The Portrayal of Mormonism Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Portrayal of Mormonism

From the 1820s to the 1840s, the United States was swept by a wave of intense religious excitement, and it was during this period that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormon Church, had its beginnings. Joseph Smith, who became known as the Church's Prophet and First Elder, founded the church in 1830 with the publication of his monumental Book of Mormon. Considered the Bible of the Mormon church, The Book of Mormon not only is regarded as one of the most influential American religious works of the nineteenth century, but it also became the foundation upon which a large and powerful religious movement was built.

Smith, who was born in Vermont in 1805, was in the 1820s a young, religious man residing in New York when he began receiving a series of revelations. The two most important of these included a visitation from God and Jesus Christ, who informed Smith that he had been chosen to serve as the medium through which God's true kingdom would be restored on earth. The second visitation was from the angel Moroni, a resurrected prophet from an ancient civilization of the Western Hemisphere. According to Smith, Moroni's father, Mormon, had recorded a detailed history of these people, who had left Jerusalem and sought refuge in Central or South America in 600 B.C. Moroni hid his father's writings in a hill, then later appeared in a resurrected form to Smith to reveal the location of the manuscript. In 1827, Smith claimed to have unearthed a set of golden plates from Hill Cumorah (now known as “Mormon Hill”) in Manchester, New York. Using two “seer” stones, Smith translated the plates' hieroglyphic inscriptions; the result was The Book of Mormon.

Smith quickly began attracting followers as well as angry detractors. Early Mormons believed that to practice their religion and complete their mission of restoring the ancient doctrines and organization of Christ's church, they needed to live and work together in exclusive, self-sufficient communities. This aroused the suspicions of surrounding neighbors, who objected in part to the authoritarianism of the Mormons, the Mormon belief that only they possessed the means to salvation, and the fact that the Mormons typically established economic and political control wherever they settled. Anti-Mormon sentiment also revolved around the vigorous efforts by Mormons to convert “gentiles” (non-Mormons). As a result, Smith and his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) were pushed along by angry mobs during the 1830s from New York to Ohio and Missouri, and eventually to Illinois, where tens of thousands established the city of Nauvoo in 1840. In this largest city in the state, Smith was granted sole power over the church, and it was here that the Mormon leader began receiving the boldest revelations about the mission of the church, including the belief in plural marriage, or polygamy, in 1843. (The church did not publicly state its position on plural marriages until 1852.) In 1844, several Mormon dissidents published the first and only issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper denouncing Smith's personal behavior and political aspirations (he had earlier that year announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency). Smith responded by declaring martial law in the city and ordering the Nauvoo Legion to destroy the Expositor's press. State militia arrested Smith and his brother, Hyrum, on charges of treason. While in prison, both Smith and his brother were killed by a mob of more than 100 men.

Expelled from Nauvoo in 1846, the Mormon community then accepted the leadership of Brigham Young, who moved the church westward and eventually settled in 1848 in the Salt Lake Valley of the Rocky Mountains. During the next two decades, the largest religious migration in the Western world took place. Thousands upon thousands of converts came to this promised land called Deseret, arriving in covered wagons or pulling their belongings in handcarts. Many regarded their journey as a re-enactment of the Biblical Exodus, in which the Hebrew prophet Moses led the persecuted Israelites from Egypt through the wilderness to Canaan. Through harsh winters, drought-ridden summers, failed crops, Indian attacks, and imprisonment by those opposed to polygamy, these pioneer Mormons, unwavering in their belief in their mission, set about preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ by building a new Zion (a reference to a hill in Jerusalem where King David built his palace). By the end of the nineteenth century, though, perhaps due to limited economic opportunities in the West, church leaders began discouraging converts from making the exodus to Zion and instead encouraged them to “build up” the church in their own communities.

The literature of this early pioneer period in Mormon history (until about 1880) is mainly nontraditional, characterized by its focus on the restored gospel's opposition to a world filled with religious strife and irreverence. Of these early works, the most significant are those by Smith. Though the publication of The Book of Mormon was massive in terms of its role in establishing the Mormon Church, it also drew criticism. Smith was met with charges of plagiarism and characterized as a clever leader of misguided followers. The book also provoked bitter opposition from non-Mormon religious groups who considered themselves to be the true followers of Jesus Christ. In 1842 Smith published the “Articles of Faith” in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons. Achieving the status of canonized literature among the Mormon community, the work enumerates the faith of the Latter-Day Saints, detailing such issues as the creation of mankind, the role of the Holy Ghost and Jesus Christ, baptism and confirmation, and prayers. Although some historians believe that the list was created to clarify the LDS church's position on major religious subjects, others disagree, arguing that there is no evidence to support the fact that the work was written for “outsiders.”

