Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hearst Castle, Yellow Journalism, and the Hemp Conspiracy

I took a double take at the herd of zebra grazing in a pasture off the stretch of US 1 north of San Simeon. Then I remembered where I was, a few miles from Hearst Castle. The former estate of William Randolph Hearst used to house one of the most diverse wildlife parks in the world, with over 100 species of grazing animals and 50 types of predator.

The Hearst Castle is now a part of the California State Park system, and for $20 it is possible to take one of five different tours of the estate including an evening tour where local volunteers dress up as guests in period costumes from the 1930’s. The vistas along the 5-mile bus ride up the 1,600 foot rise to the castle’s ridge top setting are nearly worth the price of admission.

William’s father George Hearst purchased the 48,000 acre estate in 1865 for 70 cents per acre. Even at the time this was a discounted price for prime coastal real estate. There was question about the validity of the title based on an old Mexican land grant. As a member of the State Assembly, Hearst sorted out this and other title claims, and the mining baron cemented land holdings that would make him virtual nobility. William acquired these lands upon his mother’s death in 1919, and with the aid of architect Julia Morgan, began a construction of an estate that would remain uncompleted over 28 years and 127 rooms later.

With apologies to Michael Jackson—and his bizarre incorporation of a burn center on his ranch—the Hearst Castle and grounds would have been more aptly named Never-Never Land. Never before and never again could such a house be built.

Prohibitive costs aside, antiquity laws would prevent anything close to Hearst’s fanciful creation. He had entire Renaissance era and Gothic churches dismantled for their intricately carved ceilings, cloisters and choir stalls, though most of these priceless artifacts are easily overlooked amid his world-class collection of tapestries and furnishings from around the world. The fa├žade of the Casa Grande was built to look like a Spanish Cathedral, a fitting style for a host with two strictly enforced rules. His guests were forbidden to bring their own liquor, or sleep with the other guests if not married to them. He was the exception to this rule. The rich and famous flocked to the castle anyway, and the stories along the tour are peppered with the biggest names from the early days of cinema.

The hodgepodge of sacred is contrasted by the motley profane: pools, fountains and gardens with a haphazard mishmash of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities, and works from Spain and Italy from various periods dating back to the Renaissance.

Our guide included digestible nuggets of the Hearst legend, heavy on the idiosyncrasies of his personal life and his devotion to his mistress, actress Marion Davies, but disappointingly thin on his influence on the world stage. As a historian and journalist I found the omissions of Hearst’s public life a little sad, especially after we were teased with the opening line from our tour guide, “Most of you had probably never heard of William Randolph Hearst before today, in his time he was one of the most powerful men in the world.”

The guide made only passing reference to Hearst’s power, the circulation of his publications reached 30 percent of the American electorate. Not a word on my two favorite Hearst stories, his well-known role in sparking the Spanish-American War, or his recently popularized crusade against marijuana.

The reign of William Randolph Hearst marked a low point in the integrity of the American press. He is credited with the era of yellow journalism, when publisher moguls including Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer engaged in circulation wars by printing sensationalized and fraudulent stories. He directed his newspapers to manufacture sources and quotes that best fit their agendas. Before television, nothing sold newspapers like a war, and when the opportunity arose, Hearst delivered news in a way that made war inevitable.

On February 15th, 1898, the USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor. The warship had been sent to Cuba three weeks earlier in a response aimed at declaring US intentions to protect American citizens amidst an escalating civil war between Spain and Cuban revolutionaries. Though the cause of the explosions aboard the Maine remain unclear to this day, the Hearst papers immediately declared that a Spanish mine had blown up the Maine’s magazines despite the frequency of boiler mishaps aboard the coal fired ships of that day. The New York Journal barked front-page headlines and eight-page spreads denouncing Spanish intrigue in the weeks leading up to the American invasion of Cuba.

That story is now apart of any decent American history survey, not that students read their history textbooks. A lesser known story, though one that has been recently popularized by a spate of books and documentaries about the origin of our country’s drug laws, is Hearst’s relentless crusade against marijuana.

For centuries hemp had been a vital crop for the production of rope, sails, and course fabrics. In the late 1930’s, advances in processing the plant threatened to make hemp a cheap and renewable alternative to paper pulp and allow for mass production of natural hemp fibers. George Schlichten’s new machine, the decorticator, separated the fiber from core of the hemp plant, thereby reducing labor costs and greatly increasing hemp’s fiber yield. Combined with new technology to fashion paper and plastics from hemp-derived cellulose, Schlichten’s machine promised a new direction for the paper and fabric industry.

But what is good for the planet is not necessarily good for the barons of industry. Both Hearst and the Dupont Corporation stood to lose millions of dollars because of the coming hemp revolution. Hearst owned thousands of acres of prime forest and the paper mills that supplied his media empire. Dupont at the time was discovering uses for petroleum-based fabrics including nylon.

To stave of the commercial threat posed by hemp, Hearst began a journalistic crusade against an evil weed from Mexico, marijuana. It would have been impossible to demonize the plant as cannabis or hemp given its centuries long use as a cash crop. Marijuana, on the other hand, was the little known Mexican name for the plant, and Hearst newspapers covered stories of marijuana users incurable hysteria, hopeless dependency and psychotic episodes. The newspaper driven panic against marijuana helped turned public sentiment against the cannabis plant.

Conspiracy buffs note that Harry Anslinger, the drug czar who led the campaign for federal prohibition, was appointed by a Dupont financier. Though the American Medical Association made a stand against the prohibition of a plant with recognized medicinal value, the interest aligned against the fair plant are too strong. In the end, Anslinger coerced the leaders of the medical establishment to change their positions by threats of intense federal scrutiny, paving the way for Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Hearst is freed to saw his trees and the Dupont to clothe a generation in coal and oil based fibers.

It’s a great story, one that books, movies, and countless internet pundits have popularized in recent years. It pulls the heartstrings of an environmentally conscious audience that would like to believe in a miracle plant that could have saved the world from environmental degradation. Though there may be a grain of truth in the tale, the story that a vast corporate conspiracy was responsible for the cannabis prohibition was pulled from the cloud of a bong hit. Some modern revision of the hemp prohibition rival JFK theories in their asinine complexity, and like Hearst’s best yarns, they seem better suited for the yellow press than serious historical discussion.

The Dupont Corporation’s role in the web does not stand scrutiny. Nylon wasn’t discovered until 1935 and had no commercially patented uses until it appeared in toothbrush bristles in 1938, a year after the Marihuana Tax act of 1937 and six years after marijuana’s inclusion in the Uniform Drug Act of 1932. Nylon was envisioned as a substitute for silk, and did not come viable until demand from the WWII helped it become silk replacement in the early 1940’s.

Schlichten patented his decorticator in 1917, yet there was no corresponding boom in hemp production like the boom in cotton that followed Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin. Perhaps because hemp is not a great clothing alternative, its fibers are coarse and scratchy. Only a conspiracy obsessed, earth-worshipping hippy could stand a hemp wardrobe. Eventually, WWII spurred temporary demand for the production of industrial hemp with full backing of the US government.

Authors and filmmakers would have you believe marijuana was almost completely unknown until Hearst brought it to his readers’ attention in the mid 1930’s. Though it’s true there were very few pot smokers in that time, marijuana was reviled in the press long before the 1930’s, and before the invention the decorticator. Hearst had been waging a campaign against hashish, opiates, and marijuana that spanned the first four decades of the 20th century. Hearst publications were not alone. Articles denouncing the killer weed were also printed in august sources such as The Washington Post—two in March 1905—and The New York Times in January 1901. In 1929, The Denver Post ran a string of articles about the weed after a Mexican man accused of being a marijuana fiend killed his white step-daughter.

The federal laws pursued by Anslinger were only consolidating a prohibition well under way on the state level. Twenty-one states already had marijuana laws in place before the federal regulations of the 1930’s. New York included cannabis on its controlled substances list in 1914. Utah, whose Mormon missionaries returned from Mexico with bundles of the weed, became the first western state to ban cannabis in 1915. Sixteen western states, where the United States’ Mexican population resided, had cannabis bans by 1930. Colorado was late in prohibition, its ban came almost immediately after the 1929 marijuana attributed slaying.

The press on marijuana blamed the drug for the worst stereotypes of a growing Mexican population in the Southwestern US. This fits the pattern of other anti-drug rhetoric from the era, hashish was negatively associated with Middle Easterners, cocaine with southern Blacks, and opiates with Asians. Whether or not racism and xenophobia was the driving force in cannabis prohibition, it was a factor, and almost certainly played a role in Hearst’s news stories. He made no secret of his hatred for Mexicans and Mexican culture.

The best argument in favor of the conspiracy is the curious decision for federal regulators to ban all cannabis production. The smoking weed, cannabis indica, has little in common with the fibrous, tree like cannabis sativa used for industrial purposes. A modern day hemp farmer in Britain illustrates this point with a notice posted on his fence that “it would take a joint the size of a telephone pole for you to you get high,” off the later variety.

Perhaps they weren’t taking any chances. This was after all the era of Prohibition, where alcohol was demonized alongside other mind-altering substances. In that regard the cannabis laws were consistent with the national temperance movement of the day and on the surface less hypocritical than they are today.

Anyway, that’s the Hearst conspiracy and its debunking in a nutshell.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

LDS and Prop 8

On occasion I’m willing to break from what my uncle would call the “pinko-liberal” wing of American politics in search of good political solutions. I’d like to think of myself as a pragmatist in the spirit of Peirce and James willing to praise good ideas from wherever they might come.

