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The Mormons | Article

The Path to Utah Statehood

Mormon Temple, commemorating statehood, 1896. Courtesy: Special Collections Dept., J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

Mormon settlers began a westward exodus, escaping persecution, in the 1830s. When they arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, outside the boundaries of the United States, in 1847, they finally found a home.

The church's strengths -- a cohesive social and economic community and its members' absolute loyalty to their leaders -- threatened some. Critics believed Mormonism combined the roles of church and state in an un-American way. The U.S. government targeted plural marriage, which was, in the words of journalist Ken Verdoia, "the easiest whipping boy for Federal officials who really feared... theocracy in Utah."

Congress would refuse the Utah Territory's applications for statehood for four decades, until the church renounced polygamy in 1890. Then the objections were lifted, and Utah entered the Union on January 4, 1896.

Explore Utah's path to statehood.

1847-1849, Territory versus State

"You have a kind of mini-theocracy from the very, very beginning." -- Terryl Givens

In 1846, a group of pioneer members of the Church of Latter-day Saints traveled west from Illinois to escape the violent opposition of non-Mormons. They arrived in a desolate area past the Western border of the United States in 1847, calling the land they claimed "Deseret."

Deseret's boundaries included the present-day state of Utah, most of present-day Nevada and Arizona, and parts of southern California, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, and Idaho. Soon afterward, the U.S. claimed the land as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War. In 1849 the Mormons, now living in Utah Territory, petitioned to enter the Union as the state of Deseret. Statehood would give the region more autonomy through its own elected state government and representatives.

"Mormonism ... was in absolute conflict with fundamental values of American democracy. It believed that one man had been ordained by God to be the leader of the people, and he demanded complete obedience. It created a community where people would share their resources and make sacrifices for the good of the community, which was opposed to the notion of every man for himself and basic frontier individualism. It created bloc voting, so that as Mormons moved into a place, they could capture the ballots of political power, and they even began talking about how they would control the outcome of national elections. These were basic threats to American values and feelings..."

-- Will Bagley, historian

Map: U.S. Exploration and Settlement, 1835-1850

1857, The Mormon War

"This plays out against the backdrop of the American Union itself tearing apart." -- Ken Verdoia, journalist

As a territory, Utah came under the direct control of Congress. Mormon leader Brigham Young was appointed territorial governor, but he resented any infringement on his authority. Young's leadership provoked the national government to declare the territory in "rebellion," bringing U.S. troops to Utah in a conflict known as the Mormon War.

Following the horror of a Mormon-led massacre of 120 people in a westward-bound wagon train at Mountain Meadow in fall 1857, public opinion regarding the church deteriorated. Deseret's prospects for statehood seemed dim.

During the Civil War, the U.S. government shifted its attention from the Mormons. President Abraham Lincoln told a Mormon representative to Washington, D.C., "You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone I will let him alone."

In this period of Mormon isolation, Young, having given up his governorship, built the insularity of the Mormons against the territory's encroaching non-Mormon population.

"[The Mormon leadership] send[s] a petition signed by thousands of people from Utah, saying that they will no longer obey any laws of Congress that they don't like. They run out virtually every non-Mormon federal official in the territory."

-- Will Bagley, historian

"The South is making continual sounds towards secession. The issue is slavery and states' rights -- and the person that's dealing with it is a president by the name of James Buchanan. Buchanan declares the Utah Territory in rebellion, and he marches 20 percent of the entire United States Army to the West to subdue the rebellion."

-- Ken Verdoia, journalist

Map: U.S. Territorial Growth, 1850

Mormons imprisoned for polygamy, 1886. Courtesy: Special Collections Dept., J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

1870-1890, Testing the First Ammendment

"In the Utah Territory, the United States defines what it means to practice your religion." -- Ken Verdoia, journalist

In 1870, as the transcontinental railroad and the prospects of open land, mining and industry brought more non-Mormons into the Utah Territory, new political parties formed. The Mormons gathered into the People's Party. Non-Mormons participated in territorial politics as the Liberal Party. Idaho Senator Frederick Dubois sought to limit Mormon influence by taking on the easy target of plural marriage: "[We] were not nearly so much opposed to polygamy as we were to the political domination of the Church... We made use of polygamy."

Polygamy became illegal in the United States in 1862. The Supreme Court's anti-polygamy ruling in Reynolds in 1879 was the first high court ruling to limit religious freedom -- in the eyes of some, an assault on First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Eight years later, in 1887, the government founded on freedoms enacted Edmunds-Tucker, later upheld by the Supreme Court in 1890. The act essentially dissolved the Mormon Church.

"You would think the right to vote, the right to hold office, unless you've committed some scurrilous crime -- that those would be sacred to any American citizen. But, no, because of your religious affiliation, in the United States of America, they can be taken away, for they have been taken away in the Utah Territory. So, in this microcosm, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ... you have a definition of the American experience itself."

-- Ken Verdoia, journalist

Map: U.S. Territories, 1870
Document: Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

1890-1896, Manifesto to Statehood

"Utah begins to look like it has importance to the nation." -- Sarah Barringer Gordon, historian

In 1890, after the Supreme Court upheld the Edmund-Tucker Act securing the government's right to seize the church's property, Mormon president Wilford Woodruff announced in a document known as "The Manifesto" that the church would renounce the practice of polygamy.

Utah was admitted to the United States on January 4, 1896, and that year sent its first two senators and one representative to Congress, all members of the Republican Party.

"Statehood is an extraordinary achievement, but it's born of the fact that the LDS people realized they had to change to conform with the mandates that were coming out of Washington D.C., of what the voice of the public was demanding from Utah."

-- Ken Verdoia, journalist

"Utah begins to look like it has importance to the nation. After all, it has two senators. We have electoral votes to deliver, right, so you begin to take part in the life of the country."

-- Sarah Barringer Gordon, historian 

Map: United States, 1900
Link to the text of the Wilford Woodruff's 1890 Manifesto.

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