Professor delves into LDS milieu

Dr. Benjamin Park, an associate professor of history at Sam Houston State University and writer on intersection of religion and nationalism, was invited by the Religious Studies department to present his newly released book, “American Zion: A New History of Mormonism,” on Feb. 9. Park stopped briefly in Portland amidst his book tour through the Pacific Northwest where he led a lunch-hour discussion on Lewis & Clark’s undergraduate campus about his book.

Students and professors alike were interested in Park’s historical research on Mormonism’s role in shaping the modern American landscape. Of the eleven attendees, some had been raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (The Church), some were Religious Studies students who would be studying Mormonism later on in the semester and some were professors in the department who were interested in the speaker’s expertise and recent work.

Upon introducing himself, Park admitted that when he was first asked to write the book, he had said no. After further discussion with the press and much thought over how his own background and expertise might be able to contribute a new and relevant perspective to Mormon history, he agreed to write it. 

“I had to justify it to myself. I had to think, what was something new that I can say in this book about Mormonism because … there is a mountain of scholarship on Mormon history,” said Park. “I wanted to use Mormonism to understand some of the crucial themes in American history: the intersections between church and state, the role that religion has played in democracy; the intersections between faith and intellect … and also the interactions between obedience and dissent.”

Park described how his investigation of Mormon history from the early 1800s to the present ultimately altered his thesis in a way that made his research relevant to already-existing scholarship on the subject and to his area of expertise as a historian.

“I decided I was trying to prove how modern Mormonism in America came to be socially conservative, politically Republican, yet culturally diverse,” Park said.

Park led a visually engaging presentation that covered — in only an hour — a 200 year historical run-through of Mormonism. He presented historical stereotypes and social change through a medley of political cartoons, historical images, photojournalism and scans of the Church’s founder Joseph Smith’s initial blueprints for the construction of Zion.

Zion holds several meanings within and beyond The Church’s community. In the context of these blueprints, Zion is a territory. It refers to Smith’s proposed City of God, which he  predicted would house 20,000 people and which would have been constructed in Independence, Missouri.

The presentation also spoke to the evolution of public media, the history of polygamy, the formation of the western states and modern presidential campaigns as relevant processes in the development of modern Mormonism.

Park opened with the first ever published image of Joseph Smith: a drawing depicting the Smith getting kicked out into the world by Satan — either as an agent of chaos for the devil or as someone who is rejected even by Satan. According to Park, each interpretation of the image establishes the same sentiment toward Mormons in the early nineteenth century.

“The meaning of this is clear,” stated Park. “Joseph Smith and the early Mormons posed a problem to early Americans.”

He described another cartoon of Smith, titled “‘Lieutenant-General’ Joseph Smith Reviewing the Nauvoo Legion,” which depicts the continued search for viable territory, the increasing popularity of his religious leadership and public reactions to rumors of polygamy. 

“First of all, let’s admire the glow-up of Joseph Smith from the first image,” Park joked.

His comment elicited a chorus of laughs from the audience. Notably, there was no Satan in this image, nor was he physically portrayed in the same derisory manner. However, this image still clearly held Joseph Smith in contempt.

“Why do you think there’s an emphasis placed on Lieutenant-General Joseph Smith? What do you think is noteworthy about calling Joe Smith Lieutenant-General?” Park asked the audience.

He went on to share one of the many interesting facts he covers in his book.

“No American had held that position since George Washington. So on the one hand, it shows how much Latter-day Saints thought of Joseph Smith, but it also highlights why many people surrounding the Mormons came to see Joseph and others as a threat.”

Park called attention to the female lieutenants flanking Smith in the political cartoon.

“You don’t have to know too much about Mormon history to know that it’s probably a reference to polygamy, because the rumors of Mormonism’s radical domestic arrangements are starting to leak out,” said Park. “At first, Americans don’t really know what to do with these polygamous stories because on the one hand, many people in America were questioning the traditional domestic order and offering new solutions.” 

Park touched on other sects and religious groups with similar practices. 

“The Shakers are often offering a form of celibacy, The Oneida community is introducing practices of complex marital structures where everyone is united to others and the Mormons are offering one radical solution that seems to be once again an expression of the chaos that comes from this religious innovation,” he continued.

Park explained that polygamy, which was publicly announced by LDS church leaders in 1852, served as one of the critical issues in the long process of creating space for Mormons in the civic sphere. However, with the passage of the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act in 1882, polygamy was deemed unlawful by the U.S. government.

“In 1890, due to the confining boundaries around them, they announced that they are giving up polygamy, though they don’t really for a couple decades,” said Park. 

Park shared a dozen or so political cartoons throughout the presentation that characterized Mormons throughout history as outcasts, subjects of grotesque racial stereotypes and uncivilized threats.

