‘Railroading Religion,’ with David Walker [MIPodcast #108]
When railroads started making their way across the western frontier of the United States in the 1800s, many Americans thought it would destroy the religion known as “Mormonism.” Brigham Young, then-president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, disagreed, declaring, “It must be a damned poor religion if it can’t stand one railroad!” Young turned out to be right. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not only survived, but flourished in its mountain home. But it didn’t emerge from its railroad battles unchanged.
In this episode, Dr. David Walker joins us to talk about his latest book Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West. It’s a more fascinating and more humorous story than you might expect, so stay with us.
David Walker is associate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work focuses on intersections of religion, settlement policy, technology, and popular culture in the long nineteenth century (c. 1780-1920). His latest book is Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West.
BLAIR HODGES: Good morning, Ksenia. How are you today?
KSENIA HODGES: Good.
BLAIR: It’s nice to be with you today. We’re sitting in the car. You’re my daughter. And how old are you?
BLAIR: What grade are you in?
BLAIR: And what’s going on in the world right now?
KSENIA: People have to stay in their homes and not really go anywhere.
BLAIR: How come?
KSENIA: Because the Coronavirus is going on.
BLAIR: We’re trying to stay safe and keep people healthy, right?
BLAIR: And you’re doing school from home too, right?
BLAIR: Has it been fun to have mom and dad home a lot?
HODGES: What kind of things have you been doing?
KSENIA: I’ve pretty much been bored.
HODGES: [laughs] Well, we’re trying to keep you entertained—
HODGES: Alright. Well, I asked if you’d come out to the car here, my little temporary recording studio, and if you could help me introduce the show.
KSENIA: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
BLAIR HODGES: I’m Blair Hodges. When railroads started making their way across the western frontier of the United States in the 1800s many Americans thought it would destroy the religion known as “Mormonism.” The president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young, disagreed. He declared, “I don’t care anything for a religion that could not stand a railroad. Indeed, it must be a damned poor religion if it can’t stand one railroad.” Brigham Young turned out to be right, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not only survived but flourished in its mountain home. But it didn’t emerge from its railroad battles unchanged.
In this episode, Dr. David Walker joins us to talk about his latest book Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West. It’s a more fascinating and more humorous story than you might expect, so stay with us. Questions and comments about this or any other episode can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HODGES: David Walker, welcome to Provo. Welcome to the Maxwell Institute.
WALKER: I’m glad to be here. Thank you for having me.
HODGES: It’s wonderful, I just finished reading your book Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West. I found this book to be really engaging, interesting, and it’s taking a new kind of approach. It’s a lot more theoretical than a lot of the history books I’ve read about the American west, maybe say a word about that before we start.
WALKER: Sure. I appreciate the compliment, thanks for reading it.
I work in religious studies and I’ve been trained in the theories and methods of religious studies. I’ve been interested always in the ways in which we could reintegrate religion in the American west with the field, more broadly, of theory and method of religion. I think that they both have the opportunity to speak to each other in more robust ways than we’ve allowed them to.
HODGES: And how would you differentiate that from just a typical historical approach to the past?
WALKER: Yeah, this is actually a hard question, right? So when I went to graduate school there was a certain sense that historians are actually not interested in theorizing or thinking about theory, or thinking about theories of religion.
HODGES: The idea is to “Just tell the story”?
WALKER: Right, just tell the story, just find the data, the data could speak for itself, allow it to speak through us. Although I understand the stance, I think it represents a sort of peculiar understanding of the nature of theory itself as something that’s either predictive or prescriptive. Or perhaps anachronistic in particular ways.
So I think whenever you’re looking for data to sort of tell a story, you’re going into the research process itself with a certain sense of what constitutes data for the purposes of evidence, argumentation, and religious studies. That is to say you are going in already with a certain sense of theory and method in and for religious studies. And I think it makes sense to render that explicit. I think it makes sense to render that explicit in articulation with and in conversation with the historiography of the field. And that’s some of what I try to do here.
Another way of saying that is I think history and historiography are not mutually exclusive fields. In fact, I think they’re actually the same thing. History is looking at the process by which we have understood historical data to be such.
HODGES: So historiography tells the history of history.
HODGES: Do you find, as you’re working with students, that it’s difficult for them to dive into the theory, or how is it at school, teaching these things?
WALKER: I don’t think it is. I mean, at one level, that’s sort of all on us, as teachers, to figure out how we’re going to teach this material. And my in-class trick is always to articulate and find people on the ground in their everyday lives theorizing religion in ways that we could sort of compare to classical theories in the field.
So it’s sort of a classroom trick at a certain level. For every E. B. Tyler I will find you a P. T. Barnum. For every Max Weber, I’ll find you a J. H. Beadle. And some of that is just to sort of show the way that theory is operative on the ground all the time in the sort of intense, intellectual labors of people themselves going through their everyday lives.
HODGES: And we’ll talk about Beadle, who you mentioned, we’ll talk about him a little later on. But Max Weber is this sort of theorist of religion, very popular in the field. He came up with the idea of the “Protestant work ethic” and all these things. Very technical. And then Beadle was writing to a popular audience, he tried to tell people what Mormons were about. But he was theorizing religion, he had ideas about what religion was, what proper religion was, what improper religion was, the role of religion in public life.
So Beadle is speaking in common terms, whereas Weber is going to be using big words, and so it’s theory all the way down, whether it’s sort of back pocket theory that anybody pulls out or something that a scholar has sat down and really hammered through.
WALKER: Yeah, and that’s part of the project too, to recover theory as something that’s not exclusively in and for the academy and edicts of scholars or even sort of lawyers or government agents. But rather to look, again, at the intense intellectual labor done by people on the ground, as they themselves contest or intersect with some of the programs that are being implemented elsewhere.
