A Picturesque and Dramatic History: George Reynolds's Story of the Book of Mormon

A Picturesque and Dramatic History: George Reynolds's Story of the Book of Mormon
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A Picturesque and Dramatic History: George Reynolds's Story of the Book of Mormon

Author Noel A. Carmack

George Reynolds's 1888 The Story of the Book of Mormon was the first published book attempting to illustrate Book of Mormon events, characters, and settings. Contributing painters looked to American historical artists for stylistic inspiration and used biblical imagery to convey that Book of Mormon peoples were from the Near East. They often created settings reminiscent of ancient Central America, including Mayan temples and ruins. The book was used widely in Primary and Sunday School, and its appeal may have contributed to the Deseret News's 1890 call for more Mormon-specific religious art to aid in the classroom. While modern readers may not be impressed by the quality of nineteenth-century artwork included in Reynolds's book, The Story of the Book of Mormon was significant in being the first to establish what the characters and setting of the Book of Mormon may have looked like.


If asked about art featuring the Book of Mormon, few Latter-day Saints of today would fail to bring to mind Arnold Friberg’s large, heroic characters and epic scenes. Others have a growing affection for the colorful Book of Mormon paintings by Minerva Teichert.1 These two artists produced some of the most recognizable images to illustrate the Book of Mormon in the last century. In the second half of the twentieth century, Latter-day Saints saw a significant rise in the use of the Book of Mormon as a proselyting tool and principal selling point, contributing to the Church’s rapid worldwide growth. It is not surprising, then, that in more than one hundred and seventy-five years since its publication, the Book of Mormon has inspired scores of visual images meant to bring life to the book’s protagonists and geographic scenery. Many of these visuals have made a significant impact on our imaginative perceptions of Book of Mormon lands and peoples.

While Reuben Kirkham and others produced large painted canvases for his traveling panorama show from 1885 to 1886,2 it is scarcely known that the first published attempt at illustrating the Book of Mormon was in 1888, with the publication of The Story of the Book of Mormon by George Reynolds. Reynolds, best known as the voluntary subject for the Supreme Court test case against polygamy in 1878, showed his deep conviction for the scriptural text by popularizing the Book of Mormon narrative and providing enlivening visuals to help tell the story.3 In the preface, Reynolds presented his prospectus to the work:

This volume presents one unique feature, in that it is the first attempt made to illustrate the Book of Mormon; and we have pleasure in realizing that the leading illustrations are the work of home artists. To break fresh ground in such a direction is no light undertaking; the difficulties are numerous, none more so than the absence of information in the Book of Mormon of the dress and artificial surroundings of the peoples whose history it recounts. Each artist has given his own ideas of the scenes depicted, and as so much is left to the imagination, some readers will doubtless praise where others will blame; and the same effort will be the subject of the most conflicting criticism.4

Reynolds’s intention was not only to bring an easy-to-read text of the scriptural narrative to children and young adults, but to bring together the latest in archaeology and scholarship on the pre-Columbian Americas. To historicize and authenticate the work, he provided line drawings of Aztecan charts, maps, and engravings of Mesoamerican writings and glyphs. The story itself was illustrated with dramatic narrative images. These illustrations were “reproduced from paintings and drawings specially prepared for the work by able and well known artists,” including George Ottinger, William Armitage, John Held Sr., and William “Billy” C. Morris.5

Immediately following his release as a “prisoner for conscience’ sake” in 1881, Reynolds began researching and preparing his Complete Concordance of the Book of Mormon, his Dictionary of the Book of Mormon, and his compilation, The Story of the Book of Mormon. In 1888, Reynolds wrote in his journal:

During the Fall I collected my writings on Book of Mormon subjects that had appeared during the last ten years in the Juvenile Instructor, Exponant [sic], Contributor, Deseret News + Millennial Star, and adding several chapters thereto to make it a continuous narrative from Lehi to Moroni I put it into book form and agreed with Bro. Jos. H. Parry for its publication. It appeared on December 20th under the title of ‘The Story of the Book of Mormon.’ The agreement with myself and Bro Parry was that we were to divide equally all profits. An edition of 5,000 was published. It was i[l]lustrated by Ottinger, Held, Armitage, Morris (of our home artists) and others.6

When The Story of the Book of Mormon appeared in December 1888, the Millennial Star carried a book notice that had been published in the West Yorkshire Brighouse and Rastrick Gazette, lauding the book’s appearance as a “handsome, gorgeously and profusely illustrated and exquisitely-printed volume, fit to be placed in any parlour,” a result of “profound research, deep, critical, and discriminative thought.” The reviewers also referred to the book as “a picturesque and dramatic history,” reminding them of the “thrilling and the pictorial style of Dean Stanley,” Bishop of Norwitch and author of the popular Sinai and Palestine in Connection with Their History (1856).7 Other notices placed in the Deseret News and Parry’s Monthly Magazine made special mention of the illustrations and charts for the purpose of attracting the interest of young readers.8

Through his Book of Mormon project, Reynolds sought to reach the younger generations who had not yet formulated literary and visual imagery from the dramatic scriptural narrative. His Story of the Book of Mormon synthesized growing interest in the study of New World civilizations. For Latter-day Saints, it brought Promised Land characters and places to life. But it also reflected the nation’s imaginative transmittal of Western myth and Old World empires on the lost civilizations of America’s past.

