Church History
Columbian Exposition of 1893
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“Columbian Exposition of 1893,” Church History Topics

“Columbian Exposition of 1893,” Church History Topics

Columbian Exposition of 1893

The city of Chicago, Illinois, hosted a cultural celebration in 1893 that organizers and the popular press billed as one of the foremost cosmopolitan events of the century. For six months, the World’s Columbian Exposition, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas, attracted millions of visitors from around the globe to its mile-wide campus of over 200 buildings, hundreds of exhibits, and a series of conferences and banquets.

Over seven thousand Latter-day Saints from Utah Territory attended the fair hoping to represent their religious and civic culture in person, help overcome lingering prejudices, and lobby for statehood. 1 Their participation in various events brought audience acclaim, exhibition prizes, and favorable press during a time of hostility toward the Saints, who had committed only three years earlier to bring the practice of plural marriage to an end. 2 The goodwill they received persuaded Church leaders and members to increase their public relations efforts and forge alliances within the larger society. 3

Two years before the fair, the Utah Territorial Legislature won a bid from the Exhibition to erect a “Utah Building” on the fairgrounds and host its own exhibits. The legislature appointed a commission that designed the building and several exhibits showcasing Utah’s agriculture, mines, manufactures, arts, archaeology, education, and women’s work. 4

World's Fair

Attendees pictured around a statue of Brigham Young in front of the Utah Building at the 1893 World’s Fair.

In addition to the exhibits, Latter-day Saints participated in conference events and competitions. Leaders from the Relief Society, Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, and Primary Association joined in the World’s Congress of Representative Women, where they met in conference with several prominent women’s organizations, including the National Council of Women of the United States. 5 After one session, suffrage leaders made impromptu speeches praising Latter-day Saint women’s work and subsequently selected Emmeline B. Wells, general secretary of the Relief Society and editor of the Woman’s Exponent, as one of two honorary session presidents. 6 Wells and other Latter-day Saint women cultivated lasting relationships with other female leaders.

A competition of renowned choirs invited the Tabernacle Choir to participate, and though initially reluctant, director Evan Stephens selected 250 of the 400 volunteer singers to perform in Chicago. 7 The choir scheduled performances along the train route to raise funds for travel and accommodations, a model for later concert tours. Before an audience of 10 thousand, the Choir sang three numbers in the mixed-voices competition, for which they were awarded the second-place silver medal. Newspaper critics praised the performance particularly for the skill of Stephens’s direction and the professional sound of the all-volunteer group. Soon after the competition, the Choir sang at the dedication ceremony of the Liberty Bell in Chicago. The Choir’s rendition of national hymns cemented its early reputation as a premier patriotic musical group. 8

Scene in Festival Hall, Columbian World's Fair 1893 Sept. 8

The Tabernacle Choir performing in the Festival Hall, Chicago, 1893.

One of the largest side events was the World’s Parliament of Religions, a conference that hosted representatives from 10 major religious traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While the conference billed itself as globally inclusive, many groups, including African American, Latin American, American Indian, and other indigenous nations, were hardly represented, and Latter-day Saints were excluded. After concerted lobbying, B. H. Roberts, a member of the Seventy, received an invitation to speak but was reassigned during the conference to a minor venue. 9 After organizers denied Roberts’s request to address the main assembly, Roberts withdrew. Still, he and members of the First Presidency attended the sessions and heard from religious leaders from around the world, some whose traditions they were encountering for the first time. Church President Wilford Woodruff, his counselor George Q. Cannon, and others who attended left the Parliament with deeper respect for world religions and appreciated some striking points of similarity to the teachings of Jesus Christ. 10

Throughout the Exhibition, the Utah Building entertained visitors and received positive attention from awards committees and the larger press. The successes of the Utah exhibits, conference events, and choir performances left most Latter-day Saint participants encouraged and eager to expand their public relations activities back in Salt Lake City. Leaders and members of the Church began to speak in terms of mutual admiration for the family and civic values of other religious groups. The Church continued to participate in later World’s Fairs and large exhibitions into the 21st century. 11

Related Topics: Utah, Women’s Suffrage, Tabernacle Choir, Emmeline B. Wells, B. H. Roberts

Notes

  1. See Topic: Utah.

  2. See Topic: Manifesto.

  3. Reid L. Neilson, Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 7–8.

  4. Neilson, Exhibiting Mormonism, 60.

  5. See Topics: Relief Society, Young Women Organizations, Primary, Retrenchment, Women’s Suffrage.

  6. See Topic: Emmeline B. Wells.

  7. See Topic: Tabernacle Choir.

  8. Neilson, Exhibiting Mormonism, 117–37.

  9. See Topic: B. H. Roberts.

  10. Neilson, Exhibiting Mormonism, 172; Reid L. Neilson, “Joseph Smith and Nineteenth-Century Mormon Mappings of Asian Religions,” in Reid L. Neilson and Terryl L. Givens, eds., Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 216–20; see also Topics: Wilford Woodruff, George Q. Cannon.

  11. See Neilson, Exhibiting Mormonism; J. B. Haws, The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 23–25.