The Old West was still a thing in the state of Utah as the year 1899 gave way to 1900 and the 20th Century began. Actual statehood there was still in its infancy, having been bestowed by the U.S. just four years earlier.
Mormon pioneers, whose descendants would become synonymous with Utah, began arriving 53 years previously, and the ensuing decades were raucous indeed, including an early dalliance with slavery, an awarding of the vote to women before the rest of the country took that step, and actual warfare with the federal government over polygamy. The Mormons, led by Brigham Young, seemed determined to establish a theocracy (proposed name – Deseret) within American democracy, and some would argue they have effectively succeeded in modern times.
So Utah in 1900 was also still the Wild West – volatile and violent despite the heavy influence of religion, or maybe because of it. Wedged into that hardscrabble world was my great-grandfather, Henry Bolton Steelman, a Baptist minister sent to Salt Lake City in 1891 with a call to build the congregation there – in effect, to erode the Mormon base.
One of Reverend Steelman’s daughters was my maternal grandmother, Eleanor Steelman Dark. She was born in Salt Lake City in 1898, the second youngest of seven children close enough together in age to make Utah central to the development of that young family. While Great-Grandpa was transferred to Minnesota a short time later, in 1901, the Wasatch Front remained a primary gathering point for the Steelmans for the rest of my grandmother’s life. They were Baptists in the house of Young.
Henry Bolton Steelman did pretty well in Salt Lake City. As explained in the book The American Baptist Pulpit at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, “the Baptist cause made distinct gains” under Reverend Steelman, attracting enough worshippers in that city of 53,000 (population in 1900) to drive the construction of three new churches, prompting a merger after his departure that resulted in a much more robust First Baptist Church.
There isn’t a lot more history than that available on the internet, and it leaves a great-grandson of Henry Bolton Steelman with numerous questions about the man and his mission. How did he do it? Did he consider the Mormon church a competitor? What about other faiths? How did he convince people to change faiths, assuming that occurred? How did he convince the godless to reconsider and embrace religion? Was it a civil environment for such pursuits or was it fraught with conflict, petty rivalries, and physical risk? How was his family treated in Salt Lake City?
Perhaps I’ll never know. But I wonder, deep inside the historical archive of the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, if memories of my great-grandfather occupy some space, and if I went and asked nicely if I would be able to see them. There’s another item for the ol’ bucket list.
When I was a journalist many years ago I interviewed a Protestant minister who had just moved to Sacramento from Salt Lake City, and I asked him some of those same questions about competing with the Mormons. He didn’t say much, other than confirming that, in his opinion, Utah was in fact a theocracy. And then he told a joke about making sure you took two Mormons fishing with you instead of one so they wouldn’t drink your beer. That probably went for Baptists, too. You know, that may be part of the reason my mother led us down a different denominational path. We were raised as Presbyterians, and while my brother and I largely stepped away from the church in adulthood (sorry, GG), my sister led her family into the Lutheran church, where they remain to this day and are active in leadership – direct descendants of a legendary spiritual leader who, if he is indeed looking on from the afterlife, is hopefully doing so with ecumenical pride.