Thoughts on Teaching and Mormon Assimilation

Since Kent’s post on a free online Mormon literature course, I’ve begun thinking about what Mormon texts I could use in a survey class on nineteenth-century American literature[1. Is a class solely on nineteenth-century Mormon literature too much to hope for?] and how I could justify their place on the syllabus.[2. The fact that I feel I need to justify their place is part of what this post is about.] In some cases, like the millenarian poetry of Parley P. Pratt and W. W. Phelps, I think I could easily place them with early American Protestant poems and hymns that express similar millennial longings. I could also find a place for poems by Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells among American women poets of the West, as critic Nina Baym has done in a recent work.

Nephi Anderson and other early Mormon fiction writers could also be worked into a syllabus. In some ways, after all, their fiction is not unlike the works of late nineteenth-century African American writers like Charles Chesnutt and Frances Harper, who also used the short story and novel forms to explore the problems and potentials of assimilation, social passing, and identity. At the same time, however, the works of Chesnutt and Harper have the advantage of belonging to a minority group whose basic narrative has already been well-incorporated into the broader American narrative. When teachers go to teach Iola LeRoy, that is, they don’t have to teach students from the ground up about racism, slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, racial stereotypes, and Jim Crow–the issues these text are responding to. They usually have high school and college history classes–not to mention the tireless efforts of social activists–to thank for at least some basic student knowledge about these issues.

Not so with the Mormons, whose story in the history textbooks usually boils down to a paragraph (or two) on the exodus and polygamy. This leaves teachers who wish to teach non-Mormon students about early Mormon fiction little to work with since so much of this early fiction was written in response to the intense anti-Mormonism of the 1870s, 80s, and 90s–something most people, including Mormons, know little about.[3. Mormons have social activists in the form of missionaries. These activists, however, generally do not lobby for greater Mormon representation in the history textbooks or literary canon(s).]

Admittedly, the problem is not insurmountable. Teachers who want to teach a novel like Piney Ridge Cottage simply need to give, say, a fifteen minute presentation on the relevant history and maybe assign some excerpted readings from the anti-Mormon novels Anderson was responding to and succeed well enough. Students may not grasp much of what Anderson is doing in the work, but they can at least get a sense of why it’s important.

This will likely be the order of things (the ongoing challenge) as long as the Mormon story continues to merit no more than two paragraphs in the textbook.

Whenever I think about teaching Mormon literature to non-Mormon students, I wonder if the day will come when our basic narrative will be a familiar enough part of the broader American (or world) narrative that we’ll no longer have to spend so much time reminding people of who we are and how we’re different before we teach them why what we write is important.

Unfortunately, I worry that we have become too willing to sweep our uniqueness–and troubled history with America–under the rug. Even today, when pluralism defines the national narrative, many of those who speak out as national voices of Mormonism focus less on what makes us potentially radical and more on what makes us (or can make us) like everyone else. This is not a bad strategy, to be sure, especially if our goal is to fit in and play nicely with others. But it gives those who are not Mormons very little reason to care about our story. What happens, after all, if after we’ve convinced everyone about how normal we are, they pat us on the back and ask us why we’re still talking?

What we need to do is find a way to show how our story informs the broader tapestry without getting lost in the pattern. In a sense, we need to assert ours as a unique and memorable story–one that debunks the melting pot, yet affirms our place in the broader narrative. Otherwise, I fear no one will bother to explore why or how we fit in–they’ll just assume that our story is the same as theirs.


25 thoughts on “Thoughts on Teaching and Mormon Assimilation”

  1. .

    This is my concern as well. People aren’t shooting us any more. Time to start promoting what makes us different.

  2. “I could also find a place for poems by Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells among American women poets of the West, as critic Nina Baym has done in a recent work.”

    In that vein, you may be interested in the 2004 University of Maryland Ph.D. dissertation by Edward Whitley entitled “AMERICAN BARDS: JAMES M. WHITFIELD, ELIZA R. SNOW, JOHN ROLLIN RIDGE, AND WALT WHITMAN.” [Dissertation available thru UMI]

    I have no idea if Whitley is Mormon or not — I haven’t even read through the dissertation yet (I’ve skimmed it). But he does put Snow in with some interesting company.

  3. Th.–
    Yes. In some ways, though, I think we’re still getting “shot” at in the form of media potshots–as we saw during the Romney campaign. Where we have erred, perhaps, is in not doing a good enough job explaining why that isn’t OK. Other minority groups have lobbied successfully for tolerance and respect. And we have as well, but in a way that has been more about changing ourselves to fit their image of propriety than about changing attitudes about us. My worry is that if we continue in that path culturally, we’ll be the Wonderbread they already accuse us of being.

    Kent: Thanks for the tip. I’ll follow up on it. From the authors listed alone it seems like an interesting and unlikely combination.

  4. I should mention, also, that I’m not suggesting that Mormons should not adapt and change over time–a process I think is necessary for any religious and quasi-ethnic group. Rather, I’m trying to suggest that we need to be more aware of how adaptation (and assimilation) could affect us. For example, do we really want to become practically indistinguishable from evangelical Christianity? Do we really want to be just another member of the religious right?

