Year of Jubilee

Debts are forgiven, bicycle riding becomes a craze, and the “powerful moonlight” of electric lights comes to Salt Lake City during the 50th anniversary year of the Church

The year was 1880. Thomas Edison was experimenting with incandescent lights; the first “five and dime” store had just been opened in Utica, New York, by one Frank W. Woolworth; and Rutherford B. Hayes, declaring he would not seek office again, began his final year as President of the United States.

But for the Saints in the far reaches of the West, these events seemed remote and of less consequence than happenings in their own area. Brigham Young had been dead for more than two years, but although his successor had not yet been selected, it was obvious that the Church was progressing, both spiritually and temporally, under the direction of the Quorum of the Twelve, with John Taylor as President of the Quorum. The previous year had been a good one, a year of comparative tranquility, despite continued agitation and rumors concerning the polygamy question and what the federal government was likely to do about it. Congressional rumbling was to erupt on March 22, 1882, with the passage of the infamous Edmunds Act, but in the meantime the Saints enjoyed a few months of tenuous truce with the opposition. The year 1880 marked the 50th anniversary of the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A celebration was in order. What could be more fitting than to call for a year of jubilee, after the pattern of the jubilee year celebrated by the children of Israel in biblical times?

“And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession” (Lev. 25:10).

Since the death of Brigham Young, the Church had been suffering financial problems. In addition to active ward and stake building programs, three temples (Manti, Logan, and Salt Lake) were being built simultaneously; a fourth at St. George had just been completed. Furthermore, the Perpetual Emigration Fund, a loan fund to help poor Saints pay their passage to Zion from Europe, was over a million dollars in debt. President Taylor’s repeated exhortations to the Saints who owed money to the fund to pay what they owed seemed to do little good. To others who were derelict in their tithing payments, he had pleaded that the needs of the Church were great and blessings would come to those who tithed honestly.

Yet most of the Saints who owed money were poor; many of them were recent immigrants who found it difficult to earn enough to meet their daily needs, much less enough to repay their indebtedness to the Church. And so the Quorum of the Twelve decided that in harmony with the spirit of the jubilee celebration of the children of Israel in ancient times, which included a general forgiveness of indebtedness, the Church would do no less.

The Twelve could hardly have made a more magnificent gesture, or one which would have raised more eyebrows among the more hard-headed financiers of the Church. But other measures had done little good; perhaps the celebration of a jubilee of brotherhood, forgiveness, and sharing would draw the people closer together and open the windows of heaven to all the Church. A series of special preliminary meetings were announced for April conference that year which would set the theme for the jubilee.

April in Salt Lake City can be cold, raw, sleety, and snowy; April of 1880 was all of that. The three thousand Saints who crowded from all parts of the territory into the newly completed Assembly Hall for preliminary meetings on April 4 and 5 were impressed with the magnificent ceiling with its frescoes showing the Nauvoo and Kirtland temples and other scenes from Church history. A beautiful pipe organ, second in size only to the great organ in the Tabernacle to the north of the Assembly Hall, accompanied the choir under George Careless’s direction. More important, however, in view of the weather, were provisions for creature comfort; the new building was designed with steam heat that was piped under alternate benches throughout the hall and through twelve radiators against the walls. It was brilliantly lighted, despite the cloudy day, by 24 gas lamps and a huge central chandelier of 12 gas jets. Basking in light and radiated warmth, the congregation stood to welcome the Quorum of the Twelve, headed by the man whom they were to sustain in three days as Trustee-in-Trust for the Church. Attentively they listened as President Taylor announced the theme of the jubilee celebration. In ancient Israel, the year of jubilee was celebrated by a time of general rejoicing and forgiveness in which debtors were released from their obligations and prisoners were set free. In a like manner should this modern-day jubilee find its celebration.

Exactly what this would entail was not spelled out, however, until the second day of conference, Wednesday, April 7, when more than 10,000 Saints met in the drafty, unheated Tabernacle. At this meeting, President Taylor stated that “he thought in this year of jubilee we ought to do like the ancients and take off the yoke from those who were in debt to the [Perpetual Emigration] Fund and unable to pay, and release them from their bondage. His brethren of the Twelve joined with him in the desire to do this and cause a feeling of joy and liberty to abound among the poor.” It was proposed to remit half of the indebtedness of the fund, which indebtedness stood at $1,604,000. “This was for the benefit of the poor, not of those who were able to pay.” The congregation voted unanimously in favor of the motion.

