To read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise.
—Henry David Thoreau
Read the true and the wise. The perusal of the rest is worse than time wasted, it is time abused.
It is instructive to observe how literarily sophisticated Latter-day Saints scramble to defend the contemporary, universal embrace of imaginative fiction in general and the novel in particular against the single-minded, single-eyed, and vigorous attacks of President Brigham Young. During his thirty-year tenure as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brother Brigham, as he was affectionately called, made his views on novel reading unmistakably clear: he dismissed novels as “nonsense,”1 called reading them a waste of life, and reminded the Saints that they have more important ways to spend their time—that, like the daughters of Zion, they “have got cows to milk instead of novels to read”2 (fig. 1).
In an era when the Latter-day Saints have become a novel-reading as well as a scripture-reading people, it is important to understand how Brigham Young and his associates among the General Authorities became such adamant opponents of the novel; why his position on novel reading changed from an early, benign toleration to a prolonged, steadfast opposition; how at least some drama escaped Brigham’s opprobrium; what events may have triggered his antinovel bombast; how his views on the novel paralleled those of many of his nineteenth-century contemporaries; and, ironically, how Church leaders after Brother Brigham undertook to transform the once maligned novel into a literary force for the kingdom of God. Above all, it is important for present-day, novel-reading Saints to understand that the deeper reason for Brigham Young’s antipathy toward novel reading arose from his dislike of any distraction that might prevent the fledgling Saint from his or her central mortal purposes: to become a Saint and to build Zion. Brigham Young’s own mission was to establish a people of God in a place that approximated his inspired dream of a latter-day Zion. To this end, he taught the Saints to keep one spiritual eye cocked heavenward and the other eye affixed on the founding of the earthly kingdom—and woe be unto anyone or anything which might deflect the Latter-day Saints from that purpose! And that anything included novels and novel reading (fig. 2).
Brigham Young Tolerates Novel Reading
In the early years of his administration, Brigham Young’s stance toward novel reading and related pastimes was benign and even permissive. There was no blanket condemnation of novels. When John Bernhisel, acting on Brigham’s behalf, assembled Utah’s first territorial library, he justified the purchase of two novels—Don Quixote and The Vicar of Wakefield—on the premise that they did not fall into the category of “literary trash with which the press is teeming and the country is flooded.”3 In an 1853 address given in the Old Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, President Young recalled with some dismay his own father’s repressive and oppressive wielding of religion as a club in rearing Brigham and his siblings. He related that, in his boyhood,
I was kept within very strict bounds, and was not allowed to walk more than half-an-hour on Sunday for exercise. The proper and necessary gambols of youth having been denied me, makes me want active exercise and amusement now. I had not a chance to dance when I was young, and never heard the enchanting tones of the violin, until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the high way to hell, if I suffered myself to linger and listen to it. I shall not subject my little children to such a course of unnatural training, but they shall go to the dance, study music, read novels, and do anything else that will tend to expand their frames, add fire to their spirits, improve their minds, and make them feel free and untrammeled in body and mind.4
Reflecting upon the debilitating repression he experienced in his youth, President Young urged Latter-day Saint parents to accord their children the pleasures and amusements of life. Even here, however, he made clear that he was not encouraging the children of Latter-day Saints to read novels; instead, he was cautioning their parents to be aware of the consequences of repressing agency in the name of religion:
Now understand it—when parents whip their children for reading novels, and never let them go to the theatre, or to any place of recreation and amusement, but bind them to the moral law, until duty becomes loathsome to them; when they are freed by age from the rigorous training of their parents, they are more fit for companions to devils, than to be the children of such religious parents.5
Brigham Young Condemns Novel Reading
By 1862, however, Brigham Young had altered his stance. Nine years after he had declared that his children “shall go to the dance, study music, read novels, and do anything else that will . . . add fire to their spirits,” he had changed his mind—dramatically and irrevocably—about the effect of novel reading on his children and the Latter-day Saints. In remarks delivered in the Tabernacle on the necessity of the Saints becoming independent as a people, he said, “I believe in indulging children, in a reasonable way,” and counseled parents to give the girls dolls but urged that the girls make the doll clothes themselves. Likewise, he counseled that parents give the boys the materials and tools to make sleds and wagons—and through such calculated “indulgence” direct their minds “in the right direction to the most useful result.”6 Then, from within this practical context, President Young suddenly launched a surprising rhetorical question: “Novel reading—is it profitable?” With apparent approval, he answered his own question: “I would rather that persons read novels than read nothing.” But any momentary comfort that might have washed over the novel-reader is immediately dispelled by the rolling tetragrammatons to follow:
There are women in our community, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, and sixty years of age, who would rather read a trifling, lying novel [fig. 3] than read history, the Book of Mormon, or any other useful print. Such women are not worth their room. It would do no good for me to say, Don’t read them; read on, and get the spirit of lying in which they are written, and then lie on until you find yourselves in hell. If it would do any good, I would advise you to read books that are worth reading; reliable history, and search wisdom out of the best books that you can procure. How I would be delighted if our young men would do this, instead of continually studying nonsense.7[See figs. 1, 2, 7, 9.]
