Human Journey

Geography in the News: Mormons

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM


         The Mormon faith is in the news, as a new atlas,  Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History, (by Brandon S. Plewe and S. Kent Brown, editors, etal) was recently heralded  by The Mormon History Association. At its conference June 7th,  the organization announced that Mapping Mormonism won the “Best Book of 2012.” Perhaps more complimentary is the Cartography and Geographic Information Society’s (CaGIS) award of “Best Atlas of 2013.” Now this marvelous new atlas adds more great maps about the Mormons.

            Estimates are that there are more than 14 million members of the church worldwide with about 43 percent of those residing in the United States.

            A period of religious revival that occurred in the United States in the early 1800s led to the development of several new churches associated with Christianity. Among those involved was Joseph Smith, a young farmer in upstate New York, who is credited with founding Mormonism. Smith said God visited him and an angel (Moroni) directed him to buried golden plates written with hieroglyphics. According to Smith, he translated the plates into English as the Book of Mormon in 1830, and then returned the plates to the angel.

The Book of Mormon was a scripture containing a Judeo-Christian history of ancient American civilizations. Smith then organized the Church of Christ, later called Latter-day Saints or Mormons. He believed that he should build a city called Zion where Jesus would appear in a second coming.

Beginning in 1831, Smith and his congregation began several moves westward to Ohio and Missouri. Existing Missouri settlers were disturbed by the Mormons’ lifestyles, particularly their practice of plural marriage (polygamy).

By 1837 and 1838, his Latter-day Saints were forced out of Missouri and Smith was jailed because of an armed conflict. Upon his release, he moved to Illinois where he resumed his role as spiritual leader of the group. When his followers destroyed a printing press used to publish an exposé of their culture, Smith and his heir-apparent brother Hyrum were arrested, then killed by a mob while in custody in 1844.

           Brigham Young, a senior member of the Latter-day Saints took over the movement and moved his group to Nebraska, then in 1847 on to the Utah territory. The settlers endured difficult trips across the Great Plains and through the Rockies with covered wagons and later some with hand carts. They created a “commonwealth” of sorts, building a large irrigation system between the Uinta Mountains and the Great Salt Lake to create a successful settlement in the desert. They branched out and formed a net of small villages across the region.

Most of the Momons living in the  United States reside in the Intermontane West.
Source: Geography in the NewsTM

            By 1849, the Mormons were well established within Utah and they began a major missionary drive, particularly to Northern Europe. An estimated 70,000 “new” Mormons immigrated to the United States from Europe and most joined the group in Utah.

            From about 1852 until the early 1900s, Mormon leaders publicized their culture’s previously secret plural marriage tradition. Almost immediately, opposition again arose with non-Mormon settlers. President James Buchanan sent a military force in 1857 to the West to keep the peace. The Mormons, however, interpreted this as an invasion of their territory.

            Then, during heightened tensions in 1858, an unprovoked Mormon militia attacked an emigrant wagon train passing through and heading for California. About 120 men, women and children were massacred, leaving only 17 children alive. The Mountain Meadows massacre was one of the darkest days in the history of the Mormon Church. Brigham Young, then governor of the territory, was not directly linked to the massacre, but he was nonetheless indicted by public opinion for setting the stage with his edicts to defend his society.

            Several lawsuits and church edicts disallowing or outlawing polygamy followed over the next 50 years. Not until after Utah became a U.S. state in 1896 and after 1904 was the practice officially outlawed by church doctrine under threat of member excommunication.

            In the early 20th century, Mormons began integrating into the broader American culture and encouraging missionary work and solicitation of members around the world. Although the religion is open to new adherents of all races, up until the 1970s African Americans were not allowed into the priesthood (note: corrected by authors). Since then the policy has changed.

           The adherents are strongly focused on mutual support of fellow Mormons, with particular emphasis on “family.” Welfare programs, Boy Scouts, youth religious education programs and disaster relief receive strong support. Objections to tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, recreational drug use, profanity and extra-marital sex are efforts to keep the society “clean” and cohesive.

           The larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is rapidly expanding its worldwide reach. Its strongest influence is in North and South America, Europe, Australia and the South Pacific, but it is also gaining converts in sub-Saharan Africa, India and Russia, thanks to a well-developed missionary program. The church’s membership doubles every 15 to 20 years.

            The tight-knit Mormon society is a reflection of its history of persecution. Minority cultural groups feeling extreme persecution tend to withdraw from the larger society—hoping to protect their own people by remaining isolated economically and socially within their particular group. Religious persecution is especially forceful in creating a cohesive group, as is the case with the Mormons.

