A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints

Section Introduction: The Essay

Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert, editors

O, why indulge the gifted pen
To float through fiction's fairy field--
To chant the deeds of fabled men,
And weave the garland phantoms yield?

Truth has gay arbors crown'd with love,
Broad fields where pleasure gambols free,
And deeps where shrouded spirits move.
And heights of folded mystery.
--Eliza R. Snow

Surprisingly, the essay has not been as vital a literary force in Mormondom as might be expected.

Poetry was a literary activity which had full approval of the Saints, and drama was fostered by no less a patron than Brigham Young himself. Fiction had no such fortune, for it supposedly distorted truth. As one anonymous writer wrote in the Contributor in 1850, fiction subjects one's "purity of mind to a fearful trial" and destroys one's "power of concentration of mind." Although the climate for fiction began to change in the decade of the 1880s, Latter-day Saints--at least those who shaped and published opinion--placed a premium upon non-fictional "truth," which was, after all, the raison d'etre of Mormonism.

Given these circumstances, one might expect the proliferation of the essay. But while the late nineteenth century and twentieth century Church magazines published and continue to publish a number of essays, most of them read much like editorials and have clearly didactic aims, avoiding any expression of personal attitudes and feelings. Most essays, like the sermon, were written, then as now, as defenses of the faith. And defending the faith was, after all, the primary mission of the off-embattled Church. The personal essay, with all of its reflection and scrutiny on life, seemed to have little role in Mormon literature, although the personal reminiscence of the pioneer and the General Authority were-and still are-important. As the Church struggled for its corporate life, its members saw more value in writing of those things which fostered group identity than they did in examining those individual characteristics which make each Saint different from his brother.

Similarly, the twentieth century has not seen the proliferation of important Mormon essays. P. A. Christensen, a beloved professor of English at Brigham Young University, published two volumes of essays: All in a Teacher's Day (1948) and Of a Number of Things (1962); and the Commissioner of Education of the Church, Neal A. Maxwell, has also published several volumes of essays in recent years. But the central repository for the publication of serious essays continues to be the non-Church related journal, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (founded in 1966), which has published a number of sensitive essays by Latter-day Saints who are interested in seeing their faith in the context of the larger world.

In this section we include a potpourri of six essays, arranged thematically. The first two, by Orson F. Whitney, apostle and author, and William Mulder, a professor of English at the University of Utah, deal with some of the potentialities and the problems of Mormon literature, an area due for additional serious consideration. The essays by the late P. A. Christensen, Hugh Nibley, Truman Madsen, and Robert K. Thomas, all associated with Brigham Young University, are all very different and stimulating approaches to things Mormon. The final essay, by Edward Geary, reflects a recent trend in Mormon essays toward nostalgia, as writers reared in Mormon traditions of the Wasatch Front ponder the meaning of the confrontation of the comfortable old frontier Church with the sleek modern and purposeful space-age Church.

The power of Mormonism lies in the fact that its members, thanks to the organizational genius of the Church, continue to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the Church. The pragmatic and businesslike nature of many of these activities fosters a practical and verbal form of communication rather than the considered and thoughtful expression usually found in the personal essay. However, as the Church finds itself increasingly at odds with the moral values of an encroaching world, the personal essay will undoubtedly assume a larger role as a vehicle for the expression of the values of a people as manifest in the individual life of a sensitive writer.



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Please send your updates, corrections, or comments to Gideon Burton:
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