“The history of our persecutions is unparalleled in the history of past ages.” So argued George A. Smith, leader and historian of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on July 24, 1852 in Utah territory, five years after the Latter-day Saints left their homes in the Midwest and settled in the Great Basin. Smith, like most other Americans, of course ignored the history of oppression of Native Americans and slaves of African descent. For Smith, the only history of persecution that mattered in this context was that of biblical prophets, the early Christians, and all true followers of Christ. What made the nineteenth-century persecutions of the Latter-day Saints “unparalleled” in Smith’s argument was that they had occurred in a free government, with laws designed to protect religious freedom. Reflecting on the fact that none of the Mormons’ tormentors had been convicted of a crime, Smith rhetorically asked his audience: “Ought we not, then, to rejoice, that there is a spot upon the footstool of God, where law is respected; where the Constitution for which our fathers bled is revered; where the people who dwell here can enjoy liberty, and worship God in three or in twenty different ways, and no man be permitted to plague his head about it?” This place where law was respected, according to Smith, was Utah territory.
Smith constructed the Rocky Mountain West against an image of the East as a place of lawlessness. This image of the West was one of several that circulated in the nineteenth century. The academic study of ways that Americans have imagined the West as a region can perhaps be traced to Henry Nash Smith’s 1950 Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. In this path-breaking work, Smith argued that “one of the most persistent generalizations concerning American life and character is the notion that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward through the passes of the Alleghenies, across the Mississippi Valley, over the high plains and mountains to the Pacific Coast.” Other scholars have followed Smith’s lead in examining alternative images of the West that were constructed by women and other minorities in the region. Scholar of religion Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp has argued that aside from gender and ethnicity, religion was another means by which space in the West was mapped.
As George A. Smith’s speech illustrates, religious violence shaped the Latter-day Saints as a people, and defined how they saw themselves, other Americans, and the states and nation where the violence against them occurred. Scholars of religion Oren Stier and Shawn Landres argue that “[a]trocities render places religiously charged, indigestible in their toxicity…Places of memory are transformed into spaces, some far removed from the sites themselves, where the wounds of the past nevertheless still resonate.” Stier and Landres define the relationship between religious violence, place, and memory “as a cultural product emerging from the negotiation and contestation of meaning within religious frameworks at specific sites marked by violent histories.” Memories of a violent past shaped not only Mormon images of Missouri and Illinois, where the most violent persecutions occurred, but also Latter-day Saint images of the American West as a place of refuge.
Mormons began yearning for a place of refuge as early as the late 1830s, when they were expelled from Missouri. Although Nauvoo, Illinois served for a time as this refuge, the murder of Joseph Smith and continuing opposition convinced Mormon leaders that the perceived isolation of the American West would be the best option for future security. In an 1845 letter, Parley Pratt explained the yearning many Mormons felt for this refuge.
I do exceedingly long for the time to come either we can get out from under such a bondage and out of a country and government where we cannot enjoy the smallest degree of protection from the laws and where we must at the same time be oppressed by them. Is there no deliverance? Must we never be free? Must we never enjoy peace, quite and our political rights in common with other men? Let us hasten the temple and get our blessings therein, and then either seek the Lord for power to break our yoak, and restore the supremacy of the laws; or else entreat him to lead us out of Egypt into some Canaan, some land of rest where we can enjoy his laws and have time and peace enough to “swallow down our spittle.”
A year following this letter the Mormons commenced their migration to the Great Basin. As Anne Hyde has argued, individuals that came to the West fit their descriptions of the landscape within preconceived notions. Likewise, Mormons viewed their new settlements in the Rocky Mountains through preconceived frameworks and constructed the West as a religious refuge.
Latter-day Saints compared their migration and settlement in the West to that of the Pilgrims. George A. Smith argued in an 1854 speech that “like the pilgrim fathers who first landed upon Plymouth Rock, we are here pilgrims, and exiles from liberty; and instead of being driven into the wilderness to perish, as our enemies had designed, we find ourselves in the middle of the floor, or on the top of the heap. Right in the country that scientific men and other travellers had declared worthless, we are becoming rich in the comforts and blessings of life, we are now rocking in the cradle of liberty, in which we are daily growing.” According to Brigham Young, Mormons had come to the isolated desert far from any other white settlements, and built a civilization, largely because in this isolation the Latter-day Saints were permitted to enjoy their religion unmolested and “free from the meddlesome interference of any person.”
Latter-day Saints went so far as to say that the blessings of heaven as well as the spirit of the Constitution had left America behind and gone to the West with the Mormons. Orson Hyde concluded in 1855 that although the Latter-day Saints had brought little with them to the West, they had carried “the good-will and blessing of our God, even the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob”, which would not return to the United States until the murderers of Joseph Smith were punished. Parley P. Pratt explained in his utopian pamphlet “Angel of the Prairies” that after the United States had fallen into decline because of corruption, the Mormons had “retired to the plains of the West, carrying with them the pure spirit of freedom. There, in the midst of a more extensive, a richer and a better country, they had established a government more permanent, strong and lasting, and vastly more extensive and glorious, combining strength and solidity, with the most perfect liberty and freedom.” Mormons therefore concluded that the Constitution was in a sense transferable from the United States to whatever part of the earth where a people carried its spirit, in this case, the American West. In this sense, the memory of past attrocities shaped and influenced how Latter-day Saints constructed their Rocky Mountain home.
 George A. Smith, discourse, July 24, 1852, JD, 1:43.
 Ibid., 44.
 Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Myth and Symbol (New York: Vintage Books, 1950), 3.
 See the essays in A New Significance: Re-Envisioning the History of the American West, ed. Clyde A. Milner II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) for chapters on Mexican American, Asian American, Native American, gendered, and African American images of the West.
 Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, “Eastward Ho! American Religion from the Perspective of the Pacific Rim,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 127-48.
 Oren Baruch Stier and J. Shawn Landres, Religion, Violence, Memory, and Place (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006), 9-10.
 Ibid., 6.
 Parley P. Pratt to Elias Smith, February 15, 1845, Pratt Collection, BYU.
 Anne F. Hyde, An American Vision: Far West Landscapes and National Culture, 1820-1920 (New York: New York University Press, 1990).
 See Parley P. Pratt, discourse, March 27, 1853, JD 1:85.
 George A. Smith, “Reminiscences of the Jackson County Mob, the Evacuation of Nauvoo, and the Settlement of Great Salt Lake City,” July 24, 1854, JD 2: 24.
 Brigham Young, “The Constitution and Government of the United States-Rights and Policy of the Latter-Day Saints,” February 18, 1855, JD 2:177.
 Orson Hyde, “The Judgments of God on the United States-The Saints and the World,” March 18, 1855, JD 2: 203-204.
 Pratt, “Angel of the Prairies,” 19-20.