Seeking “the Good, the Pure, the Elevating”: A Short History of Mormon Fiction, Part 1


In 1967 and again in 1977 President Spencer W. Kimball challenged the members of the Church to produce works of art that would do justice to the drama and beauty inherent in the history of the Church and its mission in the world. “We are proud of the artistic heritage that the Church has brought to us from its earliest beginnings,” he said, “but the full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves.” (See Ensign, July 1977, p. 5.)

To help meet that challenge, the Ensign asked several experts to examine various art forms used frequently by Latter-day Saints, discussing the history of those art forms among the Latter-day Saints and giving thought to how members of the Church can meet President Kimball’s challenge for excellence in the arts.

This two-part feature discusses fiction. The author, Brother Richard H. Cracroft, is a critic and historian of LDS literature and dean of Brigham Young University’s College of Humanities. He has published a number of articles on Mormon literature, and, with Neal E. Lambert, presently associate academic vice president of BYU, has also published a major anthology of LDS literature, A Believing People: The Literature of the Latter-day Saints (1974, 1979), and an anthology of LDS short stories, 22 Young Mormon Writers (1975). He presently serves as president of the Provo Utah East Stake.

“Wicked!” “Sheer waste of time!” “Mind-weakening!” Such are but a few of the epithets hurled at popular fiction by Latter-day Saints of the late nineteenth century. “You do wrong in reading novels,” proclaimed an editorial in The Contributor in 1850, “because you subject your purity of mind to a fearful trial. It is hard to discriminate between the good and the evil in novels,” the editorial continues. “The novel appetite being once formed, it craves all. … The unhappy being who takes the first steps becomes enamored of the pleasure it affords. Other reading becomes dull and lifeless.” 1

From about 1850 until about 1888, the Latter-day Saints manifested a deep distrust of fiction. Many were suspicious of the trash which poured out of U.S. and British presses in those years. Dime novels and penny tabloids chronicled the vices of the industrial age in a shoddy kind of writing that deservedthen as now—the disdain of good people. As Professor Bruce W. Jorgenson has noted, “The bulk of popular fiction at any time is bad. It is always going to be trivial, shallow, sensationalistic, exploitative, pandering to the lowest common denominator of popular sentiment at the time, or trying to create a new popular sentiment.” He adds that “perhaps its only saving grace is that without it, the best fiction might not stand out so clearly.” 2

But amidst the trash some quality fiction did stand out clearly, fiction which appealed to refined men and women, fiction by, among others, the Brontës (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne), Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Along with the ubiquitous flow of tawdry and sordid fiction, quality fiction by such authors began to sift into the mountain valleys of Utah Territory and have its positive effect. Thus, when President Brigham Young exclaimed, later in his life, “Novel reading—is it profitable? I would rather that persons read novels than read nothing,” 3 he showed a tangible softening of a hitherto firm position against the reading of fiction.

Through much of the latter half of the nineteenth century there existed a real tension between fiction’s supposed attractions and fiction’s supposed detriments. How LDS readers and LDS writers have attempted to harmonize these tensions is central to the history of LDS fiction.

Even if we put aside consideration as to whether nineteenth century Latter-day Saints were attacking only popular fiction or all fiction, it is not difficult to understand their position regarding “untrue stories.” To many among a people which prided itself on practicality and common sense, traits needed to carve a living out of an arid desert, fanciful writing must have seemed frivolous. Their concerns were with the weightier matters of settlement and survival. If one had time to read after a day in the fields, why not scripture, or doctrine, or, at least, a useful book about science and invention? Fiction was an unneeded frill—like tucking a rose in the soiled brim of the farmer’s hat or affixing delicate gingerbread trim to the hard-used bed of a wagon.

But Latter-day Saints are human—and thus various. Even amidst the hardships of persecution, of the westward trek, and of settlement, many of the Saints longed for the rose and the gingerbread trim. Many felt the need to satisfy the human capacity for delight, for mystery, for wonder. This non-practical capacity led not only to the bright and solitary rosebush beside the dugout door but also to the carefully preserved but well-used violin in the humble parlor and to the shelf of well-thumbed books of poetry and drama—and fiction—beside the fireplace.

