United States; it has built up actual influence, so that the LDS Church becomes perceived as American. As American as all the big-business emphasis of the 1920s perceived the community of businessmen, the LDS Church was very much a part of that, and Heber J. Grant is central to that. He does financially and in the business realm what Reed Smoot does in the political realm in making Americans see the Mormons as not only American, but as influential and as people we want as friends. ...

Terryl Givens
Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.

I think it is distressing to see the media continue to invoke the polygamy issue as a way of sensationalizing Mormonism. That was the 19th century. We're now in the 21st. The time has to soon come where we just lay that to rest. ...

The irony is that today [Mormons] are often caricatured in mainstream literature for embodying now the center rather than the periphery. They're mocked as white-bread, Ozzie and Harriet, 1950s families, too good to be true, with boring personalities, and so clean-cut that they're slightly nauseating, in the words of one popular writer today. So they can't win for losing. ...

[How has Mormonism changed as the faith has become somewhat more accepted?]

... Brigham Young once said that he feared the day that Mormons would no longer be the object of the pointing finger of scorn. So again, it's one of these paradoxes that you want to have acceptability, you want to be mainstream enough that people will give your message a fair hearing, that you can fraternize with them as fellow Christians, but at the same time you don't want to feel so comfortable that there's nothing to mark you as a people who are distinct, who have a special body of teachings, special responsibilities.

I think that once the walls of isolation fell down, with the coming of the railroad to Utah, the cessation of gathering as a principle, which happened around the turn of the 20th century, then how do you maintain that sense of a people distinct, of a people apart? That's the challenge that the church is really wrestling with today. ... How do you manifest that distinctness when you're immersed in a world where you are highly respected, where your members are now named as possible presidential candidates and have numbers out of all proportion in Congress, where some of the most successful businessmen and sports people in America are prominently mentioned as Mormons?

It's very hard, and I think one of the costs is evident in a kind of nostalgia that Mormons have for the pioneer heritage. There's almost a sense that we're not only proud of those pioneers who perished by the thousands along the way West, but that we're envious, because they were provided with tests of their faith that enabled them to manifest forth their greatness, but also their devotion by what they were able to sacrifice. ...

Ken Verdoia
Ken Verdoia is a Utah historian and has made several documentaries about the Mormons.

We can talk all we want about the embattled field of plural marriage or Christian socialism and closed economic orders, but if you want to know one of the most transcendent experiences of how the Latter-day Saints emerged as a new face of Americanism in the 20th century, it's Donny and Marie Osmond. They put a whole new face on Mormons for millions of Americans. ... They're clean-cut; they're well-scrubbed; they tell nice, family-sensitive jokes; they've always got a smile. They become the embodiment of the Latter-day Saints for millions of Americans. That breaks down more cultural walls than any Manifesto ever could. ...