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Mormon Studies Lecture: “Mormons, and Other Western Wonders: Tourist Interests in the Railroad Age” Featuring David Walker

Join us for a Mormon Studies lecture with David Walker. In this discussion, Walker will talk about how there is a persistent myth that Brigham Young and other Latter-day Saint officials dreaded the transcontinental railroad’s arrival in Utah on account of its inevitably counter-religious influence. But as Young himself declared, “I don’t care anything for a religion which could not stand a railroad,” and Mormonism “must, indeed, be a — poor religion, if it cannot stand one railroad.” The church president had little cause for disappointment, in any case. By the end of the train-building era, Mormonism had ‘stood’ not one but many railroads, and few could consider it ‘poor’ by most economic, social, or political measures. Latter-day Saint leaders, moreover, learned from their railroading enterprises the managerial strategies and promotional campaigns necessary for defending church legitimacy and longevity in the West, well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The transcontinental era had mainlined Mormonism for good.

Drawing from his new book Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West, David Walker’s lecture tracks this mainlining process, paying special attention to the work done by nineteenth-century railroad officials and tourism agents to mediate the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ public image and justify its connection to Utahn lands.

David Walker is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Walker’s work focuses on intersections of religion, settlement policy, technology, and popular culture in the long nineteenth century (c. 1780-1920). Through Walker’s research and teaching, Walker seeks new locations and media for the study of American religious history. Land transfers, settlement promotions, travel guides, business prospectuses, educational initiatives, court records, playhouse performances, and museum displays: these are some of the ordinary empirical data available to scholars of religion, and Walker finds them lively arenas for the exploration of religious constructions and comparisons. Walker’s studies and classes are built around identifying moments of religious argumentation in environments where “religion” itself is thought to be a special category necessitating special location and theorization. By identifying and contextualizing sites of religious discussion, his hope is that we might understand better the conditions and concerns addressed throughout American history when people identify and adjudicate “religion”—ourselves included.