“The same decades in which America is passing this anti-polygamy legislation, they passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (and) the Dawes Act, that restricts indigenous land ownership. They repeal the civil rights legislation that comes out of reconstruction,” Park said.

He described an eventual turning point which garnered the first outburst of national sympathy for The Church of Jesus Christ. 

“In 1953, the Utah and Arizona governments worked together on a raid in which they arrested 200 men, documented 700 to 800 women and children,” Park said. “They made those families sit together for portraits for documenting reasons.”

He went on to show photos published by the state governments after the raid. 

“Much to the surprise of the government, and especially to the surprise of The Latter-day Saint Church, when these images were publicized, they actually drew national sympathy,” said Park. “This image of how huge this family is and a small home and issues of poverty and things like that. They argue, actually, you shouldn’t be prosecuting these people for their sincerely-held beliefs.”

Another key moment that Park identified as significant in the march towards broader cultural acceptance occurred in the post-World War II era. He clicked forward in the slideshow to an image that showed one of the most well-known leaders of The Church sitting next to Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, an American radical right-wing political advocacy group that was formed in 1958. The two leaders in the image sat underneath a banner displaying the patriotic message, “One America One Nation Under God”.

“If I could have one image that captures mid-20th century moralism, it’s this one because we start seeing this cross-fertilization with the broader conservative religious movement. That’s eventually going to culminate in the religious rights and the Moral Majority that come to define our current device of American politics,” said Park.

Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, The Church came to be socially conservative and politically Republican as they gained greater cultural acceptance in the United States.

“Mormons reached their cultural climax in what comes to be known as The Mormon Moment, around 2012 with Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency … with The Book of Mormon being on Broadway, (with) every single television show depicting polygamy in some way,” said Park.

Park emphasized the importance of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in earning cultural acceptance for members of The Church despite not initially earning the Republican nomination in 2008. He described a Dallas pastor by the name of Robert Jeffress, who initially opposed Romney’s 2008 campaign, as a good example of changing beliefs towards The Church in 2012. He paraphrased Jeffress’s words on the matter.

“Mormons might be a theological cult, but they’re not a social one. And as long as they’re not a social cult, we can actually work with them,” Park explained from Jefress’s perspective. 

This shift in public opinion in 2012 can explain some of the more recent presidential campaigns. 

“Four years later, a figure like Donald Trump, who does not fit the theological purity test of evangelicals, but actually fits the social attachments and cultural wars prioritization necessary to get the religious right on board,” Park said. “That’s how far the religious right and what they’re prioritizing evolves.”

After the presentation and Q&A, there was an opportunity to speak directly to Park. Currently, the commonly preferred expression is members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though the term Mormons, which was used in the presentation, is still often used within and beyond the community. In response to a question regarding how he approached terminology in the contemporary debate surrounding religion and preferred expressions, he shared an honest and concise solution.

“The big question is whether to even use the word Mormon, right? Because the Latter-day Saints came out and said, ‘We don’t want people using Mormons, we want to use the full term. Churches, Latter-day saints.’ That type of thing places historians in a bind, right? Because on the one hand, as a neutral academic historian, yes, I don’t want to just follow the marching orders of fundraising presidents on these issues, while still respecting their right to name themselves,” said Park. “So my compromise is when I’m discussing historical periods where Mormonism was a common term I would use it, but in referring to the modern day Latter-day Saint institution, I’d prefer the name there.”

A second question asked for clarification on his use and definition of the word Zion, which he initially introduced as the blueprint for God’s City according to Joseph Smith, but then elaborates upon later in the presentation. His response frames how the cultural and political context of the word played into his book’s title, “American Zion: A New History of Mormonism.”

“We’re now living in an age where Zionism is once again a major issue that Americans are dealing with, this idea of an ethno-religious nationalism that we now associate with imperialism,” Park said. “The scriptural ideas of Zion that at least Mormons typically drew from emphasize Zion as a united community, people who are bound together, looking out for one another’s good, sharing doctrine, kind of being shorn of the militaristic violent aspect that sometimes Zion has. So when I’m talking about American Zion, I’m talking about this ideal that Mormons have often had, an envisioning of harmonious society.”

Park noted that he tried to tie the constant evolution of terminology into his work, acknowledging that at once, Zion was a literal location, and that its meaning has changed over time to encompass broader contexts. He also acknowledged the role of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 in framing his sections on Black Latter-day Saints.

“I think that context is important for understanding how you write things,” Park added.

Regarding the name of his book, he described “American Zion” as a multipurpose title.

“‘American Zion’ both popped (and) captured the image — the ideal and the American historical context,” said Park.

Dr. Park’s most recent book, “American Zion: A New History of Mormonism,” covers an expansive history of how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has played a role in the formation of modern American culture. Published on Jan. 16, it can be found on Amazon,, Apple Books and a variety of other publishing sites.

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