Filed under: 19th-century Mormonism, Archives, Brigham Young, Memory, Stan, Western History
As certain babblers in Zion shared everything but their testimonies from the pulpit in Church today (we had stake conference last week so this today was fast and testimony meeting), I began flipping through the hymn book, reading some of those obscure old hymns we never sing. I lighted on Orson F. Whitney’s poetic little reverie “The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close” and got a good dose of manifest destiny in the 4th verse:
The wilderness, that naught before would yield,
Is now become a fertile, fruitful field.
Where roamed at will the fearless Indian band,
The templed cities of the Saints now stand.
I leaned over to my wife, and showed it to her. She gasped, “That’s awful.” It reminded me of my reaction to a little vignette I once read in none other than our own namesake, the Juvenile Instructor, titled “The Indian Boy’s Twenty-Fourth” (1898):
“It was a morning in July. At the base of a range of mountains that formed the eastern boundary of a great valley stood an Indian boy. Westward he turned his gaze. The grey sage that lay both south and north here also met his view. Down through its midst a silver band showed the course of a winding river, that, pouring itself into the bitter waters of the great inland sea, sought vainly to make them sweet. In the hazy light of the summer day the gray valley grew more gray in the distance until it touched the dark waters of the bitter sea and the mountains of blue that shut it in.
“The boy turned from all this and looked attentively at the dark spot down in the valley where strange men unlike himself had come and made their camp. Two days before they had come and immediately with appliances strange as themselves had begun turning over the virgin soil, and by some unknown means directing the waters of a near-by stream to cover it.
“As still he gazed, slowly another stranger band emerged from the mountains. It came near his side and halted. In one of the wheeled vehicles lay a man, pale and weak, who as the carriage stopped raised up and looked upon the land and uttered strange words as he beheld it. The boy knew not the man, knew not his words, but in his eyes he saw a strange light and on his face an expression that made him look like some fair god.
“A tremor shook the frame of the Indian child, a thrill went to his very heart. He seemed to feel the import of those words. The land where he was born, where as the old man said his sires had hunted, since the great lake left the mountain side was now by strangers taken and lost to him for evermore.”  (Juvenile Instructor 33, no. 14, July 15, 1898, 520.)
This is an incredible passage, soaked in a characteristically Mormon and yet very American sense of manifest destiny. Several myths are embedded in the narrative: the timelessness of a static pre-European America (“where the old man said his sires had hunted, since the great lake [Bonneville] left the mountain side”); the assumed superiority of agrarian lifestyle; and of course, the sense of divinely sanctioned entitlement to the “virgin land.”
Historian Elliot West refers to such stories—variously labeled as “‘living myths’ or ‘stories lived forward,’” but which he calls “visions”—as ways different peoples explain, quite literally, “who in the world they are.”
“These overarching stories describe how a people fit into the world and what their purposes have become. They argue that certain beliefs and values are natural, self-evident expressions of a people being exactly where they are and nowhere else. Such stories become guides and encouragements for living out a newly dreamed existence. Almost invariably they justify possession. When people look back, the stories become proof to them that they have been summoned by fate or history or God into their rightful homes.”
So if such tales have been so useful to Latter-day Saints and Americans for so many years—they were in full swing in 1898 and still in currency whenever Whitney wrote his hymn (pre-1931)—what has become of them now? Do Mormons (and Americans) still have a sense of manifest destiny, even if it has been toned down a little? (Whitney’s hymn is still in the book, long after W. W. Phelps’s “O, Stop and Tell Me Red Man” was been removed). Have we simply removed those that cringe upon our PC sensitivities? Or has the entire vision been altered and recast by the experiences and historical revisionism of the past century?
 My wife commented that this line is not too charitable; so I reminded her that after a certain individual’s preamble today she leaned over to me and whispered, “This is going to be long.” (She was right.) But to cede her point, I really don’t mean do denigrate any person’s experiences or testimony, so please consider this only playful banter by an insider (and thus one entitled to such quipping by the eso/exo factor).
 To those unfamiliar with Mormon history, July 24 is when the Latter-day Saint pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. A few vanguard Saints arrived a few days before to plow up a small plot, plant crops, and may have begun irrigating. According to legend (and Wilford Woodruff’s journal), when Brigham Young entered the valley, sick and laying in a wagon, he raised up on one elbow and said, “This is the [right] place, move on.”
 Elliott West refers to this idea of European exploration and colonization as “the start of history itself” as a perceived “breaking of a slumbering spell” (The Contested Plains [University of Kansas, 1998], 33).
