Orson F. Whitney: Home Literature

"Home Literature"

Orson F. Whitney


First delivered as a speech by Bishop Orson F. Whitney, at the Y.M.M.I.A. Conference, June 3, 1888, and subsequently published July, 1888 in The Contributor. For full bibliography, see the Mormon Literature Database.


"Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith." -- D&C 88:118
The words I have quoted are the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith; or rather, they are the words of the Almighty through him to this people. A people who are popularly supposed to be enemies of education, despisers of learning, haters of books and schools, and of everything, in fact, that is pure, ennobling and refined. A greater mistake was never made, a crueler wrong was never committed, a more heinous moral crime was never perpetrated than when the "Mormon" people, [the people of] the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were thus made odious in the eyes of mankind. For, if it be a crime to filch from an individual his good name, that "immediate jewel of the soul," compared with which, as the poet tells us, to steal one's purse is to "steal trash," what must it be to rob a whole community of reputation? A community, too, with such a mission as ours; the spiritual enlightenment of a world, the salvation of the human race, the education, for this life and the life which is to come, of all who can be persuaded to enter the garden of God and partake, freely, of the precious fruits of the Tree of Knowledge, which, in the truest sense, is also the Tree of Life. To rob such a people of their good name, thus limiting their usefulness, and hindering them from fulfilling their great mission, which is to draw all men unto Christ by means of knowledge, wisdom and learning revealed from heaven and recorded in the best of books, is indeed a crime, not only against the immediate victims of the slander, but a crime against God and humanity.

[02]   But it is not my present purpose to pursue the subject to which this train of thought would naturally lead. It suffices me to know, and to testify, that this people are the friends, not the foes, of education; that they are seekers after wisdom, lovers of light and truth, universal Truth, which, like the waters of earth, or the sunbeams of heaven, has but one Source, let its earthly origin be what it may.

"Truth is truth, wher'er 'tis found,
On Christian or on heathen ground,"
and worthy of our love and admiration, whether far or near, high or low, whether blazing as a star in the blue vault of heaven, or springing like a floweret from the soil.


"Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning even by study, and also by faith."
Why did the Lord so instruct his Prophet? Why did the Prophet so teach his people? It was because God had designed, and his prophet had foreseen, a great and glorious future for that people. Chosen himself in weakness, so far as this world's wisdom was concerned, as a foundation stone of the mighty structure which is destined to tower heavenward, reflecting from its walls and glittering spires the splendors of eternity, he knew there must come a time, unless God, who cannot lie, had sworn falsely, when Zion, no longer the foot, but as the head, the glorious front of the world's civilization, would arise and shine "the joy of the whole earth"--the seat of learning, the source of wisdom, and the centre of political power, when, side by side with pure Religion, would flourish Art and Science, her fair daughters; when music, poetry, painting, sculpture, oratory and the drama, rays of light from the same central sun, no longer refracted and discolored by the many-hued prisms of man's sensuality, would throw their white radiance full and direct upon the mirror-like glory of her towers; when the science of earth and the wisdom of heaven would walk hand in hand interpreting each other; when philosophy would drink from wells of living truth, no longer draining the deadly hemlock of error, to poison the pure air with the illusions of sophistry; when love and union would prevail; when war would sit at the feet of peace and learn wisdom for a thousand years; when Zion's sons and Zion's daughters, as famed for intelligence and culture as for purity, truth and beauty, "polished after the similitude of a palace," would entertain kings and nobles, yea, sit upon thrones themselves, or go forth, like shafts of light from the bow of the Almighty, as messengers and ambassadors to the nations.