A decade later, confronted by a very real Gentile inundation and its very real threat to the religious, economic, and political homogeneity of Zion, Brigham Young described for the Saints the way things would be in an ideal stake of Zion conducted after the Order of Enoch.8 His idealism recalls Plato’s banning poets and storytellers from his ideal and theoretical republic because they willfully tell lies and create “falsehood as much like truth as [they] can” and thereby lead their readers, without “any shame or self-control,” to “be always whining and lamenting on slight occasions.”9 In a similar manner, the righteous and focused learning of Brigham’s paradisiacal City on a Hill would be prescribed and novel reading proscribed. In this city, on a Sunday morning, Brigham projected, “every child would be required to go to the school room, and parents to go to meeting or Sunday school; and not get into their wagons or carriages, or on the railroads, or lounge around reading novels.” In fact, he intoned, “If I had charge of [this ideal] society, . . . I would not allow novel reading.” He admitted, however, that in the present state of Zion the siren songs of Babylon hovered near, and novel reading, he moaned, “is in my house, in the houses of my counselors, in the houses of these Apostles, these Seventies and High Priests, in the houses of the High Council in this city, and in the houses of the Bishops, and we permit it,” even though it was “ten thousand times worse” a practice than allowing outsiders to enter Zion in order to teach morals to Latter-day Saint children.10 Indeed, novels were found in Brigham’s house: his daughter Susa later confessed that she had read Arabian Knights thirteen times by the time she was thirteen years old.11
In this same 1872 address, President Young clarified the reasons for his antipathy toward fiction, as well as the perceived consequences of frivolous novel reading:
You let your children read novels until they run away, until they get so that they do not care—they are reckless, and their mothers are reckless, and some of their fathers are reckless, and if you do not break their backs and tie them up they will go to hell. . . . You have got to check them some way or other, or they will go to destruction. They are perfectly crazy. Their actions say, “I want Babylon stuck on to me; I want to revel in Babylon; I want everything I can think of or desire.” If I had the power to do so, I would not take such people to heaven. God will not take them there, that I am sure of.12
A year later, on June 30, 1873, Brigham Young returned to what he perceived to be the jarring incongruity of reading novels in a Zion society ostensibly founded on the pattern of heaven:
Another thing, I will say to the young ladies especially, that if I should live to have the dictation of a stake of Zion that would live according to the Order of Enoch, this nonsensical reading would cease. This “yellow-covered” literature [figs. 2–4, 9] would not come into the houses of the Saints. We should dispense with this, and cast it from us. . . . Here are our young women—now I am not going from home to get this experience. I hope that my children know as much about the Bible, Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants as they do about yellow covered books.13
In an effective mimicry, a device he used on occasion, he ridiculed novel-readers by mocking their synthetic and sentimental transports:
But you ask many of our young people about these stories: “What a beautiful story there is in” such and such a paper! Or “what a beautiful story there” is in this paper or that in that. They know all about it. The proprietors of these papers get men and women to write stories with no other foundation than the imaginations of their own hearts and brains, and our young women and boys read these lies until they get perfectly restless in their feelings, and they become desperate, and many of our girls [should] . . . pay attention to their business a little better, they have got cows to milk instead of novels to read— but in our part of the land many of our young women just hope and pray, if they ever thought of prayer, “I do wish some villain would come along and break open my room and steal me and carry me off; I want to be stolen, I want to be carried away, I want to be lost with the Indians, I want to be shipwrecked and to go through some terrible scene, so that I can experience what this beloved lady has experienced whom I have been reading about” [fig. 5; see also figs. 1, 3]. Oh, how affecting! and they read with the tears running down their cheeks, until their books become perfectly wet, and they do so wish that somebody or other would come and steal and carry them off. If I had the dictation of a society, all this would stop, you would have none of it. I would have every person learning something useful.14
There was no letting up. On Pioneer Day, 1877, just one month before his death, President Young struck for the last time in public discourse the now familiar note: “Study the . . . the standard works,” he told the Sunday School children of the Church. “Such reading will afford you instruction and improvement.” Then, summing up and driving future generations of Latter-day Saint novel-readers and English teachers to head-scratching rationalizing, he delivered his last public statement on the subject: “Novels allure the mind and are without profit.”15