            And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN #1166 Mormons, Oct. 5, 2011;;;; and Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.









Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..
  • Jon Thorpe

    Point of clarification. The author of this article is in error regarding African-Americans not being allowed to become members of the LDS Church until the 1970’s. This is incorrect. What the author may be confusing is the extension of Priesthood to all worthy male Church members that was anounced in the 1970’s, something that previously excluded male African-American Church members.

    • Neal Lineback

      Excellent comments all. Indeed, African-Americans were omitted from the Priesthood prior to 1970, but they were allowed to join and to be baptized from the early days in the church’s organization. I stand corrected, as my statement about the issue in the article was much too generalized. I apologize.

  • Patch

    Your remark that blacks were not allowed on the church prior to 1970 is incorrect. Blacks were welcome and allowed to join and be baptised since the inception of the church, but black males were not permitted to be ordained to the priesthood until 1970. Theories surrounding that restriction are varied, but since that time all worthy men are permitted to be ordained regardless of race.

  • John Doe

    Unfortunately, National Geographic cannot manage to get historical facts correct about this topic. Just to be clear, Polygamy, called “plural marriage” by the church, was officially ended by the head of the church, Wilford Woodruff, by an official declaration accepted by unanimous vote of the church body on October 6, 1890. Any person practicing polygamy after that date was separated from the church.
    There had been no policy change of that nature from church leaders before then. In reference to the church’s policy toward those of African descent, they were never barred from becoming members of the church, which includes the ordinances of baptism, and receiving weekly communion (called the “sacrament” by members of the church). The ban was on men of African descent being ordained to the priesthood, which Mormon doctrine preaches is authority from God to administer the ordinances and teaching of the church. There is no paid clergy in the LDS church, all are volunteers. That ban was lifted by Spencer Kimball, the head of the church and ratified by the entire membership on September 30, 1978.
    Also, I can only guess what is implied by the article’s use of quotations around the word family.

  • John Ross

    Two corrections: 1) Missourians were not upset by Mormon polygamy which was not taught until after they were expelled from Missouri. Missourians were very upset that large numbers of anti-slave immigrants with a strange religion would likely soon gain major political and economic influence. 2) Afro-Americans have always been members of the Mormon faith from its earliest days. Black members were never segregated, but until 1978 they were barred from the Mormon priesthood.

  • lillith

    Good article but lacks true in some cases–facts not subject to opinion. Opinions can color some historical “facts” such as the “unprovoked” militia of Southern Utah and the immigrants. Isaac Haight had been burnt out 3 times in Missouri, the turning the cheek business can get old. Imagine a group nowadays driving out a group and then traveling through their new territory and doing a bit of lawless stuff or even exhibiting braggadocio. Words to describe should be neutral for both parties not follow a pop narrative. The truth in the matter is that the Missourians drove out the Mormons with violence because they regarded them as “the other” and the Mormons only could do what they did because the Missourians were their “the others” and a real threat–violent times but better used to show the actions and reactions of human beings (both sides) if you are true seeking/telling.

    The egregious misstatement, however is the most damaging and is bound to create animus where none should be. Blacks were never banned from the Mormon church–we sat by them in church from day one. There are no separate black and white Mormon churches. So God either told Brigham Young to not allow blacks to hold the priesthood or he decided it and asked God if that was all right to do, with faith and prayer until as a religious leader he felt he had the right answer IMO. The religious mechanism is not part of a factual debate though can be for mockery if fellows beings are so inclined. Seems a half black had been passing himself off as a half native American and was into polygamy. No one wrote exact facts about when the priesthood ban was instituted but it was after the LDS had been driven out of the then US nations boundaries for their anti-slavery New England Yankee views. Joseph Smith had ordained a black man and baptized other converts. Irrefutable historical facts.

    So as revelation to a leader no matter how it came about the ban could not be lifted without a similar “revelation” of similar mechanics, say like the world gets their divine guidance to make us all not “the others” and bring about better understanding?

    That revelation came in 1978 to President Spencer W. Kimball and the Mormons who had watched and joined in in some cases the civil rights movement actions and reactions and events in the east and south and majority of Mormons were overjoyed and the ones who couldn’t or wouldn’t accept self sifted themselves out–they left to church. No one missed then IMO.

    So one question for clarity for fellow Americans. If the U S launched an Army to enforce rule on a faraway population in an era of no telegraphs (and the US sent no letters of intent) after having allowed the driving out of a group in era of popular sovereignty, why wasn’t the LDS allowed to enjoy popular sovereignty or majority rule in Utah?