[04]   Joseph saw all this; he knew it was inevitable; that such things were but the natural flowers and fruits of the work which God had planted. The roots of the tree might not show it so well--their mission is to lie kidden in the earth despised and trampled on of men--but the branches in a day to come would prove it. Joseph knew, as every philosopher must know, that purity is the natural parent of beauty; that truth is the wellspring of power, and righteousness the sun of supremacy. He knew that his people must progress, that their destiny demanded it; that culture is the duty of man, as intelligence is the glory of God. Rough and rugged himself, as the granite boulders of yonder hills, typical of the firm, unyielding basis of God's work, he knew, and his brethren around him knew, that on the rough, strong stones of which they were symbolical--the massive foundations of the past--the great Architect would rear the superstructure of the future; that the youth of Israel, their offspring, would be inspired to build upon the foundations of the fathers, and yet would differ from their fathers and mothers, as the foundations of a building must differ from the walls and spires.

[05]   What shall I say, my young brethren and sisters, what can I say to awaken in your hearts, if perchance it sleeps, the desire to realize this glorious anticipation? Alas! what can my poor pen indite, what can my feeble tongue utter to rouse within you this determination'? I can only call upon God, in humility, to make my words as sparks of fire, to fall upon the tinder of your hearts and kindle them into flame. That from this hour your souls may be lit up with the light of your glorious destiny, that you may live and labor for God and his kingdom, not simply for yourselves and the perishable things of earth.

[06]   What else shall make us worthy of such a future? What are we here for? Why did we come? Was it to waste our time in folly and dissipation, to laugh away our lives, pursuing the phantom of pleasure as an idle boy might chase a butterfly from flower to flower? Was it to bow down to mammon, to worship a golden calf, or to stain our souls and blur the brightness of our minds with the vices of the ungodly? Was this what our fathers and mothers foresaw? Was it for this they sacrificed and suffered, to bring us into existence, teach us the truths of heaven, and place us on the threshold of the mightiest mission ever given to men in the flesh?

[07]   The answer falls like a thunderbolt from heaven: "I give not unto you to live after the manner of the world." It echoes down the corridors of years: "If ye are Abraham's children, ye will do the works of Abraham." It speaks from earth, from air, from the roaring waters; it sounds from the depths of the oracular soul:


[08]   But what has all this to do with literature? you ask. More, perhaps, than is at first apparent. It is by means of literature that much of this great work will have to be accomplished: a literature of power and purity, worthy of such a work. And a pure and powerful literature can only proceed from a pure and powerful people. Grapes are not gathered of thorns. nor figs of thistles.

[09]   I am not here, my friends, to tickle your ears with tinkling phrases, to deliver a learned lecture on Greek and Roman mythology: to quote Hebrew and Latin. and stun you with sound, and bewilder you with a pedantic display of erudition. No! Experience has taught me that it is the heart. not simply the head, we must appeal to, if we wish to stir the soul. The intellect may shine, but it is the bosom that burns, and warms into life every movement that is born to bless humanity. l, therefore, speak to your hearts, and I would rather say three words by the power of the Holy Ghost than lecture here for three hours on the fables of Greece and Rome.

[10]   Wake up! ye sons and daughters of God! Trim your lamps and go forth to meet your distiny [sic]. A world awaits you: rich and poor, high and low, learned and unlearned. All must be preached to; all must be sought after; all must be left without excuse. And whither we cannot go, we must send; where we cannot speak we must write; and in order to win men with our writings we must know how and what to write. If the learned will only listen to the learned, God will send them learned men, to meet them on their own ground, and show them that "Mormonism," the Gospel of Christ, is not only the gospel of truth, but the gospel of intelligence and culture. The Lord is not above doing this. He is merciful to all men, not willing that any should perish. or have it to say they were unfairly dealt with. For over fifty years the gospel has been preached to the poor and lowly. It will yet go to the high and mighty, even to kings and nobles, and penetrate and climb to places hitherto deemed inaccessible. Our literature will help to take it there; for this, like all else with which we have to do, must be made subservient to the building up of Zion.

[11]   But remember this, ye writers and orators of the future! It is for God's glory. not man's. Let not vanity and pride possess you. Without humility there is no power. You must be in earnest. You must feel what you write, if you wish it to be felt by others. If the words you speak are not as red-hot embers from the flaming forge of a sincere and earnest soul, they will never set on fire the souls of your hearers. The days of buncombe1 and bombast are over. Over? They never had a beginning. Nothing really is that is not founded on fact.


"Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom: seek learning, even by study and also by faith."
The advantages of learning over ignorance are so self-evident as to need no dissertation. Knowledge is power, in this world or in any other. The Prophet Joseph is authority for the saying that "a man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge"; that "it is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance"; "for," says he, "if he does not get knowledge, he will be brought into captivity by some evil power in the other world, as evil spirits will have more knowledge and consequently more power than many men who are on the earth." The Prophet also says that whatever principles of intelligence we attain to in this life, they will rise with us in the resurrection; and if one soul by its diligence and faithfulness acquires more knowledge than another, it will have just so much advantage in the world to come.

[13]   How little, then, they know of "Mormonism," who say and think it is opposed to education. "With all thy getting, get understanding" is no less a part of the "Mormon" creed than it is one of the pearls of the wisdom of Solomon.


"Seek learning, even by study and also by faith."
The formation of a home literature is directly in the line and spirit of this injunction. Literature means learning, and it is from the "best books" we are told to seek it. This does not merely mean the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the book of Doctrine and Covenants, Church works and religious writings--though these indeed are "the best books," and will ever be included in and lie at the very basis of our literature. But it also means history, poetry, philosophy, art and science, languages, government--all truth in fact, wherever found. either local or general, and relating to times past, present or to come.

[15]   Yes, the Prophet even meant revelation, inspiration. immediate and direct; for does he not say, "seek learning by study and also by faith"? Faith points to futurity, to things that will be; study pertains more to the past, to things that have been. History is temporal; prophecy is spiritual. The past is great, but the future will be greater. The dead letter may be precious, but the living oracle is beyond all price.

[16]   It is from the warp and woof of all learning, so far as we are able to master it and make it ours, that the fabric of our literature must be woven. We must read, and think, and feel, and pray, and then bring forth our thoughts, and polish and preserve them. This will make literature.

[17]   Above all things, we must be original. The Holy Ghost is the genius of "Mormon" literature. Not Jupiter, nor Mars, Minerva, nor Mercury. No fabled gods and goddesses; no Mount Olympus; no "sisters nine," no "blue-eyed maid of heaven"; no invoking of mythical muses that "did never yet one mortal song inspire." No pouring of new wine into old bottles. No patterning after the dead forms of antiquity. Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be. The odes of Anacreon, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; the sublime tragedies of Shakspeare [sic]; these are all excellent, all well enough in their way; but we must not attempt to copy them. They cannot be reproduced. We may read, we may gather sweets from all these flowers, but we must build our own hive and honeycomb after God's supreme design.

[18]   We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God's ammunition is not exhausted. His brightest 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 foundations may now be low in earth. Let the smile of derision wreathe the face of scorn; let the frown of hatred darken the brow of bigotry. Small things are the seeds of great things, and, like the acorn that brings forth the oak, or the snowflake that forms the avalanche, God's kingdom will grow, and on wings of light and power soar to the summit of its destiny.

[19]   Let us onward, then, and upward, keeping the goal in view; living not in the dead past, nor for the dying present. The future is our field. Eternity is before us.

"New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of Truth.

Lo! before us gleam her camp-fires,
We, ourselves, must pilgrims be;
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly
Through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the future's portal
With the past's blood-rusted key."

[20]   I do not mean to depreciate, or speak slightingly of the literature of the past: such of it, at least, as is worthy of the name. Far be it from me to utter one word that might reasonably be so construed. I wish I had power to tell you what I think literature has done for the human race: what men of letters have accomplished in all ages, from Moses to Herodotus. from Herodotus to Shakespeare, from Shakespeare to Goethe and Carlyle; men who have poured the rich treasures of inspired thought and intelligent research into the lap of humanity, giving birth to civilization and filling earth with fame and glory. I would also speak of the press, that modern giant, that great engine of power, scattering far and wide the embers of intelligence, kindling on ten thousand times ten thousand hearth-stones the fires of thought and noble aspiration; the newspaper, the daily history of the world, champion of truth and defender of the oppressed. How mighty its mission, how far-reaching its influence, how invincible its power! Oh, that it should ever be prostituted, dragged in the mire, degraded to ignoble ends! But alas! it often is so.

