Chronicles of a New Age: Early Mormon Literature, 1830–1890
Joseph Smith did not have a hand for writing, but he surrounded himself with women and men who did. True, he could dictate powerfully—the scriptures he revealed are evidence enough of that—but when he pressed pen to paper, the words came out clumsily and disordered.
This was not the case for many of his followers, who, having cast their lots with the Restoration movement, proceeded to share its good news through writing letters, diaries, personal narratives, sermons, tracts, hymns, and poems. While many of these writings have been lost to time, some, like William W. Phelps’ hymn “The Spirit of God like a fire is burning,” continue to be a part of the Mormon experience.
Still, it is sad that so little of early Mormon writing has a place in the cultural and institutional memory of the Mormon people today. We rightly honor the sacrifice of the early Saints by commemorating their difficult trek west and consecrated devotion to establishing Zion in the desert; yet, we miss something of that sacrifice if we ignore the public and private writings that kept it moving forward. These writings, after all, were more than the scribblings of a nomadic and frontier people. They were earnest expressions of faith that inspired the Saints to press on and understand what it meant to be a Mormon people. In a sense, they constitute a kind of utopian era of Mormon literature—a time when Mormon writers saw themselves as chroniclers of a new age of world history. They believed Christ’s millennium was cresting over the horizon, and their task was to prepare the world to receive it.
Founding Zion: 1830–1847
The earliest examples of Mormon creative writing are likely the hymns published in the June 1832 issue of The Evening and Morning Star, the first Mormon newspaper. Printed by William W. Phelps in Independence, Missouri, the hymns capture the millennial fervor of a people striving to build the City of Zion prophesied in scripture.
Three of the hymns were original verse by either Phelps or Parley P. Pratt, while the remaining two were Phelps’ adaptations of Protestant hymns by John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace,” and Joseph Swain. Of these two, the most enduring has been “Redeemer of Israel,” which draws from Swain’s “O Thou in Whose Presence My Soul Takes Delight” to praise Christ’s role in leading his chosen people out of the wilderness of apostasy and sin.
Of more interest, however, is Phelps’ slight modification of Newton’s “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” a hymn that glories in the future City of Zion. In the original version, the hymn describes a city “on the Rock of Ages founded” (line 5). In The Evening and Morning Star, however, the city is founded on the “Rock of Enoch,” a change that reflects how Joseph Smith’s ongoing “translation” of the Bible, which greatly expanded the Saints’ understanding of the life and mission of the Old Testament prophet Enoch, colored their vision of the latter days (see Moses 7).
While small and seemingly inconsequential, this modification is indicative of a larger trend in early Mormon hymnody: a tendency to look to earlier texts as models for giving structure to an emergent Mormon voice. Indeed, there is nothing strikingly unique about many early Mormon hymns. Their subject matter, themes, and meters do little to set them apart from their Protestant contemporaries, who were equally animated by the grace of Christ and the promise of his second coming.
This changed, however, as Joseph Smith’s revelations gave Mormonism more unique material with which to work. By the time Emma Smith, the Prophet’s wife, compiled the first Mormon hymnbook, A Collection of Sacred Hymns, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints (1835), Mormon hymns remained unremarkable in terms of meter and rhyme scheme, yet had become more distinctive on the level of content.
For instance, the hymn “O stop and tell me, Red Man” (Hymn 63), likely penned by Phelps, is grounded in the Book of Mormon teaching that the American Indians were the descendants of the Biblical patriarch Jacob who “fell in darkness” and “dwindled/To idle Indian hearts” (lines 15, 19–20). Another Phelps hymn, “The towers of Zion soon shall rise” (Hymn 29), is a standard, unexceptional millennialist hymn except for where it refers to Jesus Christ as “the Son Aw-Man,” the name Joseph Smith identified as Jesus’ name in the Adamic language (see D&C 78:20, 95:17, JD 2:342).
In both instances, as well as in others, Mormon writers drew upon the power of hymnody to emphasize distinctive features of their new religion and forge a community identity apart from that of their Protestant neighbors. While a cursory glance through A Collection of Sacred Hymns certainly reveals its similarity to other hymnals of its time, close readings of its contents show how Emma Smith, whose role as the Prophet’s wife often overshadows her important contribution to Mormon literature, compiled a collection for the Saints that was, as its preface suggests, “adapted to their faith and belief in the gospel” (iii, italics added).
