Utah’s Divides

David Knowlton is an associate professor of Anthropology at Utah Valley University (the institution FKA “UVSC”). He studies religion in Latin America as well as Mormonism in the United States. The ideas in this post were originally presented at the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College. David will be posting with us for the next couple of weeks.

Some seven years ago the Salt Lake Tribune announced that Utah suffered an “unspoken divide” that split the people of the state into two divergent and often tense life worlds, Mormons and non-Mormons. The division, once spoken, motivated counsel in General Conference and numerous discussion groups in the Salt Lake Valley, yet it still continues. As a result the division is a sociological phenomenon worthy of exploration. It is both more and less than simply a divide of religious membership.

Part of the issues underlying the divide is the relationship between Utah and its region. Utah is at the center of one of the most distinctive regions of the United States, which also forms a distinctive segment of the American West. Through relative isolation from the rest of the country the region has produced its own unique civilization, genetics, values, and language, as well as its own social divisions. Although the degree of isolation has varied in Utah’s 160-year history, still the separation of Utah and its region from the nation allowed it to develop differently from the rest of the country.

Utah’s population has different origins. According to the 1980 census, when people were asked their ancestry, Utah was both the state with the highest percentage of its population claiming English origin as well as Danish origin. These national groups were two of the most important immigrant streams from the nineteenth century. Arguably these immigrants have had a lasting effect on Utah as well as the region. The issue is not simply a matter of the Church that may have motivated them to come here, it is also the ethnic identities and social realities of these people that contributed to the state Utah became and the region of which it is part.

Everybody knows that Utah has a distinctive dialect, Utahnics, as some call it. This language is not just Mormonese, but it similar to other dialects in the Great Basin. The Linguist Labov points out how the vowels of this region, as shown on scattergrams, are produced differently from those of the rest of the nation. Other linguists insist that the particular English the large number of Englishmen brought to Utah must have given it many of the characteristics it developed.

The Church is an important part of Utah and its history. There can be no doubt about that. But, as the issue of dialect shows, there is more to the development of Utah’s distinctive culture than simply the Church. Native Utah Mormons and non-Mormons tend to sound alike. This similarity suggests there is more to the divide than a religious dualism; there is a common dialect, stemming from a shared background and interaction, even if a religious divide splits people apart.

Part of the distinctiveness of Utah does stem from its religious make up. No other state in the nation has such a large percentage of its population who are members of a single religious body. Rhode Island comes close if one uses the lower figures of what percentage of Utahns are Latter-day Saints. The 2007 Deseret News Almanac states 72% of the state is LDS while the Salt Lake Tribune supplies a figure of 62%. The Pew US Religious Landscape Survey recently stated 58% of the state is Mormon. In any case that number is declining as the state’s population grows rapidly by attracting national and international immigrants.

Still Utah stands out in the West. This area of the country claims some of the lowest rates of religious participation. Yet Utah claims high rates, more similar to those in other parts of the nation. It stands out for being religious in a less religious part of the country. People from other western states who move into Utah may find themselves astounded at the degree of religiosity in the state. In Utah, even those who may not attend religious meetings still have an unusual intensity in the religious beliefs with which they engage. This is true both of Latter-day Saints and people who affiliate with other traditions.

Another complexity with which people who move into the state must deal is the difficult issue of who is and who is not a Mormon. The category of members in Utah needs careful observation and thinking. As used in daily life this category does not refer to those on the membership roles simply.

The category of Mormon does include active members, though they are already less than half the population of the state and probably even less than that of the region. Inactive and former Mormons, along with people who stem from other faiths are the majority in the state and region.

Nevertheless there is considerable movement among these categories. Active members may become inactive and people who announce themselves as former Mormons may become active Mormons. There is social fluidity here, even if there is some categorical rigidity. Furthermore Mormons participate in other faiths, often even as members (without necessarily renouncing their LDS membership) and non-Mormons join the LDS Church, even if only for a time.

This fluidity is important. It means there is a circulation of people through the Church that builds a common reference point. It also means that the descendents of the nineteenth century Mormon immigrant community have, by now, created a common culture in the region even though people’s current religious identification may not be active LDS.

Despite the fluidity of categories, in those regions of the country where the percentage of people belonging to a single body approximates Utah’s or where there are high levels of religious participation, religion is organized very differently within society. The LDS Church in Utah has a single, unitary administrative structure that owns Church buildings as well as significant property and is a strong presence in members’ lives. In other cases there may be a central organization, but congregations experience strong local autonomy. Most large faiths are associations of congregations, not unitary Churches. Even within Catholicism dioceses claim more autonomy than stakes can have within Mormonism.