The evidence of nineteenth-century letters, journals, and diaries is clear: amidst the travelling and setting, many of the Saints kept on reading good poetry, good drama, and good fiction. To such Saints the gospel was the great anthem of God, and man the humble singer of that anthem. And they sensed that good art and literature were lovely accompaniments to the gospel anthem, an accompaniment which, when in harmony with the whole, swells and enhances the music and thrills the soul.

Fiction, rightly selected and rightly read, can do just that. Through a happy combination of a good story (plot), a good philosophical idea or truth (theme), and good writing (art), a careful wordsmith or craftsman (author) can shape words, sentences, and paragraphs into a living experience just as True (with a capital T) as if it has truly (with a small t) happened to us. For through reading fine fiction we vicariously experience adventure, insight, and lives otherwise unavailable to us; and when we ponder those new lives and learn from them, our own lives are somehow charged with a new capacity for joy, for understanding, for beauty, for truth, for wonder. Through well-wrought fiction we not only strengthen our individuality, but we also cement our solidarity with others’ lives and with both the invisible and visible world, past and present.

Good fiction, well-read, can aid the thoughtful and sensitive reader in fulfilling President Brigham Young’s admonition to “learn the nature of mankind, and to discern that divinity inherent in them,” and to study “everything upon the face of the earth in addition to [the Standard Works].” “We should,” he further insisted, “not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.” 4

Laying the Foundation

It took the Latter-day Saints several decades to realize and use the power of fiction. For the first several decades of Church history, the interests of LDS writers lay primarily in promoting and defending the truths of the Restoration. Even one of the earliest examples of fiction, Parley P. Pratt’s witty and imaginative “Dialogue Between Joseph Smith and the Devil” (1844), is really a kind of tract written for the New York Herald. Elder Pratt cleverly portrays Joseph Smith and Lucifer arguing vigorously on points of doctrine but finally toasting each other as respected but implacable arch-enemies.

The fiction republished in the early Millennial Star, long the voice of the Church in the British Isles, also underscored the sentiment that fiction, first published in the Star in 1849 (“Paddy’s Unfortunate Journey to Market”) and occasionally thereafter, should be used only to teach important principles and truths, and not merely for pleasure or entertainment. It is not surprising, then, given the dearth of LDS writers and the bent of “Gentile” writers between 1830 and 1880, that in those years there was virtually no fiction published in Utah-based Church periodicals and very few instances of fiction appearing in the Millennial Star. 5

Still, the Saints were writing. But their creative work during these years focused on religious and occasional poetry, on hymns of the Restoration, and on sermons. But, above all, the Saints wrote private journals and personal letters. These forms of personal literary expression, says Professor William Mulder of the University of Utah, “come closer to exhibiting the genius of Mormonism as a force and movement than other forms of literature.” 6 The writing which appeared in LDS periodicals during this period reflected this personal literature, recounting miracles, healings, and dreams.

Gradually, however, particularly during the 1870s, the publication of true-life experiences, stories of early pioneer life, Indian encounters, and missionary experiences (“faith-promoting stories”) came into vogue. It was only a short step from this kind of true narrative to the short story and the short novel, and in the 1880’s Latter-day Saints gradually found themselves reading fiction in the very periodicals which had earlier condemned it. It was, however, a specialized fiction, a fiction written about Mormons, for Mormons, and, usually, by Mormons—and it was called Home Literature.

The sudden rise of Home Literature—written by faithful Church members to teach Latter-day Saints, especially the young ones, the value of commitment to truth, faith, and gospel standards—occurred because of the pressures brought to bear on the Church. During the 1880s the Church was undergoing severe and increasing persecution and prosecution by the United States government. During the same period, an increasing flow of nonmembers into the hitherto isolated mountain valleys followed the fusing of the continental railroad in 1869.

But, above all, the generation of young LDS coming of age “knew not Joseph.” That is, this generation had not rubbed shoulders, as had their elders, with the Prophet Joseph Smith and with President Brigham Young; their youthful faith had not been tested in the fires of persecution in Missouri and Illinois, nor proven on the trek across the plains. To such youth, the allure of eastern education, sophistication, and life-style clashed, sometimes painfully, with their apparent Rocky Mountain provincialism. The result was a restlessness, an uncertitude in a youth that had not yet seen the world and could therefore not measure the truths they took for granted against the value of the world outside their protected valleys.

