Neilson, Reid L. Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the Chicago World’s Fair. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 207 pp. + index.
Today the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893, also known as the Columbian Exposition, is largely lost from America’s collective memory. Despite the once-dazzling spectacle of its extraordinary landscape and architecture, all that lingers for most people now—if anything—is George Ferris’ great Wheel, the risky engineering triumph that became the icon of the Fair. In its time, however, the Fair was perceived as the greatest American happening since the Civil War. It drew about 27 million visitors at a time when the national population stood at only about 65 million. The event galvanized the country in myriad ways, and profoundly dignified the city of Chicago.
Scholars often depict the Fair as a catalyst in American history. It had significant effects, for instance on the development of technology and architecture. Historians of American religion characterize the Fair and its Parliament of World Religions as a moment of growing self-consciousness for American Christians, a first encounter with previously unknown world faiths. It was the beginning, historians say, of a growing sense of religious pluralism. Together with the new scientific forces coming to bear on religion, this new awareness transformed American religious sensibilities in the latter half of the 19th century.
Reid Neilson’s Exhibiting Mormonism: Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, published at the end of last year by Oxford, brings the argument of the Chicago Fair as pivotal moment home to Mormon history, plotting the Fair as a critical juncture in the story of Mormons’ relationship with the rest of America. As Richard Bushman’s jacket blurb notes, Chicago was the Mormons’ national “coming out party,” and in this slender volume, Neilson shows how the Fair and other such events transformed Mormons’ ways of introducing themselves to the rest of the nation.
Unsurprisingly, most studies of the Mormon image have spent a great deal of time exploring the discourse about Mormons among those outside the faith. Neilson’s book, however, adopts an internal perspective, offering a detailed account of the self-conscious efforts of Mormons and the LDS Church to influence public perceptions during the early to mid twentieth century. (Neilson is currently Managing Director of the Church History Department). Mormons have been, Neilson notes, “historical actors with agency of their own.” They “must shoulder some of the responsibility, for better or worse, for how they were perceived by outsiders” (6). Neilson’s book underscores this fact by providing insight to Mormons’ longstanding efforts to guide public conversation about their faith. While it does not grapple with all the difficulties of histories of public perception, Exhibiting Mormonism adds a nice layer to the scholarly debate about the public image of Mormonism.
Some of these observations and the narrative arc of the book have been nicely sketched out at By Common Consent, where Blair Hodges traces the Mormon experience and impact at the Chicago Fair: the forceful and significant presence of Mormon women, the aplomb and triumph of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the battle waged by B.H. Roberts against marginalization during the first World Parliament of Religions. Here I’ll focus instead on what is probably Neilson’s most significant argument: that the World’s Fair in Chicago (and subsequent fairs and expositions in the years following) gave birth to the LDS Church’s paradigm of public relations.
Neilson suggests that preliminary developments, and then participation in the Chicago Fair and similar venues (during the period from 1893-1934) created a new mentality of public engagement for the LDS Church. Citing the decline of apocalyptic (pre)millennialism among Mormons as a necessary condition, the book argues that Mormons became, to some extent, less focused on winning converts and asserting doctrine than in creating awareness and establishing public goodwill. This new paradigm was more about “exhibition” than it was about winning converts. (Hence the title of the book.) Growing out of the effort to participate appropriately in these national conventions, the Church developed a new and fundamentally different way of introducing itself, one that ultimately has had far-reaching effects on many facets of the Church’s engagement with broader society. This new school of thought, Neilson notes perceptively, has coexisted and at times clashed with Mormons’ strong proselytizing impulse.
The book’s explicit focus on the Chicago Fair does not prevent Neilson from investigating, to a certain extent, the historical development of this new paradigm. In a nice chapter on Mormon history before 1893, he reaches back to find some of the origins of this mentality earlier in the nineteenth century. He points to the fact, for instance, that Mormons had practiced a form of exhibition by operating dual newspapers in many of the communities they settled: a “secular” paper intended to appeal to those inside and outside the Church, as well as a Church paper intended specifically for members. Neilson also notes that Mormons initiated, under the direction of Brigham Young, a proactive effort to combat negative public opinion through the establishment of newspapers in major American cities during the 1850s. This was, Neilson argues “the beginning of the Mormon offensive push to represent themselves, rather than merely reacting” (37).
After treatment of the Fair itself, a concluding chapter examines the Church’s participation in other national and Utah state exhibitions from 1893 to 1934. Neilson shows that Church leaders of the period were highly energized by the successes experienced in these venues. It was gratifying for Church authorities accustomed to negativity to see headway being made. He also traces the transformation of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from merely a talented choral group into a self-conscious instrument of public relations. 1934 is a cathartic endpoint, since the Mormon Tabernacle Choir returned to sing once again in Chicago at the conclusion of the Century of Progress Exposition that year. (Mormon participation in fairs and exhibitions continued, as the author notes, through 1964 and beyond.) Neilson argues that the experience of the early twentieth century exhibitions, through the utility of materials that were created for them, had an enduring influence on the Church’s later development of museums, historic sites, pageants, and visitor centers.
With the book barely breaking two hundred pages, Neilson may have had to room to explore related issues that were left unaddressed. His incisive point about the inherent conflicts between a proselytizing paradigm and an exhibitive one begs for more explication—connections or conflicts between the new exhibition paradigm and the Church’s missionary efforts are largely left alone. Also missing is an assessment of the institutional logic that accompanied the change. The step away from ardent proselytization must have created tensions, both institutional and theological, in an organization that had long been separatist and still remains generally skeptical of ecumenism. Neilson also could have done more to put the extant scholarship about outsiders discussing Mormons and his coverage of Mormons discussing themselves into conversation. Aside from some discussion in the introduction, the book follows exclusively Mormons’ efforts at self-representation, and does not tack over to consider how these efforts were received, and what influence they actually had, if any. A full synthesis, showing Mormons and non-Mormons in two-dimensional exchange with each other, still waits to be written.
Nonetheless, Neilson’s book is a success, both at showing the showing for the first time a pivotal change in how Mormons presented themselves in the early twentieth century, and in integrating together the other historical developments associated with Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. In this volume, as in others he has written, Neilson continues to open up new horizons in Mormon history and, with other historians, to take the Mormon past to some of history’s best presses. Now, with Spencer Fluhman’s barely-released study ‘A Peculiar People’ devoted to perceptions of Mormonism in the historical period preceding Exhibiting Mormonism, and with J.B. Haws’ forthcoming book, which will address the popular depictions of Mormonism from the mid-twentieth century to the present, readers are poised to gain a better understanding of the public image of Mormonism in America, from beginning to end.