On August 23, 1877, less than a week before his death, Brigham Young wrote to his son, Feramorz L. Young, formerly a U.S. Navy cadet at Annapolis, Maryland, and then a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, his final mortal position on novel-reading: “You must permit me, my dear son, in the love that I bear for you and your brothers and sisters, to say that I do not esteem the perusal of novels a wise means of increasing your desire to read.” He explained, “I should be very foolish if because I had a poor appetite I took to making my meals of poisonous herbs or berries because they tasted sweet or were otherwise palatable. It would be better for my appetite to remain poor than that I should destroy my vitality.” Novel reading, he continued, “appears to me to be very much the same as swallowing poisonous herbs; it is a remedy that is worse than the complaint.” He then presented and countered the standard reasons given for novel reading:
Some excuse novel reading on the grounds that it gives them insight into the ways of the world, its life and society, others on the ground that they thus become acquainted with the best authors, their various styles and peculiar beauties. To the first plea I would say that the views of life given in most works of fiction are greatly strained or entirely false, and every elder in the Church . . . who performs his duty will have enough experiences in the vicissitudes of real life to satisfy him. . . . To the second excuse I would answer that the Bible and many works of history &c. contain as good, graceful, grand, unadulterated English as any romance that was every written.16
President Young concluded this (apparently) final letter to any of his sons with the admonition to “avoid works of fiction; they engender mental carelessness and give a slipshod character to the workings of the mind. . . . [R]ead the true and the wise. The perusal of the rest is worse than time wasted, it is time abused.” Then he added: “Sell your Dickens’ works and get Stephens’ & Catherwoods’ Travels in Central America, or Josephus’s or Mosheim’s History.”17
Brigham Young Enjoys Theater
Amidst this vehement antagonism against the novel and novel reading as a waste of precious life and time and a willful evasion of divine duty, what are modern-day Saints to do with Brigham Young’s well-known affinity for the theater, which remained a personal pleasure and a life-long indulgence? Perhaps it was an accepted vice, like that of Huck Finn’s Widow Douglas, who did not condemn anyone’s taking a bit of snuff “because she done it herself.”18 While some might view Brigham Young’s enjoyment of the “lies” of the theater as inconsistent with his distaste for the “lies” of the novel, his affection for the kind of theater he felt was fit for the kingdom of God illustrates not inconsistency but his steadfast adherence to principle, pointing to the deeper reasons behind his condemnation of the novel.19
Of drama he said as early as February 6, 1853, “It is pleasing and instructing to see certain characters personified upon the boards of a theatre,” if that theater “is managed upon righteous principles.” Such a theater can provide a “platform upon which to exhibit truth in all its simple beauty,” if good men and women will “sift out . . . the chaff and folly that has encumbered it, . . . and profit by that which is truly good and great.”20 Consistent with his philosophy is his determination, voiced at the dedication of the Salt Lake Theatre on March 6, 1862, that the Saints “shall endeavor to make our theatrical performances a source of good, and not of evil,” and shall present plays which delight, refresh, and “happify” the viewer.21
He believed, however, that tragedy, like the novel, could never uplift the human soul. For this reason, his daughter Susa Young Gates related, he banned the stage play of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist from the Salt Lake Theatre stage after only one upsetting performance.22 In fact, Young inveighed against tragedy almost as vigorously as he inveighed against the novel and for the same reasons. “If I had my way,” his daughter Clarissa Young Spencer recollected him saying, “I would never have a tragedy played on these boards. There is enough tragedy in every day life and we ought to have amusement when we come here.”23 While “tragedy is favoured by the outside world,” he granted, “I am not in favour of it.” Why? For basically the same reason that he shunned the novel—the possibility of bruising tender spirits, implanting unworthy thoughts, and otherwise diverting mortals from purposely and productively plodding their true, original course:
I do not wish murder and all its horrors and the villany [sic] leading to it portrayed before our women and children; I want no child to carry home with it the fear of the fagot, the sword, the pistol, or the dagger, and suffer in the night from frightful dreams. I want such plays performed as will make the spectators feel well; and I wish those who perform to select a class of plays that will improve the public mind, and exalt the literary taste of the community.24
Latter-day Saint Apostles Condemn Novel Reading
About the evils of the novel, Latter-day Saint leaders contemporary to Brigham Young also spoke as with one voice. Less than a year before President Young’s death, Elder Wilford Woodruff, who would become the fourth President of the Church (1889–98), urged the brethren at the general priesthood meeting on October 8, 1876, to set their houses in order—especially in regard to reading fiction:
It is time for us to teach our wives & Children to lay aside the New York Ledger [which serialized novels] and all other novels and store up in our minds with the Revelations of God. And we Should stop sending thousands of Dollars out of the Country to buy Novels to teach our Children vanity and Sustain our own press and Evry family in Zion should take the Juvinile Instructor and our own papers.25