Next President Taylor moved that half of the debt of $151,798.02 in unpaid tithing be remitted in favor of the deserving poor. “Those who were better off should pay up,” he said. Further, to help the poor who had suffered during the past winter, it was proposed that 1,000 cows, 5,000 sheep, and 34,761 bushels of wheat stored by the Relief Society should be donated, the wheat to be paid back after the next harvest.

The meeting closed, as general conference meetings customarily did in those days, with a reading from the stand of the names of men hereby called to full-time missions for the Church. Sixty-eight men, most of them of mature years, married, with young families, were called to missions in Great Britain, Europe, the United States, Germany, French Switzerland, the Netherlands, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and San Juan County.

Referring to the missionaries just sustained by vote of the congregation, President Taylor closed by hoping that “those who had voted to sustain the missionaries” would help their wives and children who would be left behind. “Prayers were very good, but food, clothing, and other necessaries were more helpful sometimes than prayers, and we should take care that no missionaries’ families were allowed to suffer,” he said (Deseret News, report, Apr. 7, 1880).

But the conference, which lasted until Thursday, April 8, was not all devoted to meetings for most of the visitors from around the territory. Salt Lake City, the City of the Saints, had grown much in the 33 years since the Mormon pioneers had first entered the valley. A bird’s-eye view from Ensign Peak, to the north of the city, would have shown a panorama of neatly laid out ten-acre blocks, with wide, tree-bordered streets, most of which were still choked with dust in the summer and mired in mud during the winter, although some of the downtown merchants were laying “asphalteum” in front of their stores for the benefit of pedestrians. And, for those who did not care to walk these streets, a street railway with horse-drawn cars running every half hour extended to eight different parts of the city. Gas lights illuminated the main streets, most downtown businesses, and many homes.

As it is today, the intersection of Main and South Temple streets was the heart of the city. Immediately to the northwest was the temple block, site of the April conference, surrounded by adobe-plastered walls 15 feet high and 5 feet thick. Within the enclosure stood the great Tabernacle, seating 10,000, that had dominated the Salt Lake City horizon with its elliptical, turtle-backed roof for the past decade. The magnificent new Assembly Hall, used for the first time for the preliminary meetings which conference visitors that jubilee year had attended, lifted its spires south of the Tabernacle. The grey granite walls of the unfinished Temple rose 65 feet above the ground, dwarfing all else but the bulk of the Tabernacle.

East of temple block, on the corner where the Hotel Utah now stands, was the Tithing House with its barns and storehouses for the receipt of tithing “in kind,” as was the custom in those days. Money was scarce; the “Lord’s tenth” was usually brought to the bishop’s storehouse, here or elsewhere in the territory, in the form of potatoes, hay, livestock, handicrafts, and other commodities as donations for relief of the poor. Further east on the block stood the Lion House, Beehive House, and the Eagle Gate, looking much the same as they had during Brother Brigham’s lifetime. Across the street loomed the magnificent Gardo House, designed as an official residence by Brigham Young, but still unfinished at his death.

A block south of the Gardo House, plainly visible from the Brigham Young estate, on the corner of First South and South State, stood the Doric pillared Salt Lake Theater, already almost two decades old. The theater, which rose two stories above street level and had a stage 62 by 32 feet, seated 1,500. Judging from advertisements and comments that year by the Deseret News editor, the building was in use almost every night of the week but Sunday for all sorts of entertainment, including plays, musical comedies, variety shows, and lectures produced by home talent and by touring companies. Conference goers that week in April 1880 might have attended the Juvenile Players’ production of The Grand Duchess of Gerstenstein, with the accompaniment of George Careless’s theater orchestra.

Visitors that week who were less culturally minded probably strolled on Main Street. We hope that all of them heeded Councilor Daniel H. Wells’s exhortation to the men at the Monday meeting to “stay out of the grog shops” on Main Street. Certain parts of Main Street were not called Whiskey Row for nothing. But the business district had many more legitimate enticements: ZCMI offered dolmans, ruffling and ruches, ties and bows, umbrellas and parasols, straw hats, and “everything desirable for spring and summer wear.” At the Eagle Emporium, ladies could view the “elegant line of embroideries … parasols and fans innumerable … custom-made and wove corsets in all colors, endless variety of hair ornaments, braid pins, bows and ties”—all this splendor “at bedrock prices to suit city as well as Conference visitors.” At George Careless’s music store one could purchase the latest in popular music, including “The Mulligan Guard Chowder” and “Where’s Polly?” Calder’s Music Warerooms carried pianos, cabinet organs, and “the marvelous orguinette”—all of these “at prices which will astonish and delight purchasers.” Surely out-of-town conference visitors must have been dazzled by the sophisticated delights of the metropolis.

