Imagine for a moment that you are heading to a small town in Utah in the 19th century. Don’t think of Salt Lake City, the “lively” city of 20,000 people; instead imagine a quaint community like Brigham City or Eden or Ephraim. A few miles from town, the landscape around you changes from a dusty brown to a faded green: fields of alfalfa and sugar beets open up to your left and right, dotted with orchards of cherry trees, peach trees and apple trees. But as houses and shops come into view, your eyes gravitate to rows and rows of Lombard poplars – “Mormon trees”, as the famous novelist and historian Wallace Stegner called them, surefire markers of a community of Latter-day Saints.
Poplars line the streets and shade the houses. But other than massive trees, not much else grows in the Mormon court. It is an agricultural city, but there is no agriculture in its center; prime real estate is for socializing, not farming. Each house sits on a half-acre lot, and twenty of those lots make up each block, one square mile. At the center of town is the beating heart of the community – the church, school and social hall; venturing out of the center you find rows and rows of these same houses, lined up in a grid of straight streets and square blocks.
Compared to other settlements along the western border, this arrangement is peculiar. There are no houses with miles of space between neighbor and neighbor. No farmer lives on the land he cultivates, or even adjacent to it. Almost everyone in town has land to farm, but it’s all outside the city limits. The city itself is a community space, a place to live, and the pattern is the same in almost all settlements formed by Latter-day Saints.
“Their emphasis on caring, cooperating, and sharing was not unheard of among other American communities—and indeed such qualities are vital for survival in a frontier situation—but Mormons did it d ‘much more deliberate and conscious way, with more successful results,’ wrote novelist Edward Abbey, on one of the rare occasions when he complimented Latter-day Saints. Stegner added, ‘Although (the Saints of the last days) were called many things, many hard things, they were never called evil settlers.”
America in the 21st century could benefit from some resettlement, and the trailblazers could provide some insight into where to start. Earlier this month, Americans received a slice of heartbreaking news, and few seemed to notice – or show any surprise.
Gallup, which regularly surveys Americans’ trust in major institutions (like the news media, churches, schools and the military), reported historic lows on July 5. Of the 16 institutions surveyed, none saw their confidence increase compared to last year. All three branches of the federal government saw massive declines, including an 11-point drop for the Supreme Court (although polls were conducted before the Dobbs decision).
What causes the fall? Social scientists point to a number of factors, some of which can be captured in a general diagnosis: the dissolution of the community. Neighbors don’t know neighbors and instead turn to online echo chambers. Citizens do not get involved in local politics and instead defer to national culture wars. The symptoms drag on.
What remains is a nation struggling with the constant back and forth of rugged individualism on the one hand, and the need for community on the other. At the moment, individualism prevails, but the community can still regain its footing.
The Mormon Pioneers—a group of 19th-century American refugees—may offer some clues on how to get there.
This July 24, Utah will celebrate Pioneer Day, a holiday honoring the region’s first Latter-day Saint settlers. This year is the terquasquicentennial, marking 175 years since these pioneers fled the United States, entered the Salt Lake Valley (then Mexican territory) and founded a nascent frontier nation-state. On this day, the people of Utah tell the stories of their pioneer heritage and honor the unique legacy they left behind. They too had to balance the sometimes fragile dichotomy of individualism versus community, and while it was far from perfect, it is something to admire and emulate.
For much of the world, the so-called Wild West is defined by the lone cowboy. For the Mormon pioneers, a much more definite motif is the wagon train – a collective group, supporting, protecting one another. This is the image suggested by Robert Putnam, the author of “Bowling Alone,” the oft-quoted account of the decaying American community. On a podcast, Putnam explained this view: “The wagon train meant opening up the West, not as a lone individual, a lone cowboy, but as a group of people moving together.”
The genius of the pioneering Mormon community was not its location or its size, but its robust – almost forced – communalism. To live in the city, you had to to live in town. It was all centered around community commerce, education, worship, recreation, etc.
In a handful of towns, Brigham Young experimented with a form of economic collectivism, where all private property was turned over to church leaders and redistributed to families as needed. The system collapsed before long – young people came of age and many were lured to work and trade outside the city to improve their economic prospects. But there are remnants of this United Order: each town maintained its own “Bishop’s Storehouse”, where families donated their surplus possessions to those in need. A similar welfare system is maintained today by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who pay tithing throughout the world.
Despite their difficult circumstances and unique economic system, the Saints were an industrious and quite prosperous group. Young made sure of this – “Idleness and wastefulness”, he taught, “are not according to the rules of heaven”. Each person had a role, both temporal and spiritual. A century after Young’s arrival in the Valley, the state of Utah adopted “Industry” as its official motto. The beehive, a symbol of industry and cooperation, dots the pioneer buildings and the bear in this journal.
They made trails from the Midwest to the West Mountain, and from there to a number of places along the Pacific Coast. Latter-day Saints printed the first newspaper in San Francisco and built the first courthouse in San Diego. Their collective fingerprints are still visible throughout the West.
At the center of it all was the same push-pull of the individual versus the communal. “It is certain that tensions between Mormon communalism and liberal individualism persisted throughout the 19th century, and to this day the Mormon tradition continues to produce socialists, environmentalists, and pacifists as well as capitalists” , writes historian Jackson Lears. “But now the capitalists hold a dominant lead, and part of the explanation lies in Mormon theology.”
For Young, everything was theological. The building of paradise was an individual, family and community effort. “If men are not saved together,” Young taught, “they cannot be saved at all.” But Young was not an abstract prophesier. The celestial community in the afterlife required hellish efforts to build brotherhood in the here and now. The half-acre grounds, the grid system, the temple-centric city—every detail was tweaked to mimic what they believed Zion, what paradise, should be. It would be a paradise on earth, precursor of the paradise to come, with its pearly gates and golden streets. But paradise does not come without industry. “When we have streets paved with gold,” Young taught, “we will have placed it ourselves.”
America today is far more globalized, more diverse, and more developed than 19th century Utah. Embracing the pioneer ethos, therefore, will not magically restore trust in American institutions – the federal government, for example, was looked down upon by many pioneers, who viewed it as complacent (and partly culpable) in the persecution. they faced in Missouri and Illinois. . The colonization of the American West was an attempt to flee the United States and start over.
But in Utah, they built something unique. The cities were tight-knit and largely unified. A host of voluntary associations and generous programs cared for the poor and helped migrants on their journeys. And Utah, nearly two centuries later, still benefits from its founding. Although it is still a relatively homogeneous state, both in its religious and ethnic makeup, it is among the fastest growing in the country. The word “compromise” is used as both a verb and a noun, as evidenced by pioneering cooperation on immigration, medical marijuana, and LGBTQ+ rights. The economy is strong and upward mobility is driving the nation.
Like the rest of the country, Utah faces challenges. A monumental drought and other climatic problems raise the question of whether sustainable growth can be sustained. The state is also not immune to a declining community, as local politics are sucked into national trends.
But this Pioneer Day, Utah will celebrate the unique, if unlikely, balance between individualism and community that pioneers built 175 years ago. As we seek ways to reinvigorate the American community, Mormon pioneers still provide a strong example.
This year, the rest of America is invited to join in the celebration.