What a marvelous, wonderful thing it is, this church. -Gordon B. Hinckley
In its first seventy years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints largely looked inward. Missionaries traveled widely but made little effort to influence public opinion about the Mormons, even though negative views prevailed. Report after report implied that to join that outlaw sect was to turn one's back on civilization, propriety, and the law, and yet nineteenth-century Mormons made no systematic effort to combat the general disdain, concentrating instead on building up their own communities and strengthening their people.
Fleeing the United States for the desolate mountain valleys of Utah had not taken Mormonism out of the spotlight. Located along the overland trail, Utah was visited by curious reformers who wrote shocked exposes. In 1857, President James Buchanan, believing that the Mormon people were in rebellion, ordered troops to Utah from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to restore order. The Mormons prepared for war. They called home settlers from faraway outposts, sent their women and children into the mountains, and rather than lose their cities, prepared to torch them. They had to take a stand. California's Gold Rush had prevented further westward migration. It was Utah or nothing.
No shots were fired when the army arrived, but the Mormons lost control of their government with the imposition of a territorial governor and court. Images of Mormon insurrection colored eastern news accounts. Congress passed one punishing law after another beginning in 1862 with the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act to destroy polygamy. President Lincoln did not enforce that act, and action was stalled for some years, but in 1882, the Edmunds Act disenfranchised all believers in polygamy, practicing or not. The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 dissolved the Church's corporation, confiscated Church property, disinherited children of polygamous marriages, forbade LDS participation in government, and disenfranchised all women after twelve years of Utah female suffrage. More than 1,000 men went to prison for "unlawful cohabitation," and many others disappeared into the hiding places of the "underground." On appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the law. No despot could have more fully denied Utah civil rights than did the government. Over the years, six petitions for statehood were denied.
At this low point, LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff publicly foreswore the practice of polygamy, declaring his intention to submit to the laws forbidding plural marriage and urging others to do so. His document, the Manifesto, read at the Church's General Conference in 1890, stunned the congregation, who nonetheless raised their hands in unanimous approval. For fifty years the Church had preached, practiced, and protected this form of marriage. Suddenly it was stopped. The United States had disarmed, disenfranchised, and humbled the outlaws. In 1896, the nation granted statehood to the vast interior foreign enclave that became Utah.
Told from an eastern U.S. perspective, this story was the necessary and inevitable "winning of the West," the control and punishment of a sect threatening the values and morals of other North Americans. The trajectory is not unlike the treatment of Native Americans who were similarly driven west and warred with until no longer threatening. The experience of discrimination, persecution, and abridged civil rights underlies subsequent efforts of the Church to find a place for itself in American society. According to historian Mary Ellen Robertson, this history induced in Mormons a persecution complex. Sensitive to criticism and intolerant of critics, they see persecution as their test. Robertson calls this the "chosen people syndrome."
Having been all but destroyed, the Mormons reconstructed their society after Utah's statehood, now on the basis of American patriotism and conventional morals. They became respectable, though largely remaining aloof from the larger society. In the early twentieth century, the Church made tentative forays into the greater world, achieving some success in government and education. Church leaders were generally respected, but were not often in the public eye outside of Mormondom. Visitors continued to visit Salt Lake City to probe for secrets, but when they published their findings, the Church ignored the damaging accounts.
This mainly isolationist stance lasted until the middle of the twentieth century when the Church, which had steadily grown in numbers, wealth, and influence, began to look outward, concerning itself with its public face. The Church organized a public relations office in Salt Lake City, and in the 1990s hired a New York public relations firm to shape the Church's public image. The Church began to send out news releases and respond to queries, trying to present a positive face to the public. The Tabernacle Choir, the semi-annual General Conference, the welfare and humanitarianism programs, and Mormon educational aspirations show Mormons at their best, countering less attractive images of a repressive Church with a clannish membership.
The huge Mormon Tabernacle Choir from Utah's primarily white, middle-class Mormon populace has been broadcasting inspirational music and hymns in the tabernacle since 1929 and is heard weekly on 2,000 radio, television, and cable stations worldwide. Along with a Christian commentary called "The Spoken Word," this music has become stay-at-home worship for thousands of listeners.
Membership in this body is hotly sought. To qualify, singers must pass through a series of strenuous auditions. Twice a year, half of the hundreds of applicants are invited to submit audition tapes. After a review of the tapes, fewer than half take a written exam. Half of those applicants go on to solo interviews and auditions. All must be worthy Latter-day Saints, between twenty-five and fifty-five, living within 100 miles of Salt Lake City. After twenty years or at age sixty, they must retire. The successful applicants, fifteen of the original large group, must be available for three rehearsals a week, performances, recordings, and trips. Choir members are not paid.
The choir records, tours the country and the world, and sings at General Conference meetings in Salt Lake, another best-face occasion for the Church. The General Conference has outgrown the Salt Lake Tabernacle and moved to the 21,000-seat Conference Center, which fills completely at conferences in April and October. Mormons are addressed by their Church-wide leaders, the General Authorities, in five two-hour sessions- one for men only-in a worldwide virtual meeting. At this formal event, a large chorus sings; extensive and spectacular flowers grace the podium; the dark-suited General Authorities are arrayed across the front of the hall flanked by a dozen women leaders in pastels.