Way Back When, When Mormonism Was Tight

I was asked to prepare and give a talk on my Grandmother Jolley’s life story at her recent funeral. In going back through her history, one thing struck me more than anything else: that the Salt Lake City she grew up in was crowded with people whose names, today, sound like a hit parade of a Mormonism gone by.

This is how I put it in my talk at her funeral:

Barbara [Kirkham Jolley] was born and raised in the Avenues in Salt Lake City, back when the phrase “the Avenuesâ€? told you all you needed to know about the families who lived there. She attended the old LeGrande Ward, which was full of Kirkhams. The Kirkhams and Wrights [Grandma’s mother was Mary Ethel Wright; her father Ebenezer John Kirkham] may not have been the most prestigious families in the Mormon world of Salt Lake City nearly a century ago, but they were certainly weren’t the least either. Her uncle Oscar A. Kirkham was a life-long promoter of Scouting in the church, and a member of the First Council of the Seventy. S. Dilworth Young, Joseph Wirthlin Sr., Richard L. Evans, Lowell Bennion, Sterling W. Sill, Milton R. Hunter: these and many more appear in Barbara Kirkham’s story, noted in her journals or letters, as visitors to her home or speakers at youth meetings or presiding at her marriage or at the funerals for her mother and father. To someone of my generation, it gives a glimpse of a smaller, more intimate Mormon world, now mostly lost. Barbara was shaped by that world; to the end, despite her long adult life in the Uintah Basin town of Vernal, she considered herself a “city girl,” Salt Lake City born and bred. It gave her models that influenced her for all the rest of her life.

I confess that the mystique of that era has a hold over me. I listen to old stories, pick up biographies and histories, and catch glimpses of a moment from Mormon history when the church and its people and its culture and its location were perhaps as homogenous and settled and tight as they ever were, and ever will be again this side of the City of Enoch. True, by the time you get to the 1920s and 30s and 40s the legacy of the pioneer generation was mostly gone: the communal economic experiments were over, polygamy was mostly successfully packed away, independent political parties were dead and buried; basically, the modern assimilation stage of Mormondom was fully underway. Supposedly a radical communitarian like myself ought to turn up my nose at all the compromises the church made with American culture during this era. But I can’t; not quite. I can’t because, however Americanized the church and its leaders and membership became in the decades leading up to and through World War II, the overwhelming Mormonness of the Salt Lake City community shines through nonetheless.

It’s odd: one might conclude, looking at the intense culture wars of today, and the public religiosity which so clearly characterizes the speeches and strategies of many contemporary political leaders and parties, that we are much more serious about our religion today than our grandparents must have been. Look at my grandmother, for example: there she was, involved in sororities and civic clubs, dancing all night at Saltair, attending the University of Utah and going to rounds of parties and social events, all without the slightest whiff of tension over what a Mormon girl is “supposed” to do. The public rhetoric of figures like David O. McKay or any of the general authorites I mentioned above was, in many ways, far more “secular” than what we have come to expect these days; rather than quoting statistics about abortion or same-sex marriage, general authorities would quote Shakespeare or Dale Carnegie (and probably a lot more of the latter than the former). Very civil, very liberal, very establishment, very American.

