“This is the right place,” Brigham Young said in 1847 when he and a small band of Mormon pioneers arrived at the edge of the Great Salt Lake. After three failed attempts to establish a religious community, the Latter Day Saints founded Salt Lake City as a “New Zion.” Here, they would finally be free to practice their faith, free of the violent harrassment they endured in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Although slightly more than half of Salt Lake City’s nearly 1.1 million people identify as Mormon today, the Church continues to take steps to ensure that this emphasis on religious freedom is not lost. With Salt Lake City’s increasingly diverse religious landscape, this charge is becoming all the more important—and complex.
Once a persecuted religious minority, Mormons quickly became the majority in the Utah territory. Construction of the Salt Lake Temple began in 1853. Today, Temple Square occupies thirty-five acres in downtown Salt Lake and is home to the headquarters of the LDS Church. Other important historical sites within the Mormon tradition are nearby, such as the LDS History Museum, the Family Tree Center, Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Brigham Young’s house, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Utah is located at the confluence of the Basin and Range, the Rocky Mountains, and the Colorado Plateau; here, water, desert, and mountains meet. The region has been—and continues to be—a confluence of different groups from around the world. Japanese immigrants began arriving in Utah in 1899 to work the railroads, mines, and farms. Greek Orthodox and Italian Catholic immigrants have a long history in the region for similar reasons. The Japanese community established a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist congregation in 1912, now known as the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple. Today, Buddhism is the largest minority faith present in Salt Lake City, with nearly twenty centers. The Japanese Buddhist community recently celebrated 100 years of Buddhist life in the heartland of Mormonism with a “Walking the Path of Enlightenment” event.
The Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake was founded in the 1980s as the first Islamic organization in the state. The founding of Masjid Al-Noor, the city’s first mosque followed, although the Muslim community quickly outgrew the old church building that housed their first meetings. Today, there are several mosques and the Muslim community in Salt Lake City continues to grow, its numbers bolstered by refugees from Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East.
Two Hindu temples serve the Greater Salt Lake community, in addition to the Indian Cultural Center of Utah which hosts annual dance, art, and music events. In 2001, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints donated $25,000 and volunteer labor to help build the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah in South Jordan. Today, Sri Ganesha is thriving and regularly serves more than 250 families.
This gesture of goodwill and friendship from the LDS Church to the Hindu community was seen by many as a positive move, especially since relations between the Church and other faith groups in Salt Lake City can be contentious. Members of the LDS Church have reported feeling attacked for their faith while outsiders have reported feeling ostracized. When the City of Salt Lake sold part of Main Street to the Church, which then instituted speech and behavior restrictions, First Unitarian Church sued, seeking to preserve freedom of speech on the plaza. Some groups in Salt Lake City also see themselves as uniquely positioned to offer former Mormons a new community to call their own. Specific programming for this population currently exists within the Unitarian Universalist, Bahá’í, Atheist, and Pagan communities.
Since the Winter Olympics in 2002, Temple Square has hosted an annual Interfaith Music Tribute presented by the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, one of several interfaith initiatives in the city. As Olympic athletes poured into Salt Lake from around the world, they were greeted by a city already global. Since then, residents have continued to work together so that Salt Lake City is the “right place” for promoting the spirit of the games—“love, harmony, and understanding”—for years to come.
Salt Lake City, bordered by the Wasatch Mountains to the north and east and the Oquirrh Mountains to the west, was founded by a group of Mormons led by Brigham Young; the city remains the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Skiing is a popular tourist attraction for the “Crossroads of the West” which hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. This city of just over 186,000 residents has a metro area ten times that size and is the epicenter for industrial banking in the United States. Temple Square, home to the iconic symbols of the Mormon tradition—the Salt Lake Temple and the Salt Lake Tabernacle—dominates the religious landscape of the city; however, a diversity of traditions is evident throughout the city in, among others, the presence of eight Buddhist communities, four Islamic mosques, and three Pagan organizations.
The interfaith infrastructure of Salt Lake City offers unique and often innovative approaches to facilitating understanding across religious difference. Such initiatives include Quilters without Borders, an interfaith quilting circle; and the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy which seeks to “build respect, good will, and trust between people in religious or ideological disagreements” by “taking the opportunity to speak forthrightly the truth one holds dear and listening carefully to different points of view.” Utah Interfaith Power and Light, profiled in this section, promotes understanding of different faiths and environmental concerns through its annual “Music and Sermon Awards.”
Utah Interfaith Power and Light
Promising Practice: Combating Climate Change and Promoting Religious Diversity
Directory of Religious Centers in Salt Lake City
The Pluralism Project is no longer updating its directory of religious centers outside of Boston, but you can find an archive of the Salt Lake City directory here.