HODGES: Right, let’s dive in here to chapter one. Your book is called Railroading Religion, and it’s going to look at the American west, it’s going to look at Utah.
And by the way, I should say for our listeners, throughout the episode we’ll sometimes be using “Mormon,” and “Mormonism,” this is in a historical sense in how people understood themselves and the labels that were used in a book of history. So if anyone has questions about use of “Mormon,” that’s how we’ll be using it in this interview.
I’m going to begin here with Charles Dickens, yes, the guy who wrote Great Expectations, I’m talking about the Charles Dickens. He was astonished at the rise of a new prophet in America. He was in England and he heard about Joseph Smith and he wrote about Mormonism in 1851. Here’s what he said:
“Our age, amongst other curious phenomena, has produced a new religion designated ‘Mormonism,’ and a prophet named Joe Smith. It exhibits fanaticism in its newest garb. Homely, wild, vulgar fanaticism, seeing visions in the age of railways.”
Dickens was amazed that at such an advanced time in history, someone would believe that an angel could give a book of gold plates to a prophet. How did Dickens’s take on Mormonism fit into broader public opinion about the new religion?
WALKER: Yeah, that’s great. Dickens’s astonishment, his amazement at the idea of visions in the age of railroads speaks precisely to the sort of rising presumptions of the incompatibility of modernity, industrial modernity and capitalism with certain modes of religious expression. So I’m looking at, in this book, what I call, the “death knell thesis.” Which is the idea that circulates in popular venues as well as governmental and political venues. That indeed capitalism, Protestantism, industry, laissez-faire economics themselves will ultimately derail, or render impossible religious movements such as Mormonism.
So the book is set up to sort of look at the irony of that presumption, the irony of Dickens’s own astonishment, at a certain level. To say, rather, actually these things are not only not mutually exclusive, but in many ways, railroad industries constructed the Mormonism that we know.
HODGES: Yes, so people were thinking, in this enlightened age religion will sort of die off. People are going to come to their senses, drop their superstitions. Technology, transportation, all of these things would lead to that.
There was one traveler writer in particular that you quote, where they said, “The first whistle of the locomotive will sound the death knell in Utah.” How did you home in on railroads as your focus for this?
WALKER: Why did I home in on railroads? Well part of the answer goes back to when I was starting to articulate and think through the delineations of this project. And I thought it would be a broader project at a certain level, looking at academies, institutions, land granting institutions, canal systems, a whole bunch of different sort of infrastructural initiatives that may have influenced the way religion was shaped and articulated in the American west.
But as anyone knows as you get into the archives of the debate about infrastructure in the nineteenth century, railroads are the ubiquitous and central point of conversation for pretty much everyone. It is was one of the major industrial enterprises and initiatives and interests of nineteenth-century Americans generally. And it also represented a lot of the political initiatives of the Civil War congress itself.
So you’ve got, again, ubiquitous conversations about railroads and their import in an reconstructing nation that will focus on the west itself. You then get people who are talking about railroads and the import that they will have, what they will do to the west, to groups in the west. And in all of these conversations, in many of these conversations I was shocked to find a sort of pervasive interest in restructuring the nature of Mormonism itself, as well.
HODGES: That’s kind of the way the rails shaped Mormonism, because they were actually connecting people. Mormonism couldn’t be an isolated thing off in the mountains, right? Railroads connected them to other people and connected other people to them. They had to interact, and that interaction will change things, change the country, and the country will come to change Mormons, according to your book.
HODGES: What kind of things were concerning in the public opinion about Mormonism? If someone says that they have a vision, you can sort of dismiss that, but why did Mormonism become such a flashpoint?
WALKER: Yes, part of the argument is that Mormonism became especially a flashpoint upon conceptualization of the transcontinental railroad, which would necessarily cross the lands of the west and through the Great Basin. There was, then, an impetus or a requirement to render intelligible the nature of Mormonism and try to think through, “Okay, what will that mean as a group that will be reconnected to—and indeed placed right along—the mainline of American transportation and commerce.
HODGES: If you’re going to be travelling through the area, should you be scared or not? [laughs]
WALKER: Yeah, at a certain level, yes absolutely. But the concerns were very much those of theocracy, polygamy, the relationship between church and state, the idea that Mormonism itself instituted a mode of antiquity or pre-modernity that was incompatible with the modernity of America at large, or at least that which Americans imagined for themselves.
HODGES: It’s interesting to see the ways you talk about how Latter-day Saints couldn’t be good Americans (according to some) because they had allegiance to a prophet, they believed they have revelation from God, so they would privilege that over any kind of law or any kind of national spirit or anything like that.
So, it wasn’t just that people were seeing visions that troubled people like Charles Dickens. It was also that those visions had implications for where to build a community or who to buy goods from or sell goods to. Even though a lot of a Americans, like Dickens, were optimistic that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would wither away, the dawn of modernity would sort of melt away the frost of this old religion, they believed. Though they had different opinions about how to make that happen.
Let’s look at two figures in particular that you introduce in chapter one. They felt Mormonism would fade away, but they disagreed about what to do to make that happen. Let’s look at Justin Morrill and William Walters Boyce.
WALKER: Justin Morrill, who was known as the namesake of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, was particularly concerned about Mormonism in the terms that we’ve been discussing, and the idea that it was sort of instituting a mode of theocracy that was incompatible with American modernity. The idea was that its institution of polygamy would undercut the monogamous home and the groundwork of American morality.
So he then put forth the Anti-Bigamy Act that was set out, not only to penalize bigamous relationships or polygamous relationships, but to also limit church power and its ability and the extent of its possible land holdings. There was extensive conversation about the Anti-Bigamy Act as the first possible federal anti-Mormon legislation in the nation.
HODGES: The idea was, stop polygamy, stop the Mormons.