For people moving to Utah from other states this different structure of the space of religion gives them a sense of something out of sync with their taken-for-granted notions of how religion should be part of a social order. Utahns are more religiously involved than people in other states in the region and other faiths are organized differently from the Latter-day Saints. Furthermore the space of religion is dominated by the size of the LDS Church and the ways it fits into society. Other religions find themselves drawn into the religious dynamics of Utah. Not only is the structure of the space for religion an issue, a significant portion of their congregations will tend to be former Mormons.

Utah and its region differ from the rest of the culture. That difference, with its own sets of commonalities and differences, underlies the categorical division of Mormons and non-Mormons making Utah hard for outsiders and insiders to fully comprehend.


  1. I’d always heard the “Utah accent” (at least, the one I grew up with) was a very generic, Midwestern accent. I know there’s a bit of a twang evident in the way people from smaller communities speak, but that twang doesn’t seem to reach into the larger metropolitan areas. Does the validity of your assertions differ whether you’re talking about a more rural vs. a more metropolitan area?

    Thanks for the great essay. As a Danish/English mixture myself, I hadn’t realized how common that was in Utah and how uncommon elsewhere.

  2. Growing up in Ogden, rather than Salt Lake or Provo, I was always aware of a cultural divide of the Weber County area from the rest of the state. We had for a long time, a Democratic majority (no longer, I understand), and had the most diverse ethnic population. That was due in most part to the railroad and the defense installations at the Defense Depot Ogden for the US Army, the Clearfield Naval Depot, and Hill AFB. As a result, growing up there in the 50’s and 60’s, we had more African-Americans and Hispanics as a percentage of our population than Salt Lake County or Utah County. Even in high school, I heard rumors that our fashions were more in touch with East Coast trends than Salt Lake or Provo, and we certainly heard less of the Utah accent.

    However, I myself and of Danish and English ancestry, and since moving to Washington, people have remarked that I speak “Utahnics”. Anyone else notice that Ogden was different? I’m still struck by the differences when I go back to visit family.

  3. Looking north from Provo in the 50’s and 60’s, it sure seemed that Ogden was different.

    Of course, Provo was almost completely lily-white back then, and the only people of color were some Indians on the Placement Program and a few Mexicans.

    Old Region Four of the state high school athletic association included eight schools: Lehi, American Fork, Orem, Provo, Springville, Spanish Fork, Payson and Carbon (Price) High Schools. Of all those schools, there was one black basketball player–from Carbon. And, a few years later, when a second black athlete appeared, it was the first one’s little brother.

  4. Thanks for the analysis. I didn’t know about the linguistic stuff. The ancestry info sounded familiar. I checked census 2000 and Utah is still the highest for English and Danish. There are some other patterns in the Census 2000 data that might strengthen your argument about divides in Utah. You might want to look at the education divide, the unemployment divide, and the working women divide. In addition, I think Utah is becoming more racially and ethnically divided.

    I don’t know if you heard, but apparently the Church has a new policy that says members will automatically lose their membership if they join a different church.

  5. Here are a couple more links that I couldn’t include in the last comment:

    the household income divide

    the poverty divide

  6. I agree that the Utah dialect (I would call it a Midwestern dialect with some subtle differences–I have a memory that the vowels are called “Wasatch Front vowel reduction”) does not discriminate Mormon from native non-Mormon. It was surprising at first to hear people who are not Mormon use a dialect I have traditionally associated with rural/suburban Mormonism.

    I think distinctiveness is overplayed, though, including in this post. Many of the issues seem equally reflective of life in the Bible belt, where particular strains of evangelicalism are sufficiently predominant to situate similar dialectics.

    I also agree that some of the old dialectic between non-religious “Gentile” culture of the Old West and the ultra-religiosity of the Mormon population persists to fascinating effect.

    I personally, having moved to Salt Lake City relatively recently, have not found anywhere near the level of divide among well-educated transplants of the last one to two decades as one would estimate based on the more strident public voices. Most of our friends are not Mormon here (including life-long non-Mormons), and though clearly there is some selection bias, even friends that some Mormons have characterized as “anti-” are actually quite mellow and unconcerned about our religion.

  7. Jennifer in GA says:

    Utah might be becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, but we still get the occasional missionary from Utah (and/or Idaho) who has never seen, let alone met, an African-American person. One elder was quite suprised to meet our Bishopric at the time where two out of the three members were black. It’s becoming less and less frequent though, thank heavens.

    And I’ve been known to lay my mother out on the floor in hysterical laughter when go into my sister missionary/Deseret Book telephone salesperson/Distribution Center person Utah accent impression. ;)

  8. I’d be interested to read that linguistic study of Utahnics, as it’s always fascinated me as well. My parents grew up in Utah and they have the dialect, while I was raised in Idaho and Washington and never picked it up. I still tease my Dad about his “Mondee, Tuesdee,” weekdays, and the propensity to change “his” to “ees” and “him” to “eem”. The list could go on.

