Outside of my own library and the virtual community I’m connected to through the internet, Mormondom has very little impact on my immediate environment in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The LDS Institute has a prominent place next to the university, but the LDS chapel is across the river in a part of town we rarely visit. The Community of Christ chapel is in the Old West Side historic district across the street from the home of our closest friends and there’s a Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite) branch out past Target. Once every six months or so we have a missionary sighting. And that’s it.
And so it’s a kind of treat for me these days to get to visit a place where Mormonism and the landscape are coterminus. I just got back home from a 3-day trip to Utah County, Utah. Utah Valley University (as UVSC will soon be known) invited me to present at their annual Mormon Studies Conference and was generous enough to spring for the trip.
It goes without saying that Utah Valley is very, very Mormon. My book for the airplane this trip was American Vertigo — Bernard-Henri Lévy’s attempt to retrace Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal travelogue. Lévy’s observations traveling around America remind me that commenting on the foreignness of Mormondom’s heartland is surely a well-plowed furrow on the Bloggernacle. And yet I shall plow on.
Just as Lévy inevitably visited the Mall of America in the suburbs of my hometown of Minneapolis, so I too visited Orem’s Missionary Mall.
Beneath the giant inflated missionary (shouldn’t he have an inflated companion?), young men called to serve can buy all the durable suits their mission will require. The same strip mall has a “Sister Missionary Mall” store too, plus a Deseret Book, an LDS Distribution Services center, two food storage preparation stores, an LDS wedding dress shop, as well as my personal favorite clothing store: “KneeShorts.”
Of course we were able to get fry sauce at Burgers Supreme — is there any clearer sign that you’re in Zion? — but it was also available in bulk at the grocery store. The grocery store had two full racks of LDS greeting cards: “Congratulations on your Mission Call!” There was even a Spanish section: “Felicidade en tu Bautismo!”
Beyond all that fun, the real treat for me was the BYU library. The University of Michigan has a decent Mormon history library — probably about twice as many books as I have. Both are just a drop in the vast sea of books and periodicals lining row after row of shelves at BYU. I could hang out in the general book stacks contentedly for weeks without coming up for air. But little more than an hour was possible because an even more tempting treasure lured me deeper into the library: the special collections archive.
The archives house a vast trove of early Mormon materials. Just one example — I was able to access a box containing a couple dozen letters my ancestors wrote to each other in the 1860s and 1870s. (The actual letters, not copies.) The LDS branch of the family lived in Salt Lake valley and the other (who had left Mormonism) lived in Council Bluffs. In one letter, written by my great great grandmother, she described meeting a young man while attending school. Sometime after the letter was penned this young man went on to become my great great grandfather.
As I was leaving special collections I ran into a scholar who had also come from out of state for the Mormon Studies conference. Having found his own priceless treasure, he told me, “Every minute I’m here is precious,” and added, “What’s shocking is how many people live in this valley and have never once taken advantage of the resources right here that we have to plan and travel to find!”