Community Curiosities: How were the dominant political parties adopted in Utah?

For this community curiosity, we dig into the legend of bishops for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints splitting congregations into Democrats and Republicans in an effort to help Utah join the Union. Producer Roger McDonough investigates whether there’s any legitimacy to the story. Audio at bottom of page.

 

Transcription: 

(McDonough)
So Tim, since we’re on the topic of political parties, I have a question for In the Hive’s “Community Curiosities” – that occurred to me only as we were prepping this show. Maybe we should remind people what Community Curiosities is first though?

(Pierce)
Good idea. It’s our segment where we answer your questions about Salt Lake.  It could be anything really. Recently we answered a question about air quality monitors. And I guess you could say this all kind of kicked off when we tried to get to the bottom of how much of your recycling actually gets recycled [maybe 20 percent was the answer, sort of]. Yeah. Anyway send your questions to comments@kcpw.org.

(McDonough)
Do that. MY QUESTION though… has to do with this story told about Utah, its statehood, and the political parties here. And I’d never bothered to fact check it before. But here it is. Utah, as it got closer to achieving statehood… to being welcomed into the federal fold, as it were, it had a couple of skeletons in the closet. One of those skeletons was polygamy. That wasn’t allowed under federal law. But in 1890 a manifesto by Wilford Woodruff, president of  the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, officially terminated the practice.

There’s actually a lot more to that story, but we’ll leave it there. Another of the skeletons in the closet had to do with Utah politics. And the story I’ve heard is that to ensure Utah fit into the federal mould, CHURCH leaders, — and mind you — this place was settled by the Mormon pioneers — Church leaders sent down word from on high that people needed to divide up into the dominant political parties to better fit the US mold. And so in Ward houses across the land bishops standing before their congregations said something like “from here on out, everyone to my right is a democrat. everyone to my left is a republican.” Ouila! ready for statehood!

(Pierce)
Did that really happen, Roger? How would that even work?

(McDonough)
That’s my Community Curiosities question, Tim. And before airtime I didn’t really have time to get to the bottom of the story. I only started looking into this yesterday. But here’s what my quick digging turned up.

(Pierce)
Let’s hear it.

(McDonough)
In 1966 a former University of Utah Political Science Professor (and first director of the U’s Hinckley Institute of Politics) the late J.D. Williams wrote an article entitled “The Separation of Church and State in Mormon Theory and Practice” where he delves into this.

He writes: “Statehood for Utah was delayed because Congress was convinced that the Mormons had too many wives and too few political parties. Prior to 1870, the parties were few enough, all right —just one. Called the “People’s Party,” it was the political vehicle of the Mormon leaders for such tasks as electing the territorial legislature and Utah’s Delegate to Congress.”

I’m going to skip ahead a few paragraphs:

“The absence of the Democratic and Republican parties on the Utah scene puzzled many in the Congress. The presence instead of a “Church Party” could be taken as proof that church and state had not yet been separated. And there was not much Congressional stomach for admitting a polygamous theocracy to the Union.”

Skipping ahead again:

“Then came the dramatic, now humorous, sequence of events in which theocracy served as midwife for the birth of democracy in Utah. Sometime in 1891 (a day uncertain) at a meeting of the leaders of the People’s Party (the Church party), the First Counselor in the Church Presidency, George Q. Cannon, made an appearance. President Cannon informed the party officials that the First Presidency of the Church wanted the existing parties scrapped and the national parties instituted in their place.”

And, now Tim, we get to the nugget of the story (quoting again):

“So the word went forth from that meeting that Mormons should join both national parties. And as the word moved down the hierarchy, some imaginative bishops at the ward level gave “practical translation” to the advice: They stood at the head of the chapel aisle and indicated that the Saints on one side should become Republicans and those on the other should become Democrats.”

(Pierce)
That sounds a lot like the story you heard, Roger. What’s the source material this guy is using for his article? How did you fact-check this?

(McDonough)
So…for the notion that the Church’s first presidency wanted the old parties scrapped and the new ones adopted, JD Williams cites a book written by a LATER church president, Gordon B. Hinckley. And for the idea that people were sorted into parties inside of their ward houses, Williams cites former US Senator Wallace F. Bennett – who knew someone who had witnessed that sorting first hand at his own ward.

(Pierce)
That’s pretty remarkable. A very Utah tale!

(McDonough)
I know, but…so I’m not 100% sold on the story – yet. This is just one article. And so we’d love to hear from any listeners who have personal anecdotes or family stories and especially any actual evidence of their ancestors being divvied up into parties at church.

(Pierce)
And you can reach out by emailing comments@kcpw.org

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