This focus on issues within the church is mirrored in the many church periodicals published within the Mormon community, beginning with the Independence, Missouri, Evening and Morning Star in 1832. Early Mormon leaders found that one of the best ways to increase morale, maintain discipline, publicize efforts of missionaries, maintain contact, and promote unity within the church was to publish journals. Of these, most shared two common characteristics: an emphasis on promoting the continuance of the LDS church, and a focus on provincial issues, with little comment on the outside world. Among the many publications were the short-lived Listen to the Voice of Truth, the Deseret News, and the Millennial Star, the official church journal. The mission paper the Southern Star (1898-1900) was published at the Southern States Mission in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and reported on a church struggling to establish itself in a generally hostile environment. Articles encouraged tolerance and restraint among the missionaries, who faced threats of mob violence, and included practical advice on dealing with new and foreign cultures.

Among the most popular and successful papers was the Salt Lake City Keep-A-Pitchinin (1867-1871), one of the West's first illustrated and humorous periodicals. Its chief editor, “Uno Hoo,” was actually George J. Taylor, son of John Taylor, later president of the Latter-Day Saints. Written by men closely associated with church leaders, the often satirical Keep-A-Pitchinin targeted “New Movement” members, those opposed to theological fundamentalism and isolationism. Combining humorous pieces—including contributions from Mark Twain and Artemus Ward—with short jests, political cartoons, comical misspellings, and lively and deprecating wit, the Keep-A-Pitchinin ceased publication in 1871, soon after the disintegration of the New Movement. The Women's Exponent (1872-1914) was another popular periodical. Later replaced by the Relief Society Magazine, the official publication of the women's section of the LDS church, the Women's Exponent emphasized poetry, mainly due to the literary preferences of its first editors. Through verse, Mormon pioneer women such as Lula Greene Richards, Emmeline Wells, and Lucinda Lee Dalton asserted their feelings of self-worth and affirmed their gentility in an uncivilized and untamed wilderness. A large portion of the poetry revolved around the teachings of the LDS church or children and other family members.

During the nineteenth century, poetry served a crucial role in the Mormon community. Unlike novels and short stories, which were considered corruptive and therefore unacceptable, poetry could inspire the truth. Moreover, teaching the gospel through poetical language would result in a pure heart and an ennobled soul in its reader. The first book of poetry published by a member of the LDS church was The Harp of Zion (1853) by John Lyon, who became known as the unofficial poet of Mormonism in Great Britain. Born in Scotland, Lyon had worked for newspapers in Scotland, compiled collections of local poetry, and published poems in local papers before completing The Harp of Zion. Including songs, sonnets, hymns, and poems, The Harp of Zion marked the first time the church had financed and supported a book of poetry.

Poetry was not the only creative means by which the early Mormons expressed themselves. Folksongs as well as oral narratives circulated widely among the church community. Born out of poverty, the hardships of living in the wilderness, and limited means of entertainment, folksongs reveal an intense devotion to the church—to its leaders, its doctrines and teachings, and its origins. Folk narratives also revolve around the Mormon faith by retelling events of the pioneer era and the massive migration west, and instilling hope and encouragement among its members by recalling the sacrifices made by the church's founders.

From outside the Mormon community, however, negative perceptions prevailed. Many western historians blame fiction writers for perpetuating stereotypes of Mormons as superstitious, treasonous, and corrupt. From the mid-1840s to 1900, fiction writers produced more than eighty anti-Mormon novels along with countless numbers of anti-Mormon short stories and travel books. Among the first was Frederick Marryat's novel Monsieur Violet (1843), which features fictionalized encounters by the Danites. The historical Danites, a small group of Mormon men, originally organized themselves in Caldwell County, Missouri, in 1838, following several incidents of terrorism and thievery against the LDS church. Calling themselves the Brothers of Gideon, these men retaliated against the perpetrators as well as against those Mormon dissenters who had aided them. Later called the Danites, or the Destroying Angels, the group was short-lived, but provoked controversy both inside and outside the church during its brief life. Sensational novels such as Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1886), for which he later apologized, contributed to making the Danites synonymous with all Mormons.

Mormons were criticized in the press as well, perhaps most vehemently with regard to their position on polygamy, which mainstream America found morally corrupt. Inspired by the household relations of the Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac, polygamy was considered among the highest spiritual experiences within the church. As early as 1870, the federal government attempted to abolish polygamy, only to be met with a mass meeting of about five thousand Mormon women in support of the practice. Many women pointed out the practical advantages of plural marriages: shared child care, closer relationships among women, greater independence, and the alleviation of prostitution. However, historians have found evidence in the private writings of Mormon pioneer women indicating that these women faced tremendous emotional struggles in their attempts to live out the mandates of their faith while at the same time trying to create polygamous lifestyles within a monogamous culture. Finding the practice unconstitutional in the 1879 case Reynolds v. United States, the U.S. government began conducting polygamy raids throughout the LDS community, confiscating properties and jailing participants of plural marriages. The LDS church officially discontinued the practice in 1890.

After Utah became the forty-fifth state in 1896, the Mormon population experienced a period of adjustment to statehood as well as to American lifestyles and values. By the twentieth century, Mormon writers were detailing changes the church was facing: the breakdown of isolationism as the church continued to expand outside its traditional cultural center of the American West, and the depopulation of rural Mormonism.