Throughout his administration as President of the Church, Brigham Young was vehemently seconded and even bested in his antifiction rhetoric by the loudest and longest-resonating of Mormon antifictionists, Elder George Q. Cannon, an influential Apostle and counselor to four Church Presidents. However, it was in his roles as general superintendent of the Church’s Sunday Schools (1867–1901) and as publisher, owner, and editor of the Juvenile Instructor (1866–1901) that Cannon exerted his greatest influence on Mormon attempts to keep fiction out of Utah Territory. Typically, in an 1869 editorial, “What Shall Our Children Read?” Elder Cannon closely followed file leader President Young in describing the contents of novels and setting the earnest, yet mocking, tone he would take in four decades of inveighing against fiction reading among the Saints:
These romances must appeal to the lowest and most brutal passion. . . ; they must abound with sensational outrages, . . . deal with the terrible, and be crowded from beginning to end with adultery and arson, murder and mystery, gloom and ghastliness, bastardy and bloodshed, perjury and profligacy; in fact must be seasoned with every sin denounced in the Decalouge [sic], and a few never [before] thought of.26
In his “Editorial Thoughts” for January 8, 1870, he wrote:
Let children have such reading [as novels], and it will not be long before the plain truth will not satisfy them. Their appetites will be spoiled for it, they will grow up novel-readers. This habit of novel reading is very common in these days, and is the cause of many of the evils which prevail in the world.27
Novels, he asserted, containing such “unnatural and grossly improbable exaggerations” as they did, would lead to destruction of human character.28 With a momentum that would continue for nearly a quarter century after Brigham Young’s death, Cannon wrote in an 1881 issue of the Juvenile Instructor:
As you value your children’s future, banish novels from your habitations. Discourage the reading of fiction. It poisons the mind; it destroys the memory; it wastes valuable time; it warps the imagination; it conveys wrong impressions; it unfits the person indulging in it for the stern and important duties of life.29
“Novel reading” is addictive and seductive, he editorialized in an 1884 issue, and has “the same effect on the mind, . . . as dram drinking, or tea drinking has upon the body. It is a species of dissipation.” Novel-readers “become day-dreamers,” he explained:
They are only happy when they can take refuge, as a dram-drinker would to liquor, in novel reading. They bury themselves in their novels and allow their feelings to be wrought upon by the painful trials and woes of their heroes and heroines, who only exist in the imagination of their authors30 [fig. 6].
Brigham’s Contemporaries Condemn Novel Reading
The inevitable triumph of the novel, regionally and nationally, over the likes of Brigham Young, George Q. Cannon, and associates was not always deemed inevitable. In fact, as Bruce W. Jorgensen points out, nationally, there were more influential voices than those of the Latter-day Saints decrying in the wilderness of early- and mid-nineteenth-century America.31
As Richard Hofstadter shows in his study Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the young American nation, grounded in common sense, practical democracy and seeking selfhood, had, like the early Mormons, stigmatized “literature . . . as the prerogative of useless aristocracies.”32 In spite of the stigma, as early as 1818, Thomas Jefferson remarked on “the inordinate passion prevalent for novels” among the American people. He insisted, long before Brigham Young used the same image to castigate novel reading, that “when this poison [of novel reading] infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. . . . The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real business of life.”33 Social critics such as Jefferson believed that history and biography had more truth to recommend than sentimental fiction, whose questionable values could all too easily transfer into real life.34
Jorgensen shows how Mormon leaders found common cause with many practical-minded, democratic early nineteenth-century American intellectuals. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was joined in condemning the ill effects of novel reading “by such luminaries as Timothy Dwight, Noah Webster, and Benjamin Rush.” As late as 1891, William Dean Howells, the father of American literary realism and a major novelist, cited General Ulysses S. Grant’s confession that “whatever in my mental make-up is wild and visionary, whatever is untrue, whatever is injurious, I can trace to the perusal of some work of fiction.” Grant continued that the “high-strung and super-sensitive ideas of life” found in novels make “one who has wept over the impossibly accumulated sufferings of some gaudy hero or heroine” oblivious to the everyday distresses of the poor and needy.35
The American transcendentalists, who share with Mormonism a reverence for the reality of transcendent spirituality, shared Brigham Young’s views about imaginative fiction as an obstacle to self-realization and to harmony with what they called the Over-Soul. Although he may not have specifically attacked the novel as a form, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay “The Poet,” praised high-minded poetry, which enables poets to become “liberating Gods,” by urging fellow mortals, “standing on the brink of the waters and truth,” to plunge into Universal Truth. Nowhere here, however, did the Sage of Concord suggest that access to such transcendent truth could be attained via the novel, with its sensuous, sensual, and earthy purposes.36
