A Short History of Mormon Publishing: The English Period

2.17.10 | | 3 comments

The second of seven posts and an introduction. See also Part I, Introduction

Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Pro...
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The exodus of most of the Mormons in the United States to a part of “Upper California” (now Utah) starting in 1846 interrupted publishing by Mormons throughout that country. Of the Church’s three official publications, the Times and Seasons closed down that year, as did the New York Messenger (successor to the Prophet). This left the LDS Church, under the leadership of Brigham Young, with just one official publication, the Millennial Star, published in Manchester, England.

In the U.S., publishing came back very slowly. It wasn’t until 1850 that the Deseret News began publication in Salt Lake City. That was followed by a few missionary newspapers, notably The Seer, published by Orson Pratt in Washington D.C. from 1853 to 1854, The Mormon, published in New York City from 1854 to 1857, The St. Louis Luminary (1854-1855) and the Western Standard (San Francisco, 1856-1857). But the 1858 Utah War also interrupted the publication of missionary periodicals, which didn’t return until the 1898 Southern States Mission periodical, the Southern Star[1]. During the time before the death of Brigham Young in 1877, book and tract publishing all but ceased in the U.S.

Instead, missionaries in England published many tracts, under the control of the mission president. From 1848 to 1851, Orson Pratt, as mission president, oversaw much of the centralization of LDS publishing in England, and its expansion there. During this time the mission developed a complex system for distributing books and pamphlets, which were given out on credit to “book agents” (usually the conference or mission president), and later given out on credit to individual missionaries. These all sold the books and pamphlets, earning a little money to pay missionary expenses and encouraging distribution of large quantities of materials[2]. Pratt himself wrote many tracts, and eventually gathered his tracts together into an influential volume, Orson Pratt’s Works, published in 1851.

Pratt returned to England for a few months in 1853, during the middle of his assignment to Washington D.C., in order to do genealogical research. He brought with him a manuscript he had recently purchased, Lucy Mack Smith’s history of her family, and persuaded then mission president Samuel Richards, to publish it. Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the prophet was released in October 1853, and copies reached Utah in the summer of 1854. By that time, Brigham Young had become upset with Orson Pratt over the content of The Seer, which Young believed to contain doctrinal errors. When inaccuracies were found in Biographical Sketches, Young added it to his frustrations with Pratt, and members were advised against the book. By the mid 1860s, the book was officially discouraged, and Young even suggested that members should send in their copies, along with copies of The Seer, to be destroyed[3].

At the same time that Smith’s book was in preparation, John Lyon’s book of poetry, The Harp of Zion, had just been released. Lyon, who was frequently published in the Millennial Star, was admired by Eliza R. Snow, among others. His volume, profits from which were to be donated to the Perpetual Emmigration Fund, was published very ambitiously by the mission, which produced over 5,000 copies in four editions, including an edition on superior paper with morroco gilt edges that sold for 6 shillings, 6 pence — the equivalent of a week’s wages for the average factory worker of the time (say $750 at today’s wage rates). The cheapest edition was still 2 shillings, 6 pence, or 2-3 days wages. In the first 18 months, the volume sold just 979 copies, and by 1861, still over 3,300 remained to be sold[4].

Eliza R. Snow produced her own book of poetry 3 years later, and, despite her residency in Utah, sent the manuscript to England for publication, because publication in Utah was impossible (Brigham Young even sent some members on ‘rag missions’ to collect rags to be made into paper to keep the Deseret News in print). Poems, religious, historical, and political was published in 1856, and apparently suffered the same overly ambitious printing, since by 1861 some 2,500 copies remained, and just 19 had sold during the previous 3 years[5].

When George Q. Cannon came in 1861 to oversee the European mission, not only were the overly ambitious printings catching up with mission finances, but the sales system had broken down, as both the missionaries and the mission itself had built up large debts from these overly optimistic printings and from the production of foolish items (some missionaries produced engravings of themselves, church leaders, and church buildings which were sold through the mission). Cannon wrote Brigham Young, explaining that “There are editions of some works, which at the ratio they have been sold at during the past three years, will take half the Millennium to sell what are now on hand in this office.” As a result of Cannon’s investigation, Brigham Young told him to send bound works to Salt Lake for sale to members there, and suggested that pamphlets be given to members or destroyed.[6]

With the debts incurred in England, the death of prolific pamphleteer Parley P. Pratt in 1857, the Utah War, Orson Pratt’s (another prolific pamphleteer) return from the mission field, and other difficulties, the Church essentially stopped publishing books and pamphlets in English until after the death of Brigham Young in 1877.


[1] A useful summary of LDS periodicals can be found at List of Latter Day Saint periodicals on Wikipedia.

[2] Whittaker, David J., “Early Mormon Pamphleteering.” Journal of Mormon History 1977.

[3] Anderson, Lavina Fielding, “The Textual History of Lucy’s Book” in Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir, Signature Books, 2001. pp. 94-113.

[4] Lyon, T. Edgar, Jr., John Lyon: The Life of a Pioneer Poet, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989, pp. 150-151, 156-159.

[5] Lyon, T. Edgar, Jr., John Lyon: The Life of a Pioneer Poet, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989, p. 159n.

[6] Whittaker, David J., “Early Mormon Pamphleteering.” Journal of Mormon History 1977)

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3 comments: “A Short History of Mormon Publishing: The English Period

  1. Th.

    .

    And yet I’ll bet both Lyon’s and Snow’s books are plenty hard to come by today. Anyone know if Sam Weller has copies?

  2. Kent Larsen Post author

    Well, there is a 1st edition of Lyon’s book available for $750 (doesn’t say which of the 4 versions this one is), and based on the 2002 price guide I have, the Snow book should be the same or a bit more.

    Of course, both are available on Google Books, and both have been reprinted recently (by those that simply reprint the images from the google books files).

  3. Polly Aird

    This is a wonderful summary! Thanks for pulling it altogether!

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