Spurred on by a challenge to keep such young people true to the faith, influential writers like Elder Orson F. Whitney and Susa Young Gates determined to turn fiction into a tool for truth in the battle against Babylon. In an essay published in The Contributor in 1888, Elder Whitney, himself a poet and a writer, called on LDS writers to produce a Home Literature, “a pure and powerful literature” centered on LDS themes and reflecting LDS values, a literature which will assist in establishing Zion, in taking the gospel “to the high and mighty, … to places hitherto deemed inaccessible.” 7 In this same essay, Elder Whitney makes his still unfulfilled but exciting prophecy that we Latter-day Saints “will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. … In God’s name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth.” 8

Responding to this challenge to create a literature especially for LDS consumption, a number of Latter-day Saint writers began publishing in the relatively large number of LDS and Utah periodicals available to them. The Deseret News (1850) began to publish fiction, as did, among others, The Juvenile Instructor (1865), Women’s Exponent (1872), Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine (1876), The Contributor (1879), Parry’s Monthly Magazine (1883), Utah Magazine (1885), Utah Industrialist (1887), The Young Woman’s Journal (1889), The Improvement Era (1897), and The Children’s Friend (1902); these periodicals, together with The Relief Society Magazine (1914), provided writers with audiences of predominantly LDS readers. By the end of the century an increasing number of writers were filling the pages of these journals with didactic stories about conversion, about romance-leading-to-conversion, about Indian and frontier adventure, and stories based on characters in the Book of Mormon, as well as stories about the challenge of living the gospel in everyday life.

In The Young Women’s Journal for 1889, for example, an anonymous writer named “Homespun” wrote a story entitled “Whatsoever a Man Soweth,” in which the writer continued the attack on novel reading: Young Leonard Fox, a reader of novels, fills himself with such foolish and sentimental romanticism that when his true love refuses his exaggerated marriage proposal he attempts suicide. He recovers, however, and marries on the rebound to a woman he does not love. He leaves his wife to study law in the East. His wife dies in childbirth, and Leonard goes insane with guilt and grief because his mind has been “weakened by habitual mental intoxication”—reading novels. Regaining his health, he returns home, reforms, rears his daughter, and “never dares read a story or novel.” Adds the writer, zealously promoting Home Literature, “But he goes to excess. Young People should read novels and stories written by our own people with the proper lessons taught therein.” 9

Even the stories which did not use LDS characters and settings served as Home Literature. “The Decision,” by Harold Goff, which appeared in The Young Women’s Journal for 1911, takes place at Columbia University. Dick Grey is in love with Beth Hunter, but he has determined rivals in Jack and Fred. One night, while floating on a Hudson River boat, Dick musters the courage to tell Beth of his love. She hesitates, but just as she is about to speak a child falls overboard. Dick sheds his coat, dives in, and rescues the child. He returns to Beth, who gives him her heart, saying she knew when she saw him go after the child that he was the man she would marry. Thus goodness and noble action are rewarded, and a number of teenage girls doubtless became firmer in their resolve to marry a man of character.

Such Home Literature stories taught—though too often simplistically—the youth of Zion to shun the evils of the world, to obey the Word of Wisdom, to emulate the lives of the pioneers, to live lives of character and rectitude, to marry within the faith—in the temple—to rear a noble family, to be missionaries, to study the scriptures, and to master the principles of the gospel. 10 So successful were the writers of Home Literature that after 1888 a qualified acceptance of fiction becomes evident, and William O. Lee was able to write in the Deseret Weekly, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, “We should all be proud of our home literature, for it includes some of the best books ever written.” 11 Similarly, Susa Young Gates, founder of The Young Women’s Journal and influential daughter of Brigham Young, wrote in 1889 that while reading novels that make one dissatisfied with one’s own life is foolish, “I think our own people are producing some of the purest and best literature. It may not be polished with the smoothness and elegance of rhetorical mastery, but it contains nothing that will injure, and very much that will elevate and refine.” 12

One of the leading writers of Home Literature was Susa Young Gates herself. Among her several novels, John Stevens’ Courtship (1894) and The Prince of Ur (1915) established her as one of Utah’s most popular novelists. Other prominent writers were Hannah T. King, Emmeline B. Wells, Orson F. Whitney (all popular poets), as well as B. H. Roberts (whose contributions ranged from a love story set in Zarahemla 13 to Corianton: A Nephite Story, 1902, a popular Book of Mormon novel which was later rewritten as a play and performed on Broadway 14 ), Josephine Spencer, and Nephi Anderson. The latter two were probably the most prolific of the group and probably the two whose works were most widely read.

