This Is The Place: Where the Mormon State began

 

In Utah, David Whitley finds the place where the Latter Day Saints settled – and the walled-off square that acts as the Mormon Vatican

It is, in all fairness, quite a tremendous spot. Mountains curve round behind, putting the city and the basin below in a delightful setting. It’s perhaps no wonder that Brigham Young was so enchanted with it when he stood here in 1847.

Young was at the head of a rag-tag bunch of self-styled refugees. They had come from the east coast, stopping in Illinois long enough for original leader Joseph Smith to be killed, and were heading to an unknown location in the west. Some wanted to go as far as California, but imperative was the need to get out of American territory and into Mexican territory.

Young decided they had come far enough. “This is the place,” he said. And now the This Is The Place Monument and This Is The Place Heritage Park stand at the point of rest.

This was the beginning of the Mormon State, as Utah is regularly and inaccurately called (only around 42% of the population are active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints and the church has no special political status).

The Mormon settlers may have been escaping the US, but they quickly became part of it again as what would become Utah was signed over to the Americans the very next year.

The Heritage Park covers some of this history in spicks and specks, but it’s mainly a motley collection of old buildings, some transported from elsewhere and some reconstructed. It’s the kind of place where blacksmiths give demonstrations, old department stores are converted into sweet shops and you can pet animals. In other words, a family day out for kids who really, really like Blue Peter.

 

 

The highlight is Brigham Young’s old house – one of many he had around the state. The photos inside show how extensive his family was – he had 55 wives (many of them widows), 26 sons and 31 daughters.

The polygamy myth still persists, but plural marriage ended in 1890 – a pre-requisite for gaining statehood. And fascinating though tales of early Mormon settlers are, modern Utah is more likely to spark the curiosity.

Downtown Salt Lake City doesn’t seem particularly different from any other major US city. It has a shiny, clean newness about it, although it’s surprisingly good fun for a night out. It all starts to get weird when you approach Temple Square, however.

The towering buildings around the square are all seemingly owned by the Church, and a great wall surrounds what is the Mormon equivalent of the Vatican.

Once inside, there’s something rather eerie about it. The Temple and the Tabernacle are visually startling, as grandiose as any great cathedral or mosque, but it’s the people-watching that really sends shivers up the spine.

The visitor centres tell the Latter Day Saint interpretation of the Bible, plus the other books supposedly revealed to Joseph Smith that explain how God’s true word would be spread through none other than Joseph Smith and the Church presidents that followed him. Let’s just say it doesn’t exactly convince the sceptic, although it’s only more absurd than, say, Christianity by an extra tacked-on level of implausibility.

But there are hundreds of people milling around who are happily taken in. All seem to have badges bearing the flag of the country they’re from – testament to the Church’s surprisingly large global reach. The female to male ratio is huge – probably around four to one – and even though there’s no official nun-like uniform, everyone seems to have picked near identical ankle-length skirts. There’s an unnerving, unnatural wholesomeness about the whole place.

Temple Square looks and feels like a fake, make-believe world. There’s something very Truman Show about it. One man’s decision that “this is the place” over 150 years ago has created an isolated pocket of strangeness at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.

 

by David Whitley

  

 

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