Features

How the Mormons Made Las Vegas

And why we need their engagement now more than ever
Photo by Scott Jarvie

Photo by Scott Jarvie

It’s less than two miles from the old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Park to The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, but 159 years separate the founding of the fort from the Las Vegas premiere of the controversial musical The Book of Mormon on June 10. What happened in between the two events is a tale of the occasional heartbreak and extraordinary labor with which Mormons helped create modern Clark County—and in the process gained influence far beyond their numbers.

When the musical sprung from the irreverent minds of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to become the toast of Broadway in 2011, wags around Las Vegas wondered whether it could or would be performed here. That the question would even be asked is a sign of the power that many Southern Nevadans believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wields in their community. It’s also an acknowledgment of how much Mormons have shaped the community, often in ways that fit with their church’s history. Admirers praise their commitment; critics often find them insular. One longtime observer recalls that upon moving to Southern Nevada more than three decades ago, what he heard “reminded me of the old anti-Semitic line, ‘The Jews control everything.’ People talked about Mormons the same way—they stick together, they help each other a lot, the same kind of basic stereotype.”

The Mormon church reports having about 15 million members worldwide, with 180,000 in Nevada. According to statistics provided by Shannon Hiller, the church’s public-affairs representative in Southern Nevada, about 105,000 Mormons live in the Las Vegas metropolitan area—about 5 percent of the city’s population.

W. Paul Reeve, a widely published Mormon scholar and an associate professor of history at the University of Utah, agreed that “where there are high numbers of Mormons there can be a feeling of exclusion if you are on the outside looking in.” One factor is how involved Mormons are in their church and in family activities. “For Mormons, so much of their daily interactions revolve around their church community,” Reeve says, “that they can sometimes forget to look up and look around them and realize that there are other neighbors of other faiths.”

But there are also strong traditions and trends within Mormonism toward reaching out to the community. Reeve cites “The Doctrine of Inclusion,” a 2001 article by M. Russell Ballard, then one of the Council of the Twelve Apostles—the group that leads the Mormon church—that reminds members to “get to know your neighbors.” Ballard goes on to recommend that church members stop thinking of non-Mormon neighbors first as “non-Mormons.” “Personally,” he wrote, “I don’t think of myself as a ‘non-Catholic’ or a ‘non-Jew.’”

“For Mormons,” Reeve says, “community is always more important than the individual. Mormonism is a rejection of life as a Darwinian struggle of all against all. Mormons [have a] covenant to mourn with those who mourn, to comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Ideally, that principle extends beyond the Mormon community.”

And in Southern Nevada—where Mormons have been prominent in government, business and philanthropy—it has done just that, with tremendous impact on the history of the Valley.

Beginnings

Today, if a teenager announced that an angel had appeared to him and led him to special tablets, you might be skeptical. When Joseph Smith reported having this experience early in the 19th century, it wasn’t that unusual. It happened during the Second Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals across America that prompted the formation of new religious groups. It also created or reinvigorated reform movements that ranged from abolitionism and temperance to utopian socialist communities where groups came together and shared their land or bounty or expenses. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grew out of this swirl of activity.

From the start, Mormons—with their unique cosmology and forms of organization—faced discrimination and violence. The church migrated from upstate New York, wound through several intermediary stops and settled in Nauvoo, Illinois. But in 1844, Smith was murdered in Nauvoo while in jail on charges of disturbing the peace. New church leader Brigham Young decided to move Mormons westward, away from Americans who might express their displeasure with the church’s different approach to religion. John C. Frémont’s recent report of his explorations west of the Rockies gave Young his template, and, in 1847, he led the first group of Mormon emigrants into the Salt Lake Valley. Hoping both to help his church flourish and to protect it from attack, he proposed the large State of Deseret that included access to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1855, Young extended that footprint into New Mexico Territory, dispatching William Bringhurst to lead the mission. When the Mormons reached the Las Vegas Springs, they found the Southern Paiutes whom the church had ordered them to “cultivate.” Not being sure whether the Paiutes were friendly, the Mormons followed a creek about four miles northeast and built their fort-mission on a natural bench, now the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard North and Washington Avenue.

