Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Relief Society lesson The Author at Work

RSMagCover-Jan1917Few Church members today remember that when the Relief Society was more independent, it had its own lessons, and one of the monthly lessons focused on literature and the arts. The text below is one of those lessons, from the January 1917.

In many ways this lesson is surprising, and not just for the fact that it was taught. I was surprised at how basic the lesson was, covering material that I think I was taught in High School, although I’m not sure that it sunk in very well. It is tempting, therefore, to think that one reason for dropping these lessons is that they were being taught in school. However, I’m not sure that in 1917 the school system was covering this material very well, and even today I think many Church members would benefit from repeating these lessons, even though they don’t have much to do with doctrine.

I was also pleasantly surprised at some of the examples used; its cool to see the work of Mormon authors alongside classics of literature. And I suspect that this led to a little more attention being paid to Mormon authors at the time.

Even though this is very cool to see, I’m not sure that such lessons could be included in Church lesson manuals today, at least because the vast number of different local cultures in the Church mean selecting examples and writing lessons would need to be done locally (perhaps not a bad idea), which is very difficult for the Church’s attempts to make sure that the Church doctrine is the same worldwide. Also, I don’t believe most members, at least not in the western world, think that this is the kind of subject that should be taught in Church.


The Author at Work

Literature that lives is born alive. The writer must put his heart into his work, must feel what he says; otherwise, though he “speak with the tongue of men and of angels,” his words will be but “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.”

A little story told of Bret Harte, the California writer, illustrates beautifully this point. It is said that one of his poems once found its way into a San Francisco paper. A certain lady was so charmed with it that she went to the writer and said enthusiastically,

“Why, Mr. Harte, that is the best thing you ever wrote; I actually cried when I read it.”

“That is not at all strange,” replied he,–“not at all strange. I cried when I wrote it.”

Sincerity is the soul of literature. The author, stirred by an emotion, or burning with some message, expresses himself to share with others, his thoughts and feelings, or to relieve his own soul. If his words ring true, they thrill the hearts that hear or read them.

This message may be given in the form of a sermon, or a song, or a story.    Most of our literature grouped under these three general types. Different writers choose one or another of these ways of reaching their audiences. A striking illustration of this is found in the literary work of a certain American family.

When the question of slavery was paramount in our nation, the people were naturally very much aroused. Among those who were ardent workers for the freedom of the slaves, were members of the Beecher family. From his famous pulpit in Brooklyn, Henry Ward Beecher was thundering his sermons against the evil; while Harriet Beecher Stowe, his sister, was writing her famous story, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and about the same time Julia Ward Howe, their cousin, created that greatest of civil war songs, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the last stanza of which reads as follows:

“In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea.
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me,
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.”

The same end was thus reached by three different literary paths: the sermon, the song, and the story. And these famous authors were splendidly successful because their words rang with sincerity. Indeed, some feel that in their earnestness, they were carried a little beyond the bounds of strict fairness, as is frequently the case when one grows over-zealous for any cause. But, nevertheless, literature, without fire, can hardly light the minds of men and stir them to action.

The sermon and the story may both be written, either in form of verse or prose. The song, being more musical in effect, is written only in verse. This is not to say, however, that prose is necessarily unmusical. Prose has its rhythm as well as does verse. What then is the difference? Mainly this: The rhythm, or musical movement, of verse is measured. It moves with regular cadence, having regularly accented syllables; one can beat time to it; as,

Life is real, life is earnest,
And the grave is not its goal:
Dust thou art, to dust returnest
Was not spoken of the soul.”

Prose which is literature or which contains the elements of beauty on the other hand, has a freer rhythm. Its movement is not regular; but it is musical, just the same. Listen to any choice selection in prose; listen to even the freest conversation, and observe that words fall naturally into a kind of musical grouping. The rhythm of prose is more like the music of the mountain stream. Now it leaps, now it eddies, now it babbles, now it flows quietly one can hardly guess what next it may do. The music of verse may be compared to that of the waves of lake or sea, breaking with rhythmic cadence upon the shore.

Prose, however, in its most eloquent forms, sometimes moves with almost the rhythmic swing of verse. For illustration:

“Union and liberty, now and forever, one and inseparable.”–Webster.

“Peace on earth, good will towards men.” –St. Luke.

“How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word.”–Kirkham.

Have some good reader voice this touchingly beautiful letter also, and listen to the musical flow of its lines:

Dear Madam:    November 21, 1864.

I have been shown, in the files of the War Department, a statement from the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from a loss so over- whelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the con- solation that may be found in the thanks of a Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
Abraham Lincoln.

To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.

