American Prodigals: The Rejection and Redemption of Mormons in the American West, 1890-1930

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Ellsworth, Brant Wesley
Graduate Program:
American Studies
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
February 23, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Charles David Kupfer, Dissertation Advisor
  • Simon Josef Bronner, Committee Member
  • John Rogers Haddad, Committee Member
  • Christopher Hollenbeak, Special Member
  • Mormonism
  • American West
  • Western Narrative
  • Masculinity
  • Identity Construction
The Mormons of the American West were a marginalized people; their identity as American citizens were repeatedly questioned, challenged and rejected during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their beliefs, practices, and identities were defied, dismissed, and exploited. Even America’s popular culture represented them as villains and as outsiders. Yet through this medium, Mormons recognized the traits of western culture defined, to some extent, American identity. By leveraging the terms of western mythology to their advantage, Mormons mitigated their marginalized status to become the version of themselves that Americans desired. Incorporating the fields of American studies, folklore, gender studies, western studies, religious studies, geography, art, and literature, this dissertation investigates how members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adapted the mythology of the American West in their quest to assimilate into the American ethnic and religious mainstream between the years 1890 and 1930. I contend that after recognizing American’s growing affinity for the symbols, rhetoric, images, icons, characters, and geography of the American West readily available to the public in the form of popular culture, Mormons employed the components of these Western mythical narratives for their own religious, political, economic, and cultural gain. After establishing the dissertation’s core questions and methodology in Chapter One, Chapter Two examines the planning, advertisements, and proceedings of the 1897 Utah Pioneer Jubilee as evidence of Mormons rescripting their pioneer past and emphasizing their pioneer identity. Chapter Three investigates the evolution of Mormon masculinity, tracing such decisions as the masculinization of Church leaders back to the masculine ideal popularized by western narratives. Chapter Four contends Mormons’ evolving sense of place as reflected in their relationship with and exploitation of Utah’s land and waterways, reveals their belief that national belonging would come by selling the nation the idea that Utah was home to unique and iconic Western, and by extension, American landscapes. Finally, Chapter Five explores the historiography of Brigham Young and traces his public transformation from a polemic religious leader into a heroic American trailblazer and colonizer. This dissertation demonstrates that by establishing a western identity and rescripting their history, beliefs, and the lives of their leaders to fit within the parameters established by the Western narrative, Mormons exposed an avenue whereby they and other marginalized Westerners could gain cultural acceptance and a sense of national belonging when other traditional roads appeared closed. This dissertation, therefore, offers a more nuanced, more complicated picture of western history, Mormon identity, and the role of the American West in establishing a sense of national citizenship and belonging.