A new kind of federalism comes to mind. There are compelling arguments for both sides regarding the proper balance of states rights versus federal power in our federalist system. Most of these arguments were anticipated by the founding fathers, so I’ll reduce the matter for brevity’s sake. On one hand, the Civil Rights Era showed that states can be reactionary in the face of needed reform. It took the power of the federal government to break down resistance to integration and the recalcitrance of state institutions. The Civil Rights Era, like the New Deal a generation before it, wed the liberal wing of American politics to idea of federally based policy solutions.

There are compelling arguments in favor of a federalism that respects constitutionally delegated balance of state and federal power. Though generally a conservative position advocated by those in favor of smaller central government, there is also a case to be made that individual states can better tailor initiatives to the specific needs of her citizens. Let the states innovate and become laboratories of policy and let the successes become models for other states and for federal policy.

State ballot initiatives have ushered a new wave of federalism as they blend direct democracy with the latitudes of state innovation. Issues like medical marijuana, affirmative action, gay marriage, assisted suicide, abortion, and animal rights have all found their way on to state ballots for the upcoming election cycle. There are 12 state-wide ballot propositions this year in California alone, a state where successful initiatives are tacked on the State Constitution, and where an unsuccessful proposition, 1994’s Prop 187 against funding for immigrant social services, triggered epic political realignment.

Two of the most contentious measures on California's ballot are negative propositions. Prop 4 (which has failed in two previous elections) would require minors to attain parental consent for abortions. Prop 8 would overturn the State Supreme Court’s ruling on the legality of gay marriage.

Conservatives should have ideological motives to respect this process of state innovation. State initiative on issues like gay marriage would keep the culture wars out of Washington, D.C. Yet interest groups in red states are not content with outcomes in their own states and do not intend to watch Californians decide these issues for themselves. Money is pouring in across the border in an effort to sway Californians on the aforementioned hot-button evangelical issues. The leadership of the LDS church in Utah has mobilized an effort to pass Prop 8 and has raised over $8.4 million for the campaign.

One would think that the LDS, whose control of state politics once made Utah a virtual theocracy that was constantly at odds with officials in Washington, would be inclined to a live and let live attitude for state innovation. This is not the case. The federalist principle is less important to the LDS than the specter of gays mocking their concept of traditional marriage. Let’s overlook for a moment that an LDS marriage is hardly traditional—Mormons do not espouse till death do you part, rather they believe in a union sealed in this life that continues into the afterlife where man and his woman (for a fundamentalist, his women) govern over their own planet in a Mormon solar system—and call this an exercise in political pragmatism. Or is that hypocrisy, I get confused.

Californians have never been known to pass initiatives restrictive of rights, but the polls suggest that the LDS money is starting to turn the electorate in favor of Prop 8. A pity Californians can’t be left alone to figure it out for themselves.
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Wednesday, September 24, 2008


The Palestinians at my corner store are proclaiming the end of the American Empire. While I am a bit more agnostic about the state of the times, it is staggering to look back over the excesses, public and private, of the last decade.

A bailout is probably necessary to keep the financial system from freezing up and compounding economic freefall. Any Keynesian worth his salt knows we are best off running up deficits in the bad times. For that to work, however, the theory holds for running surpluses when the economy is good, else the deficits will fuck you. I'm not in this for the accounting, but i suspect if you tally up the domestic pork projects and the IOU's of recent foreign adventurism, you'll find yourself with a number well in excess of the 700 Billion hair of the dog solution to the ongoing financial meltdown.

Oh yeah, and because everyone wants ideas for exotic destinations when they are broke, check out my most recent article. Click Here to Read More..

Friday, September 19, 2008

Harper's Ferry

If you are ever stuck in Northern Virginia with an afternoon free and have any interest in American history, then I highly recommend a day trip to Harper's Ferry. The town is situated at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, about a 30 minute drive from Leesburg, VA. The town is sited on a bluff that affords impressive views down rivers and the flanking Appalachian foothills. The cobbled main street has been designated part of Harper's Ferry National Park there, and the recreated shop fronts are filled with living history actors. The actor/rangers I spoke with had a commanding knowledge of the history of the town beyond John Brown's raid in 1859. The conviction in his eyes still burns through the lithographs on the museum walls. Though he failed to provoke a slave uprising, the shop attendant/undergrad at the general store will tell anyone who cares to sit and chat awhile about how Brown effectively lit a powder keg under the fraying Differening political responses to the raid splintered the Democratic party of the time paving electoral possibility for Lincoln's united Republicans and hastening the south's preemptive withdrawal from the Union.

I hadn't realized that Harpers Ferry is now a part of West Virginia, the easternmost tip of the state. Long before West Virginia's formation in 1861, there had been a split between the states coastal population dominated by planter elites and the poorer upland dwellers to the west. Though the surrounding area was mostly lowland planter country aligned with the state's slave holding interests, Jefferson County voted to become a part of West Virginia at the 1861 convention. A dyspeptic mill owner did not break character as he explained how, on the day of the vote, federal troops had surrounded the county seat, thereby discouraging the slave holders from casting ballots against withdrawal from secessionist Virginia.

I walked a half mile of the Appalachian Trail from West Virginia across the bridge into Maryland. Might have ventured farther had I brought something other than my dress shoes. I encountered several hikers on my short walk, a couple of whom had come up from Georgia. I'd like to hike the AT one day, maybe like the folks I met who are hiking it in one or two state installments over the course of 8 summers.

Check out my latest travel writing here and here.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Four Legs Good

A little over ten years ago, a high school friend took me canoeing on the Harpeth River. We borrowed the canoe from his uncle who has a farm with river frontage out in Williamson County. As we were walking towards the reeds along the shore, a screech came from the trees to the left of us.

Taylor put down the front of canoe. “Come check this out,” he said.

We pushed through the bushy trees and heather to the property of a prominent Nashville family. We reached a clearing with a row of chain link walled huts with A-framed corrugated roofs that I’m reminded of every time I see footage from Guantanamo. The path between the rows of coops gave this place the feel of a miniature village where a single resident perched in each hut. A few sported striking plumage, several with the South Carolina scarlet and black, one had a golden mane. Magnificent birds, sleek and powerful, no pedestrian farm animals these.

“Are they all roosters?” I asked.

“Yup, gamecocks.”

“Isn’t that illegal?”

“In Tennessee it is, they say M_____ and his kid got busted when the cops raided a fight.”

As of this month, cock fighting is illegal in all 50 states. Louisiana had been the last holdout, but the Legislature in Baton Rouge had come under severe pressure from animal rights activists and finally passed a prohibition that went into effect last week.

Given that over 80% of the Louisiana public was against legalized bird fights, the law makes some sense. But the reasons cited by animal rights advocates, that the sport is cruel, barbarous, and violence promoting, are less compelling. If laws are being written for the roosters, then the average American slaughterhouse or chicken factory better look out.

Of all the brutalities of factory farming with its downer cows and killing floors, the chicken factory ranks up there with the worst. The egg hens spend existence in tiny cages pumped full of speed and antibiotics so they’ll grow quicker and not die of horrible infections while stewing in pools of their own chicken shit. Doesn’t sound like much of a life.

The fighting birds I saw were raised in spacious accommodation. We’re not talking dog fighting. Dogs are social animals that must be bred and conditioned through torture to acquire the aggression to fight one another to the death. You don't have to teach roosters to hate each other, just put two of them together and watch what happens. The razor sharp gaffes attached to a gamecock’s legs are another thing, but the blades do make it quicker. Cruelty, sure, but it beats life on the chicken farm.

Not that I'm a supporter of blood sports, mind you. I’m actually a vegetarian. The closest I’ve been to a gaming pit was with Chicken George in Alex Haley’s Roots. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know how much Chicken George loved those birds.

I'm all for the regulation of factory farming if done for the people. The antibiotic consumption is pretty terrifying from a human health standpoint. Constantly dosed populations create fertile environments for the breeding of dangerous drug-resistant bacteria. I realize that low-yield organic farming cannot feed a world of 7 Billion, even if that world could afford to shop at Whole Paycheck, but there's just got to be a better way.

Animal rights pave a slippery slope to nonsense. Take Switzerland, for example, where parliament has enacted a whole raft of new animal protections. Swiss law now requires that your solitary goldfish now have a companion, they are social animals after all. If you own a fish, your aquarium must not be transparent on all sides, because that might be unsettling for them otherwise. And you must ensure them a natural day and night cycle. Don’t even think about flushing Goldie if he’s still alive, you must at least properly euthanize him first.

If you’re the kind of asshole that still enjoys hooking fish out of the lake, no more catch and release. Because that would hurt. And no more live bait, I'm guessing because it's bad for the bait. To get a fishing license, you’ll have to take a course in pesca-compassion. I made up the name; the class exists.

If you want to own a dog in Switzerland, you’ll also have to take a class. The coursework includes five theories on how to best walk it. They don’t want your dog to develop the anxieties that may make him bite someone next time you take him around the block.

It’s not just fish that must be owned in pairs. Any social animal, be it a horse, parrot, hamster, or guinea pig, must now have a companion of like species. Livestock must have “visual contact with their fellows.” It is now illegal to tether your horse or goat, and because your pigs and cows might have sensitive feet, concrete or stone floors are no longer acceptable for their primary dwellings. After rolling around in the mud, Swiss pigs now have the right to take a shower. Mandatory pig showers, now how could I make that up?

