Reflections of a Utah Mormon

Okay, I was actually born in California, but my family moved to Utah the summer I was five years old, and I don’t remember much before that time. (I do recall wondering how we would attend church after the move, as I’d gleaned from Primary that we were the “one true church,” which I took to refer to the physical building we attended. Little did I know that there would be “true churches” on every block.) I lived in Utah County for the next eighteen years, from the time I started kindergarten to the time I completed my undergraduate education at BYU.

I grew up in a world where you could buy CTR stickers along with bread and milk at the local grocery store, and where you’d usually see at least five members of your ward while you were there shopping. The neighborhood was shaped by invisible ward boundaries; we lived at the edge of the ward, and as a result I was well acquainted with the people living to the north of us, but those in the houses to the south were near strangers, people you might see twice a year at stake conference. (They re-drew the boundaries after I left for BYU, and I’ve never quite adjusted to the fact that those people are in my parents’ ward.)

I had non-member acquaintances, but in all those years I never had a close non-LDS friend. Many of my friends in high school questioned their faith, wondered about feminist issues, perhaps dabbled in exotic things like Buddhism, but our religious conversations inevitably took place in the framework of Mormonism. My seminary teachers claimed that evolution was a theory of the devil, but the AP Biology teachers who taught me about it, and who had no trouble accepting the theory themselves, were also LDS. I never had the experience of “standing up for my beliefs” as a lone Mormon, but I do remember what it was like to wear a Clinton/Gore sticker to school in 1992, and be surrounded by a sea of Bush/Quayle supporters, many of whom took the view that it wasn’t possible to be a faithful Mormon and a Democrat.

When I went to BYU, I was fascinated by the stories told by people who’d grown up in other places, some where Mormons were tiny minorities. It was true that I couldn’t relate to many of their experiences, but I was nonetheless unsettled by the glib way in which “Utah Mormons” were often dismissed. I heard that people such as myself were sheltered, that we had no idea what it was like to have our testimony challenged, that we needed to get out in the “real world” and find out what life was like. After all, what obstacles could a Utah Mormon, living in the shadow of the everlasting hills, possibly have encountered?

Yet if there were ways in which I was less knowledgeable about the “outside world,” I found that I was often more aware of problems within the Church than were my classmates. I remember, for example, a student being shocked to learn that some German Mormons in the 1930s had joined the Nazi party. I was all too aware that being LDS wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of anything; I’d grown up hearing scandalous stories about Mormons. Bishops who turned out to be committing adultery. People using their Church connections as a way to further financial scams. The excommunication of George P. Lee. The Paul H. Dunn stories that turned out to be fabrications. Questions about the involvement of the Church in Utah politics. Tensions between LDS authorities and intellectuals. One didn’t have to go looking for this stuff; it was on the news, in the air.

I imagine that every place has its own unique challenges. I have to admit that I’ve found it easier to be a Mormon outside of Utah, and I think it would be hard to go back. And yet I still cringe when I hear people condescendingly referred to as “Utah Mormons.” I’ve been away from the state for a number of years, but I still consider myself in some sense a Utah Mormon; my Mormonness, for good and for bad, has been shaped by my experiences growing up there. I have plenty of my own complaints about Utah, but I find that it’s somewhat like having your family criticized. If you’re not a fellow Utahn and you start mocking the state and its people, I just might have to wash your mouth out with Jello.


  1. Admittedly I am guilty of the dismissive Utah Mormon phrase in this context:

    “Hey Ryan, why do Mormons do/don’t do x, y and z?”

    “Well we believe x and y because __________, as for z, well that’s not really a tenet of our church, that’s just “Utah Mormon” culture (think: no caffeine, republican, etc…).

    For those outside of the Utah demographics, it’s a major struggle to make the church appear normal enough to be worth investigating. As a result, the dismissing of Utah Mormons becomes a tool in our efforts to explain away the more “weird” aspects of the church. I have generally found that not only do non-members understand, but they often can relate to it in the context of their own cultures (be they religious, familial, racial, etc…)

  2. I’m a non-Utah Mormon; my daughter is a college student in Salt Lake City. She tells me that you have to live in Utah to understand what it’s like there.

