A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints
We shall yet have Miltons and Shakesepares of our Own. God's ammunition is not exhausted. His highest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God's name and by His help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundation may now be low on earth. --Orson F. Whitney
There is no dearth of imaginative writing about the Mormons. Most readers, if they haven't heard of Maria Ward or Fitz-James O'Brien and a hundred other literary eclipses, will at least recognize such famous writers as Arthur Conan Doyle, Artemus Ward, Zane Grey, and Mark Twain, all of whom in one way or another have made literary hay out of the Mormons and Mormonism. But our attempt in this volume is not to reflect the Mormon image in the writings of non-Mormons (gentiles). Rather, we are presenting here the expression of the people themselves, a believing people, who, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, espouse the idea of the literal reality of God, the efficacy of the religious experience, and more particularly the prophetic callings of Joseph Smith and the leaders of the Church who have succeeded him. So the literature presented here is the product of a rather remarkable ethos, an ethos that is fundamentally positive and that posits vigorously that an Almighty Father rules and directs the course of events in this world. For Mormons their theistic world is a parenthesis in eternity, their universe neither malignant nor indifferent. Instead, their world is a place created and guided by a beneficent deity as a temporary dwelling place for his own spirit children made flesh. The Mormon world is God-made, man-centered world; and each Latter-day Saint in his personal life is challenged to bring forth the evidence that supports this belief.
It is not surprising, then, that much of the literary expression of this people has been polemic and didactic, particularly for the first hundred years of Latter-day Saint history. The apocalyptic values of Mormon theology and the enthusiastic zealousness of their missionary effort made the Mormons suspect as neighbors. The historical results are well known: conflict, confrontation, persecution, and finally the epic migration to the Great Basin of Western America. The literature of these experiences is, as one might expect, often less concerned with the aesthetics of form and style than it is with the practical matters of defense, instruction, preachment, and encouragement. Thus, there are in the body of Mormon writings more sermons than short stories, more journals and diaries than novels. Indeed, not only the writing but the reading of fiction itself was from time to time discouraged as something one does only when there is nothing better to do.
But this does not mean that there was no literature. Indeed, Mormonism begins with a book, a book of scripture that has its own distinctive religious quality. Out of the dust of a New York hillside Joseph Smith took a set of golden plates on which was engraved the religious record of an ancient people. His translation, known to the world as the Book of Mormon, has become part and parcel of the faith of the Saints. Plain and profound in its theology, this "second witness for Christ" has provided the Latter-day Saints with unique terms for their vocabulary and has transformed their literary tradition with a whole new set of names, images, and symbols. From Lehi's dream of the iron rod and the tree of life to Mormon's moving farewell to his readers, this book has a literary intensity all its own: Its Hebrew chiasmus, it Isaiah-like images, its poignant psalms and lyrics provide an intriguing beginning to the Mormon literary tradition.
There were other "new scriptures" as well: the Doctrine and Covenants with its modern revelations given to Joseph Smith, and the Pearl of Great Price with its Genesis-like accounts of the creation and the historical episodes from the life of Joseph Smith. These are both integral parts of the Mormon literary foundation. Providing as they do instruction, enlightenment, and directions for building the New Zion in America, these two books present a remarkable combination throughout their pages of the old and the new, the Biblical and the modern. Mormon theology sounds like a new echo as heaven and hell and grace vie with "As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri River in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints" (D&C 121:33). These three volumes, when set alongside the King James translation of the Holy Bible (the fourth part of the Mormon canon), provide a scriptural literature that is truly exceptional.
But not all the literature of the first hundred years is in the rolling phrases of holy writ. As we suggested above, the situation of the struggling Saints called form a remarkable volume of spirited tracts and pamphlets to defend and promulgate the faith. From The Voice of Warning to Rays of Living Light the bulk of Mormon publication was devoted to providing persuasive tools for their remarkable missionary efforts. So in one sense the Saints had little time for the conscious cultivation of belles lettres, and one would be rather foolish to look seriously for a Mormon Milton or Sir Thomas More among the early writers of the Church. But, conversely, one would be even more foolish to dismiss the whole first hundred years of Mormon writing as nothing but "a considerable body of very low grade ore." For there have been some remarkable literary expressions: the poetry and religious passion inherent in some of the hymns; the vigorous life of Jacksonian America that pours forth in the "plaine style" of autobiographical prose by Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt, John Taylor, and others; the laconic, naive, yet profoundly moving folk art that startles our sensibilities in the simple narrative of the pioneer diaries and journals and letters; the simple faith expressed tellingly in unsophisticated fiction--all these confirm a rich heritage, a firm foundation for the literary tradition of the Saints.
Surprisingly, given the difficulties, Mormons have loved the "word," not only as it came from the lips of the leaders, but as it figured forth the life these people came to cherish. So in spite of the preachments against it and a way of life that discouraged it, the reading of literature persisted. The continued production of the stories and poetry that swell the pages of the early Church magazines is evidence enough of the appetites for imaginative fare that characterized the lives of the Early Mormons, so that even John D. Lee, member of the policymaking Council of Fifty, records that while en route with President George A. Smith to colonize Southern Utah he and Smith and their wives spent much of one rest day "reading the novel, The Poor Cousins," to the delight of all.
