Guard the Gold:
Didactic Fiction and the Mainstreaming of Moroni
|For six weeks in the summer of 2011, researchers convened at the Maxwell Institute to discuss the topic “The Cultural History of the Gold Plates.” The seminar was sponsored by the Mormon Scholars Foundation, hosted by the Maxwell Institute, and directed by Richard Bushman.The Summer Seminar Working Papers 2011 were presented at a BYU symposium on August 18, 2011. Working papers are unpublished, unedited, unpolished drafts. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Maxwell Institute or BYU.|
Do not indulge the gifted pen To float through fiction’s fairy field— To chant the deeds of fabled men, And weave the garland phantoms yield. ~Eliza R. Snow, “Truth Better Than Fiction,” (91)
In Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America (1993), an angel crashes through Prior Walter’s ceiling to announce: “Greetings, Prophet; The Great Work begins.” After telling Prior to “[g]et a shovel or an axe or some . . . tool for dislodging tile and grout,” the angel gives him a divine book and calls him to be a prophet (P 45). Evoking and revising Joseph Smith’s account of the gold plates, Angels in America creatively reimagines the cultural context in which buried records, ministering angels, and untutored prophets resonate; indeed, the gold plates provide a frame for Kushner’s critique of the Reagan administration’s handling of the AIDS epidemic, suggesting the adaptability of Joseph Smith’s story to twentieth-century issues. In the notebooks that eventually became the working draft of the play, Kushner writes: “There are some lovely things about Mormons. They believe everyone eventually gets into heaven. . . . Of course Joseph Smith was crazy. But he was crazy like Walt Whitman. Crazy in a Big American way. . . . It is wonderful to believe that an Angel appeared in upstate N.Y. I have waited all my ife for an Angel. An American Angel” (Manuscript). Of course, Kushner’s fascination with Smith’s story strikes one as a particularly postmodern perspective. Where Kushner enjoys the aesthetics of Joseph Smith’s gold plates narrative, US culture in the nineteenth century, by and large, smelled a rat. Through analyzing how the story of the gold plates functions in nineteenth-century imaginative fictions, I will chart a trajectory that occluded the importance of the gold plates’ guardian, to one that understood the advent of a messenger-angel as Mormonism’s most potent contribution to American religious expression. The emergence of angel Moroni as key—indeed, as iconic—to Mormonism demonstrates how one small detail spun a web connecting a prophet, an angelic messenger, and an unearthed history in one of America’s most epic religious traditions.
Before I delve into analyzing nineteenth-century novels that refer to the gold plates, it behooves me to layout three issues that influenced my research: First, I find Joseph Smith’s account of receiving gold plates to be deeply evocative on aesthetic grounds, and so I had hoped to find several nineteenth-century American writers creatively reimagining the story; second, I sought to understand how genre and form altered the story of the plates—in other words, how any chosen textual medium inflected the representation of the plates; and third, throughout the research and writing of this paper, I discovered that the gold plates functioned as a key teaching mechanism in both Mormon and non-Mormon texts—the lynchpin for competing narratives and truth-claims. In this essay, I will review several nineteenth-century novels written by critics of Mormonism, turn to the Mormon effort to pass-on the story of the plates through catechism, and finally demonstrate how post-Manifesto Mormon literature remained caught in a realm of truth-claims that prohibited the type of creative reimagining that we see in Kushner’s Angels in America.
Early novelistic portrayals of Joseph Smith’s gold plates quote heavily from the writings of the church’s first critics, merely recirculating texts instead of authoring alternative versions of the Joseph Smith story. For instance, Frederick Marryat’s Monsieur Violet (1843) quotes from several contemporaneous anti-Mormon affidavits, stating that the plates disappeared when Joseph negligently set them down, upon which he “perceived in the box something like a toad, which gradually assumed the appearance of a man, and struck him on the side of his head. . . . [And] knocked him backwards three or four rods, and hurt him very much” (299). What intrigues me about this moment in the novel, though, is its failure to explore and develop the idea of a toad-come-man knocking Smith on his behind. Certainly, more creative energy could have been expended to make the toad’s transformation more believable—more thrilling in a book that otherwise operates under an anxiety to disclose the salaciously fascinating. Reporting this purported event in such a deadpan tone—along with the absence of references to angels—turns the novel into a didactic fiction about the strange absurdity that are Joseph Smith’s claims about gold plates. Where later novelists take up the claims of Smith and his plates with creative solutions, this novel remains flat footed, so to speak, and unwilling to engage the literary dimensions of the plates’ narrative. It is almost as if the desire to expose Mormon truth-claims about the gold plates requires the careful repetition of the affidavit accounts, suggesting a desire to consolidate and streamline opposition to Mormon claims about a divinely unearthed book.