    Her take is that it’s harder there for her to live in Utah as a Mormon, because everyone (both member and not) wants to classify her. We we used to live, people knew she was LDS, but nobody cared. She says that many LDS look down on nonmembers, and as a result many nonmembers look down on LDS, and there a self-perpetuating cycle.

    She likes her school, and she has good friends both LDS and not. But she says she wouldn’t consider raising a family in Utah because of the religious climate.

    Take all that for whatever it’s worth.

  3. I was born and raised in Arizona. Not quite as Mormon as Utah, but a big influence none the less. I did have many non-Member friends (about 100 seminary students at my HS), but the Church didn’t come up much. People knew about it due to the influence in the area.

    I moved to Montana after graduation from college and that was a totally different place. City leagues played on Sunday (what?? It’s the Sabbath??) and Mormons were a minority. Many of my co-workers knew nothing about Mormonism and asked all sorts of questions.

    I actually really enjoyed this. It caused me to look deeper into Mormonism and what I believe. I have probably learned more about my religion in the 3 years I have been away from Arizona then I did in seminary (aside from the scriptures and that sort of stuff). I had never had to “defend” my faith – and it was actually a great learning experience.

    I now live in El Paso and the Church isn’t super big here either. I have had discussions with co-workers and quite of few of them tend to think we are a cult or just plain weird. There are a couple who have read the B of M and it wasn’t for them. We still have interesting discussions.

    I think that is what is meant by “the outside world” that Utah Mormon’s miss. The Church is just everywhere up there, so you do get as much chance to share stuff as you might elsewhere (of course, you might get more due to it being everywhere – but I would think it’s mainly people new to the area).

    I know people who have moved to Utah and hated it. They say people up there think there is the Church and that’s it. While I’m sure that’s not totally true, that’s how it seems.

    I agree with the previous commentor about the cycle: member vs non. Another reason Utah Mormon’s are “different”. Most other places, you don’t have to be Mormon in order for me to talk to you…

  4. I’m a convert from Michigan and just moved to Logan, Utah. I had heard a lot of “warnings” from fellow members that I should be too “starry-eyed” about living in “Zion”. Here’s what I found:

    People are people. The same human dynamics happen here in Utah as happen everywhere. We may notice them differently because a majority of your neighbors are in your ward and therefore are under a more accessable microscope more often. But in Michigan, where the LDS population is very small, I’m sure that I’d find the same behavior patterns in the Baptist congregation. I didn’t have the opportunity to observe that, though, since I wasn’t there.

    Personally, I’m stoked about living here! I can go to the Temple pretty much whenever I want. In Michigan, going to the Chicago Temple required a 12 hour commitment, once you figure in driving time, a session or two, eating, etc. So very few people went very often. I remember our Stake Presidency asking us to take vacation days to make Temple trips. I go every Saturday and usually do two sessions. My daughter is 14, and was the only YW in her school. She had absolutely no support from anyone (even her “friends”) for our standards. I know that not everyone up here is a perfect example of YW-ness, BUT now she has a much larger support system from her peers in living right. I can’t put a value on that for her. It’s also nice to know that because the wards are so large, we don’t have the weight of multiple callings. As the YM prez, there was me and my counselors. So we did everything. No advisors to delegate lessons to, we were also the Scout Masters, teachers, planners, rustlers, etc. There was always something being left out or not being done as well because there was just too much for us to do ourselves.

    Right now, I’d rather grow old here in Logan than any other place on Earth.

  5. It always bothered me a lot when out-of-state BYU students moved to Provo and declared dismissive condemnations on Utah Mormons and Utah Mormon culture, when usually they’d never really experienced either. Going to a Utah high school with a CES seminary program made me want to be Mormon about as much as I wanted to be smothered to death by linty sofa cushions; on the other hand, most of my close friends were Utah Mormons, and they, no more than I, met the naive chintz-ensconced stereotype of Utah Mormonism.