A close reading, then, of the letters, poems, journals, hymns, narratives, biographies, fiction, and autobiographies provides significant glimpses into the minds and souls of these far wandering Saints who comprised one of the most distinctive and remarkable groups of nineteenth century America (an age of many remarkable groups), a people whose individuality and commitment, to the present day, have seldom been equaled.
Now, as the Mormon Church reaches toward its sesquicentennial celebration, it is beginning to see itself increasingly as an international church. But, paradoxically, as they become less of a Utah-Rocky Mountain church, the Mormon people are turning with greater interest to their history and heritage. And, increasingly, Mormons are coming to realize that what they once assumed prosaic and insignificant has become fraught with expressions of significant human experience.
Seeing such human experience in the light of Mormon theology is difficult for those outside the Church. Thus Mormons have traditionally turned to those writers grounded in the faith. From the beginning, Mormons have manifested great respect for their leaders who were also writers. Indeed, Saint shave granted a special place on their bookshelves for the poetry of such as Eliza R. Snow, early Mormonism's foremost poetess, and Orson F. Whitney, long-time bishop and apostle, as well as the strong prose of the Pratts--Orson and Parley. And in our own time the vigorous sales of compilations of speeches by Church Authorities is only a bit more brisk than the sales of volumes of poetry by Carol Lynn Pearson, a Relief Society president, or works by S. Dilworth Young of the First Council of the Seventy--one of the few creative writers among the present-day General Authorities. Thus it appears that Latter-day Saints are eager to claim--and perhaps even to read--the orthodox expressions of their own peculiar mythos and ethos.
It is not particularly an insularity that urges the Mormon people to listen more to their own orthodox writers than to gentile writers. It is because Mormons are committed to their own special version of the Protestant ethic: commitment to, devotion to, and love of family, church, country, and the Word of the Lord regarding these priorities, as presented to each Mormon by the Brethren, or General Authorities. Thus, readers must never forget that for the Latter-day Saint, his church, as the Doctrine and Covenants declares, is "the only true and living church on the face of the whole earth," and a literature, or a criticism of a literature, which fails toe examine Mormonism on these terms is not only unfair, it is futile.
In that sense, Mormon writing is outside the mainstream of modern literary fashion. The result of the Latter-day Saint world view is a literature strikingly at odds with the humanistic existentialism of modern literary fashion. Mormons characteristically continue to see the world through a paradisiacal glass, brightly. At its worst the literature springing from such a view may convey merely a Panglossian simplemindedness that tosses all problems and human difficulties into a catchall called the millennium or that leaves the solution of human difficulties to a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders and to God. But more and more this God-centered world view is seen as the source of great human responsibility, dignity, and opportunity, a desirable kind of world view that seems to be finding more and more adherents in a world fraught with a debilitating purposelessness. So the best literature of the Latter-day Saints comes increasingly to consider the great questions that all mortals, Saints and gentiles alike, are forced to encounter; and the best writers come more and more to grips with the profound problems of human existence, especially as that existence is sorted out in the context of a universe revealing itself to man, a claim which in itself recognizes the open-endedness of Mormon theology and allows the ambiguities and question from which springs thoughtful and profound literature.
From such wellsprings is flowing an ever-growing stream of notable literature, and readers will be pleased to discover that along with an increasing complexity and sophistication of technique and style has come an increasing significance and profundity of ideas, until today Mormon letters can at least whisper sotto voce, if not boast aloud, of a body of good poetry, an increasing number of good novels and fine short stories, and some stirrings in the personal essay. On the horizon we can even visualize the advent of Mormon literary comedy, long generating among the folk, with their tales of J. Golden Kimball and jokes about Mormon bishops, demonstrating that Mormons, always aware of their sobering role in the cosmic scheme, may well be on the verge of being able to laugh publicly at their own human foibles.
All of this we have attempted to represent in this anthology, which was designed for a course in Mormon literature at Brigham Young University bu which we hope will have wide interest among Latter-day Saints and non-Mormons alike. If the selection seem sat times arbitrary, ti is because, faced with large body of material, we were frequently forced to choose, even if arbitrary. We have tried consciously to select eh best that twas available and, at the same time, to evoke the background and convey the broad range of Mormon literary expression.
This anthology has not been prepared with any special thesis in mind, except insofar as it suggest that Mormon letters are much further underway than many would suspect and that it is time to pause and see what the Latter-day Saints have done as a people in expressing their own "truths of the human heart."
We are keenly aware of the responsibility in assembling a first anthology of a literature which may well become, as years pass, a force and influence within and without Mormondom. As the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asserts itself increasingly as a world church and as its member begin to search more fervently into its origins and heritage, many individuals will achieve, through literature, a richer perspective of their cultural heritage. We have made but a beginning in identifying this heritage. We hope it is a good beginning. But we recognize that this anthology is tentative and growing and open to change and improvement.
Please send your updates, corrections, or comments to Gideon Burton:MormonLit@byu.edu