WALKER: Stop polygamy, stop the Mormons, exactly. Using polygamy itself as both a wedge issue, but also as a representative catch-all for all of the concerns that Morrill and others had.
HODGES: Church and state, and all these other things.
WALKER: Where Boyce comes in is that he was also interested in the passage of the Anti-Bigamy Act, but he suggested that the federal government needn’t do very much to enforce it. Because his idea was that, upon chartering the transcontinental railroad in that same year 1862, that it would work to similar ends to sort of “derail” Mormonism, weaken the institutional power of the church, render the federal initiative of the Anti-Bigamy Act unnecessary.
Railroads themselves would ultimately become agents of the Morrill Act and in many ways, sort of missionaries in and for the west. So let railroads run their course, he said. Let them do the work of the government.
HODGES: That was a fascinating part of the chapter, the way you put the Anti-Bigamy Act next to the Pacific Railway Act, I never would have expected a railway act to be so tied up in discussions of religion. On the one hand you have Morrill, who is sort of saying, “Let’s legislate and destroy Mormonism.” And on then you have Boyce, who is saying “No, no, no. We can just sort of contain them and infiltrate them, we’ll have the railroad come through and that will take care of the problem.”
WALKER: Surround them by industry and the problem will take care of itself.
HODGES: So they agreed largely on a theory of religion, and especially on the religion of Mormonism. But they disagreed on the means of taking care of what they saw as a problem. We’ll see that throughout the book.
And in fact, in Utah, Mormons weren’t the only ones there. There were people who were not Mormon who were often referred to as “Gentiles,” outsiders. And your book talks about a man called J. H. Beadle, who we mentioned a little bit earlier. He wanted to see a rise of a Gentile city of power in Utah to compete with Salt Lake City and other centers of power in Utah. Your book talks about a little city called Corinne. And you say Beadle was a popular theorizer of religion. What did he want Corinne to become?
WALKER: Yes, so Corinne. I imagine Beadle was reading the times of governmental conversation of industrial interest of the West. And he thought, okay, given politicians’ interest in wrapping industry around Mormonism in order thus to choke out what they would term the “Mormon Menace,” they will surely also be interested in helping to support a Gentile metropolis in Utah. So Beadle became a booster of this would-be town Corinne, which is about sixty miles north of Salt Lake.
HODGES: And it’s still there, shout out to the Corinnethians!
WALKER: Absolutely. Beadle thought, okay, we will plant this particular town and surely we will attract industry, we will attract governmental support, we will attract missionary support. Miners will come here to work in the mines, railroaders will come to work on the lines. Corinne itself will be built up as a possible metropolis, presumably it will also be the major transcontinental railroad hub. Because surely the corporations themselves will buy into this project. Subsequently Corinne will be able to sort of dethrone Salt Lake as the powerhouse of the region. And ultimately Corinne will rise as the major metropolis—the Chicago of the west!
HODGES: That had big implications. Because as Corinne grew, they would be able to control Utah politics. They would be able to control Utah’s national politics as well and Utah’s industries. They would become a hub for transporting goods, for transporting people, it was a big deal. Beadle had a huge vision here. He thought this was going to be like the Chicago of the west, you said.
We’ll talk more about what is going to happen to Corinne. Did Beadle’s vision come to pass? We’re talking today with David Walker, he’s an associate professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbra and we’re talking about his new book, Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West.
HODGES: So far, we’ve talked about people who are talking about Mormonism. Now, your next chapter turns to what Mormons themselves were saying, and how they were dealing with this.
Mormons were aware of the death knell thesis. They were very familiar with the claims that their religion would wither away and die. There’s a conference the church held in 1868 which you call “the Railroad Conference” [laughs], because railroads played such a prominent theme at this conference. What were Latter-day Saints saying about the death knell thesis at that time?
WALKER: Absolutely, so this was a church conference in October 1868, held in the Tabernacle, where Saints and Latter-day Saint officials were talking about the railroad initiatives of politicians as well as Corinnethians. They were fully aware of the Corinnethian project and the work of J. H. Beadle and others. So they came together, in part to demonstrate that they were not afraid of railroads, as Brigham Young sort of famously said: “I do not care for a religion that cannot stand a railroad,” or “Mormonism would be blank-damn poor religion if it cannot stand a single railroad.”
HODGES: He’s like, “Bring it on!”
WALKER: Yeah, bring it on. He was interested in the railroads, not only because it would connect Saints to sort of broader economies across the nation, but also because they would expedite the emigration of Saints to Utah as well.
HODGES: Quicker than a handcart, quicker than an oxcart.
WALKER: And also quite a bit cheaper. However, in demonstrating their excitement of the possibility of the railroad—for which they had actually lobbied in a number of other venues, from beforehand throughout the 1850’s—they also recognized that it did indeed bring a certain set of perils to Mormon institutions as they currently stood.
HODGES: So Mormons had a lot to gain. They weren’t resisting the railroad, they knew the death knell thesis, but they thought, “No, people are wrong about this, the railroads aren’t going to do that.”
That doesn’t mean they weren’t nervous about some of the things a railroad might do. What are some of the things that might cause a leader, like Brigham Young, to be a little wary of railroads?
WALKER: One thing he was concerned about, and one thing that was addressed at great length at this October Railroad Conference, was that the connection with transcontinental railroads would weaken Mormon economies and flood Utah Territory with different goods from across the nation and bring outsiders as well people who work on the lines to settle into Salt Lake, and weaken, perhaps, the demographic predominance of the Saints. But also they would perhaps bring cheap labor materials that would undercut the economies of codependence and communalism that the Saints themselves had built up over the preceding twenty years.
HODGES: So they were welcoming the railroad, but they were also wary of exactly how it would work, and now they were in a competition. They were aware of Corinne, they were aware of what their aims were. So this became a competition. And Corinne wanted the railroads to meet near Corinne. But Latter-day Saints wanted it to be in a Latter-day Saint community, like Salt Lake or Ogden. How did the church carry the day?