Perhaps the most important literary development during this era of imitation and experimentation, aside from the hymnal and the ongoing publication of Mormon poetry and hymns in Church-owned newspapers, was the publication of a full-length work of Mormon poetry, Parley P. Pratt’s grandly titled The Millennium, A Poem, to Which is Added Hymns and Songs on Various Subjects, Few and Interesting, Adapted to the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times (1835). Highly ambitious, the work’s title poem, written in heroic couplets, guides readers through six chapters that outline Jewish history, the discovery of America, various democratic revolutions, Indian removal, the latter-day Restoration, and the calamities preceding Christ’s millennial reign. Of special interest is the way the long poem ends with a recitation of Bible and Book of Mormon prophets “[w]ho wrapt in vision clear, in turn foretold,/The day of wonders,” a gesture that reiterates at once the unique and ongoing role of prophets in God’s eternal plan as well as the consonance of new scripture with old (30). Other poems likewise follow a similar track, blending traditional Judeo-Christian elements with Mormonism to foster a sense of new religious identity. For example, in the poem “Redemption of Zion,” Pratt draws upon Biblical tropes of exile, escape, and wandering to describe the Latter-day Saints’ recent expulsion from Jackson County, Missouri, which recent revelation had designated as a promised land for the building of the City of Zion:
Lo, far in the realms of Missouri,
When peace crowns the meek and the lowly,
The loud storms of envy and folly
May roll all their billows in vain.
The wicked, with evil intention,
May rouse all their powers of invention,
With lying, intrigue and contention,
Their end will be sorrow and pain.
The saints, crowned with songs and rejoicing,
To Zion shall flow from all nations,
Escaping the great conflagration,
They find out the regions of peace.
Though scattered and driven asunder,
As exiles and pilgrims to wander,
A scene on which angels do ponder,
Yet Jesus will bring their release. (lines 1–16)
In these lines, the “scattered and driven” Mormons join the ranks of previous wanderers, from the Children of Israel in the Old Testament to Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), as they flee the wicked and receive a lasting “release” from evil. In its image of “saints […] flow[ing] from all nations,/Escaping the great conflagration,” the poem provides a picture of a people gathering together, unified in their difference from the wicked’s “loud storms of envy and folly.”
Poetry was not the only form Mormon creative writing took during this early period. In Nauvoo, for example, Parley P. Pratt wrote two works of utopian fiction, “The Angel of the Prairies: A Dream of the Future” (1843–1844) and “One Hundred Years Hence, 1945” (1845). Following other utopian fiction of the time, like Mary Griffith’s Three Hundred Years Hence (1836), both stories involve narrators who fall asleep and wake up in the future. Pratt’s futures are not like Griffith’s future of reformed social and educational institutions, however; rather, they are millennial worlds where Christ governs the righteous from his throne in the City of Zion:
Instead of a flowery plain without inhabitants, I beheld an immense city, extending on all sides and thronged with myriads of people, apparently of all nations. In the midst of this city stood a magnificent temple, which, in magnitude and splendor, exceeded everything of the kind before known upon the earth. Its foundations were of precious stones; its walls like polished gold; its windows of agates, clear as crystal; and its roof of a dazzling brightness, its top, like the lofty Andes, seemed to mingle with the skies; while a bright cloud overshadowed it, from which extended rays of glory and brightness in all the magnificent colors of the rainbow. The whole buildings thereof seemed to cover some eight or ten acres of ground.
Neither story offers readers much in the way of interesting characters or plot development. Instead, they strive to give readers a sense of awe about the future City of Zion and its beauty. At the end of “One Hundred Years Hence,” for example, the time travelers awake from their visit to the future “perfectly enamored with the beauty and glory of Zion to be” and longing for “the heavenly reality of one hundred years hence” (145). Like the millennial poetry of the same era, the story uses fantastic imagery of gleaming architecture and peaceful citizenry to inspire readers to contemplate and hope for a world where the influences of wickedness and sin are eclipsed by the glory of a celestial city.
A better piece of creative writing from the same era is Pratt’s “A Dialogue between Joseph Smith and the Devil” (1844), a kind of closet drama that is often labeled the first Mormon short story. Published in the New York Herald in January 1844, the piece is charming and surprisingly entertaining. As its title suggests, it depicts a good-natured religious debate between Satan and the Prophet, with Satan promoting “Christian” practices that are a “help to [his] cause”:
I am fond of praying, singing, church-building, bell ringing, going to meeting, preaching, and withal, I have quite a missionary zeal. I like, also, long faces, long prayers, long robes, and learned sermons; nothing suits me better than to see people who have been for a whole week opposing their neighbor, grinding the face of the poor, walking in pride and folly, and serving me with all their heart.