Yet such a conclusion is also very wrong. My grandmother’s life growing up on the Avenues was thoroughly religious and Mormon in a way far beyond that of probably almost everyone reading these words, because her life was crowded by and enclosed within Mormonism in a way almost impossible in America today. Her family had no television, no cable, no satellite; they didn’t even have a car until she was 14 (and she learned to drive it before her father). What she knew were the schoolteachers at East High School and the leaders of Chi Omega at the university and Uncle Oscar and his many visitors and the men in their hats coming home on the trolley car in the evenings and the women trading advice and recipes on their front porches. Everyone was Mormon, or practically so; everyone observed the unwritten rules of Mormon life, and hence there was rarely much need to talk about it–which also means there was little obsessing over how Mormons are supposed to act or what they were supposed to believe, because since everyone you saw was a member (even that oddball Larry, who surely does have some weird ideas, but c’mon, he’s Milton’s boy, you know he’s all right), plainly it was possible to be a Mormon in a lot of different ways. It was a world–one created by a variety of factors: large extended families, a bustling yet still somewhat enclosed economic environment, an absence of alternative media or diverse inward migration, a smaller overall population, a decentralized and uncorrelated church structure–where an otherwise ordinary, not particularly studious but still plainly smart girl like Barbara Kirkham could be looked up by Lowell Bennion at the U, because she was Oscar’s niece and he thought she might appreciate a chat. Not a lecture or a warning (because what, really, was the source of moral peril she ought to be informed about and enlisted to fight against?); just shooting the breeze with a girl whose options were then wide open. Of course, the range of those options was in fact rather small. But perhaps that is exactly the point.

The homey picture I’m painting is false in important respects, of course: there has been contention and opposition present in every moment of the church, and the pre-WWII years were no exception. Moreover, there is much not to like about the “Mormon establishment” of 60 or 70 years ago: along with the social homogeneity came an often terrible racism which later prophets had to fight against; the trusting, liberal, and homegrown intellectual environment which characterized mid-century Mormonism resulted in a couple of generations of Mormons who barely ever cracked the Book of Mormon; and so on. Maybe, if one has to do the usual thing and choose to analyze only two extreme options, it really is better to stick with the fire-and-brimstone, sovereign communitarianism of Brigham Young’s Mormonism, as a counterpoint to the comfortable and often lazy Mormon kitsch of today. But, after having thought for a while about my grandmother’s world, let me put in a plug for that lost third option, that fedora-wearing, trolley-riding, life insurance-selling, bourgeois Mormon of the Avenues during the Depression and the war, an era when Primary Wednesdays sometimes were merged with band practice, priesthood interviews sometimes took place at Elks’ Club meetings, and–hey, that just might be Stephen L. Richards sitting behind you at the public lecture on birdsongs. If the gospel in its fullest form can ever be truly compatible with city life with all its competition and variety (and I have my doubts), then that place and that era may have been the closest and truest merger we’ve yet seen in this dispensation. Maybe it wasn’t the best Mormon society ever, but it was one of the tightest, and there is something to be said for that. If nothing else, in my view at least, the goods it surrounded my grandmother with as she grew up definitely outweighed its harms.

25 comments for “Way Back When, When Mormonism Was Tight

  1. RAF: Zion, as you’ll recall, was a city, so godly urbanism must be possible. (I would note, however, that the Plat for the City of Zion drawn up by Joseph Smith is a bit of decidely low-density land use.)

    I love this portrait of SLC Mormonism. I married into a family with enormously deep SLC roots, and the world that you describe is very much the world of my son’s grandparents and great grand parents. While my grandfather grew up on the margins of the margins of Mormon country — son of a Mormon high-country ranching family in Gentile Carbon County, Utah — my grand mother grew up on the Avenues of Salt Lake City. Together, they were part of the mid-century diaspora of Mormons out of the Mormon corridor, ending up in eastern Washington. My father and mother moved to Salt Lake City after schooling, and I was born there. But growing up, I was aware that I was part of the neuveau-SLC Mormonism of East Millcreek and Sandy, and that there was the much older SLC Mormonism of the northern East Bench. It was a subtle nuance of outsiderness, and one that I suspect most SLC Mormonism never picked up on. (Although perhaps I am wrong here as well.)

    There is much about the lost world that you describe that is world that is appealling, even though in the end I don’t think that it was a world that was either demographically or spiritually sustainable. In addition to the lack of diversity and racism that you lament, the CES of Sterling McMurrin, left unchecked by J. Reuben Clark, would have resulted — I believe — in the spiritual self-immolation of Mormonism, yet McMurrin was very much a product of — and in some ways the epitome of — the kind of early- and mid-twentieth century SLC Mormonism that you are talking about. Still, in so many ways it was a very good world.