  9. cj douglass says:

    Serving a mission in S.Utah helped me appreciate some of the stuff your describing here David. Small town Utah is both scary and beautiful. Lots of exclusion but plenty of rich untouched culture.

  10. I am not sure you can tie Language too closely with the now Utah, and the old State of Deseret.
    It was very likely in say 1890, you would find at least four language groupings: Idaho (Yankee), Salt Lake Valley (more British, maybe Ohio), The Sanpete Valley ( Dans and Swedes, my people), and Dixie with a lot from Missouri).

  11. Peter LLC says:

    The Linguist Labov points out how the vowels of this region, as shown on scattergrams, are produced differently from those of the rest of the nation.

    Indeed. I worked in American Fork while attending the BYU and remember seeing a shoe store advertising a “Shoe Sell.”

  12. hawkgrrrl says:

    When I first went to UT, I noticed the milk/melk pin/pen pronunciation that was unique. There are some other vernacular differences that seem to be more common in rural or less education areas (“we was”). The physical appearance of UT residence was the first thing that struck me–tall blondes and brunettes with square jaws and big white teeth. Coming from an area of the country with mostly Germanic immigrants, it was a real contrast.

    Sterling – re the change in policy you mention, unless someone tells the church to remove their name, how would we know that someone had joined another church (vs. just becoming inactive)? How would this be tracked in the many churches where membership is more fluid? Even if membership in the other church requires a specific action of membership (e.g. new baptism), those “new” churches don’t report back to us.

  13. The Utah dialect that I always heard from my grandparents was the extra “r” sound in words like “wash,” i.e. “warsh your hands before dinner.” But I don’t hear that among modern Utahns, and have actually heard that some companies locate their call centers in Utah purposely because of the relative lack of regional accent. Don’t know if that’s actually true.

    The aspect of the vaunted “divide” that I notice most is the relative insularity of the Mormon population. Many only know their nieghbors if the neighbors happen to be Mormon. That has always struck me as odd for people who put such emphasis on missionary work.

    Someone once told me that the definition of non-Mormon in Utah is: “people with nothing in common who band together in self-defense.” The insularity of the Mormon population breeds a certain insularity of non-Mormons in return.

    There is definitely something different about Ogden.

  14. Thanks for an interesting examination of the “divide” phenomenon and its complexities.

    As an active church member and a registered Democrat in the Salt Lake metro area, I constantly get it from both sides — “how can you possibly believe that …?!” and “how can you not vote for Brother Romney?!?” I’ve gotta say, the responses I get when I explain my stance in the former instance are almost always a heck of a lot more respectful than the responses I get in the latter. (I realize it could be that I’m not very good at explaining myself!)

  15. Mark, MCQ,

    Interesting to note that my high school, Ben Lomond, celebrated Scottish culture. We had a “Gathering of the Clans” for Scots week, we all wore kilts, our mascot looked like Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers movies. ROTC was required, and we actually had racially charged murders (Hi Fi Shop murders, anyone?), and not a decent restaurant in town. For all the high school dances, we had to go to Salt Lake for dinner first.

    I’m on the correct side of the milk/melk equation, but probably guilty of the Mondee/Tuesdee pronunciation. I only say warsh or fark when I make fun of my brother-in-law who was from the Antimony/Koosharem/Richfield area. Extra points if any of you can actually pronounce Koosharem correctly. Or Hooper.

  16. Kevinf, I know Hooper is pronounced like Hooker with a p instead of a k, but what is the correct pronunciation of Koosharem?

    Is adding a plural or possessive s to the end of everything from Nordstrom to Mr. Mac a Utah thing? There even used to be a restaurant in Salt Lake called Baci (that’s kisses in Italian) that most people called Baci’s.

    Also, is the disappearing t in mountain, and its subsequent relocation to names such as Benson and Wilson (Bentson and Wiltson), a Utah phenomenon?

  17. cj douglass says:

    The aspect of the vaunted “divide” that I notice most is the relative insularity of the Mormon population. Many only know their nieghbors if the neighbors happen to be Mormon. That has always struck me as odd for people who put such emphasis on missionary work.

    It’s because they don’t live in “the mission field”. If only they knew how ignorant and offensive that phrase really is…

  18. Cathy,

    Think Ka-sherm. No one would ever guess that. You got the Hooper right.

    I don’t know about the possessive s being a Utah thing, but it certainly is something I’m guilty of, and it really messes me up when I’m typing, throwing in that apostrophe that may or may not be in the right place, or should be there at all.

    Guilty of the mountain (very soft T), and Bentsen (that’s where it went!). How about gonna instead of going to? I am constantly correcting myself. Is that Utah, or just lazy?

  19. re the change in policy you mention, unless someone tells the church to remove their name, how would we know that someone had joined another church (vs. just becoming inactive)? How would this be tracked in the many churches where membership is more fluid?

