Oregon and Utah: So Different, So Similar…

Lately I’ve been thinking about how historical conceptions of the U.S. West have helped to shape the present-day religious landscapes of this grouping of contiguous, but varied regions. I live in the Northwest and study and teach about the religious history of Oregon and Washington. But much of my research is also focused on Utah-based Mormonism. The contemporary religious landscapes of these two regions couldn’t be more different. As Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk have shown, the Northwest is the most “unchurched” part of the country and has the highest number of “nones,” those who self-identify with no historic, institutional expression of religion. No one religious tradition dominates or has ever dominated in this region. It is a hotbed of alternative, nature-based spiritualities. In contrast, in Utah, residents are church members at record levels and the region is well known for its homogenous Mormon religious landscape. Two regions on opposite ends of the scale.

 

Yet, exploring how inhabitants have talked about these regions, I’ve found some striking similarities. In both regions, in the nineteenth century, Euro-American writers sacralized the land they lived on, seeing nature as the expression of God’s favor and exceptional interest in their respective regions. Northwest poet Frances Fuller Victor (1826-1902) wrote a memorial to Presbyterian missionary Narcissa Whitman who was killed by Cayuse Indians in 1847, along with her husband and twelve others. The incident became known as the Whitman Massacre and it rallied the country around the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, pulling pioneers across the country on a godly errand to impose “civilization” on the Pacific coast and sparking a series of shockingly violent wars with Native Americans throughout the Northwest. In her poem, Victor sees the poppies that grow in the valley of the Whitman’s former mission as natural monuments to Narcissa. She claims that this beautiful, naturally endowed part of the country was kept hidden by God for enterprising Euro-American pioneers.

The glorious morns, the sultry noons,
The blazoned sunsets of the plains,
The starry nights, the white-fire noons,
The golden fields of ripening grains,
That prove this land, in God’s great plan,
The last, best heritage of man! (1)

Such themes have been sounded since Europeans first nudged their way across the Atlantic and they were re-shaped and energized as they fused with Protestant exceptionalist ideas of chosen-ness.

 

Mormons employed such themes as they searched for and finally found their earthly Zion in Utah. Prominent churchwoman Ruth May Fox (1853-1958) reflected on the chosen-ness of Utah, in her mind, a land reserved by God for the Latter-day Saints:

She lives in a land reserved throughout all ages,
For a people that God could rely on;
To establish His Kingdom and battle for truth;
And He named it the land of Zion. (2)

Energized by this vision, starting in 1847, Mormon pioneers flooded into the Salt Lake Valley from the East Coast, from Scandinavia, from England, from Ireland.

 

Early writers of both regions, not surprisingly, also religiously engaged with the nature of their promised lands. They saw nature as a place where they could truly experience the divine away from the corruptions and distractions of worldly life. In one of her most famous poems, Northwest writer Ella Higginson (1861-1940) rejects the formal worship of God in churches and, instead, claims that she found in nature a true communion with God on a beautiful Easter morning.

My knees have know no cushions rich,
But the soft, emeralded sod;
My aisles have been the forest paths
Lined with the crimson rod;
My choir, the birds and winds and waves—
My only pastor God. (3)

Mormon writers of the same era sound quite similar. Well known writer and editor Emmeline B. Wells (1828-1921) loved to go to nature to connect to God.

My soul hath gone forth in its wandering,
To the hills that are purple with light;
Those temples that tower everlasting,
In their majesty, grandeur and might.
And I list to the voices eternal,
That have sung thro’ the ages of time,
And I bask in the visions supernal,
That uplift me to regions sublime. (4)

For writers of both regions, nature was the vehicle of a revelatory engagement with the divine.

 

So how do we end up with such different contemporary religious landscapes? Northwest writers used the common experience of nature to try to speak to a diverse, fractious, splintered population. It was the language of the cultural and economical elite of the region, an elite that was striving to find for the region a common goal, a common experience, a common identity. Nature religion has become, in the public discourse, as way for residents of the Northwest to create a sense of community and regional identity, even as this discourse marginalizes those outside of the urban population centers of the region or those dedicated to particular religious traditions. It re-shapes and imperializes Native American ideas, an eerie parallel with earlier military conquests. Mormon writers used nature to express an already agreed upon theology and cultural system that was being rapidly systematized and centralized. It allowed writers to safely express personal revelatory experience in the face of a hierarchy that was increasingly quick to safeguard its authority and privilege. Perhaps nature religion never took off in the Mormon Intermountain region the way it did in the Northwest because Mormons and non-Mormons of this area were already living within a dominant discourse, a discourse that today does the same thing that present-day nature-focused discourse in the Northwest does. It unites and marginalizes simultaneously, alienating those who don’t believe, who don’t want to live within this Mormon worldview and cultural system. Two regions so different, yet similar in so many ways.

