It is, perhaps, one thing to specify what books and other media should be consumed, and quite another to make that material available. While many commentators today will suggest that the bulk of what Mormons have produced is not worth reading (yes, I am referring, among other things, to Jettboy’s post of last week), I think that the Mormon track record, at least in the early days, isn’t bad. For better or for worse, the Mormons of the late 1800s didn’t just complain that outside literature was bad, they began a “home literature” movement meant to provide a good alternative.
What I found particularly interesting in the excerpt below is the contrast with the rest of Christianity. In the April, 1920 conference, then Apostle David O. McKay cited an article by perennial presidential candidate and crusader William Jennings Bryan as follows:
The tendency has been to prohibit amusements which are hurtful rather than to encourage those which are healthful and wholesome. Amusements are necessary; and if those which uplift are not introduced, harmful pastime will be resorted to. This explains why so many young people are drawn away from the Church just at the age when they ought to be drawn into it–they are influenced by the worldly minded with whom they find amusement during their leisure hours. * * * My suggestion, therefore, is that an effort should be made to set up a Christian standard for Christian communities and to create an environment that will be helpful to the Church and the spiritual things for which the Church stands.
“In the World, of the World, and for the World”
by William Jennings Bryan, in World-Outlook, February, 1920
An April 1963 article in the Improvement Era that I saw in “snippet view” on Google Books seems to claim that Bryan was actually in the audience when McKay quoted him in this discourse. Remembering the history of the arts in Mormonism (although he didn’t mention home literature), McKay then claims that Mormons have been very supportive of the arts:
The “Mormon” Church has always encouraged legitimate amusements; in this respect, at least, it has set a worthy example to the world. That “helpful environment” mentioned by Mr. Bryan has been in the Church of Jesus Christ ever since its organization.
Away back in the days of Nauvoo we find the drama introduced by the Prophet Joseph. We find acting in that drama men who later became prominent leaders in the Church. Among them was the man who succeeded the Prophet Joseph, Brigham Young. He, imbued with the necessity of influencing the people in their amusements and of using their recreation as a means of instilling virtue, integrity, and honesty, brought to these valleys that spirit. Why, even on the plains, after a day’s march, the wagons were drawn up in a circle, a man with the violin would take his place by the campfire and there on the prairie the sturdy Pioneers would join hands in a dance, opening it by prayer, and participate in amusement that fostered the spirit of the gospel. Two years had not passed after their entrance into the “Valley” before they built the “bowery,” and there presented, undoubtedly, the first drama that was ever given in the West. Later they built the Social Hall. Perhaps, there are those in the audience today who, after listening to the opening prayer, joined hands in the cotillion, dancing in a spirit best understood by the remarks of President Brigham Young, who once said, in substance: “The atmosphere of the dance should be such that if any elder be called from the party to go to administer to a sick person, he could leave with the same spirit that he would go from his elders’ quorum meeting.”
All over this land, today, in the excellent community centers established by those early pioneers, you will find the amusements characteristic of the spirit of the community, fathers, mothers, boys and girls, mingling together in the dance, in the drama, and in other social functions, the modifying and uplifting influence of the Church permeating all gatherings. And here, I add that the Latter-day Saints Church was the first Church in the world, I am informed, to give approval to the Boy Scout movement. So, the world, in order to get into their churches the spirit of proper amusements which our eminent visitor suggests, and which I accept with all my heart, need only to accept the ideals of the Latter-day Saints.
Excerpt from talk by David O. McKay,
General Conference, April, 1920
I have no idea what Bryan may have thought about McKay’s cheeky reply to his article. More importantly, I don’t know how accurate Bryan’s comment was. Were Mormons really more than 30 years ahead of the rest of Christianity in America when the home literature movement began? Bryan apparently believed that Christians had made few attempts to write literature with Christian values (even though there clearly were attempts — off the top of my head, Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur seems to fit the bill).
What does seem clear to me is that Mormon literature stumbled soon after this time — it failed to progress beyond what the home literature movement achieved, just as a market for Mormon books developed. Instead of much Mormon fiction coming out from Deseret Book and Bookcraft, Mormon authors published with outside houses, when they could. At least that is my perception — which could be as wrong as Bryan’s may have been about Christian literature.
Regardless, the Church has been very supportive of the arts at times, and it seems to be moving back towards support of certain arts again. Music has generally received good support, Theatre received excellent support from the 1920s to the 1950s, and the visual arts have gotten support at several different times (the 1890s art missions, the art commissions for temples and Church buildings and for magazines, etc.). Today the Church supports the arts not only through magazines and commissions, but also through its recent contests. My hope is that Church support is currently on an upswing.