Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Joseph Smith in Literature — Orson F. Whitney

Orson F. Whitney
Orson F. Whitney

Was Joseph Smith a poet? In the first post in this series Orson F. Whitney argued that Prophets are the greatest poets, implying that he was. But in 1905, 12 years earlier than the source of that initial post, The Strength of the Mormon Position, Whitney looked at Joseph Smith’s literary role in an article published for the centenary of his birth.

Whitney not only had an expansive view of poetry, he also had an expansive view of literature in general, which also comes out in the excerpt of his 1905 article included today. Here Whitney claims that “Learning is another name for literature” and claims that Joseph Smith’s teaching that we should seek learning also means that we should cultivate literature.

Joseph Smith in Literature

by Bishop Orson F. Whitney

“Seek ye out of the best books, words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study, and also by faith.” These are the words of Joseph Smith, or the words of the Almighty, through him, to the Latter-day Saints.

Why did the Lord so instruct His prophet? Why did the Prophet so teach his people? It was because God had designed, and the Prophet had foreseen, a great and glorious future for that people. Chosen himself in weakness, so far as this world’s wisdom was concerned, as a foundation stone of the mighty structure that is destined to tower heavenward, reflecting from polished walls and glittering spires the splendors of eternity, he knew there must come a time, unless One who cannot lie had sworn falsely, when Zion, as the head and front of a world’s civilization, would arise and shine, “the joy of the whole earth,” the seat of learning, the source of wisdom, and the centre of political power; when, side by side with pure religion, would flourish art and science, her fair daughters; when music, poetry, painting, sculpture, oratory and the drama–rays of light from the same central sun, no longer refracted and discolored by the many-hued prisms of man’s sensuality–would throw their white radiance full and direct upon the mirror-like glory of her towers; when the science of earth and the wisdom of heaven would walk hand in hand, interpreting each other; when philosophy would drink from wells of living truth, no longer draining the deadly hemlock of error, to poison the pure air with the illusions of sophistry; when Zion’s sons and Zion’s daughters, as famed for intelligence and culture as for beauty, purity and truth, would entertain kings and nobles, would sit upon thrones themselves, or go forth as shafts of light from the bow of the Almighty, as messengers and ambassadors to the nations!

Joseph saw all this; he knew it was inevitable; that such were the natural flowers and fruits of the work which God had planted. The roots of the tree might not show it so well–their mission was to lie hidden in the earth, ignored and trampled on by men; but the branches in a day to come would prove it. Rough and rugged himself, as the granite boulders of yonder hills, he knew, and his brethren around him knew, that upon the strong basic stones of which they were symbolical–the massive foundations of the past–the great Architect would rear the superstructure of the future; that the youth of Israel would build upon the beginnings made by heroic fathers and mothers, these differing necessarily from their offspring, but only as the foundations of a building must differ from the walls and spires. Joseph knew that his people must progress, that their destiny demanded it; that culture is the duty of man, as intelligence is the glory of God. That is why he said: “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study, and also by faith.”

Learning is another name for literature. In counseling his people to “seek learning,” therefore, this supposedly ignorant and illiterate man was virtually advising them to cultivate literature. The “best books” here mentioned do not mean merely the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, Church works and religious writings, though these must ever lie at the basis of “Mormon” literature. History, poetry, philosophy, art and science, languages, laws, and the principles of government,–all truth, in short, is included in that comprehensive phrase. Yes, it even means inspiration, revelation; for does it not say: “Seek learning by study, and also by faith?”

But the Prophet was not content to exhort others to progress. He set the example, and let out along the lines of advancement. His roughness became smooth, his illiteracy (for he was illiterate at first) gave way to learning. His potential powers became actual possessions, through study, experience and development. He gave a meaning to knowledge that it had never known, and made education the synonym for salvation. “A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge.” “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.” “If he does not get knowledge, he will be brought into captivity by some evil power in the other world, as evil spirits will have more knowledge, and consequently more power, than many men who are on the earth.” These are among Joseph Smith’s teachings. He also taught that whatever principles of intelligence we attain to in this life, they will rise with us in the resurrection; and that if one soul, by greater diligence and faithfulness acquires more intelligence than another, it will have just that much advantage in the world to come.

Did it ever occur to those careless, not to say shallow critics, who think they see in “Mormonism” nothing but sin and depravity; who regard the followers of Joseph Smith as ignoramuses, know-nothings, to whom books are a bore and literature a term without meaning, that a book looms up at the very beginning of “Mormon” history–that “Mormonism’s” first production was a piece of literature, the most remarkable of modern times?

Improvement Era,
v9 n2, Dec 1905

Both here and in The Strength of the Mormon Position, one of Whitney’s clear purposes is to refute the common anti-Mormon claim that Mormons are ignorant and that Mormonism thrives through discouraging the intellect–an assumption rooted in an inability to understand how anyone could rationally accept Mormonism’s truth claims. If anything, Whitney himself is a shining example of how intellect and belief in the gospel are completely compatible.

The more I read of Whitney, the  more I am convinced that he deserves a place among the greatest of Mormon intellectuals.

6 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Joseph Smith in Literature — Orson F. Whitney”

  1. This is a great line: “He gave a meaning to knowledge that it had never known, and made education the synonym for salvation.”

  2. Yes, Wm, Whitney had a fascinating and provocative way of stating his beliefs.

    I kind of like “culture is the duty of man, as intelligence is the glory of God.”

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