They might, however, have been less impressed had they ventured out of the heart of the city into the residential area. For all of its bustle, the little city of 20,000 Saints and gentiles was still a country town. Neat brick or plastered adobe houses set well back in fenced lots lined the streets. Each lot included space for a garden, fruit trees, shrubs, chicken houses, and a barn for a horse and buggy and, in many cases, a cow. Loose livestock wandering the city streets was a chronic nuisance; in the midst of April conference that year, a cow was found prostrate on North Temple Street in the 18th Ward area. After two days, the Deseret News editor reported that “the cow … has gone the way of all cows, at last, but did not go quite far enough to please the good people of that immediate neighborhood. The present state of weather will soon render the carrion a disagreeable source of annoyance and complaint.” (DN, April 10.)

No one seemed to take the matter of bovine intruders too seriously until a cow lumbered in at the front door of a local restaurant and became stuck between the tables, unable to move forward and unwilling to move backward. At this point, the city council passed an ordinance declaring that after June 7, 1880, all cows found running at large would be impounded by the city. (DN, June 4.) Eventually, this solved the problem, though for a time indignant cow owners simply kept their animals penned until the marshall had made his rounds at night, then turned them loose to forage at will. (DN, June 11.)

Conference visitors that spring might also have needed to be wary of bicycle riders. The bicycle craze had hit Salt Lake City; on one occasion even a staid physician was hauled into city court for riding his bicycle with reckless disregard for pedestrians on the sidewalk (DN, April 16, May 11). In addition, it behooved pedestrians crossing the streets to keep a weather eye out for runaway teams; the stage from Sandy “came careening up the street” that May and knocked a baby out of its perambulator on the crossing between the Deseret Bank and Kimball and Lawrence’s corner. “Have not stage drivers yet learned to be cautious while driving through the streets of crowded cities?” wondered the Deseret News editor (May 6).

The city settled back to normal following conference. The Deseret News on April 17 carried a “Circular from the Twelve Apostles,” stipulating that bishops and stake presidents were to submit the names of the “worthy poor” who owed tithing or who were indebted to the Perpetual Emigration Fund, to the authorities at Church headquarters. In addition, the circular suggested that individual members “who have the riches of this world more abundantly bestowed upon them” might forgive debts owed them by “the Lord’s poor … so much thereof as you might desire them to forgive were their and your circumstances reversed” (DN, April 17, 1880). * “It would appear, judging from following issues of the News, that if any groundswell of forgiveness and general goodwill on the part of individual members resulted, that the good deeds were done quietly; at least they did not reach the eye of the peripatetic Deseret News reporter, who was reduced to reporting minor fracases, often with considerable humor and obvious relish. On May 13 he informed his readers that “a boy struck a Chinaman in the eye with a rock on Wednesday with such force that he could not see through it. Now we very much doubt if a Chinaman or any other man ever tried to see through a rock under such circumstances.”

The roving reporter could also frequently report news of a barn burning. The volunteer fire brigade had real need of three “neat, convenient and substantial” hose carts just purchased at a cost of $90.00 each by the city to reel the hose to the hydrant for fire fighting or just sprinkling the dusty streets on dry days (DN, May 6). And all too frequently Deseret News readers shared some family’s sorrow at the death of a child, often one of several in the same family, from the dread diphtheria which scourged Salt Lake City and other Mountain West towns that year.

The Deseret News also announced regular church services. The first Thursday of each month was fast day; the public works were closed for the day so that men could attend fast meeting Thursday morning. The regular Sunday schedule included Sunday School at 10:00 A.M. in the various ward buildings, a general sacrament meeting in the Tabernacle at 2:00 P.M., which was regularly addressed by the General Authorities, and evening meetings at 6:00 P.M. in the wards.

Summer as always brought with it heat; the thermometer stood at 94° at 3:00 P.M. on June 18. The ice cold, soda spring water being sold at 10¢ per glass along with bed bug powder, Brown’s Liver Pills, and refrigerators at Dinwoodey’s must have been a welcome relief to shoppers on Main Street. Even more welcome during hot summer days in 1880 was the chance to go to the Great Salt Lake, a popular resort even at that time, to cool off. The Utah Western Bathing Train left the depot each afternoon at 4:45 to deposit bathers at the Great Salt Lake, returning to town at about 7:30 P.M. Here, modestly shielded by one of the hundred bath houses at Black Rock or the 12-room Floating Bath at Lake Shore, which was pushed out onto the lake by an attendant with poles, local citizens paddled about and enjoyed themselves in the buoyant water. At least once, it would seem, a dog joined the fun, trying something that neither smart dogs nor their masters did more than once: he took a drink. Said the Deseret News reporter, “Can’t say what the dog thought, but it certainly looked as if it had swallowed something that did not agree with his ideas of a pleasant summer beverage” (DN, Aug. 5).

