Usually the messages we get from general conference talks and church magazines are based on principles and commandments, so when an article discusses current cultural movements, especially when it does not reject the movement out-of-hand, the article is somewhat unusual. And given the reactions to Modernism in many parts of society in the early twentieth century, even a neutral tone is something of a surprise. Works of art by those now considered masters, like Picasso and Dali, were met with shock and dismay. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a near riot at its debut. And the scandalous works displayed at New York’s Armory show in 1913 led former President Theodore Roosevelt to declare, “That’s not art!”
But in the Improvement Era in late 1914, Elder Levi Edgar Young’s reaction sought to explain and describe what “Modern Man” should find in religion, instead of dismissing modern art and culture.
To be fair, Young’s article can’t be read as any endorsement of Modernism—he doesn’t even use the word in the article, instead speaking of the desires and perceptions of “Modern Man”—but it does try to analyze the role that religion might play in modern life. It recognizes that the development of technology has an influence on man that must be addressed by religion, and recognizes the failures of religion to deal with the disasters of modern life—noting the loss of 14,000,000 men in war “in the Christian countries of Europe alone” and lamenting the “millions of men” destined to be “literally slaughtered in the great European conflict that is now raging.”
Nor does Young exactly address the radical side of modernism. The works he cites and books he mentions are not found among those causing controversy, but are instead among the more conservative or traditional works available. But merely addressing some of the principle themes of Modernism is fascinating. Here is some of what he says about “Modern Man,” religion and literature:
“Mormonism” and the Modern Man
by Levi Edgar Young
The “modern man” is not going to do away with religion, but he is coming to demand that religion develops all of his best and noblest efforts to live and let live. He is asking for religion to really give him mental and moral uplift, a mental and moral uplift in which he shall become an active free agent. He wants to construct, to create, to be part and portion of the church. He sees that it is the church after all that gives him the best outlook on life, the surest and saner way of doing things. He knows that Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” or Spencer’s “First Principles,” or Bergson’s “Creative Evolution” can not give him comfort in the death of his children, or lift him to his better self in case he makes a blunder in life and falls by the way side. So he is asking for something tangible to show him his true relationship with nature and with God. “Mormonism” is going to answer his questions better than any other form of philosophy or system of religion in existence today. In the solution of the social problem alone “Mormonism” is setting an example that will yet be looked to as the highest and most practical standard for the moralizing of the “modern man.” The creeds of Christendom have missed the one great point of making man, individual man, responsible directly to his God. The democracy of Christ has been literally lost, and Christians have come to have more faith in preachers than in the true and living God, whom they profess to worship. I do not wish to infer that there is no sincerity in Christendom. People are sincere. But the criticism of the “modern man” is forcing Christianity into the back ground, for the creeds can not answer the questions of the day which the thinker is asking.
Now if you have read Mr. Churchill’s book, “The Inside of the Cup,” you will discover that this is the point Mr. Churchill makes. Religion has missed the point of directing man in his daily life, it has lost its utilitarian side altogether. For the Christian religion to be true it must be utilitarian. But above all, it must be idealistic, and I think the best thing you can say about a man is that he is a utilitarian-idealist, or that his religion is expressed in that daily activity and usefulness that is conducive to high-mindedness and an idealism among his children. This is what we are striving after in the stakes of Zion and the wards of the Latter-day Saints. We have in our Mutual Improvement associations alone some 65,000 boys and girls, registered members of literary societies, societies that say to the ordinary boy, “This work in preference to the street.” There are nearly 700 wards, therefore nearly 700 societies; societies that say to our children, “Here is the Hamlet of Shakespeare—or here is a good story by S. Weir Mitchell instead of some cheap theatre of the town.” We have been this year estimating that 65,000 boys and girls will study the novel which is said today by French critics to be the best work of French fiction of the 20th century. I refer to Henry Bordeau’s “Fear of Living.” They will receive the lesson that M. Bordeau wishes to give to the race, viz.: that man must not be a coward, but must recognize the divinity of his soul, and, rising in his divinity and power, live before his God, as a worker, be aggressive, but aggressive in true manliness and in true manhood.
