A Short History of Mormon Publishing: Commercial LDS Publishing Begins

3.3.10 | | 8 comments

The fourth of eight posts and an introduction. See also Part III, Part II, Part I, Introduction

The arrival of the transcontinental railroad to Utah in 1869 marked the end of a period of relative isolation for the LDS Church. It also came just at the end of a period of almost no Mormon publishing in Utah and the United States.

This inactive period was nearly total. Before 1870 the LDS Church itself published only the Deseret News in Salt Lake City (starting in 1850) and a few flyers and administrative items[1]. The most innovative material produced during this time was George Q. Cannon’s Juvenile Instructor and the Deseret Alphabet, the attempt to reform English spelling and make it easier for the flood of LDS immigrants. And the Deseret Alphabet materials were mostly printed in New York City[2].

The railroad did not bring better communication — that had already come by way of the Pony Express (in 1860) and the Telegraph (18 months later, in 1861). Instead, the railroad brought easier and cheaper transportation of freight and people, both of which were generally welcomed by the church and its members. However, these gains also came with challenges.

For publishing, the railroad increased the size of the available audience in Utah, and made it easier to get an audience outside of Utah. It also made it easier to get additional printing equipment, and increased the number of local competitors. The railroad also made it easier for newspapers, magazines and books to find their way to Utah.

It was this latter effect that seemed to trouble the Church most, as the incoming books included the cheap novels that had found an audience throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world. Even before the railroad reached Utah and throughout Brigham Young’s administration Church leaders regularly advised members against reading fiction. Apostle George Q. Cannon argued in 1866 that “Works of fiction, novels, tales and light reading of that description ought not to be read by young people. They are not food for your mind…”[3] But many Church members ignored the advice, and how to provide worthwhile materials for those members was behind any publishing efforts at the time.

Auxiliary Magazines

In January 1866, Apostle Cannon started the Juvenile Instructor, in response to the burgeoning Sunday School movement that followed Richard Ballantyne’s 1849 organization of a Sunday School in Salt Lake’s Fourteenth Ward. The new magazine consisted of catechisms on the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants; musical compositions; illustrations; stories; editorial teachings; and other aids to gospel instruction. It was the first magazine for children published in the United States west of the Mississippi River[4]. The following year Cannon was called to preside over the newly-formed Deseret Sunday School Union, the Church-wide organization formed to standardize and support the movement, and held that position until his death in 1901[5].

Despite Cannon’s position as an Apostle, and as a member of the First Presidency starting in 1873, the Juvenile Instructor remained independent of both the Church and the Deseret Sunday School Union until Cannon sold the publication to the Union a year before his death[6]. The magazine remained financially independent primarily from subscriptions, but also because it sold additional  materials to support teachers. In many ways the Juvenile Instructor marked the beginning of independent Mormon publishing–publishers and publications owned by members of the Church but generally supporting LDS Church efforts.

Because the Juvenile Instructor became the voice of he Sunday School, over time its success led those in the other auxiliary organizations of the LDS Church to create magazines to support those efforts. In 1872 a group of women loosely associated with the Relief Society (organized again in 1866) started the Women’s Exponent, which became known as the voice of LDS women. While those that ran the Exponent were also leaders fo the Relief Society, the magazine was financially independent, and grew to have considerable influence in Utah politics[7].

After the Church formed the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association (YLMIA) in 1869 and the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA) in 1875, Junius F. Wells, the inaugural head of the YMMIA, saw a need for a magazine to support the needs of both youth organizations, and founded The Contributor in 1879 and in 1889 Susa Young Gates founded the Young Women’s Journal to support the YLMIA separately from the YMMIA. Like the previous magazines both of these were privately owned and financially independent[8].

‘Faith Promoting’ Books

Despite the similarities among these auxiliary magazines, the Juvenile Instructor did one thing that the others did not: it published books. Perhaps in response to the flood of incoming publications brought by the railroad, Cannon saw the need for books aimed at the edification and entertainment of Church members, rather than the missionary and doctrinal exposition that drove most previous Mormon works. After completing two stints as editor of the Deseret News, about 1879 Cannon started assembling a multi-volume Faith Promoting Series meant to support the Sunday School program. The series included excerpts from missionary journals, including his own missionary journal, that of Wilford Woodruff and that of Heber C. Kimball, biographical materials, historical items, and Cannon’s Life of Nephi[9].

