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A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints

Section Introduction: History

"Mormon History as Mormon Literature"

Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert


What drama could any merely mortal storyteller construct that would not be an idle nursery play for children, compared to the one that is written in our own annals, whose first chapter opens on the Hill Cumorah with a new Bible engraved on sheets of gold? --Bernard DeVoto

[1]   To talk about history as literary art may be to some a contradiction in terms. But if we assume that literature is an expression of the significance of human experience, then certainly history becomes appropriate for this volume. And the concern that the Latter-day Saint people have had with their cosmic destiny has made the record of the events in which they were involved a matter of vital concern. They have been a people much concerned with their own history.

[2]   The histories produced and read by the Mormons have of course varied widely in scope and treatment, depending on the background and intent of the author; but all have put the past into some sort of design that derives ultimately from the assurance that the Mormon Church is God led, and the events of history that touch that Church, though instigated by man, are finally limited by the powers of heaven. Though often only implicit in the work, this meta-history guides the writer’s pen in selecting, forming, and polishing accounts of that indefinable: “what happened.”

[3]   Thus in Lucy Mack Smith we see the vivid recollections not of a professional historian but of a concerned mother recalling a terrible ordeal out of her own life which in itself added further evidence to her conviction that the boy who had been operated on had, in later years, also been visited by God, that on this occasion, as throughout her life, events demanded that she “acknowledge the hand of the Lord.”

[4]   In Joseph Smith’s own account we see personal history in the shape of the familiar spiritual autobiography. Skimming quickly through series of events, leaping whole decades in a sentence, this record disregards almost entirely the developing personality of the author and focuses instead on a series of dramatic confrontations with heavenly messengers. If the nineteenth-century formality of the language seems to restrain both the writer and the reader, it becomes in the end a remarkable vehicle for rendering the events themselves. For what but controlled understatement can deal with the confrontation that these pages depict?

[5]   In B. H. Roberts we have a Mormon historian who was also a significant man of letters in the Church. One of Mormondom’s great orators, he knew the power of the word and the well-chosen phrase. In the example from his Comprehensive History presented here, we can see not only the remarkable readability which characterizes this history but a striking sense of moral indignation and outrage over the treatment of the Saints in Missouri. This is a history in which the best rhetorical thrusts and flourishes become master tools in presenting for the Saints of God the case against the United States of America in general and the state of Missouri in particular.

[6]   Thomas L. Kane’s is perhaps the most “literary” of all the accounts in this section. Friend of the Saint that he was, Kane utilizes many of the devices of fiction to convey his own sympathetic feelings about the situation of the exiled Saints. With a propensity for the pictorial, he paints an interesting literary diptych with a “deserted village” on one side and a scene of suffering on the other. The details are chosen with care, and the scenes are rendered with such precise detail and sure strokes that our sympathies are deeply touched.

[7]   But as the Church moved into the twentieth century, it also moved closer to mainstream America. Less strident in their tone, less militant in their attitude, writers of history became less concerned with biblical parallels and more interested in the place of the Church in the history of the United States. A landmark of this new interest is Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom. If in these pages the people are less like plaster saints and more like human beings, they are intriguing to us for that reason. Capable of errors in judgment, plagued by apostasy as well as crickets, they nevertheless endured--a point which becomes more and more impressive as the historical background is clarified in the clean and precise presentation of an excellent modern historian.

[8]   The last piece in this section is obviously not one with the others. But just as obviously, James E. Talmage deserves a place in this anthology, for this history of the Christ has become a Mormon classic. Based not only on a meticulous study of the biblical account but on a striking love of the subject, Jesus the Christ gives a truly remarkable portrayal of the life of the Messiah. Without tearing him from his historical context and without violating the divinity of his life, Talmage has made Christ believable not only as a human being but as the Son of God.

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Mormon Literature

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