    If indignation over some religious group practicing polygamy (which was among their monied and devote creating a strong internal leader group both politically and socially) what would a racist America do about miscegenation in Utah before the 1970’s. Rather hypocritical to start the racist blame when they were still killing or beating or whatever they did back then to mixed race couples.

    The minute the ban was lifted a black missionary was ordained and blacks had joined inspite of the ban and were ready. Now we misegenate like every other group in the US without any disagreeable lynching or truck dragging for same.

    I am not a church leader or spokesperson but I am an enculturated LDS and an enculturated American. I expect more from my fellow Americans than keeping false charges and the roots of contention between people going on. As a group we have not been racist and aren’t now. Married native Americans and Pacific Islanders (the nation didn’t notice) and “brother” and “sister” each other with clear eyes and open hearts as Mrs Romney had on her campaign slogans. Our blacks are culturally white by nature or choice and have the New England work ethics that is strongly part of of the Mormon subculture and communities worldwide.

    The black Mormons in Africa touch our hearts because they have the same fervor and devotion as did our pioneer forebears.

  • Daniel Leifker

    Your “Mormon Exodus” map is very nice, but the LDS settlement in Ohio was named Kirtland. Your map spells it Kirkland, which is Costco’s house brand for products. Enjoyed your article, thank you.

  • Dave

    I find the deceit from the army of Mormon apologists serving their “Church” quite flabbergasting.

    Fact: The Mormon Church continued to discriminate against and segregate ‘Black’ people for another 14 years after the 1964 Civil Right Act which banned such heinous discrimination and segregation. To do so they played the ‘freedom of religion’ card just as they do today against another minority.

    Fact: Joseph Smith Jr. The founder of this great scam had a ‘Black’ woman posthumously sealed to him for all eternity as his SERVANT. Elizabeth James Manning – Look her up, it’s a great story. She wasn’t actually allowed into the Mormon temple when they performed the “sealing” of course… Because she was Black.

    “Those People” may try to make their past look “pure and delightsome” but they were as racist then as they are anti-gay now. Another web of deceit. They try to paint a picture of acceptance… Meanwhile as major sponsors of the ‘World Congress of Families’ they’re happily teamed up with some of the most homophobic institutions on the planet.

    Lying for the Lord?

  • Steve Bloor

    The LDS Church only tells the faith promoting aspects of its history which can tend toward distorting the truth. When only 15% of the British converts actually made it to the Rocky Mountain home of the Church, it is only natural that it is their stories which get told and retold. A more full and complete account would include the stories of those who didn’t make it and their reasons for not doing so should be considered.

    When one considers the more complete picture of events the conclusions are often less than faith promoting and in fact give an entirely different impression of events than some would like to hear. But truth is truth and the whole truth is more useful than just snippets which give a biased version of events.

  • Henry Lions

    The clarifications and corrections stated above by current members of the LDS church do not paint a clear picture of the actual Historical facts

    On the point of Polygamy it was practiced in Missouri by among others the Prophet Joseph Smith himself who had over thirty plural wives, 11 of whom where also married to other husband and so were polyandrous.
    When executive order 44 issued on October 27, 1838 by the governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs. Referred to Mormons were in “open and avowed defiance of the laws” and when it referred to “their outrages are beyond all description” this was specifically including the practice of Polygamy.

    On the second point while it is true that black people were allowed to be members of the LDS church before 1978, males of African decent where barred from the priest hood, now to a Mormon this is a much bigger issue that it would be to other denominations.
    For a Mormon man to be denied the priesthood by reason of race means he is denied Entrance to the Temple as without the priesthood he cannot have a temple recommend.
    This in turn means he is disallowed temple marriage and eternal sealing to his wife and family and ultimately without temple endowments he cannot enter in to Heaven except as a servant to a white family and thus cannot progress to eventual Godhood and dominion over and of another planet of his own.

    The only thing therefore a Black Mormon could do before 1978 was attend sacrament meetings, but not priesthood meetings that follow the sacrament service and of course pay tithing which all Mormons are obliged to do (10% of their gross earnings).

    The change of policy on Black people was by revelation that happily coincided with new state laws in the USA that would have cause the LDS to lose its tax free status as a charitable institution had they not repealed the ban on Black people holding the priesthood. God was obviously watching out for his “One true Chruch” which is not surprising when it is considered that he informed the prophet Joseph Smith thus “I was answered that I must join none of them (Christian Churches), for they were all wrong…that all their creeds were an abomination in His sight” (Joseph Smith History 1:19).

  • The Blood Doctrine

    More about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Blood Atonement, past historical information relating to Mormonism with references can be found here:

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