A critical examination of the illustrations will show that Story artists employed imagery that was either borrowed from Bible narratives or elements that were clearly meant to show a connection with the peoples and cultures portrayed in the Bible. The use of biblical imagery was an efficient mechanism for showing readers (most specifically young people) that Book of Mormon characters were of Near Eastern origins. Since illustrative material on the Book of Mormon was virtually nonexistent, the artists had to look to the most current research on Mesoamerican archaeology and supplement it with what was then known about Israelitish customs, architecture, native costume, and so on. Naturally, they would have taken their visual cues from published imagery like that of Gustav Doré, John Martin, James Tissot, Bernhard Plockhorst, and others.9

The commissioned artists were known as the best from Latter-day Saint talent. The four chosen for the Story project were members of a small group of congenial working artists in Salt Lake City and were well prepared and experienced to do the illustrative work. Shortly after the opening of the Salt Lake Theater in 1862, George Ottinger and William “Billy” C. Morris found employment painting stage scenery and decorations.10 Armitage, Ottinger, and Morris were also three of the founding members of the Salt Lake Art Society, organized in October 1881.11 Although their styles varied somewhat, the artists had known each other as friends and probably relished the idea of working together on a project of this sort. Known for his religious and historical subjects, Armitage was one of the most skillful of the group, but because of his untimely death in California in 1890, very few of his paintings are known to exist.12 An engraver and printer, John Held Sr. was not formally trained as an artist but had several years’ experience creating woodblock prints and line drawings for the Deseret News and Parry’s Monthly Magazine.13

William Armitage’s only contribution to the book, The Glorious Appearing of Jesus to the Nephites (fig. 1), served as the book’s frontispiece. This painting appears to have been executed in the tradition of the dean of American historical painting, Benjamin West. In fact, if we compare the placement and gesture of Christ, and note the posturing of surrounding figures, we can see a striking similarity in style to that of West’s in his Christ Healing the Sick (fig. 2). The open arms of Christ and the astonishment and resultant gesturing of the figures suggests that Armitage may well have used West’s painting as his source of inspiration.

That Armitage and other Story artists were looking at American historical painters for their inspiration would not have been unusual. Painters such as Benjamin West, John Vanderlyn, John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull, Charles Willson Peale, and Washington Allston set the precedent for nineteenth-century Grand Manner history painting in America.14 Often associated with the teachings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Grand Style or Grand Manner is a term that connotes a style that “ennobles the painter’s art” by depicting “some eminent instance of heroic action, or heroic suffering.” History painting done in the Grand Manner ostensibly elevated viewers to a higher state by depicting ideal or noble subjects taken from classical and religious history. Grand Manner artists looked to the “authority” of masterpieces created in classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, studying the works of such masters as Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Correggio, and Poussin. Taking their inspiration from classical figures in antiquity, such as Apollo, Venus, Ariadne, and Marius, the artists sought to bring “intellectual dignity” and “excellence” to artistic renderings of historical events.15 In this case, the Story artists—particularly Ottinger (fig. 3)—visually recreated events from the Book of Mormon narrative in the tradition of Grand Manner American history painters such as West, Vanderlyn and Copley.16

The first created image in the series, and perhaps the historical antecedent to all of the paintings in the series, George Ottinger’s Baptism of Limhi, was a large pastoral scene showing Alma baptizing the early convert at the waters of Mormon as described in Mosiah 25:17–18. According to Ottinger, The Baptism of Limhi was a monumental piece, measuring seven and a half feet by five feet. It and other smaller cartoons (preliminary sketches) of Book of Mormon subjects were conceived long before The Story of the Book of Mormon appeared in print. In an 1872 entry to his journal, Ottinger recorded that The Baptism of Limhi was “the first Picture ever painted from a subject suggested by the Book of Mormon.” As encouraged as he was by the progress of the painting, he was less than hopeful about selling the piece. “I don’t know of any one who will buy it,” he wrote, “but our State Fair offers a gold medal for the best picture this fall and I am going to try for it.”17 A short time later, Ottinger wrote, “Two or three days more work will finish the baptism of Limhi, the largest picture I have painted so far.”18 His next mention of the painting was significant, because it shows his interest in creating more images as part of a larger series of paintings on Book of Mormon subjects:

The Baptism of Limhi seems to give general satisfaction. I have spent some eight years gathering material for subjects suggested by the Book of Mormon. This picture is the first. I have been just twenty days putting it on canvas. Should I meet with ordinary success this winter, I will paint another subject from the same book. I have some ideas of making twelve cartoons in black and white this winter, illustrating the Book of Mormon.19

As he had hoped, the painting was completed in the fall and exhibited at the Territorial State Fair. The newspaper correspondent noted that Ottinger’s Baptism of Limhi was “the largest and among the finest” in the art exhibition. “The landscape,” he wrote, “is supposed to represent a scene in the northern part of South America. The two principal figures stand out in bold relief, while the crowd of spectators on the banks of the river, witnessing the baptismal ceremony, are beautifully and tastefully grouped.”20 The image reproduced in The Story of the Book of Mormon (fig. 4) lacks the detail in the figures and ornament that one would expect from the large-scale piece described by Ottinger and the State Fair correspondent. This leads one to believe that the published illustration is more likely a cartoon, like one of those mentioned by Ottinger in his 1872 journal entry.

Another Story painting, First Sacrifice on the Promised Land (fig. 5), depicts Father Lehi offering sacrifice in thanks for the group’s safe arrival in the New Word. Lehi is prominently shown in front of the altar with his arms stretched upward in an attitude of prayer, surrounded by his family and that of Ishmael.21 An active volcano emits vapors in the distance while the arc of a rainbow leads our eyes back to Lehi, the central focus of the painting. The rainbow reveals that Ottinger was not only borrowing biblical imagery for a Book of Mormon narrative with little or no visual precedent but was illustrating an event that was never described in the Book of Mormon text itself (see 1 Ne. 18:23–25). By using the rainbow, he may well have been playing off of an Old Testament image with which many young readers could identify. Perhaps by using the token of the covenant between God, Noah, and the inhabitants of the earth, it would show that God’s benevolent promises extend to all of the children of Abraham—including those who had crossed the great waters to arrive in the Promised Land.