And in his chapter on reading in Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau, Emerson’s high-minded friend, not only echoed Brigham Young in praising good books but also chastened those who “dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading.” In a manner akin to President Young’s mocking mimicry, Thoreau skewered readers of romantic novels:
They read the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sophronia, and how they loved as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true love run smooth,—at any rate, how it did run and stumble, and get up again and go on! how some poor unfortunate got up on to a steeple, who had better never have gone up as far as the belfry; and then, having needlessly got him up there, the happy novelist rings the bell for all the world to come together and hear, O dear! how he did get down again!37
Thoreau mused, “For my part, I think that they had better metamorphose all such aspiring heroes of universal noveldom into . . . weather-cocks, . . . and let them swing round there till they are rusty, and not come down at all to bother honest men with their pranks.” He opined that “the next time the novelist rings the bell I will not stir though the meeting-house burn down.” He concluded that “our story-books,” and “our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.”38
Faintly but clearly, a reader may hear Brigham chuckling approvingly from his perch in the Over-Soul, as Thoreau thunders that novel reading begets “dulness of sight, stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general delirium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties. This sort of gingerbread,” he avered sadly, “is baked daily and more sedulously than pure wheat or rye-and-Indian in almost every oven, and finds a surer market.”39 Whether reading mere “gingerbread” with Thoreau or “swallowing poisonous herbs” with Young, novel-readers are deemed to be in grave spiritual danger.
Scholars Account for Brigham Young’s Views
Whence, then, amidst general antipathies, came what Susa Young Gates would call her father’s “Puritan’s prejudice”40 against the novel? There is no tidy chain of causation for the dramatic shift in attitude of Brigham Young and his associates between 1853, when President Young benignly countenanced the novel and other pastimes, and 1862, when he resoundingly denounced the novel as evil. Certainly, internal events and outside pressures had urged upon President Young the need for reform, retrenchment, and a general hunkering-down before menaces from both within and without. The ensuing defensive isolationism led to the Mormon Reformation of 1856–57 and contributed to the isolation-shattering Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 1857 and the Utah War of 1857–58. The war, in turn, led to de facto integration of Utah Territory into the Union and, ultimately, to the loss of the dream of independence asserted in Charles W. Penrose’s battle hymn, “Up, Awake Ye Defenders of Zion,” in which the Saints defiantly sang:
Soon “the Kingdom” shall be independent;
In wonder the nations will view
The despised ones in glory resplendent;
Then let us be faithful and true!41
Increasing communications and commerce with the East, intensified by the Gold Rush of 1849 and the rising importance of Salt Lake City as “the crossroads of the West” for westering Americans and for the gentile-driven mining industry, culminated in the opening of the transcontinental railroad. Joined at Promontory Point, Utah Territory, in 1869, the railroad brought outsiders and eastern commodities to Utah in increasing numbers. With increased access to eastern merchants came an influx of publications of all varieties, from “yellow literature” and dozens of popular magazines and journals to the ancient and modern classics—and certainly the English (and American) novel.42
The novel in English first appeared in England in the guise of morally instructive, cautionary novels or romances written by such authors as Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe, 1719; Moll Flanders, 1722), Samuel Richardson (Pamela, 1740), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones, 1749), and Sir Walter Scott (Rob Roy, 1818; Ivanhoe, 1819). In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, novel reading spread throughout the United States with increased literacy, political independence, and the rise of the popular press. The purchase of novels blossomed with the United States’ first worldwide best seller, Washington Irving’s Sketch Book (1819–20), and bloomed in the 1830s with James Fenimore Cooper’s five-volume Leatherstocking Tales (1823–41), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837), and his daring classic, The Scarlet Letter (1850). Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which everyone read—and viewed in countless stage performances—appeared soon after Herman Melville’s dark and questioning Moby Dick (1851), which few read until its rediscovery in the 1920s. Hawthorne and Melville mark the beginnings of a shift to the darkening of romance, which ushered in, on the heels of the Civil War and the “new science” of evolutionary biology, American literary realism and literary determinism—which Brigham Young might have found less foolish than fictional romances but certainly more troubling.
