SACRAMENTO The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has suffered from a kind of "historical amnesia" regarding the contributions and influence of 19th century Latter-day Saints in California and the impact of the gold rush on the fledgling Utah Territory.
But by the early 20th century, California became an experiment in whether Latter-day Saints could live outside the Intermountain West as a tiny minority among their secular neighbors and still remain faithful to LDS teachings. Today it stands as a model for international church growth and is home to more Latter-day Saints than any state outside Utah.
That's the take of historians and an emeritus LDS general authority, who detailed their findings Friday at the annual conference of the Mormon History Association. More than 400 participants have gathered for the three-day event with the theme, "Growth and Gateways: Mormonism in a Wider World."
Several of Friday's presentations centered on LDS involvement in California history. Kenneth Owen, professor emeritus at California State University-Sacramento said Brigham Young's decision to settle in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, rather than lead his flock farther west to California, eventually put him at odds with Latter-day Saints who had traveled there by sea, thinking they were preparing for others to follow.
The group sailed, at the urging of Young and other early church leaders, from New York to San Francisco as other LDS immigrants were crossing the Great Plains, to prepare the way for the bulk of Latter-day Saints to colonize northern California, then a part of Mexico.
But President James Polk's declaration of war with Mexico promoted a change in plans, and when the leader of the California group, Samuel Brannan, tried to persuade Young to continue on to the Pacific after his arrival in Utah, his proposal was rejected.
Young told Brannan and others a day after their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, "I am going to build a city here, I am going build a temple here ... we have no business in San Francisco. The Gentiles will be there pretty soon."
Less than a year later, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill by a group of workmen, including Mormon Battalion veterans, and the rush to California ensued. While Latter-day Saints in Utah benefited financially from the unexpected rush of travelers headed west, Young began to see California as a threat to the future of LDS settlement and expansion in Utah, Owen said.
Within several years, communication by Utah church leaders with Latter-day Saints who either remained in northern California or emigrated there in search of gold ceased entirely as cultural and spiritual differences separated those believers from Zion, he said. Communications would not resume for three decades.
As the rush to the West Coast continued, Young needed to "create anti-California consensus" among Latter-day Saints in the Utah Territory to keep them from abandoning Zion, Owen said.
"He condemned gold mining, California and all those who would go to search for riches. Overall, his forceful preachment of his new anti-California doctrine succeeded admirably," he said.
Two issues became key in the cultural and spiritual dynamic that resulted in a widening chasm of belief and practice between Salt Lake City and San Francisco after Young sent two apostles to California and they reported spirituality to be a "rare trait" there:
Owen said "The rigidity of theocratic control over LDS lives," including the request of "substantial tithing to support the church and its activities," was one wedge between the two groups, and another was the practice of plural marriage in Utah, which California Mormons rejected. Still, two LDS apostles practicing polygamy lived for a time in an LDS colony in San Bernardino but kept a low public profile.
"California in the 1850s became a refuge of sort for Saints uncomfortable with strict church rule and skeptical about innovations in doctrine and practice being adopted by Utah church authorities," Owens said. "They could live out their faith free from orders or interference from Salt Lake City ... keeping remote from Brigham Young's increasingly confrontational attitude toward the non-Mormon world."
By 1858, Young directed California Latter-day Saints to "come home" to Salt Lake City, though most of them had never set foot there, he said. Many obeyed, but others remained in California, some of them turning elsewhere for religious affiliation. "It could well seem they had not left their church. But instead, when they remained in California very far from Zion, their church had left them," he said.
Historian David Bigler said the gold rush "put the devil on Brigham Young's front porch. After that he had nothing good to say about California" and decreed marshal law that brought overland travel to a standstill through the Utah Territory in 1857, effectively cutting the nation in half.
These moves, coupled with a "reluctance of Mormon historians to chronicle Brigham Young's views, led to a historical amnesia regarding many of the events that shaped Mormon history," Bigler said. As a result, relatively little is known by general LDS membership about the pioneering Saints in California.
After decades without formal church contact, attitudes in Salt Lake City began to shift, according to Elder John Carmack, an emeritus general authority who now oversees the Perpetual Education Fund. He told a luncheon crowd that President Heber J. Grant was the first LDS president born after the exodus of Saints from the Midwest, and he had a new perspective on LDS expansion when he became president in 1918.
Polygamy had been formally renounced, and railroad travel lessened the isolation of Latter-day Saints from each other and the wider world.. Rather than continuing the policy of segregating LDS members from the outside world inside the Intermountain West, Grant saw the need to urge them to build the faith in their own locations, Elder Carmack said.
After the church had abandoned California in the mid-19th century, a small trickle of LDS members began moving to the Los Angeles area. In 1921, Grant visited the region's Ocean Park branch "and reassured the California saints that a permanent settlement in the area was in full accord with church policy."
By 1935 there were six stakes of the church from the Sacramento area south to San Diego, and today, there are 161 stakes in California, including from 750,000 to 850,000 members, making the LDS Church the second-largest denomination in the state, he said.As a former stake president in Los Angeles, Elder Carmack said he's watched the state become a "microcosm of internationalization" and serve as a "model for international growth" in the 13.2-million-member faith, playing "a critical role in all that has happened."