Salt Lake City
It’s confession time. Before I went there, before I saw thick tyres rumble past glittering salt, I knew little of Salt Lake City. And less still about the Mormon Church.
I mean, I guessed that there was a city, a lake and some salt. And also that I wouldn’t be the first to make that kind of joke.
But as for the Mormons? When I heard the joke about the Moomins, I genuinely had to pause for a moment to reflect on which was which.
But enough of my ignorance. Let’s cleanse it with some travel and lashings and lashings of facts.
Salt Lake City is indeed a city and there is a salt lake nearby. For all my earlier bravado, this was still something of a find. Europe is littered with cities no longer defined by the origins of their names: Rotterdam, Liverpool, Dublin, to name a few. (The word Dublin, for example, comes from the Gaelic “black pool.” And they weren’t talking about Guinness.)
So, to see the sprawling salt flats of Utah gave a moment of childlike wonder.
Salt, you see, stretches beyond just white. It shimmers and shimmies across impossibly vast horizons, drifting into brushes with violet and dances with racing car green.It shimmers across vast horizons, drifting into brushes with violet and dances with racing car green.
In the city itself, it’s less the salt and more the snow that rises on the surrounding Wasatch peaks that draws the crowds. This love of ski-ing and the outdoors leaves local residents with fresh, outdoor faces and a hint of year round tan.
Like many a US city, Salt Lake’s centre has a tight, taut grid upon which glass and cement malls are mounted.
Unlike many other cities, the biggest, shiniest mall was paid for by the Mormon Church.
For, although only 50% of current residents remain true believers, the existence of Salt Lake City today is irrevocably intertwined with the existence of the Mormon Church.
Now, for those of us more well versed in the historical machinations of Catholic v Protestant or even the Sunni v Shia divide, the concept of the Mormon church, if we have one at all, may be limited. Perhaps a remote village and a few leftover high priests at best.
Whereas, the real Mormon Church firstly has a different name (it’s officially called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and secondly is a multi-billion dollar international operation with more than 14 million members.
The LDS (to use the local term) began life in the 1820s when New Yorker Joseph Smith found the engraved plates of the Book of Mormon buried in the ground. His translation revealed the story of Jesus Christ in the Americas: Mayans and Aztecs included.
Thus inspired, and in conjunction with other heavenly visitations, he founded his church in 1830, attracted disciples and was promptly shunned from high, or indeed any, society in New York.
And so began the trek across the desert.A difficult journey…
To cut a long story short, after journeys through Missouri and Ohio, plus the odd war, and even brutal murders, Smith’s successor Brigham Young led believers to the Great Salt Lake Valley, a territory that at the time lay beyond the United States.
When he reached those glittering salt flats, he (or a message from above) advised him to stop and found a city in his holy god’s name.
And so, what we witness in Salt Lake City is an event of religious focus and magnitude not seen for over a thousand years in Mecca and many thousands more in Jerusalem.
It would seem to be a step back in time, but for the inescapable observation that Salt Lake City buzzes as one of the most modern cities on earth.
And the heart of Salt Lake City is Temple Square, a ten acre stamp of greenery between City Creek that flows into the River Jordan, and the imposing Salt Lake Temple.
An austere, impossibly tall building rises up from the clinical ground to form said Temple. It’s off limits to non-Mormons, out of respect, but there’s an easier way to gain a deeper understanding of the influence of the church on the city.
For strolling around the gardens are missionaries of the Mormon Church: there to spread the word.
One of the cornerstones of the Mormon faith is to devote time to missionary service away from home, a cultural nugget that explains the polyglot nature of a city this deep into the American landmass.
Two young women, dressed in long skirts and cardigans, offer to guide me for free around the former home of the salt-founding leader Brigham Young.
They are kind, these women, and sweet. And after a question or two from me that provokes immediate awkwardness, I decide that here is neither the time nor the place to explore certain, let’s say, interpretative differences.
Brigham’s home, known as the Beehive House, actually is a time trip to the past. Polished wooden banisters sweep between petal-embossed white jugs, lace curtains, faded papers and rusted spectacles folded upon them.
In it, I discover another tenet of the LDS: the forgiveness of sinners after their death and their baptism into the church.
This, too, explains the emergency of a nearby building: the FamilySearch Center.
No sooner are we inside than another missionary offers to help.
Fair enough, I think to myself. What harm can it do?
With a few half-remembered details of grandparents’ places of birth, the computer whirs and we’re off.
The results are as impressive as they are disconcerting. Every paper record on, well, record over the last 1000 years from England and Wales has been scanned and entered into this computer.
Hand-scrawled church registers. Land deeds. Obituaries and military reports.
At least that’s what I’m told, and the first files that fly onto the screen seem to support the claim.
Suddenly, I’m not so sure I want to attach my name to these records in this way.
“What’s the purpose of all this? Why does the church provide it for free?”
I receive an answer that’s both poetic and puzzling to hear. My volunteer explains that we are more than just this life and that we will be reunited in the afterlife with our families. Those who were not baptized into the LDS during their lifetime can enter the church after death: this requires a ceremony whereby their living relatives give them the post-humous choice to convert. In order for the LDS church to do that, they need the records of the full family tree, as far back as it can go.
And so, Salt Lake City has developed the greatest family search facility in the world.
Away from the Temple heart, Salt Lake City dazzles in its modernity. Yet that too is something of an illusion.
On the slopes of the Wasatch Range, I take in the cavernous glass-walled edifice of the Natural History Museum of Utah.
Like all great museums of its kind, dinosaur skeletons tower towards the ceiling, menacing children who squeal with delight.
It tells the tale of the Great Salt Lakes before the Europeans arrived.
Of how Utah holds more fossil records than any other state and how the name of the State itself hails from the “Utes,” the Native American tribe that roamed across these plains.
Feathers, fine beads and faded moccasins glimpse at shadows of the past, and of stories still largely untold.
A sweet, clean tarmac drive past frat houses and a Washington-esque monument whisks me to my hotel, the Hotel Monaco in Downtown Salt Lake City.
It’s a cool destination, clustered between art galleries, museums and (somewhat surprisingly) microbreweries.
As residents have been trying to tell me: Salt Lake City is not all about the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
But when even the beer reads as Polygamy Porter, a throwback to former practices here, I think it’s fair to say that it made an impression.
And with that thought, I cast off my first impressions of Salt Lake City. And get ready to get under its skin.
As ever, as always, and in each of these places, I kept the right to write what I like.
As an extra note, and as we all know, writing about both religion and First Nations history can be a rather fraught experience.
My writing aims to reflect respect and to deal with facts, as best as I can find them, within the context of a travel narrative. What may seem well-known to some is completely foreign to others. So if you have a greater knowledge of one of these subjects, please do share…with respect. There’s enough strife in the world already, don’t you think?
Thanks for reading,