Posted June 27th 2012 at 9:55 pm by
in Faith and Planning

Mormons and the Geography of Faith

•  Finding a place

For Mormons, the geography of faith started with the search for a place.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began in New York, but they were severely persecuted by residents of the state so they went west to Missouri, where in 1838 governor Lilburn Boggs issued Missouri Executive Order 44, authorizing law enforcement to expel Mormons from their lands. Boggs said, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state.” Mormons left their Missouri homes, usually at gunpoint, and with only what they could carry. On they moved to Illinois, where their temple was burned and a mob murdered the president of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith. The church then migrated west to Utah to build their community in safety and peace, apart from the persecution they had endured.

The Mormons were unwilling nomads for the years they crossed the American plains, living out of their ox carts and wagons. In contrast, upon arrival in Utah they built one of the most organized cities known today: Salt Lake City. Their temple stands at the center of a grid, on a plaza bordered by the roads North Temple Street, South Temple Street, and West Temple Street. Locals just call these roads “North Temple” and “South Temple,” et cetera. Roads are numbered from the plaza outward. For example, all roads to the West of the temple plaza are known as 100 West, 200 West, and so on.

Mormons and the Geography of Faith
The Mormon temple in Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake City is an easy-to-understand cartesian plane, the navigation of which is simple for outsiders. The city’s original Mormon planners oriented each 10-acre block plot of land so that every family had a sense of spaciousness and privacy. They took great care in executing their city plan before permanent settling occurred.

•  Finding a place today

For the member of any faith, moving is hard. When you arrive in a new place, you have to unpack, acquaint yourself with neighbors and neighborhood customs, figure out the commute, and accustom yourself to the traffic patterns. You also have to find a place to pray.

Mormons, though, don’t need to shop around for a congregation. Each congregation is connected to a specific geographic area. Where you live determines the congregation of which you are a member, and you are immediately welcomed into that community. You always have a place (a congregation) as a Mormon, no matter where you move.

In college I moved to Spain to study at the University of Salamanca for a semester. I arrived in the city knowing no one. I bought a calling card, found a pay phone, and called a number that would connect me to a local Mormon leader. The man who answered the phone heard my broken Spanish and asked me where I was located. He kindly told me where and when I could attend church. I arrived that Sunday and was immediately welcomed in. I immediately had a place. I became the pianist. Nearly no introductions needed: I was family.

The same thing happened when I moved to Australia: I was welcomed into the congregation as if I had been there all along. When I moved back to America to live in Boston, you can guess what happened. I always have a place as a Mormon, no matter how many times I change location. Even on a short trip, it is easy to find a congregation. And the membership treats you, even for a day, like you’re just that sibling who lives in another state.

•  Temples: places of peace

The Mormon temple is a symbol of the peaceful, safe, unpolluted place Mormons eagerly sought after years of persecution, expulsion, and chaos.

Many Mormons choose to live near a temple. Mormon meetinghouses – where we hold Sunday services and weekday activities – dot the landscape. Temples, on the other hand, are for marriage ceremonies and other religious ordinances. A Mormon temple is a quiet, peaceful, open space in which to sit, ponder, pray, and meditate upon questions one has for the Lord regarding life’s journey. As in the ancient Near East, where life and economy revolved around the temple, Mormon geography is organized with a temple at the center.

Mormons are still persecuted today. We practice a misunderstood religion. Discussions about the faith are sometimes founded on as much rumor and falsehood as truth. This misinformation can sometimes trigger animosity. As a result, Mormons place a high value on physical places of peace. It is little wonder that temples are sacred in the Mormon landscape.

In its essence, the temple is a place ‘outside of geography’ – a plot of heavenly oasis planted in the ground. There are no clocks on the walls (except for a few discreet digital timekeepers near doorways) and no noise from the outside, even in the well-insulated Manhattan temple. All conversation is kept to a whisper. It is a place set apart for peace.

Post and photo by Stephanie Hatch.

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5 Responses to “Mormons and the Geography of Faith”

  1. Damien says:

    I’m doing a presentation soon about the Mormons and this has given me so much inspiration! Thank you so much for sharing :-)

  2. Marcia Whetton says:

    What a wonderful article! Very well written and easy to understand! Thank you!

  3. Jeff says:

    Great article! My only complaint would be the frequent use of the slur “Mormons” instead of the more preferable “Latter-day Saints,” “Saints,” or “Christians.” (Admittedly, the last would be quite ambiguous, but it’s still a lot more accurate than “Mormons.”)

    The bigger issue, of course, is the use of the phrase “Mormon church,” which is a slur so vile it should be considered hate speech. While this phrase is generally used innocently, out of ignorance, its closest synonyms would be “Satanic church” and “false church.” The name of the Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or simply “the Church of Jesus Christ,” for short. (For more information on this, see the Church’s official style guide at http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/style-guide.

    Regardless, the article remains a very positive and otherwise accurate treatment. Thanks so much for your time and effort, and God bless!

  4. MA Hatch says:

    Loved the article. Very informative. Thank you for writing!