After hours of laboriously reading forgotten novels I was surprised by how conservative and mealy-mouthed nineteenth-century novelistic interpretations of the Joseph Smith story were. Instead of placing Joseph and his plates in the context of a New World don Quixote, an American Camelot, or even a Yankee Odyssey, the novels merely recirculated tropes of the nineteenth-century confidence man. One such example is Orvilla Belisle’s The Prophets: Or, Mormonism Unveiled (1855). In the novel—as is true in many nineteenth-century Mormon truth-claim exposés—Smith peddles Spaulding’s Manuscript as a New World sacred text. While speaking to a crowd of rowdy skeptics, his “fertile imagination” suddenly “weave[s] . . . a chain of impostures” (66). Nervous, scared, and uncertain about what he will say, Smith stands before the mass and becomes invigorated by the crowd’s energy. Quite literally on his feet, Smith fabricates a mythical story for the plates, stating that two angels appeared to him and told him “that the records of the Lost Tribes of Israel were buried in the hill Cumoral [sic.], where they were deposited fourteen hundred years ago, by Moroni, the son of the Prophet Mormon, having previously engraved on plates of gold, the Prophet Mormon assuring his son Moroni that, after the lapse of fourteen hundred years, a Gentile nation should recover them, and through the truth of their prophecies, be turned to the true worship of God” (62). In the full passage, the use of commas produce a sense of vertigo as the sentence’s meaning gets continually deferred. This deferral of closure mimics the convoluted, spur of the moment feel Belisle tries to evoke in Smith’s rousing speech.
Significantly, Belisle’s novel constructs motivation for Joseph’s fantastic story of angels, golden records, and the opening of biblical dispensations. The psychology of belief figures in as the narrator finds Joseph beginning “to like the role he was playing” (66). The great lengths he goes to fabricate an extraordinary story on his feet similarly describe a storyteller trying to keep up with a yarn winding out of control. In the novel, Joseph continues his story:
With reverence, I laid my hand on the lid, when it flew open by an invisible hand, and beneath I saw plates of shining gold, covered over with strange characters, and on the tops of these lay two thick glasses set in a rim of gold. At sight of the golden plates my heart became steeled by avarice, and I resolved to use the gold; but no sooner was the thought born in my heart, than an invisible hand struck me to the earth, and the ground gathered over the box and its contents. The air became filled with whispering voices, while cloud-like forms flitted around me. Ever and anon balls of fire hissed above me, while fiery serpents shot athwart the sky, and the sun paled in their fiery light. These died away, when the hosts of heaven with their golden chariots and myriads of purified spirits, led on by the Patriarchs and Prophets, passed before me. (63)
The creativity expressed in this passage deserves pause. With whispering voices, ghostly forms, and fireballs and serpents coursing the sky, the scene reminds one of the gothic with its unexplained physical manifestations and emphasis on the supernatural. In the context of a spontaneous soapbox preaching, however, the daylight and noisy crowd diminishes the story’s wonder and awe. Yet the performative aspects of this retold story—where unbelievable details are added to already unbelievable presuppositions—create an internal mania in “the wrapt, silent, abashed audience” (66). By adding spectral phenomena, ghostly voices, and other tropes from the magical realm, Belisle transforms the Joseph Smith story into a supernatural fraud, not the extension of New Testament Pentecostalism Mormons would want the story to be.
Mormons in the nineteenth century had a particular investment—for obvious reasons—about how the Joseph Smith story was told. We can see this in the several catechisms published in the latter half of the century designed to guard and contain the meaning of the story. In John Jaques’s catechism, short questions receive long answers. For instance, the text asks if Joseph told his father about the angel Moroni: “Yes, and his father told him he must do as the angel had directed, as it was of God. Joseph consequently went to the place where the plates were hid, and found them in a stone box, hid in a hill which the Nephites called Cumorah” (70). The response continues summarizing the Joseph Smith narrative, detailing other components of the story that are not self-evidentially derived from the question. In this sense, the catechism marks questions as being peripheral to a mode of discourse that unleashes a flood of details, anecdotes, and other gold plate textual iconography.
