Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Susa Young Gates on Reading What Is Important

SusaYoungGatesIn this series I’ve observed before that the 19th century attitude of Mormon leaders to reading, favoring non-fiction over fiction, had to do with where truth could be found. Fiction was inherently untrue, and therefore it should not be read. But there is more to it than that. Leaders, especially women leaders, believe that Church members, especially the youth, should concentrate on those things that would make them better people and help them contribute more to society.

In today’s reading the editor of the Young Woman’s Journal takes this a bit farther:

Susa Young Gates (1856-1933) was perhaps the most accomplished of Brigham Young’s daughters. She started attending the University of Deseret at age 13 and became editor of the student newspaper there. After marrying in 1872 and having two children, she divorced in 1877 (while her husband was on a mission!) and entered Brigham Young Academy in 1878, where she founded the music department. In 1880 she married again and had 13 more children. With her husband she served an LDS mission to the Sandwich Islands in the late 1880s before returning to Utah and founding the Young Woman’s Journal in 1889, editing the magazine until 1900. After she was called to serve on the General Board of the Relief Society, she became the founding editor of the Relief Society Magazine, set up to succeed the Woman’s Exponent, and edited that publication until 1922. In addition to the articles and poetry that fill the pages of the Young Woman’s Journal, Relief Society Magazine, and other publications, Gates wrote nine books, including a biography of her father, two novels, a history of women in the Church and a history of the YLMIA.

Oh, and did I mention hat she was a prominent Mormon feminist and proponent of women’s sufferage? I think it shows in the following:


The Editor’s Department

It is a great pleasure to greet you, my dear young sisters, with the present enlargement of our JOURNAL. The aim and object of this publication has been set forth many times, and yet it is proper to again refer to it; the present generation demand amusement, and we as a people drink largely of the spirit abroad in the air.

It is held and conceded by the great thought leaders that lessons of virtue or vice, of strength or weakness, of beauty and morality are more vividly taught, more deeply impressed through the medium of books and theatres than through homilies and sermons. This fact is utilized by every class of thinkers. Has a man a pet hobby, a scheme, a spite at a party or a man, he casts his ideas in the form of a story, and be the story but well told , he is sure of a large audience.

Knowing this drift of the age, it is wiser in us to lead, not follow where the world may choose to go. Our girls will read, mothers, be sure of that, and what they read forms a large element in the formation of their characters. There are questions of large import rising before us, and after us the world, to define and discuss. Can we discuss them, can we even understand them if our minds are filled with nonsense and frivolity?

It is not alone the girls whose minds are empty of real thoughts and ideas. If you think so, just sit down with the next matron you meet and listen to her talk. Passementerie trimmings, the total depravity of hired girls, and surplice waists form the whole burden of her conversation.

Girls, do you know the whole world is shaken with the problems that God, through Joseph Smith, has made plain and beautiful to us? Faith, the healing of the sick, the very doctrines contained in the Word of Wisdom, the healthful clothing of our bodies, the laws of chastity, the United Order and the Millennium are all receiving careful consideration at the hands of their great men. To be sure they do not seek Divine aid on these subjects, oh no; one great thinker arises and says, “Carry out my theories, O people of the world, and you shall be forever healthy and happy.” Another man arises and says, “Nay, that man is a dreamer and imposter, but here is the great plan by which man will receive his temporal salvation.” None of these men lay any claim to inspiration, but demand for themselves the honor and glory of their schemes.

The Young Woman’s Journal, v1 n7
April, 1890, pp. 235-236.


Gates’ first point, that stories are better than sermons for communicating ideas is, I think, at least often true (although sermons allow a directness and specificity that is hard to achieve in fiction). The weakness of fiction is, of course, that when a story is badly told the point is lost, and the work raises claims of didacticism; a criticism often made of the fiction in Church periodicals, especially during Gates’ day. [I should add, however, that as I’ve explored literature I’ve become more and more convinced that the criticism of fiction as too didactic reflects more the quality of the storytelling than any objection to the fiction making a larger point.]

I love Gates’ point about reading what is important instead of what is frivolous. Speaking of the “questions of large import” in the world she says “Can we discuss them, can we even understand them if our minds are filled with nonsense and frivolity?” I’m fairly sure that I’ve pointed this out before here on A Motley Vision: today we have ignored this idea of the import of what we see, hear and read and instead we worry about the cleanliness of what we consume. What good is cleanliness if it has no content of value?

Likewise, I’m afraid that Gates’ criticism of “matrons” is still true today. I don’t think (and I don’t think that she is claiming) that there is anything wrong with Passementerie (embroidery and ornamentation for tables, etc.) or worrying about the morality of employees or surplice waits and other elements of dress style. Gates is suggesting, however, that such things are of minor importance compared to the problems of the world and the teachings of the gospel.  Minor things shouldn’t be the “whole burden of our conversation.” Today I’m sure that both men and women spend way too much time on things of minor importance–spanning from things that are simply evil, such as gossip about celebrities, to the potentially wholesome that simply takes up more time than it should, like sports, fashion, television and movies.

In the last paragraph or so is a bit disjoint and seems to have gotten off topic, but I still think there is a bit of a literary lesson in it. I think much of the current market for non-fiction books (and perhaps even fiction books) is very much like Gates describes. Rarely do books relate to any overall philosophy or morality (and perhaps they shouldn’t) and as a result there is very much a quality of chaos among the ideas expressed. What we, Mormons, once criticized the marketplace of religion for can equally be applied, now more than ever, to the marketplace of ideas.

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