I began researching the early years of Las Vegas Latter-day Saint history in the early 21st century, culminating in A Gamble in the Desert: The Mormon Mission in Las Vegas (1855-1857), published in 2005. This book coincided with the sesquicentennial commemoration of the “Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort” as well as the centennial anniversary of the city which never sleeps.
Years later, I determined to highlight the history and influence Latter-day Saints have had in the Las Vegas region up to the present time. This led me makes multiple trips to the wonderful Special Collections at UNLV’s Lied Library. Not only does it have a treasure chest full of valuable manuscripts, but it also has a wonderful, helpful staff.
I have enjoyed plying my way through their documents, biographical files, local newspapers, oral history interviews, and especially the voluminous Elbert B. Edwards Papers as a recent Eadington Research Fellow. My lecture and forthcoming book, Bright Lights in the Desert: The Latter-day Saints of Las Vegas, culled from such sources as these, as well as more than 100 local interviews this past year, has uncovered the tremendous impact the Saints have had in various areas of the community, including politics, education, business, entertainment, cultural refinement, and family stability.
Positioned at the base of Sunrise Mountain, the stunning LDS temple, erected in 1989, was visited by about 300,000 local citizens of varied faiths prior to the dedication. Today this sacred edifice stands as a beacon to this desert oasis in stark contrast to the remnants of the old Mormon Fort and is a source of light and spiritual nourishment for Latter-day Saint Church members now numbering more than 105,000 in this metropolitan region. Though they represent only about 6% of the population, they are among the most influential body of citizens in an expanding community numbering more than two million people. This lecture unfolds the inspiring story of their impressive influence in the Las Vegas metropolitan region.
Well-known Las Vegas journalists Jon Ralston and John L. Smith described the Latter-day Saint impact on their community from their perspective. Ralston, observed, their “influence has been pervasive because it’s been so broad and so deep." And he added, "They were known for standing up, men of moral rectitude.
Smith has noted, "You cannot say that Las Vegas would be anywhere near what it is today with that tremendous influence of some very dedicated people who happen to be Mormon in faith and practice … I don’t think there’s an area of Las Vegas life that has not been touched by the LDS faith. . . participating and organizing in the community. . . focusing on public education … values that are so important to a community if you’re going to put down roots … I think the[ir] greatest contribution is stability. …To have members of the community that are stabilizing influencers, can’t be overstated, it’s so important."
Perhaps former U.S. Senator Richard Bryan said it best in summarizing their influence: "The LDS community has had a profound impact on southern Nevada. Dating back to the early founding of the mission in 1855 here in Las Vegas and the growth of the community largely in the early days …They brought with them strong family values. They brought with them the virtue of hard work, discipline, all of which is part of a value system that even those who were not members of the church, but always it was family. Family was first, not second, not third and the family structure impresses all. We don’t understand necessarily the theological roots of the belief, but the family values, the civic responsibility. In effect, they’re good people who helped to make Las Vegas a good city for all of us to live in."
Latter-day Saint contributions to the Las Vegas milieu demonstrates the symbiotic relationship forged between a conservative sect and a vibrant ecumenical community. Along with many other faith-based peoples of various cultures and denominations, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have helped bring family values, morality, community service, wholesomeness, and stability to the Vegas environment.