The mission lasted only two years. The potentially lucrative discovery of lead at Mount Potosi divided the missionaries over their purpose; the debate led to Young removing Bringhurst as the mission’s president. Later in 1857, the U.S. Army headed for Salt Lake over charges that Mormons were ignoring federal law. The ongoing battle with federal officials was known as the Utah War—suddenly there were more pressing matters for the men who had established the Las Vegas outpost, and the fort was abandoned.

The fort—which is Nevada’s oldest building—served as a beachhead for subsequent settlement, passing into the hands of ranchers and becoming the home of Las Vegas pioneer Helen Stewart, who sold her land to the railroad. That sale led to the May 15, 1905, land auction and the building of the town of Las Vegas.

With a red-light district within walking distance of the train depot, early Las Vegas wasn’t the kind of community that Mormons had in mind. In the early 20th century, though, Mormons had a great impact on the development of rural Clark County. They built communities in Bunkerville and Mesquite, and in the Moapa Valley towns of St. Thomas and Overton, the site of Nevada’s first permanent stake in 1912. Mostly farming areas that also supplied nearby residents, they had a stronger Mormon presence than the railroad town that grew near the first Mormon mission in present-day Nevada. Bunkerville even started as a communitarian (and polygamist) experiment, though that effort proved about as short-lived as the Las Vegas mission.

Meanwhile, national politics hadn’t made things any easier. When the Republican Party was formed in 1856 to oppose the spread of slavery, it reserved additional moral outrage for a different institution: “It is the duty of Congress,” intoned the original Republican platform, “to prohibit  … those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery.” To most Americans, Mormons were outlaws. They fit with what the world would come to know of Las Vegas better than anyone could have imagined.

The Evolution of Las Vegas

The Mormon population grew as Las Vegas grew, with an estimated membership of just over 400 when Las Vegas finally topped 5,000 residents in 1930. That was enough to spur the construction of the first Mormon chapel and ward in 1925—20 years after Catholic, Episcopal and Methodist churches opened, but nearly two decades before the first Jewish temple.

Those who have lived in Las Vegas long enough tend to wax nostalgic for a time that never was: when the mob “ran” the town and everybody was safe. But those who have lived in Las Vegas even longer recall childhood in the 1930s and 1940s that included events at each church, open to all regardless of faith or membership. The town wasn’t large enough for any group to be exclusive.

Many of the Mormon settlers in early Las Vegas moved from Bunkerville or the Moapa Valley, apparently motivated in part by business opportunities that also led to political opportunities. The Bunker family opened its mortuary, and three brothers entered politics. Berkeley Bunker became an Assembly speaker and later the first Mormon U.S. senator (later still, he was a U.S. representative from Nevada). The Whipple family arrived from Logandale, and Reed Whipple became a banker and city commissioner. The Christensens owned a jewelry store that still operates, and became prominent in elected office.

When Las Vegas was a small town, the Mormon emphasis on community made them important leaders in setting up the trappings of civil society. Mormons, for instance, were crucial to the formation in 1944 of the Boulder Dam Area Council, now the Las Vegas Area Council of the Boy Scouts. And, as officials and volunteers, they became the driving force in Scouting and in the local and state PTA.

Remaking Las Vegas

While Clark County now has 24 Mormon stakes (something akin to a Catholic diocese), Las Vegas and its Mormon population hadn’t grown enough to have its own until 1954. That year, Mormons or those with close connections to the church began the process of reshaping Las Vegas. On January 18, the Continental Bank of Salt Lake City opened the Bank of Las Vegas in conjunction with local investors. The next year, Utah investors sent down a manager, Parry Thomas, who had a long family history in the Mormon church.

Thomas was the only banker willing to regularly lend money to casino operators—“character loans,” as they became known, since onetime illegal gamblers, mobsters or not, hated to write anything down. Asked why he would do this, Thomas said, “I’m in the banking business, and these people were good loans.” Along with the bank’s involvement in real estate through Thomas and Jerome Mack, a member of a pioneer Jewish family in Las Vegas, the loans made the operation wildly successful, and enabled several Strip and Downtown casinos to build or rebuild.