Oh yeah, and Swiss Animal Protection, the country’s leading animal rights group, does not believe the legislation goes far enough to protect their friends. They vow to continue the push for four-legged equality.

Doesn’t seem like we could possibly get to goldfish regulation in the United States, but then until recently I thought the Swiss were a reasonable people. So I ask you, faced with the choice of the pet-sitter state, or a few rednecks out in a town you've never heard of killing a few roosters... well?
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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Chinese Sea Power

The start of the Olympics this week in Beijing has prompted media attention on a range of Chinese issues including Tibet and the Chinese environment, the inexorable rise of the Chinese economy and the increasing influence of Chinese policy on the global stage.

As a global historian and a student in the Western world’s first graduate course on Asian Sea Power, I’d like to take a longer view in this week of China speculation. This week’s focus on the rise of China as a world power, with a few turns of history could have been a tribute to unrivaled Chinese supremacy in the past millenium.

By the year 1000, and for several hundred years beyond, virtually every useful technology in the world had its origin in China. Economic historians of the era like to point out that in the twelfth century, Song China was within “a hair’s breadth” of industrialization. Per capita iron output in China circa 1100 was higher than that of Great Britain in 1700. The densely populated Yangtse Delta was one of the few, if not the only pre-industrialized society to realize intensive economic growth, that is sustained growth in per capita output (as opposed to growth due only to increased population). Various geographical factors, resource constraints including dry and poorly located coal deposits, and the looming twelfth century Mongol invasions, leave us to speculate what could have been in Song China.

In the first decades of the 15th century, as the Italian peninsula was experiencing its Renaissance and the first Portuguese explorers were testing the waters of the North Atlantic, the early Ming empire was laying claim as the greatest seaborne power in the pre-modern world. Nine decades before Columbus set sail across the Atlantic with 300 men in three modest caravels , the Chinese Admiral Zheng He embarked on a series of seven voyages with the intention to incorporate the known world into the tribute system of the Ming empire. Zheng He’s flotillas dwarfed those of his contemporary Iberian mariners. His largest expedition included over 300 ships and 28,000 men, including at least 63 treasure ships that measured 450 feet long and 150 feet wide, a surface area greater than a football field. The Ming treasure ship was largest wooden vessel ever constructed, as a treasure ship’s hull could have accommodated Columbus’s fist expedition as well as the four vessels Da Gama used on his voyage to India.

Zheng He visited Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and the east coast of Africa. Though largely discredited, one modern English naval officer and historian Gavin Menzies claims evidence for the eunuch admiral having reached North and South America and even as far as Greenland. In any case, Zheng’s tribute armada must have been an overwhelming site wherever it landed. It helped establish trade routes across the Indian Ocean, and brought the Celestial Empire into the consciousness of most of the known world. Some historians claim that maps from the time of the Zheng expeditions were known to Columbus before he made decision to sail east for China and India.

Then, at the height of Chinese naval supremacy, the Ming court took great pains to cease all Chinese sea trade. At the time of Zheng’s last expedition, a new Emporer decreed a maritime ban in Chinese waters. Sea going trade was punishable with death. All of the empire’s naval records, star charts, route maps, and manuals collected on the imperial expeditions were destroyed by the Chinese minister of war. Some theorize Zheng was considered a threat by the new emperor, others point to the incredible costs of outfitting these expeditions in a time when money was needed to shore up the frontier defenses against the Mongol threat from the north.

Anti-maritime policy was the rule for the next 200 years. In the 1660’s, China’s new Manchu rulers initiated a scorched earth policy along the Chinese coast. They raised coastal towns and villages and forced the seaboard population into the interior. Chinese sea trade persisted in these years only in the southern coastal territories farthest from the Beijing court in the north. The Chinese merchants who established entrepots in Dutch controlled Indonesia and the Spanish dominated Philippines hailed from Fujian and Guangdong (Canton), the two southernmost coastal provinces in China. With this merchant diaspora, Cantonese, and not Mandarin, would become the dominant language of Chinatowns the world over.

By 1840, China had been a dormant naval power for 400 years. When the British East India Company decided to seize ports to distribute its Indian grown opium--the only foreign product it could find with a market demand in China—the Qing state could summon no answer to the steam power and heavy artillery of the British fleet. The Opium Wars humiliated China and began a century of European domination of Asian waters interrupted only by the rise of Japan.

Would China have been so vulnerable if it had not abandoned its sea power? We can only imagine what would have happened if Chinese merchants had been allowed to follow the Zheng expeditions across Indian Ocean, had the Chinese been in a position to rival Portuguese and Muslim traders as the middlemen of the spice trade. The dragon that Napoleon warned the world against had been put to sleep at the height of China’s maritime glory. Click Here to Read More..

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mormons V: Racquetball with Hitler

This is the final chapter in the Mormon installment. Like the final installment about any New Religion (see Scientology), it gets a little weird. You’ve been warned.

Several years after college I had a second encounter with LDS missionaries. I was sitting on the bottom step at the base of Preseren statue, a monument to the national poet of Slovenia who presides over Ljubljana’s old town square. Preseren statue was a popular rendezvous point to wait for friends or lovers before a night on the town. For those without the money, it was a nice place to drink instead of the bar. Students in the latter group perched on the granite shelf above me and passed around a bottle of the kind of wine that comes with a cap instead of a cork. One of them turned and tilted the bottle in tribute to the memory of the hard drinking poet. Preseren did not seem to notice. His forlorn gaze was locked down the cobbled street to a bust of his unrequited love set atop a doorway where her nymph-like smirk forever spurned him. I hoped I wouldn’t be waiting so long.

I waited. Andreja and I were supposed to meet for a drink. I watched the few who trickled into evening vespers at the cathedral and the foot traffic on the triple bridge over the river that split the old town. The pedestrians kept their eyes straight ahead, down along the cobble of the square.

No one paid mind the two smiling young men on the bridge who greeted in competent Slovene. The foot traffic snaked around them—their identical suits and black nametags marked them for what they were a hundred meters away. They held their smiles. They kept up the greetings and a few varied one-liners about the Lord in a language with less than two million speakers and at least 42 dialects, a language they had dedicated two years of their lives to mastering. They devoted hours to pre-dawn study each morning so they could stand on this bridge and be shunned like a two-man leper colony.

If they would just venture beyond the uninterested commuters, past the statue and up the stairs leading up to rose Cathedral buttressing the Northern end of the square, they’d find their competitors faring little better in the competition for souls. The air inside of the Ljubljana Cathedral is heavy, weighted down with history, the arcana of faith. The late afternoon sun bleeds through stain glass to where a priest administers vespers before a dozen old babicas, Slovene grandmothers, wrapped in their headscarves. Tourists filter in and stand and watch the ceremony for a few minutes, then discharge back out onto the square.

Slovenia is not fertile ground for religion. It is an ex-Communist, post-Catholic nation. Most Slovenes claim Catholicism as their religion, around 96% are Roman Catholic by ethnicity. Most Slovenes have a priest administer their weddings and funerals, but in daily life God is kept at a comfortable distance, six feet under to be precise. Few here are interested in religion. The Mormons would have better luck in Baghdad, Kathmandu, anywhere else but ex-communist, post-Catholic Europe.

I checked my phone. Text message—Andreja: can’t make it. More students arrive at the statue and another bottle is passed around the feet of the sodden poet. I am offered a drink. Good timing. Even a 75 cent bottle capped wine tastes good in Slovenia.

One of the missionaries catches me watching them. He says something to his partner and takes the lead as they start walking towards the statue. The front man is short and has a dark complexion. He looks vaguely Polynesian.

Jaz sem Starsine Lee. Kako ste vi?”

Dobro, Hvala. But I’m American, you can speak English if you’d rather.”
“An American! I thought you were Slovene! I’m Elder Lee, this is Elder McFadden, we are with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints…”

The shorter one continued the pitch while his partner stood slightly behind him and warily regarded the students behind me as if at any moment they might toss a bottle at him.

“Thanks, but I’m not looking for a religion,” I replied. For some reason I continued. There was something I missed about Americans' friendliness to strangers, even if this was a sales job.

“It’s amazing you guys learn Slovene so well, I’ve been studying for over a year now and can still can’t understand people.”

The leader gave a quick glance back over his shoulder. His partner then rustled in his bag and pulled out a black notebook.

“You know, we give language lessons.”

On cue, Elder McFadden produced a flyer with the phone number and address of their meeting house.

It was a good pitch. They offered the one thing I could have I possibly wanted from them. I had taken two 80-hour Slovene courses at the university, but there wasn’t a class between the intermediate I had just completed and the advanced level. The advanced course was designed for immigrants from Serbia and Bosnia who blended Slovene with their similar sounding mother tongues. The result was an incomprehensible Balkan hodgepodge punctuated only by the laughter from the withering jokes as the rump of South Slavs ganged up on what they saw as their stuffy (rich) Slovene neighbors. I had tried private tutors, but hadn’t found a good one. My last tutor smelled like raw onions and liked to sit six inches from me when we practiced.

I hadn’t given a firm commitment on the lesson, but I decided to meet them. I was curious about these kids who traveled halfway across the world to proselytize to the unconvertible masses, peddling a religion founded by a polygamist from upstate New York. Did they know what a joke they were in the eyes of the residents—those who even noticed them—that they were a source of universal derision, something all Yugoslavs could agree on? There isn’t a whole lot all Yugoslavs can agree on.

