Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: George Reynolds on ‘Outside Literature’

My previous “Lit Crit Sermons” have been from sources that generally took a positive view of literature, seeing the role of the author or poet as an important and divinely inspired one. That view is, unfortunately, not universal among past General Authorities of the Church and those who wrote in LDS-oriented magazines. In fact, Church leaders often saw dangers in literature from the outside world and warned Church members against reading that literature. The Home Literature movement was the solution to the dangers that leaders saw.

Today’s “sermon” comes from George Reynolds, who had been released from prison in January, 1881, just eight months before this essay was published. He had served a 5-month-long sentence after losing the test case for the constitutionality of the federal law against polygamy, Reynolds v. United States. He was later called as a member of the First Council of the Seventy.

While Reynolds’ prison sentence may have influenced him, I’m not convinced that his imprisonment was the principle reason for the harsh views against outsiders expressed here. Rather, I suspect that these views were common among the Saints in Utah at that time, at least in part because of the prosecution of polygamy.

Despite the motivations behind this essay, there are some interesting, and some very surprising, points in it. Reynolds’ early suggestion that a theocratic, patriarchal civilization is superior to a democratic government will be quite surprising to today’s readers, as is his suggestion that one of the reasons that outside literature weakens the faith of members is that it presents monogamy instead of polygamy.

I must admit that this latter argument, that the Saints in Utah needed to avoid works that didn’t portray polygamy, had never occurred to me. But, when I think about it, I realize that today we have a counterpart to this logic, something that appears often in our children’s literature — books that aim to make a particular home situation seem normal or mainstream. I’m not just speaking of alternative lifestyles (such as homosexuality), but also what we would consider positive: disabilities, living with grandparents or foster parents or a single parent. Where we see such books as often positive and a good way to help children develop sensitivities towards these situations and see them as normal, Reynolds sees it as crucial that the Utah Saints of his day see polygamy as correct and normal, as opposed to everything else. And, to be frank, this is one of the underlying reasons for Mormon Literature: the desire for literature that portrays our way of life and values.

Reynolds goes on to raise another issue which we debate still today: the portrayal of evil in literature. Just like Church leaders and members today, Reynolds objects to the portrayal of infidelity in fiction, suggesting that familiarity leads to adoption. He even cites Alexander Pope’s dictum, which is still familiar to us today.

So, while Reynolds’ words were written for a different time, much of what he says addresses the same issues we are still discussing and arguing about in Mormon literature today.

I should add, lest anyone think otherwise, that just because I’ve selected this essay and posted it here does NOT mean that I agree with its logic or conclusions.

[I have cut out one portion — a few paragraphs — of the essay and inserted an ellipsis (“¦) where I cut . I have left spelling as it is in the original.]

Influence of Outside Literature

by George Reynolds

“He that is not with me is against me.” — Jesus.

There is a fact, that no one need disguise, (if any, indeed, have such an inclination) as it is felt and realized even more forcibly and vividly by those not of us than by the Latter-day Saints themselves. It is this–that the civilization which we are seeking to establish is widely different, and often opposed to the civilization of the ninteenth century by which we are the most closely surrounded and intimately connected. Ours is theocratic, patriarchal, and based on the recognition of the right of the Supreme Creator of the Universe to direct his creatures in all things. Their’s is an outgrowth, a gradual development, a mixture of Christian ethics and pagan philosophy, practically atheistical in its modes of national government, even when theoretically otherwise, and democratic in its tendency and workings. Their’s is Babylon the Great, ours is the Kingdom of God.


One of the most powerful weapons of modern times is the printing press. It is almost entirely in the service of Satan, and well he uses it. Its tendency is almost universally to antagonize the principles, truths and ideas that the Latter-day Saints are laboring to establish. Not, indeed, generally by direct reference to them and their works, but by the dissemination of theories, doctrines and teachings with regard to religion, government, morals, sociology, and every thing else that affects man, that are opposed to the revelations of God. These gain influence over the minds of men in two directions, first by undermining the faith of believers, and secondly by strengthening the skepticism of those who believe not. It is to the first of these two classes that we address our remarks.

Literature bearing an inimical influence, coming into our midst from the strongholds of the enemy cannot fail to have an effect upon us. Its presentment of life so far as it is accepted as the true one, to the same extent stamps ours as false.

As examples of what we mean, we will refer to our governmental and social politics, and draw attention to the fact that the very best works published by the world in science, philosophy, or fiction have a direct influence in weakening our position, if we permit their arguments to have weight with us.

The civilization of the Latter-day Saints recognizes God as the source of all legitimate authority on earth as well as in heaven; that of the peoples by whom they are surrounded, and from whose midst they gather is based on the assumption that men can govern themselves without God’s immediate help, control or direction. Thus their publications treating on civil government and kindred subjects entirely ignores the necessity of the Creator, or the right of his representatives to take any part in human affairs, and whilst some of these writers acknowledge that there is a God, others deny his existence altogether. But so far as the the practical government of the world is concerned they both equally leave Him out of the question. The influence of books of this kind cannot but be detrimental to the spiritual health of those who are not intelligent enough to perceive the weakness of the arguments used, and with such has the direct effect of lessening their faith in, and respect for God’s government on earth; for they ask, “if the machinery of man’s government be so perfect, what need is there of God, if there be a God, overturning the present order of things by revelations which so strongly condemn and threaten all that has not its origin in the divine will;” or “if the world is progressing so rapidly, as is claimed, without the direct interposition of providence, why not let humanity work out its own problems unmolested .and untrammeled ?” Thus we see the axe is laid at the root of the necessity of man living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, and doubt and distrust takes the place of faith and confidence.