Joseph Smith, on the other hand, offers a more genuine and common-sense approach to Christianity, ribbing Satan with sarcastic rejoinders that expose the folly of the devil’s schemes. In the end, the two “shake hands cordially” and sit down together for a spruce beer, roasting each other one last time. Like Pratt’s other fiction, “A Dialogue” is rudimentary literature that places more emphasis on its function as an entertaining vehicle of religious themes and ideas than on its literary form.
Establishing Zion: 1847–1877
The Mormon migration to Utah in 1847 inspired new poetry. Among the most famous work of Mormon creative writing from this time was William Clayton’s poem “All is Well,” which Mormons today know as “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Parley P. Pratt and William W. Phelps also continued to write poetry, although the most important poets from the early Utah period were Eliza R. Snow and John Lyon. Baptized near Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835, Snow quickly became known among Mormons in that region for her poetry. In 1842, while the Saints were headquartered in Nauvoo, Illinois, she helped to organize the Relief Society and later became a plural wife of Joseph Smith. During this time, she also wrote occasional poetry for marriages and births, poetic tributes to prominent men and women, devotion verse, and other well-known genres. After the Prophet and his brother were killed in Carthage Jail, Snow was among the first to use poetry to pay tribute to them:
Now Zion mourns, she mourns an earthly head;
The Prophet and the Patriarch are dead!
The blackest deed that men or devils know,
Since Calvary’s scene, has laid the brothers low.
One in their life, and one in death—they proved
How strong their friendship—how they truly loved.
True to their mission, until death they stood,
Then sealed their testimony with their blood. (“The Assassination,” lines 67–74)
After the Prophet’s death, she married Brigham Young and emigrated to Utah as a member of one of the first wagon trains. In the Rocky Mountains, Snow quickly became one of the most influential women in the region, becoming the second president of the Relief Society in 1866. Her poetry also flourished, becoming staples in publications like the Salt Lake City Deseret News and the Woman’s Exponent. Again, Snow worked with a number of meters and genres, writing occasional and devotional poetry, tributes, and pastoral and patriotic verses. “Evening Thoughts,” likely her final poem, was published in the Woman’s Exponent shortly before her death. In it, Snow expresses a theme common to her poetry: the exalting quality of a life consecrated to God:
Fear not, ye Saints—you who indeed
Are living as the Lord requires,
To sacred cov’nants giving heed,
And every word which God inspires.
An ordeal furnace near at hand,
Will test your faith and textures tool
But God will give you grace to stand,
And he will help you safely though.
And when the winds and tempests blow,
And the primed furnace vents its heat;
Whatever comes, ‘tis yours to know,
Your triumph yet will be complete. (lines 21–32)
Across the Atlantic, in Scotland, another talented poet joined the Church. Born in Glasgow’s slums in 1803, John Lyon was an illiterate weaver in Scotland’s working class until his debates with local college students inspired him to learn to read. By the time of his baptism in 1844, Lyon was already writing poems and articles for county newspapers, often to supplement his weaving income in hard times. As a Latter-day Saint, Lyon applied his facility with words and his commanding personality to missionary work, growing his local congregation and building up the Church in surrounding areas.
In 1853, following the encouragement of Orson Pratt and Franklin D. Richards, Lyon collected his poems into a single volume, The Harp of Zion, the proceeds of which he consecrated to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund to help poor converts pay their way to Zion. Unfortunately, the book did not initially sell well, despite the quality of its contents and binding, because of the poverty of the European Saints. Still, Lyon’s poetry continued to impress and inspire Mormons on both sides of the Atlantic, and when he finally emigrated to Utah in 1853, his talents as a weaver and man of letters were readily received and employed.
Lyon’s best-known poem, perhaps, is “The Apostate,” a “fragment” about a hasty European convert who emigrates to Nauvoo only to be disillusioned by its failures to live up to his utopian expectations. Indeed, upon arriving in the city, the convert confronts the “stern realities of life” in Zion and buckles under the blow:
[…] His hope,
Like morning mist, evaporated quite,
And with it, all his dreams of phantom bliss
Which nightly pictur’d out Elysian fields,
Woods, lawns, and bowers, and wizard, winding streams,
By crystal founts, and cool refreshing groves!