    New Convert Reporting: (42 USC 602(a)(2))

    * Requires states to institute a system of mandatory reporting of religious converts, in order to establish a national database to track parents who are not attending church.

    * In general, new converts must be reported within 20 days of conversion.

    * Where church operates in several states, the church may elect to report all converts in a single state or can file reports on a state-by-state basis. If electing to file in one state, the church must so advise the other states.

    * Most states have detailed information on the internet on filing these reports, and many permit electronic filing.

  20. Concerning the Utah accent: Cache Valley (Logan area) has a very distinctive accent and geographical portions of the valley are very distinctive. This coming conference carefully listen to Elder Perry (not only for spiritual edification but for a great Cache Valley accent).

  21. Peter LLC says:

    Or Hooper.

    Not only can I pronounce it correctly, I lived there. 8)

  22. cj, I think you’re right, and by the way, it’s “ignernt,” not “ignorant.”

    Another odd thing about Ogden (or “O-town” as my friends from there say), SLCers pretend that it’s on the moon. None of them have ever been there and if you suggest driving there for any reason, they look at you like you’re crazy or suggested driving to LA for lunch.

  23. hawkgrrrl says:

    Oh, I do know a derivation of the additional “r” sound – words with “ar” pronounced “or” and vice versa (e.g. “Orches national park is past the fark in the road.”) That is a rural phenomenon from my observation.

  24. hawkgrrrl says:

    JC – that’s fascinating. I wonder what will happen if there is double-reporting (e.g. spouses of different religions agree to alternate where they attend)? I suppose the administrators will be kept pretty busy. Several years ago my sister began attending a pentacostal service, but membership is not tracked as it is an open-admission tent-revival atmosphere.

  25. JC #19 Concerning 42 USC 602(a)(2)
    I know of several congregations that have been procecuted under this regulation. I know that the fines and jail time are pretty extensive. I would adminish everyone to do a little research into this and contact a lawyer, then the authorities, if you suspect a violation. Reporting of violators is in the best public interest.

  26. Sterling says:

    hawkgrrrl wrote: “Sterling – re the change in policy you mention, unless someone tells the church to remove their name, how would we know that someone had joined another church (vs. just becoming inactive)? How would this be tracked in the many churches where membership is more fluid? Even if membership in the other church requires a specific action of membership (e.g. new baptism), those “new” churches don’t report back to us.”

    If you are the home or visiting teacher, all it takes is a phone call or knock on the door and the person just might tell you that they are no longer a Mormon and have joined another church. If there is some doubt, the leaders in the ward could double check. I am guessing that is how it works.

  27. Jeffrey R. Holland: “St. George, Utah is the only place on earth where one plays the horpsichard.”

    Language is only one of the tools we use to construct identity, but it is an important one. When Mitt was just starting to attract notice, somebody on CNN pronounced the angel’s name as Moron-ee, so you knew right away he was an outsider.

    The cues I picked up as a child – who has Mr. Coffee on the kitchen counter, who waters their lawns on Sunday, which adults in the neighborhood wore shorts outside to do yardwork – all still have some currency.

  28. david knowlton says:

    Hi everyone. Thank you for letting me post on your page and drawing out a conversation. I am fascinated by everyone’s observations on language. I am not a linguist, just an anthropologist who dabbles sometimes in linguistic analysis. But y’all are hitting lots of nails on their heads. Utah has rural/urban, regional, class, ethnic language distinctions, and even neighborhood distinctions. Distinctive words, word pronunciations, conjugations, and such are an important part of this issue. But there is more; the sound system (the actual phonology) varies. Nevertheless there are things that draw Utah together and locate it into a region. In this case the Eastern Great Basin and Plateaus.

    I know I grew up in West Texas, the son of Salt Lakers. I could hear and still can the very distinctive “accents” of portions of Salt Lake.

    My argument though is that there are common linguistic features to the region and that Utahnics is not simply the property of Latter-day Saints but, since one’s speech tends to index one’s social relationships, rather an indication of a social unity underlying the religious divide.

    On another issue: Danes and the English were not the only population to immigrate to the region. They just came in such large numbers that they were able to stamp themselves on local population mix. Other groups did not have those numbers. Nevertheless the peculiarities of this history of immigration in comparison with other regions of the country is important for making Utah, and neighboring portions of other states, what they are.

    Sterling, you are right of course about all the other stuff available in the census to make the argument more completely. Hold on. Lots of that is coming.

    On membership in other Churches: Many people are still loathe to let go of their LDS membership even if they haven’t attended church in ages and even if they are attending and might even be on the membership rolls of another congregation. The trick is whether the LDS Church will find this out. There is a tension here between the way the Church would like to understand membership and how the idea is lived and used by people who claim membership.

    More later… Thanks again for letting me be part of this conversation.

  29. david knowlton says:

    Well , I need to start my commute from Orem to Salt Lake but there is one more thing I wanted to comment on before the freeway claims me.