WALKER: Let me restate an answer to an earlier question about what the matters of concern were for the Saints, even as they demonstrated a certain self-confidence about the arrival of the railroad.
The concern was about the arrival of both cheap labor and cheap goods that might compromise the systems that Latter-day Saints themselves had built up, perhaps undermining the bases of economic codependence and economic self-sufficiency. Now, when the railroads were coming, one of the ways Brigham Young actually swayed the railroads to actually come to Ogden rather than Corinne—and this is actually the substance of much of the second chapter of my book—is that Brigham Young wooed the railroads, not only by reaching out and offering labor, offering to be subcontractors along the lines of the Union and Central Pacific Railways, but also to offer land and to give land grants to the Union and Central Pacifics, so that they would ultimately establish their hub in Ogden, rather than in Corinne.
HODGES: This would allow the railroad people to build shops, hotels, is that kind of it? Like an industrial district?
WALKER: Yes, shops, hotels, round houses, some of the immediate infrastructure that comes with the connection itself. So then when Brigham Young offered a large tract of land, it was offered for free in an already-approved kind of way, and that induced the railroads to settle there. Now again, Ogden was not the area the Saints necessarily wanted the railroads to go at first. They really did want the railroads to connect in and through Salt Lake and perhaps run a southern route around the Great Salt Lake.
HODGES: Then out to the coast of the United States?
WALKER: Right, exactly. But once the railroads realized that was not going to be expedient or cost-effective to do so, and that they really did need to run the northern route around the top of the Salt Lake, then the battle became one of whether the connection would be Corinne or somewhere else.
So again, the Ogden push was to make sure that it was somewhere else. Ogden was essentially the middle point or the middle ground between Salt Lake, the Mormon capital, and Corinne, the would-be Gentile capital. It sort of split the difference. Much of the argument for the book, then, is that the railroads, having settled specifically in these middle grounds between Mormon and Gentile economies, sort of mediated between them in a number of different respects as time went on.
HODGES: And as we’ve talked about land, we’ve been focusing on Mormons and non-Mormons or frankly, white American, white European and American people, right? But your book also talks a lot about Native Americans, who also had a role to play in this. How did Latter-day Saints versus Corinnethians view Indians as having any rights or any say in the land or where the railroad would go?
WALKER: If we go back to the printed promotional materials of Corinne, or the boosterism of J. H. Beadle or otherwise, he was convinced that, quite excited by the idea that native people, especially the Northwestern Shoshone, were eradicated, ridden out, gone from the areas around Corinne, and thus the sort of emptiness of the land, as he would cast it, enabled the filling of that space with the agents of proper, white settlement. Now of course this was completely and totally wrong, the Shoshone groups themselves were both in the area and continued to winter in the area as well. But his argument was, in many ways, an attempt to write Shoshone people out of the history and thus indeed to effect their displacement through their rhetorical displacement.
HODGES: And the railroad would do away with Indians as well?
WALKER: Absolutely. And you find this also in the political discussions we were talking about, where it was said that railroads would ultimately do away with Mormonism or choke out what was said to be the Mormon Menace, is that ubiquitously also the conversation was that of the eradication or displacement of Native peoples throughout the American west. This was the other idea about what American industry and transcontinental connections would bring to the west, and bring the possibility of specifically white settlement through, again, the further displacement of Native peoples.
HODGES: One of the advantages Brigham Young had over the people in Corinne was people. People who listened to him. He had the ability to enlist a lot of people to work for the railroad companies. But also many people to contribute. This chapter talks about what women were doing and some of the things Young was asking women to do to contribute. Talk about that for a minute.
WALKER: Absolutely. So this was also a point of conversation in the October Railroad Conference in 1868, but also more generally in Salt Lake at the time, what work Mormon women could do, also, to help the Mormon economy. To bolster that economy against what was assumed to be a sort of onslaught of sort of Gentile incursion.
Many women themselves, and the rebooted Relief Society and Entrenchment associations, tried to foster self-sufficiency in what was called “home manufactures.” To weave, to sew, to put together home manufactures and homemade clothes themselves, as well. In order then that Saints more broadly would not have to import or buy into Gentile markets.
That was not the only work that was done. Women themselves also used the rebooted Relief Society as a platform then for prophecy, women’s aid work, a number of other initiatives. But this was one of the ideas that Brigham Young very much pushed for, the Relief Society and other women’s institutions, is that they could help mobilize the Saints themselves against the Gentile incursion.
HODGES: This contest played out kind of like a race. There’s this sense of excitement, because you have two railroad companies—you have one coming from the east, one coming from the west, and they’re going to meet someplace. And Corinne, Salt Lake City, and Ogden are competing over where that’s going to happen. There’s a ticking time bomb throughout the book. Who’s going to carry the day?
We’re talking with David Walker today. The book is Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West. David focuses his research on the intersections of religion, settlement policy, technology and pop culture in the nineteenth century.
HODGES: David, Latter-day Saints were a source of concern to Americans because they were very unified as well. Block voting and carrying political weight that way. But in reality, in spite of stereotypes of Mormons being completely united, there were a variety of Latter-day Saints on the ground and not all of them liked what was happening in their mountain home. Your next chapter talks about some dissident Latter-day Saints. Who are the Godbeites?
WALKER: So the Godbeites were a group—as you say, dissident Mormons—that also were very excited about the railroad’s arrival. The third chapter of this book starts out with William Godbe himself proclaiming or being excited about the Transcontinental’s arrival as an opportunity for Mormon success in the world.
HODGES: He’s a British convert to Mormonism.
HODGES: A genteel and sophisticated businessman.