(1) Frances Fuller Victory, “The Poppies of Wa-Il-Lat-Pu,” Poems (Author’s Edition, 1900), 51.

(2) R.M.F., “The Daughters of Zion,” Woman’s Exponent 17, no. 23 (May 1, 1889): 177.

(3) Ella Higginson, “God’s Creed,” When the Birds Go North Again (New York: MacMillan Co., 1902), 4.

(4) E.B.W., “Meditation,” Woman’s Exponent 23, nos 3-4 (August 1 & 15, 1894): 169.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The two religious cultures of Mormon Zionism and secular pantheism have interpenetrated geographically. In southeast Washington, where I live in the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco (pop. About 250,000), over 10% of the residents are Mormon, and the LDS Church is the largest denomination in several counties. It is due to a combination of an agricultural migration out of Utah and Idaho dating to the early Twentieth Century, when large hydroelectric dams on the Snake and Columbia enabled the irrigation and development of desert, followed by the growth of the nuclear industry, producing plutonium and research at the 586 square mile Hanford Site that enclosed 35 miles of the Columbia River for a generation. The typical resident of wet, green western Washington assumes that the desert landscape of Hanford is due to the withering effects of radiation, but in fact Hanford is a great nature preserve, eastern Washington as it would look without the agricultural development wrought by Grand Coulee Dam, Bonneville Dam, and the many other dams in between. Half of Hanford, including both sides of the Hanford Reach of the river, is now a National Monument that recognizes this as the last extensive tract of land that looks like it did before the Nineteenth Century settlement, when Native American villages filled the riparian lands where nine mothballed nuclear reactors now sit. Hanford is full of wildlife, with a thousand head of elk, deer so numerous they are the major cause of auto accidents, migratory birds by the millions, bat colonies in abandoned reactor water cisterns, and spawning grounds for endangered salmon. There used to be a mustang herd, until it grew so numerous it was endangering workers. The Hanford Site attracted Mormon engineers and scientists, followed by Mormon doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. There are a few more Mormons among the millions of people around Puget Sound, but there they are a definite small minority, on par with the Sephardic Jews who came from Istanbul a century ago and created a community on Merritt Island.

    The nature religion of Washington and Oregon drives public policy and the election of governors and senators. It is eclectic in selecting sacred texts,incorporating a fictional discourse authored by an ad agency writer as the official prophetic denunciation of modern man by Chief Seattle. It does not always include a lot of deep reflection. An initiative was passed a few years ago to prohibit the impirtation to the Hanford Site of small amounts of radioactive waste, the voters never realizing that Washington already owns most of the worst nuclear waste in America, just five miles from the Columbia, and if they ever hope to be rid of it they should not be establishing a legal precedent for Nevada and New Mexico to refuse entry. This region is a laboratory where we can observe the interaction of these two modern American religions.

  • LaVerl 09

    Indeed, Mormons do show a lot of respect for “Mother Earth”.
    I first refer to a scholarly book called “The Footstool of God” written by Rodney Turner while a professor of Ancient Religion at BYU. In that book he refers to the creation of the earth first as a “spirit” (thus the “spirit” world) and then describes the earth as being “born” (just as we are born) from the “amniotic” waters of the creation. He also recognizes the flood as its “baptism”. Then he says it will receive the Holy Ghost when Christ arrives in glory and changes the earth into a paradisiacal millenial state.
    And in canonized LDS scripture (D&C 88:25-26) it says that “the earth abideth the law of a celestial kingdom, for it filleth the measure of it’s creation and transgresseth not the law. Wherefore, it shall be sanctified, yea, notwithstanding it shall die, it shall be quickened again, and shall abide the power by which it is quickened and the righteous shall inherit it”. In other words, the earth is the eventual resurrected abode of those who attain the “highest” Mormon heaven.
    For this reason, I reverence the sunrises, the sunsets, the seasons, the flora and fauna and, yes, even the very air that I breathe.
    A Book of Mormon prophet named Alma eloquently says it this way (Alma 30:44): “All things denote that there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and it’s motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”


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