The first time I traveled to the West, I was surprised by how “new” everything seemed. I looked for trees, small winding roads, old farmhouses and crumbling barns. Instead, I found wide open space, roads that went directly where you wanted to go, and a lot of new construction.
Prior to this October's Park City camp, I'd been to Utah several times, yet still didn’t know much about it, besides its stereotypes of Mormons and mountains. I didn’t think much of it until we were out roller skiing one Sunday and the coaches couldn’t find coffee, anywhere, because everything was closed for the Day of Rest. I thought of the Church of the Latter Day Saints as just another denomination of the many faiths people practice, but it seemed to have a stronger character of its own, one that warranted everything being closed on Sundays.
Curious about this unfamiliar religion that is so widespread in Utah, I wanted to learn more, and hearing a (free!) recital at the Tabernacle seemed a good way to start. I grew up going to church, but wouldn’t call myself particularly religious, although am fascinated by its power to bring people together, something the Church of the Latter Day Saints appears to have done an especially good job of, especially in Utah. Although we missed hearing the Tabernacle Choir, we did get to hear an organ recital, incredibly powerful, beautiful music. Navigating to the Tabernacle was the most informative aspect of this experience though, understanding for the first time that the Temple is literally the center of Salt Lake City; the grid of numbered streets (also a phenomenon not so common in New England) has their origin at the Temple. It turns out, navigation was quite simple, we just had to follow the street numbers as they got lower, until we reached the Temple at 0,0.
A little research corrected my assumptions that Utah was settled by pioneers without any particular religious affiliation, and instead was settled by pioneers of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, led from Illinois by Brigham Young in 1847, seeking to build Zion, "a utopian society of the righteous”. Unable to create such a community within existing society, they hoped to build their own, and found Utah as a good setting for that. Although they never exactly achieved one such society, Zion became a landscape of villages in Utah during this Pioneer Era. It is still maintained as an ideal, but is realized through gathering at churches rather than inhabiting one particular geographic location as was originally intended.
Rather than being foreign, this intent, of building a community around a common values, is exactly something I can relate to. As an athlete, I’ve been “meeting at the church” as long as I can remember, for roller ski workouts, bike rides, carpools. For this purpose, churches are incredibly practical meeting places (unless it’s rush hour on Sunday). They have big parking lots, unlocked bathrooms, are centrally located, abundant around Vermont and New England, and often don’t mind our loitering in their parking lots. The church brings us together, too. Furthermore, they've become a symbol of community in many New England towns, the church on the common as an identification point for all.
Such a Congregational Church was crucial in bringing together the community that is the United States of America during the Revolutionary war. The Minutemen used them as a signal place during battle, with either one or two lanterns placed in the steeple as indication of battle strategy, thus the poem line, "One if by land, two if by sea".
These tall white steeples, became a symbol of the community that I do know. They make sense in the New England landscape, a beacon to be seen from far away, standing above trees and hills that obstruct its views. This architecture would be pointless in Utah though, where you can see for miles, and where the religious community is stronger than a single landmark.
The vernacular of New England came out of necessity at the time, available materials and practicality. As the west was settled later more recently, the greater abundance of resources and technology available didn’t constrain the aesthetic in the way that lumber, stone and whitewash did. There was, and is, much more opportunity for variety. I was trying to hard to find reason for the “new” aesthetic. My conclusion, it’s just that, newer.
See you at the church!