Mormonism is the one of the few truly American-born religions. Taken, as it were, from the visions of a New York farm boy, later known more ecclesicastically as the Prophet Joseph Smith, Mormonism embraces a cultural narrative that places it first in the realm of Yankee ingenuity, and then more firmly as a utopian movement that sucessfully transposed the American myths and values of the nineteenth century. Henry Nash Smith's discussion of the myth of the garden in Virgin Land illuminates the ideal that becomes--in many ways--a reality for the Mormon converts of the 1830's and 40's.
Henry Nash Smith's myth of the garden explores the invincibility of an American public with access to the Edenic wilderness that lay inexhaustibly beyond the roving eye of "civilization". This land, to a host of American figures from Bradford to Crevcoeur to Jefferson, ensured America's prosperity, independence, and freedom from Europe's poverty and class struggles. The land itself is the great reformer; it promotes equality and personal industry; it offers a "safety valve" for the increasingly crowded eastern cities. Thomas Jefferson famously predicted that it would take a thousand years to fill the land from the east coast to the Pacific Ocean with Americans; in fact, it took less than a hundred years.
The myth of the garden was an integral factor in the propagation of the Mormon religion. Where but in the vast lands of America could a religion spring forth and set out to create the New Zion, God's celestial city on earth? Nor was this merely an ideal; in fact, because of the persecution Mormons suffered from local populations, such a space where "none would hurt or make afraid" became necessary for the continuation and growth of the religion. Ironically, God had ordained for the Mormons the unforgiving lands of Utah; here the Mormons were forced to create their garden, learning irrigation techniques, clearing uncountable acres of sagebrush, and building shelters from local adobe. The very harshness of this landscape, Mormon leaders believed, was chosen by God in order to discourage their attackers and prevent outside colonization. Through a twist of reasoning, the nearly fallow land became the first Mormons' protective garden of Eden.
Henry Nash Smith's garden is populated by the hero of the west, be it Bill Cody's Wild West cowboy or James Fenimore Cooper's pioneer, Leatherstocking. In both cases, the emphasis is self-sufficiency-- Smith describes the point of connection between Cooper and the popular western stories as a man who is a "benevolent hunter without a fixed place of abode, advanced in age, celibate, and of unequalled prowess in trailing, marksmanship, and Indian fighting." In other words, he needs no one, man or woman, to complete his environment. He has sprung, fully formed, gun in hand and buckshot on his belt, from Smith's "objectified mass dream" that is the collective American imagination.
The ideals of Mormonism took this "mass dream" of intensive individualism and transposed it into a working model of collectivism. The desert Zion formed and sustained itself under the double umbrella of pervasive cultural beliefs and divine ordinance; although Mormons conceived of Great Salt Lake City as a separate kingdom of saints, their attempt was a wholly American endeavor.