Once available, the books were sold from the Juvenile Instructor‘s office, along with many other materials useful for teaching Sunday School. Some of these items were also published by the Juvenile Instructor — a Deseret Sunday School First Reader, Catechism cards, pamphlets on gospel subjects, etc. And other books followed also, including Cannon’s own Life of Joseph Smith, Charles W. Penrose’s Mormon Doctrine, plain and simple and Orson F. Whitney’s Life of Heber C. Kimball[10]. By the 1890s, the Juvenile Instructor’s office was a thriving bookstore, albeit one that focused on materials for Sunday School teachers[11].

Meanwhile, after serving as editor of the Deseret News starting in 1867 and throughout much of the 1870s, George Q. Cannon must have known about the demand for commercial printing services. While commercial printers existed in large cities, in most small cities the local newspaper was the principle, and often the only, printer in town. So those desiring to print a flyer, notice, card, pamphlet, book or even a periodical would often approach the local newspaper to get their work printed. The relationship between a printer, like the Deseret News, and its customer isn’t always clear from the printed item. In some cases, the printer is just a printer, and the actual publisher is the printer’s customer, often a self-publishing author. In other cases, the printer is actually the publisher[12].

Exactly what the difference was between the Deseret News and George Q. Cannon’s operation isn’t clear. Cannon apparently used the Deseret News’ printing press for his publications, at least initially. And items printed there might be listed as published by the Deseret News or by George Q. Cannon, and even the same book might indicate it was published by the Deseret News one year, and by Cannon another. Adding to the confusion, the distinction between the Juvenile Instructor and George Q. Cannon and Sons was also murky, with the latter sometimes refered to as an office of the former. In the 1880s, this was probably complicated by anti-polygamy laws, which sought to confiscate materials owned by the LDS Church. This influenced Church members to keep Church materials in their personal names instead of in the name of the Church.

By 1869 Cannon was already filling some of the need for commercial printing by printing official journals and notices of the territorial government. In 1870 he published a reprint of John Jacques’ Catechism for children (originally published in England), followed by a hymnal, Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs, in 1871[13]. However, except for these early publications, Cannon’s name doesn’t appear as the publisher on books until the 1890s (discussed next week). Instead, Cannon concentrated on publishing under the Juvenile Instructor name, and starting in the 1870s the Deseret News appears to have published or printed most of the materials needed by the Church (including new editions of the scriptures and missionary works like Pratt’s A Voice of Warning), and much of the self-published and other independently published Mormon materials[14].

Only in the late 1870s did new works finally appear, such as George Reynold’s The Book of Abraham (1879) and John Taylor’s Mediation and the Atonement (1882). The Deseret News Press also published the Biography and family record of Lorenzo Snow by Eliza R Snow, Franklin D. Richards’ Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel, and John Nicholson’s Martyrdom of Joseph Standing. By the end of the 1880s, despite the restrictions from anti-polygamy efforts, LDS publishing efforts had reached a level that exceeded that in the Nauvoo period[15].


[1] My own analysis of data drawn from Flake, Mormon Bibliography, 1830-1930. This database can be found online at (http://lib.byu.edu/dlib/mormon_bib/).

[2] Schindler, Hal. The Deseret Alphabet. Utah Orthography, Although Ingenious, Does Not Succeed. Mormons Felt Need For Own Language. Salt Lake Tribune, May 29, 1994, p. D1. Available at http://historytogo.utah.gov/salt_lake_tribune/in_another_time/052994.html

[3] Cannon, George Q. Juvenile Instructor, 15 August 1866.

[4] Poelman, B. Lloyd. Sunday School in Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan, 1992, pp. 1424-1427. and Allred, Ruel A. Juvenile Instructor in Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan, 1992, p. 777. Text is available online at http://www.lib.byu.edu/Macmillan/.

[5] Poelman, B. Lloyd. Sunday School in Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan, 1992, pp. 1424-1427. Text is available online at http://www.lib.byu.edu/Macmillan/.