  5. Alexander Greenfield says:

    This is about the best post I have ever read with respect to a modern, simply-put thus non-enigmatic (read: the writer is not talking in hushed tones) about the indelibly interesting LDS Church.

    Frank, no-nonsense rhetoric is extremely refreshing when speaking on the much muddled subject of religion. Perhaps the obstreperous self-proclaimed atheistic/agnostic cognoscenti can take a moment out of their lives of criticizing, tailgating, t-boning, and head-on-crashing-into all cars who claim God as their driver (not quite racial profiling, but equally as inane given PhDs, for one, are awarded in the subject of Religion), and read this. Having had my chord struck by this curiously bare boned symphonic elegance, it further makes me believe the LDS community is being open about what it is they believe and represent.

    My background is professional Jewish education provides me with perhaps insight that can ostensibly augment the thought processes this piece foments. Specifically, regarding the notion of the Latter Day Saints having found a home, albeit throughout the globe to the extent Temples dot the globe, any postmodern Jewish researcher can see the climactic if not holistic change the advent of Israeli Independence in 1948 has had on virtually every affiliating Jewish person; whether they are aware of it or not.

    To wit, although most left to middle-of-the-road North American Jewish families know they are Jewish because of genetics and twice-a-year High Holy Day synagogue attendance, if asked how their lives might suddenly be catapulted into last century were, say, the diurnal cocksure posturing and feather-pluming between Iran and Israel (and now the United States since Iran called us out this past week) come to blows, they would be at a loss; this, in spite of the fact that for two thousand years the Jewish people were systematically expelled from nearly every European country for ridiculous blood libel allegations, to trumped up charges of un-sportsman-like-conduct on the economic playing field, in spite of the fact we were not allowed in, say, guilds in England, and therefore some might say succumbed to usury rather than sought it out; as well as a multitude of others make-shift homelands.

    Read: organized anti-Semitism via an e-version of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is possibly but a mouse click away if we become homeless sojourners again.
    Similarly and indeed of more relevance to this didactic is the premise that countries uniformly lined up in droves to disallow our people from having a nation-state early on; from Theodor Herzl’s having witnessed resplendently offensive and provocatively fallacious accusations of espionage against the Rosenbergs, the subsequent anti-Semitic bombardment in France, and his subsequent Zionistic parade of call-to-arms-and-action.
    Moving forward a century or so: Had the United Nation had its majority-based say in the matter, would Israel have come into fruition?

    That’s rhetorical.

    Moreover, notwithstanding some tenuous amicability between George W. Bush and Israel at times, the tenor of collegiality between our two countries has been stalwart, basically, from the day we, the United States, were the only U.N. country to give the fledgling Jewish state our imprimatur. Trite but true, many surrounding countries — and peoples — would have been mightily pleased had their enmity and day-after aggression manifested in immediate annihilation of our sandal-footed irregular soldiers, their families (at least those members of their families whom hitler — lack of capitalization done on purpose whether or not he protected a Jewish judge, Ernst Hess, whom he had served with in the military http://www.thehawkeye.com/story/Protected-by-Hitler-070812 — had not murdered; i.e. capital letters are for proper nouns and there is nothing proper about that fly-saliva eating painter wannabe’), their dreams, their breathe, their freedom and their lives.

    This is not to say, however, that Islamic countries in the region do not have a humane attachment and ergo highly comprehensible longing for a “Law of Return”. Myriad have been separated from their families for over a generation, have had any semblance of livelihood sequestered if not quashed by the formidable IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) check points and walls, and truth be told lost any spirit of peace they may have had.

    Furthermore, The West Bank and Gaza are two of the most densely populated places on earth. And unless and until great leadership from within is able to triumph over pocket-lining despots unable to manage let alone micro-manage their population (the latter of which may, sadly, be of paramount importance such that their education system, at least, grows Westward-leaning and open-mind forming) they will continue to, as Ehud Barak notably mentioned when Yassar Arafat – now being exhumed , incidentally, to quell or appease ex post facto rumors of foul play; which would not in hindsight be in the least surprising) may not “miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

    Irrespective of my aforementioned diatribe, Stephanie Hatch’s post makes me, as a Jewish man, feel for the plight of the Latter Day Saints. After all, I can commiserate having lost more family than I could possibly remember, with the idea of one’s government trying to kill them. The United States tried to stamp the LDS Church out of existence. And, as Shylock (the Bard’s potentially imaginary usurer given we were exiled from England by Edward in 1290, many years before he immortalized him) asked…

    “…why?”

    The Latter Day Saints tried to quickly populate themselves via polygamy; which, of course, was practiced throughout the Torah. The country could not accept such apparent dissidence. Change scares us all people, but it shouldn’t be enough to exterminate others. And as such, likewise we must ask, “why were the Jews, time and time again, forced to flee for our lives”?

    The answer eludes us empirically as many abound, but the heart I opine is that — we were different. We didn’t believe what was put in front of us in the form of modern Christianity, with its Constantine conquering Ferdinand Isabella Torquemada African-American oppressing Bible Thumping Japanese-American interning pedagogical creed was, forgive my eating of low hanging fruit, but…

    Kosher.

    After all…was it?