Every year, on the 24th of July, people line the streets of Salt Lake and other Utah communities to wave the American flag in honor of the arrival of the Latter-day Saint pioneers to the Great Basin. Yet, when the Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley they chose to wave a very different flag—not the flag of the American nation, but a religious banner that some have called the Flag of the Kingdom of God. Just two days after the pioneers arrived in the valley, church president Brigham Young and several other men climbed Ensign Peak, north of where downtown Salt Lake now stands, and declared that one day they would plant an ensign there that represented God's Kingdom. To symbolize that promise they hoisted one of the men's yellow handkerchiefs into the air and let it flap in the breeze.
Later the official Flag of the Kingdom was designed and displayed around town, often on the 4th and 24th of July holidays. It resembled the American flag in some ways—it had stripes and stars—but it was just blue and white. No red. Later, another version of the flag was made that didn’t even have stripes—only stars.
So why were the pioneers flying a different flag than Old Glory? Weren't they patriotic? Many Mormons during the 1800s actually were fed up with the federal government. They believed the nation had become corrupted and that American politicians were conspiring to oppress them. Struggles between the government and the church over polygamy just fed the fire. On the 4th of July, 1885, church president John Taylor ordered American flags on church property to be flown at half staff to protest the government's persecution of Mormon polygamists. Apostle Orson Hyde even predicted the nation's destruction and threatened to resign his American citizenship. Over time, tempers cooled, but at least for a while in the 1800s, members of the LDSChurch seemed more comfortable with flying their own flag than the Stars and Stripes on Pioneer Day.
Image: The Flag of Utah, American Flag and Deseret Flag at Ensign Peak Nature Park. July 1, 2015. In 1849, Brigham Young selected Ensign Peak to raise the banner of the Kingdom of God of the State of Deseret. Courtesy of Chris Detrick for the Salt Lake Tribune.
See D. Michael Quinn. “The Flag of the Kingdom of God,” BYU Studies 14 (1973): 105-114. Also see Susan Staker, ed., Waiting for World’s End: The Diaries of Wilford Woodruff (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993); George D. Smith, An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995); David L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998), esp chaps. 1 and 16. Also see accounts of this event in the following editions of the Salt Lake Tribune: March 18, 1910 and March 27, 1910.