Saturday, February 9, 2002
Bridges of friendship grow in Utah
Deseret News religion editor
As international visitors pack downtown sidewalks and crowd Olympic venues, they represent the largest group of religious diversity ever to come to Utah, prompting the state's religious leaders to unprecedented cooperation that would have been impossible a century ago.
After international pre-Olympic press coverage of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many may wonder about the part other faiths play in a state so heavily populated by people of one faith. Yet Catholics comprise nearly 10 percent of the population, and the wealth of religious diversity continues to grow. Before Latter-day Saints, of course, there were American Indians, whose religious traditions remain vibrant. Faiths establishing roots in Utah in the late 1800s included the Roman Catholics in 1871 (the first Catholic Mass was actually held in 1864 and involved U.S. soldiers stationed at Ft. Douglas); Congregationalists in 1865; Episcopalians in 1867; Presbyterians in 1871; and Baptists in 1875.
During the past century, Utah has become home to nearly 20,000 Muslims and three mosques, as well as smaller congregations of every major Protestant and Evangelical tradition as well as Buddhists, Christian Scientists, Baha'is, Hindus, Quakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, Unitarians, Gnostics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Assemblies of God and the Salvation Army.
That diversity has fostered a variety of interfaith efforts during the past half-century and set the stage for the state's most ambitious effort in conjunction with the Winter Olympics — Salt Lake's Interfaith Roundtable, which was directly tied to the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
The roundtable has "built bridges of friendship and understanding" among a widely diverse group of 45 religious representatives — the majority of them women — and set the stage for "greater cooperation in the future," says chairwoman Jan Saeed.
That's a welcome development for several community and religious leaders, who earlier this year rallied at the state Capitol to urge unity among the various religious and cultural factions, many with a history that predates statehood. Olympic preparations and public discussions over alcohol and the role of the LDS Church in the Games spotlighted some deep-seated fractures in a state that, for the past several decades, had managed to largely sequester public religious tension.
Many roundtable members, whose work on Olympic preparation was finished before most athletes and visitors arrived, see the emerging openness as one of the most potentially significant, if largely unsung, legacies of the Winter Games.
If it's true that time heals all wounds, many would agree much healing has occurred in Utah's faith community. Yet history looms as an unspoken backdrop to the sores that remain.
Because the state was initially colonized by Latter-day Saints fleeing religious persecution - much of it instigated by Protestant clergy and parishioners - a history of political clashes between them and some of those who would follow has, in some measure, shaped the religious landscape ever since, historians agree.
While the particulars are unique to Utah, the politics of majority are not.
After the first party of Latter-day Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, it was 15 years before any other organized faith group established itself in what was known for a time as the state of Deseret.
Early accounts of several denominations that began as a tiny minority among their 19th century LDS neighbors are replete with tales of what some historians maintain was, at that time, a virtual theocracy. Some mention offers of assistance from LDS leaders, while others detail ridicule and harassment from LDS members. Nearly all speak in some way of isolation.
The first documented Jewish couple to come to Utah were Julius and Fanny Brooks, who left Frankenstein, Silesia, and arrived in Utah in 1854.
In her new book, "A Homeland in the West: Utah Jews Remember," author Eileen Hallet Stone chronicles the early effort of Jews who emigrated to Utah in the same covered wagon fashion as their LDS counterparts.
Milford Rathjen, on his research into "The Distribution of Major Non-Mormon Denominations in Utah," briefly sketches the state's early religious history.
The first Catholic church was consecrated in Salt Lake City in 1871, and by 1873, there were 800 Catholics in what was then the largest parish geographically in the country, encompassing Utah and parts of Nevada.
Small mission churches sprung up around the state, particularly in mining towns. Their mission was focused on ministry and education, mostly among their own number and the unchurched, rather than preaching to or competing with their LDS neighbors. As a result, early Catholics "with the possible exception of the Episcopal (Church), enjoyed a much more friendly intercourse with the Mormons than any other denomination," according to the Inventory of the Church Archives of Utah.
That cordial beginning likely laid the foundation for a mutually cooperative relationship that continues to this day between top leaders of the two faiths in providing human services and encouraging interfaith events. Within the past decade, Catholic leaders have worked to restore the historic Cathedral of the Madeleine downtown, with help from several major donors including the LDS Church.
First Congregational Church was the first denomination to establish regular Protestant services in 1865. Along with most other faiths, they established small churches with large populations of non-Latter-day Saints, with their particular emphasis being northern Utah.
Episcopalian ministers also concentrated their efforts from Salt Lake City northward, establishing St. Mark's mission — the namesake for today's St. Mark's Cathedral and St. Mark's Hospital — around 1867.
The First Presbyterian Church was first organized in Salt Lake City in November 1871, and by 1874, the first church building was completed and stood, along with four other buildings housing the Salt Lake Collegiate Institute (which became Westminster College). Organized as a combination primary and secondary school, it stood at the corner of 200 South and 200 East.
The Presbyterians established an educational system throughout the state — viewed by many early Utahns as an attempt to convert the LDS — who had no public education at the time.
"Presbyterians articulated the belief that Mormonism was a destructive cult that divided families, promoted sexual deviancy, disseminated heretical teachings and threatened national unity," according to historian R. Douglas Brackenridge in his recent book on the history of Westminster College.
The antagonism went both ways, according to Brackenridge. After Presbyterian writers and clergymen mounted a political campaign in the eastern United States to ban polygamy, early Deseret Evening News editor George Q. Cannon opined that many Protestant churches needed "purification."
Methodists established themselves first in the small railroad outpost of Corinne, followed by establishment of a Salt Lake City church in 1870. Their early efforts were centered mostly in the mining towns, including Eureka, Tooele, Stockton, Ophir and Grantsville. They also established a school system as growth and resources increased.
The Baptist presence in Utah began in 1871, when the Rev. George W. Dodge was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as superintendent of Indian Affairs for the territory of Utah, according to Rathjen.
While relationships between faiths have become slowly more accommodating since statehood in 1896, a marked warming has developed within the past decade.
With the LDS Church's new focus on interfaith humanitarian outreach has come a variety of opportunities to partner with other local faiths in food and clothing production and distribution and disaster relief.
Historic restoration has become another area of shared emphasis, as fund-raising efforts to restore the Cathedral of the Madeleine and now First Presbyterian Church have included large donations by a variety of faith communities, including the LDS Church.
New building construction has also brought Utahns of all faiths together not only in fund-raising but in sweat equity, as the recent completion of the Hare Krishna temple in Spanish Fork, a Baptist Church in Bountiful and a United Methodist Church in West Jordan attests.
And though just under 70 percent of Utahns are Latter-day Saints, the state's diversity continues to grow. As it does, interfaith leaders pray that the Olympics will serve as a further catalyst for old tensions to give way to a new push for unity and a growing respect for the wide spectrum of faiths that are found here.
©Copyright 2002, Deseret News