Historical Perspective


One hundred years ago the citizens of Utah joyously celebrated the achievement of statehood in 1896 with inaugural ceremonies in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. A chorus of a thousand children waved tiny flags as they sang the national anthem. The hall was draped with a huge American flag heralding Utah as the forty-fifth state. For the founding Church members, half a century of dreams had been realized. The gap between Latter-day Saint desire for religious freedom and national requirements for statehood had been successfully bridged.

Parade down Main Street

When Utah’s struggle for statehood was successful in 1896, celebrations included a parade down Main Street in Salt Lake City and decorations on the Tabernacle organ [photo].

Today, as we look back at those momentous times, it is vital to remember that when the Latter-day Saint pioneers came to Utah in 1847, they left behind a turbulent history of interaction with some political leaders and some people in Missouri and Illinois. Repeated attempts by that pioneer generation to blend what they considered important aspects of religious freedom with existing local community standards in those two states had resulted in misunderstandings and frustration. Those attempts had ended with some of the local residents driving the Latter-day Saints from their locales. As a natural outgrowth of these experiences, Church members wanted to avoid similar situations in the future by taking refuge in unsettled areas where they could enjoy religious freedom and self-government.

What would soon become known as Utah Territory was that safe haven. For many years religious, governmental, and political issues resided harmoniously together or coalesced in such a manner as to protect the unity of the Latter-day Saints. From the beginning in 1847, President Brigham Young desired to maintain religious harmony among his own people, and to do so he encouraged principles of cooperation in all areas of life. For example, all natural resources, including land and water, were distributed under Church direction to avoid domination by a few individuals or entities for their personal economic gain. In addition, Latter-day Saint businessmen were organized together by the Church into cooperatives, and members were encouraged to support them by shopping at their stores. Further, election ballots listed a single consensus slate that made unnecessary a two-party political system in the territory. When personal disputes arose, Church members sought legal relief through their ward bishops or through local probate courts that were staffed primarily with members of the Church. In addition, public schools in the territory taught gospel principles along with the three Rs.

However, as non-Latter-day Saint military leaders, merchants, miners, and others came into the area, the influence of the Church in public life naturally began to become a political issue. Consequently, six times between 1849 and 1887 the U.S. Congress overlooked petitions for Utah statehood because of concern and opposition from some territory residents who did not want to be governed by a Latter-day Saint majority. The primary catalyst of the opposition was a crusade against the Church’s practice of plural marriage. This drive attracted nationwide attention through sensational journalism, and individuals involved in other social and legal reform movements adopted the crusade as an objective. This resulted in a series of laws against plural marriage passed by the U.S. Congress between 1862 and 1887 that took away voting rights of Church members, effected a reorganization of the schools and a dissolution of the territorial militia, prohibited the Church’s practice of loaning money to facilitate immigration to Utah, limited the Church to $50,000 of property, and disincorporated the Church and took its property. Consequently, the government took the Salt Lake Temple block yet rented it back to the Church. Even so, Church leaders felt that the opportunity to perform sacred temple ordinances as well as retaining ownership of their temple was in jeopardy.

Then, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these laws in May 1890, the fourth President of the Church, Wilford Woodruff, acted under divine inspiration to issue what is known today as Official Declaration—1 [OD 1], placed now at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants. It reads in part, “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress … and have been pronounced constitutional by the [U.S. Supreme Court], I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.” At the next general conference, 6 October 1890, members of the Church sustained the declaration. Because of this action, the government returned the temple and other property to the Church.

In July 1894, U.S. president Grover Cleveland signed the Enabling Act, clearing the way for Utahns to draft a state constitution, elect officers, and petition for admission to the Union. On 4 January 1896, President Cleveland signed the proclamation admitting Utah as the forty-fifth state of the United States.

National political parties soon were organized in Utah, and Church members voted independently for the candidates they deemed best suited for office. Latter-day Saints increasingly linked with colleagues of other faiths to manage natural resources, develop business enterprises, and operate within a competitive framework, and worked with them to maintain concern for the welfare of others and the poor.

In the passing years, diversity in many forms was established in the area, and the Church continued to move ahead in carrying throughout the world the gospel of Jesus Christ as restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Glen M. Leonard, director of the Museum of Church History and Art, serves as first counselor in the Farmington Utah North Stake presidency.