Family fled 'Promised Land'

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mr-and-mrs-mcaslan-wTHE story of a man from a Glen Fruin farming family who became a Mormon in 1848, emigrated to America six years later, then fled from his religion was told in a book published in the United States in 2009.

Historian Polly Aird, who lives in Seattle, Washington, wrote ‘Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector, A Scottish Immigrant in the American West, 1848-61' about her great great uncle Peter McAuslan.

Mormon missionaries travelled to Scotland to spread the faith in the mid-1840s, and Peter was a convert.

Polly said: "The uncertainty his family faced in a rapidly industrialising economy, the political turmoil erupting across Europe, the welter of competing religions — all were signs of the imminent end of time, the missionaries warned.

"For those who would journey to a new Zion in the American West, opportunity and spiritual redemption awaited. When Peter McAuslan converted in 1848, he believed he had found a faith that would give his life meaning."

Six years later he and his wife Agnes emigrated to Utah, enduring a harrowing trans-Atlantic crossing and a very difficult journey across America to reach what they considered to be the Promised Land of Salt Lake City and to join other members of their family who had been there for several years.

They found famine, droughts and locusts, and it did not take long before Peter's doubts about the religious community he had so enthusiastically joined began to grow. U.S. Army troops were also threatening as the American government was concerned about the Mormon influence on the Indians.

Polly says: "Mormon leaders responded with fiery sermons attributing their trials to divine retribution for backsliding and sin. When the leaders countenanced violence and demanded absolute obedience, Peter McAuslan decided to abandon his adopted faith.

"With his family, and escorted by a U.S. Army detachment for protection, he fled to California."

Polly — who has written a number of award-winning articles on Mormon history — had access to Peter's own writing, and the book presents a rare portrait of a man in whom religious enthusiasm clashed with indignation at absolute religious authority and fear of the consequences of dissent.

Local historian Alistair McIntyre from Garelochhead, a director of Helensburgh Heritage Trust, has also researched the McAuslan family history.

He says: "The McAuslans trace their origins to Glen Fruin and the surrounding glens. At least as far back as the 14th century, there were McAuslan farmers and landowners in the area.

"Family tradition tells of kinship with a line of Baron McAuslans. Although not mentioned in the book — the publishers required the Scottish part of the work to be greatly condensed — family lore includes an account, quoted by several writers, which links the naming of Luss to the McAuslans.

"Family tradition also tells of how fortunes eventually declined, with the last of their lands being sold off, probably around 1700, though the McAuslans continued to farm as tenants.

"The last family link with the land was at Stuckiedow Farm in Glen Fruin. Peter's grandfather, the last tenant, worked the land in a traditional way, combining stock-raising with the growing of crops.

"However, as with others in a similar position, there came a point where he could no longer compete with the higher rentals offered by large-scale sheep farmers, and gave up the tenancy. The book does not give a date for when this happened, but it may have been around 1800."

Like his father and grandfather before him, Peter entered the textile industry, moving around the west of Scotland to wherever there was work. He was a pattern designer and more than capable. Examples of his patterns survive, demonstrating the elegance and complexity of his work.

In 1850, when living in Barrhead, Peter met Agnes McAuslin, a 20 year-old power loom worker. Along with most members of her family, she had converted to Mormonism the year before Peter. Although there was a slight difference in the spelling of the surname, it may be that she was a distant relative.

Their relationship developed, and increasingly they thought about a future in America. Peter's parents, and some other family members, left for the United States in 1853. Initially, Peter and Agnes were also to go, but they remained behind for a year, probably to amass more savings.

Peter, who had been ordained as an elder in 1851, and Agnes sailed with her brother, John McAuslin, by steamship from the Clyde to Liverpool, where they boarded a sailing ship, the John M.Wood, for the Atlantic voyage. Just before leaving Liverpool, the couple married.

mormon_emigrantsThe ship, which had been chartered for the Mormons, had 400 passengers, and morale was high.

A school was set up, there was plenty of work, like sewing wagon covers, and, being surrounded by like-minded people, faith must also have greatly encouraged the travellers.

On the other hand, storms, indifferent food, and the deaths of six people, brought home the perils of sea travel.

Nevertheless, the voyage to New Orleans was completed in 51 days, quicker than expected. An arduous five-month wagon journey to Utah followed.

Alistair says: "Settling down to his new life, Peter gained employment as a labourer. Work was hard, but spirits were high. Soon, there was further joy in the form of an addition to the family, when in February 1855, a son was born to Peter and Agnes.

"That winter proved very mild, and it became possible to start planting crops and putting stock to pasture in the same month the child was born. In addition to farming work, Peter was also helping to build the foundations of the Temple.

“Although life was tough, prospects seemed encouraging."

But in 1856 the couple were devastated by the death of their son Peter Alexander at the age of 19 months. They were also beginning to have doubts about the Mormon discipline and encouragement of polygamy, but the next year Peter was ordained as a member of one of the powerful Quorums of Seventy, being called soon after as a teacher.

However the following year the Federal Army was allowed to enter Salt Lake City peacefully. Meetings of Quorums of Seventies were held, and many members were excommunicated. One of those cut off was Peter McAuslan.

Knowing that it was dangerous to be labelled ‘apostate', Peter and others decided their only option was to leave under army protection. Peter decided to leave with his wife and children — after the death of their first born, there were two additions to the family — along with his parents, two unmarried brothers and a married brother with his wife and children.

Before their departure in May 1859, Peter and several other family members took an oath of U.S. citizenship. Travelling with 200 other disaffected people, they reached their destination, California, in August, after an exhausting journey.

Peter and Agnes spent the rest of their lives there as farmers in Sacramento Valley, where he died in 1908, a month before his 85th birthday.

Alistair says: "While never regretting the decision to renounce the Mormon faith, Peter wrote of his respect for their people, observing that he had found individual Mormons to be as good people as anyone he had known anywhere.

“He acknowledged, too, that many had had their faith strengthened by their experiences."

The story of the man who loved Mormonism, then left it, is told in a 320-page hardback book published by The Arthur H.Clark Co. of Norman, Oklahoma, at £25.

The product of 18 years of research, the book was inspired by the large collection of books, journals, letters and other materials kept by Peter, although many other sources have been drawn upon — including the vast archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which were made fully available.