Amazed beyond description to rehearse,
He tried to reconcile his blasted hopes,
Where he beheld the toil-worn sons of God
Rolling the stone of Joseph, pond’rous grown:
Still disaffection’s deadly ’venomened sting
Withered his schemes, till every sense became
Corrupt, and dead. (lines 34–46)
The convert’s disenchantment with Zion comes to color his view of everything connected with Mormonism, including the temple, until he succumbs, like Lucifer, to apostasy:
And so he fell from his gigantic height,
As we have seen a falling meteor fall
From the starry vault, which never had,
’Mong constellations, a fixed residence,
Save the combustive fluid of scattered gas,
That, kindled by the windy current, flashed,
And falling, seemed a blazing orb of heaven! (lines 60–66)
“The Apostate” does not end with the convert’s fall, however. “[N]early twenty moons” after leaving Nauvoo, the convert returns to his Scotland congregation as a “strange, outlandish looking man,” still embittered by his experiences and railing against “[t]he Prophets, Saints, and all their labours” (lines 67, 69, 83). Through his sorry life, the poem offers caution to those zealously seeking the earthly paradise of an already-established Zion. Of course, like other poets of this era, Lyon often characterized Zion as a resting place where the Saints could find peace from repression, which could cast a too-idyllic glow over the Saints’ desert Zion. Still, for Lyon, Zion was less a Latter-day Cockaigne than a land where friends and family could gather to enjoy the blessings of the restored gospel. Indeed, Lyon addressed many of his poems to his brothers and sisters in the Church, expressing in them feelings of warmth and camaraderie through a shared spiritual vision. Poetry, in a sense, was a way for the Saints to grow closer together as brothers and sisters.
Interestingly, during this time of significant poetic production, the development of Mormon fiction was slow, with only an occasional piece of fiction appearing in newspapers or journals, often in the form of children’s stories. A primary reason for this lack of fiction was likely Brigham Young’s disapproval of the form, which was often used at the time to propagate anti-Mormon stereotypes and ridicule Church leaders, especially Young and Heber C. Kimball, his first counselor. While Young initially approved of fiction-reading within the Mormon community, he changed his mind as he got older and outside influences increased to threaten the mountain Zion. In an 1872 General Conference discourse on “The Order of Enoch,” for instance, Young even went so far as banning novels from his hypothetical ideal community:
If I had charge of such a society as this to which I refer, I would not allow 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. (“Order” 224–225)
Subsequent Church leaders echoed these sentiments after his death, including George Reynolds, the influential secretary to the First Presidency. Like Young, Reynolds feared the popularity of fiction, particularly the way it made the world beyond the borders of Zion attractive to young people. Writing in The Contributor in 1881, Reynolds specifically warned against fiction that romanticized monogamy in the minds of Mormon young women:
In no feature is the genius of the Church of God more at variance with that of modern Babylon than in its ethics of social life; pre-eminently with regard to the marriage covenant. Modern Christian writers, when treating upon the subject of marriage, whether viewing it from a religious, legal, or social standpoint, universally (with one or two unimportant exceptions), claim that the union of one man with one woman only, is the true order of matrimony, and that a man cannot honorably and sincerely love two or more women at the same time as wives should be loved. This falsehood is still more strongly though indirectly, enforced in the current works to fiction, whether in prose or song which treat as most of them do, on the affections of the human heart. Literature of this class extols a state of society utterly inconsistent with that which will exist when the government of God holds sway upon the earth. Those of our people who are addicted to the habit of reading this class of works, and of filling their minds with their plots and episodes, insensibly to themselves imbibe a spirit and develop a state of feeling antagonistic to the teachings of divine revelation, which dwarfs their growth in heavenly principles and measurably unfit them for the realities of life. (358)
Significantly, this injunction against fiction remained intact until Mormons began to distance themselves from polygamy in 1890. As a form almost inextricably connected with the monogamous marriage plot, the novel did not secure a lasting place within the Mormon community until that plot paradigm became more complementary to their values.
Defending Zion: 1877–1890
Brigham Young passed away in 1877, and the years following his death were difficult on the Mormon people.
In 1879, the Supreme Court ruled against George Reynolds in the landmark Reynolds v. United States case, affirming that duty to religious beliefs was not justifiable grounds for disobeying the laws of the land, thus strengthening existing federal anti-bigamy legislation.
In 1882, Congress passed the Edmunds Act, which made polygamy a felony and rendered it increasingly harder for Latter-day Saint men to practice plural marriage. This legislation was followed up five years later by the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which further curtailed the rights of polygamists and essentially crippled the Church’s ability to function as an institution. By the end of the decade, many Mormon men—including prominent Church leaders like President John Taylor—were either hiding from federal marshals or serving prison sentences.