[6] Allred, Ruel A. Juvenile Instructor in Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan, 1992, p. 777. Text is available online at http://www.lib.byu.edu/Macmillan/.

[7] Thomas, Shirley W. Woman’s Exponent in Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan, 1992, p. 1571. Text is available online at http://www.lib.byu.edu/Macmillan/.

[8] Kelly, Petrea Gillespie. Contributor in Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan, 1992, p. 320. and Kelly, Petrea Gillespie. Young Woman’s Journal in Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan, 1992, pp. 1615-1616. Text is available online at http://www.lib.byu.edu/Macmillan/.

[9] My own analysis of data drawn from Flake, Mormon Bibliography, 1830-1930. This database can be found online at (http://lib.byu.edu/dlib/mormon_bib/).

[10] My own analysis of data drawn from Flake, Mormon Bibliography, 1830-1930. This database can be found online at (http://lib.byu.edu/dlib/mormon_bib/).

[11] Knowles, Eleanor. “Deseret Book Company, 125 Years of Inspiration, Information, and Ideas.” Deseret Book, 1991

[12] In practical terms, a publisher is someone who takes editorial responsibility and financial risk for a published work. A printer, in contrast, creates multiple copies of an original, usually through mechanical means, and almost always for a fee. But these roles aren’t always clear in the published work, with the name of the printer sometimes appearing on the back of the title page where the name of the publisher is usually found. This is especially common in the case of self-published works because the author doesn’t think to put his own name as the publisher, and wants inquiries for purchases to go to the printer, who, in the 1800s, often also operated a bookstore to sell the works they printed.

[13] My own analysis of data drawn from Flake, Mormon Bibliography, 1830-1930. This database can be found online at (http://lib.byu.edu/dlib/mormon_bib/).

[14] My own analysis of data drawn from Flake, Mormon Bibliography, 1830-1930. This database can be found online at (http://lib.byu.edu/dlib/mormon_bib/).

[15] My own analysis of data drawn from Flake, Mormon Bibliography, 1830-1930. This database can be found online at (http://lib.byu.edu/dlib/mormon_bib/).

8 comments: “A Short History of Mormon Publishing: Commercial LDS Publishing Begins

  1. Th.

    .

    The Deseret Alphabet served more purposes than just teaching English. It was also intended to make the Saints a community with a unique language. Which, ultimately, could have had the bonus side-effect of making the Saints unable to read outside publications.

    Of course, the DA was very much of its time. Spelling reform was all the rage.

  2. Th.

    .

    It seems like an exciting period, to start from scratch like that. I wonder what book imports were like — maybe this was why BY’s girls all read novels. There weren’t any decent Mormon books to while away the hours with!

    I had not heard of the Life of… series before. I’m impressed by those who wrote when there was so little to build from.

  3. Kent Larsen Post author

    Th., you are certainly right about the DA, I wasn’t trying to say that teaching English was its only purpose, just one of them — and that aspect is something that I learned about recently. [Although, to be honest, I can’t see how it would be very successful at teaching English. Since LDS immigrants were, by far, from countries that used the roman alphabet, giving them a new orthography would mean they would have to learn the orthography AND the language, instead of just the language. Making it easier to figure out pronunciation from the written language seems like a lot of effort for a small benefit.]

  4. Kent Larsen Post author

    Th., I don’t think I said there was a Life of… series. There was a Faith Promoting Series (14 or 17 volumes, I think). The titles in the series were not all Life of… somebody, although many of the titles were biographical.

  5. Marny Parkin

    I should have mentioned this earlier. Have you heard of Printing in Deseret: Mormons, Economy, Politics & Utah’s Incunabula, 1849-1851; A History and Descriptive Bibliography by Richard L. Saunders (SLC: Univ. of Utah Press, 2000)?

  6. Kent Larsen Post author

    Marny, I have heard of that title, but I don’t have a copy. To be honest, I thought the time period (1849-1851) was too short to be worth purchasing a copy, and I assumed that nearly every item (if not all) is included in the Mormon Bibliography (online for free). I’m sure I’ll get a chance to peruse it eventually.

  7. Th.

    .

    Yeah, the DA was a fun intellectual exercise for the Deseret University’s staff, but ultimately doomed to failure.

    But still dang cool.

    (Buy a tshirt!)

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