WALKER: No doubt. He and Brigham Young very much agreed on this and were both on the same page it seemed, about their excitement about the railroad’s arrival, right? And its possibility for the articulation and upbuilding of certain Mormon institutions.
It turns out, ultimately, that they had very different ideas of what that would look like. And what the ideal look of a righteous Mormon institution of and for modernity would be in the Railroad Age. So Godbe and others of his British convert cohort ultimately fought back against some of Brigham Young’s initiatives of economic centralization and communalism.
HODGES: The idea was, “We should tap into these markets, why are we doing home manufacture and stuff? We can get great clothes from the East, what are we doing?”
HODGES: “And by the way I have a store, so come on down!”
WALKER: Yeah, that’s true as well. Godbeites were in favor of laissez-faire economics, connection with these other people that were coming to Utah, fostering connections with all sorts of things like the mining industry, to working in capitalistic enterprises as well. They were disappointed and frustrated by some of the initiatives Brigham Young had instituted in anticipation of the railroad’s arrival. The Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution, for example,
HODGES: The ZCMI.
WALKER: So Godbe indeed, as you say, did have a dried goods store that he was trying to push as another sort of opportunity or place to get goods in this transcontinental era. But he pushed mining and other modes of laissez-faire economics. He was concerned that Brigham Young had overplayed his hand as prophet and leader of the church, and had gone too far into what Godbe called “temporalities.”
HODGES: Saying “You should be a church leader, not interested in all the business and stuff”?
WALKER: “You should work on matters spiritual not matters institutional or economic.” So that was the nature of the dissent of the Godbeite Church itself, was to sort of push back against some of the Mormon railroad initiatives.
HODGES: And you said the “Godbeite Church” had that happen because they began as Latter-day Saints.
WALKER: Exactly. Ultimately, the Godbeites themselves broke away from the Mormon church and founded an alternate church called the Church of Zion in which they promoted some of these economic ideas, but also developed a more Spiritualist mode—And I say that with a capital “S,” Spiritualist mode of Mormonism as well. That is to say a mode of Mormonism that was in conversation with some of the American spiritualist trends that were developing at that time.
HODGES: Like seances? Like speaking with spirits and communication with the dead? These type of things?
WALKER: Exactly. Which Godbeites, rightly in a certain respect, saw as a manifestation of a particular Protestant modernity. So they themselves—
HODGES: In other words, this wasn’t an archaic throwback, Spiritualism then was cutting-edge religious technology. Because people today might wonder, if the Godbeites are these progressive thinkers then why are they worried about spirits and revelations? No, that was cutting-edge modern religiosity right then.
WALKER: Absolutely. So what the Godbeites were all about was trying to articulate a different mode of Mormonism. Because they were still claiming the mantle of Mormonism and claiming themselves to be the right Mormons in and for modernity. The right manifestation of Joseph Smith’s initial ideas and founding principles as well.
HODGES: And they had a case to make, but Brigham did too, right? Because Brigham was adopting things that Joseph Smith himself—as you talked about in the book—initiated, like the plan of Zion, the way the community was structured, temporal concerns. Joseph Smith started a hotel, a city. Joseph Smith wasn’t just a Spiritualist. But Godbeites were grabbing some of the things Joseph Smith did, and Brigham Young was doing other things that Joseph Smith did. That was the contest. And what it really boiled down to was communitarianism versus capitalism. The relationship with the temporal and the spiritual.
WALKER: That’s right. And so the argument, then, is that the railroad and the railroad’s arrival very much catalyzed this particular concern or this particular sort of idea of the possibility of difference within Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
HODGES: What’s a specific example of that? Why the railroad? What could that possibly have to do with this battle?
WALKER: Both groups saw the railroad as the possibility and the venue for the formation of and the articulation or the building of and the solidification of particular Mormonisms. They had different ideas of what that would look like in and for modernity.
HODGES: Brigham Young is such a fascinating figure in this story because he is dealing with a lot of different constituencies. He’s got Latter-day Saints who are looking to him as a prophet and a leader. He’s got Latter-day Saints who aren’t, who are in opposition to some of the programs he’s putting out. He’s got “Gentiles” up in Corinne that are scheming to take the influence of the state up North. He’s got railroad companies coming in from the east and coming in from the west who have their own monetary interests and their own theories about religion. So there are all these actors in this great drama unfolding here.
And we have the character of Corinne, the city of Corinne becomes sort of a hapless—I just feel bad for Corinne in so many ways, all these things that they’re trying sort of fall apart! [laughs] There’s an underlying thread of humor, I think, running through the book, and a pathos for the plight of the people of Corinne. It’s this “enlightened” Gentile outpost. It sort of reminds me of—like they’re Wile E. Coyote and the Mormons are Roadrunner. They’re trying to get theRroadrunner, but the dynamite blows up in their own face.
Talk about the steamboat fiasco as an example of this.
WALKER: Oh sure. Well let me say, indeed, that you rightly point out the key in which I try to narrate Corinne’s failures and difficulties is, at a certain level, if not necessarily humor, definitely that of irony—Looking always at the ways that Corinnethians try to tap into what they took to be national trends, and all the ways in which that ultimately did not pay off for them. If anything, it ironically blew up in their face time and time again as they were either out-maneuvered by Brigham Young and others, or as the railroad companies proved not to care about their tiny little outpost of laissez-faire Protestantism but ultimately proved to be much more interested in the corporate possibilities of connection with the Latter-day Saints of Salt Lake.
So at each turn Corinnethians tried to say, “Okay, maybe we can tap into the missionary impulses” that were spreading across the west at this particular time. “Maybe we can tap into the industrial excitement about the spread across the American west.” Never, never did these things ultimately work out!
