Las Vegas and the Mormons

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Since Protestants left the Catholic Church several centuries ago, Christian denominations – not all accepted – have taken root in European and American cultures. Many are as old as the New World itself, while others appear every year. All have interesting, spellbinding histories. None hold readers more captive than the trials and tribulations Mormons faced. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS), commonly referred to Mormonism, started its history in progressive 1800s New York. Though the religion started its journey to world-power status, its beginnings were rocky, and several founding members gave their life for their controversial beliefs. Indeed, one could say, Mormons had more trouble practicing their beliefs under the First Amendment than protestants leaving the Church faced. But, as with all faiths and people tempered by the fires of oppression, Mormons rediscovered what it meant to ne American and practice their freedom of religion.

Faith under Fire: The Start of Mormonism in Utah

Mormons lost a lot in 1846; their leader was assassinated and many believer’s homes came under attack (History.com). Indeed, Mormons living in Nauvoo, Illinois never thought they would make a lifelong exodus and leave their ancestral homes. Members of the LDS begin a long westward journey and eventually found themselves setting roots in Utah. This venture marked the start of something new, a large mark on Western theology and Utah’s bright future. The trek lead to the formation of the church’s greatest prize – LDS of Great Salt Lake in Utah (History.com). This move might have alarmed many Mormons of the age, but they were no stranger to hostility and prejudice. 

LDS members faced persecution at many avenues. Their founder’s radical views at the time marked them for hostility and torture. Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, started the church in progressive New York state in 1830 (History.com). He told followers he was a modern-day prophet, ordained by the Christian God (History.com). This was not unheard of during pro-Christian era (History.com). It was his view on marriage and intimate relationships that drew criticism from other religions and local Christians (History.com). Smith taught polygamy – the belief one may have several wives and lovers (History.com). His followers moved to their new compound in Missouri, hoping this would provide a safe refuge to practice their beliefs without fear of repression (History.com). However, after Smith’s assassination in 1846, they soon learned the United States (U.S.) was not going to accept their way of living (History.com).

Thinking the foreign-thinking Western regions would accept their beliefs and unconventional marriage ideals, Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, moved more than 1,000 Mormons to the Mexican controlled Southwestern territories (History.com). Once the refugees found their new home in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, historians say Young told his people “This is the place” (History.com). More than 1,600 Mormons started building a new civilization, followed the next year by more than 2,500 more Mormons (History.com). By Young’s death in 1877, more than 100,000 LDS members had taken root in Utah’s finest area (History.com).

From Mafia to Mormons: LDS Hits the Las Vegas Strip

Las Vegas had its field day when the Mafia ran the area. Gamblers running the table and cashing in on success where forced to cash out and shown the door (Symon). Those with the arrogance to cheap hotels owned and operated by the mafia were, well, introduced to Las Vegas hospitality – mobster style (Symon). Local business owners paid their dues, and no one made decisions without prior consent from the Boss (Symon). 

You couldn't tell if anyone was in the Mafia. Sure, there were some people shooting others, and you would see it in the papers every once in a while. My grandchildren always ask if I broke the fingers of a card counter, or if I was connected with the Mafia. (Symon)

While politicians and local businessmen who remember the “good old days” with resentment and distaste, no one argues the impact mobsters had on the upcoming entertainment capital of the world. Soon, politicians became tired of mobsters. Washington, D.C. was cleaning house, and New York was seeing a turnaround in bride acceptance (National Park Service). The glorious empire of the Mafia was finally coming to an end.

Nevada passed several regulatory during the late 1960s (Symon). This helped remove mobster influence from the region. However, a new, more religious power would soon fill those fancy shoes. Corporate America, including Howard Hughes and several other billionaires of the era, bought hotels and resorts from Mafia kings, built new venues and started filtering money into road and community improvements (Symon). Mormons assisted large corporations and local ventures by funding their projects (Symon). “Even modern-day Vegas behemoths like Steve Wynn owe their success to Mormon backers” (Symon). By building better communities and out paying the Mafia, Mormons won the trust, respect, and love from Las Vegas residents. Eventually, Mafia families couldn’t afford to compete and left the Las Vegas Strip altogether (Nevada State Parks). 

