While doing some research in the John Mills Whitaker Collection at the University of Utah the other day, I discovered the following two letters, both of which seem to indicate some interesting things about Progressive Era Mormonism and its efforts to redefine itself as a profoundly American Religion. Whitaker was the third seminary teacher in the Church and commanded a great deal of influence within the seminary system during its first two decades. At the time that he received these letters, he was the principal of the Granite Seminary.
Adam S. Bennion to John M. Whitaker, 6 September 1921, John Mills Whitaker, Papers 1849-1963, MS 2, box 18, folder 4:
“The Governor of our State has set aside September 17th as ‘Constitution Day.’ It is most fitting and commendable that we should be mindful of the great document that has guarded American Liberty and love and justice all these years.
“The Latter-Day Saints have always stood loyally by the flag and have been proud of the Constitution. The following item from an account of the first parade in the Pioneer celebration July 24, 1849, reflects the spirit of our forefathers:
“‘Richard Ballantyne, one of the twenty-four men, came to the stand, and in a neat speech, presented the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States to President Young, which was received with three shouts, ‘May it live forever’, led by the President.
“‘The Declaration of Independence was then read by Mr. Erastus Snow, the band following in a lively air.’
“In these days of bolshevism and lawlessness it is good to consider the great and inspired truths that underlie secure government. Let us see to it that every student in Church Schools and Seminaries has a clear conception of both his opportunities and his obligations under our Constitution.
“Sincerely your Brother,
“/s/ Adam S. Bennion
George H. Brimhall to John M. Whitaker, 15 January 1923, John Mills Whitaker, Papers 1849-1963, MS 2, box 18, folder 11:
“Please send me a copy of your last term or quarter’s examination questions.
“Kindly inform me on the following points: Do you have singing and prayer at the opening of your classes? Our national anthem bears evidence of the fact that our Republic and our religion are inseparable. The composition contains the sentiments inquiry, exultation, determination and patriotism, and it is full of faith, hope, reverence and ends climaxically with prophecy based on a trust in God.
“It is hoped that during the month of January February every Seminary student will become able to write from memory the Star-Spangled Banner, and thus make of our Seminary classes a force that will never fail in the community singing of this song of songs.
“It is encouraging to know that all of the lines of progress are being kept up in our work: History, geography, doctrine, by supervised study, clear explanation, free discussions and drill, and that training is kept up by attention to spiritual exercises and outside church activities….
“/s/ George H. Brimhall”
These letters provide an interesting glimpse into the Americanization of Mormonism during the early twentieth century; however, at the same time they also demonstrate the continued sentiment of transition era Mormons that they needed to continue to prove the fact that they were—and, in their own minds, had always been—genuine Americans through overt displays of Americanness.
In terms of content, these letters reveal a Mormonism that had blended nicely with the rest of American culture. Fears of bolshevism and reminders about the importance of America were certainly not uncommon during this period. Indeed, a major premise of the public school system was the democratization and Americanization of youth, particularly those that were foreign born. Hence, the fact that the seminary was used to instill a hatred of bolshevism and a reverence for the Constitution and the National Anthem is not surprising. Like the public schools it was connected with, the seminary program became a tool of Americanization with a goal to increase the patriotism of its participants.
In these letters, however, we see not only a Mormonism that had bought into the idea of Americanness, but we likewise see glimpses of a Mormonism that was still struggling to prove itself to the country, as well as to defend its own past. Within these letters it is clear that Mormons were still trying to convince the country that they were patriotic Americans. Brimhall’s letter suggests a fear that if Mormons did not know the national anthem by heart, their Americanness might be called into question. Bennion’s emphasis on the importance of students knowing the Constitution likewise suggests such a fear.
Bennion’s efforts to promote Americanness, however, went further than a mere emphasis upon knowing the Constitution. For Bennion, proof of Mormonism’s devotion to America had to be proven not only in the present, but also in the past. Hence, one of the ways that Mormons began to prove themselves to be genuinely American was through the adoption of a narrative that emphasized Mormon patriotism over Mormon distinctiveness and separation. Bennion’s statement that “The Latter-Day Saints have always stood loyally by the flag and have been proud of the Constitution,” suggests a selective interpretation of Mormon history that excluded touchy subjects like the Council of Fifty, Polygamy, the Utah War, and the almost joyful way that Latter-day Saint leaders spoke about the destructive events of the American Civil War. In essence, what we see in Bennion’s letter, in particular, is the crafting of a new narrative of the Mormon past.
In many ways, Bennion’s approach to Mormon history proved to be highly successful. While Mormons have continued to reverence nineteenth century leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, they have rarely brought up divisive issues in their reverence. Indeed, while orthodox nineteenth century Mormons frequently reverenced Young precisely because of his willingness to oppose the U.S. Government, twentieth century Mormons have preferred to emphasize events such as the one described in Bennion’s letter which seemed to reveal only deep seated patriotism.