 Elliott West, The Contested Plains, xxiii.
As a follow-up to my last post (see below “Going global but not imperial: conversion without deculturation”), and heading in what may seem to be the complete opposite direction, I’d like to qualify my concerns with the Americanization of foreign converts with what I see as a positive American influence. When living in Taiwan, I was surprised at how often Taiwanese Saints would speak about the Mormon pioneers and their difficult exodus to the Desert of Utah. It came up frequently in Sacrament meeting talks. Speakers would often speak of the persecutions the early Saints endured and then naturally move into speaking about Brigham Young, the difficult journey across the desert, and the final settlement in Utah where they established Zion. This seemed to be a very meaningful narrative that was shared or alluded to over and over.
I’ve wondered since just what it was about this story that makes it so meaningful. I’ve always figured it was so meaningful to so many Utah Saints because of a sense of ancestral heritage; it links them to their ancestral past with a sense of continuity: they continue the legacy at least to some degree out of gratitude for what their ancestors did—so their sacrifice is not in vain. But what of these Taiwanese Saints? Why is the same narrative so meaningful to them?
Perhaps it has to do with the universality of the pioneer archetype. As converts to a church that is still relatively young in their country–a church that requires (or at least encourages) some major changes in lifestyle, beliefs, and worldview–the pioneer symbol resonates. Each convert has to cross their own desert in the process of conversion. The ward community becomes their Zion settlement in that new, unfamiliar land. Themes of sacrifice, displacement, transition, endurance, dedication, and community really resonate with their own experience.
Perhaps it is partially because the Church is young in these areas that stories from the American past are so prominent. Maybe with time more stories of the establishment of the LDS Church in Taiwan will become more prominent in their meetings. Maybe stories of certain individuals from among the Taiwanese Saints will become more well-known and will share pulpit time with Brigham Young and the early pioneers. Maybe some of today’s Saints’ own children will relate more and more their own parents’ conversion experiences for the same reasons the exodus to Utah gets told so frequently. Even then, the exodus narrative will probably not die out completely, nor does it really need to. Some symbols are universal: there will always be new beginnings and new pioneers; thus genesis and exodus themes will always be meaningful. It will be interesting to see if new, more local narratives gain prominence as the Church grows. If recent trends in Ensign article selection serve any indication, perhaps they will.
When I arrived in Taiwan at the beginning of a 5-month English-teaching stint, I was very curious about Taiwanese religion. After spending a few weeks in Taiwan, visiting a few temples, I determined that religion was very much a thing of the past–a distant relic that is no longer really practiced but is preserved as cultural heritage (sort of like Catholicism in parts of Europe). Over time, however, I realized how extremely superficial and simply false my initial impression was (sort of like the statement I just made about parts of Europe probably is). Despite the technological modernization of Taiwan, the country is soaked in religion. But Asian religiosity is so different from Western Christianity in certain respects, that it took me a while to recognize it. I began to notice little things I hadn’t before: people burning paper in a little barrel in the street or in furnaces outside of neighborhood shrines; red paper on the doorposts of houses; charms hanging from every rear-view mirror. As I began asking my students about these practices, I learned that they involve a very real and deep religiosity. Rather than a sort of dogmatic set of doctrines, however, this religiosity is more of a worldview that entails an explicit belief in the reality of both the continuity and contiguity of a spiritual realm that is actively involved in this world. They burn paper money and other items in order to provide those items for departed spirits. This is done both to provide family members the things they need and cannot provide for themselves during their spiritual sojourn as well as to placate spirits that might otherwise become mischievous and troublesome. The red on the doorposts and the charms (I’m sure there is a better word for these) on the rearview mirrors are to ward off such spirits.
Through my experiences living there and teaching children, I realized more and more how prevalent this worldview was. I began to wonder what happens to this worldview when Taiwanese individuals convert to Mormonism. I sort of suspected that such a strongly held worldview probably was not simply dropped and swapped for another. So when I saw some missionaries, I asked them. “Yeah,” the Elder responded, “we get a lot of converts who will continue to visit the temple and burn spirit money.” I was fascinated by this, but he seemed less enthused. “We try to get them to stop, but its easy for people to fall back into false worship.” I asked if the mission president had set a policy for it. He said that the president had instructed the Taiwanese Saints that it was okay to perform such rituals for their ancestors if they did it only as a sort of cultural recognition, sort of like how Westerners put flowers on their loved ones’ grave sites. But it was nonetheless discouraged.