This atmosphere of opposition and oppression greatly influenced the rising generation of Mormon creative writers. Among those most affected was Orson F. Whitney, the grandson of two of Mormonism’s greatest early leaders, Heber C. Kimball and Newel K. Whitney. Always of a literary mindset, Whitney worked as a newspaper reporter, editor, and teacher while honing his poetic voice. In 1889, after publishing a number of poems in Church periodicals, Whitney collected his work and published it in The Poetical Writings of Orson F. Whitney: Poems and Poetical Prose, which is possibly the best-crafted book of Mormon poetry published in the nineteenth century. For Whitney, the book was a deliberate effort to gain credibility for the Mormon people and better their reputation. In its preface, Whitney writes especially of Mormon poetry’s ability to speak to change minds and reveal the profundity of Mormon thought:
[…] and though I may not hope to win for my verse favor and recognition, such as are accorded to and merited by productions of poetic genius, it may be these humble songs will help dispel the dense cloud of prejudice and misapprehension hanging like a pall over the true history and character of my people, and show that the author of these line, if he cannot create poetry, can at least admire it, and linger if not follow in the footsteps of those whose diving mission is to make the world more lovely and more lovable by producing it. That the name ‘Mormon’ is not necessarily a synonym for coarseness and carnality, need not be told to those cognizant of the truth. But what a vast mine of poetry, no less than science and philosophy, lies hidden in the mystic depths of what is mistermed ‘Mormonism,’ neither the wise world, not we ourselves, I trow, are half aware. (iii–iv)
As evidenced in The Poetical Writings, Whitney produced a number of sophisticated works that, sadly, had no measureable effect on the perceptions and prejudices of the outside world. One reason for this, perhaps, aside from their association with the much-maligned Mormonism, was the militant contempt a number of Whitney’s poems expressed toward the United States, which they characterized as a cruel Babylonian power. For instance, in his poem “The Women of the Everlasting Covenant,” a tribute to Mormondom’s plural wives, Whitney soundly condemns the United States for their opposition to polygamy, characterizing it as a hypocritical rejection of a biblical teaching:
Dare Christian bigotry assign of hell,
The law that framed the House of Israel?
Condemn as barbarous, or brand as crime,
The heaven-accepted rites of olden time?
Dare pious priest, or sectary, renounce
The sacred truths of Scripture, and denounce
The ones Almighty God could condescend
To own as Chosen, and to name as Friend?
Befoul the words that glittering begem
The pearly gates of New Jerusalem,
In future time to meet them face to face,
And crave admittance to that holy place?
Oh, blush for shame, false Christianity!
Thou synonym for inconsistency! (lines 177–190)
Other poems carry a similar antagonizing tone. In “Lines on the Exodus,” for example, Whitney attacks the American Babylon for its oppression, predicting its certain fall before Zion emerged to establish a new age of Truth:
O Babylon! what streams of human blood
Unite to swell thy crimson-rolling flood!
The cry of millions, bound within thy thralls,
Deceived and lost, of God for vengeance calls;
The prayers of martyrs, murdered for the truth,
Appeals of widows for their orphaned youth,
The blood of innocence thy hand hath shed,
Pronounced a curse upon thy guilty head.
And thou shalt fall, and great thy fall shall be,
A ponderous mill-stone cast into the sea;
Eternal night shall shroud thee in its gloom,
And Truth shall triumph in thy day of doom. (lines 23–34)
Whitney’s impassioned prediction did not come to pass, however. The year following the publication of Poetical Writings, the Church lost another important Supreme Court case, The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States (1890), and Church leaders increasingly recognized that their utopian dream of a Zion apart from the American Babylon was hopeless. In September 1890, following a period of earnest prayer and revelation, President Wilford Woodruff announced the end of officially sanctioned polygamy among the Mormon people, instigating what would become the most transformative years of Mormon history since the days of Joseph Smith.
Mormon creative writing, like so much else in the Mormon world, changed in important ways in the wake of the Woodruff Manifesto. By then, the great Mormon poets of the nineteenth-century—William W. Phelps, Parley P. Pratt, Eliza R. Snow, and John Lyon—were dead, and a new generation of Mormon creative writers, led by Orson F. Whitney’s vision of “Home Literature,” guided writers like Susa Young Gates, Nephi Anderson, Josephine Spencer, and Julia McDonald to a new century and new literary forms.
Poetry continued to be a popular literary form, to be sure; yet, a number of Mormon writers—particularly Mormon women writers—turned increasingly to prose forms like the short story and novel. The emergence of Mormon fiction signaled an end to a foundational era in Mormon literature.
In the future, Mormon creative writers would continue to explore themes of Zion and community-building, but in a less overtly utopian and apocalyptic way than their forebears. For them, Mormon creative writing provided a literary landscape where they could bid farewell to their utopian past and grapple with Mormonism’s new efforts to become an assimilated and participating member of society. ❧
Thanks for all this hard work! A really interesting overview of what was happening in the Church in the early days.