  2. “I would note, however, that the Plat for the City of Zion drawn up by Joseph Smith is a bit of decidely low-density land use.”

    Right. Plus, it had a pretty low population over all–Joseph didn’t start dreaming of truly expansive Mormon “capital” until the Nauvoo period, by which point some things had definitely changed in his thinking (perhaps for better, perhaps for worse). In any case, clearly, the city of Zion will have to be a smart growth community.

    I figured you’d respond well to this post, Nate. Do you know what ward your grandmother was in, growing up on the Avenues? Perhaps she and my grandmother knew each other. Of course, practically everyone there did know each other–that’s part of the point.

    Regarding Sterling McMurrin, I’d like to think that, given time, there might have arisen from out of that same milieu thinkers that could challenge and correct his influence on his own terms–remember that Marion D. Hanks and Truman Madsen, neither of whom were slouches in the orthodoxy department, were both products of the U of U/CES intellectual nexus. Still, you’re probably right.

  3. This is great post. Thank you. I love reading about old SLC, in many ways, I think that there are lessons to be learned for our future.

    One small quible: since Nauvoo, there has only ever been one “First Council,” they are just called the Presidency now.

  4. Russell, I don’t have any ancestors who lived anywhere near “the Avenues,” but I first discovered what that term meant as a freshman at BYU in 1965 when I learned that not all Mormons were equal. Within a few months of arriving in Utah, it became obvious that there was an aristocracy in the Church and that they lived in in the Avenues and on those streets just west of the U named “Harvard,” “Yale,” and so on. That came as huge surprise, and I recall having the mixed reaction that I suppose many people have toward aristocracies, envy and antipathy. As much as I didn’t like that there was an aristocracy and as much as I was troubled when I figured out that almost all of the leaders of the Church came from that aristocracy, I sure wanted to date an girl from the aristocracy mostly because she was.

  5. J., thanks for the heads up; I’ve made a correction.

    Jim, I didn’t go the “aristocracy” route in my thoughts and comments, but I see now I easily could have. I doubt my grandmother ever considered herself superior by birth and breeding to other Mormons, but she surely did carry prejudices with her, which she acknowledged and struggled with as she tried to transfer her expectations to those of a small Utah town.

    I don’t like aristocracies either, but I suppose the philosophical attraction I have from them emerges from their very reliance on prejudices. Much of the modern world teaches us that being prejudicial is a terrible thing to be, but of course it is existence of “pre-judgments” that makes serious, as opposed to merely utilitarian, thought and reflection possible in the first place. So while I probably would have groused about the SLC aristocracy at the time, I can see them now as having preserved something, and built something, that–while hardly perfect or free from sin–was very fine, and that much of that preservation and building was a function of them living lives ordered by their pre-judgments: their schools and social clubs and ward networks and so forth.

  6. Last night reading from Lengthen Your Stride, the recent Kimball biography, I had some thoughts connected with this topic. The section I read was on the growth of the Church from the close one where apostles set apart every missionary until 1970 to the big, remote organization of today. I thought of the letters that were read in sacrament meeting over and over through the 1980s telling me to not attempt to personally contact the General Authorities.

    It’s a long time since I heard one of those letters read. The bridge has been crossed. Connection between the membership and the leaders of the Church is now such that very few would ever think of writing to them.

  7. My grandmother grew up in that era, too, though her family ran a bakery that served the Avenues, rather than actually living there. She was always pretty feisty in her non-compliance with the little strictures that have grown up since that time. The church of her youth was a fine church, and she was going to stick with the way it was then. Whenever she saw me bringing my scriptures with me to church or abstaining from Coke or requesting that we play Rook instead of something with face cards or walking straight past the two-piece bathing suits at the store to go look at the one-pieces, etc., she would remind me that she was planning on being in the terrestrial kingdom anyway because she’d be happier there, and she’d remind me that I’d need to come down from the celestial kingdom and visit her.

