There is a widespread misconception that material culture is not valued by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or its members. However, since the arrival of the Mormon Pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley, there has been an emphasis on aestheticism; handicrafts, architecture, and art served not only the moral of displaced immigrants, but also proved to those critical of the Mormons that they could establish a material culture with goods tantamount to those being made in the East. After the Salt Lake City Tabernacle was built, Brigham Young addressed his followers about how they should continue to grow their settlement with beauty and artistry:
You have built a commodious Tabernacle, where but a few years ago was a swamp. But a few years ago, there were no inhabitants here. When we first visited this place, after the people began to move here, there was hardly a settlement between here and Great Salt Lake City…There is a great work for the Saints to do; progress and improve upon and make beautiful everything around you. Cultivate the earth and cultivate your minds. Build cities, adorn your habitations, make gardens, orchards and vineyards, and render the earth so pleasant that when you look upon your labors you may do so with pleasure, and that angels may delight to come and visit your beautiful locations.
The remarkable lack of interior, exterior, and architectural ornamentation provided by LDS meeting houses is one of the most common reasons the ideology that the arts are held in less esteem within the church exists. It should be noted that even though handicrafts were a necessary part of part of pioneer life, the fine arts also served as a way to inspire the pioneers and create a meaningful material culture. In fact, the Springville Museum of Art stated that aside from California and New Mexico, Utah has some of the best history of art in the Western United States.
Charles Christian Anthon Christensen, a Danish immigrant, was a skilled painter and trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Christensen immigrated to the West after meeting with Mormon missionaries and converting to the religion. His work is some of the most depictive documentation of pioneer life the Church possesses today. He was unable to carry a full supply of art tools and paints on his trek west so he would draw, in a sketchbook with pencil or charcoal, scenes of pioneers crossing the United States landscapes which he later converted into paintings in Utah (figure 1). Christensen is known for his expressive use of light and depictions of the human experience in relation to the landscape. The church valued his skill in painting and commissioned him to paint murals in the Manti Temple and the Ephraim Tabernacle. Christensen’s mural can be seen in the creation room of the Manti Temple; his classical training from Denmark is evident in a detail of the creation room illustrating a scene from the sixth day of creation with livestock common in Danish farmsteads: decorative foliage, pastoral tones, shading, and perspective can be recognized by art historians as uniquely Danish (figure 2). While Christensen was well known for his fine arts he did not discriminate against folk art and handiworks. He valued all decorative and practical craft as “fine art.” For Christensen, “Utility did not diminish an objects artistic importance.” He was also a source of artistic education for the pioneers. In the 1892 he published an essay in the Bikuben which was a newspaper for Scandinavian immigrants in Utah. He wrote about his thoughts on how Mormons can come closer to understanding God through art:
The fine arts occupy their proper place in heaven…all Latter-day Saints should certainly comprehend that the New Jerusalem and other heavenly places…were not established or constructed without a plan…the Lord does not consider human skill to be merely a luxury branch of scholarship…but rather to be both useful and necessary in order to obtain temporal and eternal bliss.
A goal of Brigham Young upon arrival in Salt Lake City was to establish self-sufficiency among the Saints. With this direction came a surge of masterful crafts exclusive to Utah. Utah’s ample geological resources allowed for the produce of earthenware to prosper. In fact, the pottery industry was one of the most prolific industries in Utah. Archaeologist Timothy J. Scarlett wrote that by 1930, Utah potters produced and sold “at least 10 million objects.” In England’s Millennial Star Brigham asked the missionaries and Saints to put a preference on sending out masterful craftsmen to the West. In an October issue he said, “We want a company of Potters, we need them, the clay is ready, and dishes wanted. Send a company if possible, next spring.” English ceramicists were masterful in creating utilitarian products such as storage pots, roofing tile, brick, pots for landscaping, and even drainage pipes. Another prominent immigrant group creating earthenware in Utah were the Danes. Ceramics have a rich history in Denmark and served as a comfort to many Scandinavian immigrants who left their homes for religious prosperity. The aesthetic properties made Danishware a favorite among the Saints in Utah. The admiration of Danish ceramics in Utah is evident in a remark made by Heber C. Kimball about the pottery that was used inside of the Salt Lake tabernacle, “There is a Dane who has established a pottery in the south part of the city, and is making beautiful brown ware…He has made four large tankards of earthen, that we set upon the tables in the Tabernacle, two on each side of the stand, that will hold from six to eight gallons each. They have brass crocks to draw out the water for the sacrament. They are glazed on the inside, and painted on the outside very beautiful.” The affinity for Danish pottery in Utah was further established because of the social and cultural traditions that came along with pottery firing. Since firing pots would take days, people would gather around the warm kiln to eat food, sing songs, tell stories, and meet with friends and family. Pioneers were able to take their practical, utilitarian items and ingeniously use them to create a material and visual culture in their budding settlements.
The important role of art in pioneer life reveals itself in pioneer gravestones. Symbols that represent the culture, religion, and life at the time were commonly placed on the gravestone of a loved one. Since these symbols originate from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, there is more to the images then meets the eye. Common symbols pioneers used to commemorate the death of a Latter-day Saint were doves for peace that comes with the Holy Ghost, the iron rod, wheat with a scythe to symbolize the “cutting down” of life, clasped hands to illustrate the reunion with God and His son in heaven, a cornucopia to remind the saints that there are more joys to come, and the weeping willow as a symbol for mourning (figure 3).
Photography was an important form of art to capture what life was like for the pioneers. Biases and strong traditional values resonate within art, but photography, especially at the time of the pioneers, is a way to preserve events and moments in life with an exactness. In 1875 a photograph was taken of a Mormon missionary baptizing Shivwits Indians (figure 4). This historic photograph reveals the dynamics of missionary work amongst the American Indians in the West.
Through the many efforts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint settlers in the Great Basin, a working and thriving community was established. The emphasis from Brigham Young and other leaders on aestheticism among the Mormons created a rich material culture that enhanced not only spiritualism and morality, but also promoted beauty in their natural surroundings and constructed environment. Today, there is still an emphasis on masterful craftsmanship within the Church and the general community in Utah.