Our Mormon Moment

The biggest show of the year revives a tense history

Minnesota is not a Mormon state. Not even close. The first and only Latter-day Saints temple here, a large white edifice in Oakdale, wasn’t opened until 2000, and for a long time the closest temple was the one that everybody knows, in Salt Lake City. This month, more Minnesotans will see The Book of Mormon during the irreverent Broadway smash’s 16-show run at the Orpheum Theatre, starting February 5, than profess the LDS faith. The reasons are curious. Missionaries began appearing in southern Minnesota in 1847, the same year the Mormons reached Utah, and Scandinavians, who dominated Minnesota then as now, also comprised some 40 percent of Utahans. But the state yielded few converts: “It is a hard and barren field,” opined a Salt Lake City newspaper in 1877.  One missionary moaned, “The so-called Christians who live there are not very liberal,” while others derided them as “obstinate”  and “very bitter.” Lutherans, it seems, were dishing out Minnesota Nice—without the nice. Minneapolis city fathers threatened to bombard the missionaries with raw eggs and hang them from a bridge. News stories, like this dispatch in the New York Times, betrayed the bias: “A Mormon settlement exists in this State, and the heresy is daily growing.” But it wasn’t growing, not really—nearly all the converts moved to Utah. Today, the mission tactic has changed, perhaps because Minnesota has changed. LDS membership has grown 52 percent in Minnesota over the past decade, and two years ago the Twin Cities was one of a handful of markets targeted by the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign. The arrival of The Book of Mormon may say more about our artistic zeal than our religious bent. (We put our faith in Times critic Ben Brantley, who raved, “The best musical of this century.”) But it does suggest a certain open-mindedness—required to enjoy lyrics as sardonic as these: “Hello! Would you like to change religions? I have a free book written by Jesus!”