When Mormon Literature folk think of Orson F. Whitney, it is usually in regard to his 1886 talk that predicted that Mormonism would yet have “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” But in 1926, after two decades as an Apostle, Whitney was still writing about literature and the role it would play in Mormonism. That year Whitney penned a five-part article for the Improvement Era in which he explored the question of literature and Mormonism, and in doing so came closer than any previous author to a Mormon theory of literature.
Where should literature fit in our priorities? Is it more important to preach the gospel than put on a play? Is culture worth time away from service? While its probably not that simple–one of these things doesn’t necessarily take away from another–still our Mormon culture and its products are often assumed to be less important than the stated gospel priorities of teaching the gospel and redeeming the dead. The following passage shows that the Church doesn’t (or at least didn’t) see it that way.
For many Mormons today, a play about a murderous school teacher would be hard to classify as “uplifting.” And while I would be surprised to hear anyone today suggest that all drama was in conflict with the gospel, the condemnation of the media today by many Mormons hardly seems different. But in the search for what is “uplifting” it might be nice to define what we mean by that term.
While I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me 3 months to get back to this series, I’m pleased to pick it up again and hope that it is warmly received. I’ve also updated my list of these posts and discovered that I’ve already produced 77 (including the present number) and, more importantly, have enough material to continue for quite a while.
Nor have I quite finished with the writ and wisdom of Whitney. In the preface to his 1889 poetry collection, Poetical Writings, he recognizes the aversion of some readers to religious poetry, apparently because critics found so much of it of low quality. Whitney, of course, disagreed: Continue reading “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #77: Orson F. Whitney on poetry and religion”
When we hear principles taught from the pulpit, they sometimes seem remote, disconnected from reality. So speakers often add stories, sometimes fictional, to their sermons, so that we can put the principle in context. The stories produced during the Home Literature movement are often in that vein, what are sometimes called “didactic” stories, with a clear moral teaching the principle that the author wants to communicate.
In this series I’ve presented excerpts from many sermons and essays that demonstrate what Mormons have thought and discussed about literature. Today’s text is a little different, because it is an excerpt from a short story. But, it still fits, because in this story Nephi Anderson, dean of the Home Literature movement, preaches about literature–specifically what kinds of drama should be presented.
Just what is true in literature and what meaning we can find in it are perennial subjects for prophets as well as literary pontificates. Yet often both of these are treated as unitary–a work of literature is either true or its not, and has just one meaning. Of course literary critics have long seen that works of literature can be true in different ways and have multiple meanings. But somehow this fact is lost in the debate when we put things in a religious sphere.
Except when it comes to scripture. By the early twentieth century some Mormons not only thought that scripture was true in multiple ways and had multiple meanings, they also taught these ideas in the published Relief Society lessons about the Bible, such as the extract from a lesson found below. Oddly enough, I’m not sure that most Church members today see this point, at least not from the scripture lessons I attend each week.
Perhaps one of the most discussed literary subjects among Mormons is morality in literature. We worry about profanity, violence, and nudity in media today, and sometimes also worry about the actions of characters and moral messages in what we consume.
These worries are not new, although more than 100 years ago profanity and nudity didn’t appear in plays and novels, so instead the worry was more about how the characters acted and what moral messages were in literature and amusements. And apparently this was true even if you didn’t seek the “sentimentality” so common in the literature and drama of the 1890s.