Artists of the Restoration Part I: A Brief, Culture-Centric History of the LDS Church

Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. I’d like to approach this topic from a different angle.

I sometimes rant against the main aesthetic and sociopolitical -isms of our age. I do so knowing full well that I am as caught in them as we all are and that the only way out is to build a substrate of faith and good works, protected by a continual renewing of covenants so that there’s something there when all else gets stripped away by the tragedies of mortality or the tumults of doubt or the relentless winds of daily life. But that knowledge does not stop me from squirming around in the grasp of the dominant discourses. What follows is a tentative bit of thinking resulting from such squirming in relation to some thoughts on what it might mean to be a restorationist artist. To begin: two (necessarily) reductive histories of cultural currents — one of the Church and the other of Western aesthetics.

PART I: THE LDS CHURCH

RESTORATION/SEPARATION

The restorationist era of the Church obviously begins with Joseph Smith. I think we can acknowledge that much of the thinking that goes into Joseph’s restorationist project was to be found elsewhere in the world while still believing that divine revelation was involved. We don’t believe in creation ex nihilo — why should we believe in it when it comes to metaphysics? In addition, if the Restoration as an idea was going to get any purchase at all, it would need to be different enough to be compelling but not so alien as to be incomprehensible. And, of course, it would need to happen in stages, in continuing revelation. Restoration brings with it the sense of something new that was old. A refreshing. A renewal. All the best from the past and the present and whatever our prophet can see of the future. 

Joseph the Prophet was in dialogue with scripture, with angels, with himself, and with the socio-cultural, economic and political structures of his day. I think we sometimes forget that prophets across all three of Mormonism’s ancient scriptures were always in direct or indirect communication with the politically powerful of their place and time (with varying degrees of harshness and to varying degrees of success).

Because of that, a restoration is — from a metaphysical and cultural perspective — never going to be pure. It has to build upon/react against/transform the cultural materials of the people it’s trying to convert. It’s going to be alloyed with other modes of human thought.

Joseph’s Restoration was no different. It’s why (along with the fact of: people are not perfect) it’s messy all the way through.

And yet there’s this fact: the Restoration ultimately was alien enough, discomfiting enough that the Saints were kicked out of Western civilization, driven West and left (but not for long) to create their own civilization. The Restoration becomes a separation. A Zion in the West. A kingdom high on the mountain tops. A utopian project (complete with attempts at living with all things in common).

We valorize the faith and long-suffering of the pioneer Saints. We don’t engage enough with the radicalness of their project. The project ultimately fails. But from a cultural perspective, the drive of the Saints under both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to create something new — a new doctrine, a new people, a new city, a new culture — was a glorious thing.

ACCOMMODATION/ASSIMILATION

It didn’t take long for the U.S. to catch up with the Saints and to start making demands. In fact, it began while the pioneers were still on the trail with the that whole Mormon Battalion thing. It culminated in 1887 with the passing of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which disincorporated the Church and its unsuccessful appeal in 1890 before the United States Supreme Court and the subsequent Manifesto issued by Wilfred Woodruff disavowing the practice of polygamy. But it wasn’t just about the practice of polygamy — it was also about how far the Mormons were willing to accommodate themselves to American society. Were they going to play along or were they going to go underground or engage in yet another Exodus? Economically, the battle had long been over. Culturally, the Saints were trying their best, but they just hadn’t had enough of time on their own. The fight now was how to be part of the country that had kicked them out while still maintaining their uniqueness. How to be in but not of the world. Sectors of the Church, including its leaders, would try to fight against various accommodations (cultural, economic, political), but, in the end, the Saints usually chose the route that brought them in line with the broader American culture. This is not a bad thing. It ensured the survival of the Church. It made it possible for the Saints to engage with American society. It was inevitable. But as with most accommodations, it was decidedly a mixed blessing.

Although assimilation had been happening in the early part of the 20th century (especially among the members who left the Church and moved to the coasts), the process accelerated after WWII with the Saints taking full advantage of the post-war era to out-migrate from the intermountain West and enroll in college, enter government service, seek employment with large corporations, attend professional schools, etc. With polygamy long behind it, the Church and its members were well-suited to become model minorities — they were hardworking, honest, nice, family-oriented, patriotic folk. This is not to diminish the difficulties and even prejudice Mormons faced during this process, but of all the ethnicities/populations that were seen as threats to American civilization in the 19th century, the Mormons had the easiest path to acceptability.