And as you said before, too, there’s a certain narrative in the first chapter in particular where the Corinnethians—J. H. Beadle especially—kept anxiously looking with much excitement to the arrival of the railroads, thinking, “This is it, this is it! Surely they’re going to follow through with the ubiquitous rhetoric and excitement of Protestant extension and capitalist upbuilding in the American west!” [laughter]
But they don’t. Again, they don’t. For a number of different reasons. Especially because Brigham Young had established these corporate relationships with the railroads themselves and had, in many ways, wooed them to Ogden.
HODGES: As you said, he had people and land.
WALKER: Absolutely. He had people and land and he was able to mobilize both towards railroad connections.
HODGES: That’s not going to stop Corinne. They’re gonna do the steamboat! [laughs’
WALKER: That’s absolutely true. Corinne thinks, “Okay, so we failed in that respect, so what else can we then do if Mormons themselves have commandeered the possibility of commerce in and connection to the railroads?” And indeed, that preceded apace, as Mormons then build branch railroads to and away from the central transcontinental branch.
HODGES: They’re like, “Hey, you can do it in Ogden. We’ll just throw a spur down to Salt Lake City!”
WALKER: “Absolutely. We’ll build a spur from Salt Lake to Ogden. We’ll ultimately build other spurs from Ogden north, additional spurs from Salt Lake south and west.”
These spurs themselves sort of gave feeder line traffic to the transcontinental railroad and only, if anything, deepened their corporate relationship and co-dependency. In that case, in Corinne’s perspective, if Mormons had managed to commandeer and make good on these railroad connections, Corinne needed ways to look elsewhere. If not railroads, then what?
So chapter four looks at the next place where Corinnethians tried to go to upbuild their Gentile capital of Utah, and that was through building a steamboat enterprise. They thought, perhaps if they couldn’t command the railroads that they could set up a hub for steamboat tourism across the Great Salt Lake.
HODGES: Like “Come on a pleasure cruise!”
WALKER: A pleasure cruise, yes. But also, that we could perhaps bring those steamboats down to the southern, the land south of the Great Salt Lake and connect there with the mines. To then be able to tap those mining trades and to be able to pull them away from Mormon branch railroads and bring them up again to the same transcontinental trunks, so those transcontinental companies would again perhaps like us again! And they would buy into us again, and they would invest in us again if we could find another route by which to bring mining material to the transcontinental.
So it was a sort of two-prong project of trying to use steamboats as a means of mining connections and mining development in the American west, which was seen to be and was largely a Gentile enterprise. And then it was also an endeavor to create a touristic capital in Utah. A place where Gentiles might be invited over to take the pleasure cruise on the Great Salt Lake without having to buy into or give money to any of the railroads that were seen to be, and were indeed, Mormon.
HODGES: I have to say, I grew up in Utah, and reading this part blew my mind. I guess this goes to show how much Utahns relationship to the landscape has changed, because I didn’t know there were any waterways even capable of taking a steamboat from Corinne, which is sort of north of Ogden, down past the Great Salt Lake, down to the south side of it where they could get mining materials and then transfer back up. I didn’t know there were waterways that were ever capable of doing that! But they started, they got a boat, and they went down there!
And the mining thing didn’t pan out.
WALKER: No, it didn’t. And this goes back to your Wile E. Coyote point, because in many ways they didn’t realize the degree to which, once you load up a steamboat with ore, it’s going to be really heavy and you might not be able to get it out into and across the benches of various waterways across the Great Salt Lake! [laughter] So in all of this, again, there’s this sort of great wah-wah sad trombone factor where they sort of build up this whole enterprise with much fanfare and excitement that ultimately just runs aground. Quite literally, in one way or another. [laughter]
HODGES: You said it was two pronged, right? You say, okay, they’re going to be adept, they’re going to shift, and they start this—they bring up this really interesting idea of what you call “atrocity tourism.” What’s this? What are they going to do instead of mining?
WALKER: Yes, when mining doesn’t pan out, so to speak, for a number of different reasons—[laughter] Yeah, I didn’t mean to say that! They try, indeed, to sort of buildup Corinne as a tourism hub, they try to do so in positive and negative registers, both.
They’re aware that the American west is, or could be, a site of great transcontinental tourism for people who are excited about natural sightseeing—seeing what was said to be the sort of “Switzerland of America.” There was this great impulse to “see America first,” perhaps before going over and doing a grand tour in, say, Europe or elsewhere.
So the Corinnethians thought, we can sort of tap into that excitement about western tourism and sightseeing by, again, taking people out for these picturesque tours along Great Salt Lake and also again reap the economic benefits of that excitement.
Now again, the other problem with that is that as they increasingly realized that the tourists who did take these transcontinental trips west were still quite excited and interested in seeing the “Saints of Salt Lake City.” They realized they were going to have to reconcile themselves to that. They could not ignore the Mormons who the tourists themselves were interested in seeing in their ostensible homelands. So then what they did was sort of build up another pitch for tourism, let’s say a negative mode of sight-seeing where they could take Gentile tourists out on a tour of the Great Salt Lake, perhaps even bring them to Salt Lake City itself. In any case they could shape their modes of discourse and their lines of sight vis-a-vis the Saints themselves so that they could operate this, in what I call, the key of negative tourism or atrocity tourism. Which is a way of helping tourists themselves understand themselves as American moderns against a co-constructed negative image of anti-modernity, non-modernity, wrongness.
HODGES: They’re thinking, “We’ll create this safe vehicle in which you can go in and peek at the creepy Mormons, and take a look at all these atrocities, and have a drink as you do it! An absolute nice time!” [laughs]
It didn’t work, as you talk about it in that chapter. Tourists were just as interested in hoping on a train with Mormons, putting themselves right into the mix and experiencing Mormonism firsthand, not just looking at it from a boat—and probably a low-quality boat. [laughter] Sorry Corinnethians! This was another misstep by them, a big investment that blew up in their face. So it didn’t work.