    I really like Kristian’s point that people are people. I’ve found Mormons who wanted me off the rolls for my nose ring and Mountain Dew habit in Utah Valley, in Indiana, and in London; I’ve also found Mormons whose devotion and goodness make me think harder about my own religiosity, whether or not we agree on every point of protocol, in all three places. Certainly Utah has its own culture which is inextricably twined in with its Mormonness, but every time someone assures me that I may be a Mormon from Utah, but I’m not a “Utah Mormon”, I have to wonder what exactly a Utah Mormon is.

  6. She says that many LDS look down on nonmembers, and as a result many nonmembers look down on LDS, and there a self-perpetuating cycle.

    I don’t think that we should accept uncritically that this accurately describes the source of the problem, as neat as it is to blame everything on the Mormons.

  7. As a Utah Mormon going to BYU (worse — a Provo Mormon going to BYU), I heard my fair share of anti-Utah Mormon comments.

    The most common idea seemed to be that Utah Mormons had it “easy” as teenagers, because Utah high schools are full of Mormons. Finally I had to pull aside a few of my non-Utah friends and say “Remember the bad kids in your high school? My high school had bad kids, too, it’s just that the bad kids were also Mormon.” And then their eyes would get big because it had never occured to them that Mormons teenagers could be bad or mean.

    For what it’s worth, other students never assumed that I was from Utah. I made one guy guess where I was from, and he even started of by saying “well, you’re not from Utah . . .” I’d love to have pinned someone down on what exactly was to un-Utahn about me, but I never managed to do so.

  8. The Utah Mormons doth protest too much about their label, until they’ve actually lived significant amount of time outside Utah. Then, maybe, they’ll understand the frustration of the wards where SLC refugees (who couldn’t find good jobs in Utah and so had to flee) say, “Well, that’s not the way we do things in Utah.” Yes, we know you don’t do it that way. And that is why we make fun of you. 🙂

    My favorite Utah Mormon story came at a regional employment and welfare conference. A senior missionary couple from Bountiful had been assigned to be welfare service missionaries here in TGSOT. After 3 months learning how the local regional employment center ran things and seeing the results, he stood up and said, “I know why we were sent here. We are to learn how the Church employment program is supposed to be run and take it back to Utah so it can be implemented correctly.” You never saw 15 stake presidents grin so broadly.

  9. Forgot to mention …

    I also thought it was funny how I was labeled an “outsider” at BYU just because I arrived at school from the land of Kirtland and not from the Orem 117th Ward (why is it that Utah wards sound like MASH units). Even though my family history runs through Nauvoo, Kirtland, Farr West, and the early pioneers. Even though there are buildings on the BYU campus named after relatives.

    Forget the jokes about how Jews become gentiles when they move to Utah. Only in Utah (and BYU) did one’s birthplace qualify for gentiledom.

  10. I lived in Las Vegas all of my life. There are lots of members there – about 8% of the population is Mormon – so I’m used to having members around, but I’m not used to being SURROUNDED by members.

    We moved to Utah two years ago, and my little Highland neighborhood is 99% mormon. It’s an odd experience. Everyone assumes that they know exactly what you believe. It’s taken for granted that of COURSE you have a testimony. So if you are struggling, there isn’t just the religious pressure of sincerely wanting to know what is right, but there is also social pressure. What kind of person wouldn’t believe, after all? So there’s shame and hiding and not being able to have honest conversations about religious issues. (Of course, I could always just grow up, but that’s another comment…) I’ve contemplated going inactive lately, and the thing that stops me is that I’m afraid my children will be treated differently if I do. So on the one hand, it’s positive, it’s keeping me active – on the other hand, should I be attending church because of social pressure?

    There’s a lot of jockeying for social position based on religious pedigree and family name, which makes me sad. A guy moved into our neighborhood who is part of a family that is sort of “mormon royalty” so to speak. One neighbor cynically noted that he would be our next bishop, based on name alone. He was wrong, he was called to be in the stake presidency two weeks later. Of course, it could be that he was actually called of God, but everyone assumes it is because of the name. In Las Vegas, most of us would not have any idea who mormon royalty was, or if we were familiar with the name at all, still could have cared less. Callings and friendships and interactions in the church in Vegas seemed much more…. legitimate. More based on who people actually were, instead of religious status/perception.