Maybe I met them out of boredom. My job was only 20 hours a week, so I had plenty of time on my hands. Almost every social interaction I had revolved around drinking, even hiking and language classes ended in beers, so I maybe welcomed some time with the teetotalers. Since I knew I’d be moving to London in a couple of months, I wouldn’t have to worry about these guys stalking me for my soul. I could easily disappear.

The lesson was at their local ward meeting house, located in a middling suburb to the west of town on the second story of a building that unfolded around an interior courtyard paved over with asphalt. As I locked up my bike I could feel the eyes of the locals who sat at a table drinking pints in the courtyard. Elder Lee met me with a handshake at the door.

The ward had two rooms for services, a large chapel and a smaller annex for when the men and women divided up to discuss gender specific themes. Allegorical paintings decorated the walls. I stopped to look at a photograph of twelve old white men in an unsymmetrical line.

“They’re not arranged by height,” I said.

“Good observation, they are actually lined up in order of seniority. This is what we call the Council of the Twelve Apostles. And that’s the prophet Gordon B. Hinkley,” Lee said, a touch of awe in his voice as he pointed to the shriveled suit at the far left of the lineup. “He is a great man”

Elder McFadden was seated in the smaller of the two meeting rooms, either studying his tie or napping. I took a seat in front of a white marker board set up in the middle of the room prepared in advanced for my lesson. They had written out all the first declension case endings on the board.

Slovene is an inflective language, similar to Latin in that the nouns and adjectives have different endings depending on how they are used in a sentence. Endings must be written out in three columns, since in addition to singular and plural, Slovene has a dual case that is used when referring to two things or persons. Slovene grammar is a nightmare. A manufactured nightmare. Standard Slovene is the product of a 19th century literary movement that restored the language after centuries of occupation left it an informal, unwritten language only spoken in the home. The academics were keen to restore archaic forms like the dual that would have died away otherwise. Few in the capital bother to speak properly anyway, Ljubljanans clip many of the endings at random. The conjugations before me are for the most part a pain in the ass.

Elder Lee stood beside the board and went through the endings case by case, giving an example for each ending. Maybe they were trying to put me to sleep. I could not have conjured a lesson plan better designed to induce hypnosis.

Flagging, I started looking at the pictures hung on the back wall. There was one with a man kneeling in a wood before two identical bearded white men in white robes in a shaft of white light.

“Who is that guy?” I yawned.

Elder Lee, who had also slumped a bit, drowsed by his own mind-numbing lesson, perked up. I had taken the bait. He kicked the bottom of white board and it swung around to reveal the lesson prepared on the on other side of the board. On the top, in bold letters read: JOSEPH SMITH.

After a much livelier twenty-minute presentation, derailed a bit by my questions about Mormon claim to the discovery of the New World, Lee suggested we end with a prayer. Elders Lee and McFadden kneeled and recited in unison a passage from the end of the Book of Mormon. It was a passage they would repeat at end of every meeting:

I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

It was pretty obvious the language lessons wouldn’t be helping me much. Not that I cared, I was becoming interested in these missionaries and their bizarro existence in a land of atheists. Their colleagues in South America were converting souls by the dozen, some claimed upwards of a hundred new members a year. Neither Lee nor McFadden had a single convert between them. I was the first guy who had talked to them in weeks and the first they had brought back to the ward. Though I made it clear up front that I was not interested, that I was even talking to them made me their best prospect in Slovenia.

I agreed to meet them for another lesson. This time they didn’t really have anything prepared, and we quickly fell into another discussion of Mormonism. I was interested in the LDS cosmology, and Elder Lee sketched out on the board a beginners guide to Mormon heaven. He drew a series of circles on the board, each one a bit higher than the next. Then he drew a line at the bottom of the board.

He explained that Mormons in good standing went off to the highest circle, a heaven where they would rejoin their families for eternity. Each descending circle was a less desirable brand of heaven, all of them “nice” though. He did not have to tell me what was below the line at the bottom of the board. I had been to Sunday School.
“Then who goes down there, to hell?” I asked.
“Hell is reserved for the worst kind of sinner, the man who knowingly turns his back on God.”
“So, Hitler is down there,” I said.
“Well… no, Hitler is probably here,” Lee said, pointing with his marker to a circle above damnation.

“Hitler didn’t turn his back on God?”

Hitler couldn’t turn his back on God, according to Lee, because he had never received the testament of the Latter-day Saints. The flip side of claiming to be of the one and true religion is that the Gentiles without God can’t be blamed for their earthly foibles. The way Elder Lee described it, Mormons reserve eternal damnation for those who stray from their own flock. So Pol Pot and Uncle Joe are headed to an eternity near you.

Elder McFadden seldom spoke up during the lesson, when he did it was to give some brief anecdote about his discovery of his faith. Lee nor McFadden had been born into the faith. They were both converts from Catholicism. And neither of them came from Utah. Lee was raised in California, McFadden in Idaho. They both had joined the church after high school friends convinced them to start attending meetings of the one and true religion.

I had lots of questions. They had answers. I asked them about their personal habits. I could see the straight edge appeal of abstinence in high school, and maybe on the campus of BYU, but was it hard giving up caffeine?

After our second language lesson they gave me book of Mormon to take home. They had marked several passages for me to read in my spare time. I thought it better to start from the beginning. Just a few pages into first chapter, describing the Mormons’ last days in the Old World, their leader is commanded by God to decapitate his arch enemy. I thumbed ahead to the wars between the divided factions in the New World, and the apostates whose skins were darkened as a punishment for their paganism. And though now an ocean and a continent away, this account of the ancient Americas still managed a few swipes at the Jews. How did this stuff not catch on in the Old South? This book had the zingers to fill a dozen recruiting pamphlets for the KKK.

I conducted a little research. Turns out the Mormons did market the racism in the Book of Mormon. During the height of southern resistance to integration, the LDS made inroads in southern communities by allying with groups like the White Citizens Councils. The LDS advertised the passages of Mormon scripture that explicitly forbade people of color from obtaining the priesthood. At 12 years old all Mormon males (in good standing) are inducted into the priesthood, and thereby can perform certain functions in the church, so this mandate effectively barred African Americans from joining the LDS.

This became the subject of my next conversation with the missionaries. As long as they were so eager to talk about Mormonism, I figured they should be up to discussing their history. Neither Lee nor McFadden had heard these details, though Lee was quick to point out that people of any color are welcome to become LDS. This is true. In 1978, the acting prophet Spencer Kimball received the revelation that skin color was no longer a criterion for eligibility to the priesthood, and the Mormons thereby became rearguard integrationists. They are now racking up souls in Africa and South America.

The elders were not put off my criticism, rather they seemed to enjoy the challenge. Elder Lee called me a few days later and invited me to my first Family Home Evening. Held each Monday, Family Home Evening is a time for Mormon families to get together, read the scripture, and pray. Since the Saints in Ljubljana were a small group, they held a home evening in common. The hosts were an elderly couple from Utah spending their golden years as an auxiliary to the younger missionaries who hustled the streets and stood invisible amidst the ex-communist, post-Catholic humanity.

That Monday I caught my first glimpse of those rare creatures--Slovene converts to Mormonism. A mother wheeled in her son of indeterminate age who had the shriveled and twisted limbs and suffered spasmodic convulsions of Cerebral Palsy. The mother cast nervous glances to the American Mormons and twice asked Elder Lee if he would perform a laying on of hands for her son. A second mother with a different sort of nervousness arrived, her teenage daughter in-tow. The daughter appeared to be the age of my third year students, about 17, though her ample thighs and magnificent breasts could have passed her for much older.

I wondered which mother sought the bigger miracle. A statistic I had heard in the faculty room at Gimnazija Poljane was that over half of the girls in our school underwent their first abortion by the time they graduated. And these were elite students. A chaste Slovene teenager seemed every bit as implausible as faith-healed Palsy. I needed more information about this laying on of hands before handicapping the miracles. In any event, here was a natural audience for the hard up missionaries, desperate mothers who lacked godless alternatives.

The teenager bounced in behind her mom and immediately locked eyes on me. When I was introduced as an American, she volunteered as my translator. Before anyone could suggest otherwise, the girl was nestled beside me on the couch. I was sitting on an end and so had no real estate to maneuver when her thigh came flush against mine. Now I sought a miracle. I was determined to give no further notice to the magnificent breasts snug in her v-neck sweater.

A middle aged Slovene couple was the last to arrive. Their angle was less obvious than the mothers’. When they sat down Elder Lee took the floor, and introduced me to the group. Perhaps feeling upstaged, the Palsy child belched three or four haunting guttural whines.

Lee started with a reading from the Book of Mormon. My translator leaned into to whisper me bits of the passage, her lips half an inch from my ear. Her tits pressed into my upper arm as she traced a bright red nail beneath the lines in my book.

...but this is a church meeting. Think about the Bible, or that old lady with the wart on her neck who sells onions in the market. No, too disgusting. This is church. The Bible, think about the Bible. Let’s see…Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, ActsoftheRomans and Corinthians…How can she not be wearing a… The Garden. Adam and Eve and the snake... Forbidden Fruit.. Great. Way to sexualize the only thing you learned in Sunday School, dickhead.

I didn’t know much about Joseph Smith at the time, though a flash of inspiration (is this the holy ghost?) suggested his approval.

I now know a great deal more about the Prophet, and I am confident he would have approved. When he proposed celestial union to a girl like this I bet she spared him the obligatory fainting episode.

