In the 1870s, LDS Church leaders became increasingly worried about the commitment of the second and third generations of Mormons, those born too late to have remembered or witnessed the church’s formative days outside of Utah. In the decade after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, several factors began undermining the cultural foundation of Mormonism in the Rocky Mountains: an increasing number of “Gentiles” came to the territory, bringing with them new distractions:money and political influence; the U.S. Congress began enacting anti-polygamy laws, which harmed the entire Mormon community, though only a minority of Mormons engaged in the practice; and The Salt Lake Tribune was established mid-decade and quickly became a virulently anti-Mormon publication, holding up church leaders and practices to ridicule. Various measures were employed to buoy up the enthusiasm of Mormonism’s younger generations: Church leaders formed the Mutual Improvement Association, to keep the youth out of trouble and more socially welded to the institutional church; Mormon leaders who were still monogamous were encouraged (read pressured) to take a second wife as a show of religious solidarity; and the territory’s first temples — where the original ceremonies stressed historical grievances from the church’s early years and demanded oaths of fealty —were finally completed. While these measures were being instituted by church leadership, individual members did their own part to strengthen the resolve of the new generations, including pioneer artist C. C. A. Christensen.
A Danish convert who came to Utah in 1857, Christensen was a farmer and housepainter who became one of Utah’s earliest artists. In 1878 he began touring his Mormon Panorama, a series of 23 large paintings depicting early church history, stitched together to form a 175-foot panorama that Christensen toured in communities across Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, accompanied by an oral presentation. He based his paintings on early records and the recollections of first-generation Mormons who had witnessed the events. The panorama became a rallying cry to the younger generation (of which Christensen was a part) to remember where they came from, to expect and embrace persecution, and to hold true to the faith for which — as the LDS hymn has it — “martyrs had perished.”
Twenty-two of the panels are currently on exhibit at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art (the whereabouts of the first of the 23, depicting Joseph Smith’s First Vision, is unknown). Mormon Panorama is a selective history, concentrating more on the Mormons as a persecuted people than as a peculiar religion. The first extant panel shows Joseph Smith receiving the gold plates from the angel Moroni, a seminal and sacred event in Mormon history, and another shows “Joseph Smith Preaching to the Indians.” For the most part, however, the panels depict the violence the Mormons encountered as they went from one community to the next along what was then America’s western frontier. In a scene from the church’s infancy, Joseph Smith is seen under a moonlit sky being carried by an angry mob to be tarred and feathered while fellow church leader Sidney Rigdon lies wounded on the ground. The next panel shows women, children and old men being forced out of their homes in Missouri. Other scenes of violence include the massacre at Haun’s Mill, where a Missouri militia fired into a blacksmith shop full of Mormon men, and the “Battle of Crooked Creek,” a skirmish between Mormon and Missouri militias during the 1838 Mormon War. These scenes are frequently paired with images of exodus, where large, orderly groups of Mormons cross broad rivers and frozen ground in search of a new home.
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One of these violent scenes stands out among the others in that the violence occurs not to the Mormons, but to their enemies. In “Mobbers on the Missouri River” a group of almost a dozen people is seen floundering on a boat beneath a fiery sky. In the incident which has since disappeared from Mormon folklore, a group of Jackson County residents were returning from a confrontation with the early Saints when the ferry capsized, drowning the three ferrymen and two of the passengers. Mormons at the time saw the tragedy as divine retribution and Christensen used artistic license to change what was a calm moonlit night into a stormy tempest delivered by the angry hand of God.
Another scene that has disappeared from common Mormon folklore is the one Christensen depicts outside the Carthage Jail, shortly after Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed. After being shot from within and from without the jail, Joseph has fallen two stories to the ground where his body is surrounded by the angry mob. One mob member stands by the body, knife in hand, about to cut off the head of the fallen prophet, when a celestial beam of light stops him.
Christensen’s Mormon history is full of bloody persecution as well as divine intervention. In another scene, Mormons camped along the banks of the Mississippi who have recently fled Nauvoo capture flocks of quail for food in a biblical scene of divine deliverance and aid.
Two scenes of the Mormons crossing the Plains are relatively undramatic and the panorama ends with a view of a wagon train descending Emigration Canyon to enter the Salt Lake Valley. The message is clear: this is our history, this is what brought us here. Do not forget or neglect it. If you are persecuted now you are part of a sacred history, for as the caption to Christensen’s view of the interior of Carthage Jail says, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Christensen’s style is what we would call “folk” or “naïve,” though he was trained at the Royal Danish Acadamy of Fine Arts. It is an odd mix of academic sophistication and frontier simplicity. His handling of figures can be clumsy, his understanding of perspective spotty, but at the same time many of these panels are built on complicated compositions. His painting of “The Battle of Crooked Creek” appears oddly off-kilter, as the Mormon militia appears in the left hand of the picture, firing even further to the left onto the encampment of Missouri militia. This is balanced in part by a large copse of trees on the right, the shift in form meant to direct your gaze to the lone figure in the center of the painting — David Patten, one of the first Mormon apostles and leader of the militia, who died in the battle. It is an intriguing compositional solution that might have been more effective if the figure of the dying martyr, his eyes raised to heaven, were handled with more finesse.
Christensen’s skills with the landscape are equally mixed. His trees may be formulaic, but he captures the light of winter with a subtle eye. And just when some of the broader, panoramic scenes of Mormon encampments call to mind Brueghel’s peasant scenes, you’ll notice one of Christensen’s odd pictorial solutions — like the mass of soldiers in the Nauvoo Legion stacked together like thin pieces of paper, or when Christensen tries to squeeze a number of men into the doorway of Liberty Jail and they become apparitions rather than flesh and blood.
Whatever you may think of Christensen’s method, you’re unlikely to miss his message: his good guys are valiant martyrs and the bad guys villainous traitors. In “Arrest of Mormon Leaders,” Smith and others giving themselves up to avoid further violence stand erect and well-dressed while the arresting mob is depicted as ragged and unruly; and Colonel George Hinkle, a Mormon who had organized the parlay and was considered a traitor by many of his co-religionists, is seen dressed in a vest of bright yellow, the color of Judas in Western art.
Though Christensen’s panels were not church-sponsored they might as well have been. They are the 19th-century equivalent of the films the LDS Church now produces and screens on Temple Square (and, when possible, your local theater). They are promotional rather than historical. The role of incendiary speeches by Mormon leaders that helped fuel the Missouri conflict, the complicated familial motives behind the tarring and feathering of Smith and Rigdon, the secret practice of polygamy and destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor that led to Carthage and the Battle of Nauvoo — Christensen is unlikely to have been aware of these factors and even less likely to have included them if he had been.
In the wake of the gay marriage debate, Mormons (as well as other Christian groups) have talked increasingly about threats to their religious liberty (including in a recent talk in the church’s semi-annual General Conference). If to outsiders — and some insiders — this preemptive persecution complex seems an overreaction to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, C.C.A. Christensen’s Mormon Panorama may lend some insight: it reminds us, yes, that the Mormon Church was born in controversy and persecution, but more importantly it helps us understand that the purposeful (if selective) remembrance of that persecution has been a long-standing tradition within the culture to strengthen group identity and cohesion.
Moving Pictures: C.C.A. Christensen’s Mormon Panorama is at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Provo through October 3.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.