The Portrayal of Mormonism Essay - Critical Essays

The Portrayal of Mormonism


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.

Representative Works

Arthur Conan Doyle
A Study in Scarlet (novel) 1886

Orson Hyde
A Cry from the Wilderness (theology) 1842

John Lyon
The Harp of Zion (poetry) 1853

Frederick Marryat
Monsieur Violet: His Travels and Adventures among the Snake Indians. 3 vols. (novel) 1843

Cincinnatus Hiner Miller
First Fam’lies of the Sierras (novel) 1875

Orson Pratt
Interesting Accounts of Several Remarkable Visions (theology) 1840

Parley Parker Pratt
A Voice of Warning: An Introduction to the Faith and Doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (religious...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Criticism: Overview

SOURCE: “Pioneers and Recapitulation in Mormon Popular Historical Expression,” in Usable Pasts: Traditions and Group Expressions in North America, edited by Tad Tuleja, Utah State University Press, 1997, pp. 175-211.

[In the following excerpt, Eliason examines the role of the “pioneer myth” in Mormon history, recounting the events leading to the emergence of the religion and detailing the vast exodus across the American West made by early members of the church.]

Few events serve better than a duress-induced migration to forge a people's identity and provide a defining historical touchstone for a nation. Through its representation in art and public historical...

(The entire section is 7614 words.)

Criticism: Early Mormon Literature

Robert E. Nichols, Jr. (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “Beowulf and Nephi: A Literary View of the Book of Mormon,” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 4, No. 3, Autumn, 1969, pp. 40-47.

[In the following essay, Nichols focuses on the challenges faced by literary scholars of The Book of Mormon. The critic discusses the problems associated with evaluating the accuracy of the translation—emphasizing the lack of any source material—but also points out the value in studying the book's several complex personalities.]


In all the wide world, past and present, there is no greater body of literature than that which we call English. And in all the annals of English...

(The entire section is 4088 words.)

G. St. John Stott (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “The Seer Stone Controversy: Writing The Book of Mormon,” in Mosaic, Vol. 19, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 35-53.

[In the following essay, St. John Stott explains why—regardless of whether The Book of Mormon was a product of Smith's own imagination or not—it is perfectly understandable that Smith would claim that the words were indeed God's own.]

In June 1829 Joseph Smith, Jr. presented himself at the office of Richard Lansing (the clerk of the Northern District of New York) to register the title of the Book of Mormon and secure copyright for the work.1 He did so as the book's “author and proprietor,” even though the...

(The entire section is 10086 words.)

David J. Whittaker (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “The ‘Articles of Faith’ in Early Mormon Literature and Thought,” in New Views of Mormon History: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington, edited by Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, University of Utah Press, 1987, pp. 63-92.

[In the following essay, Whittaker provides an overview of the literature produced during the early years of Mormonism, focusing primarily on “lists of belief” generated by early writers.]

Almost anyone familiar with Joseph Smith has heard of the letter he wrote to John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, in 1842. He was answering a specific request from Wentworth to supply Wentworth's...

(The entire section is 11940 words.)

Criticism: Mormon Periodicals And Journals

Ronald W. Walker (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “The Keep-A-Pitchinin or the Mormon Pioneer Was Human,” in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 14, 1974, pp. 331-44.

[In the following essay, Walker claims that the lively wit and satirical humor in the short-lived periodical Keep-A-Pitchinin often contradicted the typical image of the sober, straight-faced Mormon.]

If there’s anybody doleful
          Just grab him by the fin
And lead him to the office
          Of the keep-a-pitchinin.

Keep-A-Pitchinin, March 1, 1870, p. 3.

Salt Lake's short-lived Keep-A-Pitchinin (pronounced “keep a pitchin’in”) was more than one of the West's first...

(The entire section is 4401 words.)

David Buice (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Chattanooga's Southern Star: Mormon Window on the South, 1898-1900,” in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 5-15.

[In the following essay, Buice contends that the writings in the Chattanooga, Tennessee Southern Star offer invaluable insight into the expansion of Mormonism into the southern states.]

One of the least researched and least known facets of Mormonism is the history of the Church in the southern United States. This omission is, in a sense, understandable. Mormon missionary activities in the South during the antebellum period were scattered and sporadic and, frankly speaking, far less important than...

(The entire section is 5166 words.)

Criticism: Women Writers

Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Poetry and the Private Lives: Newspaper Verse on the Mormon Frontier,” in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 55-65.

[In the following essay, Beecher reflects on the women who contributed poetry to the Woman's Exponent newspaper, arguing that part of their motivation to write stemmed from their intense need to express their feelings of self-identity and self-worth.]