The passage concluded and the breasts brushed back across my arm and faced the circle. The boy in the wheelchair squealed in approval at amen. The middle aged Slovene with a broad back and rough hands of a factory worker raised his hand to Elder Lee. Lee nodded and the man straightened up in his chair and began to speak.

“America defeats Saddam Hussein, evil in Middle East. 25 years America make world peace.”

Elder McFadden looked my way, “That’s not church doctrine,” he said.

Elder Lee led us in a giving thanks and blessings. At the final amen he looked to the Palsy child who erupted in joyous exclamation. His mother moved in on the Elder and asked a third time if they would bless the child. Lee and McFadden wheeled the boy into a backroom.

“Do you live in the city?” the girl asked me.

Before she was finished with word city, her mother had taken her by the arm and was pulling her up from the couch and towards the door.

The pro-America man must have memorized his speech. He wasn’t able to say much else in English. Since the couple from Utah didn’t speak Slovene, we all sat quietly and munched on the grapes the hostess had brought from the kitchen. The silence was punctuated here and there by grunting and screaming from the back room.

“How old are you, son” the Utah man asked me.
“I’m 26.”
“Well then, it’s about time you started a family!”

I paused for a second and imagined the family scenario, the most conceivable one anyways, the one where I knock up my girlfriend. Flash forward to the force in her tiny foot as it strikes my tailbone, knocking me out of bed to tend to the smelly screaming child in the corner of our one bedroom.

“You're right, sir.”

I thanked my hosts and bid them goodnight. Elders McFadden and Lee were still working with the Palsy child so I left alone. Maybe I would explain if they called again, how there wasn’t any point in further meetings. Jailbait aside—though in Slovenia 16 is the age of consent—my values were not compatible with these people, and as much as I had enjoyed playing the devil’s advocate with these two, the joke was wearing thin. They wanted my soul for the one and true way. I wasn’t about to give it to them.

I didn’t pick up the phone the rest of the week and stayed away from the triple bridge. The following Saturday evening Andreja and I went to see a movie, a pretentious Spanish flick where the main characters, too rich for their own good, drown on their sailboat-yacht. I bashed the film on the way back to the car. Andreja was quiet, but she either liked the movie or was taking my critique personally, because she drove me to my apartment, didn’t park, didn’t offer an explanation. We had been on and off for several months. We were currently together, evidently just barely. Maybe she was cheating on me again.

Late that night, alone in my attic apartment, I lay in bed and listened to a strengthening wind that began to scratch at the shingles. Heavy clouds rolled down from the Julian Alps, and the stars extinguished from north to south in the skylight above my bed. I closed my eyes.

A lightening strike illuminated the exposed beam dividing my room in two. Another strike revealed swirling leaves. It was raining through the skylight.
I opened my eyes and was suspended in the swirl of rain and leaves, now levitated above my bed. I bent forward in a mid-air somersault, and out of my throat came the question Elder Lee had been encouraging me to pray on. “Is the Mormon way the one and true religion of God?” Lightening flooded the room with a powerful light. Only it wasn’t lightening this time, but a blinding shaft of white light. The beam shot into my chest filling me from fingertips to toes. Every hair on my body stood on end. I radiated the pure energy—the concentrated ecstasy of a thousand orgasms.

I opened my eyes and basked in the glow. I felt my boxers, not wet. After a few minutes I looked up at the clock. It was 9:30. With an aftershock up my spine I realized it was Sunday morning, that I had just enough time to put on my suit and make the 20 minute bike ride through the park to the Mormon ward.

There was only one thing to do, so I got dressed. I was already imagining myself telling the elders about my dream, how they’d make me retell it to the entire congregation (all eight of them) with my new high school friend standing at my side offering to translate. Were they going to dunk me in the water on the spot, or would they play the coy Buddhist and give me the cold shoulder for three days, make me prove my revelation? God directing me to a caffeine-free life without coffee and cigarettes, swear words, sex, or booze. And he wants me to put on scratchy underwear.

I went into the kitchen and filled the electric kettle. I stirred a couple spoonfuls of NesCafe into my mug and noticed my hands were shaking. I reached for the bottle with the pirate ship label and poured a nip into the mug. I took a sip. Rum really improves the taste of instant coffee. I sloshed in another shot for good measure. Then another. I had to clear my head, calm my nerves.

There were rational explanations for what had just happened. McFadden and Lee had closed each meeting with the passage about asking the Holy Ghost for the truth about the LDS church. That is exactly what I had done in the dream. I borrowed the bolt of light from the painting in the church. There would have been some leaves in the forest where Joseph Smith received his vision. The thunderstorm was my own embellishment.

I decided not to tell anyone about my dream, especially not Elder Lee. The week kept getting wierder. A heat wave baked my attic apartment to the point I slept outside on the balcony. I broke up with Andreja, again (my suspicions held). I got an email about the death of another former Eclectic member, then heard a guy I went to high school with got run down by a drunk driver. I was homesick. I never get homesick.

I was in line at the bank. Lines were a serious business in Communist times, an experience clearly not forgotten by the grim old ladies who keep a hand on your back while waiting, quick to prod you along the second the person in front of you shuffles a few centimeters closer to the cashier. The babica behind me did not like the inch of personal space I was maintaining with the man directly in front of me. The bank didn’t have air con, so I was sweating and did not want to standing touching the damp shirt in front of me. She was determined to close the gap and kept prodding me just above my tailbone. There was nothing I could say so I just stood and counted backwards from one hundred in Slovene. When my phone ring I forgot to check the number before answering.

“Hey Bill, Elder McFadden and I we’re just talking about how much we missed talking to you. I wanted to make sure everything was all right.” Elder Lee said, “Everything ok?”

I still don’t know why I told him. Was it the heat, the claustrophobia of the line, the relentlessness of the grandmother behind me, or the fact that it had been weeks since anyone asked me if everything was ok? (it wasn’t) I hadn’t allowed myself to think about the dream since the double shot of rum, but once I started talking it all came out. I felt the tingle. It was like a first confession right there in a crowded bank, the hand still shoving at my tailbone.

“We need to meet as soon as possible, can you come by the meeting house this afternoon?”

No, I had nothing better to do than meet with the missionaries. We sat down in front of the white board and Elder Lee asked me to repeat the story to Elder McFadden. I did, but without the conviction from earlier in the day. I had had time to prepare a defense. As cool as a full body immersion might feel with the thermometer reading 35 degrees Celsius in a city without air conditioning, I was about to go and declare myself a Mormon.

I had three main arguments that I gave in order:

1. This was a dream. Nothing I had done or thought in my waking moments since suggested I convert to Mormonism. I have lots of vivid dreams, some of them also end in orgasm.

2. I couldn’t possibly live the Mormon lifestyle. I like coffee, beer, red wine, marijuana, and it turns out the occasional shot of rum in my instant coffee. And I like to fuck—out of wedlock. Now that I am single, I plan to fuck as many girls as possible. I do not plan on marrying.

3. My family. I could not bear telling my family I converted to Mormonism. They would think I had gone insane. I would rather tell my family I had converted to Islam, joined a Krishna cult, married a black woman, become a homosexual, something with precedent among the educated classes. No offense guys, but this was just too ridiculous to contemplate.

To my shock, no offense was taken. After a moment, Elder McFadden started to speak. This was a shock in itself. It was the first time I remember the laconic elder speaking more than a line at one of these meetings. He gave a thoughtful rebuttal, argument by argument. First he addressed the lifestyle question. Yes, living a righteous life is not easy, and it sometimes requires sacrifices. But at the end of the day, he decided to make the sacrifices asked of him out of his personal choice to live a better life. He found that the sacrifices opened doors he couldn’t have possibly imagined before he began walking along the new path.

Next he touched on family. He told the story of sitting down with his mother and father and telling them about his choice. First his father got angry, wanted to know what kids had talked him into this, what adults were involved. His father tried to ground him, then got into a fight with his mother who had suggested that maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, his grades were improving and he wasn’t on drugs. They’d be getting grandchildren. After a few months his father came around. He accepted his choice because he loved him. Families have an enormous capacity for love and acceptance.

Lastly, he addressed my dream. It was not exactly a dream, as according to Elder McFadden, I experienced a vision. Joseph, Daniel, Giddeon, Solomon, and many more of the old prophets received divine inspiration through their dreams. Neither he nor Elder Lee had received such a clear sign from God before their own conversions, nor had they since.

“God only reveals himself to individuals for whom he expects great things. It would be very serious to turn your back on the word of God,” Lee interjected. “We think it is important you be baptized immediately.”

Or go burn in the hell for people worse than Hitler. They didn’t say it. They didn’t have to. We had already had the discussion. An apostate: he who turns his back to God. Apostatism is the worst transgression imaginable in the Mormon religion. What they did not tell me was that the early days of the church, LDS leaders sanctioned the practice of blood atonement whereby apostates were hunted down and murdered. Only an apostate’s blood could atone for his ultimate sin.

In the silence that followed I noticed for the first time that the double door leading to the smaller meeting room was closed. I had never seen it closed before.

“Let’s say a prayer,” Lee said, opening to a passage he had marked in his Book of Mormon.

“And it came to pass that from this time forth there began to be lyings sent forth among the people, by Satan, to harden their hearts, to the intent that they might not believe in those signs and wonders which they had seen…

He flipped forward to another passage.

…I would have you remember also, that there were none who were brought repentance who were not baptized with water…

Then Lee closed the book, and began again in his own halting words.

