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'The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith'

By Matthew Bowman

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 24 2012 3:01 p.m. MST

And as they had in Nauvoo, the Mormons found refuge and identity in art: in music and song and dance, activities that gave their spiritual unity tangible form. Music, as ever, was as the Western historian Wallace Stegner later described it: "their gift and their blessing, an expression of their oneness in the hostile wilderness." They would gather together around what fires they could maintain in the chill and rain and sing hymns — their own, such as W. W. Phelps's "Redeemer of Israel" and "Come, Come, Ye Saints," and traditional Protestant hymns such as "He Died! The Great Redeemer Died!" or "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." The Nauvoo band followed Brigham across Iowa, occasionally playing for money in towns, and across the Great Plains, offering accompaniment to the Saints at worship and at dance, which was a particular diversion from the bruising trail. Helen Mar Kimball, by then married to Horace Whitney, remembered how her company dealt with the chill of nights on the plains: "Everyone danced to amuse ourselves as well as to keep our blood in proper circulation." Eliza Cheney wrote from Winter Quarters that "we have good meetings and good music, and we are all as brisk as larks." And sometimes, at night, Eliza Snow would write poems exhorting her fellow Saints to "mourn not" for those that had gone on to their eternal reward.

Their stubborn will to rejoice and refusal to be cowed reflected their providential orientation. The West the Mormons imagined themselves in was the wilderness of scripture, divinely prepared to test and reward them. But the West they settled was not empty and waiting to be tamed. Like every other group who sought to seize it, the Mormons found its spaces crowded, and they carved out their own claim less through the awesome proclamation of God than through negotiation, cooperation, and sometimes conflict. The Mormons struggled ceaselessly to bring their vision of a holy society into being.

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