It seems fitting that the inspiration for creating The Salt Lake Tribune came not from punditry nor polemics, but in a prayer.
In the fall of 1868, two of the founders — William S. Godbe, Elias L.T. Harrison — traveled to New York City to meet with a famed spiritualist about their growing faith crisis.
Both had been devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but had become disturbed by what they saw as increasing authoritarianism by the denomination’s leader, Brigham Young.
“A struggle began in their minds,” according to Edward W. Tullidge, their future collaborator. “One proposition followed another, and scheme after scheme was the subject of discussion, but not one of those schemes or propositions, when examined, seemed desirable; they were in terrible mental anguish.”
The two wanted “light, either to have their doubts removed and their faith in Mormonism confirmed,” Tullidge recounted, “or yet again to have the light of their own intellects increased that they might be able to follow unwaveringly their convictions.”
After what Godbe and Harrison described as a profound spiritual experience, they returned to Utah and launched the so-called Godbeite Movement, or New Movement.
Their hope was to reform rather than abandon their Mormonism through publishing the weekly Mormon Tribune, which became the Salt Lake Daily Tribune and Utah Mining Gazette on April 15, 1871.
For the next 150 years, even as the state’s religious universe expanded to include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and many others, the LDS Church was — and continues to be — an inescapable presence.
In some eras, the statewide paper became virulently anti-Mormon, mocking the faith’s later-abandoned practice of polygamy — and its practitioners — or critiquing its hold on the Legislature. After the turn of the 20th century and purchase by a leading Catholic businessman, it became solidly secular and strived to be evenhanded.
Still, the perception of anti-Mormon bias clung to The Tribune like a magnet on metal.
The Vatican of Mormonism
Utah is more than just dominated by a particular religion. After all, there are plenty of Catholics in Rhode Island, Baptists in Texas, and Quakers in Pennsylvania.
The difference is that Latter-day Saints and the church’s hierarchy permeate the religious, political, business and civic landscape.
“The Mormons from the first have existed as a society, not as a sect,” Tullidge wrote in his 1886 history of Salt Lake City. “They have combined the two elements of organization — the social and the religious. They are now a new society power in the world and an entirety in themselves.”
With the coming of the transcontinental railroad to the Beehive State in 1869, though, that Mormon society no longer would be “an entirety.”
It would face critics — like Godbe, Harrison and Tullidge — from within and from without.
They all found a place in The Tribune.
It became an organ for “dissident Mormons who were opposed to the church’s economic and political policies,” wrote O.N. Malmquist in “The First 100 Years: A History of The Salt Lake Tribune 1871-1971,” “of moderate gentiles [non-Mormons] who were in partial agreement with them; of embittered apostates and excommunicants; [and] of vindictive anti-Mormons who were determined to wage total war upon the church.”
The second phase of the daily was led by three non-Mormon businessmen from Kansas who saw real benefit in baiting Latter-day Saint leaders, especially Young — even penning a scathing critique of the man as his obituary in 1877.
Believers of all stripes, meanwhile, had begun to make their home in what had been a Mormon Zion.
Some Jewish settlers were drawn west by the 1849 gold rush in California but stopped in Utah to start businesses.
“The earliest record of Jewish religious observance in the area is the celebration of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in 1864,” according to the Utah History Encyclopedia, the same year the Hebrew Benevolent Society was formed. In 1867, High Holy Day services were observed in the Mormons’ Seventies Hall — “at the invitation of Brigham Young.”
Catholic miners and railroad workers began arriving in the 1860s. Within a decade, some 800 Catholics could be counted among Utah’s 87,000 inhabitants.
Just months before The Tribune’s first issue, Utah’s Episcopal Diocese broke ground on St. Mark’s Cathedral. It had already set up the state’s first non-Mormon school.
In May 1870, the First Methodist Church of Salt Lake City was established “in an old hayloft over a stable and rented for $50 a month,” according to the Utah History Encyclopedia. The Methodists also had opened a school known as the Rocky Mountain Seminary, in part to counter the Latter-day Saint influence in education.
The Greek Orthodox community trickled in before 1900. The census that year reported three Greeks in Utah.