“Eternal Father, we thank you, for the vision you have given our brother, Bill Wilson, and in showing him the goodness, the righteousness, of Your way. We pray that the Holy Spirit will guide him, and help him to see the choice, the choice to do what is right, so that he can open his heart to You.”

Elder Lee was the first to rise after the prayer. He stood beside me and put a hand on my shoulder.

Note: The rest of this entry is fiction, for what really happened, read here.

“If you will only ask with your heart what is right, God will always be there to guide you.”

Meanwhile, McFadden walked in the direction of the closed doors. Just before he reached them, they opened. Four missionaries I had never seen before stood flanking the man who had hosted the family home evening. Instead of matching suits and nametags, they were dressed in white tunics, the fabric down to their knees. Elder Lee and McFadden stood on both sides of me.

“This way, brother.”

Through power of suggestion, or maybe because I might have lost my balance otherwise, I walked in between the two missionaries towards the open double doors.

“Wait,” I said, “Wait a second.”

Elder Lee reached for my upper arm, as if to steady me, but I shied away, knocking into McFadden in the process. I turned in the direction of the outside door. I bolted.

“I’m sorry,” I said, not looking back over my shoulder.

I left my bike on the rack in the courtyard, afraid that they might catch up to me if I fumbled with lock. Looking back it’s an absurd notion to have thought they might have chased after me, but I was not taking chances. I was terrified. If the guys in tunics had put on some hoods they'd have looked like klansmen in summer shorts.
I still am not sure what to make of my dream.

It is a testimony to magnetism of the LDS missionaries that they had a hard-boiled skeptic and militant atheist just a few feet from the baptismal font. Had I not started my own research into LDS doctrine and the history of the Mormon faith, especially their tactics in segregationist south, if I had not been an educated person, there is a good chance I would have converted.

I cannot rationalize my vision; it still gives me the creeps. Yes, Lee and McFadden had laid the foundation for all the elements of the dream: the language, the proximity of nature, and the column of white light. It could all be dismissed as the power of suggestion. Yet there is an opening for doubt.

Religious experience is esoteric, beyond the rational pale. We must embrace it on faith. All of my rational fiber tells me that Mormonism is nonsense, that it is a religion drawn up by a charismatic charlatan, perhaps the greatest ladies man in 19th century America. If I do choose to embrace a faith, it will be in a tradition that accepts there are multiple pathways to experiencing the divine. It will be a religion that does not condemn the rest of humanity to a middling plain in the afterlife playing racquetball with Hitler.
Click Here to Read More..

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Mormons IV: Rudy Hamster and a Kindergarten Crush

Fascinating as I find the history of polygamy and Joseph Smith, a story I find even more extraordinary is the speed with which the Latter-Day Saints transformed from pariah group into a mainstream conservative force in the United States. The LDS now claim a membership of nearly 15 million. Thanks to a strong missionary tradition, half of this membership hails from outside the United States. Mormonism is now well on the road to becoming one of the world’s major religions. With my long-standing interest in fanaticism, I am usually willing to lend an ear to the proselytizing folk from the Jehovah’s Witness to the canvasser for Greenpeace. The most interesting of these encounters have come with Mormon missionaries both at home and abroad.

My earliest encounter with a Mormon testimonial was in the fourth grade at Harding Academy. One afternoon the new kindergarten teacher visited our classroom to give a presentation about her religion. She was young, and beautiful. Her long brown hair, honey touched skin and warm smile was a welcome contrast to our teacher the decrepit Mrs. Bach. Though she was probably born after the turn of the last century Mrs. Bach's old school notions ran back to the 1800’s. So I still remember the substitute though it was only a few minutes, of the light in that young teacher’s eyes as she told us the story of her church. She employed sweeping gestures and a high, almost sing-song voice she was accustomed to using with the younger students. In the fourth grade I felt I was not so far from adulthood, but I didn't mind a little babying from this woman.

She spoke about the LDS and her home state of Utah. She told us the tale of her pioneer ancestors who had come from England and Scandanavia, recruited by missionaries to settle a glorious new land in the western America. These new immigrants crossed the Atlantic and traveled by train to Iowa City which was then the western terminus of the American railroads. In the fields outside of town they built handcarts to carry provisions a few precious possessions across the Great Plains and to the shores of the Great Salt Lake. As she recounted their arduous trek she handed out Bit O Honey candies. She explained how the Mormons compared their church to a colony of honeybees, an industrious and determined people with a strong sense of community. (Brigham Young had wanted to name the Mormons new territory Deseret, which according to the Book of Mormon means honeybee. Congress opted for Utah.) There are many references to the honeybee in Mormon country. The LDS sanctioned newspaper is the Deseret News and the beehive is on the official state seal as well as on all of the road markers in Utah. She also used the treats it to segue into how Mormons chose to abstain from caffeine and alcohol.

I am a bit shocked when think back to how much I remember of her talk. It made a lasting impression on me. It was clear even to a fourth grader that there was something special about these Mormons. There was a vitality to her tales lacking in the Biblical stories from Sunday School. Her protagonists were easier to imagine, a people from our land and our history, closer in time and distance than the ancient Jews. I didn’t need a map to visualize the Mormon exodus. I could close my eyes (after she left the room) and imagine a band of hearty pioneers we had learned about in Social Studies, only swap their wagons for handcarts.

Maybe she was my first, second, teacher crush. Her radiance was something I wanted to be close to. When she reached out to put the candy on my desk, I instinctively touched her hand. If she had been my teacher that year I am sure would have fallen deeply in love with her.

I am amazed that the school allowed her talk at all. Perhaps it was nothing more than a young teacher giving an extra planning period to an elderly colleague—could Mrs. Bach even hear what was going on that day? In the moderate to conservative suburban social climate I was raised in, the Mormons were a people who would have stood apart had they been on the radar at all. When I was in high school a Mormon won an award from the the Nashville chapter Fellowship of Christian Athletes. When it was circulated amongst this community that the boy was a Mormon it triggered an uproar. Certain elements of the FCA claimed steadfastly that Mormons were not Christians and that the young man was not eligible for the honor. Imagine what the same parents, those wanting to strip an athletic award from a high school student, might have done had they been informed that their children were given a thirty-minute introduction to Mormonism in the classroom.

I was watching tv in my senior year college house after the replay of Sportscenter had run through a second time. I dozed. When I open my eyes, Jesus Christ appeared on the screen. He was floating in a shaft of light above a mountaintop. A voice over beckoned me to call the number scrolling beneath his ethereal perch to receive a video that promised to explain his miracles. It was 3am. We were out of beer. Clearly having nothing better to do, I dialed the number.

I was a bit startled when a live operator answered after only a couple of rings. I told her I wanted the video. She asked for my name. I hesitated, and my eyes drifted to the glass aquarium where Rudy was running on his wheel and Cecil was sleeping in a burrow he had dug in the wood chips.

“Could you spell that last name?” she asked.

“H-A-M-S-T-E-R. You know, like the animal,” I said.

“Hmm…We don’t seem have that surname in our system.”

“It’s Hungarian”

The LDS has the largest genealogical database in the world. The church uses this catalogue to baptize dead souls from other faiths. In an important temple ritual, a stand-in is dunked in the water while the names of the baptized deceased are read from a list, dozens at a time. These after-life conversions are practiced ostensibly because Mormon missionaries had not been able to reach these souls during their time on earth. Think of an American historical figure and he or she has almost certainly had this ex post facto baptism. Your ancestors have likely had their names read and been baptized by proxy as well. This practice came under intensive scrutiny when it was revealed that the LDS had begun baptizing names from the lists of holocaust victims. But the most extensive genealogical database in the world had no record of the surname Hamster, at least until the spring of 1999.

“Ok, Rudy, is a there a time we could send some representatives of the church to visit you and Cecil?”

Sunday early afternoon seemed appropriate for a home visit. It was one of the few times in our schedule when a visit from missionaries might not interfere with our drinking. We had gotten serious enough about our softball league to at least get on the field and go once through the lineup before boozing. The game was at 4.

I told my housemates the next day about my late night Mormon drunk-dial, and we joked about the various scenarios the missionaries might walk into at 72 High Street. It was a joke long forgotten by the time the weekend rolled around. We had had a party to plan, and between the keg purchase and, well, buying and hauling a keg seemed like a lot of work in college.

So no one was awake yet when the bell rang early Sunday afternoon. The James Moy Band played its best show yet Saturday night, and to a great attendance as evidenced by the flotsam of beer cups and cigarette butts adrift on living room floor.

Friend of the house Sam Hoyt had passed out on the couch and was the only person woken by the bell. The guys on the front steps waited patiently as he crunched his way over the cups to the door. I can imagine the two young men in their matching suits at the moment the door opened and the house belched the stench of fermenting beer and stale cigarettes. I’m sure they held their smiles even as the fumes burned in their nostrils. They might have needed a second to focus on the face before them obscured as it must have been behind wild hair and matted beard as noxious sin continued to waft out from behind him.

“Hello. I am Elder ________, and this is Elder _________. We are here to see to Cecil and Rudy.”

“Uhh, Sure thing” Sam said. He had no idea why two guys in matching suits with name tags wanted to visit with the hamsters, but this was Wesleyan after all. Sam invited the missionaries in and led them to the corner with the aquarium.

“Looks like they’re asleep,” Sam said.

The missionaries looked at Sam, then looked at the hamsters. They turned back to Sam.

