Latter-day Saints in Canada: Historic Conference Focuses on the “Then” and “Now”

By Don L. Searle

Associate Editor

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    Leaders and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first looked northward to Canada as a mission field more than 150 years ago. Then, one hundred years ago, a group of LDS pioneers trekked northward from Utah to plant their roots in the soil of Alberta, beginning in Cardston.

    Today, Latter-day Saints are a fractional minority of Canada’s total population, but they are recognized perhaps beyond what their numbers warrant because of their influence in Alberta and their religious values.

    What has been the historical and social impact of Latter-day Saints on Canada, and Canada’s impact on them? Scholars and students of Latter-day Saint history and culture tackled these questions at the Mormon Presence in Canada Conference on the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton May 6–9.

    It began with a discussion by historian Jan Shipps of how Latter-day Saints came to feel their characteristically strong sense of community. It ended with brief remarks by Elder Alexander B. Morrison, a Canadian newly called to the First Quorum of the Seventy, who emphasized that no amount of study will lead to full understanding of the Latter-day Saints—unless one also understands the “conviction of divine direction” which motivates Church leaders and members.

    The event was tied to the centennial of the arrival of Mormon settlers in Alberta in 1887. It was jointly sponsored by the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Education.

    Brigham Young Card, a grandson of LDS colonizer Charles Ora Card and a great-grandson of Brigham Young, was a prime mover in the planning and direction of the conference. He is a professor emeritus of educational foundations at the University of Alberta. He was part of a four-member committee of LDS and non-LDS scholars from different academic disciplines which planned the conference.

    The conference drew some 150 paid registrants, from as far away as Texas and Hawaii, along with more than 50 scholars and experts from Canada and the United States. Their presentations ranged from discussion of early missionary efforts in Canada to consideration of whether Latter-day Saints should be viewed as an ethnic group. (Elder Morrison participated in his role as professor and chairman of the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph, Ontario.) Selected papers from the conference will be published later by the University of Alberta Press.

    Those attending the conference were also drawn by a concurrent LDS folk culture festival, which included presentations on topics ranging from Church sports to music for the Alberta Temple pageant, which will premiere in July as part of the centennial celebration in Cardston.

    Jan Shipps, a professor of history and religious study at Indiana University–Purdue University at Indianapolis, said in her remarks opening the conference that early Church members developed a strong sense of identity as they gathered first in Ohio, then Missouri, then Illinois, then to the Intermountain West. This gathering “turned Danes into Mormons, and Britons into Mormons.” This strong sense of community, resented and feared by outsiders, was part of the reason for the persecution they suffered. But even persecution was not strong enough to break their cohesiveness.

    Richard Bennett, head of the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Manitoba, reviewed early Latter-day Saint missionary efforts in Canada. These efforts included: an exploratory phase in which members from the U.S. went to Canada to teach family and friends; systematic missionary work in the mid- and late 1830s; then sporadic missionary work as Saints were called to gather in Nauvoo.

    Latter-day Saints disappeared almost entirely from eastern Canada because of the gathering, he said.

    The Latter-day Saint move into Alberta was as much a result of the need for expansion as it was a response to persecution, said historian Leonard Arrington, from Brigham Young University. Lands which could be developed for new settlers in Utah were rapidly becoming filled by the 1880s.

    What is seen in Cardston today is a remnant of the past, said Lynn A. Rosenvall, an associate professor of geography and head of that department at the University of Calgary. Latter-day Saints founded a number of small farm villages in southern Alberta, following the model advocated by Church leaders.

    But most of the settlers were not really farmers. “Cardston was a nursery,” along with the other farm villages, for families whose members would eventually seek occupational, educational, or other opportunities in Canada’s cities, Professor Rosenvall said.

    Dean R. Louder, a professor of geography at Laval University in Quebec, pointed out that, “Among Canadian Mormons whose ancestors originated in the United States, the boundary between American and Canadian cultural identity appears blurred, with loyalties divided northward and southward.”

    The common LDS perception of Canada “as being synonymous with Cardston or southern Alberta” has been an obstacle to Church growth in the country, he said.

    Professor Louder quoted the late Canadian governmental leader Lester Pearson on the difference between the two countries: “When they ask you how Canada is different from the United States, just answer them in French!” Surrounded by English-language-oriented members and programs, French-speaking Latter-day Saints can feel isolated.

    In a paper titled “The Mormon Family in Canada,” George K. Jarvis, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, offered a number of statistical comparisons between Latter-day Saints and non–Latter-day Saints in Canada.

    More than half of Canadian Church members live in the prairie provinces, mostly Alberta. While a number of religions in Canada tend to be identified with just one ethnic group, Latter-day Saints include a mix; still, more than 59 percent of Canadian Church members claim a British heritage.

    “National data on Mormons obscure what seem to be two very different populations,” he said—Church members in the East and those in the West. The eastern LDS population is much more urban. More interfaith marriages are found among LDS members in the East, possibly because of the conversion of one spouse without the other. A higher proportion of divorced or separated members, and of single parents, is found in the East, probably due in part to conversions after marriages ended, he suggested.

    Are Latter-day Saints an ethnic group? That was the question considered by Armand L. Mauss, a professor of sociology at Washington State University.

    While Latter-day Saints have been so defined by some authorities, “If Mormons of all sizes, shapes, colors, languages, cultures, and geographic origins can constitute an ‘ethnic group,’ one wonders, then who, indeed, cannot?”

    He concluded that future definition of the Latter-day Saints as an ethnic group will depend largely on the uses of the concept of ethnicity by scholars and researchers.

    Professor Mauss suggested that Latter-day Saints might better be classified as members of “a new world religion,” as a colleague of his, Rodney Stark, has suggested. A professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington, Rodney Stark wrote in a paper prepared for the conference:

    “We are seeing the rapid rise of the first new world faith since Islam appeared 1,400 years ago.”

    “If one examines the pattern of Mormon growth over the past few decades,” he said, “the rate is always greater than fifty percent per decade,” and, “the more rapid growth is overseas, in Latin America and Asia especially.” At present growth rates, the Church would have more than two hundred million members one hundred years from now; it “will become a major world faith.”

    At the close of the conference, a few participants were invited to offer some thoughts on its significance. Elder Morrison commented:

    “I am impressed by two recurring themes—the sense of destiny which pervades Mormon history, and the boldness with which we have attempted to fulfill what we have considered a responsibility placed upon us by God himself to tell the world of great and important truths. I applaud the attempts by historians, sociologists, and others to understand us. I must tell you in all solemnity, however, that unless you come to understand the deeply felt conviction of divine direction that has motivated the leadership and the humble, faithful members of our Church since its beginning, you will fall short of your goal.

    “Ultimately, this work can only be understood in religious terms. We have had to work our way through some very deep waters in our short history, and we expect to have to swim in them again before we are finished. Through it all, however, there is the conviction, seen in the lives of Mormon pioneer and modern counterpart alike, that God has a work for us to do, that it is of transcendent, galactic importance, and it will not be completed until it has penetrated every culture, visited every clime, and sounded in every ear.”

    The University of Edmonton campus as seen from the North Saskatchewan River. (Inset) Beth Bryant, Assistant Deputy Minister of Alberta Culture, speaks at folk culture festival. (Photography by Don L. Searle.)