John Varah Long was cited to appear before church officials in 1866 for, among other reasons, â€œbelonging to the young menâ€™s social club, and other conduct unbecoming a saint.â€
Is it possible that the social club, one cause of Longâ€™s excommunication, was also a model for the churchâ€™s Mutual Improvement Associations?
I tuned in to KUERâ€™s RadioWest program yesterday to hear the latest chapter in what historian Will Bagley describes as an experience of â€œunpeeling the onionâ€ of the John V. Long papers currently being explored by rare books dealer Ken Sanders. Since their last public appearance, Ken had invited Ron Barney and others from LDS Archives to look over the documents, and Ron described what he had seen and addressed some of the claims made earlier in the program. (Juvenile Instructor has a great summary of the radio program.)
One point of special interest was Kenâ€™s reading of part of the 1866 document calling Long to appear before his high council to answer charges concerning his standing in the church, and especially the charge of â€œbelonging to the young menâ€™s social club.â€
The host asked about that organization.
â€œItâ€™s mystery after mystery,â€ Will responded. â€œI asked the best historians in the LDS church, â€˜have you ever seen a reference to this?â€™ and none of them had an answer. As I investigated it, I went through the only paper except for the Deseret News published in Utah at the time, which was the Union Vedette, and the only reference to clubs involved a billiards club, and another club that isnâ€™t specifically identified.â€
Thank you, Will, for publicly acknowledging me as one of â€œthe best historians in the LDS church,â€ and Iâ€™m sorry I didnâ€™t have an answer for you when you asked. I do now, though.
Whoever drew up Longâ€™s summons used an incorrect name â€“ the generic term â€œsocial clubâ€ â€“ instead of the institutionâ€™s formal name. Had he used the formal name, none of those queried, or Will himself, would have had a momentâ€™s hesitation in identifying the group.
Yesterday afternoon I mentioned the problem to Paul Reeve, assistant professor of history at the University of Utah and an occasional commenter on T&S, and he instantly recognized the group. â€œThatâ€™s the Young Menâ€™s Literary Association,â€ he said.
Dâ€™oh! Of course! And my forehead-slapping has been repeated numerous times as I passed the word along. There is virtually no doubt that this is the â€œsocial clubâ€ referred to in the Long document.
The Young Menâ€™s Literary Association was organized by the Gentiles (a term proudly adopted by non-Mormons in Utah at this era) in 1864, operating through at least 1867. Their meetings consisted of guest speakers, member debates, and recitations of poetry and literary masterpieces, and they held numerous balls â€“ winter balls, balls celebrating the anniversary of the Bear River Massacre, balls in honor of visiting dignitaries. They collected books and newspapers for a membersâ€™ reading room, and they took occasional field trips. They distributed honorary life memberships to hosts of traveling Gentiles who spoke to their meetings.
Reports of activities appear very frequently in the Union Vedette (which was, in fact, not the only paper besides the Deseret News published in Utah at this time â€“ T.B.H. Stenhouseâ€™s Telegraph, one of the finest Utah papers ever published, was in print all through this period). On paper, the YMLA was a genteel as well as a Gentile organization â€“ â€œAt the last meeting a fine essay was read by one member and by another a choice selection of poetry.â€ â€œThere were a goodly number present â€“ every one was social â€“ the dance was earnestly participated in â€“ and the chief aim of the members of the Association seemed to be to make themselves and every one around them happy.â€ The constitution provided for the expulsion of members for â€œany violation of gentlemanly conduct.â€ No doubt they were entirely respectable by worldly standards.
But by Mormon standards, they were anything but respectable. The membership consisted of military officers and hangers-on, federal officials, merchants and miners. The success of their fancy balls in these pre-transcontinental-railroad days depended on seducing young Mormon girls into participation. Their speakers were not kind to the Mormon community â€“ the chaplain at Fort Douglas, a member of YMLA, testified to Congress in 1866 that â€œthe whole [Mormon] system is pregnant with principles of eternal antagonism to the civilization of the nineteenth century. It is the purest, or rather the impurest despotism on earthâ€ — and announced topics for forthcoming meetings were often along the lines of “Morality vs. Mormonism.”
The YMLA built Independence Hall, which was the first home of the Godbeites, the Liberal Institute, and the Liberal Party, all of which came into being specifically in opposition to Mormonism.
In short, given the personnel of the YMLA and the nature of many of its evenings, no one can be surprised that regular attendance at its meetings and steady fraternization with its members would have been grounds to question any Mormonâ€™s allegiance to his own people.
The minute books of the YMLA are preserved in the Marriott Library at the University of Utah, so it should be easy for Ken to confirm Longâ€™s membership.
The intriguing question for me, apart from the specifics of Longâ€™s story, is whether, or to what extent, the YMLA had a role in sparking the formation of the Young Menâ€™s Mutual Improvement Association. Salt Lakeâ€™s YMLA is one of a great many YMLAs in existence â€“ a Google search turns up references to such groups in London and Calcutta and through the eastern United States in the 1850s and 1860s â€“ but it would have been the one most familiar to Mormons in Utah. The early activities of the MIAs mirror the YMLA to a great extent, intellectual development interspersed with social entertainments, although the MIA of course has a heavy overlay of religious motivation lacking in the YMLA. And the YMMIA was organized in 1875, not long after the YMLA was most active.
Itâ€™s a question I canâ€™t answer without more research than I can invest right now. But to me, itâ€™s an intriguing possibility worth investigating. Some day.