Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Edna L. Smith on Reading

Its likely not very hard to convince readers of A Motley Vision of the importance of reading. In fact, the idea also wasn’t controversial among the late 19th century Mormon critics of “light reading.” The critics just wanted children (and adults, for that matter) reading the Scriptures and non-fiction instead of most fiction. But while Edna L. Smith cleary was a critic of “light reading” in 1881, when this was published, much of what she said could be applied to reading in general, not just what she approved of.

Smith was the 2nd wife of then Apostle and later Church President Joseph F. Smith. Born in Salt Lake City in 1851, she received a blessing from her future husband, who was already married to her older sister, when she was seriously ill at age 15. They married in 1871 and three years later Edna was called to work in the Endowment House, which she continued doing until 1884. She was a member of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers and worked as a midwife, and when the Salt Lake Temple opened, she was again asked to be a Temple worker, and in 1910 was called as the Temple Matron, finally  released in 1922 at her own request. She had become such an expert in Temple operations that her expertise was sought in interior renovations in the Salt Lake and Logan Temples in the early 1900s.


A Word to Mothers.

by Edna L. Smith.

I HAVE thought a great deal upon the evils arising from mothers allowing their children to read light literature. It was brought forcibly to my mind by a lady friend asking me if I did not have something for her to read. I told her I had plenty of good books, such as the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Stars, Journals and some historical works. “O!” she replied, “I don’t want any poky reading like that. Give me something interesting, a novel all about love and murder.”

I told her there was a story in the Bible of love and murder-of love such as we were not capable of feeling, a story of One who loved us so dearly that He gave His life that we might be saved. She looked at me with astonishment, and said: “Do you really mean to say you find any thing interesting in reading that?” “Yes,” I answered; “when I read how the Savior suffered and died for us, of his excruciating agony while nailed to the cross, I cannot help shedding tears. Yet through it all, He could say, ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do.’ What a little He requires of us in return for our salvation. And yet we are not even willing to make ourselves familiar with His words, as written in the Scriptures!” “Well,” said my friend, “it may be interesting to you, but it is too dry for me. I got enough of Scripture when I was a little girl. My mother was a good woman, who required me to read just so many verses or chapters every day until I got to almost hate the Bible, for I did not understand what I read, and I resolved if ever I had any children of my own I would not force them to read the Scriptures, but wait until they were old enough to want to read them.” I replied that I did not believe in forcing my children to read the Scriptures, or our church publications, yet I think they should be taught the truths contained in those works.

I have heard mothers say, “I don’t have my children read our church works for they go to Sunday school and get enough of that there. I let them read interesting stories that they can understand.” But mothers do you choose the stories for them? or do you leave it to their judgment what they should read? If left to themselves they will not always read that which will be a benefit to them, but may choose, as my friend did, a worthless novel of “love and murder.” O! mothers, I am afraid you are making a grave mistake by not teaching them in their youth to love to read the word of God. There is a way to induce them to love good books. Begin their education in their infancy. Where will you find the little child who would not be delighted if its mother will tell it a fairy story? But there are other stories that are just as interesting and more instructive.

In the evening, after the work and toil of the day is ended, gather your children around you, ask them if mother shall tell them a story. They will soon be seated quietly around you, eager for you to begin. Commence by telling them how this beautiful world was made-of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden-of Cain and Abel, of the Deluge, of Abraham and Isaac, and of Joseph, who was sold into Egypt. Go on until you have related to them all the stories contained in the Bible. Then take the Book of Mormon, tell them how that record was engraven on golden plates, how Joseph Smith obtained them, and by what means he translated them. Explain to them the contents of that good book, the same as you did the Bible. Then take the history of the Prophet Joseph and of the Church. It will take a good many evenings, but your time is not wasted. You are not only instilling into their minds Gospel truths, but you yourself will be much benefited. And it will not be long until they will want to read for themselves. Thus you cultivate in your sons and daughters a taste for something better than mere novel reading.

Mothers, take time to read good books, that you may be enabled to teach your children the golden rule, and in this way make them familiar with the Gospel of Christ. Don’t think it a waste of time to spend an hour every day in reading. It will rest you when tired, and give you something to think about while at your work. Mothers, who have little families and who have all their own work to do, get so tired through the day with the labor they have to perform, and weary with the noise and confusion the little ones make, they welcome with joy the shades of evening when the children are tucked comfortably in bed and they can sit down for an hour’s quiet rest. But before you hasten them off to bed, tell them a story. It will make them feel so happy; and not them alone, but you yourselves will feel calm, and rested. A sense of peace and love will fill your hearts, and when you kneel with them to offer up to God thanks and gratitude for all His tender care and mercy, you will know that you have accomplished some good. Your children will go to bed with smiles and happy little hearts, and they will grow up to call you blessed; to love and thank their mother who taught them in their youth to love the Gospel, as taught in the stories and lessons of holy books.

The Contributor, v. 9 n. 3, January 1888


Ignoring the “light literature” issue, I think there is a lot to think about here. I think there are still parents who think that children get enough church stuff at church. Its certainly something that we hear about Mormon literature–“I get enough Mormon reading at Church. When I read for pleasure I don’t want to read Mormon books!”

It is certainly true that many church members think that the scriptures are boring (regardless of whether it is socially acceptable to say so). And Smith’s prescription, that we start reading to our children early is certainly part of the issue. The King James Version’s language is also part of the problem, even though its language has historical resonance that other translations can’t match. In a very real sense our options are either to provide a more modern translation or to teach King James English, and the latter option can be part of the solution when children are taught early.

I also like Smith’s suggestion that often readers complain about the scriptures but don’t know the stories that are in them. Some scripture stories are so well known that those familiar with them think that these stories are all there is.

But Smith is at her best when she suggests that mothers (and fathers, I read into her statement) tell their children scripture and church history stories. I don’t think I’m going to far when I understand her suggesting that mothers tell these stories in their own words. Doing so, of course, makes such parents authors, and its not a very large step to Church members writing and publishing those stories.

And, finally, I should point out that Smith’s question “But mothers do you choose the stories for them? or do you leave it to their judgment what they should read? If left to themselves they will not always read that which will be a benefit to them, but may choose, as my friend did, a worthless novel of ‘love and murder.'” While Smith doesn’t go all the way to prescribing how to handle this, I think its clear that this is one of those “teach them correct principles” situations. Initially parents do choose literature for their children, and train them over time to choose for themselves.

4 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Edna L. Smith on Reading”

  1. By the time I was reading, I knew many of the Bible stories. That made it easier to comprehend the King James language. I was also raised on the plays of Shakespeare, whowrote in the same era as the KJV translation project. My familiarity with King James English helped me understand the Bard, and my knowledge of his plays helped me get the meaning of the Scriptures.

  2. Yep. We understand what we understand of a language because we’ve heard it used. Having someone read scriptures aloud to you is just another way you hear it used. So you eventually understand the language. It can’t make up for not hearing the same language in the rest of your life, but it can make understanding much easier.

    It is possible to learn the KJV language.

  3. I am going to come clean and admit that I have the hardest time getting through the New Testament. The Gospels are ok, but once I hit Romans I start feeling annoyed with the translations of translations, and the completely arbitrary methods that were used in deciding which books to canonize.

    My 3-year-old loves the story of Nephi and the Brass Plates. His favorite part is when Nephi cuts off Laban’s head. What’s not to like?

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