Karen Lynn Davidson asserts that Brigham Young’s reactions against novel reading were—as Latter-day Saint objections have “always” been—“objections to particular content,” to sensational, yellow-backed dime novels or sentimental “story papers,” and not “to narrative or fictional forms.” She claims that “the genre itself was not suspect.”43 In fact, however, the antinovel statements of Presidents Young, Woodruff, and Cannon reveal not only their condemnation of the “yellow-paper” school of romantic and sentimental journalism but also demonstrate a Thoreau-like rejection of the “trifling” and “lying” nature of imaginative fiction, whether romantic or realist, sentimental or sensational (fig. 7). Brigham Young seems to have turned a deaf ear not only to popular fiction but, with Cannon, also to the “novels of the old school.”44 President Young not only mocked the typical plots that characterize the whole of noveldom but also closed his life with that specific and damning counsel to his son Feramorz to “sell his Dickens.”
Another important and generally overlooked explanation for Brother Brigham’s antipathy to the novel may be found in his irritation at the increasing number of aggravating anti-Mormon novels depicting the evil and heinousness of himself, Heber C. Kimball, and other Mormon leaders, as well as the supposed follies of the misguided and lascivious Mormon people. While Leonard J. Arrington and Jon Haupt see such outrageous propaganda as a source of irritation for President Young and his successors, they do not suggest that such sensationalism intensified the repudiation of the novel by Mormon leaders. Still, it is likely that General Authorities’ views of the genre as being shot through with “the spirit of lying” were enhanced by the novelists’ lurid and fanciful tales about the Latter-day Saints.45
In The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (1997), an important study of the impact of anti-Mormon literature upon the worldwide image of the Latter-day Saints in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Terryl L. Givens makes a convincing case on behalf of Mormon repulsion at the nonsense found in the fifty or so anti-Mormon novels published between 1853 and the turn of the century. Lurid novels such as John Russell’s The Mormoness; or, The Trials of Mary Maverick (1853), and Alfreda Eva Bell’s Boadicea, The Mormon Wife (1855; fig. 8) were calculated, Givens demonstrates, to make Mormons appear as Other, Oriental, Outside, and Ostracized, as a people who were not only Christian heretics but also demonic, evil, wicked, and perverse.46
Nor would certain sly accounts of the Mormons have been any more appreciated by the people who were the objects of the authors’ wit. Brigham Young was doubtless not amused by the treatment of himself and his people in the humorous fiction of Artemus Ward (Charles Farrer Browne), who visited Salt Lake City in 1864 and lectured in the United States and Great Britain on the “much-married Saints” until his untimely death in 1867, or in Mark Twain’s comic manhandling of things Mormon in Roughing It (1872).47
Brigham Young’s Critique Is Fueled by His Zion Vision
While such sociological, religious, and literary reasons may help explain Brigham Young’s antipathies for novel reading, they fall short of explaining the deeper reasons for his antagonism, which lie, finally, less in the novels themselves, than in his all-consuming vision of the destiny of the kingdom of God and the urgency of founding and establishing a Zion people in preparation for the Coming Lord. Without understanding his Zion vision, one can have no thorough understanding of the man—or of his antipathies for anything that might vitiate that vision. Emerging from the vast body of his discourses, journals, and letter books is the image of a man with a mission, a prophet impelled by profound faith and utmost confidence in his God. President Young’s writings and discourses attest to his fundamental, purposeful, and principle-based theology, which shoots a gridline from South Temple and Main Streets deep into the universe, where he seems to anchor his every discourse, decision, or act.48
Understanding something of his purposes not only enables insight into his mistrust of the worldly and earth-bound novel but also provides a deeper look into his comprehensive vision of the destiny of the Latter-day Saints. Reviewed contextually, Brigham Young’s urgings, after 1862, that the Latter-day Saints shun novel reading for the sake of their mortal and immortal souls follow a predictable pattern that is consistent with his own vision for building Zion and with his practical and workmanlike plan for shaping a people worthy to live there. For him, novel reading of any kind was a waste of time and an obstacle to schooling and refining the human soul. President Young’s heaven and earth were seamlessly joined at the soul. His conversion to Mormonism together with his unshakeable belief in the Prophet Joseph Smith and his revelations were unchanging facts that led Brigham Young to join into one both the Kingdom of God–Salt Lake City and the Kingdom of God–Kolob.49 This knowledge of the destiny of humankind, learned at Joseph Smith’s knee, set in Brigham’s soul the divine patterns against which he would measure every decision and act of his long life. He saw the plan clearly and expressed it with simplicity and power. In June 1860, for example, he told the Saints, as he would tell them repeatedly in the future, that it is the plan of God