    It’s a tricky process to navigate–and one that I think is directly related to the task of broadening the appeal of Mormon literary and cultural studies.

  5. LOVE this post.

    I’d suggest the poetry of David Hyrum Smith (which would bring the 19th century RLDS into the dialogue of Mormonism). Also Parley P. Pratt’s “dialogues” (such as his most famous one “A Dialogue between Joseph Smith and the Devil”) as well as Pratt’s “Mormon Prisoners” (ask Kent Larsen about this one).

  6. Scott Hale, the problem is the gatekeepers. We can yell and scream all day, but will anyone with influence listen? Currently those who have the most influence, mainstream reporters, are on a crusade against the religious in general. There is no way Mormons will get more than scorn. We should be happy to not get shot at anymore.

  7. I think you’d be surprised, Jettboy, which gatekeepers may be open. I remember when my play Farewell to Eden won a few awards at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festivel, it was a Gary Garrison, gay playwriting professor at NYU and the head of the Dramatists Guild, was very supportive and encouraging of my play– which had some strongh= Mormon themes and characters. Gary was one of my biggest advocates at the festival. I think there are DEFINITELY those who have a bullseye on our back. However, there are many who, when they see quality, won’t care whether it’s Mormon or not.

  8. Th, do you have a billion dollars I could borrow? I would love to become a gatekeeper. who wouldn’t?

  9. Only a billion? I’d think true gatekeeping would cost at least two billion…if not more.

    But then again you could be more grassroots about it. The ability to tell a good story that helps to change attitudes could probably be done on a much smaller budget.

  10. But then again you could be more grassroots about it. The ability to tell a good story that helps to change attitudes could probably be done on a much smaller budget.

    Totes. Magdalene only cost a couple hundred grand.

  11. Elbert A. Smith wrote what looks to be another novel called “Joe Pine,” but it doesn’t look like it has been digitized yet.

    …and it looks like the University of Cincinnati library has a copy of Whitley’s book.

  12. I imagine Whitley’s book is pretty interesting. Ridge, another of the writers the book profiles, wrote a book/dime novel called “Joaquin Murieta,” which reminded me of “Blood Meridian” when I read it.

    I can’t imagine anything further from the poetry of Eliza R. Snow–or what I’ve read of Whitman for that matter.

  13. I do think, actually, that we’re already at a point in which the average American knows more about Mormon history than America’s Protestant religious history. Most educated Americans recognize the names Joseph Smith and Brigham Young–is the same true of Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney? While it may be only a paragraph, most Americans do know that Mormons were persecuted in the eastern states and went west as pioneers. Do they know anything, really, about what Protestants were like in that period?

    We may already be at a day when Mormons have the best-known religious history in America (albeit only because of general ignorance on religious history).

  14. Your comment makes me wonder if there are any surveys out there, James.

    My guess is that most people have a fairly generic understanding of religious history in America–maybe some limited knowledge of the Puritans and the First and Second Great Awakenings…coupled with maybe some vague idea that everyone before 1968 believed in God and prayed in public schools.

    When I taught my American Religious Landscapes class, though, I was impressed by a few Catholic students who knew their recent Catholic church history fairly well.

  15. Scott,

    The thing I was thinking of, actually, was the recent Pew survey on religious knowledge. 51% correctly identified Joseph Smith as Mormon on a four-option question. 11% correctly identified Jonathan Edwards as a First Great Awakening preacher on a three-option question.

    I’d be interested in seeing surveys with greater detail, of course, but it’s intriguing.

    I do think there’s more emphasis on church history among Catholics and Mormons b/c we believe in Churches. Since sola scriptura was articulated as a counterpoint to reliance on church tradition, many Protestants may see denominational histories as less important.

  16. I do think there’s more emphasis on church history among Catholics and Mormons b/c we believe in Churches. Since sola scriptura was articulated as a counterpoint to reliance on church tradition, many Protestants may see denominational histories as less important.


    So a few people know I went to a private Southern Baptist school from 4th grade to 12th grade. Now you all know.

    Anyhoo, in all that 9 years of daily Bible class and weekly chapel and twice-a-year revival, I NEVER learned the history of the denomination. Still don’t know.

    But I was taught a couple of scathing paragraphs of Mormon history. So…there you go.

    What I know about denominational history I got from American lit classes (thank you, Cotton Mather).

  17. I think Protestant film is trying to correct this with recent films on Luther, John Wesley, John Newton, Sister Aimee, and Billy Graham: The Early Years.

  18. James,

    That’s a really interesting thought. I have met plenty of people who have no clue about Mormons other than polygamy (if even that) or some other random fact, but I think you’re probably right there in a general way. I mean online you still find plenty of people who say John Smith instead of Joseph Smith or some such thing as they go on their anti-Mormon diatribe, but at least they’re in the general vicinity.


    I think there’s also something to Moriah’s comment that what little people are taught actually comes through anti-Mormon teaching… they’re a little more aware because they’re taught to be afraid. But better than apathy, no?

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