Group Maintenance and Ethnic Commitment

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Mormons/Brigham Y. Card

Mormons pursue group maintenance as a goal, seeing themselves as of enduring global significance. This attitude is expressed through an emphasis on missionary activity, intensive family research and temple work, and biological renewal through offspring. Church education, carried on through seminaries, institutes, and home-study classes, also contributes to group maintenance. Temple attendance requires strict behavioural standards, which are reviewed annually with an individual’s bishop and stake president. The organizational structure and the programmed activities, with their demands on time, income, and service, serve dual maintenance and boundary functions.

Legislation and government activity have also contributed to group maintenance and the defining of boundaries. The right to hold property was limited in the early pioneer settlements, when individuals or ad hoc groups held ownership on behalf of the community. In 1897 the President and High Council of the Alberta Stake was incorporated as a religious body entitled to own property anywhere in Canada for religious, educational, or charitable purposes. The pattern changed slightly in 1927 when the presidency of the Lethbridge stake was designated by act of Parliament as “corporation sole” for the Mormon Church in Canada. At the federal level a 1968 declaration of trust with Revenue Canada and a decision by Parliament in the 1980s allowing the church to hold property in perpetuity, the latter facilitated by Senator Ernest Manning and Lethbridge member of Parliament Blaine Thacker, helped to define the community. Specific mention of Mormons in the 1890 amendment to the Criminal Code had been revoked by Parliament in the 1950s through the intervention of two Mormon MPs, John H. Blackmore and Solon E. Low.

At the provincial level, Mormons have sought, through voting in plebiscites, legislation, and administrative regulation, to keep Mormon country in southwestern Alberta free from the sale of alcohol. This stand took on added significance when the Blood voted against its sale on their reserve. The drinking culture that surrounds them constitutes a challenge to the democratic expression of the Mormons as independent people. Their position on the sale of alcohol currently coincides with that of their Blood neighbours, but others are prone to condemn it as backwardness and prejudice.

The Mormon Church has also attempted to preserve and enhance the sense of peoplehood through the electronic media. Radio and television broadcasts are sent to all parts of Canada by satellite. The impact of these broadcasts was analysed in 1993 and found to be positive for 79 percent of respondents, who identified with the goals of the programs. Of greater religious and ethnic significance is the use of computers for family history, genealogical research, and the preservation of records, all major activities for many Mormons and ones in which non-Mormons share directly and indirectly. As members of the community trace their roots through oral and documentary research, their sense of personal and group identity is enhanced. At the same time, the vast record collections facilitate various kinds of inquiry in the fields of the social and biological sciences and social history. Canadian Mormons are thus drawn electronically into a peoplehood that extends in time and space, and they make a form of ethnic commitment to their forebears as well as to contemporary members of their community.

When they were surveyed in 1993, Mormons defined themselves primarily as a religious group. When they were asked how they viewed their heritage, their responses ranged from 45 percent for a Canadian Mormon heritage to 20 for a North American one, 16 for a religious one, and 16 for none at all or a heritage that they considered irrelevant. Further analysis showed significant association of feeling about having a Canadian Mormon heritage with the intensity of response to conversion, baptism, and other aspects of Mormon faith. There was a notable association of the sense of heritage with a province – Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan being the strongest – or with a metropolitan community among a large number of Mormons. Age, gender, the use of the English or French language, and Mormon identity per se were not significant. These findings suggest that awareness of a Mormon heritage varies and is generally underdeveloped. Where it is present, it has a spiritual or emotional underpinning.

A conference held at the University of Alberta in May 1987 on the theme “Mormon Presence in Canada, 1830– 1887–1987: A North-America Ethno-Religious People in Canadian Cultures” showed that it was possible for Mormons to be discussed as a community. It was augmented by a festival devoted to Mormon handicrafts, art, films, and music. The entire event was both a scholarly and a political assertion of the Mormons as a people in Canada. Affinities with other Canadian communities were open to view, and conference organizers drew upon the experience of other groups, especially the Muslims and the Ukrainians. The conference also revealed that the infrastructure and resources for the study of Mormons in Canada were underdeveloped, not that there was a lack of scholarly interest. Whether Mormons are best described as an indigenous North American ethno-religious people, as members of a church that now constitutes a major denomination, or an embryonic world faith remains a moot issue in scholarly circles. The fact that they are a people in Canada invites further study of this particular ethnocultural group in North America.