Although Ottinger would make the largest contribution to Reynolds’s project, he evidently didn’t think it significant enough to regularly note in his journal. His observations are devoid of any further mention of The Story of the Book of Mormon images, other than the Baptism of Limhi. It is worth noting, however, that Ottinger completed other historical paintings which reflect his interest in Mesoamerican antiquities.22 In 1887, he recorded: “January. Painted on the ‘Maya Sculptor’ a little but have very little incentive, so set it aside until I can grind up a little more inspiration.”23 When the Maya Sculptor (fig. 6) was published in the Improvement Era nearly twenty-three years later, Ottinger wrote:

In some of the ruins of the old cities, especially at Copan, there are clusters of square stone pillars or obelisks varying from twelve to twenty feet high. They are elaborately sculptured, showing human figures, ornamental designs and hieroglyphic inscriptions on their sides. The picture represents a Maya sculptor, elevated on his scaffolding, laboriously and patiently working out his conception of a deified king or hero, which evidently these monoliths personify.24

Ottinger’s propensity for historical subjects would have been no surprise to the viewing public. He had been touted as one of the territory’s leading artists, whose chosen pastime was the cultivation of his talent for “historical painting, a branch of the art which requires careful study as well as skill in using the brush.”25

Considered one of Utah’s most respected artists, Ottinger supported himself and his family working as Salt Lake City’s fire chief, and he tried to make additional income by hand coloring photographs and selling his historical paintings to Salt Lake City patrons.26 That he “spent some eight years gathering material” to paint Book of Mormon subjects indicates that he had been looking at the published research on the Maya and the discoveries of ancient glyphs and decorated friezes unearthed in the Yucatan. “Ah, here is a vast, almost unexplored vista, mysterious, new and picturesque!” he wrote. “Old America with all her pre-historic treasures, a store-house of material, that needed only study, time and patience to make interesting and of value; and in this direction my studies have been chiefly directed for years.”27 By the time he and the other Story artists had received their commission, Ottinger would have been well acquainted with Frederick Catherwood’s illustrations for John Lloyd Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán (1841), Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (1843), and Catherwood’s own Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán (1844).28 He would also have undoubtedly seen William H. Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico (1843) which was in wide circulation and contained a number of line drawings showing the elaborate stone carvings and architectural wonders of the Aztecs. Ottinger’s painting Flowers of Cola Luyona, for example, clearly shows a finely executed reproduction of The Altar of the Temple of the Sun at Palenque, which was originally drawn by Catherwood and engraved by Archibald Dick for Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, a complex design not only appearing as an illustration but also used for the cover of the book.29

During the height of Ottinger’s efforts at historical painting, archaeological exploration in Mexico and the Yucatan was at a new high point. Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon were two of the earliest to excavate and photograph numerous Maya ruins in the Yucatan. Although their work was regarded as somewhat eccentric and speculative, the Le Plongeons brought the world some of the first photographic images of the Central American ruins. Contemporaneous to the work of the Le Plongeons, Désiré Charnay published his photographic record of Yucatan’s pre-Columbian monuments and ruins in Ancient Cities of the New World (1887). The photographs of Alfred Maudslay, accompanied by the colored line drawings of his two artists, Edwin J. Lambert and Annie G. Hunter, were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society in 1883 and 1886.30

In addition, Ottinger’s cataclysmic painting Destruction of Zarahemla (fig. 7), taken from 3 Nephi 8:6–8, appears to have been stylistically influenced by two of the most distinguished historical painters, Nicolas Poussin and Benjamin West. The overall composition and placement of figures suggests that Ottinger drew from the widely known religious painting Death on the Pale Horse (fig. 8), by West. The horses, chariot, and terror-stricken figures in Ottinger’s painting are similar in many ways to the visual arrangement of West’s apocalyptic image. Two fallen figures in the foreground of Ottinger’s rendering appear to have been inspired by West’s figures of a fallen mother and children in Pale Horse. Furthermore, if we compare Ottinger’s Destruction with Poussin’s drawings The Conversion of St. Paul and The Death of Hippolytus, we will notice even more striking visual similarities in the gesture of the horses, the chariot, darkened clouds, and fleeing figures.31

With this comparison in mind, we can be relatively confident that Ottinger was well familiar with both West’s and Poussin’s work. Ottinger shared the same interest in classicism and historical narratives that are depicted in Poussin’s drawings and paintings. Traditionally, West’s and Poussin’s works have been linked with drama and scenery paintings, bringing life to the events being portrayed on stage.32 Ottinger’s skills and experience were created from this same tradition. If we, as spectators, visually perceive Ottinger’s images as those which are created for a grand-scale drama, we can readily see the similarities of style and two-dimensional action to that of Poussin’s. And, indeed, we see echoes of Poussin in Ottinger’s background landcapes, his posturing of figures, and his placement of the activities depicted within the pictorial space, as if we are watching a drama unfold on stage.33

It is this theatrical arrangement in the composition of paintings that informed the art of the High Renaissance and, ultimately, the neoclassicism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Historically, the approach to composition was often characterized by the unity of a sequential narrative, with many events and places located in the same pictorial space. Or, in other examples, a historical event is depicted with its protagonists as the central focus, while supporting players act out minor scenes in the surrounding space. In its classicized form, a picture would appear as a window looking out on one scene. It would require that the background, at least, be “recognizable as one place, although it continued to be common to depict more than one moment in time in the single spacial surrounding.”34 This manner of theatrically arranging figures within a visual narrative is also thought to have been employed by American historical painters such as West, Copely, and Trumbull. Britain’s own Sir Joshua Reynolds is believed to have based his ideals of Grand Style classicism in painting on the arrangement of figures on a stage. A widely read painting manual by Daniel Webb, for example, conveyed the neoclassical ideals of history painting as having their origins in drama:

