Mormon History Association highlights pioneer Saints of Canada at conference

Complete with cowboys, fugitives and dusty little cabins euphemistically dubbed ‘flannel palaces,’ the story of a Mormon settlement in southern Alberta reads with all the intrigue and romance of the Wild West. However, the migration north is first and foremost a story about faith and cultural resilience, said Lynn A. Rosenvall, who will discuss the transfer of Mormon culture to the region in his keynote address at the Mormon History Association’s upcoming 47th annual conference in Calgary, Alberta.

“The exportation of Mormon culture from the Great Basin into southern Alberta’s grassy upper-plains is a chronicle of devotion, economic determination, resourcefulness and stick-to-itiveness that helped shape the early settlement of Canada’s ‘wild rose’ province,” said Rosenvall, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Calgary and former Area Authority Seventy for the Church. “Even today, the Latter-day Saints in Alberta have not forgotten their roots in Utah. There has been a direct link for generations; that link is strong and it’s a unique connection in the entire church actually.”

That bond is something the Mormon History Association wanted to more closely examine, said the organization’s president, Richard L. Jensen, as it looks beyond pioneer history in America and invites all to consider new interpretation and understanding of LDS history and Mormonism in its expanding global context.

“Canadian connections are a fascinating aspect of Mormon history,” Jensen said, noting that this is just the fourth time that the conference will be held outside the United States. “Canadians and others who have spent significant portions of their lives in Canada seem to have had an influence far disproportionate to their relatively small numbers in the church. There are extensive strands of influence on both sides of the international border that impact politics and government, religion and culture, agriculture and industry.”

Even before Alberta was made a Canadian province in 1905, Latter-day Saint settlers had established a vibrant network of communities that mirrored, on a smaller scale, Mormon settlement in Utah, Rosenvall said. 

“The character of cooperation, faith and diligence are distinctive elements of the Mormon tradition, and they have become distinctive elements of prairie settlement in Canada’s history as well,” he said. 

The first Mormon community, Cardston, was settled 125 years ago, in June, by Charles Ora Card, son-in-law of Brigham Young. Driven into exile by the U.S. Marshal crackdown on polygamy in the Utah territory, Card led a small but significant contingent of pioneering Saints into what was then British territory in 1887 under the direction of President John Taylor. 

In the years that followed, economic and agricultural opportunities, including the Church’s own business ventures, drew more and more Saints to the area. Those early Saints provided the labor for vast irrigation projects that turned the semi-arid landscape into some of the most rich, productive farmlands in the world, and Cardston became a hub for Latter-day Saints in more than a dozen other settlement sites throughout the region. In fact, Cardston became the location of both the first stake and the first temple to be established outside the United States.

“Today Alberta is home to more than 70,000 Latter-day Saints, or roughly 40 percent of all Canadian Mormons,” Rosenvall said, adding that Alberta continues to mirror Utah in how it attracts church members, and particularly youth, from other parts of the country for school and the opportunity to interact with so many other Saints.

“The story of Mormonism in Alberta certainly provides an interesting case study, and a great jumping off point as we try to carve LDS history into the broader historical narrative around the world,” Rosenvall said.

The conference, which will take place at the end of June, includes presentations and lectures from leading Mormon scholars, professional historians and amateur enthusiasts on a wide range of topics addressing Mormonism past and present. For more information about the conference, including a preliminary program, visit mormonhistoryassociation.org.

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