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 of 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 utterally 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 unfits them for the realities of life. Take, as an example, the young lady whose mind is crowded with thoughts and fancies of the impossible and unnatural heroes and heroines of romance, and whose matrimonial aspirations are turned in the direction of some modern counterpart of her beau ideal of chivalry, then how insignificant, how wearisome, how disgusting become the constantly recurring duties of her every day life as a wife and a mother; whilst plural marriage she personally avoids as utterally incompatible with the notions she has formed of life in its most desirable forms; or if she does enter that order the recollection of her former imaginings and the influence of her early reading will occasionally embitter her daily toil, or add a flavor of unrest to her character which naturally would not exist, but which can be traced legitimately and directly to the vicious mental food on which she subsisted in her girlhood. The effect, more or less, of these things is of course modified by the original strength of character of the individual and the faith, firmness, intelligence and wisdom which distinguish it.

There is a second class of works of fiction, which though reputably respectable, have a very detrimental and injurious effect on the minds of the youth. They are that class on which our popular “Society Dramas” are founded, novels whose plots lie in infractions of the seventh commandment, in the infidelity of husbands and wives to their marriage vows. And though the tale may be told in unexceptionable language, yet the moral is two frequently infamous. They create in the minds of many who read them a familiarity with crimes of this description, and as familiarity breeds contempt, so the youthful learn to regard sexual sins in a far different light to that in which they are exposed in God’s holy word. Again, these works have a tendency to beget curiosity as to things forbidden, and to prematurely develop in the youth feelings and passions which cannot be righteously exercised, and as they cannot be gratified they must be suppressed and conquered. It is well that they should be suppressed, but how much better if they were never unnaturally and artificially developed before the proper age, for even the task of virtuous suppression occasionally leaves the mind scarred with the wounds of the spiritual conflict, besides affecting the unmatured body unhealthily. In matters of this kind it is folly to be too wise in the knowledge acquired through these muddy channels, for they are not the legitimate sources of such information.

Again there is a yet lower and still more dangerous description of literature, which we shall dismiss with a very few words, it is that which is, and is intended to be impure, though it frequently evades the powers of the law. It is to be regretted that periodicals verging on this class are sold by the score in our larger cities, and non-Mormons are not the only purchasers. The suggestive and half indecent pictures alone tell the tale of their contents and intent without any perusal of the letter-press. Such publications are unmitigated evils, rank mental poison, and are amongst the most powerful engines at the command of the Evil One to draw the unweary down to death and destruction. Their influence as a weapon framed against the development of God’s purposes is most potent, as Zion, the pure in heart, can never be built up by any people who permit themselves to be polluted with impurities such as these suggest, and as naturally grow out of their perusal. For to this species of vice most pertinently apply the words of the poet:

“Vice is a monster of such hideous mein,
That to be hated needs but to be seen;
But seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

Admitting the foregoing statements and arguments to be true, it may be well to ask, what lessons do they teach? We answer, first of all the paramount necessity of the Saints possessing a literature of their own, proceeding from themselves; or if not entirely original, selected by wise men from those works which contain the least error. This will be a work of time, and in the meanwhile it becomes our duty to obtain wisdom from the best books, but trusting to them only as the works of man, liable to contain error, and discarding them entirely wherein they deny or throw doubt on the existence of God, or contradict, insult, or outrage any of the laws, principles or truths that it has pleased him in his abundant mercy to reveal unto us.

From The Contributor (2) September 1881, p. 357.

6 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: George Reynolds on ‘Outside Literature’”

  1. .

    Hmm. As soon as someone claims X is “almost entirely in the service of Satan”, I generally stop listening.

  2. George isn’t shy about sharing his (unreasonably strong) opinions, is he?

    Still, I suspect you also have heard LDS Church members with similarly strong opinions on the evils of media…

  3. The difficult truth is I think many LDS people still have a bit of this at the back of their minds. Particularly the part about not portraying evil. I struggle as a writer to figure out how to portray reality without becoming gratuitous, but to me, literature that portrays nothing of the real difficulties of life, including people making different sorts of choices and living through various sets of consequences than what an orthodox LDS member might choose, doesn’t really teach anything, or bring anything to light.

  4. If anything, Sarah, doesn’t this show that this, “How to portray evil,” is one of the seminal issues for Mormon Lit? I think we go back and back to it over and over again.

  5. I’ve actually been a bit surprised at what LDS publishers are OK with (lately.) I sent them my fantasy novel because it was in my contract (first rights of refusal on my next book) with a heavy disclaimer that there was violence and some sexuality in it. I was surprised at what the objections were… different from what I thought. Also surprised at the attitude of the editor I’m working with… what was it she said… “a lot of my readers like to apply arbitrary rules. And then break them for no apparent reason.”
    It was refreshing to see that people in the LDS mainstream publishing world are actually human 😀

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