Imagining Utah’s Alternative History as a Theodemocracy

Pat Bagley / Salt Lake Tribune, Cagle Cartoons

Last week, local Salt Lake City radio host Doug Fabrizio of KUER’s RadioWest had Paul Mero on his show. Mero, the head of the very conservative Sutherland Institute, was on another tirade about the evils of the federal government.

Then it hit me: Mero is still sore about the United States putting the screws to Utah in the 19th century. A society based on Liberty and Freedom had been smothered in its crib.

Well, alternative history is all about the "what ifs." What if Hitler had prevailed? What if the South had won the Civil War?

We can never know since there are no do-overs or rewinds in history. But historical speculation is a terrific exercise for the imagination.

For instance, what if the federal government had never come to Utah?

For one, we wouldn’t be living in Utah, but the independent State of Deseret.

Let’s say that Johnston’s Army was whipped by the Nauvoo Legion at Echo Canyon in the spring of 1858, leaving Brigham Young not just the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the undisputed master of the territory.

The successful bid for Mormon independence spurs Southern secessionists, and the War between the States starts before Lincoln and the election of 1860.

With North and South at each others’ throats, Utah, I mean, Deseret, is free to go its own way.

The new Mormon nation establishes a form of government called "Theodemocracy," first articulated by church founder Joseph Smith and put into practice in the territorial legislature by Brigham Young. Theodemocracy envisions a government that is perfect because God is at its head.

Through revelation, the prophet divines the Will of God and submits it to a legislative body, whose members are selected by the aforementioned prophet after careful consideration and prayer. Legislation is passed by unanimous consent. Holdouts are given a chance to prayerfully reconsider their erroneous vote before being tossed out of the assembly.

Legislative leaders caught partying with underage girls in hot tubs are severely censured — not for the 16-year-old girl in the tub, who as likely as not is a wife or prospective wife — but for the alcohol found poolside.

While encouraged to self-deport, non-Mormons, or "gentiles," are treated fairly, as long as they respect the laws and religion of Deseret. In theory they enjoy all the rights and privileges of citizenship. In practice they find themselves discriminated against in everything from housing to jobs to education.

In this alternative history, The Salt Lake Tribune never makes it past the first edition. When a court (appointed by the First Presidency) finds the paper guilty of libel, its presses are smashed and typeface is scattered on Main Street.

Unfortunately, the State of Deseret doesn’t fare well economically. The route of the transcontinental railroad through the United States of America, or what is left of it after the War of Northern Aggression, bypasses the Mormon Empire, and commerce flows through northern Idaho to the Pacific.

Without an ocean port, trade in and out of Deseret is subject to heavy duties and fees.

Progress is stifled still more by government control of markets through the socialist Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution.

Ore is pulled from the mountains and smelted in Murray in the center of the valley. While everyone complains about the clouds of sulfur and mercury billowing from the smokestacks, nobody does anything about it for fear the smelters will close and take their jobs with them.

Few industries establish themselves in Deseret, as corporations find employees leery of moving their families to a theocratic republic whose capitol is shrouded in a brown haze eight months of the year.

The missionary work goes forward, with only the occasional elder being shot dead in the Confederate States Mission.

Those who say the mountains were once covered with forests are laughed at. Everyone can see there is not a stick in the entire range, and no one still alive remembers it being otherwise. Folks are used to the annual mudslides and erosion that have turned places like City Creek gully into canyons.

Award-winning cartoonist Pat Bagley describes himself as a fifth generation "retired" Mormon from Salt Lake City. He is a graduate of BYU and served a two year mission in Bolivia. For 32 years Pat has been the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune, and his cartoons are exclusively syndicated internationally by Cagle Cartoons. Email comments to Pat at

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