Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair
This daily feature is an introduction to a full book review by Marian Wardle.To read the full text of this review, follow the link below.
"There is a natural and overwhelming curiosity to know what manner of creature a real live flesh and blood Mormon is," wrote an 1893 reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune, quoted by Reid Neilson in his study of the participation by the LDS Church at the 1893 Chicago fair (131). Neilson is a scholar of Mormon religious history and current managing director of the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He convincingly argues that this participation with the larger world community helped Church leaders understand how they could improve the Church's public image. He sets forth the 1893 fair as a turning point. In representing itself, the Church began to deemphasize its polarizing doctrinal differences and emphasized its cultural contributions instead.
In the last few decades, much has been written about the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, the international fair that was organized to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. It occupied six hundred acres on the banks of Lake Michigan, attracted 27.5 million visitors, and housed nearly sixty-five thousand exhibits from all over the world. Dubbed the "White City" because of its many elaborate temporary white buildings made of plaster in the style of French Beaux-Arts architecture, the exposition set the standard of American urban planning and civic architecture for decades. Recent scholarship exposes the defining role of the national ruling establishment—primarily of northern European descent—in the organization of the fair. These elites, argues Robert Rydell, envisioned themselves at the apex of human development and the helm of developing civilization. Very little recent scholarship, however, has addressed the Mormon presence at the fair. Indeed, apart from period sources, Neilson relies on Gerald Peterson's 1974 master's thesis, "History of Mormon Exhibits in World Expositions," for an overview of LDS participation at world's fairs from 1893 through 1967. Neilson's volume adds to the body of scholarship on Mormonism by addressing a previously neglected subject.