History painting is the representation of a momentary drama: We may therefore, in treating of compositions, borrow our ideas from the stage; and divide it into two parts, the scenery, and the drama. The excellence of the first consists in a pleasing disposition of the figures which comprise the action.35

In these compositional terms, a reverence for classicism, intellectual dignity, and noble, heroic action could best be visualized within the context of the theater. Grand Manner was a style that was founded upon theaterlike imagery.

In addition to being influenced by dramatic Grand Manner history painting, the Story illustrations came on the heels of other historical visualizations of pre-European New World empires.36 Josiah Priest’s widely read 1833 publication American Antiquities generated curiosity in the origins of Native Americans that spilled over to visual conceptions of how the native peoples might have looked and lived. The work of poets and novelists, including William Cullen Bryant and Sarah J. Hale, fed into the aura of mystery surrounding the Promised Land’s vanished race.37 Early American painters and panoramists, such as John Egan, painted grand visions of the once-resourceful and warlike “Mound Builders” who lived in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. Speculation regarding these lost civilizations provoked the mythic theories that they were the lost tribes of Israel, that they were Vikings or Phoenician migrants, or that they were from Egypt or Atlantis. The work of Stephens and Catherwood also seemed to support the Latter-day Saint view of a new world colonized by three small groups of people descended from Israelitish tribes.38

Although the Story illustrations do not approach Friberg’s skill for capturing the heroism of Book of Mormon characters or the naturalistic manner in which he visualized them, they convey the “nineteenth-century Mormons’ connection between specific archaeological sites and events described in the Book of Mormon.”39 For example, a toppling Mayan monument in Destruction of Zarahemla suggests a correlation between Copan or Quiriqua and Zarahemla and might indicate that Ottinger was aware of Church writings to that effect.40 The scene depicted in Ottinger’s illustration Discovery of the Records of the Jaredites (fig. 9) also appears to owe much to Catherwood’s lithographs of ancient ruins in Central America. The painting shows the discovery of Jaredite records and ruins as described in Mosiah 21:26–27, and is laid out as though it is another act in a stage performance in which figures are placed in front of an elaborate backdrop—a situation with which Ottinger, as a theatrical scene painter, would have been intimately familiar. The principal figures are dressed in Roman frocks and are central to a larger dramatic narrative within the picture plane—yet another indication that Ottinger was following the traditional classicism of the history painters who had preceded him. The minor figures are inspecting the elaborately carved structure and fallen stone carvings. The painted scene shows reliance on Catherwood’s sketches of his own team making similar discoveries of overgrown ruins in the Yucatan (fig. 10).41

Another Ottinger illustration in the Story series, Moroni Raises the Title of Liberty (fig. 11), shows three principal figures at the top of the steps of a Maya temple. One upright figure, Moroni, raises his hands high as he holds the Title of Liberty as described in Alma 46:12–24. A multitude of onlookers crowds the lower steps, waving pieces of their own garments in token of the covenant they made with God, as further described in the scriptural passage. If we compare this image to Ottinger’s Aztec Maiden, we will see that Ottinger was well aware of the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque and similar ruins at Tulum in Mexico (fig. 12). The Roman military garb worn by the figures in this scene, again, indicates that Ottinger was following the nineteenth-century neoclassical tradition. Indeed, the scene is one of theatrical staging, with centrally placed protagonists in costume that suggests a highly ordered, civilized society—a mythologized pre-Columbian empire.

The principal subjects of John Held’s Vision of Nephi (fig. 13), depicting 1 Nephi 11:20, are also shown wearing Romanesque robes; the Madonna and child appear in a visionary cloud overhead, reminiscent of the angelic apparitions which are characteristic of religious paintings of the Italian Baroque period. Again, as with the other artists enlisted in this project, Held was turning to familiar religious imagery. Envisioning the virgin birth would naturally cause one to borrow what other artists had done during religious periods preoccupied with the immaculate status of the mother of Christ.

Held’s illustration Prophets Preaching to the Jaredites (fig. 14), as described in Ether 11:1–2, shows what appears to be a prophet dressed in priestly robes, addressing a group of congregants. The architecture in the image is an ambulatory and radiating chapel with an odd combination of unstuccoed Gothic-style vaults and columns with capitals bearing Persian motifs. Curiously, what appears to be a pedestal font can be seen at the front of worshipers, suggesting the ritual element of baptism.

While the handling of figures is quite primitive in Held’s paintings, he is not unwilling to render complex, action-filled scenes that are rarely seen even in modern visual depictions of Book of Mormon narratives. In what was perhaps his strongest, most skillful piece in the series, Held conveys high drama in his woodblock print The Martyrdoms at Ammonihah (fig. 15). This compelling image shows the believers and their scriptures being consumed by fire as described in Alma 14:8–14. The victims are depicted burning at the stake, while the guards throw their sacred scriptures into the fire with them. Held’s catastrophic image Deliverance of Alma and Amulek (fig. 16) shows the two missionaries breaking their shackles, while pillars and walls crumble down upon their captors (see Alma 14:26–29). Although inelegantly conveyed, these illustrations are visually progressive and reveal more than meets the eye. The dynamism in these images is another indication that Held and the other artists were drawing inspiration from the interactive movement of figures in other historical paintings of the time.

