Segment from Tapped Out

Old Time Religion

In this listener call, the hosts talk about how water played an important part in American religion and spirituality, from baptism traditions and the “sublime” power of water, to Mormon settlers’ irrigation in Utah.

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*** The following transcript reflects an earlier broadcast of this episode. Some language may differ from the rebroadcast version. ***

ED AYERS: We’re back with BackStory, the show that looks to history to understand the America of today. I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN BALOGH: I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER ONUF: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about how past generations have sought out and struggled over the fresh water they’ve needed to live. While we were putting the show together, we got a comment on our website from a listener named Anastasia in Newark, Delaware, and we’ve invited her to join us on the phone. Welcome to the show.

ANASTASIA: Hi. Thanks so much for having me on, guys. I’m really curious to hear about religion and water. I’ve done some reading about how the Mormons in Utah were able to distribute water equitably within their society, using their highly theocratic social structure.

I’m wondering how religion and maybe larger spirituality has interacted with these more practical questions of water, as well as more spiritual questions of water’s role in the landscape.

ED AYERS: Anything else, Anastasia? [LAUGHS]

PETER ONUF: All right. So water management, Anastasia wants to know about water management and religion. And I’d say, water use, well, lots of religions use water, but it’s not been a scarce resource in most parts of the country.

ED AYERS: You know, it’s interesting. People would perhaps wonder why the Mormons would go to what was literally the middle of nowhere in the North American context at that time. Part of it was to flee the persecution that they’d endured ever since their creation.

But part of it, too, was if you could go to, it’s Salt Lake City. If you can control all that water that’s flowing into there, it’s a source of cohesion for the community itself. It draws boundaries. The very aridity of the area around it acts as a buffer to protect the Mormon community from outsiders.

PETER ONUF: And it seems to me, too, it’s also a landscape that would evoke biblical lands, and of the struggles of the Hebrews. It would give them a very unique history that seemed almost timeless, going back to the scriptures of the Christian faith.

ED AYERS: Now, of course, none of this protected them. As soon as non-Mormons, the Gentiles, arrived, a contest over water began, Anastasia. So I do think that water, just as you suggest, played a critical role in Mormon history and in the West.

But I think that it gave them advantage for a while. But then, I think it was another source of conflict with those who would surround them.

PETER ONUF: But your emphasis, Anastasia, on theocracy is important, because we’re talking about self-governance among a community of believers, and the kind of power that gives to the community to impose regulations on members of that community.

ED AYERS: It gave them leverage, Peter.

PETER ONUF: It gave them leverage.

ANASTASIA: I’m wondering if any Native American tribes might have used religious right as a defense to traditional fishing zones. I don’t think that’s been a factor in the debates over the salmon, as far as I know, but do you know if that’s occurred anywhere else?

PETER ONUF: Yeah, well, there was a great debate in the Southwest over the Black Mesa. The native people there, the Hopi and the Navajo, were concerned that a mining operation was using water from the aquifer deep below the mesa, in order to send coal fragments and dust to Los Angeles.

So here is a striking case of a Native American approach to the cosmos, to the whole big thing, the ecology that any water taken away would be at the expense of their obligations to each other, and to their understanding of the divine order.

ANASTASIA: And so I guess the limitations of both the Mormon and the Native American approaches, as well, that water distribution might have worked fine within their community, in neither instance was it able to combine with the mainstream America, or spread the benefits outside the community.

PETER ONUF: I like the mainstream idea, Anastasia. That was terrific. We’re going to go with the flow on that one. But you’re exactly right, it’s water management within communities. And water is sacred for some Native Americans, and it’s the source of life in many native cosmologies.

I think for The Mormons, it’s more a question of technology of control, of management of a scarce resource.

ED AYERS: I wonder if there’s any religion in the world that doesn’t have a strong affinity with water. If you think about Hinduism, obviously the sacred rivers, and so forth. It just strikes me that there must be something psychological about water coming on springs, and religion speaking of the unknown.

PETER ONUF: I think that’s right, Ed, although in Christianity, it tends to be channeled into a specific rite of baptism, associated with purity. In folk religions, in Native American cosmologies, it’s much more a central part of the universe. It’s integral to everything else.

I think in modern Christian religion, it tends to be compartmentalized, channeled narrowly into that one ritual.

ED AYERS: Well, it’s actually a great example, because baptism needs to be conducted within an enclosed space. I actually have a picture of my father being baptized in a river in North Carolina, in the mountains, in the 1930s. At Riverside Baptist Church, I kid you not.

But by the time that I went there with my grandmother in the 1950s and ’60s, instead, you had a painting of a river in front of, basically, a pool of water. So I believe that there’s some belief that the water, if it’s not contained, really can’t have the sanctification that it needs to have baptism, Peter.

So it’s interesting to think that, just to bear out what you’re saying, is that the role of water even in Christianity, even in Protestant Christianity, where water is not supposedly holy in the way that is in the Catholic church, where its bounds are and how it’s channeled have been a subject of debate.

BRIAN BALOGH: Have we quenched your thirst for knowledge, Anastasia?

ANASTASIA: Oh, I am drowning in this excess of answers. Thank you.

PETER ONUF: Well, thank you, Anastasia, for your great call. We’ve enjoyed talking with you.

ED AYERS: It’s like a cold splash of water right on your face. Thanks, Anastasia.