A circus came to town that summer, “a splendid show,” as the Deseret News reporter put it. It included a large, varied collection of animals, bareback riders, traerial bicyclist, two giants, and a death-defying lion tamer who actually put his head in the lion’s mouth. But all of these splendid attractions paled, literally as well as metaphorically, beside the ultimate novelty: the big tent was illuminated by electric lights! Of this attraction the reporter said that it shed “a soft and brilliant luster like magnified moonlight, … causing the ordinary lamps [gas] to look yellow and foggy as if beaming through smoke.”

Obviously, people were curious about this new method of turning night into day. A month later, ZCMI staged an exhibit of electric lighting. Two lamps were temporarily installed, one in the hardware department and one outside the store. Both of these, connected to the ZCMI steam engine by belts, gave a clear white light, “like a very powerful moonlight,” according to the Deseret News reporter, who claimed to be able to read fine print at a distance of 300 feet from the outside light. Nonetheless, concluded the reporter, “gas still holds its own as the most reliable, equitable, controllable and extinguishable, economical and reliable general illuminator that has come into use. … For general public and private purposes gas is yet the popular luminous agent and is likely to continue so for some time to come.” (DN, Sept. 14.)

The celebration of Pioneer Day on July 24 was the high point of the summer. Plans had been in the making since June to make this the most splendid affair yet, in special honor of the jubilee year. Trains came from all parts of the territory, bringing visitors to the city. Stores were closed; public buildings, stores, and homes were decorated with the American flag. Even the weather cooperated; as the Deseret News reporter described the day, “The weather was lovely, the sky clear, the sunshine warm and brilliant, a light breeze stirring, and the air balmy and healthful. The dust had been laid on the route of the procession by the labors of the Fire Department, and everything moved into place like the skillfully prepared sections of a perfect piece of machinery.” (DN, July 26.)

And what a parade it was! The streets were full of people long before 8:00, the hour for the parade to begin. The three miles of participants included all the surviving pioneers of 1847, Captain Beesley’s martial band, the Croxall Brass Band, and many floats, or chariots as they were called in those days, depicting everything from the drama to the Pilgrim Fathers to telegraphy, the latter complete with poles strung with wires connected with instruments being used by operators. The artisans of the city followed, including tailors, soap makers, stonecutters, saddle makers, and tinsmiths, the latter throwing tin cups to the crowds of cheering spectators as they marched. The grand finale of the parade was a real yacht, mounted on wheels by the Yacht Club and manned by a full crew of uniformed sailors.

Following the parade, the entire procession and as many others as could crowd in, went to the Tabernacle, where 15,000 people heard Wilford Woodruff and Orson Pratt talk on the pioneer heritage of the Church. Once again President John Taylor exhorted the people to obey the commandments of God and to show love to their brothers and sisters among the Saints.

It seemed a fitting climax to the Saints’ year of jubilee that at October conference, in solemn assembly in the Tabernacle, John Taylor was sustained as prophet, seer, and revelator, the third President of the Church, with each of the quorums of the priesthood standing separately in turn and voting. The three-year interregnum without a President had been long, yet the Church had progressed under the united direction of the Twelve. As historian Hubert Howe Bancroft put it, “The world was now to learn that the inherent vitality of Mormonism depended not on the existence of any one man or body of men, not even on the existence of the Twelve” (H. H. Bancroft, The History of Utah, San Francisco: History Company, 1889, p. 677).

It had been a good year, that jubilee year. Since April conference thousands of dollars, and thousands of head of cattle and sheep had been distributed to the worthy poor. The Saints had learned to share in the spirit of brotherhood and love. Although hard times and trials were shortly to come upon them, the Saints would survive these as they had earlier tests of their faith. As the editor of the Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star had put it on April 12 that year, “We have celebrated the first Jubilee of the Church of the First Born, and there are, doubtless, many who will not taste of death until they participate in a general rejoicing on the centennial anniversary of the same occasion. The future that lies before the faithful is illuminated with the brightness of the Glory of God.” (P. 234.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Preston Heiselt

Show References

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    It was even suggested that ZCMI might clear its books, cancelling overdue accounts!