    Still, I love it here. Adore it. I hope we’ll live here forever. It’s just a big culture shock, and I have to figure out how to go about living my life honestly here.

  11. Ryan, I can certainly understand the need to distinguish central doctrine from commonly accepted practice, but I wonder why it’s necessary to invoke Utah to do so. I’d guess the aspects of the culture you mention seem to be alive and well throughout North America: I’ve certainly encountered hardcore Mormon culturalists and Mormon cultural dissenters and everything in between everywhere I’ve lived, in Utah and out of it.

    Similarly, queno, I don’t see why spending a “significant amount of time outside Utah” is the litmus test of enlightenment. (As Lynnette pointed out, if those outside Utah get a wartier view of “the real world,” those inside Utah get a wartier view of the Church. We get to read about things like Seventies failing to tip pizza delivery boys in the local paper.) It seems to me that the problem you’re encountering with some Utah Mormons isn’t their geographical or cultural identity but with their attempts to export it or to create cliques based on it–as it sounds like you experienced at BYU. I’ve encountered those attempts too (in Utah and out of it), and I agree that they can be condescending and unfair. But it’s equally condescending and unfair to paint all Utah Mormons with one brush, as all uninformed and therefore worthy of being made fun of.

    We are, all of us, far more uninformed than we are informed, but the solution to that is kindness and education, not mockery.

  12. I forgot to add that I agree with Kristian and Sue. Although it has its challenges, and as Sue said, it can be especially hard figuring out how to live with integrity amid the social pressure and the Mormon royalty (great term!), in many ways Utah is a great place. For one thing, just because of the high concentration of Mormons, Utah tends to offer quite a stunning variety, if you can hunt them out.

    And I’m in a state of chronic homesickness for the mountains and the desert.

  13. I think that “Utah Mormons” exist in all their horrible glory, but many make the unbased assumption that being a Mormon that lives in Utah makes you a “Utah Mormon.”
    There were “Utah Mormons” in my small town in AZ, where mormons were a distinct minority.
    To me, a Utah Mormon is a person who thinks highly of themselves because of their social standing in the church. They believe that their opinions and habits are canonized church doctrine. They started being called Utah Mormons because these people would leave Utah, and expect to be treated as visiting General Authorities in their new wards just because they came from ‘Zion.’ Perhaps Mormon Royalty is a better name for it, but I think Utah Mormon works just as well.

  14. I think that Utah Mormonism is formally defined as a condition of ethno-Mormon social and religious orthodoxy not prescribed by formal gospel doctrine or mandate from current leadership.

    How’s that?

  15. Queuno, you definitely win the scholarship award, but I have to award first prize to Sue for the pithy phrase “Mormon royalty.” (Not to worry–the consolation prize is green Jell-o with carrots.)

    Starfoxy, I can see why people call us/them “Utah Mormons.” I’ve witnessed the phenomenon you describe too, although the latest instance I watched involved a lifelong Idaho resident venturing into the mission field for the first time. But the thing is–I’m a Utah Mormon, too. And it’s painful to be dismissed out of hand as a gospel hick, unaware of the trials and the temptations of the Big Bad World (if excessively aware of the trials and temptations of the Big Bad Church). That’s my objection to the geographical designator as a term of denigration. Utah’s my home.

    –Eve, proud scion of a ward with a M*A*S*H unit designation

  16. I’ve also witnessed the phenomenon described by queuno and Starfoxy, but like Eve, I object to referring it as “Utah” behavior; I think that using the phrase “Utah Mormon” in that way masks the real diversity among Mormons hailing from our “pretty, great state.” (Okay, so that particular slogan maybe wasn’t our finest hour.)

    I was thinking about the comment about LDS and non-LDS looking down on each other in a self-perpetuating cycle (which, by the way, I don’t think necessarily casts all blame at the feet of the Mormons), and remembering how so many issues in Utah (should the Provo pool be closed on Sundays? what should happen with the Main Street Plaza in Salt Lake? ) brought out tensions between members and non-members, with both sides feeling defensive and judged. I wonder if a similar dynamic is sometimes at work with the “Utah Mormon” issue; Mormons from elsewhere have had bad run-ins with Mormons from Utah who know How Things Are Done in Zion, and Utah Mormons have had negative encounters with people from other states who’ve dismissed them as naive, sheltered, and not to be taken seriously–and everyone ends up feeling a bit defensive, and wondering whether others are looking down on them.

