Review: Reid L. Neilson, “Exhibiting Mormonism”

Title: Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 World’s Fair
Author: Reid L. Neilson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: History
Year: 2011
Pages: 240
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9780195384031
Price: $29.95

It really goes without saying now that we’re in something called the “Mormon Moment.” Two presidential candidates, a hit Broadway musical, and a massive advertising campaign are just a few things on the list current public opinion shapers on Mormonism. Still, about half of all Americans apparently still claim to know very little or nothing about the faith. It’s hard not to feel like we Mormons are really in the thick of things like never before, but taking the long view provides some fascinating context.

If you think we Mormons get a bad rap in 2011, you should’ve been at the Columbian Exposition (also called the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. Right on the heels of the Manifesto, Mormons showed up to claim their place as respectable and patriotic Americans. Historian Reid L. Neilson’s latest book Exhibiting Mormonism tells the story of how the Church sought to shape public opinion by participating in the Exposition and in subsequent world’s fairs and expositions through the 1930s. It’s a pretty straight-forward book, not a lot of bells and whistles, most significant, perhaps, for describing the Church’s shifts in PR attempts.

Neilson’s opening chapter briefly follows the founding and rise of the LDS Church. New religious movements often face the paradoxical tasks of differentiating themselves from others and gaining acceptance in the public eye. Neilson explains how early Mormons tried to achieve these tasks using the printed word, perhaps most obviously by publishing dual newspapers in the various communities they established. These were sacred and a secular records, if you will, focusing more on church matters in the former and political matters in the latter (24). Many of the earliest Mormon tracts were published as responses to anti-Mormon writings. Parley P. Pratt responded to Mormonism Unvailed with his own Mormonism Unveiled (28). But Neilson argues a noticeable change occurred in 1852 when Brigham Young decided to go on the offensive. He followed up the first public announcement of the practice of plural marriage by establishing Mormon presses in Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New York, and San Francisco (37). “It is better to represent ourselves than to be misrepresented by others” John Taylor’s The Mormon newspaper read on the masthead (38). Neilson concludes Mormonism’s aggressive missionary strategies and millennialist fervor “yielded considerable converts but very few friends” (46). Neilson’s historical examples highlight a conclusion which is just as relevant today as it was in the 1890s: “Although success or failure in both evangelization and public relations efforts is often conflated in the popular perception of a religious organization, the two activities are often at odds with one another. What works as a missionary tool does not always engender goodwill and improve relations with the public” (16).

According to Neilson, the 1893 Exposition marked a significant shift in how the LDS Church self-represented. He marks it as the “beginnings of formal church public relations. Public education, not private evangelization, was a new emerging strategy. For the first time Mormons sought to be understood, not necessarily joined, by outsiders” (47). The Exposition provided a place for all states and territories to highlight their unique contributions to the United States. Utah Territory representatives, many of the Mormons, took home prizes in agriculture and mineral specimens, and attracted curious onlookers to displays of burial mound artifacts and mummies. Paintings, furniture, and home literature were proudly displayed in the specially-constructed Utah building, complete with a replica of the Eagle Gate monument outside. Thousands of Utahans made the trip, claiming the highest attendance percentage of all the states and territories. “During the past six months,” one General Authority reported at the conclusion of the Exposition, “this Territory has been better advertised than ever before” (74).

In the next chapter Neilsonrelates how Mormon women, typically viewed as oppressed polygamous commodities, made an impressive showing at the Exposition’s concurrent Women’s Congress of Representative Women. They had already established important ties with national women’s organizations and brought along their experiences with the church’s Relief Society, young women’s organization, Primary association, and various Mormon periodicals. Mormons back home closely followed newspaper accounts of the Woman’s Congress where they sang Mormon songs, hosted conference sessions on women’s rights, and “sparkled on the stage of feminism, proving both to themselves and to their fellow American women that they had a voice and that it would be heard beyond the borders of Utah” (103).

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir also made a huge splash at the Exposition. Their impressive showing at the Fair’s main music competition “vaulted their religion into the national spotlight” (107). The choir’s success and the adulatory reaction to them probably did more for the Mormon public  image than any other factor. Church leaders took note, and Mormons back home were pleased to read this compliment published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and republished in the Deseret News:

“If Brigham Young had told to the brave little column of devoted Mormons that toiled wearily over plain and mountain on the long journey…that in after years their descendants would dispute with the Gentiles the palm of musical cultivation, the assertion would have been a greater test of faith than the revelation of the Book of Mormon” (106).

While the businessmen, Mormon feminists and Tabernacle Choir were finding a good measure of acceptance and improving the image of the church, Mormons might have expected a bit more respect for the religious views, too. The concurrent World’s Parliament of Religions seemed to provide the perfect opportunity for the Mormon faith to get a fair hearing. Organizers invited representatives of the world’s great religions to an ecumenical gathering where they could showcase the best their faiths had to offer. The goal sounds laudable, but as one historian of the gathering points out, it was an “aggressively Christian event, born of American Protestant Christian confidence in its superiority….[T]hey effectively reduced all other religions to inadequate attempts to express the Christian revelation” (143-144). And they went out of their way to make sure no invitation was sent to the Mormons.

