“The Lord’s Beavers: Mormons and Water”

My main reason for traveling to Paris, France, was to attend the 4th conference of the International Water History Association (www.iwha.net) titled: “Water and Culture.” My conference presentation “The Lord’s Beavers: Mormons and Water” was made on December 1, 2005 (see Abstract)

Beaver dam and hutch in central Utah (Salina Creek)

Since its origins in early 19th century North America, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon Church) has had a storied connection to water. This relationship has taken several forms. For example, the Mormon initiatory ordinance of baptism is accomplished by complete immersion in water. But the Church’s most dramatic association has come with its historic involvement with water resource development. First, the Mormons installed an elaborate drainage system to dewater the miasmal swamps of Nauvoo, Illinois. And then, after their expulsion from Illinois and their dramatic trek west to what is now Utah, they constructed extensive irrigation systems throughout much of the arid Intermountain West, starting in the region around Salt Lake City (Wasatch Oasis) and then radiating outward. Because of Mormonism’s close connection to irrigation, historian Donald Worster (1985, p. 74) has referred to its members as “The Lord’s Beavers.” Mormons have sometimes claimed, in moments of pietistic emotion, that they were the first Americans to practice irrigation on a wide scale. A more historically correct statement is that they were the first of northern European ancestry to do so. The Mormon experience had a major influence on the irrigation boomers–the Irrigation Congress movement–and on such forward thinkers as John Wesley Powell. The Mormon heritage of water development and irrigation has led many of its members to professions in water-related science and engineering. The first to earn an international reputation was John A. Widtsoe, author of The Principles of Irrigation Practice (1914) and a high official (Apostle) in the Mormon Church. Many Mormons have followed his lead. This rush to science has caused an interesting division when it comes to interpreting traditional Christian and Mormon doctrine, a case in point being Noah’s flood.

Beaver invading irrigation canal in northeastern Utah (Randlett)

After my PowerPoint presentation there were several questions. Two participants expressed some disappointment that my principal connection between Mormonism and water was pragmatic and not more spiritual. This has caused me to rethink some of the points of my paper/presentation. I would be very interested in comments. In the near future, I will have my entire paper posted. In the meantime, a couple of points.

Below a sculptural piece in Gilgal Garden in Salt Lake City lies a circle of 12 stones or a “Gilgal.” Gilgal is mentioned in the Bible as being created by the Israelites after God stopped the waters of the Jordan River allowing them to cross into the Promise Land, without getting wet. One man of each of the 12 tribes of Israel took a stone from the bottom of the river and placed in a circle as a memorial to the miraculous crossing. In the mid-Twentieth Century, Mormon Bishop and mason Thomas Child created a modern Gilgal to illustrate his belief that the Mormons had established a new Zion on the banks of Utah’s Jordan River. Each of the 12 stones in Child’s Gilgal is distinct and was selected to represent one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Modern-day Gilgal constructed by Mormon Bishop Thomas Child

Once Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers arrived on the banks of Jordan in present-day Utah, they needed irrigation to survive, a practice they began in earnest on arrival. Even though their system’s were quite primitive, they became an example for other areas in the Intermountain West and became one of John Wesley Powell’s inspirations for an idyllic hydraulic society. Mormon’s saw in their conquest of the arid Intermountain West the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. They were particularly drawn to the book of Isaiah and God’s promised care on the long trek homeward across the desert:

When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none,
And their tongue faileth for thirst,
I the Lord will hear them,
I the God of Israel will not forsake them,
I will open rivers in high places,
And fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will made the wilderness a pool of water,
And the dry land springs of water.

In their conquest of the arid West, Mormon’s saw the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the desert blossoming “as a rose.”

In a talk at a church-wide conference in 1952 (a few months before his death), Apostle and irrigation authority John A. Widtsoe explained that he had missed the previous conference because of his participation in a Canadian commission examining a proposed irrigation project in Saskatchewan. He used this lead-in to make some poignant comparisons between the gospel and irrigation. But before that he bragged a little:

” . . . our people came here (Utah) and for the first time in the history of civilization demonstrated that a successful manner of community living might be built with an irrigation ditch. In this state, from which we have spread over the West, has come the birth of modern irrigation. Most countries which lie in part under low rainfall have sent agents or representatives here to find out what we have done and how we did it, and whether they can do it also. We have a worldwide reputation in reclaiming desert lands by the use of water.”

He was also proud of the 20th-century research that had been going on at Utah universities: ” . . . we have the honor of being not only the generators of modern-day irrigation, but also of placing the ancient art on a modern scientific basis.” While Widtsoe overstates his case, the Mormon’s had a right to be proud of their accomplishments.

Widtsoe concluded his conference speech by comparing irrigation to the Mormon gospel. “The weavers of the midlands in England, the coal miners of Wales, the fishermen in Norway, the trudging farmers of Denmark, very ordinary people, who accept the gospel from the lips of some humble missionary become so charged by those enlightening truths of gospel that they are not the same people any longer. They have been fertilized, so to speak, by the Spirit of God that comes from eternal truth, just as in irrigation the barren, dry soil is fertilized by diverting the stream of water from the irrigation ditch onto the thirsty land.”

Just as the Mormon church had sent out missionaries all over the world to find converts to their religion, they were now poised to send engineers, with the zeal of missionaries, to preach the gospel of scientific irrigation. John A. Widtsoe was the first and most famous of these, but by no means the last. Widtsoe is today enshrined in the Mormon pantheon of intellectual giants.

This entry was posted in History, mormonism, water, widtsoe. Bookmark the permalink.

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