  17. I once took exception to a friend’s snide comment about Utah Mormons. His response? “I would never, ever, think of YOU as a Utah Mormon.”

    But this was exactly my point. If the stereotype doesn’t fit, the problem is with the stereotype, not with me. Utah Mormons really aren’t a homogeneous group.

  18. I grew up in Utah. I have also lived (as an adult) in Maryland and Virginia. When I lived in Maryland, I noticed that many of the members saw the gospel and their role in it as a defining part of their identity. It seemed that this mindset put an emphasis on the outward commandments that “proved” to everyone they were LDS, and especially that they were the non-needy, fully active kind.

    My experience in Utah varied greatly from Maryland. Because “everyone is mormon” it makes it necessary for one to form and “prove” one’s identity in other ways. In my experience, it made everyone less willing (for good or bad) to proclaim their religion, and the particular form of which they chose to follow, from the housetops. However, it also made it so people weren’t constantly evaluating one another on how “mormon” one came across.

    For me, the “culture” of the religion became more of an issue when I lived in Maryland than Utah. Now, that being said, I have not experienced this in Virginia. I think I agree with those that consider “Utah Mormons” people that, without respect to place, consider the cultural and outward practices of the religion, as more important than the core.

  19. I would just like to take this opportunity to confess that I am guilty of stereotyping “Utah Mormons” and I am sorry and trying to change my ways. I am going to practice in June when I spend an entire week there.

    I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. 98 percent of my friends were non-mormons and I was the only active mormon at my college. I always felt out-of-my-skin when I visited Utah. I guess it was just culture shock, just like visiting any place that is not your home town.

  20. But, I think it’s a bit more than just “Mormon Royalty”. If the Church had a peerage system, I’d be a minor and bit player, to be sure, but I would have at least have had the heir to a title, which was more than my bigoted BYU roommates and friends could claim.

    “Utah Mormonism” has nothing to do with genealogy. It has everything to do with birth.

  21. Maralise, that’s an interesting observation about identity. I know that I was never terribly aware of myself as a Mormon until I left Utah, and then suddenly (especially at first) I felt far more self-conscious about it than I’d ever been before.

    Kage, I’m impressed by your attitude; you make me hope that I can be similarly willing to rexamine my own prejudices. And I can well believe that Utah could cause a bit of culture shock for someone coming from Chicago!

    queuno, I’m not sure what circumstances of birth would qualify one to be Mormon Royalty. But as Eve has recently outed my family as trailer trash on FMH, I’m guessing we’re out of the running. 😉

  22. Intersting. We all appear to agree that the that the connotation of “Utah Mormon” is different from the denotation of “Utah Mormon” (hence such observations as “not all ‘Utah Mormons’ are from Utah”). We also appear to agree that the connotation of “Utah Mormon” is pejorative. However, we don’t seem to agree on just what that connotation is. Perhaps that’s as good a reason as any to avoid the term, when other terms (arch-conservative Mormon, sheltered Mormon, bossy Mormon, entitled Mormon) are more precise.

    (At least there’s a general agreement on the connotation of “blonde,” even if it’s still unfair to the fair-haired.)

  23. Very nicely phrased, Katya.

    Lynnette, sorry for outing us all, except for S., of course. I’m sure our gentle readers who imagined our webiste as a sort of mansion are now crushed to be able to see the rusting cars in the virtual yard, so to speak–but then, it was inevitable. Class will out.

  24. I grew up in New York City. I was one of three mormons in my high school. The other two were brother and sister. Most of my friends were Presbyterian and their ministers told them that Mormons were going to hell.

    That didn’t stop my friends from mingling with the devil’s son but they did ask the usual introductory questions. I enjoyed their question because it gave me an opportunity to express my unique identity amongst my group of friends.

