“How many Mormons do you bring on a fishing tour?” – Report from a conference in Utah

By Annelie Sjölander-Lindqvist

“How many Mormons do you bring on a fishing tour?” At the annual conference of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA), this year taking place in Salt Lake City, Utah (the Beehive State), and what is known as the capital city of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints movement, sessions could in fact start with the presenters “How many Mormons do you bring on a fishing tour?”

At the annual conference of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA), this year taking place in Salt Lake City, Utah (the Beehive State), and what is known as the capital city of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints movement, sessions could in fact start with the presenters telling the audience if they are Mormon or not.

As an anthropologist, I was intrigued to hear my Utah colleagues make this kind of statement. In fact, the very first session I attended started off with a few minutes of defining what kind of Mormonswere sitting on the session panel. Throughout the session, the panelists kept coming back to the issue of Mormonism and its effect on family life and society in Utah.

Annelie Sjölander-Lindqvist at the 82nd annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology. Photo: University of Gothenburg

Sunday roast after church

I learned that the answer to the joke about how many Mormons you bring when you go fishing was that you should bring at least two, otherwise you would not have any beer left to drink… At least two accompanying Mormon friends means that they would refrain from drinking the beer as  consumption of alcohol to the Mormons can cause discomfort and is something that  many who belong to the Church sayone should not do. With two Mormons coming along, they would control one another…

As a researcher interested in food and gastronomy, I was fascinated to hear about this, and other Utah food traditions – again in reference to religion – when one of the panelists talked about the Sunday Roast put in the oven before going to the Temple/Church, and ready to eat when coming home. This is a food tradition in the context of everyday life.

After all, three or more hours in the Church makes you crave  some good and filling food!

Presentations on posthumous baptism

The topic of Mormonism was a common theme throughout the conference. Sessions could include presentations on posthumous baptism and the gratitude of spirits among Latter-day Saints in Utah, how the body and health articulate religious separatism in Mormon fundamentalism, and the political discourse of the Latter-day Saints.

In addition to these examples, you could learn about global health. To no surprise, the issue of Covid-19 was a common theme, as well as sessions on political polarization in the post-Trump age, disaster anthropology, indigenous issues of various kinds, and the challenges of creating stability in times of crisis for fisheries and coastal communities.

Health issues and the topic of indigenous people

The topic of Mormonism was a common theme throughout the conference. Photo: Annelie Sjölander-Lindqvist/University of Gothenburg

The SfAA conference is a great place if you are interested in health issues, but the topic of indigenous people from various perspectives is also a common theme at these conferences. So what did I do at the conference?

This year, I returned to convene a session on anthropology and environmental communication  as a follow-up of the 2018 SfAA conference, and a reunion of some of the authors in our book, Anthropological Perspectives on Environmental Communication (which you can access freely here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-78040-1).

Simon Larsson, our GRI colleague, talked about dealing with machine learning input in systemic environmental communication, Yoko Kugo from the University of Alaska Fairbanks shared insights from her ethno-geographical work with the Yup’ik community in Alaska. Kathleen Van Vlack talked about solar energy development in areas of Southern Pauite cultural heritage, and I talked about how it is for people living near large carnivores in Sweden.

Screen visualizing a replica of a log cabin at the Peter Whitmer

However, I must return to the Mormons. The presence of the Church of the Latter Day Saints is highly visible in the city with the Church History Museum, the Tabernacle and the Salt Lake Temple at Temple Square. In the museum, you can touch a screen visualizing a replica of a log cabin at the Peter Whitmer, Sr. Farm Home. A young wife had to drag her equally young man away from the screen – he was over his moon scrolling around in the scene of the log cabin.

For those who may not know (myself included), this farm served as the location for many important events in the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Much of the Book of Mormon was translated there, and the Whitmer home was also the location of the organization of the Church.

Crossing the street at the Temple Square, you find yourself in front of the Tabernacle and the huge Salt Lake Temple (though now under full renovation), and the building of a massive extension that will connect the grounds of the Temple and the Tabernacle with a conference center. A young missionary corrected me when I referred to the Salt Lake Temple as a church; “temple”, she said!

Young Mormon missionaries

At the Temple Square, you meet young Mormon missionaries who eagerly wants to talk to you about their faith, and hopefully also convince you to convert as a result of teaching you the gospel. They receive their assignment from Church headquarters and Sister Jones, who I spoke to, was born and raised in Colorado, and had been called by a verse in the Bible to go on mission.

Enthusiastically, Sister Jones told me about her mission, raised in a Mormon family, and we talked about her views on marriage, divorce, and whether she would consider marrying a non-Mormon. Asked about Covid-19 and vaccinations she said that missionaries must be vaccinated but that her At the Temple Square, you meet young Mormon missionaries who eagerly want to talk to you about their faith, and hopefully also convince you to convert as a result of teaching you the Gospel. They receive their assignment from Church headquarters.  

Sister Jones, whom I spoke to, was born and raised in Colorado, and had been called upon by a verse in the Bible to go on her mission. Enthusiastically, Sister Jones told me about her mission and how she was raised in a Mormon family. We talked about her views on marriage, divorce, and whether she would consider marrying a non-Mormon.

When I asked her about Covid-19 and vaccinations, she said that missionaries must be vaccinated, but that her parents had been reluctant to get theirs until the current Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been told by his superior to tell the members of the Church that the vaccination was to be seen as a miracle.

The Mormon immigrants carried pathogens

The arrival of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the State of Utah had severe effects on the region’s Native Americans. In 1847, the Mormons were in search of a geographically isolated refuge where they could escape the religious and economic persecution they had suffered in New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri.

At this time, led by their second prophet Brigham Young, they colonized aboriginal lands of Numic-speaking people. Settling on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, the Mormons laid out Salt Lake City as a City of Zion. Soon church members from around the world immigrated to the area to build up the kingdom of God, leading to diminished numbers of Native Americans.

The Mormon migrants carried numerous pathogens that spread to Native Americans who had not previously been in contact with Europeans or Euroamericans. There is evidence that the Mormons carried with them measles, cholera, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, malaria, whooping cough, smallpox, typhoid fever, mumps as well as intestinal parasites that lead to high mortality among Numic speakers. The pathogenic invasion also caused a 77 percent loss of Mormon warriors, and we can also expect that other members of the Utah Mormon congregation died of scarlet fever, smallpox, mumps and other imported diseases (Stoffle et al. 1995).

Now I am off to a farewell party, hosted by the Society for Applied Anthropology!

See you next year in Cincinnati?

References: Stoffle, Richard W., Kristine L. Jones and Henry F. Dobyns. (1995). “Direct European Immigrant Transmission of Old World Pathogens to Numic Indians during the Nineteenth Century”. American Indian Quarterly, 19(2), 181-203.  

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