This is what we are expressing socially by our religion. In every ward there are Sunday schools, Religion classes, and gloriously above them all, “Mormonism” takes hold of the individual within the home, and it is the home that becomes the governmental unit in our religion. If one could go into “Mormon” homes, 40 or 50 miles from the railroad, one would find the best magazines, the best books; and on Sunday morning one would find the family preparing for their daily service, to obey God on that day; and on the Monday morning, if every “Mormon” family is living as we hope it is living, the wife, the mother, the father, every child, kneel down before the throne of God and ask him to direct them through the days in the week in every activity, in every deed, in every word, and in every thought. So we go forth into the world with a knowledge that, through the power of the priesthood which we claim to bear, we may manifest our religion, today, on the street, in every walk of life, following the vocations that we have, carrying it into every thought, and walking with it to and from our every day work. This is what Dr. Harnack means when he says the religion of Christ will only come back and be made wholesome and realistic and powerful when it comes with power into human society, into the thoughts of men and women, as the greatest force and light, to direct them in their economic, civic, social, intellectual, and ethical works in life; and the religion that comes nearer to this, to realize the dream of Berlin’s great scholar, is the religion, I think, which is going to reckon with you and me, and with which you and I will have to reckon, and which is destined to appeal to the onward marching generation of the twentieth century, which we say must come to Christ and him crucified, and the glorious truths that he taught and stood for.
But besides the auxiliary organizations of the “Mormon” Church, there are the still greater and more powerful organizations of the priesthood, which have enrolled practically every man of the Church. I will speak here of just one phase of the priesthood organization, the Seventy. There are over ten thousand seventies alone. They meet in the various ward meetinghouses of the Church once every week, at least. They have a regularly prescribed course of study, and every man becomes a student, not only of religion but of literature, history, and philosophy, etc. During one season alone, a year or two ago, the seventy were asked to obtain the following books for their season’s study. Besides the regular Church works, including the Bible, they were advised to purchase Webster’s “New Standard Dictionary of the English Language,” William Smith’s “Dictionary of the Bible,” the works of Flavius Josephus, Dr. John Kitto’s “Cyclopedia of Bibical Literature” Millman’s “Latin Christianity,” Draper’s “Intellectual Development of Europe.” Other noted works were also recommended. In the course of study, Andrew D. White’s “History of the Conflict of Science and Theology,” Spencer’s “First Principles,” Fiske’s “Cosmic Philosophy,” and William James’ “Pragmatism,” were freely quoted. The Seventy’s courses of study alone indicate the high regard the “Mormon” people have for knowledge, and I have figures to show that the “Mormon” people today are the greatest readers of good literature, history, and philosophy of any other group of religious communicants living. I cannot give in detail the many organizations in the “Mormon” Church that require a constant intellectual and moral growth of the individual. The above statements can only indicate some of the intellectual activities. …
Improvement Era, v.17 n12, October 1914
The Churchill that Young mentions is the then highly-successful American (but not modernist) writer Winston Churchill (1871-1947) (not to be confused with the British politician Winston S. Churchill) who wrote 11 novels from 1898 to 1917 and a final novel in 1940. S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914) (also not a modernist) was a physician and neuroscientist who also wrote historical novels and short stories. He originated the term “phantom limb” while studying an amputee and was known for the “rest cure” for mental diseases, which was used on both Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolf, inspiring both Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (in which the rest cure drives a patient insane) and a satire by Woolf. [Perhaps in that sense he inspired writers of modernism?]
Perhaps the most accomplished of the fiction writers that Young mentions above is the French writer Henry Bordeaux (1870-1963), who championed Catholic socialism and traditional values (hardly modernist positions). But Bordeaux was named to the French Academy in 1919 (five years after this article was written).
But at least as interesting as what writers Young mentioned is his praise of the MIA’s literary societies and claim that 65,000 youth would read Bordeaux’s “Fear of Living” (La Peur de vivre) (1902, English translation 1913). “This is what we are expressing socially by our religion,” Young claims, and adds that Mormonism seeks to put the best literature in Mormon homes: “If one could go into “Mormon” homes, 40 or 50 miles from the railroad, one would find the best magazines, the best books…”
So, while Young is clearly no proponent of the modernism that had then recently exploded into the world’s view, he does address the forces that led to modernism, the forces shaping his “Modern Man.” And there he finds that Mormonism can influence the Modern Man for good—even in literature.