“Well, thank you for your time.”

Polite to a fault.

I will occasionally tell this story to a properly cynical audience and it always draws a laugh, sometimes beer through the nose, even if I am the asshole in the story. I do wish Sam had taken pictures though, maybe with the missionaries holding the hamsters. Little did I know at the time, someone made a record of our college hijinx. Years later the soldiers of Zion would repay the visit. Click Here to Read More..

Friday, May 16, 2008

Mormons III: A Concise History of Joseph Smith

Harold Bloom aptly describes Joseph Smith as a religious genius. Through force of personality and spiritual intellect, Smith converted enough followers to found what would become the first indigenous religion in the United States of America. To understand the Latter-Day Saints, and polygamy in America, one must understand the life and times of Joseph Smith.

Smith was born into a poor farming family living a hardscrabble existence in the Green Mountains of Vermont. When Joseph was a boy they resettling to Palmyra, a small New York town near the banks of the Eerie Canal.

Smith came of age in a period known to historians as the Second Great Awakening, when revivalists roamed the American countryside preaching myriad strains of the Protestant faith. Smith’s region was so visited by these itinerant preachers that came to be known as the Burned-over district. Young Smith struggled over which of these rival Christian faiths he should join, and one afternoon while praying in a grove near his parents’ house, he received a vision through a blinding shaft of light he feared would set the woods on fire. The human forms of God and his son Jesus Christ appeared side by side in the beam dressed in flowing white robes. Joseph asked them which among the competing faiths he should join, and God replied that he should not join any of them, that he should await a higher calling. He later received a series of visitations by the angel Moroni, who directed the young Smith to a rock that harbored gold plates covered in hieroglyphics.

After waiting several years for the appropriate time announced by the angel, Smith dug up the plates and began the translation of the ancient text. Over the course of eight weeks Smith, with the aid of a seer stone, deciphered the glyphs line by line and read aloud to a scribe who sat on the other side of a blanket that hung between himself and the prophet. After the original translation was lost, many think at the hands of the of the jealous and disbelieving wife of Joseph’s assistant, Smith for a second time translated line by line the 275,000 words that were to become the Book of Mormon.

The book revealed a fantastic explanation for the original settling of the Americas. The golden plates that preserved the text had been buried over a thousand years before Smith’s time by the same Moroni who had been the last descendant of the Nephites, a group who claimed to descend from the lost tribe of Israel. These ancient prophets turned mariners escaped Babylon and sailed to the Americas six hundred years before the birth of Christ. In the New World the tribe splintered into brotherly factions and warred for centuries. Moroni was the last of the Nephites, and the group who defeated his people, the Lamanites, were cursed with dark skin and descended into savagery. (The LDS considers the Native Americans to be descended from this cursed tribe of Laman) This is a concise history of the New World according to the Book of Mormon. Mormons still believe that this new testament of the Lord Jesus Christ and his father gives them a unique position as new chosen people of our time. All pre-existing faiths have lost their mandates, since over time links to their respective prophets have been severed. The Latter-Day Saints, on the other hand, can trace directly back to Joseph Smith through their Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. For this reason the Book Of Mormon refers to all non-believers, even the Jews, as Gentiles.

The anti-Mormons of Smith’s day, doubting his revelation and the existence of the gold plates, put forth a secular explanation for the source of the Mormon testament. Eight relatives and colleagues of the Reverend Solomon Spaulding claim that the Book of Mormon was actually a forgery of the professor’s Manuscript Lost, a novel about a man who unearths the hieroglyphic record of an ancient people who sailed from Biblical lands to ancient America. They were fueled in this conviction by the disappearance of a copy of Spaulding’s work from a house next door to a work site where young Joseph had been a day laborer prior to meeting his (first) wife Emma.

Others challenged the text as nothing more than a verbose imitation of the Old Testament. Mark Twain described the Book of Mormon as “chloroform in print.” He wrote, “If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle—keeping awake while he did was, at any rate.”

Real or fictional—none of world’s religions can be ‘explained’ with empirical evidence—Smith’s final product was a fantastic revelation, one Smith felt compelled to share. He confided only in his family at first. Then with the first publication of the Book of Mormon coupled with the outdoor revivals typical of the day, Smith began to accrue a growing flock of believers.

By all accounts, Smith was a more compelling preacher than prose writer. Repeated testimonies from his contemporaries speak of the prophet’s incredible magnetism, of his “air of majesty”, “luminous pallor”, and the blue oceans of his eyes. Though highly charismatic, Smith was an unusual prophet of the Lord. Smith was a notorious drinker, gambler and womanizer, according to the governor of Illinois he, “cursed like a pirate.” Before he discovered the gold plates under a rock on Hill Cumorah, Smith had been a treasure hunter who had been taken to court for the fraud of peddling his skills as a diviner. And that was the first in a series of fraud case involving the Prophet.

Though he and his converts would face years of religious persecution in the midwestern states, the first and last times Smith was run out of town were due to his worldly pursuits. In mid-1835, Smith established the Banking Company of Kirtland Ohio, legally incorporated as an “anti-banking” venture in an attempt to avoid regulation. He raised initial capital from his followers and began issuing notes signed with his name and with the implication they were as good as specie. The notes soon spread beyond the Mormon community. After the agent of a Pittsburgh financier arrived to inquire about the bank’s reserves, the currency collapsed. Saints and Gentiles alike lost their life savings in the scandal. A mob of non-believers drug Smith from his home where he was tarred and feathered.

Indeed, the Mormons under Smith also faced religious persecution. After Joseph and his flock were run out of Ohio, they would come to face trouble in Missouri. Though antebellum Missouri is better remembered for its conflicts between slavery advocates and abolitions, the late 1830’s a series of raids and retaliations flared into what became known as the Mormon War. Slavery was an issue in the conflict. Most Mormons, coming from the northeast, were abolitionists. Most of their neighbors had settled in Missouri from the south and were pro-slavery. But the Missourians also came to resent the new settlers' claims that all of the surrounding land was the Zion of a new chosen people. The Saints were equally distrusting of the Gentiles and a series of raids and counter raids escalated into standing conflict. The war climaxed with Governor Lilburn Boggs executive order of October 1838 calling for the extermination or forced removal of all Mormons from the state. Three days after the order was issued, 17 Mormon men, women, and children were murdered by a Missouri militia at the Haun’s Mill Masacre. Smith realized that unless they fled, he and his followers faced extinction in Missouri.

Smith was determined to avoid another debacle, and with his next settlement sought to build institutions that would make his followers a force to reckon with. Smith and his Saints resettled in Illinois on a bluff above the Mississippi, vacant since it was flanked by malarial marshland. They drained the swamps, and within five years Smith and his followers had built up a town he called Nauvoo that rivaled Chicago in population. Smith made it known that his sizable voting bloc was available to the highest bidder. The Illinois Whig Party was willing to do anything for the votes, and Smith negotiated with them for a town charter that gave Nauvoo unprecedented autonomy and local control. The city of Nauvoo had the right to make and enforce its own laws, establish a court, and field a city militia. The latest incorporation of Zion possessed a legal status that made it a virtual enclave within the state. And Smith acted the part of founding father. He declared himself Lieutenant-General of the 6,000 strong Nauvoo Militia, a rank that hadn’t been held by any officer in the United States since George Washington.

It was in Nauvoo where Smith set about perpetuating his biggest fraud of all. That, or the Prophet received the most startling revelation of Mormonism—that church leaders should follow the example of the Old Testament prophets and take a number of wives. In 1843 he began to circulate this revelation on “celestial marriage” among the highest-ranking members of the church. Almost without exception they were horrified. Surely even the most ardent believers would question a faith that explicitly condoned polygamy, they reasoned. But Smith was adamant on the point, and continued to beseech church elders to live the new principle, as he had been doing in secret for some time. Smith anticipated his own revelation by nearly a decade when he seduced a favorite house servant in Kirtland.

In 1842, one year before Smith’s revelation, his former right hand man, Illinois power broker, and first mayor of Nauvoo, John Bennett, published the 341 page A History of the Saints. This work was a scathing critique of Mormonism that included an expose on the practice of polygamy as secretly practiced by the Mormon elite. Vigorous character assassination of Bennett—he was in all senses an opportunist and a one-time physician who had made a living performing abortions—limited the book’s fallout among the rank and file Mormons. Still, hundreds of people left the church. The work convinced many more non-Saints in Illinois of the dangers of Mormonism. The more outspoken Protestant denominations now railed against the unsavory cult resident on their western border.

Later testimonies corroborate Bennett’s most scandalous claims—that Smith kept an office above his grocery store in Nauvoo where he and other church leaders (including Brigham Young) conducted their plural courtships. Smith, according to Bennett, would invite women he had selected to be future wives to his office and then lead them to an adjoining bedroom. There he would tell his young woman, or sometimes girl, that she was sworn to secrecy about what was to follow. Then he’d tell her that he had long wanted her, that he asked the Lord for her, and that the Lord had said that He wanted Joseph to have her. Then Joseph would try to kiss her, which would invariably induce his subject to faint. Upon revival she would furiously protest on behalf of her chastity. Smith would then explain the benefits of a celestial marriage, that it was not “till death do us part” but a union where she would be “sealed” to the Lord’s Prophet in this world and for eternity beyond. If she still did not consent, Smith’s final argument was the powerful of all. He would remind his future wife that punishment for refusing God’s command was ex-communication and damnation in the afterlife.