To be sure, the assimilation was easier on an individual level than it was for the Church as an organization. And experiences varied widely depending on region and circumstance. And just as the Church thought it had become closely aligned with American values, the 1960s came along and messed things up. But overall the accommodations our ancestors made have paid off for all of us post-WWII American Mormons.

It was an important, necessary process. Without the Church would have been unable to fund and staff the massive international expansion that occurred starting the 1960s. And, of course, it has been and still is an uneasy process. But maybe not uneasy enough, especially since so many American Mormons seem to so easily inhabit their social, political and cultural identities — some fully enough that they demand that Mormonism accommodate those identities.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The Church and its members have always (as in: since Enoch) been in tension with broader society. It’s hard to live in tension. Thus: assimilation. It just makes things easier in day-to-day life for us to be on the same page as [insert your favorite socio-cultural-political ideology/group here]. The artist, though, isn’t here to make things easier. Not that the artist isn’t immune to the processes of assimilation. We definitely aren’t. But, as I mention above, I find myself squirming around quite a bit.

ASSIMILATION AND THE MORMON ARTIST

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t routes of assimilation for the Mormon artist.

One can choose to embrace the living of Mormonism and shut off the open expression of it in your work in order to reach a broader audience. That is a perfectly valid approach and mostly a necessary one for artists who need to make a living off of their art.

One can choose to consign one’s Mormonism to a quirky cultural background and use it as material for the production of art that is acceptable to the dominant culture. This almost always (always always?) requires disaffiliation from the LDS Church. The artists who take that route often have already become alienated from the Church anyway.

One can choose to produce art specifically for the mainstream American Mormon audience. Feeding that audience can be an important calling for some. But it’s sidestepping the tension that our history has led us to.

I’d like to be able to say that there’s a valid middle way among those approaches, where one speaks to both the broader culture and Mormons and openly addresses Mormonism in one’s art but without proclaiming disaffiliation and without seeking to be acceptable. So far it hasn’t proven to be a very viable approach (in terms of size of income and audience).

That’s depressing.

And that’s my point: this is the price of assimilation. It’s not just Mormons who pay it. This is what it means to be a minority culture.

And yet, as I wrote in my previous post: “I’m looking for Zion moments, Zion movements, Zion people, Zion artists.“

So what does all the history I’ve made you read through mean for the Zion-minded artist? I’ll get there. But next, now that we have a sense of our relationship with our own history, we need to understand what we’re reckoning with on an aesthetic level.

10 thoughts on “Artists of the Restoration Part I: A Brief, Culture-Centric History of the LDS Church”

  1. .

    I think there’s room for this imaginary artist you propose, but society may max out at fitting in one per generation. Position’s still open for this generation.

  2. I’m trying to describe a path or even more an awareness of some stuff for those who are intrigued by the idea of Zion artists. This isn’t an attempt at prophecy. Nor am I too worried about what society might do. It’s society doing that, that’s part of the issue, in fact.

  3. I remember the first time I realized I’d become an artist. Since then, I’ve wanted to become the kind of artist you’re talking about. I’ve struggled to get more faith-based messages into my art, and I’m privileged to struggle right along with another LDS artist who seems far more comfortable with assimilation than I am, and that inspires me. I’ve learned that I don’t want to go exactly the same way he does, but that he can do it and still retain his faith and faithfulness.

    You make me think of The Coming American from Sam Walter Foss:

    Bring me men to match my mountains,
    Bring me men to match my plains,
    Men with empires in their purpose,
    And new eras in their brains.

    And more especially of the later lines:

    Men of oceanic impulse,
    Men whose moral currents sweep
    Toward the wide, unfolding ocean
    Of an undiscovered deep ““

    I don’t know if that’s the feeling you were going for, but it’s what I thought of.

  4. I like the history lesson and I’m looking forward to Part 2.

    Recently, I’ve been reading in OSC’s A Storyteller in Zion. One of the things that he points out in his essay about Zion specifically is that there will be more than Mormons there. I believe that, too. What it means to me is that the middle way is something that LDS artists may still be trying to figure out, but it’s worth the wrestle.

