Saturday, 7 November 2015

"The City of the Saints" by Sir R.F. Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was a renowned explorer and writer.  This book contains, amongst other things, an account of a journey which he made to the early Mormon colony at Great Salt Lake City.  This review should be read together with my earlier review of The Rocky Mountain Saints by T.B.H. Stenhouse (whom Burton met on his trip).

Burton's visit took place in 1860.  At this time, immigrants were still pouring into the Salt Lake Valley, mostly from Burton's native Great Britain, where they had been converted by the Mormon Church's army of missionaries.  Burton implies that many of them were as much economic migrants as religious ones.

Unlike Stenhouse's work, this book is not a polemic.  Burton was not writing from an anti-Mormon perspective.  In some respects, he is rather favourable towards the Mormons, and he defends them against some of the charges levelled by their opponents.  He describes them as a "peaceful, industrious, and law-abiding people".  He reports that he was received everywhere hospitably.  He was impressed by the well-built and growing new town that was Great Salt Lake City, which compared well with other frontier settlements.

Utah had by now been incorporated into the United States, albeit as a federally administered territory rather than a fully-fledged state.  But it was a poorly integrated part of the American republic.  The Utah War was still a recent memory.  Burton makes it clear that "this people", as they commonly called themselves, continued to nurse separatist and anti-American sentiments.  He writes of tribal animosity between the Mormons and the "Gentiles" or "Christians"; there were mutual allegations of crime and lawlessness.

The most notorious feature of the Latter-day Saints' new society was, of course, polygamy.  The population of single women was already so depleted by the practice that girls commonly got married at 16 (the equivalent age in England at this time was 30).  Perhaps surprisingly, Burton reports that women were more keen on polygamy than men.  He also reports that Mormon women lived in semi-seclusion, and that they occupied a low social status - something which he rather approved of.

Public and political life in Utah was characterised by "a division and a clashing of the two principles: one, the federal, republican, and laical; the other, the theocratic, despotic, and spiritual".  But the clash was an unequal one.  Familiar American republican forms of government disguised a hierarchical religious society: "It has not been judged advisable to cast off the last rags of popular government, but... theocracy is not much disguised by them."  Burton did not like democracy, and he warmly commended this arrangement.

The head of the new Zion was Brigham Young, Prophet and President of the Mormon Church.  According to Burton, Young was an unpretentious man who lived a temperate life and looked like a gentleman farmer from New England.  Yet no illusions were to be indulged about his power:
There is no secret from the head of the Church and State; every thing, from the highest to the lowest detail of private and public life, must be brought to the ear and submitted to the judgment of the father confessor-in-chief.  Gentiles often declare that the Prophet is acquainted with their every word half an hour after it is spoken: and from certain indices, into which I hardly need enter, my opinion is that, allowing something for exaggeration, they are not very far wrong.
As Burton notes, Mormonism had emerged from a familiar cultural environment - it was "in its origin English, Protestant, anti-Catholic, Methodistic" - but it had become something radically new and different.  It was a wholly new religious dispensation, incarnated in a theocratic polity in which "romance and reverence are transferred... from love and liberty to religion and the Church".  Burton seriously contemplated that Utah - or "Deseret", to use its original Mormon name - would in due course become an independent country.  The Mormons themselves looked forward to the day when their faith would be established across the world.