Learning to Adapt: Mormons and Patriotic Environmentalism

Can you believe they would allow students to substitute biology with environmental science?
–Mother associated with The School That Shall Not Be Named, brimming with moral outrage

Beginning in the early 1870s, the Utah Territory found itself teeming with industrial mining giants from the East. Brigham Young had been an avowed isolationist: banning all mining activities and pushing for a protective tariff following the Civil War (Brigham Young to Thomas L. Kane, October 26, 1869). The Saints sought to contain the industrialists’ power play but with little luck.  As the railroad executives told Joseph Young, the government would send “the whole military power of the government against them” (Joseph Young to Brigham Young, 1869).

Brigham Young had long directed the Saints to be careful about their use of natural resources.  He had never opposed industrial activity per se, just mining activities.  Mines, he believed, tended to attract the wandering sort and cultivated a feeling of materialism among the Saints.   When explorer John Wesley Powell visited the territory, he was impressed by the Saints’ measured use of water resources (see Worster, A River Running West, 351). Having lost control of the territory, Mormons also began to lose their identity as Zion-dwellers tucked away in their mountain home.  It was not Zion anymore; it was a hotbed for capitalism, materialism, and rank exploitation of the railroad workers;  some Saints were even beginning to wonder if Brigham Young was using the new order to make himself rich.

As children neither of Zion nor of America, the Saints struggled to find their new identity.  They had been stripped of a marital system and out-purchased of their lands.  Talk about conserving the natural environment resonated with the Saints’ desires to resist the encroachment of federal power.  In this regard, environmental rhetoric represented a a method of demonstrating their patriotism rather than a hearkening back to the collective conservationism of earlier generations.  An influential group of Saints began to draw upon earlier Mormon doctrine of their stewardship over the earth, not merely over the Intermountain West.   In 1903, President Joseph F. Smith encouraged the Saints to convert their farmland into forests as a “public duty which every Latter-day Saint owes to the Church and to his country.”  Failing to do so begets  a “selfishness harmful to religion and discreditable to patriotism.” Church leadership used environmentalism as a tactic for winning national and international favor. In 1908, Senator and Apostle Reed Smoot served as a member of a Congressional delegation to study forestry preservation policies in Europe.; Smoot would eventually help to establish Zion’s National Park. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles felt it would “allay prejudice abroad and help Bro. Smoot at home” and would show that he “has the confidence of the administration.”Some Mormons politicians, such as William King, resisted the impulse, arguing that national forests should be open to concessions for the “best and most responsible bidder.

The agricultural college of Utah and the University of Utah played active roles in promoting environmental awareness.  Academics were beginning to study not merely soil systems and crop productivity but ecology–the inter-relatedness of environmental systems. In 1923, University of Utah professor, Dr. Harold R. Hagan, began the first ecological study of the state–a project widely-publicized in the state press (see here and here).  The study of ecology had no stigma in Mormon society; its purpose to analyze the “practical problems arising as a result of man’s becoming civilized and interfering with the animal and plant life around him.” Though the efforts were confined to the state of Utah, the forestry initiative and the ecological study represented the first efforts by Mormons to approach the environment on its own terms rather see it primarily as a source of natural resources.  Ecumenical community groups–including a significant Mormon population–collaborated to repair damage brought on by industrial agents.

The environmental moment would not last long in Mormon society.   Feeling compelled to play by the rules big business capitalism had set, the Church built industry of their own, most notably the Utah-Idaho sugar company (for a contemporary critique of the Saints’ business practices, see here.  For a sympathetic, secondary assessment, see here).  Though the factory came under antitrust prosecution by the Department of Justice, the prosecution trimmed rather

than transformed the big business foundations of American society. The Great Depression coupled with World War II finished off whatever remained of the Mormon collective stewardship that defined nineteenth-century ideas of the environment.  With the need for jobs and warmaking capacity now defining Mormons’ needs and identity, the Saints’ Zion had become economically like the rest of America, forcing the Mormons to identify themselves in new ways.

Environmentalism has taken on three successive faces in Mormon history: 1) as a product of Mormon collective identity focused preserving their “way of life” in the face of overwhelming government power and industrial capitalism; 2) as an  indicator of American patriotism, and 3) as a means of demonstrating goodwill to international powers. This is problematic, as it demonstrates a failure to be rooted in theology rather in cultural or political expediency.  The result is that the Mormon people struggle to determine who they are: environmentalists or capitalists?  In Mormonism’s efforts to prove its fidelity to the American populace, its people have wavered in their commitment to the environmental movement.  Willing to embrace whatever political philosophy proved opportune, the Saints have departed from the foundations of their theology in order to adapt to what they believe America expects them to be.


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