"The Convert to Zion": The Mormon Conversion Experience in the Nineteenth Century

Jordan Bratt

Advisor: John Turner, PhD, Department of Religious Studies

Committee Members: Lincoln Mullen, Michael O'Malley

Horizon Hall, #3223
November 16, 2023, 01:00 PM to 03:00 PM


In the nineteenth century, tens of thousands of people converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormonism. Their diaries and reminiscences describe the personal experiences that contributed to their religious conversion and activity in the Church. Mormon historical scholarship has largely analyzed these conversion experiences at either the biographical or regional levels. By adopting an extensive geographic and chronological scope, this study traces the distinctive contours of the Mormon conversion experience from 1830 to the turn of the twentieth century. During this period, Mormonism adopted two practices that defined the conversion experience broadly: gathering to Zion and the principle of plural marriage (polygamy).The gathering doctrine appointed specific places as sites for the building of Zion and commanded the saints to gather out of a fallen and sinful world to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The Mormon conversion experience culminated not in baptism, but in participating in this unique doctrine. At this time, baptism was a "declaration of intent" to gather. Embracing Mormonism and the gathering doctrine fundamentally shifted a convert's relationship with their surroundings. The migration journey was a spiritually charged undertaking, experienced as a religious pilgrimage. The gathering's foundational role in the conversion experience was universal across numerous groups and peoples in the nineteenth century.
Mormonism's principle of plural marriage loomed large over the conversion experience, especially following the public announcement of its practice in 1852. This "peculiar institution" set Mormonism apart from the rest of Christianity and quickly became the faith's defining doctrinal practice. For many who entered plural marriages, it fulfilled important spiritual rites and reaffirmed their original conversion experience. Though most converts did not participate in the institution, accepting its divine origins remained necessary to their conversion.
Nineteenth-century Mormon conversion linked these significant tenets with regional and cultural characteristics. As Mormonism spread to other nations and peoples, the conversion experience included their shared social and spiritual beliefs. The abandonment of the gathering doctrine and plural marriage at the end of the nineteenth century transformed the conversion experience into something wholly new for the twentieth century.