What do you get when you mix a prophet, unflattering portrayals of said prophet and a furious debate regarding the responsible exercise of free speech?
The birth of The Salt Lake Tribune.
Utah territory in the 1860s was suffering an identity crisis. Was Utah a loyal daughter of the American Union or an abused stepchild of a despotic government run by wicked bureaucrats far away in Washington?
The dream of a purely Mormon empire in the West ended when, after winning the war that freed the slaves, Republican politicians and abolitionists back East suddenly remembered that another vestige of barbarism was alive and well in the Great Basin.
Mormon polygamy was thunderously condemned in Congress and the Eastern press. After passing through Salt Lake City, Horace Greeley warned the nation, “Let any such system become established and prevalent, and Woman will soon be confined to the harem.”
Americans saw Mormons as wild-eyed religionists enthralled to a Yankee Mohammed. (An “expose'” of Brigham Young sported chapter headings, such as, “The Man Who Went from a Puritan Farm to Found a Mohammedan Empire in the Desert” and “Birth and Ancestry of A Sultan’s Small Beginnings.”)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, taught that the country was hopelessly wicked and good only for God’s judgments. Members were advised to shun “Babylon” and its seductions; advice taken by the righteous who didn’t mind tatty homespun and patched pots. Babylon’s blandishments, however, came in the clever guise of silk bonnets and high quality manufactured goods from the East.
By the late 1860s, some Latter-day Saints began to think that it made sense to engage in a little mutually beneficial commerce with Babylon while God seemed to be taking his time mulling over its destruction. They were businessmen who favored integration into the nation. Their leader was William Godbe.
Godbe was a good Mormon who mixed in the highest circles of the church. At first his ideas of ending Mormon economic isolation were tolerated. But a break came – Brigham demanded obedience to his project for economic self-sufficiency. Presented with a crisis of faith, Godbe chose Babylon, though he preferred to think of it as the United States of America.
Excommunicated in 1871, Godbe and like-minded confederates opened a rival newspaper to the LDS Church’s Deseret News. It was called The Mormon Tribune, but was soon renamed The Salt Lake Tribune.
Initially, The Tribune wasn’t anti-Mormon. It trumpeted the virtues of capitalism and integration into the economic life of the nation. But things soon turned nasty. When three Kansans took control of the paper in 1873, the gloves came off.
Delighting in poking the dominant culture with a sharp stick, The Tribune never met a polygamy story it didn’t like. But its special venom was reserved for Brigham Young.
By the time Young died in 1877, The Tribune showed honest regret: regret that he had died before he could be hanged. Reporting on Young’s death, the paper wrote,
“He was illiterate, and he has made frequent boast that he never saw the inside of a schoolhouse. His habit of mind was singularly illogical, and his public addresses the greatest farrago of nonsense that ever was put in print. He prided himself on being a great financier, and yet all of his commercial speculations have been conspicuous failures. He was blarophant and pretended to be in daily intercourse with the Almighty, and yet he was groveling in his ideas and the system of religion he formulated was well nigh Satanic.”
This being America, The Tribune was free to print material insulting to a revered prophet (it was also apparently free to make up words like “blarophant”). The days when Mormons would spill type into the street for such an offense were apparently over.
For years Mormon umbrage at a free-but-irresponsible press was limited to sermons urging members to subscribe to the Deseret News and not that scurrilous anti-Mormon rag. My grandmother remembered hearing such admonishments in her East Millcreek ward. She said it made sneaking a peek at the Trib just that much more of a guilty pleasure.
Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Tribune