Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: John Widtsoe on the Reading Habit

4.29.12 | | 6 comments
John_A._Widtsoe

John A. Widtsoe

While Mormons are sometimes criticized by their opponents as ignorant or blinded in their beliefs, that claim is both not supported by data (which actually shows that Mormons are generally more educated than those of most other religions) nor by any objective review of what leaders teach members. LDS Church leaders consistently claim that members are and should be well educated, and consistently encourage members to both get an education and develop good educational habits. In the following excerpt, Elder John A. Widtsoe, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve from 1921 to 1952, encourages members to develop the habit of reading good materials (and not just Church materials) on a daily basis.

Of course, no one claims that this advice is always followed. Like it or not, Church members don’t always follow the advice of their leaders. And Widtsoe acknowledges this. Its very similar to what we already acknowledged in Junius Wells’ advocacy of writing a journal. Here’s what Widtsoe has to say about reading:

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The Reading Habit

By John A. Widtsoe

FAITH INCREASES BY STUDY OF GOSPEL PRINCIPLES

Faith itself, the foundation principle of the Gospel, may be developed and maintained by use of printed words. Faith is a living thing, subject to all the laws of life. It may be begotten; it may grow; it may weaken; it may die. Therefore it must be cherished, fostered and fed. Regular, continuous Gospel study, through the printed page, is of prime importance in the maintaining and growth of certain belief.

Moreover, faith must be intelligent. Ignorance breeds superstition, the opposite of faith. Knowledge is a vital ingredient of the foundation of faith. The gaining of knowledge has ever been enjoined upon the Latter-day Saints. “Man is saved no faster than he gains knowledge” declared Joseph Smith. That means, of course, knowledge of truth, the highest expression of which is the Gospel. The position of knowledge is high in the Kingdom of God. Reading is a main avenue to knowledge.

The man who does not add knowledge to knowledge, throughout his life, may endanger his very faith. Latter-day Saints should be readers; they should cultivate the reading habit.

With all this before us, the available evidence indicates that we are not a reading people. Our reading seems to be occasional, unsystematic and fragmentary. The motion picture, the radio, and the automobile, all welcomed by Latter-day Saints, have unduly invaded our reading time. These great gifts to man should be enjoyed by all, but they should be used wisely and moderately, if our zest for them is to be keen. The best of things may be overdone.

DAILY READING HABIT URGED

The reading habit is most valuable in life. I mean by that the practice of using a little time, say half an hour a day, in the systematic reading of worthwhile literature. The mind is opened to precious fields of thought; the achievements of the ages become ours; even the future takes form. As the mind and spirit are fed by well chosen reading, comfort, peace and understanding come to the soul. Those who have not tried it, have missed a keen and easily accessible joy.

Moreover, a person who engages in such regular daily reading, if only a few minutes a day, in the course of a few years becomes a learned man. But it must be a regular, daily habit. It is a common experience in the foreign mission field that the less educated man who studies the new language without missing a day becomes a more perfect master, and that sooner, of the language, than the more highly trained elder, who studies the language by fits and starts. Some of the best educated men that I have met have never been in college but have acquired the habit of daily reading of good books for a few minutes a day. And, may I add, this applies to leaders as to the people.

WARNING AGAINST DEMORALIZING LITERATURE

Of course, reading, as everything else, may be misused. There is on our American market a mass of worthless literature, books and magazines, often sexy, unsound and demoralizing. The land is flooded with them; they are available in every village. They are poisonous offerings which too often make up the reading of young and old. It is a type of intellectual and spiritual suicide. The effects of such reading are much like those of habit-forming drugs, creating unnatural, unhealthy desires, and weakening both body and mind. Such time as we do give to reading should be devoted to carefully selected literature, high grade magazines and books, which cost no more, but build up the mind, and feed the spirit of man.

Elder John A. Widtsoe,
General Conference, Apiril 1939

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I almost want to end this post by simply saying, “Amen,” but I think there are a few things that might be added. I especially like Widtsoe’s specifying good books in general in stead of just scripture; it seems to me that ideally our daily reading should include both. I can’t help but think that the ability of anyone to think about literature is improved by daily, repeated reading.

As for the final comment included, about “demoralizing” literature, they at least reflect the environment he saw. Widtsoe’s comments were made near the height of the popularity of the pulp magazine and dime novels and just before the advent of the mass market paperback that would generally improve the quality of cheap printed books. Looking at the lurid and sensationalistic nature of much of what was available, it might be hard not to agree with Widtsoe’s characterization of “a mass of worthless literature, books and magazines.” Publishing has since moved into an extended age when such works were just as expensive as anything else, meaning that such works get attention only for what they are, and not just because they are less expensive. Perhaps that is a kind of improvement.

Regardless of the issue of whether literature is “demoralizing,” Widtsoe’s suggestion that Church members should develop a habit of reading is worth re-examining. It is wonderful to hear someone suggesting that, in addition to the scriptures, members read other literature also.

6 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: John Widtsoe on the Reading Habit

  1. Th.

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    I’m reading The Giant Joshua right now and I can see why it may have been called demoralizing (Widstoe wrote the only review in a church publication—I’ve seen it cited but can’t find the review itself); at the same time, I can also see why Knopf thought the Mormon hierarchy would actively promote it.

    I don’t think I have a point here; just thinking aloud.

  2. Katya

    John A. Widtsoe, “On the Book Rack,” Improvement Era 44 (February 1941): 93

  3. Kent Larsen Post author

    The Church History Library has been putting these online, but they are only up to volume 32.

    I don’t know about local libraries for you, but the Improvement Era was put on microfilm and may be available at a local research library. It is for me, and I can try to get it this week.

  4. Th.

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    Thanks, Kent. That’s very good of you. There’s a chance UC Berkeley would have it but I don’t want to pay the $$$ for a card. . . .

  5. SarahDunster

    *sigh* what does “sexy” mean? Containing off-scene sex in storyline, containing sex scenes that are not graphic, or containing graphic sex scenes? My righteousness hinges on the answer to this question…

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