    Ogden is historically different from Salt Lake and elsewhere because of the railroad and military presence. Utah County historically has no significant non-Mormon present I know of until Word Perfect and Novell start drawing in a professional work force. The itinerant Mexican work force did not generally stay. Now its Mormon population is declining rapidly as a relative percentage. That creates its own set of tensions.

    I would argue that the nature of the divide will vary from one town to another or one valley to another, depending on these populational histories. Salt Lake’s has its historical conflicts with two different elites both intermarrying and yet struggling for position and power, Mormon and non-Mormon. For me this gives a nuanced, particular experience to being Mormon or a member of a different faith depending on the town you live in and its historical circumstances.

    Salt Lake City is now majority non-Mormon. That both motivated the conversation the City sponsored on the divide and provides a basis for some of the ways in which the divide is experienced.

    The freeway demands…

  30. My husband (from Missouri) insists on pronouncing Tremonton as if we’re in England, and then Hurricane like we’re in the South, just to annoy me. Didn’t know about the proper pronunciation of Koosharem (Ka-sherm), so thanks. We do have very distinct pronunciations of a lot of place names–Zion, Alta, and Nevada being the ones that immediately pop to mind for me. I wonder how long those pronunciations will persist. Is there any correlation between the (Utah-proper) pronunciation of a place name and the dominant immigrant group that settled there? Is it that clear cut? Or do you need to analyze more of the linguistic peculiarities of a dialect to tell?

  31. Timburriaquito says:

    I’ve always found it interesting how the names of the two southern Utah cities of Hurricane and La Verkin rhyme.

  32. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Sociologists love to question the “taken-for-granted” assumptions of a social group and de-bunk them. In this case, however, it is these very assumptions that characterize the divide in Utah and explain much of the tension I would to see. David, you note the difficulty in delineating mormons and non-mormons due to the social fluidity of membership, in spite of a perceived categorical rigidity. Nevertheless, enough mormons (active or otherwise) seem to readily assume that those around them share the same faith that it makes it intimidating for those on the other side of the divide. References to Relief Society, EFY, the Priesthood, missions, and GAs are part of a social vocabulary that make it clear that non-mormons are a social minority, even if not a demographic minority. Of course, mormons living in the bible-belt often find themselves on the opposite side of this divide, with those around them assuming that a specific religious worldview governs everyone’s activities. While it is tempting to equate these assumptions with intolerance, it’s really more appropriate to think of mormon attitudes toward non-mormons as indifference, which may actually be more offensive.

  33. Researcher says:

    When we went to visit relatives in Utah I always found it interesting to go up in the canyons and play in the crick.

    One of my parents was from Utah. One was not. One of them said egg with a short “e.” The other said egg with a long “a.” I wish I could remember which one was which.

    I spent some of my childhood in the remote Arizona Mormon town of St Johns. With the large number of early settlers being converts from the South, it has very distinctive speech patterns and words.

    A close relative of mine raised in Utah (okay it’s my husband) used to say “breakfarst.” I made fun of his pronunciation and he stopped saying it. Now I wish I hadn’t said anything and left him his distinct regionalism.

    One of the markers of my Arizona/raised by one Utahn speech is a very heavy “r” sound throughout most of my speech. As a missionary, many Germans found it rather funny.

    I remember listening to the Tabernacle Choir near the end of my mission and hearing the same heavy “r” sound. I’m not trained linguistically, but I think it consists of sounds being formed closer to the bottom of the mouth.

  34. Fulana de Tal says:

    I have really enjoyed this post and the comments. It’s been fun to reminisce about my own Utahisms.

    I was born in Provo and raised in SLC. However, I moved to DFW area 34 years ago when I married a Texas boy. I’m often asked by Texans if I’m from Minnesota or Wisconsin. When I tell them I’m from Utah, they are always surprised. (And I’m surprised they think I’m from Minnesota or Wisconsin.)

    The soft T in mountain shows up in the Utahnics “acrost” as in “I’m going acrost the street. My husband made fun of the way I pronounced tour (tore) and I have to concentrate to say it correctly. #33, we played in the crick, too, and we threw things on the ruff (roof).

    I’d be interested in an anthropological study of Mormons in the Bible Belt. Has something like that been done? I have been on the receiving end of bias from some of the Baptists here. One next door neighbor wouldn’t let her grandson play at my house; the kids could play together outside under her supervision. (I’m not sure what she thought was going to happen and I was too young and naive then to ask her.) My daughter lost several friends in high school when they found out she was LDS; their parents said they needed to stay away from her.

    One of the things you can count on around here is having Wednesday nights free of a lot of homework and not having any athletic competitions or other extracurricular activities because Wednesday is church night for many religions.

  35. When I was in college studying Anthropology, I worked on a project of one of my professors. He was trying to ‘draw a line’ across the Eastern states, where ‘oil’ became ‘all’.