  8. Fascinating post, Russell. The tightness and intimacy of the Avenues community you evoke made me think about the relation with present-day units in the international church. On the one hand, those small communities of mostly converts, in their Sunday experience, also reflect a tightness and intimacy, including a feeling of self-satisfaction and seclusion away from the world. On the other hand, they are too small to come close to what SLC and the Avenues represented. But I still think those small units, in their projection of Church growth, may imagine a similar future.

    Living both in Belgium and Provo, I sometimes get the question from members here in Belgium: how is it to live amidst a community where members form the majority? How is life in Utah? I find it difficult to answer and do not attempt to explain developments and diversity. I only mention number of chapels and attendance figures, temple proximity, Deseret Industries and the like. It’s what they want to hear, as converts with one little Mormon ward in a city of hundreds of thousands of non-Mormons. In their imagination, the uniqueness is in the numbers. It’s the concentration of Mormons that fascinates, and as such it doesn’t make a difference, whether it is Nauvoo, or SLC in the 1920s, 50s, 80s or today. I think your post grabbed the essence: “it wasn’t the best Mormon society ever, but it was one of the tightest”. Isn’t this desire for tightness the force behind the gathering, which still motivates converts abroad to move to Utah? Unaware of historical developments, they may still find it to be utopia. Not all, of course, but many.

  9. Russell, great story!

    When I was at BYU, I came across D&C 23. This section was a revelation given to, among others, my 4th great grandfather, Joseph Knight, and the 2nd great grandfather (Samuel H. Smith), of the guy I was then dating (also named Samuel Smith). I took this as an ovious sign from above that we were to be married to reunite the Knights and the Smiths.

    OK, so he was really cute and a great kisser…not to mention brilliant and charming and…

    Anyway, I married into the Smith family in 1985. But I haven’t seen any of the perks of being part of the aristocracy. Maybe that’s only extended to descendents of Hyrym?

  10. Great post, and one that made me nostalgic for my mother’s era in Salt Lake — although she lived on the west, poorer side of town with a somewhat different society than the Avenues and East Bench, she still reminded us as we were growing up and heard news about these men that Harold B. Lee had been her stake president and D. Arthur Haycock had been her bishop and long-time next-door neighbor, and that she had gone to West High with Marian D. Hanks and … you get the idea.

    I live in the Avenues now, and life is very different. There are so few Mormon families here now that when children turn 3 their families are removed from our ward and made members of the only ward in the stake with a Primary. The young couple across the street are LDS, but otherwise I am the sole active Mormon on the block. When there is an opening in our large-home-divided-into-apartments, the couples who knock for information are far more likely to be gay or mixed-race than Improvement Era poster families.

    Yet for all its differences, there is still something of that old Salt Lake in this ward and stake. The new bishop we sustained yesterday had been our stake high councilman so I seldom saw him; on EACH of the four occasions I had heard him speak in the past two years, he identified himself as a descendant of Hyrum Smith and William Clayton. The sister who taught Relief Society yesterday is a granddaughter of J. Reuben Clark. Ward members routinely give directions like “across the street from Heber J. Grant’s old home.” One of our stake members is named Gordon B. Hinckley, although he lives in an apartment in the next ward down the hill.

    Our ward is part old-time blue-bloods, and part New Face of the Church: We have U of U students, and members who have come here from Indonesia, Ghana, the Czech Republic, England, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany, or who are only one generation removed from just as many other places. It’s the most inclusive, welcoming, comfortable ward I’ve ever lived in. There *is* something of an interest divide between the newly-wed and the nearly-dead, but we make it a point of honor to include everyone who will give us the time of day, with home/visiting teachers and ward callings going to people as soon as they move in, regardless of whether they’ll be here for a semester or a generation, whether they’re in the middle of a 12-step program or the president of LDS Business College, whether they’re the newest convert or an 8th generation family. If this is what urban wards are like, we should all move to cities.