Held’s illustration entitled Appearance of Christ to the Brother of Jared (fig. 17) shows the interplay between man and deity, also revealing the LDS belief in an antemortal Christ who, although appearing in spirit, had a form and visage. Ironically, the figure of Christ is distinguished with a halo, a mystical Christian symbol which is normally excluded from modern Latter-day Saint religious imagery. Nevertheless, the painting is true to the Book of Mormon incident supporting the passage that “Jesus showed himself unto this man in the spirit, even after the manner and in the likeness of the same body even as he showed himself unto the Nephites” (Ether 3:6–28).

By comparison, Held’s illustration The Three Nephites and Wild Beasts (fig. 18; see 3 Ne. 28:22) is somewhat static but reminiscent of other known biblical illustrations showing Daniel in the lion’s den (Dan. 1:8; 6:7–16) or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Assyrian king’s fiery furnace (Dan. 1:6–15; 3:16–30). In like manner, the three Nephite characters face ferocious lions without fear, standing in a shaft of light piercing a darkened dungeon. The theme and casting of these characters in a recognizable visual scene supports the notion that the Story artists were drawing upon biblical narratives that would render the Book of Mormon event comfortably familiar to the young, impressionable reader.

William Morris (fig. 19), whose strength was in the decorative arts, did not have the artistic background to visualize these narratives in a naturalistic way. His dark, nocturnal-like paintings are naive but show his capacity to illustrate a scene with brooding drama. The stark Baroque lighting of his subjects resembles the gaslight illumination of actors on a stage. His contributions to the Story project, Teancum Slays Amalickiah (fig. 20, see Alma 51:33–34) and Ether Finishing His Record (fig. 21, see Ether 15:33), are viscerally painted in darker values, coarsely heightened in areas with contrasting lighter color. Indeed, Morris’s characters are like phantoms who participate in the narrative under a moonlit sky, recalling the Neapolitan Baroque qualities of Salvator Rosa and Monsù Desiderio. He may have also been attempting to emulate the biblical visionary paintings of English Romanticist John Martin. Unfortunately, Morris’s accidental death of gas asphyxiation in January 1889 halted any further development of his artistic training at the New York Academy.42 He died not knowing that Story would become popular.

As it turned out, The Story of the Book of Mormon was a successful seller. Reynolds recorded in his journal that “by the end of the year about 3,000 copies of “The Story of the Book of Mormon ^were^ was sold, and the greater part of the expenses being paid it began to yield a profit.”43 Subsequent editions also proved popular. The Church’s General Board of Education recommended the use of The Story of the Book of Mormon in Church academies and schools as a text. Despite its impressive sales, Hyrum Parry did not continue publishing the book, relinquishing his undivided one-half interest in the copyright, plates, illustrations and unsold copies of Story to George Reynolds for the second 1898 edition and other subsequent editions.44

In a memo addressed to Church educators, Reynolds promoted the sale of the book as a text for use in Church schools. Except for a slight change in the weight of the paper, very little changed in the second edition. “Two or three ugly pictures have been left out in the second edition, and a slight condensation made in the letter press,” Reynolds conceded.45 Two illustrations, Teancum Slays Amalickiah and Prophets Preaching to the Jaredites, were dropped from this edition, presumably because they were considered poorly rendered and did not have the desired level of naturalism. By comparison, the other reproductions in the second edition were clearer and bore a better tonal quality than the first.

Its widespread use in Church lessons indicates that The Story of the Book of Mormon was a useful tool for teaching in the Church Primary and Sunday School organizations. Reynolds, a member of the General Board of the Deseret Sunday School Union, undoubtedly lobbied for more Book of Mormon visuals to be used in religious teaching. A call for more Book of Mormon art in the Deseret News in March 1890 included a list of desired images.46

The importance of historical accuracy could not be overestimated. Teaching children with meaningful visual aids would require that participating artists research their subjects and only include elements that conveyed the sense of proper culture and antiquity. The call for artwork stipulated the need for this integrity by stating, “The Union desires that the artists maintain, as far as possible, the unities of time, place, dress, etc., that the pictures may not be misleading to the children, even in their minor details. The characters therein (except the angels) are all Israelites of the sixth century before Christ, and the localities are Palestine, Arabia and Chili [Chile].”47

This desire for utility in teaching was no less important for the Union’s Book of Mormon Chart series as it was for Reynolds in his Story project. For example, Ottinger created for the Book of Mormon Chart series a new version of First Sacrifice on the Promised Land (see fig. 5) and named it Arrival in the New World (fig. 22). This vertical version was visually composed in the same manner as the first, but without the bow in the clouds. The removal of the rainbow and the placement of the letters “L” for Lehi and “N” for Nephi on the clothing of the two main protagonists shown in the scene helped to distinguish the main characters and avoid potential confusion with the biblical flood story. Such distinguishing marks would make the painting more didactically useful in the classroom.48 In an apparent de-emphasis of mystical symbolism, Ottinger also painted a version of Nephi’s vision of Mary and the Christ child (fig. 23), without the recognizably Baroque Madonna hovering above the Book of Mormon prophet and his angelic guide, as was rendered by Held in his version of the scene (see fig. 13).

