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Thursday, July 24, 2003

Happy Pioneer Day!

A fit of nostalgia has washed over me, thinking back to the neighborhood parades in Utah, circa 1979, when we kids all dressed up as Mormon pioneers on July 24th, decorated our wagons with crepe paper, and proceeded to cross the plains (or 1090 North Street, which amounted to the same thing). We sang pioneer songs, lit firecrackers, had picnics, and celebrated the "greatest Mormon holiday" with gusto.

Salt Lake's "Days of '47" Parade is apparently the third largest in the United States — here's a bit of context for today's parade from the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune — and while my own ancestors walked to the Utah territory a few years after 1847, I can't help but salute them even if I've migrated east again and lapsed right out of the company of the saints. Oh well, the pendulum swings.

In 1997, when I was working summers as a tour guide in Boston's venerable King's Chapel, the minister shocked and delighted me when he thought to honor the 150th anniversary of the Mormon exodus by including the greatest of Mormon hymns in the Sunday service. There we were, in a church that became Unitarian in the 1780s, singing "Come, come ye saints," a hymn I never again expected to sing in a church I thought of as my own. And of course, I couldn't sing it. I could only stand there, moved to tears, while everyone else made their unfamiliar way through the hymn.

July 24th isn't just a day for partying in Utah, though. When I was thirteen, it also happened to be the day for a grisly, "God told me to do it," polygamy-related murder just two towns north. (Thanks, Dateline, for the reminder! I had wondered what became of the Lafferty brothers.) But why July 24th? Is there something that would connect a celebration of pioneer-era Mormonism to an act of religiously-motivated violence?

I think about it this way: It took a whole lot of charisma to inspire thousands upon thousands of people to change religions, walk from St. Louis to the Great Salt Lake Valley, and set up their own theocracy — and when, as Max Weber would say, that charisma was routinized, later church leaders had a hard time keeping the revelation-genie in its approved bottle on South Temple Street. Those 100,000 excommunicated polygamists in their myriad sects in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and Alberta have more motivating them than our quixotic modern friends, Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness: they are convinced they have God on their side!

You have to add something considerably more malevolent to end up with a double homicide, of course, but as Dateline's July 15 story suggested, there are probably a few more criminally-inclined religious zealots lurking in the Mormon universe. (Brian David Mitchell, of Elizabeth Smart fame, springs recently to mind.) Perhaps it's the shadow side of Utah's Pioneer Day.

Clarification 7.27.03: Just to be clear: I don't happen to think that Mormonism generates violent behavior, which apparently means I strongly disagree with the premise of the book that Dateline was profiling. What Mormonism does do, however, is introduce deeply religious terms and qualities to a very broad swath of human experience. That's what I mean by its extraordinary charisma. When whatever combination of psychosis, personal malevolence, and social malfunctioning combined to lead the Lafferty brothers to contemplate murder, they filtered all that through a religious lens. It's in that sense that I think the July 24th date isn't arbitrary. They sacralized a murder, in other words, but the religion didn't make them murderers.

Or put it this way: I don't think the Lafferty brothers received a revelation. But within the Mormon cultural universe, even criminality takes on religious dimensions and can be experienced in religious terms.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 24 July 2003 at 5:48 PM

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