Prose may be very formal or very free. Verse likewise may move with stately step, as in Milton’s Paradise Lost, or it may be trippingly light as in a Mother Goose Rhyme. The nature of the verse or prose is always dependent on the kind of thought or emotion to be expressed. Writers try to make the language form in which their thought is clothed fitting, true to the spirit of the message or picture of life they are trying to give.

Most of the literature produced today comes in prose form. In earlier days, practically all of it was in verse. Prose, being freer, expresses best the spirit of freedom of this age. The song, or lyric, of course, must always be written in verse.

It is interesting to know and well to remember that there are three great types of verse:

  1. The Classic, or rhymed verse, created by the Greek poets;
  2. The Biblical, or parallel verse, given to the world by the Hebrews;
  3. The Blank, or unrhymed verse, first produced by the English poets of the time of Queen Elizabeth.

Each of these types comes in a variety of forms; but one can readily recognize to which type a poem belongs, by remembering the chief characteristic of the type. For example: The Classic type is written in rhymes; as,

“As some tall cliff that lifts its awful form
Swells from the vale and midway leaves the storm.
Though round its breast the rolling clouds are spread
Eternal sunshine settles on its head.”
From “The Deserted Village.”–Goldsmith.

Biblical verse does not rhyme, but the thought it expresses is repeated in other words in parallel lines: as,

“Intreat me not to leave thee,
And to return from following after thee;
For whither thou goest, I will go;
And where thou lodgest, I will lodge;
Thy people shall be my people,
And thy God my God;
Where thou diest, will I die,
And there will I be buried;
The Lord do so to me,
And more also,
If aught but death part thee and me.”
From “Ruth” 1 :16-17.

Note that every other line might be omitted, ami still the full thought would be kept. This is the simplest form of Biblical verse. Many variations from this simple form are made. The Bible contains a great many poems in parallel verse. We are not so likely to recognize them, however, since in the King James translation these poems are not given in their literary form. But read the Psalms, or many of the Proverbs, and note their parallel structure. It is comparatively easy to write them in verse form, as has been done with the little lyric given from Ruth.

Blank Verse does not rhyme; but it is regularly rhythmic; as,

“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle dew from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
–From “Merchant of Venice”–Shakespeare.

All of Shakespeare’s plays are done in blank verse; so is “Paradise Lost” by Milton; and Tennyson’s “Idyls of the King,” as well as the poems of many other writers. It is a stately kind of verse, well fitted to express great thoughts, as well as stirring ones.

Yet, as was said in the beginning, it is the life of the selection that counts most, not the form. The soul is more than the body in literature as in life.

In selecting books for the home, mothers should try to choose those that are alive, that are sincere, that have a pure soul. Only such literature gives a spiritual uplift.

Relief Society Magazine, v4 n1, January 1917, p. 51-55


I must say that I like the opening line. What a metaphor–the implication being that some literature is stillborn! I also like the stories. For the record, Bret Harte (1836-1902) was well-known in his day for his stories about the California pioneer experience. His best known works include The Luck of Roaring Camp and The Outcasts of Poker Flat, both of which inspired film adaptations, including the film Tennessee’s Partner (1955) and one version of the film Paint Your Wagon. He also wrote a highly regarded tribute to Charles Dickens, Dickens in Camp, days after learning of Dickens’ death. I also liked the metaphor that compares rhythm in various literary forms to water in streams and in the ocean.

However, the author of this lesson (I haven’t been able to identify who that is), moves from the idea of sincerity to form of literature to discussing rhythm in literature so quickly that I wonder if she simply wanted to tell the stories and found a way to make them relevant.

Nevertheless, in the end I think the lesson makes a good point, suggesting that we chose books “that are alive, that are sincere, that have a pure soul.” Depending on how you understand “pure soul,” I can agree with that!

3 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Relief Society lesson The Author at Work”

  1. .

    I really loved this. It had an overarching point, gave the reader some open doors for future discussion, and included stellar examples.

  2. Relief Society was not a Sunday activity at the time of this lesson but a week day gathering where sisters shared a variety of experiences. Its goals including uplifting the sister present that including adding to their education.

  3. Yes, Jennifer. But are you suggesting that uplifting the sister and adding to their education are NOT part of the goals of the Relief Society today?

    I suspect we’ve decided that providing the kind of education that schools provide now is less important than spiritual education. And in the process we may sometimes be giving women an excuse not to get educated in areas where they should.

    In addition, with the expansion of the Church overseas, the quality of education available to sisters is sometimes much lower than it was even in Utah in 1917. While I’m not suggesting that the Relief Society should try to fix this, still, I don’t think that it should be ignored.

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