  11. Read “Children of the Covenant” (Richard Scowcroft), for the otherside of this. Not all Mormons saw this group as the heart of Mormonism.

  12. Great post, Ardis. My sister lived in the Avenues when she had three little boys and her husband was doing a post-doc at the U. She was called as RS president about 4 minutes after they moved in. I’ll have to ask her about how her experience compares to yours. It was about 20 years ago. (Wow, I’m old…)

  13. John (#7): I think you’re right; the spaces within which the membership and general authorities can personally interact have all but completely shrunk away. I haven’t heard one of those letters in a while either, and you may be correct why: they simply aren’t necessary anymore, because the very idea of chatting with the prophet is beyond most 99% of the membership could ever even dream of. Instead, we’ll wave to him.

    Wilfried (#8): the parallels and differences between the tightness of the branch you worked with and grew up in, and the tightness of the Avenues as my grandmother knew them, are worth exploring. Obviously, the Avenues were the home for a lot of general authorities and a lot of history. Plus, they understood themselves to be a subset of an overwhelming majority, not a minority. But in terms of interpersonal relations, I wonder just how different those church units really were?

    Alison (#9 and #14): I think the problem with the Smiths was that they were too successful. I mean, look at them; they kept being made into apostles and prophets and everything. No time for enjoying the benefits of and creating a world around your station in life. You should have married a Tanner or McConkie–there you’ve got seriously ecclesiastical respect, but still plenty of time to wander on down to the Deseret press and pick your “complementary” copies of whatever they have in stock.

    Ardis (#11): what a great comment! What we need to do is get you to guestblog, so you can write a companion to this post, one on the “new Avenues” of SLC–what they tell us about how Mormonism has changed, and what it’s turning into.

    Bob (#12): I never said that I considered the Avenues the “heart” of Mormonism. Some may have put on aristocratic airs, and I admit that’s a possibility, but it’s not primarily what I see when I look at their history. I am attracted to my grandmother’s story because it shows one possible way in which Mormonism can be urban, fairly modern, thoroughly “establishment,” and yet still possess the spirit of Mormon difference. It probably wasn’t sustainable, and there was much wrong with it. It’s not a guide to us all. But still, it was an admirable accomplishment, in many ways.

  14. Russell, I apologize for not acknowledging the positive side of what you describe. I think that is important. Indeed, I suspect that the “aristocrats” I was dealing with, though from that part of town and from those particular families were not always reflecting the values or behavior of their parents and grandparents. They were seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds relying on their parents and their grandparents to give them some position as they came into BYU. Having the same fears of anonymity that they had, I shouldn’t have begrudged them their solution. I don’t know what my solution was, but I suspect it was no better, morally, than theirs.

  15. Tanners or McConkie’s, eh? Joseph Fielding lives just a few doors down from my dad. Perhaps I can set up one of my daughters with a descendent. It’s never to late to restore the family fame!

  16. Russell, your writing has been so influential in crystallizing my understanding of moments in Church history—Kirtland, and Nauvoo, and now Deseret SLC. Like most generational Mormons, I have some roots in Salt Lake—the Mackays, the Bentleys, the Hansens—and even some claim on the glitter of that era: after the Bentleys came home from Colonia Juarez, my great-grandfather, Joseph Taylor Bentley, was general president of the Young Men MIA, and his death was announced in general conference in 1993. But those roots are far from the fruit now: my Bentley grandmother married my Hansen grandfather, a restless adventure-seeker, and they moved from reservation to reservation, finally settling in their retirement outside of Benson, Arizona. And my Mackay grandmother married my Frandsen grandfather, with family roots in Clarion, Sanpete County, and has lived in Gunnison, a city-girl-turned-farmer’s-wife, all the rest of her life; for me, “going to Utah” has always meant going to Sanpete county.