This exchange raised several questions in my mind. While I was glad to hear that the mission president offered some leeway, I wondered if even his qualifications of the practice were necessary. Is the practice of burning paper objects to provide ancestors with those things they need really incongruous with Mormon belief and practice? Is it really that different than performing proxy ordinances for them–providing with something they need but cannot secure for themselves? And are we suspicious of it because it is somehow incongruous with Gospel principles or simply because it is not Western?
This raises a larger issue. Since Mormonism was restored and socially constructed in America, it has surely has picked up some American trappings and baggage (and thus Western trappings and baggage). Yet Mormons believe that at the core are eternal, universal principles. As missionary work expands globally, we are faced with the challenge of determining what those core elements are and what the cultural trappings are. Obviously conversion entails some change; but does conversion to “the Gospel” also need to entail Westernization and Americanization? Do strong Asian traditions really need to give way to what may be Western biases? I do not believe they do. But how do we go about determining just what those core beliefs are and what may or may not go with or against them?
One of the many things I wondered about while tracting door to door as a missionary was how I would respond if someone were to ask me if the stone box in Cumorah’s hillside, from which Joseph Smith had extracted the plates, had been located. As far as I knew, it never had. While the absence of the plates was easy to explain—it was no more difficult to assert that Moroni had taken them back than it was to assert that he had given them—the box was a different matter. If it had held the plates securely for over a thousand years, surely it was only logical to expect that some trace of it was extant. As I considered how I would answer the question, I reasoned that, being left uncovered, the box had probably either filled in with dirt and was overgrown by vegetation or it had simply eroded away. Or maybe it had been destroyed, either by natural or supernatural means. (If God wants this matter to be taken on faith, after all, surely He’s capable of covering His tracks.)
But to those who do not believe the Joseph Smith story, such speculation is an absurdly moot point—a point that is made derisively clear on the title page of a nineteenth-century edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies, which tauntingly quipped that many of the included rhymes were “recently found in the same stone box which hold the golden plates of the Book of Mormon. The whole compared, revised, and sanctioned, by one of the annotators of the Goose family.” The intended jibe is not hard to discern: golden plates, like nursery rhymes, are products of imagination, not hillsides.
The dilemma created by this disjuncture between the worlds of belief and disbelief in the Book of Mormon’s claim to ancient provenance, as illustrated above, is precisely the quandary one faces when trying to situate the Book of Mormon in the wider academy as an object of literary study. It is a dilemma that was made all too clear recently to Mormon scholar and Professor of English Terryl Givens when he requested that a course on the Book of Mormon as literature be taught in his department at the University of Richmond, Virginia. “He can’t teach a course like that here!” his department chair told his secretary. Anticipating such a reaction, Givens was able to treat the situation humorously, but it nonetheless has significant implications. “In my department,” states Professor Givens, “we have had courses on the Mary Tyler Moore show. But the Book of Mormon is unthinkable?”
Considering the tremendous impact the Book of Mormon has had on global society—giving rise to an international church that has been described as a new religious tradition—the academic world’s failure to take the Book of Mormon seriously can be somewhat perplexing to Latter-day Saints. But the hesitancy to situate the Book of Mormon in academic discourse as an object of literary criticism has not been unique to non-Mormon institutions. Attempts by Eugene England to create such a course in the English department at Brigham Young University also met with resistance, though presumably for very different reasons.
Eventually a course on the Book of Mormon as Sacred Literature was created at BYU, but not as a part of the English Department. It was created as a part of the Honors Program, which draws professors and subjects from a number of fields and departments. In this case, Charles Swift, a professor from the Religious Education Department with a degree in English Literature teaches the class (a great class by the way). He makes it clear, however, that the course is not associated with the Religious Education department.
So what is the Book of Mormon’s place in the wider acadamy? And how do we situate the literary study of the Book of Mormon in Church-owned universities? Is the Book of Mormon as literature an appropriate approach to the subject? And if so, why has it been so difficult to find a place for it? (I have my own theories–outside the academy: pc sensitivities, Church/State issues, general disregard, etc; Church schools: skepticism of lit crit, non-trad approach, etc.–but I would like to throw this open and see what y’all think.)
 Terryl Givens points out that in 1875 David Whitmer told a Chicago Times reporter that he had seen the stone “casket” at Cumorah three times before it was “washed down to the foot of the hill,”(People of Paradox [New York: Oxford, 2007], 60).
 Mother Goose’s Melodies (Boston: Munroe & Francis, ca. 1833-1837), title page.
 Givens recounted this incident on Times and Seasons, January 31, 2005, “12 Questions for Terryl Givens, by Jim F.” <http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=1914#more-1914> accessed October 12, 2006.