  36. Just for the record, I haven’t been a Utahrn for many years, but Spanish Fark still sits just outside Outer Darkness for this Santaquin-raised boy. (Payson High School)

    Ka-sherm is correct. No Man Knows but them that’s lived (or fished) there.

  37. There’s another divide which bears at least one comment. The Utah Mormon vs. Non-Utah Mormon. Having been a member of the Church down in Southern Nevada for some 40 years, I have observed a fair share of Utah Mormons (primarily SLC) who move here for employment reasons and within a year, return to SLC for a number of reasons. Sometimes it seems they leave because the world outside Utah is simply too sinful for them….

  38. David Knowlton says:

    I remember moving to Salt Lake as a teenager from Texas and being surprised at words like crik for where people went tubing. The language of Utah still intrigues me. There are lots of questions to be asked about the language though. In the post I was just saying that the dialect goes beyond the boundaries of the Church for good demographic and historical reasons. But turning that around I wonder if there are not prestige forms of language within the Church that maybe related to place or social groups.

    As I wrote I grew up in West Texas. After a sojourn in Salt Lake and a mission in Bolivia I spent almost ten years in Austin. It seemed to my young ears that the Salt Lake dialect acted with more spiritual prestige than others. However that claim was not so easily accepted. It, or something like it, might have been the language most general authorities spoke then, but I know in my wards there was a lot of skepticism about Salt Lake Mormons as well.

    Each historic town in the Mormon heartland, and regions where there is temporal depth of member’s residence now has a history that includes particular local realities. There are all these distinctive local Mormonisms within the broader whole of the Church that is the “same”. I put it in quote because I think the sameness also needs to be looked at as an image, an ideal, and as a peculiar kind of social process.

    There have been so few good histories or any ethnographies that we really know very little about this diversity and sameness other than that it exists and is important.

    Fulanita de Tal’s comments about living in Texas and the Bible belt make me smile, as one who also has shared some of those experiences. But she also raises a good point that we need to more about how Mormons build lives in places where other cultures and religions dominate. The realities and issues are not always the same, even though the idea of sameness allows us to focus on “church building” as a common process rather than LDS lives as lived within local contexts.

    The sociologist Rick Phillips argues that Utah is the generator of active Church members and leaders, even though the majority of members live outside Utah. He argues the conjoining of society and Church in Utah gives it higher activity rates while outside of Utah, he claims, there are higher rates of abandonment.

    His argument gains strength when one looks at numbers. Almost a third (32%) of all US Latter-day Saints live in Utah. If one adds southeastern Idaho one has almost 42% of the US Church (Church Almanac).

    Nevertheless, I think Rick underestimates the importance of those Latter-day Saints who grow up outside Utah and stick with the Church. Their commitment is focused, at least in my personal experience.

    I think we need to look more closely at the role of Utah in the US (and from there) the international Church. Is it different?

    Even people who grow up outside of Utah come here on a kind of pilgrimage. That experience also deserves study and comment. Hildi Mitchell did some work towards this.

    I work in a city Orem/Provo where there are concentrated over fifty thousand students, probably around ninety percent LDS (although I doubts anyone really knows the exact number). Nevertheless it may well be the largest aggregation of LDS twenty-somethings in the world and hence on of the key marriage markets for LDS youths.

    So, I have more questions than I have answers.

    One small response to A turtle Named Mack. There is a current of cultural criticism within sociology and my field anthropology, as you state. In my work I do not, per se, take delight in challenging the “taken-for-granted assumptions” although I do like to interrogate them to find out what the social processes are that underlie them. My focus is on understanding the society and culture. But that means I take those TFG Assumptions differently than people who simply take them for granted.

    Fr Ray who mentions Santaquin and Payson, I am fascinated at the individual worlds of these south Utah County communities. My students tell me lots about them and I would love to see some studies generated. But right now they are under serious challenge as they are transformed from towns into suburbs. They become transformed. Wealth is generated, no doubt, but there is a loss of memory and particularity.

  39. David,
    I referenced Hildi Mitchell’s work in a recent article I published in Mormon Historical Studies (annoyingly not available online). It’s true that internationals of means make pilgrimages to Utah, but I’ve noticed that they often return with a certain degree of disappointment. They are glad they went, but the overt Americanness of Utah, and the mingling of church and culture there leaves them ever-so-slightly unimpressed. “Utah Mormons” get a bad rap in the colonies too. (Alas.) I wrote more specifically about the construction of a local Mormon shrine (the Gadfield Elm chapel), which serves to encourage Mormon pilgrimages within Britain and a greater sense of local Mormon heritage.

  40. Costanza says:

    I am a little confused about your comment regarding the “overt Americanness of Utah.” I’m unsure what visitors would expect from an American state. Do you mean that they sense an overwhelmingly nationalistic vibe?