HODGES: Chapter five in your book takes us to a scene where we join up with a group of influential non-Latter-day Saint travelers that are coming to Utah. And your chapter takes us with them on a tour of sorts, so we get to see what it was like for people to come through, to see the different places they would visit and the ways the railroad completely bought into this business. You talk about, what is it, Pulpit Rock?
WALKER: Yes, Pulpit Rock.
HODGES: I had never heard of this, and apparently it was big deal back then!
WALKER: Absolutely. This is a later argument in the book, but it’s looking at the ways railroad companies themselves realized they could capitalize on touristic excitement about Mormonism and the American west. And also by establishing, in many ways, a codependent corporate relationship with the LDS Church they worked to, in some ways, justify the placement of Mormonism in Utah, to be able to shape people’s lines of sight around Mormonism to recognize it as a particularly situated and located religion in the American west. This was the “use value” or the utility of Mormonism in the American west according to this railroading model, is that you could safely visit this particular group that was geographically bounded in this particular area that would nevertheless help you to understand their role in a nationalizing economy of religion and economics.
So, one of the ways they pursued this placing of Mormonism—rendering it understandable—in and around the landscape of Utah was by straight-up inventing Mormon sacred sites. [laughter] And Pulpit Rock was one of them. Pulpit Rock was a place that happened to be situated along the transcontinental railroad.
HODGES: The train went right by it, “You can almost reach out and touch it!” said the promotional materials.
HODGES: What did it look like?
WALKER: It was just sort of there—
HODGES: This big outcrop, this sort of tower looking—
WALKER: A large rock structure, that you could imagine to be and indeed a pulpit. [laughter] And pulpit rocks were actually a thing—
HODGES: So this was the Mormon one.
WALKER: Right, exactly, exactly.
HODGES: But they cooked up a story.
WALKER: There were pulpit rocks elsewhere, and they were all named, basically, by the way that they looked. But this one happened to be situated along the railroad line that the Union Pacific took into Utah. And it was good enough by virtue of its appearance and location for a story.
So they invented a story, they invented a story about Mormon significance. [laughter] They said that this was, indeed, the place that Brigham Young had first stopped on his transcontinental—or excuse me, his overland trek west in 1847, where he had paused, exhausted and yet inspired by this particularly sublime landscape to stand on the top of this particular pulpit rock—which is also impossible, the rock is huge!
HODGES: Yeah, you can’t get up there! [laughter]
WALKER: To stand on this rock and give his first sermon to other Mormon emigrants coming across the plains. Saying in essence, this is almost our place. We are almost to the homeland.
HODGES: It’s the famous “This is almost the place,” speech.
WALKER: Yes, exactly, exactly. So it was fabricated as basically a for-Gentiles version of the “this is the place” speech at Emigration Canyon, which was a good two-day walk away from the railroad line.
So railroad companies invented a sort of substitute experience and place, and then they actively encouraged the tourists who were going to pass there—at a place where also the grade of the railroad required the train slow down there. Its placement, its grade, its opportunity, all provided a particular impetus to create a full touristic experience for tourists at that time, where in many ways they could sort of “play Mormon.” They could imagine what it was like to sort of be Mormons in this particular time, at this particular moment of emigration.
HODGES: And this is where we see the railroad companies being sort of supportive of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in that there are other stories they could have told there. This part of the journey is going through Echo Canyon, so around Pulpit Rock you say there were still remnants of Utah War battlements that Mormons constructed when they were trying to hassle federal troops when they came through years earlier. They could have told those stories, but instead they chose this more ecumenical, inspirational image. They didn’t focus so much on the Utah War stuff, it had been years since that had happened. They could have done that. That would have been really exciting and fun, but they didn’t.
As people are coming into Utah, in your book you bring us on this tour, you take us to the Tabernacle, a place where you say Mormonism is performed for the public, where Mormons have public meetings and invite Gentiles to come and listen. They invite non-Latter-day Saint preachers to come and talk. They invite discussion, conversation. They put their religion on display. It is the opposite of their temples and the endowment house where they would perform ordinances out of the reach and out of the sight of the public. So we go through the tabernacle on this tour.
Then you take us to the Theater, Mormons had this great theater. People would come, not really to watch the play, as much as to watch the Mormons to see how many wives they would point at, or how many strange Mormon families they could see, you say.
WALKER: And of course, all of the Mormon attendees would watch the Gentiles who were assembled to watch them in a sort of wonderful experience of the mutual gaze.
HODGES: And that also happened in the next place, Brigham Young’s office, because you also talk about how people would often stop at Brigham Young’s office and meet with him and try to kind of figure him out. But he was doing the same as they would come through, talking to them.
And then we go to the Dessert Museum, which I tweeted about a little bit last week. This was a museum that Latter-day Saints came up with to depict Mormonism and to erase American Indian history from Utah at the same time. Out of all of these places—the Tabernacle, the Theater, Brigham Young’s house, the Deseret Museum—which one stands out to you? What were you personally most interested in as you did the research?
WALKER: I think they were all incredibly important as a circuit and as a unit, and that’s how they were advertised to incoming tourists as well—you did basically all of these things in succession. You would go to the Tabernacle, a space wherein the Saints themselves staged elaborate encounters between Gentiles and Mormons and debates about the nature of the faith, with the expectation that visitors would watch that as well. They would go to, as you rightly say, the Deseret Museum, which was explicitly established as a tourist attraction by John W. Young, Brigham’s son, in 1870, to invite people into a space where Mormons themselves would, again as in the Tabernacle, take charge of the mechanisms and the terms of their own self-representation. All of these things were really important.
I do like the Deseret Museum’s stories quite a bit because I think it’s a really important part of the project of the book, to look at the way John W. Young was a really crucial institution building—
HODGES: This is a son of Brigham Young?
