Article of the Week | BYU Studies

Article of the Week

On the Trail of the Twentieth-Century Mormon Outmigration
June 11, 2018
Article of the Week
On the Trail of the Twentieth-Century Mormon Outmigration
Author G. Wesley Johnson, Author Marian Ashby Johnson,

This daily feature is the introduction to a full article by G. Wesley Johnson and Marian Ashby Johnson that was published in issue 46:1. To read the full text of this article, follow the link below.

The Mormon exodus of the nineteenth century is well known. The migration that brought Mormon leaders to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 was only the beginning. From then until the coming of the railroad in 1869, tens of thousands of the faithful crossed the plains by wagon or on foot; for the next thirty years, the flow continued. By the debut of the twentieth century, the immigration situation was changing. A shortage of jobs and educational opportunities contributed to the choice of many to move away from the Intermountain West. Moreover, many Latter–day Saints, like thousands of other rural Americans, were now attracted by the lure of the city and a different lifestyle. In the spirit of Horatio Alger, humble young men and women migrated, hoping to succeed by "pulling up their bootstraps." These men and women, filled with ambition and willing to take risks, were worthy successors to their elders, the nineteenth–century pioneers.

As the new century dawned, changes in Church doctrine helped pave the road for this trend. First, a number of ecclesiastical pronouncements began to suggest Zion was not literally in one place but could be found where the faithful resided. For one thing, as Thomas Alexander points out, "By 1900 the extensive colonization efforts of the nineteenth century had virtually ended. Individual settlement rather than cooperative colonization became the norm." Soon, statements by senior Mormon officials began to clarify the new situation. For example, in 1910, President Joseph F. Smith told European Saints they did not need to "trouble themselves too much about emigration." And they should not worry about moving to Utah to receive temple ordinances; President Smith said that "if death should intervene before the ordinances were performed, their children could see to it that the work was done."

The stories of these urban pioneers are compelling and at times inspirational, especially those of the earliest migrants, who often arrived at their destinations with few funds and no job offers. The challenge of the city brought out the best in many people and made them lively competitors. But living far from kin and friends was sometimes lonely, and so the Church, even though in many instances not fully organized, often became a dominant force in their lives. The networks provided by Church members could make the difference between flourishing in the new environment and giving up and going back home.

Once relocated, these outmigrants put down roots and, along with Church members native to these locales, helped establish and expand the Church and became leaders in their new communities. While not all remained active in the Church, many became core leaders in fledgling Church congregations.