Friday, July 10, 2009

Mormons IX: Temple Square

I’d like to think I’d be fascinated with Utah even if those missionaries way back when hadn’t seeded powerful religious visions in my dreams. I am historian as much as I am a wanderlust nut job, and history of Mormonism illustrates so much of what I love about American history. The revivalism of Second Awakening, the 19th century Immigrant experience, and the internal migrations across the prairie to the frontier are all integral themes of the early Mormon experience. A Trip to Salt Lake enhances an understanding of all these aspects of this American religion. The hundreds of Europeans I saw walking around downtown must have come to a similar conclusion, or at least their guidebooks had, though some of them may have needed a place to stop over on the long trip to the West Coast.

I was met at the gate to the Temple Square by a pair of smiling missionaries. These were not the black suited duos trolling for baptisms on dusty streets the world over. First, they were female, and second, instead of the black and white nametags I can spot from two hundred yards out, these women had softer looking nameplates that included the flag of their native countries. Judging by the nametags of the hostesses leading tourists around the grounds, this was a veritable United Nations of Mormonism. My greeters were an oddly matched pair, Sister Khalium, a short, soft-spoken Mongolian, and Sister Amador, a plump, dour faced Mexican who looked like she had stepped out of a Oaxacan convent.

I asked Sister Amador if she would do the tour in Spanish. She told me no, but that I could find the Spanish tour near the seagull statue. She told me to first take her tour and then take the Spanish tour. She insisted it would last no more than 30 minutes. She was oddly intimidating. If she had dressed in a habit with one look she could have scared a classroom full of the rowdiest special ed kids into compliance.

A couple from Florida was also waiting for guides so the three of us started off into the grounds. The sisters led us into the tabernacle and explained that virtually everything from the dark wooden pews to the faux marble columns had in fact been made of white pine. Khalium began with the story of the building, but her heavy accent and was difficult to understand, so I tuned her out, though careful to appear attentive as Amador had a sharp eye on me. I scribbled some notes for her approval. I wasn’t much interested in the empty tabernacle was already wondering when they would show us the talking statue of Jesus. I probably had to wait till the end as what else could possibly follow a talking statue of Jesus.

In her baritone, sister Amador demonstrated the perfect acoustics of a building that was ascetic even by Protestant standards. What had convinced this woman’s family to leave the colorful world of Mexican Catholicism, with its holy days and magical saints, the thinly veiled continuity with a colorful and awe inspiring Aztec priesthood the Spanish had so masterfully assimilated? According to the book of Mormon, her dark skin was given to her ancestors as a curse on their people.

The Florida couple asked a few polite questions and soon the tour moved into a museum that looked like a Smithsonian devoted to the Mormon foundation myth. Though corny, it was probably a necessity that a young faith curates its stories in this way. Foundation myths are difficult to sustain in the era of the printing press. The possibility of detailed and mass produced historical record puts new religions at a disadvantage to the more ancient traditions. In spite of the limitations of operating within a scrutinized historical space, the Mormons have been able to incorporate their history into a foundation story that echoes both the Old Testament and the unique historical experience of a growing United States.

The first gallery was designed to set the Judeo-Christian mind at ease with floor to ceiling action paintings of the Jewish prophets as they conned pharoahs, parted seas, crossed deserts, and pacified hungry beasts. We climbed a staircase to a large room with a 25 foot ceiling. The walls were covered with a celestial mural of stars, planets and far away galaxies. In the middle of the room was a large statue of Jesus. Was this the talking Jesus? I felt slightly ridiculous asking the question, fearing Sister Amador might slap me with some Hail Mary’s. I kept my mouth shut, so did Jesus.

The next room had a series of exhibits with wax statues reenacting the stories unique to the Mormon faith: the prophet Mormon himself inscribing his book onto gold plates, Joseph finding and translating the plates hundreds of years later, Brigham Young asserting authority over a the tested flock, and handcarts, the man powered equivalent of the covered wagon and icon of the Mormons exodus across the Great Plains.

Sister Amador declared our 30 minutes had expired almost as soon as we reached the last room, though she invited us to continue looking at the exhibits. The woman from Florida looked disappointed, and suddenly she let go with the question that had been gnawing at her since Sister Khalium had garbled us through outer space.

“What about the Polygamy?” she asked.

Until this point I hadn’t been sure if the couple were Mormons on holiday, so I had kept my questions to a minimum out of respect for their experience. But now the gauntlet was down, I too turned to Sisters for an answer. Khaliun disappeared down the hall and Amador made a motion with her hand and led the three of us to some chairs at the center of the exhibit. For a moment I felt like she had just given us a timeout. But then Khalium reappeared and handed us some brochures to the Beehive House, Brigham Young’s former residence down the street, and Amador explained that the tour there would give us more details on the history of plural marriage. They were out of time, Amador said, and abruptly bid us a good rest of stay in Salt Lake. They left us to find our way out of the museum.

I was just as disappointed as the woman from Florida. There had been no talking statue, and no talk of polygamy, though the question had been asked. Even the LDS Kindergarten teacher who presented her Mormonism in sing song one afternoon to my fourth grade class, as she handed out Bit O Honey’s and captivated me with her warm hazel eyes and long brown hair, even she mentioned plural marriage. It was a historical necessity in her tale. Precious few men who pushed those ill-conceived handcarts across the prairie survived the 1000 mile journey from Iowa to Utah. All the surviving women and children needed roofs to sleep under.

It was probably unfair for my tour guides that my expectations for Temple Square were the equivalent of a six year old’s for Disney World. Disney World and Temple Square in the same sentence may seem suspect, but there is an analogy there, both Mormon and Mouse have attracted the masses as markers of dreams. The early Mormon Church grew through immigration from northern Europe—where the populations were suitably white and non-Catholic—as early missionaries fished for converts in soot stained mill towns of England and hardscrabble villages of Scandinavia.

Joseph Smith’s first missionaries offered a new brand of Jesus Christ and taught that the world’s miracles had not dried up with the bones of the old prophets. Their message dovetailed perfectly with their strongest selling point, a bountiful new land across the ocean. These first converts, whatever their convictions for the teachings of Joseph Smith, would have had visions of the American Dream and the promise of a better life to pull them from their bleak surroundings. The new Zion by the Salt Lake must have sounded like a city from a fairy tale, a place free of menacing smokestacks, a community where the community did not let individual families starve in the winter. They sold the American Dream, 19th century style, and they built this square with these new pilgrims in mind.

If the Orlando theme park is the 20th century version of the dream, perhaps I would have been happier the days of the frontier. Disney begins marketing to kids before they say their first word and then shamelessly holds toddlers’ happiness as a ransom to suck every last cent out of befuddled parents. If attractions around Temple Square aren’t quite Magic Mountain, at least they were free. They want your soul of course, but will ask for your address only if you volunteer interest in a Book of Mormon and a visit from the missionaries. If I had to choose between the story of a prophet who believed in a god considerate enough to pay my country a visit, and a bug-eyed rodent who schemes to brainwash my future children in order to reach into my pocketbook— well, screw the mouse.

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