A Short History of Mormon Publishing: Home Literature

The fifth of eight posts and an introduction. See also Part IV, Part III, Part II, Part I, Introduction

“Works of fiction, novels, tales and light reading of that description ought not to be read by young people. They are not food for your mind”¦”[1]

George Q. Cannon wasn’t the first to voice this sentiment when he wrote it in 1866; LDS Church leaders had warned members about fiction for most of the Brigham Young administration. Nor was Cannon the last to make this claim and by the mid 1880s, with the railroad bringing thousands of copies of works of fiction to Utah each year, the brethren were worried about the effect of these works on the youth of the Church.

During the preceding two decades the Church had taken steps to strengthen the youth, founding the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association in 1869 and the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association in 1875. A magazine for the YMMIA, The Contributor, was founded in 1879. George Q. Cannon’s Juvenile Instructor began publishing books that same year, providing an alternative to outside fiction, but principally in the form of historical accounts, biography and memoir (such as that found in the Faith Promoting Series Cannon published through the Juvenile Instructor starting in 1879). This locally produced literature soon became known as “Home Literature.” Still, many Church members ignored the counsel and continued to read outside fiction.

Orson F. Whitney, then Bishop of the Salt Lake City 18th Ward (but well known as the former city editor of the Deseret News), suggested a different solution to this problem in 1888, substituting sanction for the previous prohibition. He asked Mormon authors to offer an alternative, a “Home Literature” that was on par with the best the world could produce, even in fiction. Citing the injunction in the Doctrine and Covenants to “Seek learning, even by study and also by faith,” Whitney said:

The formation of a home literature is directly in the line and spirit of this injunction. Literature means learning, and it is from the “best books” we are told to seek it. This does not merely mean the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the book of Doctrine and Covenants, Church works and religious writings–though these indeed are “the best books,” and will ever be included in and lie at the very basis of our literature. But it also means history, poetry, philosophy, art and science, languages, government–all truth in fact, wherever found, either local or general, and relating to times past, present or to come.

Whitney went on to predict, “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”[2]

The effect of this address was to open the door to fiction written by Mormons, especially in the pages of the auxiliary magazines of the Church. The first work of Home Literature fiction appeared in the pages of The Contributor, the magazine of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA, forerunner of the Young Men’s program), just three months later.[3] Other LDS periodicals, the Juvenile Instructor, the Young Women’s Journal, the Improvement Era and the Relief Society Magazines[4] all carried short fiction (in addition to the poetry already included in LDS periodicals since the first issue of the first LDS periodical in 1832). An independent magazine in Utah, Parry’s Monthly, also started up to present faithful stories to young people.[5]

Other works of literature soon followed. Just over a decade later LDS readers could enjoy novels (especially Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon (1898)), often in book form after they had been published serially in Church magazines. Drama soon followed with the debut of Corianton, by Orestes Bean, in 1902.

This sudden acceptance of fiction coincided with George Q. Cannon’s own plans, since he started publishing works under his own name, George Q. Cannon and Sons, beginning in 1889 with Nephi Andersen’s Young Folks History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By 1891, Cannon was publishing 3-5 titles each year under his own name while still publishing 1-3 new titles a year under the Juvenile Instructor name.[6]

However, most of this was till not fiction. Cannon himself published his only fiction title in 1898, Anderson’s Added Upon. His successors slowly built on that publication, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that the LDS market produced more than one novel in a year (including self or privately published titles and titles published by national publishers).[7] Instead, short and serialized fiction published in the LDS Church’s magazines remained the dominant form, with most of the magazines publishing at least a couple stories in each issue, adding up to 35 to 50 stories a year.

Like with the Juvenile Instructor, these efforts, along with Cannon’s printing for others, led to a bookstore that sold both the works that Cannon printed and published and works that came from other publishers and printers, including those outside of Utah. Eventually, George Q. Cannon and Sons became the principal store for purchasing Mormon works and the principal bookstore in Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, the 1890 manifesto and subsequent elimination of anti-polygamy prosecution, along with Utah statehood in 1896, eliminated the need to keep Church assets in private hands, and in 1897 the Church started bringing the auxiliary magazines under its ownerhsip. The Contributor was closed in 1896, and the Improvement Era was started the following year to replace it. The Young Woman’s Journal was sold to the YLMIA in 1897. And George Q. Cannon sold the Juvenile Instructor magazine and bookstore to the Deseret Sunday School Union in 1900. Cannon also transferred the George Q. Cannon and Sons publishing venture and bookstore to the Deseret News, the Church-owned newspaper in Salt Lake City that year, just a year before he died. While the Deseret News bookstore and press was mostly successful, the Sunday School’s operation regularly ran deficits, requiring regular investments from the Church to stay afloat. To solve these problems, the Church merged the two operations in 1919 to create Deseret Book.[8]

[1] Cannon, George Q. Juvenile Instructor, 15 August 1866.

[2] Whitney, Orson F. “Home Literature.” The Contributor, July 1888. The text was given as an address at the YMMIA Conference on June 3, 1888.

[3] My brief review of the LDS periodicals in 1888 indicates that the first work of fiction published after Whitney’s talk was Augusta Joyce Crocheron’s “The Boom”, The Contributor, September 1888, pp. 417-420.

[4] Church magazines carried fiction until 1974.

[5] Esplin, Ross S. A Survey of Fiction Written by Mormon Authors and Appearing in Mormon Periodicals Between 1900 and 1945. Unpublished master’s thesis, BYU, 1949. p. 6.

[6] My own analysis of data drawn from Worldcat. This database can be found online at (http://www.worldcat.org).

[7] My own analysis of data drawn from the Mormon Literature and Creative Arts database. This database can be found online at (http://mormonlit.byu.edu).

[8] Knowles, Eleanor. “Deseret Book Company, 125 Years of Inspiration, Information, and Ideas.” Deseret Book, 1991.

5 thoughts on “A Short History of Mormon Publishing: Home Literature”

  1. This is really useful, Kent.

    I wonder if short and serial fiction remained dominant not only because the periodicals were the major publishers and short fiction is cheaper to print, but also because didactic fiction is easier to take in short story form. Novels, perhaps, demand conflict and nuance in a way that short stories don’t (speaking strictly about the length and general form and not about different schools of through related to them).

  2. .

    I had forgotten that “Home Literature” was a term they selected for themselves and not invented by Eugene England. Adds a bit of resonance to the term.

    About didactic novels and Nephi Anderson, I’ve only read two of his books, but even Added Upon isn’t didactic in the strictest sense. (Although it’s didactic. Let’s not pretend otherwise.) Dorian however, is much more complex. I’m not sure it would meet DB/Covt’s current bleached publishing standards.

  3. .

    Church magazines carried fiction until 1974.

    They continued to carry fiction after the change in magazines. The Ensign stopped first, but The New Era and Friend kept it up until at least the mid90s.

  4. The novel tends to do that, Theric. That’s why wondered if that was a factor in the preference for short fiction in addition to the fact that it’s easier and cheaper to publish.

  5. WM, (1), I have no idea if that was a factor or not, but I think your thought that it might be is very interesting. The only way that I think we would know is if an author or editor recorded something about that somewhere — say in a journal. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for someone to research that.

    Th. (2), what surprised me about the term “Home Literature” is that it was used to refer to ALL the materials produced by Church members — including non-fiction like history and doctrine. I had originally assumed that the term referred just to fiction.

    Th. (3) I didn’t know that.

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