Eighteen ninety-three was heralded as the end of the frontier era as the world gathered in Chicago to celebrate civilization. For the Mormon Church, still mostly hidden from America in Utah, it represented for church leaders an opportunity to garner international respect in its quest for statehood. That dream would take a few more years, but in 1893, church leaders — and its ambassador, B.H. Roberts — would find its efforts to rub shoulders with the world's religions firmly snubbed.
It would be a bitter defeat for Roberts, and also underscore the ironic closed-mindedness of a Western religious hierarchy that gathered in Chicago to allegedly celebrate tolerance.
Yet, while the LDS faith was shunted aside at the Chicago gathering, the secular attractions of Utah were more warmly received. The territory was greeted with interest and admiration, and provided a coveted spot at the Chicago fair.
The secret was avoiding the still-pesky religion and its association with polygamy. Historian Konden R. Smith writes of the Columbian Exposition and its distinct tolerances for the LDS church and the Utah territory in “The Dawning of a New Era: Mormonism and the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.” It's a reminder that the church's interest in public relations is not a recent development — it goes well back into its founding century.
The Parliament of Religions at the Chicago fair, which Smith claims “received more media attention and applause than any of the other congresses,” was designed to gather faiths with “brotherly sympathies any who are groping, blindly, after God.” Nevertheless, the Mormons — who Smith says expected to be invited — “were deliberately excluded.”
The church's connection to polygamy were considered by parliament organizers as a “disturbing element,” and not fit for the congress.
Letters from the church's First Presidency were ignored by organizers, Not giving up. Church President Wilford Woodruff sent young general authority B.H. Roberts to Chicago to lobby for inclusion.
After six weeks or so of lobbying for the October religions parliament, “the increasingly annoyed Parliament's managers” asked Roberts to pen “a statement of its (the LDS Church's) faith and achievements.”
The invitation came with no gurantee that the statement would be delivered by Roberts in Chicago, or even read by anyone, but Roberts believed that the invitation guaranteed him a prominent spot at the Parliament.
What eventually occurred was an offering for Roberts to speak in an obscure hall in the Scientific Section” of the fair. Roberts, comprehending that he was being shunted away from a chance to proclaim his religion,” was very bitter, and remained so for decades. He rejected the offer, and later called it a rejection by the Parliament.
Indeed, in September, the Mormon Church was officially rejected by the Parliament. Even its previous offer of submitting Roberts' paper was rescinded after expo-goers reacted with outrage, hissing and boos to Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb's defense of polygamy while reading his paper, “The Spirit of Islam.” As Smith writes, “Webb said: ‘Polygamy is no curse. A man can be a good, honest gentleman and yet be a polygamist. But I do not accept him as such if he be a sensualist.' At this point, the crowd erupted in hisses and cries of ‘Shame!' and ‘No, no: stop him.'”
It was clear that the Mormon Church, while “officially” having “renounced” polygamy in 1893, was still too much like the FLDS Church is regarded today to be included among the world's religions.
However, Smith points out that while the 1893 Parliament of Religions claimed to be inclusive, it championed a traditional evangelical North America Christianity viewpoint. Even without the polygamy problem, the Mormon Church's claim of being the restored true Gospel of Jesus Christ, was not a popular message to the parliament.
The Chicago Herald newspaper, in comments that were later re-published in the Deseret News, did criticize the parliament for yanking Roberts at the last minute. The Mormon historian's remarks were later published in his book, “Defense of the Faith.” Smith notes that Robert's arguments included his claim that “Mormonism had the answer for many of the current problems plaguing Christianity, including the growing disaffection toward Christianity and the challenge of growing secularism.” As Smith adds, Roberts' theme — that the Mormons were the Kingdom of God — directly contradicted the professed purpose of the parliament.
Thus ended the LDS Church effort to influence the Chicago World's Fair. As mentioned, however, the Utah territory — three years from statehood — was better received. More on that next week.