Diversity in Utah’s household of faith
In 1901, Catholic mining magnate Thomas Kearns bought a part ownership in The Tribune. His successor, John Fitzpatrick, completed the turn to balanced coverage of the state and its various faiths.
By then, Latter-day Saints had long given up polygamy (though some had clung to it, even after President Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto) and were moving into the religious mainstream. Yet, they retained a tight hold on the state’s political and religious life.
By the 1990s, Utah boasted a wide religious spectrum beyond Christianity, including Sikhs, Baha’is and a plethora of Asian faiths as well as plenty of New Agers, pagans and several groups of atheists.
The globe-trotting Dalai Lama visited the burgeoning Tibetan community in 2001, after Salt Lake City was chosen as a refugee haven. The Nobel Peace Prize winner returned again 15 years later.
As the state prepared to host the world for the 2002 Winter Olympics, leaders from these groups as well as the older Christian denominations united to form the Interfaith Roundtable to highlight the state’s multicolored religious mosaic.
No matter how welcoming the state’s religious and political leaders were, Mormon insularity contributed to divisions within neighborhoods — and a kind of “us vs them” mentality that continued to pit families against one another.
As the world was discovering Utah’s uniqueness, The Tribune took a hard look in 2001 at what it called “The Unspoken Divide.”
Countless friendships, partnerships and marriages “have bridged the Mormon/non-Mormon divide,” lead reporter Dan Egan wrote in the prize-winning piece. “But every day, secret scores are kept on both sides. Classifications are so constant they are almost unconscious: Is that a garment line? Is she drinking coffee? Are you from pioneer stock? He is one of us. She is one of them.”
A poll at the time revealed that fully two-thirds of Utahns recognized a Mormon/non-Mormon fault line within the state.
Then-Catholic Bishop George Niederauer told Egan, who now writes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, that he wanted to change the way “Mormons talk about Catholics when only Mormons are in the room, and the way Catholics talk about Mormons when only Catholics are in the room.”
On the non-Mormon side, such talk is sometimes peppered with pejorative and ugly words like “cult,” “self-righteous,” “narrow minded” and “Mo,” Egan wrote. “Sometimes that nastiness is simply unbridled religious bigotry. Sometimes it comes from people rubbed raw from persistent attempts by missionaries and well-meaning Mormon neighbors to sell them a religion other than their own.”
Other times, Egan noted, “it is linked to frustration with a religious institution that also happens to be a cultural and political powerhouse.”
Though that was 20 years ago, the LDS Church still has a commanding footprint in the state — and that is not likely to change.
A future for all faiths
The LDS Church has had its “Mormon moment,” with Mitt Romney as the star. “The Book of Mormon” musical won cheers, sneers and a load of Tonys. And the faith’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign helped normalize members to the masses.
Now, though, the instruction from the top is to stop using “Mormon” altogether. Church President Russell M. Nelson wants the faith’s full name used and, on second reference, “The Church of Jesus Christ.”
For him, it is the true church of Jesus Christ and common usage should confirm that.
At the same time, Salt Lake City and County — home to the faith’s headquarters — are growing less LDS all the time.
For a third consecutive year, the raw number of Latter-day Saints in the county “dropped significantly — by 5,734 members,” according to 2020 data provided to The Tribune by Utah’s predominant faith. “It fell by 17,174 over the past three years. ...That decline came as Utah’s most populous county continued to grow, adding about 36,600 residents over those same three years.”
And there seem to be more and more Latter-day Saints, especially among millennials, speaking publicly about the need to enlarge the faith — on topics ranging from LGBTQ rights to gender equity.
Yet insiders and outsiders quickly discover that Utah’s power structure remains rooted in the LDS Church. Latter-day Saints hold nine of every 10 seats in the Legislature and all of the congressional posts and statewide elected offices.
In some ways, the 21st-century concerns mirror the 19th-century ones that prompted The Tribune’s birth. Those reformers wanted more diverse and independent opinions, more transparency in economic dealings, more representation in political institutions, and greater openness to varied spiritual experiences.And so, it seems, do the Utahns of today and tomorrow.
The modern Tribune — desiring to enhance conversations and ease confrontations, to transcend boundaries and triumph over tribalism — aims to give them all a voice.