City of the Saints, Utah

South Temple St. looking east, Salt Lake City, Utah

South Temple St. looking east, Salt Lake City, Utah

Most of the women I have chanced to meet, especially those from the country, have a weary, repressed look as if for the sake of their religion they were patiently carrying burdens heavier than they were well able to bear. But, strange as it must seem to Gentiles, the many wives of one man, instead of being repelled from one another by jealousy, appear to be drawn all the closer together as if the real marriage existed between the wives only. Groups of half a dozen or so may frequently be seen on the streets in close conversation, looking as innocent and unspeculative as a lot of heifers, while the masculine Saints pass them by as if they belonged to a distinct species. In the Tabernacle last Sunday, one of the elders of the church, in discoursing upon the good things of life, the possessions of Latter-Day Saints, enumerated fruitful fields, horses, cows, wives, and implements, the wives being placed as above, between the cows and implements, without receiving any superior emphasis.

Brigham Young was an ardent supporter of polygamy, marrying 56 wives during his  lifetime and fathering 57 children. This photo shows less than half of his wives.

Brigham Young was an ardent supporter of polygamy,
marrying 56 wives during his  lifetime and fathering 57 children. This photo shows less than half of his wives.

Polygamy, as far as I have observed, exerts a more degrading influence upon husbands that upon wives. The love of the latter finds expression in flowers and children, while the former seem to be rendered incapable of pure love of anything. The spirit of Mormonism is intensely exclusive and un-American. A more withdrawn, compact, sealed-up body of people could hardly be found on the face of the earth than is gathered here, notwithstanding railroads, telegraphs, and the penetrating lights that go sifting through society everywhere in this revolutionary, question-asking century.

Most of the Mormons I have met seem to be in a state of perpetual apology, which can hardly be fully accounted for by Gentile attacks. At any rate it is unspeakably offensive to any free man.

“We Saints,” they are continually saying, “are not as bad as we are called. We don’t murder those who differ with us, but rather treat them with all charity. You may go through our town night or day and no harm shall befall you. Go into our houses and you will be well used. We are as glad as you are that Lee was punished,” etc.

While taking a saunter the other evening we were overtaken by a characteristic Mormon, “an umble man,” who made us a very deferential salute and then walked on with us about half a mile. We discussed whatsoever of Mormon doctrines came to mind with American freedom, which he defended as best he could, speaking in an excited but deprecating tone.

When hard pressed he would say: “I don’t understand these deep things, but the elders do. I’m only an umble tradesman.” In taking leave he thanked us for the pleasure of our querulous conversation, removed his hat, and bowed lowly in a sort of Uriah Heep manner, and then went to his humble home. How many humble wives it contained, we did not learn.

Fine specimens of manhood are by no means wanting, but the number of people one meets here who have some physical defect or who attract one’s attention by some mental peculiarity that manifests itself through the eyes is astonishingly great in so small a city. It would evidently be unfair to attribute these defects to Mormonism, though Mormonism has undoubtedly been the magnet that elected and drew these strange people together from all parts of the world.

But however “the peculiar doctrines” and “peculiar practices” of Mormonism have affected the bodies and the minds of the old Saints, the little Latter-Day boys and girls are as happy and natural as possible, running wild, with plenty of good hearty parental indulgence, playing, fighting, gathering flowers in delightful innocence; and when we consider that most of the parents have been drawn from the thickly settled portion of the Old World, where they have long suffered the repression of hunger and hard toil, the Mormon children, “Utah’s best crop,” seem remarkably bright and promising.

From children one passes naturally into the blooming wilderness, to the pure religion of sunshine and snow, where all the good and the evil of this strange people lifts and vanishes from the mind like mist from the mountains.

Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, Utah

Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, Utah

By John Muir, 1918 (published after his death). Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

Also See:

Mormon Handcart Tragedy of 1856

Brigham Young  – Leading the Mormons

The Mormon Trail

Mormons in the American West

Joseph Smith –  Founder of the Mormon Church

Grafton, Utah – Virgin River Ghost Town

About the Author: Written by John Muir, The City of Saints is Chapter 6 of Muir’s 1918 book, Steep Trails, published after his death. Muir worked in a number of vacations during his lifetime, including farmer, inventory, and rancher, but was most happy as a naturalist, explorer, and conservationist. Widely traveled, especially in the American West, he actively wrote about his adventures, nature, and wildlife in his many letters, essays, articles, and books. After years of wanderlust, Muir died of pneumonia in Los Angeles, California in January 1914.


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