    Here in Utah it seems that conformity is the watchword. I attend BYU and when the Soulforce group came on campus it made me realize just how bigoted some kids can be. Not all BYU students are like that but the ones who usually speak out are the ones who think they are being groomed to be General Authorities. They stifle any dissent or shoot down any opinions they disagree with scripture and it’s driving me insane. Even though it is a Religious college, it’s still a college where you’re supposed to be exposed to different view points.

  25. I will never forget when someone in my East coast ward said, “You fit in pretty well for a “Utah Mormon” (with obvious disdain for the sort). It bothers me that someone can be classified and judged because of where he/she happened to end up geographically, often because that is where life just sorta took him/her. Kinda hinders the goal of unity….

  26. Perhaps that’s as good a reason as any to avoid the term, when other terms (arch-conservative Mormon, sheltered Mormon, bossy Mormon, entitled Mormon) are more precise.

    Or maybe we shouldn’t ascribe labels to each other at all!

  27. My family background is Mormon from Utah but I grew up in New York where I discovered what Utah Mormons are. They are an ethnic group. Utah origins are not the decisive factor. They actually can be from Idaho or Arizona. The defining characteristics are descent from 19th C converts to Mormonism who settled and have lived for several generations in the “Mormon Corridor” of the intermountain West while maintaining a primary religous identification with the LDS Church. This group of people became so cohesive that in the early 1950s Thomas O’Dea described them as having become a “near nation.” For almost 100 years these people lived in fairly strong social boundaries in tension with everyone else with a powerful cultural common identity founded on strongly held religious beliefs which came complete with a national mythology. In fact several national mythologies, because soon miraculous stories of the lives of the pioneers became as powerful as miraculous stories from the BoM.

    As with any ethnic group, social indicators accreted to the central mythological self-identity. These include such indicators as cuisine, social customs and political beliefs. Examples of these for the Utah Mormon ethnic group are jello, the nuts in paper cups cultural hall wedding reception, and in recent times political allegiance to the GOP (the latter characteristic being one which Utah Mormons share with their non-Mormon neighbors, so I don’t know how particularly we can ascribe it as a unique identifier of Utah Mormons).

    As recently as 1950, 50% of all LDS lived in Utah and most of the rest lived in culturally identical adjoining areas of the Mormon Corridor. Mormonism was identical to “Utah Mormon” in the same way that Presbyterianism was originally Scottish or Lutheranism was origianlly German or Anglicanism was originally English. The religion was essentially one with the ethnicity. However, as the LDS Church grew outside of the Utah Mormon ethnic group after 1950 through both conversion and outmigration of those with western Mormon backgrounds, tension arose between the cultural identifiers of Utah Mormon ethnicity and the new non-ethnic adherents to the LDS religion. I suspect that this tension will continue until ethnic Utah Mormons are a small minority of LDS and provide a small minority of the Church leaders — in other words for a long time.

    So in the meantime, I propose that we deal with the tension by recognizing and celebrating Utah Mormonness as an ethnicity. Ethnic Utah Mormons need to get a grip and realize that theirs is not the only way to righteously follow the Restored Gospel. And LDS who are not ethnic Utah Mormon need to allow Utah Mormons to be proud of their ethnicity, including the Pioneer Day celebration of their heroic ancestors, their fetishes for Church titles and using archaic English familiar pronouns in prayer, and yes, their love of jello (although I have always told my New York ethnic friends that the true ethnic culinary marker of the Utah Mormons is homemade bread).


    (someone on the blog service you use stole my regular bloggernacle tag)

  28. Wow — shows how much I’m paying attention. I just noticed today that you ladies are back in business after your hibernation. So I had a whole month’s worth of interesting topics to catch up on during my lunch hour… ;^)

    This contrast between Utah Mormons and “mission field” Mormons is a source of endless fascination for me for some crazy navel-gazing reason. Aside from when I was attending BYU, I never lived in an area with a high LDS concentration (I mostly grew up in Minnesota, but have also lived in New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Illinois, and France…)

    I remember seeing Utah Mormoms as having a somewhat different culture than Mormons where Mormons are sparse. Yet I don’t recall the division and generalizations as being quite as negative as some of the things expressed in this discussion.

    I recently wrote a post for my blog about how my experience as a fourth-generation “mission field” Mormon affected my outlook:

    Family History: we’re different


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