to organize an earth, people it with intelligent beings, present to them the principles of eternal life, and bestow upon them the keys thereof, that they may be able to prepare themselves to dwell to all eternity, and to bring forth their increase to dwell with them. This is our belief.50
In fulfilling God’s plan of happiness, President Young asked the Saints on the same occasion, “What is our duty?” and answered, “To promote the kingdom of God on the earth.” He continued, “Every sentiment and feeling should be to cleanse the earth from wickedness, to purify the people, sanctify the nations, gather the nations of Israel home, and build up Zion, . . . and establish the reign and kingdom of God on the earth. Let that be the heart’s desire and labour of every individual every moment.”51 In the context of such purpose, novel reading would diminish and divert, being a mere “lusting after the grovelling things of this life which perish with the handling”52 (fig. 9).
In addition to the first principles and ordinances of the Church, four other principles seem central to Brigham Young’s theology:
Urgency. “If I spend a minute that is not in some way devoted to building up the Kingdom of God and promoting righteousness, I regret that minute, and wish it had been otherwise spent.” And it is, he insisted, “the Spirit of the Lord” that reminded him of his purpose.53 Motivated by such intensity and focused purpose, it is no wonder that Brigham saw novel reading, or any pastime which does not advance the cause of God and teach His mortal children, as a waste of mortality. Even recreation and amusement, which Brigham Young strongly advocated, was to teach fundamental principles such as kingdom building, personal refinement, “opposition in all things,” and the human need to relax in order to conserve and focus one’s strengths and abilities toward consecrated ends.54
Sacrifice. Brigham Young learned from the Prophet Joseph Smith of the necessity of personal sacrifice as a manifestation of faith. President Young repeatedly tested the mettle of the Latter-day Saints pouring into the Great Basin by reminding them—even as he sent the Swiss Saints into the sand dunes of Santa Clara or called a husband and father to leave his family for yet another proselytizing mission abroad—of Joseph Smith’s teaching that “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things” is a false religion.55
Learning. Brigham Young told the Saints in 1853, and regularly thereafter, “Inasmuch as the Lord Almighty has designed us to know all that is in the earth, both the good and the evil, and to learn not only what is in heaven, but what is in hell, you need not expect ever to get through learning.”56 In addition to reading the standard works, Brigham repeatedly counseled the Saints to “read good books,” adding, “Although I cannot say that I would recommend the reading of all books, for it is not all books which are good. Read good books, and extract from them wisdom and understanding as much as you possibly can, aided by the Spirit of God, for without His Spirit we are left in the dark.”57 And he urged the Saints to avoid “every study that only tends to perplex the student and waste his valuable time.”58 But he did not limit the boundaries of scholarship. “It is your duty,” he told the Saints, “to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading [the scriptures]. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.”59
Brigham Young’s vision of Zion-in-the-mountain-tops drove his desire to teach the Saints to keep their eyes peeled on heaven while inspecting the flow of their irrigation ditches. He wanted them to understand the order and plan of God, and their places in it. And he desired to teach soul-saving humility by testing their willingness to sacrifice their all for the building of the kingdom of God and to “Learn! Learn! Learn!” during every mortal moment.
Controlling the impulse to read novels or view tragedies or race horses was seen as a positive step up from self-indulgence to self-mastery. Brigham Young proclaimed that the “greatest mystery a man ever learned is to know how to control the human mind and bring every faculty and power . . . in subjection to Jesus Christ; this is the greatest mystery we have to learn while in these tabernacles of clay.”60 Finding the spiritual solution to this mystery is for the Latter-day Saints something “lovely, . . . of good report [and] praiseworthy.”61
Craftsmanship. Brigham Young’s respect for order lies at the heart of his insistence on organization, obedience, and the laws of God. Such “fitly framed” craftsmanship underlies his reliance upon planning, organization, practicality, common sense, hard work, and continuing sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.
