We just returned from Christmas vacation, which we spent with our families in New Mexico and Utah. Nothing of any consequence happened–we played board games, split wood, and spent a lot of time in the little world of the automobile. Nonetheless, spending Christmas time with family is for me a taste of the Elysian Fields, a sort of hashhashin dream or Pilgrim’s Progress vision of the City from which one awakens to find oneself distant yet, and on an uncertain road.
Stale, flat, weary, and unprofitable are the uses of this world to me! Why must every meeting mean a parting, and why can I only value what I am forced to do without?
As you can see, the price I pay for every familial interlude is the depression that sets in when it ends. Ah, me. But you’ll either understand or you won’t, so I’ll move on.
I noticed, while driving through Salt Lake, a disconcerting sense of being under an alien yoke. The billboards for the strip clubs are prominent, the newspapers and television are as devoid of any wholesome interest as elsewhere, and everything seemed just like anywhere else in America. Nothing said to the weary traveler, you’ve come home, you’ve come out of Babylon. Whether or not Utah is really occupied terrritory or not is, of course, open to dispute. I only say that I felt emotionally that it was. I caught a wash, I think, of that great wave of longing the Jews have long had for Jerusalem and now for their temple, still inaccessible on the other side of the Wall.
So I got to wondering why Utah upset me when Nauvoo, Kirtland, and Missouri don’t? We still own all of our temples in Utah, after all, and it’s never really mentioned in the revelations. In contrast, God himself makes specific references to the other three, and Joseph Smith, the great fountain of Mormonism, lived the events of his life in them while never setting foot in the Great Basin (or, arguably, even really thinking about it). Why is it that Utah has the sense of Holy Land.
Here are some rapid ideas. I think Kirtland doesn’t worry us because it was always consciously a waypoint. Second, the failure there was largely our own, so we have none of that sense of shock and grief. No outsiders drove us out. The same is largely true with Missouri; although outsiders did drive us, our purpose there was to build an actual Zion, at which we had already failed. Like Kirtland, we never were there long enough to put down roots. Like Kirtland, our memory of it is tinged with a sense of failure. Although it is to be the site of Zion, it never was, and no significant buildings or events occurred there. Probably the most sacred site in Missouri is Liberty Jail.
Nauvoo seems a better candidate. We lost it not by our own doing, and we remember it as Beautiful. It had its miraculous foundation (Joseph Smith healing the sick of malaria), its marvelous divine manifestations (King Follett, temple ordinances), and numerous incidents still remembered in stories (the Whittlin’ and Whistlin’ Brigade). What Nauvoo most lacked was probably Time. We simply weren’t there long enough to grow attached.
Or it may be that the sacredness of Nauvoo is in the sacrifice of it. That is, it matters that the Saints were forced out mostly because they chose to remain Saints. Emphasizing the beauty of Nauvoo only goes to emphasize the sacredness of the Saints’ choice to leave. That’s why the most sacred site in Illinois, in my opinion, is Carthage Jail, which represents the choice to give up Nauvoo rather than the gospel.
Just as the Prophet’s sacrifice sacralizes Carthage jail, the sacrifice of the body of the Saints made sacred Deseret. It was there that the Saints went for their faith, their that they suffered, and, the story goes, built a society in inhospitable grounds. We came closer there than anywhere of our dreams of Zion, and came closer there than anywhere of forging an identity as a people. We found a place for Deseret in the scriptures (Mountain of the Lord, blossom like the rose), hymns (O ye Mountains High), and holidays (Pioneer Day, the Sesquicentennial).
Most importantly, Deseret is still ours. Would the Jews have bewailed Jerusalem if the Northern Kingdom had persisted? Maybe I feel the inevitable slippage of Utah the hardest because it is the only place left to us. Maybe, as time goes on and the Church becomes more and more diffuse, Missouri or Nauvoo will again become the object of our longings.
P.S. To be fair, Utah did have 1) a large number of churches and a ghastly subdivision called Temple Shadows, and 2) a disproportionate number of young couples with children. This latter heartened me when I noticed it.