WALKER: Yes, he was in many ways the architect of certain Utah tourism industries and really did shape the way that railroads ultimately represented Mormonism in their own tourism literature.
So that goes back to the conversation of Corinne’s would-be steamboats, as well. At the end of that chapter, and at the end of the narration of cascading failure, we learn that the steamboats were ultimately commandeered and bought—sometimes through shell corporations—by John W. Young, who then repurposed them at his own resorts, because he, too, was trying to set up tourist resorts where he could bring Gentiles in and foster a different mode of gaze at and for Mormons. It was decidedly not happening in the tone of atrocity. So John W. Young becomes a really important part of the story and of this particular chapter as we re-traverse this particular trip with a number of influential tourists, as we really look at how John W. Young and others shaped their stay and guided their path through Salt Lake at that time.
HODGES: And so Latter-day Saints were able to influence public perception of themselves through tourism, industry, through the railroad. And railroad companies ended up agreeing that it was good business, and they had an incentive to present a good view of Latter-day Saints.
How do you think publicity campaigns influenced the church itself? Do you see church leadership and church members being changed by the publicity campaigns?
WALKER: Yes, I think you can see that the church itself, or at least a number of people within the church, take out some of the materials that were developed in the domain of railroad tourism itself for the purposes of self-representation. This happens in a small bit with Pulpit Rock, although pretty much all Mormons were fully aware of the arbitrary and constructed nature of that experience. But they were still willing to capitalize on it.
HODGES: [laughs] It’s largely forgotten now, I think. I had never heard of it.
WALKER: Yeah, it’s no longer there as of the 1920s.
HODGES: Oh has it fallen?
WALKER: Oh yeah, they reconstructed the road going through there.
HODGES: Oh, I guess that’s probably why! [laughs]
WALKER: But also railroad industries, for example, developed a number of promotional materials that likened Utah’s topographies to the Middle East, and sort of established this geographic parallelism between the Mormon Great Basin and Caanan in the Holy Land. Mormons themselves took up a lot of these promotional materials themselves, which they had not—In many ways the railroads were more actively engaged in and interested in fostering a sense of Utah as “America’s Holy Land” and thus Utah as a particular place of a sort of substitute Middle Eastern pilgrimage than Mormons themselves were at the time. In any case, these materials were taken up by the church and by different representatives of the church as mechanisms of self-presentation too, as time went on.
HODGES: So before we go, I want to ask, what was the ultimate fate of Corinne?
WALKER: I mean, Corinne was never much more than a failed municipal experiment, a sort of hell-on-wheels outpost. Still absolutely a community, and I don’t mean to belie the fact that there are a number of people living in the town of Corinne now—
HODGES: It’s probably much different than it was back then!
WALKER: It’s not tremendously different than it was back then. There’s a bar called Mim’s, which I encourage you to go to and sit down at the counter and ask the waitress or the bartender to tell you the stories of Corinne. And they will gather around—
HODGES: So they still embrace it there?
WALKER: —People will gather around to re-tell the story of how Corinne itself stood up to this massive industrial giant that was Mormonism at the time. Failed miserably, but was so noble in its fight. It’s really interesting to see that rhetoric continue, and to see this sort of mythos of Corinne itself recirculated, and in increasing amplified terms.
Frankly, some of the stories you hear now are just factually incorrect, but they are fascinating as part of, again, this continuing story of the possibility of Corinne. But the fact is, of course, with respect to or in terms of all of the things J. H. Beadle hoped for and boosted Corinne to be, it was never that. It was a failure.
The story then, the project of the book, is to figure out how that was so, and to narrate this project in the key of failure and irony.
HODGES: And so Latter-day Saints and railroad companies both wanted to make Mormonism safe and visible for people coming through. But they also didn’t want it to lose its exotic draw and interest. How do you see them splitting that difference? The act of railroading religion—to “railroad religion”—could mean running Mormonism out on a rail. But it didn’t end up happening. Mormons themselves ended up using railroads to be promoted by them. But you suggest maybe they still wanted a little bit of that edge to peak people’s interest?
WALKER: Absolutely, and this sort of goes back to a way that railroad companies ultimately settled in Ogden, the middle ground between Corinne and Salt Lake. Having done that, they proceeded again to mediate between pro- and anti-Mormon interest in a number of different venues, including in their promotional materials.
They realized that, in order to make Mormons visible and visitable for tourists at this particular moment, they needed indeed to still cultivate an air of excitement and difference while taking care to not scare away potential Gentile travelers. So they’re trying, indeed, to sort of thread the needle here, where they cultivate a sense of otherness, perhaps even exoticism, sort of edge-play in Salt Lake, even while they circumscribed that possibility by saying that Mormons themselves are Americans and should be integrated into the terrain of American religious history in certain ways—not least of all because they provide this certain space where Americans writ large can go to think about the nature of religion in modernity.
HODGES: That’s David Walker. He’s an associate professor in religious studies at UC-Santa Barbara and author of the book, Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West.
David, I also want to point out that you’re here today because you’re going to deliver a guest lecture on Railroading Religion at BYU, and by the time this episode comes out, we’ll have video up on the Maxwell Institute’s YouTube page. So people should check that out. Again, the book is Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West.
David thanks a lot for talking to us about the book today.
WALKER: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.
HODGES: Thanks for listening to another episode. As I mentioned during the interview, you can catch David Walker’s guest lecture at Brigham Young University right now on the Maxwell Institute’s YouTube channel if you haven’t watched it already.
And here’s a question: Have you listened to every episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast? If so, we’re preparing a special gift for you. You can email me to let me know if you are a completist. The address is email@example.com. Also, please rate and review this show! We’re waiting to hear from you. I’m Blair Hodges and I’ll talk to you next time on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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