Other Mormons played a significant role in gaming. The staff that took care of Howard Hughes after he moved to Las Vegas late in 1966 became known as the “Mormon Mafia,” under the command of Bill Gay. Thomas, meanwhile, helped Hughes buy property. While Thomas and other leaders hoped that Hughes would help drive out the mob, or at least the aura it gave Nevada, Thomas knew it would take more. He engineered the sale of a parcel that Hughes owned to Steve Wynn. Thus did Wynn owe some of his success to the role played by the Mormon church, and the rest really is history—and the present.

Wynn cites Parry Thomas as a major influence on his life—and on Las Vegas. The Thomas influence even continued to the next generation: Thomas’ son Roger was the interior designer of Wynn’s hotels. The irony is that Mormons have historically opposed gambling as taking “money from the person who may be possessed of it without giving value received in return.” Although Mormons have worked on the casino floor, the general rule in the church has been that if a Mormon works in the casino industry, “don’t touch the dice.”

Las Vegas Mormon Temple | Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

Las Vegas Mormon Temple | Photo courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau

The Church and the Culture

In 2010, the UNLV Department of Sociology, led by professor Robert Futrell and working with several university and community groups, conducted the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area Social Survey. Only one-third of the residents surveyed felt a sense of attachment or identification with their neighborhood, compared with a national average of more than two-thirds.

“Valley residents’ stronger attachment to being a ‘Las Vegan’ than a ‘neighbor’ in a neighborhood raises important questions about civic involvement. If residents feel a limited sense of attachment to their neighbors and neighborhood, then they may be less willing to act together to solve neighborhood problems,” the report said. “Also, stronger neighborhood attachment could reduce transiency of residents, creating more long-term neighbors … who can help to anchor sustainable communities.”

But with less involvement in gaming and more of an investment in other industries or the community as a whole, Mormons appear to have been less transient. David Dickens, a UNLV sociology professor and co-author of Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City, noted the results: “Transience has a lot to do with it, and so does turnover: People don’t identify with being from here. I think the implication for things like education, childhood sports and Scouting is that Mormons are invested in the community in a way in which a lot of groups [aren’t].”

Dickens harkens to the theory that political scientist Theodore Lowi offered in his 1969 The End of Liberalism, referring to “interest-group liberalism” as a partial explanation for how Mormons have an influence disproportionate to their share of the population. “My experience,” he says, “has been that part of their focus in their religious practices is a strong influence on the family, so whatever affects their kids, they participate in.” In turn, if the majority of parents don’t volunteer or participate, those who do will have an outsized impact.

That has been the case with educational groups such as the Clark County School District and the PTA. The LDS has encouraged education; combine that with the church’s emphasis on family, and you start to understand why Mormons have held numerous elected and appointed positions in the institutions that help give form to childhood culture in the Valley.

But these historical roles may be changing. The Mormon role in the  PTA, one insider says, has declined with the arrival of increasing numbers of Hispanic and Asian immigrants “because they disagree with many of the organization’s political views and positions they have taken” on such subjects as sex education, where the PTA is a bit more liberal than the Mormon church. Meanwhile, the influx of new arrivals to Southern Nevada inevitably has reduced Mormon influence. In 1990, Nevada’s population of just over 1.2 million included an estimated 110,000 Mormons; while the 2010 census showed that, though Nevada’s population had more than doubled to more than 2.7 million, the Mormon population had increased by less than 70,000.

That the Mormon church hasn’t kept up with the population may be significant on religious grounds, but it’s more significant on political, social and cultural grounds. Especially until the Great Recession, Las Vegas was a transient community: Not only did thousands move in and out each month, but they also moved around within the area. The stable, less transient Mormon population helped promote a sense of community—a sense that many inside and outside Southern Nevada have long seen the region as lacking.

Politics and Power

Both of Nevada’s U.S. senators are Mormon. The most powerful Mormon politician in the U.S., and Nevada’s most important political figure, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is a Democrat who described himself as “unchurched” before going to high school. After meeting Mormon families in Henderson, he converted to Mormonism while attending Utah State University (where he was a student of Leonard Arrington, one of the most distinguished scholars of Mormon history).

