Is this really a post about material culture? I started out thinking it would be, but I suppose it hasn’t really ended up that way as I’m not analyzing the ways in which the makers or users of these objects physically interact with them. Yet I think there’s something significant in the fact that the Mormon beehive is such a substantial physical presence, both as it is materially incorporated into so many Mormon sites and as it appears in so many of the mundane physical assertions of state power in Utah. Perhaps I’m grasping at straws in an effort to anchor myself to our monthly theme here at JI – I’ll leave it for the readers of this post to decide!
I’ve always been a very visual person, and I take great delight in quizzing myself and the people around me on the people and pictures that we encounter in our everyday lives. I’m told it’s something of a trial to watch any BBC production with me, as every time a new character appears on screen I immediately give my fellow viewers a brief history of the actor’s previous performances and explain how their previous roles are being used to shape the audience’s reaction to the current character. (This might explain why my husband often chooses to go do something else when I turn on Masterpiece Theatre….) I do the same thing with Disney movies, and I also delighted, when I worked for the Disney Store in college and made frequent excursions to Orlando, at finding the “hidden Mickeys” that Disney incorporates into designs all over its theme parks. It’s a shame Dan Brown isn’t better at what he does – I’m a big fan of finding and analyzing hidden symbols… when they’re well hidden (or at least unnoticed or misunderstood by many) and worth finding anyway.
So imagine how much fun I have with the many not-so-hidden but all-too-overlooked symbols I have learned through my study of the Latter-day Saints (as evidenced here by the fact that all of the pictures below are mine, unless otherwise noted). There’s the “all-seeing eye” that so fascinated and frightened late-19th and early-20th century American writers, filmmakers, and audiences, which I first encountered in person in the St. George Tabernacle:
the pioneer beard that allowed me to spot Brigham Young from far across the Hall of Statues in the U. S. Capitol (when I asked the tour guide if that was in fact Brigham Young, some of my fellow tour group members whispered something to the effect that I must be a Mormon);
and, my personal favorite, the beehive.
The beehive is everywhere you look in Utah, where the Mormons adopted it as a territorial symbol shortly after their arrival in the intermountain west in 1847. Given that the Saints’ original name for the territory, Deseret, means honeybee, it’s not surprising that the beehive was an important symbol for the community. (It was even on the money.) Furthermore, the hive symbolized for early Mormon settlers in the West the essential value of all members of the community working together for the common good. The Saints’ centralized organization and commitment to the larger goals of the community over the independent goals of the individual have long been recognized as key to their success in settling in some of the harshest landscapes in the American West. This community-mindedness, which many 19th-century non-Mormons found off-putting at best and anti-democratic at worst, has at other times been one of the things the rest of America most admired about the Mormons. During the early decades of the 20th century, when two World Wars and a Great Depression demanded that individuals sacrifice for the greater good, the Mormon values of industry and community symbolized by the beehive were widely celebrated in American popular culture.
Given that the source of the term Deseret is the Book of Mormon, it isn’t surprising to find the beehive abundantly represented at Mormon religious sites and historic sites with religious significance.
The beehive was also an important means by which early Mormon Utahns represented their community to outsiders. When the nation’s states and territories each donated plaques to be installed in the Washington Monument in the mid-19th century, Utah sent this:But the beehive became a symbol of the government of the state of Utah, as well, despite the federal government’s pointed demands in the late 19th century that to earn statehood, the Saints must remove their religion from state governance. Perhaps its most frequent manifestation on the Utah landscape is on state highway signs.
The Hotel Utah, completed by the Church in Salt Lake City in 1911, is crowned by a beehive in combination with the ubiquitous symbols of the United States, the eagle and the American flag. This intentional combination of the symbols of the religious and the national community point to the fact that, as the Saints “Americanized” at the turn of the 20th century by increasingly separating church from state, they didn’t entirely capitulate to the demands of the federal government by envisioning their Mormon faith as separate from the workings of their government. Instead, the Saints blended the old symbols and the new in a striking visual representation of their firm belief that it was possible to be both a believing Latter-day Saint and a loyal American.
This symbolic symbiosis wasn’t made “official” by the state legislature until the 1950s – the height of the integration between the Saints and broader American culture in the mid-century Mormon Moment – but in fact it is as old as the state itself. When Utah was officially elevated to statehood in 1896, they adopted the state seal that remains unchanged in its essentials to this day:
The seal – and the state flag, designed in 1903 using the same basic elements as the seal – are visible, routinely physical signs that the Mormons may have been forced to give up their Kingdom of Deseret, but they did not intend to forget the ideal of community on which it was founded. That beehive may be widely regarded today as a symbol of industry and Yankee thrift, but it is also a powerful reminder of the centrality of the community in Mormon history and religion.
(It’s also a great object to put at the center of your version of travel bingo or a scavenger hunt the next time you go traveling out West.)
 Interestingly, the Deseret Stone was first brought to my attention by Arabic calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya, who had seen it while on a special tour of the interior of the monument. (Speaking of symbolism, Zakariya was there to see a plaque donated in the 19th century by the Turkish government.) He was fascinated by the Utah stone but didn’t know what the beehive represented; when he met me during a visit to Boston University and learned the subject of my research, one of his first questions was whether I could explain the symbolism of this plaque in the Washington Monument to him.