  41. annahannah says:

    I was in Utah (Bountiful) for my master’s at UU. We had clinical in Toole. I pronounced it “Tool ee”. Who would guess “Too il a”???or is it “Twilla”??

  42. Costanza,
    Old Glory fluttering proudly as banner to all nations on temple square? That might be one example. (Please note that I’m not suggesting the flag should not fly – I am glad that a Union Jack flies over the Preston MTC – but rather that it does make it very clear that Zion is now a state of the United States.)

  43. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    As a sociologist I, admittedly, do take delight in challenging the taken-for-granted assumptions of particular groups. My argument is that, in this case, the assumptions of Utah mormons can be a useful tool in understanding the cultural divide in the region. Instead of lampooning these assumptions, we should take them seriously, as an indicator of one group’s dominance of the social arena in which interactions between mormons and non- occur. I agree that such assumptions are a potential site for uncovering underlying social processes that make Utah unique compared to its Western counterparts.

  44. #41: My mother’s family help form Toole, my father was stationed there in WWII. I grew up in California. I was over 40 before I knew it wasn’t “Too-lee”.

  45. References above to my hometown of Ogden struck a chord. I’m not sure I thought I was growing up in a Mormon community. Many of my friends were non-LDS. I was a cub scout in a Methodist-sponsored Pack. Most of my family were Democrats. My scoutmaster, a truly great man, was inactive. I went to school with blacks and hispanics. But I cherish the worldview growing up in that environment gave me.

  46. People, please note: the place is spelled “Tooele”.

  47. I occassionally have business dealings in Southern Utahs polygamous communities. To my ears these folks have the strongest Utah accents.

  48. Jennifer in GA says:

    “It’s true that internationals of means make pilgrimages to Utah, but I’ve noticed that they often return with a certain degree of disappointment. They are glad they went, but the overt Americanness of Utah, and the mingling of church and culture there leaves them ever-so-slightly unimpressed.”

    *raises hand*

    I’m not an international, but I (a life-long member of the church) visited Utah for the first time in 2004. Needless to say, my expectations and the realities were very different!

    – When we would ask for directions, people automatically assumed that we knew that 1) the grid system started over at every town (so much for the idea that it starts at Temple Square and goes out from there!) and 2) the last two digits of every road was automatically lopped off (saying “Go to 56” instead of “5600”) Not being from Utah, we didn’t know any of this! We spent the first few days driving around in circles till we got the hang of things.

    – Then there was our visit to Temple Square, where we were constantly told -quite rudely- to move, get out of the way, etc, by photographers and couples. We did our best to be respectful of their special day, but I couldn’t help but wonder what non-member tourists thought of their actions! Especially considering the temple is the main tourist attraction in SLC.

    – When we got home, we made a list of “Things you would only see in Utah” just to amuse ourselves. The sign in a yard in front of a house annoucing “Ward Enrichment Tonight – 7pm” was on top of the list.

    If I wasn’t LDS, I don’t think I would want to live in Utah, simply because the culture is *so* insulating. There’s the sense that you’re either part of it, or you’re not, and too bad for you.

  49. Dennis, # 45,

    Interesting comments. My wife and I both grew up in Ogden, moved to Salt Lake shortly after getting married, and then back to Kaysville in Davis County for 14 years before moving to the Seattle area. Kaysville was a wonderful place in many ways, but it always felt a little artificial in it’s sameness. Brown hair and brown eyes put you in the minority, and seriously, there were only 3 non-members in our entire ward boundaries when we moved. Part of the motivation for moving to Seattle was to relieve some of the “Truman Show” kind of feeling. Ogden always was, and continues to be, different than most of the rest of Utah. I think that’s why we enjoy Washington so much.

    Ray, I’ve caught fish on Otter Creek, and hunted deer on the mountain above Fish Lake. Good times, but I was only allowed there because of my brother in law.

  50. David Knowlton says:

    To Ronan, Jennifer and others,

    I remember, when my parents lived in Utah and I did not, trying to explain to people in my wards in either Missouri or Texas that I was visiting family there and not making a pilgrimage. People would often speak either critically or with reverence of Utah. I just wanted to visit my parents and not engage all the LDS stuff. That was hard for many to grasp.

    Here though is an issue for pilgrimages. Utah is both strongly worldy, peculiar, and hyper-nationalist, at the same time the story of the pioneers and exodus from Illinois, as well as the center of a world-wide Church is connected with it.

    In this it reminds me of the pilgrimage site in Copacabana, Bolivia where I have lived. Tens of thousands of pilgrims arrive each year seeking the blessings of the miraculous Virgin, yet the place is also very earthly and troublesome. The Franciscans who are currently in charge of the shrine live in perennial tension with the town, since they attempt to correct it and make it appropriate for hosting a place of holiness. The people there continue with their commerce and lives.