A handful of verses eventually led to the founding in 1872 of the Woman's Exponent and the choosing of Louisa Lula Greene as its first editor. A student in the first class of the University of Utah, the twenty-year-old northern Utah girl needed...

(The entire section is 4608 words.)

Paula Kelly Harline (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Polygamous yet Monogamous: Cultural Conflict in the Writings of Mormon Polygamous Wives,” in Old West—New West: Centennial Essays, edited by Barbara Howard Meldrum, University of Idaho Press, 1993, pp. 115-32.

[In the following essay, Harline uses private writings included in the diaries and autobiographies of Mormon women to show how these polygamous wives were torn between their faith in the mandates of God and their emotional struggles with the realities of day-to-day life.]

In response to the federal government's efforts to abolish polygamy in 1870, five thousand Mormon women held a “mass indignation meeting” in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, where...

(The entire section is 5851 words.)

Criticism: Mormonism And Nineteenth-Century Literature

Robert A. Rees (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “Melville's Alma and The Book of Mormon,” in Emerson Society Quarterly, Vol. 43, II Quarter, 1966, pp. 41-46.

[In the following essay, Rees investigates the question of whether or not nineteenth-century American novelist Herman Melville was influenced by The Book of Mormon.]

In letters to three different people, not long after Mardi had been published, Melville spoke of what he felt was its latent excellence. To his father-in-law Judge Lemuel Shaw, he wrote, “Time, which is the solver of all riddles, will solve ‘Mardi’.”1 In a letter to Richard Bentley, 5 June 1849, Melville assured him, “‘Mardi’ in its higher...

(The entire section is 3853 words.)

Richard H. Cracroft (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “The Gentle Blasphemer: Mark Twain, Holy Scripture, and the Book of Mormon,” in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, Winter, 1971, pp. 119-40.

[In the following excerpt, Cracroft describes Mark Twain's literary treatment of the Book of Mormon as humorous and witty, resulting from Twain's ability to mix the lofty and solemn ideas of the sacred text with his own irreverent and flippant outspokenness.]

Chapter Sixteen of Mark Twain's Roughing It begins, “All men have heard of the Mormon Bible, but few except the ‘elect’ have seen it, or, at least, taken the trouble to read it.”1 Conversely, all Mormons have...

(The entire section is 4395 words.)

Rebecca Foster Cornwall and Leonard J. Arrington (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Perpetuation of a Myth: Mormon Danites in Five Western Novels, 1840-90,” in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 147-65.

[In the following essay, Cornwall and Arrington examine how five nineteenth-century novelists treated the theme of the Danites in their fiction.]

In Caldwell County, Missouri, during the spring and summer of 1838, there had been instances of vandalism, theft, and terrorism against Mormon settlements. Mormons, fearing a repeat of the occurrences in Jackson and Clay counties, from which they had been driven by force and political maneuver in 1833 and 1836, were determined not to lose their properties again....

(The entire section is 6689 words.)

Gordon K. Thomas (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “The Book of Mormon in the English Literary Context of 1837,” Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 37-45.

[In the following essay, Thomas suggests possible reasons why the English literary world did not enthusiastically embrace the Book of Mormon upon its introduction into England in the late 1830s.]

“Do you know anything of a wretched set of religionists in your country, superstitionists I ought rather to say, called Mormonites, or Latter-Day Saints?” So wrote the great English poet William Wordsworth to his American editor Henry Reed early in 1846. This is the only reference to Mormonism in...

(The entire section is 3915 words.)

Criticism: Mormon Poetry

SOURCE: “Publishing a Book of Mormon Poetry: The Harp of Zion,” in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 85-95.

[In the following excerpt, Lyon discusses the life and work of John Lyon, the unofficial poet laureate of the Mormon religion in Great Britain and the author of The Harp of Zion, the first book of poetry published by a member of the LDS church.]

In 1848 James Brady, a poor Irishman living in Scotland, was baptized into the LDS church. Five years later he still was well acquainted with poverty but with the help of the Perpetual Emigrating Fund was able to heed Church counsel to flee “Babylon” and emigrate to...

(The entire section is 4248 words.)

Further Reading

Allen, James B. and Malcom R. Thorp. “The Mission of the Twelve to England, 1840-41: Mormon Apostles and the Working Classes.” In Brigham Young University Studies 15 (1975): 499-526.

Details the immense success achieved by Mormon missionaries in England during the early 1840s.

Brooks, Juanita. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. 1950. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962, 316 p.

Recounts the events of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre for historical purposes as well as to gain insight into the social psychology of the time.

Copeland, David A. “The ‘Mormon Problem’ and the Press.” In Outsiders...

(The entire section is 528 words.)