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Dean Heller, a Republican, said in 2006, when he first ran for the House of Representatives, “I’m a Mormon, and I teach Sunday school every week.” The highest-ranking Mormon state legislator, state Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, is a Democrat whose previous political activism included serving as statewide PTA president.

But Mormons are and long have been political conservatives, whatever party they have belonged to. Mormons joined the conservative exodus to the Republican Party that unfolded amid the Democrats’ Great Society liberalism of the 1960s until the rise of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and afterward.

Mormon influence in politics has been most apparent in the important positions held by church members. For example, one of Nevada’s longtime LDS leaders, James Gibson, a Henderson businessman and conservative Democrat, was a major state Senate power from the 1950s until his death in 1988. His son Jim, also a conservative Democrat, served as the mayor of Henderson from 1997-2009, ran for governor in 2006 and has been a church stake president.

Other powers belonged to the Mormon church but weren’t closely identified with it. Howard Cannon served four terms in the U.S. Senate, while the Lamb family dominated the Legislature (Floyd Lamb was a longtime state Senate finance chair) and Southern Nevada politics (Ralph, the legendary sheriff, and Darwin, a county commissioner). All were Democrats, and generally considered “Jack Mormons,” meaning they don’t necessarily abide by LDS teachings.

Mormon influence has been important to Nevada, but especially under certain circumstances. “Everyone looks at the notion that Mormons would be powerful statewide, and the church has done well at getting members to run,” says David Damore, an associate professor of political science at UNLV and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute. But the church’s influence has been most apparent, Damore says, in “low-turnout races,” and in some urban areas.

Another factor is when church members are especially motivated, including when church members are seeking office: Most other Republicans wrote off Nevada in the 2012 caucuses with Mitt Romney in the field, and he cruised to victory. An additional motivation can be based on a single issue.

In the 1970s, Mormons in the West turned out in force to help defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. More recently, Damore says, “The big example would have been the same-sex marriage initiative campaign, working with social conservatives to get that on the ballot to push that through.” Nevadans approved the measure in 2002, and Mormons were active in the campaign for Proposition 8 in 2008 to block same-sex marriage in California.

In Nevada, Damore sees possible changes in how Mormons approach politics. “LDS growth has not kept up with the rest of the state’s population. With the state turning Democratic, [having the same degree of influence] will be even more difficult. Also, I think you see a little bit of a generational shift, where the older generation would have been more Republican, very conservative, while some of those under 50 tend to be less so. I think the newer generation isn’t necessarily voting as a bloc.”

But Mormons have retained power in local governments. A Mormon has served as mayor of North Las Vegas for more than 30 years, of Henderson for 17 years, and four of the five members of the Boulder City Council are Mormon. Mormons occasionally have held a majority of the seats on the Clark County Commission. As Damore says, “You have Mormons in key decision-making positions, both elected and bureaucratic.”

Bob Broadbent exemplified Damore’s point. A Boulder City pharmacist when he became the town’s first mayor in 1960 (until then, the town had been under federal control), he moved up to the Clark County Commission in 1968 and went to Washington, D.C., to run the Bureau of Reclamation in 1981. (His successor, Bruce Woodbury, came from a longtime local Mormon family.) Broadbent returned home in 1987 as director of McCarran International Airport and later helped start what became the Robert N. Broadbent Las Vegas Monorail.

The Book on The Book

The Book of Mormon won nine Tony Awards in 2012 and worked its way into the nation’s cultural fabric. Controversy never really exploded, in large part thanks to Mormons’ generally calm, even bemused reaction: They welcomed the interest the show inspired; perhaps it would even prompt some theatergoers to look into Mormonism. The New York Times interviewed former missionaries who saw it. “It’s way, way too close to home,” one said. Another said, “It’s right on, but I cringed a little bit, a couple of times.”

The church’s official response, says local church spokeswoman Hiller, has also been philosophical and above-the-fray: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but The Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

Nearly 160 years after the founding of the Mormon Fort, it’s hard to argue with that assertion: The Book has had, and will continue to have, a far greater impact on Las Vegas than the musical. But those South Park guys are really funny anyway.

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