    I am reminded again of (what was to me) the remarkable and enormously moving moment in President Hinckley’s most recent GC address when he excerpted from his diary a requiem for his associates now long dead and gone, nostalgic and supremely melancholy and so uncharacteristically Hinckley. When Elder Bednar is prophet, what will his diary tell us about how we live now?

  17. Hi,


    I was wondering if in 50 years we will wax poetic at funerals about Provo or Orem of 2006. The BYU football games, the church dances, Sean Hannity visits, visiting Wilfrieds office at BYU for a chat, dating a GA’s daughter.

  18. “The public rhetoric of figures like David O. McKay or any of the general authorites I mentioned above was, in many ways, far more “secularâ€? than what we have come to expect these days; rather than quoting statistics about abortion or same-sex marriage, general authorities would quote Shakespeare or Dale Carnegie (and probably a lot more of the latter than the former).”

    Ah, yes. I wasn’t a Mormon then, so my experience has had to be the one with such unrelenting emphasis on abortion and same-sex marriage.

    Silver, who is aching for more Shakespeare and less statistics.

  19. I really must post sometime about my father’s experience growing up in SLC in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s very different from what I’ve always imagined (much darker).

  20. Elites are kind of noxious, but there are always elites. If we don’t have a local, Mormon elite now that we take our cues from and who run things its because in some ways we are less Mormon. Our elite is the same ol’ national elite that everyone else has. To a degree. I’d prefer the local elite.

    None of my family’s experience runs through Salt Lake. We’ve always been on the frontiers of Deseret. And I don’t think I’m temperamentally very sympathetic to the kind of world that Russell Fox evokes. But he does it so well that I can see its attraction. Thanks.

  21. Thanks for your comment also, Adam. I hope I didn’t come off as an absolute booster of the close-knit, middle-class elite that my grandmother was born into in old, pre-war, post-Manifesto Salt Lake. I admire the principle of the thing, the locality and connections and givens of that environment, not necessarily all its content. My grandfather–from the tiny southern Utah town of Tropic–probably looked upon his wife’s old allegiances as faintly odd upon occasion, and I’d probably feel the same. At some point, that huge proliferation of of-so-civil sororities and civic clubs and whatnot would have driven me nuts. Still, it was quite an accomplishment, no doubt about that.

  22. I remember meeting Pres. Kimball after a regional conference, and shaking his hand. He was sticking around long after the meeting and talking to many.

    I remember Joe J. Christensen, president of Ricks, asking for permission to sit and chat with students to eat lunch.

    How times have changed…

    But then, at BYU I’ve had the opportunity to shake hands with the RS president–twice–after devotionals.

    Even though my family used to own a big part of Provo/Orem, and I attended BYU for … a few years, the only people I ever knew, I think, were in the MTC (the son of a Seventy who I had to confiscate fireworks from, and Pres. Benson’s grandson) and my mission–a few LDS authors’ children (Madsen, von Harrison). And Pres. Hinckley’s grandson.

    Oh yeah, and a black-sheep Benson. Wait–I was a frequent visitor at the apartment of Pres. Benson’s granddaughter. Then there was Elder McConkie’s grandson, on his mission. My family knew Pres. Tanner’s granddaughter, on her mission. Oh–Hugh B. Brown’s daughter, in the nursing home visit.

    Very few of them, that I was aware of, ever made it a point, esp. a bragging/ exalting one. Which is why, I guess, I forgot I actually knew “somebody” until I started making this list. I imagine I might have missed a few.

    Some I know who have had the privilege of meeting LDS “leaders” nowadays, don’t have a lot of the same good feelings many from the past had. Why is that? And, my father could tell about his “wonderful” experiences of getting used by “aristocracy” at BYU.

    I guess there are lots of stories. Each one, adds to the whole.

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