In short, Brigham’s vision was of the kingdom of God as a Zion society built by competent craftsmen who wielded well-honed tools—both temporal and spiritual—skillfully and exactly. The master Saint-maker envisioned the kingdom of God as “workmanlike, the building through”62 and tolerated neither lessening nor diminution of that vision of the City on a Hill. He had a clear-eyed vision of an earthly kingdom of God, and keeping that vision clear made him intolerant of the myopic skewings of romantic novels, harmful tragedy, or visionless Saints.
The Saints Write Their Own Fiction
But Church leaders’ stand on the undesirability of novel reading would collapse by the end of the nineteenth century, undermined by the Latter-day Saints’ need to accommodate the nation, the world, and a new century. In light of the polygamy raids of the 1880s, the Manifesto of 1890, the disbanding of the Church’s political party in 1891, and the long-delayed arrival of statehood in 1896, a new generation of Latter-day Saints desired to downplay their “peculiar people” status and assimilate into mainstream America without, their leaders fervently hoped, compromising the integrity of the restored gospel.
Such accommodation, however, brought them into confrontation with the flourishing movements of American literary realism and literary naturalism and necessitated a kind of literary compromise by the Mormon people. The answer of fin-de-siècle Latter-day Saint leaders to the increasing interest in fiction was the development of Mormon home literature.63 The movement was spurred into being by four influential leaders: Elder Orson F. Whitney, poet, writer, bishop of Salt Lake City’s Eighteeenth Ward, and later a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (1906–31); Elder B. H. Roberts, historian, theologian, member of the First Council of the Seventy (1888–1933), and among many things the author of fiction based on the Book of Mormon and of one short novel, Corianton, which was adapted as a stage play;64 Susa Young Gates, Brigham Young’s influential daughter, writer of fiction, and founding editor of the Young Woman’s Journal (1889–1929); and Nephi Anderson, Church genealogist and editor of several Latter-day Saint journals including the short-lived Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine (1910–14). Anderson followed the lead of Whitney, Roberts, and Gates in writing his landmark Mormon novel, Added Upon (1898, and still in print), to which he added nine popular and still quaintly readable Mormon novels.
Through the influence of these four and others, the home literature movement turned the irrepressible popularity of the novel into a didactic forum for teaching Mormon truths via “the good, pure, elevating kind” of literature that centered on Mormon themes, reflected Mormon ideals, and encouraged the Saints to look to the day when they would have, on Latter-day Saint terms, “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”65 Home literature proffered the most enobling pleasures of contemporary novel reading and could be indulged in as literary spoons-ful of sugar—to sweeten and lighten the rigors of righteousness while teaching and illustrating sound Mormon principles and values. Writing in the first issue of the Improvement Era, Anderson explained that “if one has a message to deliver, he puts it into a novel, into a living breathing thing.”66 So why not, he asked, put the message of the Restoration into such an acceptable package, thereby harnessing and directing the powers of literature to the ends of Saint making.
And nobody even asked Brigham Young. Bowing before the inevitable incursions of the novel into the City on a Hill—even into his own home—Brigham Young, when and wherever he heard about this startling development, may have grumbled his acquiescence, especially when he learned that daughter Susa had her hand in it. I am less confident about George Q. Cannon’s response—but he was, it turns out, a great compromiser.67
Brigham may one day be permitted to inquire from beyond the veil about present-day (and novel-reading) Saints, “How sails the good ship Zion?” Then, peering quizzically at the John Grisham novel in my hand and the Louis L’Amour in yours, he may launch his favorite test question: “Novel reading—is it profitable [—yet]?”
Were we able to answer him, we would hasten to explain that Gerald Lund’s nine-volume The Work and the Glory series is next on our “must-read list,” and we would update him on the advent and continuation of contemporary home literature. “Sounds just like something my Susa would do,” he would sigh, and then, raising his eyebrows, he would add, with a deeper sigh, “Won’t you ever learn that ‘there is nothing but the Gospel to hang on to[?]’”68 Then, peering over my shoulder at my new sixty-four-inch virtual reality television console with voice-activated remote, ice-maker, popcorn popper, and pizza warmer, Brigham would ask, “Television—is it profitable?” And, seeing my guilty face, he would mutter, familiarly, “[View] on, and get the spirit of lying in which [these stories] are written, and then lie on until you find yourselves in hell.”
“Your time,” I’m afraid he would say, looking directly in my eyes, “is far spent; there is little remaining. . . . How are you going to use it, buster?”