    I remember Doug Thayer saying in his essay in Irreantum a few years ago about “Serious Mormon Literature” (let’s not go down that rabbit hole) that he writes for a Mormon audience. He said that if non-Mormons wanted to read his work, he was fine with it, but he didn’t set out to explain every little tidbit about Mormon theology, doctrine, or culture as he went along. If we define our “middle way” as “one [that] speaks to both the broader culture and Mormons and openly addresses Mormonism in one’s art but without proclaiming disaffiliation and without seeking to be acceptable,” then one way of accomplishing this is to write so that one’s work engages with the World at some level without enabling the nihilistic worldview that is prevalent in much of today’s contemporary literature, and at the same time, to write non-didactically so that hope of a better world remains (a la Zion), however much a glimmer of hope. I am learning and beginning to recognize that there are many things about being Mormon, and being a believing one, that are mind-blowingly cool, that should be shared artistically with the World, and other Mormons willing to read Mormon Literature, and that maybe we should just write what we want to write within the parameters of this middle way and see who comes to see or read.

    I’m still trying to find my own way, obviously. I’ve tried to figure out how to employ the Flannery O’Connor way, where the theology in the story is largely symbolic, but haven’t found a way to do that and have the story still feel “Mormon.” Flannery O’Connor wrote about mostly Protestant characters being shown a violent grace. I want to write about Mormon characters, and so far, I haven’t wanted to hide the fact of their Mormonness in the stories. Anyway, some random thoughts. Thanks, Wm.

  5. I hope it’s worth the wrestle. What I’m looking to do with this series is discuss what the wrestle is really with b/c I think we tend to not fully identify it/them/that.

  6. Back 25 some-odd years ago I heard Ray Bradbury speak at BYU. He stated three very clear formulae that he wanted us to remember.

    1. Do what you love.

    2. Forget the marketplace.

    3. Live at the top of your enthusiasm.

    Now, as an artist I can take that to heart so long as I’m taking care of my family — and that means, for me, at any rate, making the hard decision of being a blue collar guy. But, now that I’m settled on that question, what I do in the arts is motivated only by “love.” And as my time is severely restricted because of the demands of making a living I’m “that much” more channeled in creating those things that seem most meaningful.

    Hopefully, some of you will fare better in the marketplace than I have. But even so, for me, a great burden is lifted when I feel free to do what is nearest and dearest to my heart because of taking earning out of the artistic equation.

  7. Thanks for the comment, Jackon. I find myself in a similar situation.

    There are things that can’t be done part time. But there’s a lot that can be and part of it is unlocking the energy and insight and love.

  8. At the risk of jumping ahead to where the next post may go (which I’ll read as soon as I’m done posting this comment), here are some initial thoughts:

    I think there are active Mormons who use Mormon elements as a quirky cultural element in their story, though perhaps not to the degree or in the same way that you meant it. For me, “Calling and Election” by Jack Harrell was a story where Mormonism functioned in much that way. In a completely different way, the same was true of Butler’s novel City of the Saints.

    I also think that a lot depends on the kind of story one feels drawn to write — something that is not fully reflected in the “You can choose to…” language you use to introduce the various options open to the Mormon artist. To a great extent, I think that the story chooses the audience, although there are decisions one can make along the way that can make a difference in that.

    Similarly, I think that the ways we expect Mormonism to emerge in a story have a lot to do with the kind of story that is being told. Admittedly, I get frustrated when I read perfectly competent Whitney award finalists about perfectly nice stories that just happen *not* to be Mormon, when I happen to think they could be more interesting and more worthwhile if they engaged in that aspect of the author’s culture — my culture. But I’m also aware that I’m not entirely fair in so thinking. Sure, I would like for there to be more stories that are unashamedly, unabashedly about what it means to be Mormon. But those aren’t the only important stories in the world. And if a writer like Jessica Day George or Dan Wells is more drawn to writing stories that are about what it means to be *human*, well, I can only wish that those writing about the specifically Mormon experience do so with equal passion and skill.

    I also think (and am pretty sure you do as well) that Mormonism does not have to be directly expressed in a story in order to be powerfully present. Again, a lot has to do with the nature of the story being told. Are Orson Scott Card’s Abner Doon/Jason Worthing stories about Satan and choice and the experiences in mortality any less an expression of his Mormonism than his Folk of the Fringe stories? Are Dave Wolverton’s Runelords novels, with their critique of power, less Mormon than In the Company of Angels? In both cases, I suspect that each story fully engaged that element of the author’s Mormonism that he most wanted to express with that particular story.

    In short, while we may want not to be forced to omit Mormonism from our stories in order to succeed in the larger market, I think the choices are much more varied and much less either/or than your description above (sharpened for purposes of discussion) may make them sound. There are many ways of being a Zion artist.

    And now on to the next essay, after which I’ll probably want to retract half of what I just said here…

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