Magazine article The American Conservative

Just Deseret

Magazine article The American Conservative

Just Deseret

Article excerpt

I can't say that some of my best friends are Mormons, but I've always had a soft spot for the Latter-Day Saints. Their faith was founded about 50 miles to our east during the antebellum roil which gave to our region the appellation of the "Burned-Over District," as religious and reform enthusiasms (abolition, women's rights, spiritualism) set this land afire. I find the Book of Mormon, well, implausible, but as an indiscriminate patriot of the Burned-Over District anything or anyone hailing from these parts is okay by me, from the free-love Oneida Community to Ann Lee and her celibate Shakers. (And what a rotten perpetuation strategy that was: a no-sex sect.)

My Mormon-friendliness--and no, I never experimented with LDS--is pretty much limited to rooting for BYU football, though in 1984, when I had quit the employ of Sen. Pat Moynihan and wanted nothing more to do with politics, I rode the Hound to Salt Lake City, where I flopped for a couple of months at the New Grand Hotel, writing derivative Beat poetry and thinking on things. (I got a charge years later when I read in Wallace Stegner's novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain that his fictive alter ego's no-good father hung around the New Grand.)

Almost a score of years ago I published a travel book about rural New York (Country Towns of New York) in which I wrote up Palmyra, the Mormon mecca, in whose environs Joseph Smith claimed to have received a visit in 1823 from an angel named Moroni, who directed him to the west side of a glacial drumlin that the Mormons would call Cumorah. There Smith found a stone box containing a set of gold plates upon which was written, in an ancient language, the Book of Mormon.

For one week every July, tens of thousands of Mormons and gentiles alike gather at sunset at the foot of the Hill Cumorah to watch a multimedia pageant of LDS history. As a waggish merchant said of the Mormons who descend upon Palmyra each summer, "They bring the Ten Commandments and a ten-dollar bill and never break either one."

The proselytizing at Hill Cumorah is low-key. Typically, the pageant's actors fan out through the crowd a couple of hours before show time. A cute Mormon girl or earnest Mormon boy, dressed as a Lamanite or Nephite and soon to take the stage, will ask you where you're from, tell you that he or she has had an "awesome" time at Palmyra, and say something like, "I want you to know that all these stories you're going to see tonight are true, and reading the Book of Mormon has brought me more joy than I ever imagined. …

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