Counterintuitive Saints

On March 9, 2014 · 3 Comments

I stumbled upon the history of St. George, the city in Utah. I was surprised to learn that its name had nothing to do with the Saint George I assumed it referenced. By using the title "counterintuitive saints" I meant counterintuitive to me. I realize some of these examples might sound completely natural to others in the 12MC community arriving from different perspectives.

St. George



St. George, Utah, USA

The story of Saint George, the one more familiar to me, was attributed to a Roman soldier during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. This marked a period of particularly intense and brutal persecution of Christians. By tradition, Saint George professed his faith to Diocletian, whereupon the emperor ordered his death. As Catholic Online noted: "Pictures of St. George usually show him killing a dragon to rescue a beautiful lady. The dragon stands for wickedness. The lady stands for God’s holy truth. St. George was a brave martyr who was victorious over the devil."

His veneration spread throughout much of medieval Europe and he came to be acknowledged as the patron saint of England sometime around the Eleventh Century: "The banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers possibly in the reign of Richard 1, and later became the flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy."



St. George Utah Temple by J Brew on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

I’d assumed that St. George — the city in Utah — must have been connected back to England somehow. Perhaps, although the name clearly was not. The saintly namesake of St. George turned out to be George A. Smith (1817-1875), an early leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and a First Counselor to Brigham Young. He had numerous descendants including a grandson George Albert Smith who became an important Mormon figure in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

My apologies in advance to followers of the LDS church, as no offense is intended. I don’t know how sainthood works within the Mormon faith, and whether it included a formalized vetting process or whether the title came to be applied as an honorific or as a more general term of art. The larger point was my surprise at finally understanding that a city of a hundred-thousand residents traced its name independent of England and/or any supposed slaying of dragons.

However that led me to wonder if there might be other places in Utah named "St. Something-or-Other" for early Church leaders. I found a small handful of additional possibilities in the US Geographic Names Information System.


St. John



St. John, Utah, USA

My intuition and upbringing also lead me to assume that just about any place in the United States called St. John would have derived its inspiration from Saint John the Apostle. Certainly there were other Johns who came to be sainted in various faiths although most of them would have had qualifiers appended to their names as differentiators, as in the case of Saint John the Baptist (e.g., the Parish in Louisiana).

St. John was once an independent town in Utah, still recognized as a place name by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names although merged with other locations in the 1930′s to form the amalgamated town of Rush Valley. In a Mormon context, this particular Saint John referred to John Rowberry (1823-1884), presiding and first LDS Bishop of Tooele County. From the Latter-Day Saints Biographical Encyclopedia (1901):

He emigrated from England with one of the first companies of Saints that came to Nauvoo from England… He crossed the plains in 1849 in Ezra T. Benson’s company, and in the fall of the same year moved into Tooele valley, and made his home, together with a few others… He presided over the people in Tooele valley as their Bishop until the county was organized into a Stake of Zion, in 1877.


(Saint) Elmo



(St.?) Elmo, Utah, USA

Elmo, Utah had a couple of name variations, one saintly and one not. Neither explanation had anything to do with anyone Mormon, though.

Catholic Online provided a brief description of Saint Elmo as it applied within its Church:

St. Erasmus (St. Elmo)… He was the bishop of Formiae, Campagna, Italy, and suffered martyrdom during Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians… one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers… Legend records that when a blue light appears at mastheads before and after a storm, the seamen took it as a sign of Erasmus’s protection. This was known as “St. Elmo’s fire”.

That source also mentioned Elmo as a patron saint of "stomach cramps and colic" in addition to sailors.

The first origination theory for the Utah placename failed to mention sainthood whatsoever. This was offered by the government of Emery County, where Elmo was founded in 1908. Elmo, in its opinion, was an acronym formed by the names of four early families that settled there.

Erickson
Larsen
Mortensen
Oviatt

The second explanation verged on folklore. The US Board on Geographic Names listed Saint Elmo as a variant name for Elmo as recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1941, part of the Depression-era Work Projects Administration. Supposedly the name reflected a wildly-popular romance novel written by Augusta Jane Evans in 1866 titled, as one might expect, St. Elmo. The book title came from a primary character, St. Elmo Murray. He was no saint, LDS or otherwise (book) (synopsis).

As noted on Evans’ Wikipedia entry,

Within four months it sold a million copies… So popular was this novel that it inspired the naming of towns, hotels, steamboats, and a cigar brand… It ranks as one of the most popular novels of the 19th century.



This would have been my third theory
Own photo, taken at 2013 White House Easter Egg Roll

Was St. Elmo a realistic variant of Elmo? Who knows. However, I preferred the tantalizing acronym anyway because it had the backing of local government and because I appreciate odd explanations.

There was one final saintly Utah community, Saint Albans (location). I couldn’t find any information beyond its GNIS citation.

The final tally: two Sainted communities in Utah named for LDS leaders; one definitely not; and one unknown.

On March 9, 2014 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Counterintuitive Saints”

  1. Daniel says:

    FYI, sainthood as it is commonly understood does not apply to anyone in the LDS church. Instead, saint is a term used to refer to a member of the church in general, hence the full name of the church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. (See http://mormon.org/faq for more info.)

  2. Craig says:

    Deseret News beat you to the punch on this in the following article: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/680197285/St-George-likely-named-after-an-LDS-apostle.html

    They note that St. David, Arizona, and St. Charles, Idaho are also named after members of the LDS Church.

    As a former Mormon, I can tell you that while all members of the church are referred to as Latter-day Saints, the word “saint” is not used as a title nor is there a canonization process, so the usage here is a bit weird, particularly when there are more important LDS figures one would expect to rank higher in list of meriting honors.

    And that being said, there are places like Brigham City, Heber City, Hyrum, and Iosepa, Utah – the last of which comes from the Hawaiian form of the name Joseph. This blog post has a lot more information on Utah places named for LDS figures and religious terms: http://mysteryofutahhistory.blogspot.com/2013/05/religious-place-names-dominate-utah.html

  3. TB says:

    There is a St. Joe, Ark. Not St. Joseph, but St. Joe.

    According to the town’s website, http://www.stjoearkansas.org/History.html, it got its name after mail for a bunch of miners from St. Joseph, Mo., overwhelmed the local post office.

    Its original name was Monkey Run.

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