Josephine Spencer eventually collected a number of her published stories in a work entitled The Senator from Utah and Other Tales of the Wasatch (1895). Among her many stories in Church periodicals, “Trial of Hearts” is typical. Hart Richfield, the handsome young protagonist, is forced by law (and with the approval of his friend, the defendant) to testify for the government in a cohabitation trial which will send his friend to prison for six months but enable him to live thereafter with his families. Hart’s testimony arouses the ire of Millie Hurst’s father, who does not know of the arrangement. Hurst questions Hart’s loyalty to the Church and forbids him from seeing Millie, with whom Hart has “an understanding.” Sorrowful, Hart leaves Utah to study dentistry in the East, where he also flirts with socialism and drifts from activity in the Church. Millie likewise begins to neglect her meetings and manifests a rebellious interest in another religion.

After some time, Hart returns, full of socialistic and populist ideas (interests which recur in several of Miss Spencer’s stories), but finds that Mr. Hurst is now sorry for his false accusation and his hasty decision. Hurst invites Hart and other youths to a party where Hart and Millie reignite their affection. At the end of the story Hart says to Millie, “I’ve discovered … that we’ve got something just as good as political solutions to society’s problems, if not a great deal better, in Mormonism.” Millie responds: “I’ve found that out, too.” Hart concludes with the message dear to Home Literature: “People travel all over the universe—and discover Utah,” to which Millie eagerly responds, “I wouldn’t be married any way but in the temple—for anything on earth.” And Hart answers, “Why neither would I!” and they walk out of the story, hand in hand.

Probably the most enthusiastic of the Home Literature writers was Nephi Anderson, who exclaimed in 1898, about using the gospel as the subject for literature, “What a field is here for the pen of the novelist,” 15 and went on to demonstrate just how serious he was. Anderson, son of converts to the Church from Christiania, Norway, emigrated to Utah in 1871. A school teacher and a missionary, he wrote many stories and published ten novels as well as a young person’s history of the Church. Many of his works are still readable and deserving of our attention. His most popular novel is Added Upon (1898), which, while not his best novel, is certainly his most ambitious. In Added Upon, Anderson follows several characters on a speculative, fictitious journey through premortal life, to earth, and back into eternity. Such a journey is difficult to portray in fiction, especially since the scriptures give us little detail about it, but the general idea is central to LDS doctrine. It is not surprising that the novel has created spin-offs in such modern works as “Saturday’s Warrior” and “My Turn on Earth.”

In the charming Tom Sawyer-like story of The Boys of Springtown (1920), and in such works as Marcus King, Mormon (1900), A Daughter of the North (1915), John St. John (1917), Romance of a Missionary (1919), and Dorian (1921), Nephi Anderson demonstrated better than any Mormon novelist to date the possibilities for fiction in Mormon experience and doctrine. Despite his gentle tendency to preach through his characters, and despite the occasional hastening of his work to conclusions which have not been adequately prepared for, Anderson’s novels reflect consistently Home Literature’s aim of promoting “the good, the pure, the elevating” 16 in Latter-day Saint life and teachings.

Typical of Anderson’s novels, though perhaps not his best, is Marcus King, Mormon (1900). King, a young sectarian minister, is converted in the eastern United States. His conversion brings about the dissolution of his engagement to Alice Merton, as well as the resignation of his pulpit after he unsuccessfully preaches LDS theology to his congregation—and to Alice. King goes west with the Church, eventually falls in love with Janet Harmon, who also lost her fiance after her conversion, and becomes a bishop in Utah. Though in love with Janet, King cannot forget Alice; and Janet, after accepting King’s long withheld proposal, sends King back to visit his former love.

King arrives in his home town just as an ailing Alice is being married. King interrupts the ceremony and prevents Alice’s marriage to an adventurer who turns out to be Janet’s former fiance, and he nurses the failing Alice until her death. In the interim, King teaches the gospel to a now receptive Alice. After Alice’s death, King returns to Utah and Janet. This novel demonstrates not only Anderson’s typical discussions of the doctrines and history of the Church, but also his ability to write a generally exciting and fast-paced narrative, to sustain unifying symbolism, to depict the inner struggles of religious men and women, and to involve the reader. He tells a good story.