By fall 1891, a sufficient number of artists had responded to the call that the list of desired pictures had been filled. “We had our own artists procure premium oil paintings of the important events in the early life of Nephi, etc., which formed the basis of the Book of Mormon charts, which we expect will be ready for sale about February, 1892. We have ordered 5,000 sets of twelve pictures each, and they will be a great aid in teaching the children of Zion the truth and beauty of the Book of Mormon,” proclaimed the Deseret Weekly.49 The first of these illustrative teaching aids were then published in the Juvenile Instructor during the second half of the 1891 subscription year. Although none of the images bear attribution, it appears that the Union used several of Ottinger’s paintings and may well have adopted several more of Armitage’s Book of Mormon illustrations which were painted before his untimely death in 1890. Ottinger’s Baptism of Limhi and his Arrival in the New World were both included in this second series of Book of Mormon visuals.50 Other images in the Book of Mormon Chart series bear the primitive stylistic qualities of Latter-day Saint artist C. C. A. Christiansen.51

Of the thirteen paintings published in The Story of the Book of Mormon, Ottinger’s illustrations appear to be the most well-informed and deftly executed. If we can confirm their attribution, we will undoubtedly find that Ottinger also contributed most of the images in the Deseret Sunday School Union’s Book of Mormon Chart series.52 His images were evidently popular enough to be used well into the twentieth century. Several of Ottinger’s Story paintings were reproduced in a romanticized Book of Mormon novel, Cities of the Sun, written by Elizabeth Rachel Cannon some twenty-two years later.53 Five of Ottinger’s illustrations were included in Genet Bingham Dee’s A Voice from the Dust, which was published as a handsome update to what Reynolds had started with The Story of the Book of Mormon more than fifty years earlier.54

The illustrations created for The Story of the Book of Mormon may not have been sterling specimens of narrative fine art by today’s critical standards of excellence. But the visual impact they may have left on young readers of the Book of Mormon is immeasurable. If we dismiss them as simplistic nineteenth-century primitives or naive art, then we fail to recognize their significance as character-building visuals. Artists who illustrated for The Story of the Book of Mormon had accomplished something of lasting value. They carried forth in the minds of young people the official visual representation of Book of Mormon characters, places, and narrative events. For at least one generation—perhaps longer—these images were the first to be associated with the Book of Mormon text and the stories contained therein.

Noel A. Carmack earned a BFA in illustration and an MFA in drawing and painting, both from Utah State University. He is currently an instructor of art at the College of Eastern Utah. He served as Preservation Librarian at Utah State University’s Merrill-Cazier Library for fourteen years. Aside from his interests in bookbinding and conservation, he has interests in visual art, the history of the nineteenth-century American West, and the art and cultural history of the Latter-day Saints. He has published on Mormon cultural topics in the Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue, Utah Historical Quarterly, and BYU Studies. In 2000, his BYU Studies article “Images of Christ in Latter-day Saint Visual Culture, 1900–1999,” generated a thoughtful discussion that led to the four articles which accompanied it.


1. On Friberg’s Book of Mormon images, see Vern Swanson, “The Book of Mormon Art of Arnold Friberg, Painter of Scripture,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10, no. 1 (2001): 26–35. For Teichert’s work, see John W. Welch and Doris R. Dant, The Book of Mormon Paintings of Minerva Teichert (Salt Lake City: BYU Studies and Bookcraft, 1997).

2. “Notice,” Utah Journal, January 9, 1886, 3, and “Reuben Kirkham,” Deseret News, April 28, 1886, 1. A biography of Kirkham is currently in preparation by Donna Poulton and Vern Swanson.

3. For more on George Reynolds (1842–1909), see Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Reprint, Western Epics, 1971), 1:206, and Bruce A. Van Orden, Prisoner for Conscience’ Sake: The Life of George Reynolds (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992).

4. George Reynolds, The Story of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Joseph Hyrum Parry, 1888), “Preface,” iv.

5. “A New Book,” Deseret Evening News, October 30, 1888, 3; see also Reynolds, The Story of the Book of Mormon, “Preface.”

6. George Reynolds, Journal, 1888, 78, MS 3347, LDS Church Archives, Historical Department, Salt Lake City.

7. “The Story of the Book of Mormon,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 51 (August 5, 1889): 492–93. Rev. Arthur Stanley (1815–1881) was Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and later Dean of Westminster from 1864 to 1881. He is known for his trip to Egypt and Palestine and the best-selling account of his observations, Sinai and Palestine in Connection with Their History (1856).

8. “From the Press,” Deseret News, December 9, 1888, 13, and “New Home Publication,” Parry’s Monthly Magazine 5 (February 1889): 195.

9. That Story artists would strive to visually convey a close association with biblical stories, peoples, and cultures may be seen as curious, given that some critics of the Book of Mormon in the 1880s accused Joseph Smith of plagiarizing the Bible. See, for example, M. T. Lamb, The Golden Bible, or, The Book of Mormon: Is It from God? (New York: Ward and Drummond, 1886). Perhaps Story art plays into that criticism, but the concern for historical and cultural authenticity in visualizing the Book of Mormon reflected the same concerns shown by nineteenth-century Bible illustrators. See Ljubica D. Popovich, “Popular American Biblical Imagery: Sources and Manifestations,” in The Bible and Popular Culture in America, ed. Allene Stuart Phy (Philadelphia, Penn.: Fortress Press, 1985), 193–233, esp. 208; and Paul Gutjahar, “American Protestant Bible Illustration from Copper Plates to Computers,” in The Visual Culture of American Religions, ed. David Morgan and Sally M. Promey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 267–85, esp. 276.

This same concern for historical authenticity was just as important for youth picture study in Church Sunday Schools, visualizations of the Bible, and the depiction of the Book of Mormon in motion pictures. See J. Leo Fairbanks, “Picture Study in the Sunday Schools,” Juvenile Instructor 48, no. 1 (January 1913): 3–5; Edwin F. Parry, “Moving Pictures as Helps to Bible Study,” Juvenile Instructor 48, no. 9 (September 1913): 584–88; and “Book of Mormon in Picture Play,” Deseret News, December 20, 1913, 122.

