The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy

For those who take interest in how Mormonism is portrayed in the public media, Viper on the Hearth is a stimulating read. On one level, it is perhaps the most detailed and sophisticated study to date of patterns of representation in nineteenth-century anti-Mormonism moving beyond a mere recitation of the already well-documented “proclivity to depict the Mormons as a violent and peculiar people.” Its novelty lies in its explanation of the origins of anti-Mormon literature, with implications down to the present day.

Author Terryl Givens’s argument is that in nineteenth-century America “the pressures of pluralism made it desirable to cast the objectionability of Mormonism in nonreligious terms.” The rootedness of religious tolerance in America’s ideological mythology made it virtually impossible to extirpate a religion from the body politic. Thus, the Mormon “other” had to be constructed in such a way that its persecution was a manifestation of patriotism rather than bigotry. In this way, specious claims about Mormonism being a social and political threat were reified.

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