First published in 1854 and totaling over 35,000 copies in circulation and ten editions before the close of the century, Jaques’s catechism conceivably played an important role in consolidating and homogenizing early Mormon history. Just as novelists began to play with the story’s details—using the imagination to deepen what they already considered a fabrication—the catechism seeks to turn off tangential references, cut out extraneous events, and erase unnecessary details. Of the editions available, I found no changes or subtractions in the story of the gold plates in the course of the century. This is significant, because the performative aspect of the catechism enables children and adults to recite and learn one central narrative. The catechism describes the plates to the exactness of being “near eight inches long by seven wide, and a little thinner than ordinary tin, and . . . bound together by three rings, running through the whole” (79). This descriptive particularity rhetorically gestures towards a material existence of plates, stabilizing the meaning of the story just as it condenses the plates’ materiality into discernable space. The exactitude of the plates’ description coincides with questions that embed Joseph’s story to the angel Moroni (and not a supernatural). In this sense, the catechism contains and protects the meaning and significance of the Joseph Smith story, policing its material details and inscribing a sacred line between it and representations of the gold plates in secular culture. In other words, while novels throughout the nineteenth century played with the details of Joseph Smith’s gold plate narrative, Mormon catechisms attempted to consolidate the story into a containable narrative, marking the story holy even as it stabilizes its meaning in Joseph Smith’s time and place.
We see this effort to rein in the signification of Joseph Smith’s gold plates in a dialogue published in the Deseret Sunday School Catechism (1882) about the “life and mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” The catechism asks:
Q—How were the plates buried in the ground?
A—In a stone box, the top which was rounded.
Q—What did Joseph do with the plates?
A—He took them home with great care.
Q—Why were these plates hidden in the earth?
A—To keep them from being destroyed by wicked men. (12)
Reducing Joseph Smith’s own writings on the plates to a series of facts both shields and limits the story’s meaning. Cordoning the tale from literary genres, the catechism enshrines the gold plates with stable material referents, calcifying and hardening signification instead of opening it up to the plethora and abundance of the imagination.
Though the archives do not provide direct evidence, certainly these Mormon catechisms functioned to counteract some of the discomfort Mormons would have felt with the creativity novelists used to represent Mormonism’s founding stories. For instance, the widely distributed dime novel Clair: A Story of Mormon Life and Perfidy (1883) has a Mormon explain to a potential convert: “Our prophet was told by an angel of God, where the golden tablets were concealed. He found them, and in a trance, controlled by an angel, translated the strange writing thereon, which, having completed, the tablets were taken by the hand of God” (2). Certainly there are residual effects from saying Joseph smith was in a “trance” during the translation process that Mormons would be uncomfortable with. In Robert Richards’s The Californian Crusoe (1854) the protagonist believes in the gold plates until a traveler from Vermont happens to pass by Nauvoo, informing him that Smith was “notorious, like others of his family, as a money-digger, and withal as a drunken, lying, and dissipated young profligate” (122). Even though the protagonist adapted himself to the supposed animal sacrifices, polygamous marriages, and pantheism associated with Mormonism, it isn’t until the gold plates are turned into a treasure-digger’s object that he leaves the faith. The flexibility of the gold plates to accommodate interpretations that not only stretch believability but also portray Joseph in a negative light necessitated a Mormon literature that could substitute the sacred for the profane, deploying the memory-making uses of fictional genres with the stabilizing and controlling influence of the catechisms.
If the catechisms sought to contain preemptively the story of the gold plates from encroachment by imaginative writing, what, then, could be considered the Mormon effort to produce literary productions of Joseph Smith’s gold plates story? In the post-Manifesto era, there emerged in Mormon culture a “Home Literature” movement that served this dual purpose. Orson F. Whitney foretold its function by describing a literature that made Mormon themes palatable to a broader audience while satiating the internal community’s desire for fictional writing: “We must read, and think, and feel, and pray,” he writes, “and then bring forth our thoughts, and polish and preserve them. This will make literature” (300). This literary movement, however, had to compete with years of anti-novel sermons from church leaders such as Brigham Young who said “[n]ovels allure the mind and are without profit” (quoted in Cracroft, 110) and George Q. Cannon (1870) who told parents that if they let their children read fiction “it will not be long before the plain truth will not satisfy them. Their appetites will be spoiled for it, they will grow up novel-readers. This habit of novel reading is very common these days, and is the cause of many of the evils which prevail in the world” (quoted in Cracroft, 113). But just as Mormon leaders wished to protect their flock from the vices of novel reading, they also wanted to make the history of Joseph Smith as living and vivid as a bestselling novel. Dichotomizing truth and fiction, such anti-novel sentiments certainly shaped how mainstream Mormons felt they could interpret and creatively reconstruct the Joseph Smith story. Working from a tradition antagonistic towards fictional genres, how might the Joseph Smith story be conveyed to those at least one generation removed from the prophet’s voice?