10. “Art and Artists in Utah,” Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine 1 (January 1881): 213–220.

11. “The Fine Arts,” Deseret News, October 26, 1881, 609.

12. See “Christ and Mary,” Salt Lake Daily Tribune, December 20, 1881, 4. For biographical information on William Joseph Armitage (1817–1890), see Robert S. Olpin, William C. Seifrit, and Vern G. Swanson, Artists of Utah (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1999), 8, s.v. “Armitage, William Joseph.”

13. For biographical information on John Held Sr. (1862–1936), see Olpin, Seifrit, and Swanson, Artists of Utah, 127, s.v. “Held, John, Sr.” For examples of Held’s illustrative work and woodcuts, see Parry’s Monthly Magazine, vol. 6 (1890) and Utah Monthly Magazine, vols. 7–9 (1891–1892).

14. See Ann Uhry Abrams, The Valiant Hero: Benjamin West and Grand-Style History Painting (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985); and Wayne Craven, “The Grand Manner in Early Nineteenth-Century American Painting: Borrowings from Antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Baroque,” American Art Journal 11, no. 2 (April 1979): 4–43.

15. Abrams, The Valiant Hero, 9; Craven, “The Grand Manner,” 6–9.

16. It is worthy of note that in mid-June of 1874, Ottinger was visiting San Francisco, where he saw Vanderlyn’s Marius amid the Ruins of Carthage (1807) up close at the de Young Museum while it was being prepared for restoration. See George M. Ottinger, Journal, June 12, 1874, 207, copy of original, MS 123, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. On the importance of this painting, see Craven, “Grand Manner in Early Nineteenth-Century American Painting,” 15–19.

17. George M. Ottinger, Journal, 1872, 197–98.

18. George M. Ottinger, Journal, 1872, 200.

19. George M. Ottinger, Journal, 1872, 201.

20. “Territorial State Fair,” Deseret News, October 9, 1872, 4. See also Heber G. Richards, “George M. Ottinger, Pioneer Artist of Utah: A Brief of His Personal Journal,” Western Humanities Review 3, no. 3 (July 1949): 209–18.

21. The orant or orans posture, a gesture of prayer with uplifted hands, was used by officiating priests in the early Christian church. A form of this prayer gesture was used in ancient times and later in this dispensation, after the Church was restored. See, for example, Exodus 9:29; 1 Kings 8:22; D&C 88:120, 132, 135; and 109:9, 19. For more on the orans posture, see Clark D. Lamberton, “The Development of Christian Symbolism as Illustrated in Roman Catacomb Painting,” American Journal of Archaeology 15, no. 4 (October–December, 1911): 507–22; Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church, 2d ed. rev. (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1965), 44–49; and Hugh Nibley, “Early Christian Prayer Circles,” BYU Studies 19 (Fall 1978): 41–78.

22. For a thorough list of works mentioned in his journal, see Richards, “George M. Ottinger, Pioneer Artist of Utah,” 216–17.

23. George M. Ottinger, Journal, 1887, 269.

24. George M. Ottinger, “The Maya Sculptor,” Improvement Era 13 (April 1910): 498–499.

25. “Cultivation of the Fine Arts,” Parry’s Monthly Magazine 5 (November 1888): 76–77; quote from 77. See also “Art Notes,” Deseret News, November 3, 1886, 1.

26. For more on George M. Ottinger (1833–1917), see Richards, “George M. Ottinger, Pioneer Artist of Utah”; Olpin, Seifrit, and Swanson, Artists of Utah, 185–89; Madeline B. Stern, “A Rocky Mountain Bookstore, Savage and Ottinger of Utah,” BYU Studies 9, no. 2 (1969): 144–54; and Richard G. Oman, “Outward Bound: A Painting of Religious Faith,” BYU Studies 37, no. 1 (1997–98): 75–81.

27. “Ottinger,” Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine 1 (January 1881): 219. For more on Ottinger’s artistic activities, see sources cited in notes 20 and 26.

28. For more on Stephens and Catherwood, see Victor Wolfgang von Hagen, Maya Explorer: John Lloyd Stephens and the Lost Cities of Central America and Yucatán (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947); von Hagen’s Frederick Catherwood, Archt. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950); and C. W. Ceram, Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), 337–56. See also Evans R. Tripp, Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820–1915 (Austin: University of Texas, 2004). It should be noted that Joseph Smith and early Church members were well aware of Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. In fact, it was once owned by Joseph Smith as part of his personal library. See “Zarahemla,” Times and Seasons 3 (October 1, 1842): 927–28, and Kenneth W. Godfrey, “A Note on the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute,” BYU Studies 14, no. 3 (1974): 386–89.

29. See von Hagen, Frederick Catherwood, page 73 and figure 11, following page 144.

30. See Lawrence Gustave Desmond and Phyllis Mauch Messenger, A Dream of Maya: Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon in Ninteenth-Century Yucatan (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988); Ian Graham, Alfred Maudslay and the Maya: A Biography (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002); the contributions of Lambert and Hunter are discussed on 221–23.

31. See Anthony Blunt, The Drawings of Poussin (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979), 68–69.

32. For more on Poussin’s method of arranging small wax figures and scenery on a miniature stage, see Anthony Blunt, Nicolas Poussin, Bollingen Series 35, no. 7 (Washington, D.C.: Bollingen Foundation; Pantheon Books, 1967), 242–47; and Blunt, Drawings of Poussin, 95–99.

