Mormonism as a Religion for the Railroad Age

The famed British author Charles Dickens was not a fan of Mormonism. Joseph Smith, he wrote in 1851, was an “ignorant rustic” who “sees visions, lays claim to inspiration, and pretends to communion with angels.” And most damning, according to Dickens, was that Smith dared to claim his fantasies not in the superstitious era of bygone antiquity, but rather “in the age of railways.” Railroads were just then sweeping over both America and Britain, and were represented the new modern stage into which humanity had entered. What made Mormonism so laughable, therefore, was that it sought converts in a period supposedly so advanced that everyone should see through the fraudulent sham.

WalkerIn 2019, another author, UC-Santa Barbara scholar David Walker, similarly used the railroad to discuss modernity and Mormonism. But in Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West (UNC Press), Walker makes a different argument: rather than wilting in the face of modernity, Mormonism’s history challenges the very concept of modernity itself.

When Dickens juxtaposed the rationality of railroads to the irrationality of Mormonism, he was far from alone. Further, many in America believed the advent of the railroad spelled the doom for the controversial faith nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Walker’s first chapter outlines what he refers to as the “death knell thesis”: that once Utah was connected to the rest of society, enabling the constant flow of both ideas and products between Deseret and American culture, the tyrannical cohesion that held Mormon converts hostage would crumble. Indeed, even as some politicians famously argued for the federal government to take a more aggressive stance rooting out the troublesome sect, others urged them to be patient, finish the transcontinental railroad, and wait for nature to take its course.

Some were willing to even bet a lot of money on this thesis. A number of “gentiles” aimed to build an alternative metropolis in Utah, named Corinne, that would serve as the hub for the new railroad, which they hoped would eclipse nearby Salt Lake City. Once the Union Pacific and Central Pacific would meet, sometime in 1869, Utah, as it then existed, was toast.

But history unfolded differently, and that’s one of the key themes of Railroading Religion. Because just as contemporaries held false assumptions concerning Mormonism’s future, so too do scholars typically hold misleading hypotheses concerning religion and secularism. Rather than a trenchant, if haphazard, march toward modernity, in which rationality is prioritized over spirituality, Mormonism’s survival and dominance following 1869 demonstrated religiosity’s persistence and adaptability. The transcontinental railroad’s arrival, far from meaning Mormonism’s demise, actually led to its flourishing.

By the time the two railroad lines met in Utah in 1869, Brigham Young recognized the potential of working with the new corporation, and instead of laying down on the newly-laid tracks, he instead decided to work with the railroad business. The central hub, rather than being located in gentile-controlled Corinne, was instead established in Ogden, much closer to the Mormon capital. And soon the Mormons were subsidizing further railroad development south to Salt Lake City and north into Idaho. In return, the railroad industry embraced their newfound friends, and often defended the faith in national debates when Mormonism, and Mormon polygamy, was under fire. By the 1890s, Mormon Utah was a popular tourist destination, and depicted as a biblical–and even American–community, rather than an exotic threat.

To tell this tale, David Walker draws from a host of different characters and episodes. I especially enjoyed his chapter on the Godbeites and their attempt to swing the tourism industry in a way that, on the one hand, challenged Brigham Young’s tyranny, while also, on the other hand, highlighting the growing skeptical crowd that were fighting to modernize the state. I also enjoyed the chapter that detailed how the attempts at “atrocity” tourism in Utah, in which the Corinnites tried to make money by showing visitors the horrors of Mormon Utah, were replaced by a Mormon-friendly tourism industry, demonstrating the working relationship between the LDS and railroad bureaucracies.

As a head’s-up, those unfamiliar with the religious studies discipline, and more comfortable with more traditional historical methodologies, might blanche at Walker’s use of dense terms and theoretical framing. Yet for ever complicated argument and historiographically-focused question, I found Walker did a good job of closing each section with a clearly-written and efficiently-condensed summary. Indeed, the book succeeds in speaking to a number of audiences and fields.

To summarize, there are two primary arguments of Railroading Religion, one explicit and one implicit, that are worth emphasizing. First, Walker demonstrates the different trajectories of secularism. If Mormonism was indeed forced to separate Church and State, it demonstrated the merging of Church and Bureaucracy that not only modernized Mormonism, but also reflected the broader contours of modern America. And second, in reconstructing these developments and debates, Walker draws from a wide spectrum of sources, ranging from tourist tracks to congressional debates, to demonstrate how deep religious belief infused society during this era. If scholars are to demonstrate the vagaries of religion’s complexity, they must move beyond typical sources.

Railroading Religion is one of the most theoretically rich and provocatively argued books I’ve read in quite some time. Scholars of Mormonism will discover new ways to contextualize the faith during the Utah period. And, more importantly, scholars of religion will be forced to consider dominant ideas concerning secularism and religion, not to mention modernity.


*Apologies for the general nature of this review. A more specific and detailed review is forthcoming in Church History and Religious Culture.