[21]   Therefore, choose between the false and true, between the unreal and the genuine. "Seek ye out of the best books"--the best newspapers--"words of wisdom." Write for the papers, write for the magazines--especially our home publications--subscribe [to] them and read them. Make books yourselves that shall not only be a credit to you and to the land and people that produced you, but likewise a boon and benefaction to mankind.

[22]   It is impossible to compute in figures, or express in words, the blessings that books and book-makers have been to humanity. Let me quote from one whose masterly attempt is perhaps half-way successful. Says Carlyle:

"In books lies the soul of the whole past time; the articulate, audible voice of the past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream. Mighty fleets and armies, harbors and arsenals, vast cities, high-domed, many-engined--they are precious, great: but what do they become? Agamemnon, the many Agamemnons, Pericleses and their Greece; all is gone now to some ruined fragments, dumb, mournful wrecks and blocks: but the books of Greece! Their Greece, to every thinker. still very literally lives."

"With the art of writing, of which printing is a simple, an inevitable and comparatively insignificant corollary, the true reign of miracles for mankind commenced."

"The writer of a book, is not he a preacher, preaching not to this parish or that, on this day or that, but to all men, in all times and places?"

"He with his copy-rights and copy-wrongs, in his squalid garret, in his rusty coat; ruling (for this is what he does) from his grave, after death, whole nations or genarations [sic] who would, or would not, give him bread while living, is a rather curious spectacle! Few shapes of heroism can be more unexpected."

"Men of letters are a perpetual priesthood, from age to age, teaching all men that a God is still present in their life .... In the true literary man there is thus ever, acknowledged or not by the world, a sacredness; he is the light of the world; the world's priest; guiding it like a sacred pillar of fire, in its dark pilgrimage through the waste of time."

[23]   Let us now, for a moment, in the light of this noble interpretation, contemplate the work of a book, a book with which we are all more or less familiar.

[24]   Nearly four hundred years have passed away since Columbus discovered America. He found here. what? Forests and Indians, and tropical fruits; little else. But they who came after him found more. Peeping from the crust of the earth, north and south, east and west, were the relics of a civilization that had put to shame the glory of Egypt in her palmiest days. Nations had risen and fallen on this fair land, before whose fame and power the strength of Rome, the wealth of Asia, would have paled as stars before the sun. Whence came they? What were their names? Why had they fallen? None knew. The sad sea waves and the sighing winds answered not, but continued to chant in mournful numbers their solemn requiem for the dead. The natives could not tell, except in tales and traditions as vague and shadowy as the legends of the Druids, or the runic fables of the Norsemen. Who, then would answer? One day a little boy went into the woods and prayed. God answered him and gave him more than he asked. A book came forth by the power of God; a buried record, hidden in a hill. It told the story of the past, it prophesied of the future, and from that hour, Joseph Smith, the despised Mormon Prophet, became the real discoverer of America.

[25]   My brothers and sisters--fellow laborers in the vineyard of our Lord--let me hope if I have said anything, it is something that will stimulate and encourage you to press, onward in the work of God. Follow not after the world. Avoid the snares of Satan. Be true to yourselves and loyal to your mission. Ye are the "hope of Israel." The heavens are watching you, and the earth is waiting for you.

[26]   "Awake, awake! Put on thy strength, 0 Zion! Put on thy beautiful garments"--the garments of wisdom and learning, that it may no longer be said of thee, with even a semblance of truth, or a shadow of reason, that thou art not what we say thou art, and all that the Lord thy God has said thou shalt be. Arise, shine, for thy light will come, and the Glory of the Lord will rise upon thee! "And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising." The star of truth has risen; the Sun of Righteousness will come; the night of error is past, and above the eastern hilltops, even now, are breaking the golden splendors of the dawn.

1. Buncombe: speaking that is without conviciton; clap-trap.
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