Unfortunately, the answer was not vivid and well-crafted novels but instead didactic fictions situated to inculcate belief, leaving no room for that messy problem called pleasure nor her cruel stepsister ambiguity. Edward Geary called this era of Mormon imaginative writing “not a powerful literature artistically, nor is it pure. In most cases its distinctive Mormon characteristics are only skin deep, masking an underlying vision which is as foreign to the gospel as it is to real life” (15). Benjamin Rich’s Mr. Durant of Salt Lake City: “That Mormon” (1893), a novel about a young man who has long doctrinal conversations with ministers, agnostics, and others, exemplifies this tradition. Successfully quoting verbatim the entirety of Joseph Smith’s account of his first vision up to translating the gold plates, the focus on the protagonist’s dialogues with others is to teach Mormon doctrine, not explore the literary and artistic implications of the gold plates. (As a side note, this novel was used as a missionary tract in the Southern States Mission.) Nephi Anderson’s novels portray a similar impulse to spread a missionary message as opposed to explore the literary dimensions of the gold plates. In one novel, the protagonist tells “the wonderful story of the boy Prophet Joseph Smith, his vision of the Father and the Son, and his receiving the plates from [page break] which the Book of Mormon was translated” (202-3). Significantly, the actual account is left un-narrated. The assumption being, of course, that for insiders the story of prophets, angels, and buried records needed nothing more than a few words of reference, and to outsiders, perhaps, that the story was too sacred to retell in non-scriptural language.
Of course, I don’t mean to point out the obvious—that Mormon fiction in the years after the 1890 Manifesto relied so heavily on didacticism that the art and craft of fiction writing suffered (though that can certainly be implied). We can easily observe how Mormon catechisms and early efforts at fiction emerged in an effort to guard Joseph Smith’s canonized account of the plates in an era of suspicion and exposé. But in an interesting reversal to this impulse to guard and protect a sacrosanct version of the gold pates, George Q. Cannon seamlessly transitions into a literary mode in his History of Joseph Smith Written for Young People (1900). Describing Joseph when he first sees the buried record, Cannon states: “Perhaps this boy had never read of the wondrous caves of Aladdin and Ali Baba, or of the secret treasures of Monte Cristo Island, but every boy has dreams of treasure-trove and of becoming rich and powerful.” (19). And then, turning to the classic failure of Joseph to retrieve the plates on his first visit to the Hill Cumorah, Cannon continues: “Whether Joseph was dazzled by the rich prize before him and for the moment thought this was just a dream come true, or whether he merely wished to examine [page break] these beautiful, strange things, we do not know, but he reached forth to draw them out” (19-20).
Since that reach—portrayed in dozens of novels, poems, life-narratives, and paintings—the story of gold plates has inspired and fascinated, perplexed and frustrated, thrilled and motivated artists and writers from various walks of life. As a reversal of Michelangelo’s Adam touching the finger of God, there is something disarmingly simple—poetic in its pastoral and supernatural motifs—of a young man on his knees, dirt stained perhaps, reaching if not digging into the bowels of the earth for a golden book he heard about from an angel.
1. Anderson, Nephi. A Daughter of the North. Salt Lake City: De Utah-Nederlander Pub. Co., 1915
2. Belisle, Orvilla S. The Prophets: Or, Mormonism Unveiled. Philadelphia: William White Smith, 1855.
3. Cracroft, Richard H. “Brigham Young, Novel Reading, and Kingdom Building.” BYU Studies 40.2 (2001): 102-131.
4. Deseret Sunday School Catechism No. 1. Questions and Answers on the Life and Mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. SLC: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1882.
5. Geary, Edward A. “The Poetics of Provincialism: Mormon Regional Fiction.” Dialogue 11.2 (Summer 1978): 15-24.
6. George Q. Cannon, The Latter-day Prophet: Young People’s History of Joseph Smith. SLC: Deseret News, 1914.
7. Jaques, John. Catechism for Children, Exhibiting the Prominent Doctrines of the Churchof Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: David O. Calder, 1877.
8. Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995.
9. Marryat, Frederick. Narrative of the Travels and Adventures of Monsieur Violet in California, Sonera, and Western Texas. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1843.
10. Rich, Benjamin. Mr. Durant of Salt Lake City, “That Mormon.” Chattanooga: Southern States Mission, 1905.
11. Richards, Robert. The Californian Crusoe. New York: Stanford & Swords, 1854.
12. Snow, Eliza R. Recitations for the Primary Associations, Book No. 2. SLC: Deseret News Company, 1882.
13. Tuttle, Hudson. Clair: A Story of Mormon Life and Perfidy. Chicago: Donnelley, Loyd & Co., 1883.
14. Whitney, Orson F. “Home Literature.” Contributor 9 (June 1888): 297-302.