So the Mormons came to them. Neilson’s chapter is an excellent case-study in religious boundary maintenance. B.H. Roberts convinced Church leaders to ask for inclusion, traveled to Chicago himself to demand it, prepared a polygamy-less text to be read before the parliament, and despite fervent opposition and with the help of an unlikely Catholic ally, secured a position on the schedule. But the day before Roberts was to present his paper a Muslim representative ignited a firestorm by suggesting that “a man can be a good, honest Christian and yet be a polygamist” (164). Organizers informed Roberts he would no longer be allowed to speak in the main hall, but could still deliver his remarks in a small side committee room. He was furious and withdrew his paper in protest, turning to the court of public opinion instead. The ecumenical pretense of the gathering needed exposure. The Associated Press picked up Roberts’s open letter to the organizers while several large newspapers agreed that the Mormons had been treated unfairly. Neilson concludes that the Mormons learned a lesson that interestingly still resonates today:

“The disappointment that Latter-day Saint leaders felt after their religious tradition was sidelined at the Parliament reinforced what most of them already suspected: that anti-Mormons in powerful places would continue to thwart their theological attempts to assimilate into Christian America. But in Chicago they also came to appreciate that American Christians were willing to embrace [them] as cultural contributors” (175).

The final chapter relates how Mormons continued to take advantage of gatherings like the Columbian Exposition to represent themselves to the broader public. Mormons were especially pleased when, at the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition, B.H. Roberts was invited to speak on Mormonism at the World Fellowship of Faiths gathering.  “The church would thereafter balance its evangelistic efforts with its promotional activities” (179). Neilson’s book reminds us that this approach, with much of the same tension, continues to the present. While Mormon cultural contributions are often highlighted (Twilight books, sports figures, the Osmonds and David Archuleta, etc.), Mormon religious views and practices are still often seen as cultish, outlandish, or funny. Neilson traces the origins of this dilemma through the 1893 World’s Fair in this important and easy-to-read volume.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Blair. The thing I find most important with Reid’s work is how he presents a central tension in Mormonism’s Americanization: on the one hand, Mormon culture became more mainstreamed through, most prominently, their music and their women. Those two things spoke to the “heart” of the American “heartland,” and lessened the gap between Deseret and Babylon. The Church used this as a tool to solidify their public image. On the other hand, this came at a cost: by mainstreaming their cultural aspects, their theological dimensions were nearly swept under the rug. This is poignantly seen in how the MoTab Choir did well in the music competition, yet BH Roberts’s religious presentations were literally pushed to the periphery of the fair’s basements, and he was not given (until very belatedly) a seat at the religious counsel. This split, which I think Reid persuasively (and originally) posits as being born at this very event, helps understand the fractured image of Mormonism in the twentieth century, and hints to why we have the confusion you outline in your opening paragraph.

  2. Excellent, Blair. I had forgotten to put this on my radar. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for this Blair. Great review.

  4. Great book. I’m particularly proud of his highlighting the role and importance of women and his work on the tension that Ben P mentions.

  5. Ben: great comment. Also I should add that Reid also pinpoints an interesting shift in the apostasy narrative, though he doesn’t identify it in that way. Various church leaders attended some of the meetings of the religious council and were impressed at some of the pre-Christian Christianity they were taught (to put it ethnocentrically). Reid posits that Mormon rhetoric shifted to emphasize an originalism of the faith with subsequent apostasy and reforms to explain the similarities of Xtianity to other world faiths. (Of course, this carries its own problems too, especially when considering comparative religion back then was still heavily dominated by western and Xtian concerns and assumptions, something Reid briefly points out too.) So Mormons drew on their canon to accommodate something that some other Xtians seemed to be puzzled about at the time.

  6. (also notice how the quote above from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch can also be understood as highlighting the culture/doctrine tension quite starkly: praise for the choir and simultaneous, albeit humorous, ridicule of the Book of Mormon.)

  7. Thank you for sharing your perspective on the book, Blair. I was not sure what to expect of it and it didn’t make it on my Christmas list this year. It looks like it will now making it on my must read list. Thanks for the insights.

  8. Thanks Blair. Your reviews are always timely. In this case, it helped to confirm that I got my Father a decent x-mas present for once. BTW, any particular reason for your use of the “x” abbreviation – other than brevity, of course? I ask because I’ve been using the same abbreviation ever since someone in our ward complained about people trying to “x” Christ out of Christmas. Try throwing about “Merry X-mas”. It drives people crazy. Especially my wife who, while she understands the historical correctness of “x-mas”, doesn’t understand my need to make waves.

  9. X-mas and Xtian are completely fine abbreviations and have nothing to do with removing Christ from anything.

    Wiki has a quick easy explanation. ‘The “X” comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός, translated as “Christ”.’

    See also:

    http://www.cresourcei.org/symbols/xmasorigin.html

    and the David O. McKay Xmas card which says “Xmas.”

    http://culturalmormoncafeteria.blogspot.com/2009/12/christmas-card-from-david-o.html

    I use it for ease.

  10. Thanks again. I am well aware of the historical correctness. Just wondering if your use was intentional or for brevity.

  11. Sounds very interesting. It’s interesting how this tension is still present in the Church. (Such as those who saw Pres. Hinkley’s bridge building and common ground as downplaying too much our distinctive doctrines) I sometimes wonder if this is a cyclical thing (more like the move of a pendulum) or if there is a trajectory in the history of this tension.

  12. We’ve just had the ‘I’m a Mormon” campaign in our city and I’m not sure what it was supposed to achieve or did achieve. We were told it was successful in America, can anyone tell us how it was successful there? I live in Brisbane Australia.

    It told the public only that there are people who have fairly exciting jobs and are members of the mormon church. Nothing about what we believe or our culture.

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