Joseph’s apostles continued to fear the repercussions should their polygamy become public knowledge within Nauvoo, and some were slow to participate in the new commandment. The resisters seem to have been moderately successful in containing their prophet. Eliza Smith’s father, Chauncey Webb, who was an influential Mormon due to his entrepreneurial successes despite the frequent forced relocations, was approached by Smith and encouraged to pray on the matter of taking another wife. Chauncey did not act on the request.

Smith’s revelation of 1843 came long after the start of his foray into polygamy. It seems his motive for writing out the new doctrine was to placate his wife Emma. After circulating a copy among select elders, Smith presented the revelation to Emma. The first wife was not amused. Emma pulled the tract from the Smith’s hands, placed a candle in the fireplace, and set the paper alight.

Smith’s will to power matched his insatiable libido. In 1844 he declared himself a candidate for President of the United States and dispersed his Saints throughout the country on a mission to campaign on his behalf. This ambition further intensified scrutiny on Smith. A former counselor to Smith, William Law, who had become Smith’s enemy after the prophet tried to seduce his wife, started a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. The Expositor narrated in graphic detail Smith’s appetite for new female converts. Smith could not countenance an attack from within his own fiefdom. He personally led the mob that attacked the office of the Expositor. Smith and his henchmen mangled the press works and destroyed every copy of the paper they could get their hands on. The prophet miscalculated the reaction to his violent censure. Citizens of Illinois were outraged. Within days the governor issued a order for his arrest.

Joseph Smith’s first response was to flee across the river to Iowa. His wife among others counseled him to return, that he would appear to be a coward before his people if he abandoned them. He agreed. He re-crossed the river and submitted to state authorities. Within days a mob descended on the jail-house where Smith and his deputies were being housed in an upstairs cell. The skeleton crew militia guarding the jail was loath to fire upon fellow citizens and was powerless to stop the mob. As they pounded down his door, Smith unloaded a six-shooter into the mob and then turned to leap out of a second story window. By most accounts his bullet ridden body was dead on impact. So instead of being tried an adulterous charlatan before a court of law, Smith died a martyr. The timing couldn’t have been better since the issue of polygamy was threatening to rip apart the community of Saints in Nauvoo. Smith’s murder gave the troubled Saints a rallying point, and Brigham Young returned from a mission to become the Moses and Paul of Joseph’s new religion. Young delivered the Saints west to Zion and built up the institutions of what is now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The facts in the colorful history of Joseph Smith paint him a charismatic rascal. But who is to say whether or not he was a vessel of God’s will? Religious belief does not reside in the rational or the realm of earthly deeds. Had there been printing presses in the days of antiquity, we might have similar evidence of mortal weaknesses of the Biblical prophets. True or false, Smith's religious contribution is unparalleled in the history of the United States, and he may one day be remembered as the most significant religious figure since Martin Luther. As the architect of the only religion indigenous to the United States, he is surely an underappreciated figure. Click Here to Read More..

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mormons Part Two: The 27th Mrs. Young

This is four part series. Scroll down or click the link to the right for the previous entry.

In 1873, Anna Leonowens, of Anna and the King fame, wrote a now forgotten second book, The Romance of the Harem. The work focused on the role of polygamy in the Siamese court where she had been governess to King Mongut’s sixty odd children. She documented experiences from among the 9,000 wives and concubines of the king and pulled no punches when sharing her opinions on the practice.

“Polygamy—or properly speaking, concubinage—and slavery are the curses of the country,” wrote Mrs. Leonowens, “The number of concubines is limited only by the means of the man. As king is source of all wealth and influence, dependent kings, princes and nobles, and all who seek the royal favor, vie with each other in bringing their most beautiful and accomplished daughters to the royal harem... in Siam, woman is the slave of man.”

The book was a sensation in America. It was a success not because of its exotic content, however, but because of a familiar chord it struck with the American reading public. Polygamy was the source of national scandal in 1873, and because of this Mrs. Leonowens’ book was perfectly timed. Her work was confirmation that polygamy linked our country with the least progressive places on earth, the harems of Arabia and the calcifying empires of the Far East. Romance of the Harem fueled ire and humiliation at a peculiar institution practiced openly within US territory.

Americans in the second half 19th century did not equivocate on the issue of polygamy. Polygamy was considered akin to another peculiar institution, recently abolished African slavery. In the penultimate election before the Civil War, Republican John Fremont’s presidential platform of 1856 directly tied the two institutions with the denunciation of, “those twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery.”

Many of the same reformers who led the fight against slavery took up cause against polygamy. Famed author Harriet Beecher Stowe compared the anti-polygamy crusade to the abolitionist movement, “we must loose the bonds of a cruel slavery whose chains have cut into the very hearts of thousands of our sisters,” she wrote, “a slavery which debases and degrades womanhood, and the family.”

President Lincoln signed the first federal anti-polygamy laws in 1861, and for three decades each successive administration stepped up the pressure for the Mormons to conform to the law. Not until the government threatened the seizure of all church held land did the Mormons drop their practice of plural marriage. This capitulation paved the way for Utah’s statehood in 1890.

1873 saw a national flowering of anti-polygamist sentiment, and the person most responsible for the information on the practice was Ann Eliza Young, the 27th wife of Brigham Young, the second prophet of the LDS and leader of the Mormon exodus to Utah. That was the year Mrs. Young brought her personal reflections and the grievances of Utah’s plural wives to a national audience.

Under threat of violence and ensuing excommunication from the LDS, Eliza escaped from Utah and abandoned her marriage to the Prophet.

Eliza then toured the country lecturing on the evils of polygamy in the Utah territory. Audiences were captivated by her tale. It was a tale of neglect, of a parsimonious husband who, as controller of LDS tithing revenue, was considered to be one of the wealthiest men in the Western United States. Most touching were the pains that she claimed infected the hearts of all plural lives, a desperate competition for the divided attention of a distant husband (who in Young’s case barely knew the names of his hundred odd sons and daughters). She spoke of the shock her mother faced when, just after the death of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Brigham Young first revealed to her and her husband the secret of celestial marriage. In a pattern that must have been repeated in many early Mormon households, the shock gave way to sadness, then bitterness as she was compelled to share her husband with women half her age. Eliza’s escape from Utah was itself a gripping tale, for when she left her husband the Prophet she became the enemy of every Saint in the Utah territory and beyond.

“Imagine, if you can, my feelings,” Eliza later wrote, “on being alone with my little child, in a strange place, under such peculiar circumstances. I had abandoned my religion, my father, mother, home, and friends—deliberately turned away from them all, knowing that the step I was taking could never be retraced. My heart cried out for my mother, who I knew would be more sorely stricken with my action than anyone else in the world. I would have spared her if I could, but I was powerless to act in any other manner.”

She gave her lectures to packed halls in Denver, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, and hundreds of smaller towns across the country. On April 14th 1874 she addressed a lecture to a packed house in Washington D.C. that included many members of Congress as well as Julia and President Ulysses S. Grant. Her speech is credited with the passage of the Poland Law which tightened the prohibitions on polygamy in the US and its territories.

Eliza Young was a second generation Saint. She did not chose the new religion of Joseph Smith, rather she was born into a Mormon household. As a young child she remembers the wagon train she and her family rode to Utah. Those earliest memories also include her “second” mother, and the heartache her real mother endured each time her father took another of his five wives.

Eliza’s parents had been among the earliest converts to this new religion. They both fell under the spell of Joseph Smith, a man who claimed to be the living Prophet of Jesus Christ. It was an audacious claim, one that Eliza’s father initially considered with a great deal of skepticism. Yet Smith converted him. This prophet was imbued with a rare charisma even in an era rampant with revival.

The decision to practice polygamy was not one the family took lightly. From the earliest days of the Church Joseph Smith had been taking multiple wives, but he did so in secrecy. Only slowly did he expanded the practice among church leaders. Polygamy was never a universal practice among Mormons, but in time affluent Mormons were encouraged to practice "the principle". Ann Eliza recounts that after Smith’s death, when Brigham Young was consolidating his control of the church, he used Smith’s martyrdom to make polygamy explicit Church doctrine. Young visited Ann Eliza’s father and demanded he acknowledge the “revelation of plural marriage” by taking a second wife. Chauncey refused to comply without consulting his wife. He knew that the Mormon church was more important to his wife than to himself as he had been prepared to leave it before when twice defrauded of money by Joseph Smith. So he left the decision to her, that they either leave the church or take another woman into their home. She was horrified that religion she had devoted her life to was now asking her to poison her happy home. But the new prophet made clear that the only alternative was apostasy. So the first Mrs. Webb reluctantly decided that Chauncey should marry their nineteen-year old house girl.

It was not until after their migration west into the Salt Lake Basin that the Church of Latter-Day Saints officially announced their sacrament of plural marriage to the world. It had become an unavoidable admission. There were no hotels in the Utah territory circa 1850, and the forty-niners who had stayed in Mormon households on their way to the California gold fields saw enough to circulate rumors of the concubines of Utah. The California press circulated these stories to the world. Still, the rest of the US was aghast in 1852 when Brigham Young publicly revealed the Mormon practice of celestial marriage. For four decades the issue kept the Mormons as a people set apart from the rest of the country. And there were very few links into this world, especially not into the family of the spiritual leader of Mormonism. Thus the sensation when Ann Eliza began her lecture circuit. From 1873 she would lecture 8 months out of the year for over a decade, one of the top box office hits of her generation. Click Here to Read More..