Building Communities: Mormonism’s Impact on Local Circles

Restructuring entertainment circles and increasing much needed revenue to Nevada was just a sample of LDS’s engagement and support. Mormons believe community and family is the most important element in their lives (Green). They wanted to provide a safe harbor for their families. They wanted to improve the community and turn it into a wondrous civilization. Mormons wanted to make Las Vegas fabulous. 

For Mormons 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. (Green)

This is evident in the projects completed by the church during the early 1960s (Mack). Schools, churches, luxury homes, shopping centers, community organizations, and social services were just a start to their engagement with the community (Green; Mack). The University of Nevada (UNLV) and Las Vegas’ Thomas and Mack Center are tow prime examples of the community’s connection with Mormonism (Symon). Each were named for popular Mormon business owner E. Parry Thomas, a commercial banker who with Hughes to finance much of the Strips old casinos (Symon). His business partner, Jerry Mack, is the second namesake for the arena (Symon).  

The LDS’s connection with community is not measured by the above money-making projects or rebuilding a community. It’s about the people and relationships they share. Mormons taught the residents to value their community and build strong bonds with each other. Community reports show Las Vegas is stronger and more connected to its neighbors than other national regions (McComb).

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. Also, stronger neighborhood attachment could reduce transiency of residents, creating more long-term neighbors…who can help to anchor sustainable communities. (Green)

In 2010, the UNLV’s Department of Sociology conducted a study on local community’s relationships (Green). Sociology Professor Robert Futrell worked with local community groups on the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area Social Survey (Green).

Conclusion: Holding Strong

Historical accounts alone, Mormonism in Nevada seems to hold the region in awe. And the religion only is getting stronger. Political arenas in Nevada, held by Mormon believers or sympathizers, play a big role in national government elections (Hamby). Elections during 1986 highlighted major power plays for the group (Hamby). The U.S. Senate had an unusually large proportion of seats up for grabs (Hamby). Harry Reid and his Republican opponent, James Santino were strong players in the Nevada Republican race (Hamby). Reid’s religion helped secure the election, with more than 12 percent of Nevadans being Mormon (Hamby). That was the late 1980s. Mormon power in Nevada has intensified since then (Hamby).

Works Cited

Green, Michael. “How the Mormons Made Las Vegas.” Vegas Seven. 4 June 2014. Web. 12 June 

2016. http://vegasseven.com/2014/06/04/how-the-mormons-made-las-vegas/.

Hamby, Peter. “Mormon influence in Nevada fading, but still a factor.” CNN. 3 July 2012. Web. 

12 June 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/03/politics/nevada-mormons/.

History.com. “1846: Mormons begin exodus to Utah.” This Day in History. A&E Entertainment, 

LLC. 2009. Web. 12 June 2016. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mormons- -exodus-to-utah.

Mack, Karen. “The Big Secret.” Las Angeles Times. N.d. Web. 12 June 2016. 

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-mag-april052009-mylasvegas-story.html.

McCombs, Brady. “Mormon population: 60 percent in Utah, 4-5 percent Nevada.” The Las 

Vegas Review Journal. 26 Feb. 20014/. Web. 12 June 2016. http://www.reviewjournal.com/news/mormon-population-60-percent-utah-4-5-percent-nevada. 

National Park Service. “The Old Mormon Fort: Birthplace of Las Vegas, Nevada.” U.S. 

Department of the Interior. N.d. Web. 12 June 2016. https://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/122fort/.

Nevada State Parks. “Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort.” Nevada Department of Conservation. N.d. 

Web. 12 June 2016. http://parks.nv.gov/parks/old-las-vegas-mormon-fort/.

Symon, Evan V. and Anonymous. “Mormons Run Everything: 5 Things You Learn Working In 

Vegas.” Cracked. 28 Jan. 2016. Web. 12 June 2016. http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-2064-mormons-run-las-vegas-5-realities-sin-citys-history.html.