33. See Blunt, Nicolas Poussin, 40–50.

34. Barbara Carlisle, “Pageants and Painting: The Theatrical Context of High Renaissance Style,” Centennial Review 24, no. 4 (Fall 1980): 459–73; quote from 463. For a more thorough study on landscape in nineteenth-century scene painting, see Nancy Hazelton, “‘Green to the Very Door’: Painted Landscape on the Nineteenth-Century Stage,” Theatre History Studies 22 (June 2002): 115–36.

35. Quoted in Abrams, Valiant Hero, 123.

36. See Angela Miller, “‘The Soil of an Unknown America’: New World Lost Empires and the Debate over Cultural Origins,” American Art 8, no. 3/4 (Summer–Autumn 1994): 8–27.

37. Miller, “The Soil of an Unknown America,” 11–16, 21–23.

38. Tripp, Romancing the Maya, 88–102, esp. 99–102; Josiah Priest, American Antiquities, and Discoveries in the West . . . (Albany: Hoffman and White, 1833); Robert Silverberg, The Mound Builders of Ancient America (New York: New York Graphic Society, 1968). See also Curtis Dahl, “Mound-Builders, Mormons, and William Cullen Bryant,” New England Quarterly 34, no. 2 (June 1961): 178–90.

39. Tripp, Romancing the Maya, 94.

40. See “Zarahemla,” Times and Seasons 3 (October 1, 1842): 927–28. Interestingly, the writer (presumably editor John Taylor) stated: “We are not agoing to declare positively that the ruins of Quiriqua are those of Zarahemla, but when the land and the stones, and the books tell the story so plain, we are of the opinion, that it would require more proof than the Jews could bring to prove the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb, to prove that the ruins of the city in question, are not one of those referred to in the Book of Mormon” (927).

41. Ottinger’s reliance on archaeological discoveries, as introduced to the West by Stephens, Catherwood, Prescott, and others, is not unlike that of other artists who relied on the latest archaeological knowledge for historical paintings depicting New World events. See, for example, William H. Truettner, “Storming the Teocalli—Again: Or, Further Thoughts on Reading History Paintings,” American Art 9, no. 3 (Autumn 1995): 56–95.

42. For more information on William C. Morris (?–1889), see Olpin, Seifrit, and Swanson, Artists of Utah, 179, s.v. “Morris, William ‘Billy’ Charles.” See also “To Sue the Deputy Coroner,” New York Times, January 8, 1889, 5; “A Gentle Spirit Gone,” Deseret Weekly January 12, 1889, 19, and “W. C. Morris’ Funeral,” Deseret Weekly, January 19, 1889, 28.

43. Reynolds, Journal, 1889, 81.

44. See signed copyright transferral receipts and Circular of the Story of the Book of Mormon in George Reynolds papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library.

45. George Reynolds, “Memo. Regarding Books written by Geo. Reynolds,” George Reynolds Papers.

46. “To the Artists of Utah,” Deseret Weekly, March 8, 1890, 23.

47. “To the Artists of Utah,” Deseret Weekly, March 8, 1890, 23.

48. A close examination of Ottinger’s Book of Mormon chart image “The Peacemakers” shows the labeling of Nephi (“N”) in the same manner.

49. “Sunday School Union,” Deseret Weekly, October 17, 1891, 3.

50. Reproductions of these visuals are still preserved in the LDS Museum of Church History and Art. See also “Lehi Preaching to the Jews,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (April 15, 1891): 234; “Lehi and His Family in the Wilderness,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (May 1, 1891): 283; “Nephi and Zoram with the Records,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (May 15, 1891): 298; “The Peacemakers,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (June 1, 1891): 349; “Nephi’s Vision,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (June 15, 1891): 375; “Lehi Finding the Liahona,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (July 1, 1891): 408; “The Building of the Ship,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (July 15, 1891): 438; “Lehi Offering Sacrifice,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (August 1, 1891): 476; “Lehi Blessing His Posterity,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (August 15, 1891): 503; “Nephites Seeking a New Home,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (September 1, 1891): 537; “The Building of the Temple,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (September 15, 1891): 575; “Nephi Making the Plates,” Juvenile Instructor 26 (October 1, 1891): cover.

51. A number of Book of Mormon charts have been attributed to C. C. A. Christiansen in the records of the LDS Museum of Church History and Art.

52. An advertisement poster dated October 1, 1897, lists dates, quotes the cost of the “Book of Mormon Picture Charts,” and evidences the fact that the picture charts were issued in two parts. See Accession # LDS 93-109-1, LDS Museum of Church History and Art, Salt Lake City. Thanks to Carrie Snow for alerting me to this source.

53. Elizabeth Rachel Cannon, The Cities of the Sun: Stories of Ancient America Founded on Historical Incidents in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1910). Several of Ottinger’s paintings were retitled but are clearly from The Story of the Book of Mormon series. His work in this volume included: “Alma Baptizing in the Waters of Mormon” (22); “Moroni Raises the Standard of Liberty” (60); “Amalickiah Sent the Corpse of Her Husband to the Lamanite Queen” [not from series] (75); “Amickiah Sacked the Coast Cities and Put Hirza to the Sword” [Destruction of Zarahemla] (78); “Alla Deriding the Idols” [not from series] (82); and “The Cliff Dwellers’ Daughter” [not from series] (108).

54. See Genet Bingham Dee, A Voice from the Dust: A Sacred History of Ancient Americans, The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press for Genet Bingham Dee, 1939). Ottinger’s paintings in this volume included: “Nephi’s Vision of the Virgin and the Son of God,” (88); “Out into the Wilderness,” (64); “Making the Plates of Nephi,” (129); “Lehi’s Parting Blessing,” (140); and “Offering Sacrifice as a Token of Gratitude,” (271).