Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: John L. Herrick on Literature as Preparation

John L. Herrick

Can literature pave the way for the gospel? Have the ideas introduced in literature made the concepts of the restoration more acceptable? Without examining the question, I think most Mormons would say yes, suggesting that the inspiration of God during the enlightenment, for example, probably gave Joseph Smith the background and preparation he needed and put the right mix of ideas in the minds of potential converts.

But what about after that? Have subsequent literary authors opened the minds of readers, making the later introduction of the gospel more acceptable? And if so, which authors have done so?

How about H. G. Wells and A. Conan Doyle?

That is exactly the suggestion made by John L. Herrick, who was president of the Western States Mission, which was administered from Denver, Colorado. Herrick (1860-1960) had been mission president for a decade when he made the following statement as part of his General Conference address in April, 1918, when World War I still hung its pall over the world:


[Literature as Preparation]

By Elder John L. Herrick,
President, Western States Mission


“¦ The minds and hearts of men are being turned to God, not only because of the serious condition in the world, but because men who have heretofore written novels and light literature have come to write pertaining to the more vital thing’s of life.

The most persistent criticism came at the beginning of the war, or in the first year of the war, when members of the church of England began to question whether or not the church was living up to its requirements. Criticism was found on every hand for the church for a time, and then celebrated writers began to elucidate things that perhaps were new to these people.

H. G. Wells, the widely read novelist, wrote an unusually interesting book entitled God the Invisible King. Sir A. Conan Doyle also wrote very pertinently as to religion,–all tending I believe to prepare men’s minds to took differently than heretofore on the questions relating to Deity and the hereafter. Great religious newspapers began to take up the fight, some in defense of the church but many of them intimating and admitting that the churches as a whole, the so called Christian churches utterly failed in this crisis of the world’s history. “¦


Second Day, Morning Session
April 1918 General Conference


While I like the concept (anyone who believes literature to be more than merely entertainment kind of has to, I think), I’m not sure that it can be this easily and directly demonstrated. The influence of a work of art is real, but differs in its results from person to person based on everything from when and where the work was consumed, family background, other art consumed, attitude, psychological profile and many other factors, including, perhaps, what the individual had for breakfast before being exposed to the work of art. What changes one person’s life for the better, has the opposite or no effect on another.

Still, over large populations I suspect there is a generally similar reaction and direction, with those who react opposite to the norm acting like outliers on some bell curve (as if something like this could even be calculated). So, I can believe that works of literature have this kind of influence. [And the recent biography of Parley P. Pratt by Terryl Givens and Matt Grow might be seen as making that claim in their analysis of the–indirect at least–influence of the ideas of Francis Bacon on Pratt.] No doubt there is a rich vein of academic study in examining what literary works might have paved the way for the gospel.

As for H. G. Wells and Conan Doyle, I wish I had time to find the influence that Herrick sees. I haven’t read God the Invisible King (I haven’t even heard of it!), and in my limited experience the only Conan Doyle work (from before 1918) that deals directly with religion is A Study in Scarlet, which doesn’t seem to me like it would open doors for Mormon missionaries. Perhaps some reader knows better than I?

One thought on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: John L. Herrick on Literature as Preparation”

  1. It sounds like he may be talking about getting people to think about other systems of thought than Catholicism or High Prostetantism, and I do think that fiction did contribute to that (as well as Marxism and Darwinism, etc.).

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