    It also reminds me of what I have read about the Road to Santiago, one of the great pilgrimages.

    Utah is more than a place where people live and do what people do. It is a symbol as well. People may come wanting the holy, the symbol, and instead find the earthly. The reverse may also be the case.

    BTW the numbers are slowly disappearing from Utah road signs and the media seems to be attempting to change the dropping of two 00’s in road names. In an age of increasing homogenization–McDonaldization–I for one lament the increasing passing of this Utah peculiarity. it is not gone. But it is challenged.

    At first it is a challenge, I know from having moved here myself. After a while though it is much more useful than other systems I have experienced in many of the worlds cities. I neither need a map or a GPS system. Tell me the coordinates and the town and I can find the address. It is amazingly efficient, although not without its own trials.

    Dennis, Kevinf, and others’ comments on Ogden remind me of why I live in Salt Lake City and not Utah County. Just a personal peculiarity, but I was raised in diversity on the Mexican border and I like living with diversity. Salt Lake City, not the valley, provides it for me.

  51. David Knowlton says:


    I think the development of local holy sites, as well as local pilgrimages, is important to document in all their complexity.

    In Bolivia some LDS scholars are resignifying the pre-Columbian ruins with Book of Mormon meanings thereby creating pilgrimages that are both nationalistic and Mormon.

  52. Fwiw, anywhere that produces a map of an entire congregation, complete with each and every house designated by last name of residence (with both “non-member” houses designated as such) . . . on one side of an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper is a unique place worthy of study.

  53. Peter LLC says:

    Then there was our visit to Temple Square where we were constantly told -quite rudely- to move, get out of the way, etc, by photographers and couples.

    Really? I’d rather take heat from walking in front of someone’s photo op than submit to the hounding of the robot tour guides who can’t seem to get over viewing visitors as little more than potential converts/referrers.

  54. Jennifer in GA says:

    “Really? I’d rather take heat from walking in front of someone’s photo op than submit to the hounding of the robot tour guides who can’t seem to get over viewing visitors as little more than potential converts/referrers”

    Well, yes, there was that too. :D I walked into the Ladies bathroom at one of the Visitor’s Centers and there was a very sweet sister missionary waiting to ask me if I wanted anymore info on the church. I told her I was already a member and proceeded to the stall. I wondered what she had done to warrant bathroom duty! ;) (For the record, she was actually in a little sitting area in the bathroom, as opposed to standing in front of the stalls and sinks. Still, stationing a missionary in the bathroom? It’s a little much, you know?)

  55. cj douglass says:

    If I wasn’t LDS, I don’t think I would want to live in Utah, simply because the culture is *so* insulating. There’s the sense that you’re either part of it, or you’re not, and too bad for you.

    I feel ya Jennifer. Except, I’m a member and still don’t feel part of *it* (when I visit). If for some strange reason my job transfered me to Utah, I’m afraid I would go inactive – or shoot myself. :)

  56. Jennifer in GA says:

    My husband is from Arizona, and luckily he loves the south as much as I do, and has no desire to move back out west. I jokingly tell people that I wouldn’t want to live in UT/AZ/ID because there are too many Mormons. ;)

    But in all honesty, there’s something to be said for growing up LDS in the Bible Belt of the US. When everyone is looking at you as the example of your religion, it makes you think long and hard before you do something you know you shouldn’t. And when you’re constatnly accused of being a member of a cult, and told that you’re going to hell because you aren’t saved, it makes you examine your testimony pretty closely to see if you really believe what you say you believe.

    I’m not saying that those members living in UT/ID/AZ/etc aren’t challenged on their beliefs, or that they don’t have their own trials. But I know my husband was never accused of being a devil worshipper, and he never got asked how many wives his dad had, and he was never prevented from joining the Fellowship of Christian athletes because has was LDS.

    I find it fascinating to look at the things that divide one Mormon from another. It sure makes getting to that “one mind, one heart” point a lot more difficult than it should be! ;)

  57. Yet Another John says:

    I think I’m starting to detect a little bit of reverse “elitism” creeping in this thread of “Thank the good Lord I’m not a Utah Mormon”. Well, some of us here in Utah also thank Him that you’re not a Utah Mormon! Otherwise the “crick” might in fact become the “creek” and my mother-in-law would have to start taking “hormones” instead of “harmones”. Either that, or we might find ourselves translated due to the sudden influx of righteousness.

    Seriously, in or out of Utah, we all face challenges to our faith that are real. For those of us in Utah it might be the fact that we are sheltered to some extent from the “world” or that some kids drink on Saturday and then bless the sacrament on Sunday. There are certain challenges growing up with cultural, but not particularly religious Mormons. It’s a little harder to define your faith when comparing it with all the various degrees of Mormondom to be found in small Utah towns, than say, contrasting it with religious beliefs of Southern Baptists. Not saying one is harder than the other, it’s just different.

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