While I certainly don’t think Mormons are the only religious group shown in a negative light in popular media, I’ll freely admit to being sensitive to the way my religious heritage is portrayed. Perhaps that’s because the depictions are so rarely positive.
This past weekend, the AMC show “Hell on Wheels” premiered its third season. The series, set during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the late 1860s, has been favorably received by critics and viewers alike.
(**Spoiler alert** Stop reading now if you don’t want to know some major plot points of the episode.)
In the second half of the two-part opener, we meet Mr. Hatch, the father of a large polygamous Mormon family. The law of the land allows the railroad to claim his property through eminent domain and when a work-around can’t be found, he shoots and kills the law enforcement officer who comes to notify him that the family must leave their homestead. The head of the railroad crew returns with a regiment of soldiers, and Mr. Hatch turns his teenage son over to them, insisting that it was the boy who shot the police chief. He then watches as his son hangs for the murder. Mr. Hatch’s actions were brash and cowardly, and certainly not representative of Mormons then or now.
While I don’t relish seeing despicable characters who just happen to be Mormon, I can make allowances for the fact that there are both admirable and not-so-admirable people to be found in every group, organization and religion. However, over the course of the episode, Mormons as a people were described as “nasty,” “violent,” and “not a legitimate church of Christ.” Several characters said that they “treat[ed] their women as slaves,” took “child brides,” and were “without moral principles.” While that was all standard public opinion for the time, it’s simply not accurate and feeds into hurtful stereotypes, some of which continue to this day. At best you could say that those statements painted with a very broad brush what may have accurately described some individuals, but hardly an entire people.
In addition, Mr. Hatch’s statement that his family wouldn’t survive without him (his supposed justification for sacrificing his son in his stead) was rather ridiculous, too. A significant number of LDS women homesteaded and raised their families without their husbands for long periods of time, whether they were dead, away on missions, or absent for other reasons.
Another historical point to make: twice in the episode characters mentioned that Mormons of the time weren’t “keen on Negroes.” While most didn’t consider themselves abolitionists, Mormons were anti-slavery. Joseph Smith made that part of his platform when he ran for president in 1844. Mormons weren’t, as a group, much more progressive than the mainstream on racial issues, but they weren’t any more antagonistic toward blacks than the general populace of the time either.
For the most part, the Latter-day Saints welcomed the railroad coming through Utah, in large part because it provided jobs. They desperately needed the money after several years of drought and poor crop yields. Brigham Young negotiated contracts for thousands of Mormons to work on both Central Pacific and Union Pacific crews in Utah. The Mormon workers were, by all reports, among the most hard-working, productive and non-violent railroad employees in either company, quite a contrast to the real-life “hell on wheels” towns, where bloody altercations, drunkenness, prostitution, gambling, and even murder were rampant.
Making the reprehensible Mr. Hatch a Mormon was lazy storytelling and added nothing of value to the plotline. It was the writers’ shorthand attempt at a nefarious backstory for the episode’s antagonist, based on caricatures and stereotypes. The history of Mormonism provides a treasure trove of fascinating people like Martha Hughes Cannon, Emmeline B. Wells, my own illustrious ancestor Cornelius Peter Lott, and, yes, even a few scoundrels like Porter Rockwell. I’d love to see someone in popular media brave enough to delve into the richness of these imperfect and compelling real human beings and use them as patterns for a character who happens to be a Latter-day Saint, instead of settling for the tired old “evil Mormons” trope.