Nephi Anderson was not, however, the end of the Home Literature movement. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the movement to write uplifting fiction for the LDS reader continued in the works of such authors as Julia Farr, who wrote Venna Hastings (1919) and The Great Experience (1920), both love and conversion tales; and in the work of Albert R. Lyman, whose several novels, particularly The Voice of the Intangible, published serially in the Improvement Era (1912–1914), linked gospel principles with a love for the outdoors.

These works, as well as the novels of Harrison R. Merrill, Ezra J. Poulson (Birthright, 1950), Dorothy Clapp Robinson, Clair W. Noall, and the many and varied works of such talented authors as Ora Pate Stewart, Elsie C. Carroll, Olive Woolley Burt, Howard Roscoe Driggs, Alice Morrey Bailey, and Christie Lund Coles, reflect the gradual disappearance from Home Literature of sentimental insistence on emotion for emotion’s sake, as well as increased literary skill and sophistication, But the common purpose remained: to tell a good story in a way to uplift and inspire—to accomplish the purposes of Home Literature as envisioned by Susa Young Gates and Orson F. Whitney.

A major force in this effort was The Relief Society Magazine. From its founding in 1914 to its incorporation into the Ensign in 1971, the magazine often honored LDS authors and commissioned articles which promoted thoughtful reading not only of LDS literature but of world literature as well.

As the Church moved into the mid-twentieth century, LDS writers began to offer more realistic plots with fewer simplistic black-and-white conflicts, more fully developed characters, and more skillfully applied technique and style. Today’s plots seem to suggest that the complexities of mortality sometimes defy easy formulas for living and for success. Thus modern LDS writers generally reject contrived plots in which a character who is going astray suddenly realizes the disastrous nature of her course and repents. In the place of such simplistic writing, more and more plots deal with the problem of sustaining faith amidst the seemingly endless darkness, or with the incertitude which can occasionally come even when one is assured, by principle and scripture, that his course is right. Those very real complexities which arise from trying to walk a steady course while struggling with our human fluctuations in faith seem to appeal to the twentieth century LDS writer and reader.

Still, based as it is in principle and commitment and faith, modern LDS literature may well be, after all, only a sophisticated and updated Home Literature, as modern LDS writers work to refute Annie Wells Cannon’s lament, made in 1908, that, after all, “A people taught … almost from the beginning to refrain from reading [novels] are not very likely to study the art of composing it.” 1 7

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Editorial, reprinted in the Millennial Star, XXII (1880): 110–111.

  2.   2.

    Quoted by Elizabeth Schoenfeld “Fiction an Affliction, Fans Warned in 1800’s,” Deseret News, Jan. 18, 1977.

  3.   3.

    Brigham Young, The Discourses of Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1925), p. 395.)

  4.   4.

    Young, p. 394.

  5.   5.

    See Gean Clark, “A Survey of Early Mormon Fiction,” unpublished M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1935.

  6.   6.

    William Mulder, “Mormonism and Literature,” in A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints, Richard H. Cracroft and Neal E. Lambert (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1974), p. 209.

  7.   7.

    Orson F. Whitney, “Home Literature,” in Cracroft and Lambert, A Believing People, p. 204.

  8.   8.

    Ibid., p. 206.

  9.   9.

    Homespun, “Whatsoever a Man Soweth,” Young Women’s Journal, I (1889).

  10.   10.

    Ross Esplin, “A Survey of Fiction Written by Mormon Authors and Appearing in Mormon Periodicals Between 1900 and 1945,” unpublished M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1949, pp. 3–4 ff.

  11.   11.

    William O. Lee, “Books,” Deseret Weekly, XXXVIII (1889).

  12.   12.

    Susa Young Gates, “Novel Reading,” Young Women’s Journal, V (1894), 496–98.

  13.   13.

    B. H. Roberts, “A Story of Zarahemla,” Contributor, X (1889), 94–101.

  14.   14.

    See Truman A. Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), pp. 296–97.

  15.   15.

    Nephi Anderson, “A Plea For Fiction,” Improvement Era, I (1898), 186–88.

  16.   16.

    Ibid.

  17.   17.

    Annie Wells Cannon, “Pioneer Literature and Writers,” Women’s Exponent, XXXVII (1908), 24.

  18.   17.

    Annie Wells Cannon, “Pioneer Literature and Writers,” Women’s Exponent, XXXVII (1908), 24.