The holiday commemorates Mormons' arrival in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake on July 24, 1847, after an arduous journey from their previous home in Nauvoo, Illinois. The church's massive worldwide growth recently, Mormons' increased prominence in American public life, and this year's bicentennial of the birth of church founder Joseph Smith, add up to particularly heady days for a church whose members were once persecuted for their faith.
At Smith's centennial 100 years ago, "The Latter-day Saints were so feared and hated that their missionaries were still being tied to trees and horsewhipped in the American South, and some were being shot," said Kathleen Flake, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of "The Politics of Religious Identity: the Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle."
What a difference a century makes.
Today, the leader of Senate Democrats, Harry Reid, is a Mormon. So are Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts. And Mormons--along with plenty of non-Mormons--are abuzz about the possibility of the ultimate political prize: Romney is widely expected to run for president in 2008.
Joseph Smith's bicentennial is being marked in places like the Library of Congress, which co-sponsored with Brigham Young University a symposium on Smith's life and teachings. Several new academic biographies are being published, and the first volume of the Joseph Smith papers--a complete compilation of his writings--will be issued next year.
And with 5.5 million members in the United States, the LDS church has become the fourth-largest denomination in the country (up from fifth a year ago, having passed the Church of God in Christ), according to the National Council of Churches. Outside the U.S. and Canada, the church has grown more than fivefold to 6.3 million members since 1980--with nearly 10 percent of that in the past five years, according to figures provided by Mormon officials.
"The church has migrated from a provincial faith to a faith that can make itself at home in any space and every culture," said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.
Growth is strongest today in Latin America and West Africa-- ironic since blacks were not allowed to join the Mormon priesthood (a term used for virtually all male church members) until 1978.
"In those places it is a period of rapid cultural and economic change, and when that happens, there's always an openness to new movements," said Armand Mauss, professor emeritus of sociology and religion at Washington State University.
But growth brings its own challenges, and during these boom times, Mormons are debating everything from the place of dissent in their community to the long-term prospects for success of the Church's international missionary efforts.
Appealing to and making room for a worldwide following has been one challenge facing this quintessentially American church.
"One of the problems that the church has been coping with for some time is how it can disassociate itself from American culture and the American way of life and American foreign policy without denouncing those things," Mauss said.
To ease internationalization, the church has worked to decentralize and diversify its leadership. It also follows a strategy known as "correlation," which helps ensure that the church remains unified--and uniform--in beliefs and practices throughout the world. Correlation stipulates that church curricula, practices, and customs be identical everywhere in the world; changes and innovations that church leaders deem appropriate are enforced everywhere. Because of correlation, not only is American Mormonism exported faithfully abroad, but changes dictated by worldwide needs are enforced back in America as well, Shipps said.
"It's very much a way of saying you don't have to go to Salt Lake to find Mormonism," Shipps said. "This correlation program is very good at creating a special identity for Latter-day Saints."
As an example, Shipps pointed to the notion, traditionally taught to Mormons, that all converts are literally descendants of Abraham. As the church has spread to places where the biblical patriarch Abraham is unknown, that idea "doesn't work," Shipps said. Now, Mormons--abroad and domestically--are generally taught that the link is more metaphorical, she said.
In the U.S., conversions are today particularly strong in the South, where Mormon growth comes largely at the expense of evangelicals, who are vying for the same souls, Mauss said.
"Mormons and evangelicals tend to compete for the same market niche, religiously speaking--namely, people who are socially conservative, who commit themselves strongly to family values and to a fairly literal interpretation of the scriptures, and tend to vote Republican," he said. "That also helps account for the occasional acrimony between the two."
Though that acrimony is often harsh, there have been signs of detente recently. Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, became the first non-Mormon in more than a century to address the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, where he apologized for evangelicals' treatment of Latter-day Saints.
Still, Mouw faced a lot of criticism from some evangelicals for the appearance, and Flake, the Vanderbilt professor, predicts that any alliances will be short lived.
"These two groups are going to continue to be at odds with each other because they are both very overt in their argument that it matters what church you belong to," Flake said.
But even as Mormon proselytizing reaps increasing numbers of converts, the church is seeing its share of defections. The actual number of Mormons leaving the church is unknown, since members are rarely removed from formal lists.
To counter defections among new members, the church emphasizes follow-up: Church members visit recent converts to help ease the transition into their new faith.
He recalls a time when theological debate and doctrinal inquiry were integral to Mormon life. But in his eyes, Mormons are now discouraged from asking too many questions about faith--leading many to leave.
Beliefs vs. Science
The Mormon Church is no stranger to debate and controversy over everything from polygamy to the veracity of Mormon teachings on history and theology.
One issue sparking controversy in this year of Joseph Smith's bicentennial is the accuracy of some of his teachings--in particular, his identifying Native Americans as the Lamanites, a tribe descended from a family who, in the Book of Mormon, migrated from ancient Israel to America. DNA studies support the far more widely accepted anthropological theory that Native Americans came from Asia via a "land bridge" to Alaska.
This has led some Mormons to characterize the Book of Mormon as, at best, an "inspired" fiction. But committed Mormon academics are attempting to reconcile DNA evidence with orthodox belief.
One theory, known as "limited geography," posits that the Book of Mormon doesn't claim to be speaking of all Native Americans, said Dan Peterson, a BYU professor and director of the school's Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts.
In his view, a careful reading of the book suggests that a small number of Israelites arrived in the New World, probably somewhere in Central America. "The odds are very, very high you wouldn't be able to recognize the genetic contributions of a very small group," he said.
The LDS website calls DNA-related attacks on the Book of Mormon "ill conceived." But it also states that "nothing in the Book of Mormon precludes migration into the Americas by peoples of Asiatic origin" and links to several journal articles supporting the limited geography theory.
Mormons may debate Smith's teachings, but the prophet himself has undergone something of an image makeover in academia.
In the past, scholars tended to regard Smith either as benevolent, a "fabulous individual who comes out of nowhere" to found a major religious movement--or as a fraud, a fanatic, and an example of "the dark side of American religion," said Richard Bushman, author of the upcoming biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.
But a third school of thought is emerging, one that examines the prophetic tradition in America through the lives of figures--religious and secular--who have exemplified the idea of modern prophesy, including Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan expelled from Massachusetts who helped found Rhode Island.
"In that story, Joseph Smith becomes a pre-eminent figure, because he's the one who takes this biblical potential and drives it to the extreme," Bushman said.
But even as the church Smith founded spreads ever wider, the descendants of those first pioneers who ventured westward to Utah still find comfort in their shared experiences.
One of those descendants is Tom Kimball, who despite his sharp criticism of the church's direction remains in the fold and affectionately refers to Mormons as "my tribe."
"There's elements of my culture that are absolutely beautiful, and that's what keeps me here," Kimball said.