Jul 3, 2012

Rendezvous at Nauvoo

My first encounter with Mormons was in a classic adventure tale called “Around the world in 80 eighty days.” The comic character Passepartout wanders into a lecture by a Mormon prophet and finds that he is the only person in the room. The elated prophet offers to convert him, but Passepartout jumps out of the room as if scalded by hot water. Ever since, I have been curious to find out why Passepartout acted so.
At my university, two smartly dressed Mormon missionaries once approached me to deliver a quiz. “What are Mormons famous for?” they asked. I guessed that it was polygamy. They laughed. “Yes, that is what we used to be known for, but it is not practiced anymore” they had replied. . Soon rumors swirled that the Stephenie Meyer, writer of the famous Twilight series, was Mormon, and the series was full of Mormon philosophy.
That made me even more curious about Mormons. I found that I could learn more about the mysterious Mormons by visiting Nauvoo, a reconstructed historic Mormon settlement.
Nauvoo was full of ancient looking houses. The town was full of missionaries who were dressed up in historical costumes, ready to guide visitors like us. 

We started going into the buildings one by one. At the first building, two middle aged ladies pointed out a showpiece made of hair. “The Mormons never wasted anything” our guide told us. “They collected all their wasted hair and made art of it.” The hair was intricately twisted and braided to form a very attractive pattern, and I could see that the hair was of different colors, so it must have come from different people. 
The next place we went to was called the Family Living Center. Different corners of a huge hall were teeming with different activities of a typical Mormon family. Cotton did not grow in the harsh winters of Nauvoo, so they grew hemp instead. It would take two full years before the hemp could be cured and made into strings. It had to be painstakingly hacked and spun on a spinner before clothes could be made of it. They used natural colorants like walnut for brown, onions for yellow and cochineal for red. 
They had to use substances like salt and vinegar to hold down the color. They also raised sheep for wool. Fabrics that mixed linen and wool were called linsey-woolsey, and they were considered to be items of luxury!
Beside the spinners was a model of an ancient kitchen. The back part of the oven jutted out of the house in a semicircle, so it was called a bustle oven. (A bustle skirt is an old fashioned dress that had its hip jutting out to give a full skirt). Baking was not as simple then as it is now, the Mormons had to use their hand to gauge the temperature. If they could hold their hand next to the over for five seconds, then it was the right temperature to start cooking. The oven would be sealed with a wooden door that was soaked all night in water so that it wouldn’t burn. As the first batch is cooked and the oven gets cooler, they would put in smaller things like muffins and cookies! And since they had no yeast in those days, they used fermenting potato to raise their breads. 
fireplace on the left and oven on the right
The candle section was next. Candles were expensive, so the Mormons made their own. First of all, animal fat was repeatedly boiled in water and its impurities were removed. Then they would take strings, tie a stone on its end, dangle the other end from wooden sticks, and dip the strings in the fat. The strings would have to be dipped many times, maybe 300 times, to get a good sized candle. The candles would have to be stored in a secure place, because the animal fat attracted mice.
hanging candles after dipping them
                The weaving and pottery sections were much like what we would see in Nepal. But the barrel making was a piece of complicated workmanship. First of all, the wood is cut along the grain in exact shapes, and rubbed to make it concave on one side and convex on the other. It is laid out to dry in the sun so that it doesn't shrink after the barrel is made. The drying may take months. Then the wood pieces are all fit snugly inside a metal hoop, without any nails. The two ends are hammered in, and a hole is made on one of the ends for a tap to pour the liquid out.
ingredients of a barrel

We next went to the gun maker’s house.
gunmaker's equipments
Though there was a lot of interesting gun making equipment, what impressed me most was the cellar. Once you open trapdoor on the kitchen floor, you could climb down a ladder and right there was a well - so convenient. The cellar was used to preserve food because it was so cold. 
trapdoor to cellar
Throughout our tour, each and every missionary introduced themselves to us by name, and asked us about ourselves. We soon got tired of repeating the same conversation over and over again, especially since the missionaries were from all over America and did not know our city, and we had to explain each time. They also asked us how long we were planning to stay, and were disappointed that we were there only for the day.  I wondered why anyone would want to spend longer than that, until a missionary told us that mostly Mormons went there to find a spiritual connection to their ancestors, and often stayed for multiple days. And then I understood why several of them had been asking us if we were Mormon.
The Mormons seemed to be very focused on family. Almost every missionary worked family into the conversation. The candle maker emphasized how candle making was a family effort, the rope maker put three ropes together and told us how they were stronger than one, and the barrel maker told us that a family is held together just as the barrel hoop keeps the barrel together. 

ropes of different thickness
Finally, we attended a play about the history of Mormons. We learnt that Mormons had first settled in Nauvoo and were later ostracized by the community for practicing their faith and calling themselves “God’s chosen ones.” Eventually, their prophet led them to Utah, which is now the major Mormon settlement in US.
They seemed determined to rewrite the popular version of the history, because in the parting scene, one faithful worried that “people will say we were cowards for moving.” But others convinced him that this was not so, and their parting song’s chorus was “we went willingly o, willingly we went o o.”
play being performed
It is rumored that the Mormons were driven away because of their prophet’s involvement in conspiracies and their practice of polygamy.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the play did not dwell on these issues. Apparently, today mainstream Mormon Church takes care to dissociate itself from these issues, and those who practice polygamy today are a minority sect. Recently, an American book called “Sister Wives” based on reality TV made a splash in the media, because it is about a polygamous family. Four wives would not be remarkable in some parts of the world, but this family is White, American, and Mormon, proving that polygamy is still practiced in small religious pockets of America.
The Mormon’s faith in their religion was the single most important thing that I carried away from Nauvoo.  The original town had been destroyed, but reconstructed by faithfuls, making it the largest reconstructed town of its type in America. The missionaries who guided us were all there for 18 months, volunteering their time just to support their faith.  One lady told me that she flew in from Canada every year just to cook for young volunteers. I remembered the missionaries at my university had told me that when young men and women were nineteen years of age, they were encouraged to go out into the world and preach their faith. Though it was not required, most complied. Faith can indeed move mountains, but probably I was not expecting such an ardent display of it in the heart of America.


Subodh said...

I have been always intrigued by many of these Christian denominations; thanks for shedding some light on the Mormons. Now just who are Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witness and the Amish Church (That was in the Harrison Ford film wasn't it?) It would be great to hear from you in new blogs. Great going!

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