Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Whitney on the role of Mormon literature

8.12.12 | | 5 comments
Orson F. Whitney

Orson F. Whitney

One sermon given by Orson F. Whitney is cited more than any other when we talk about Mormon literature. The sermon was given on June 3rd, 1888 in the Salt Lake Tabernacle during the morning session of the second day of the YMMIA General Annual Conference. Widely considered the impetus for the ‘Home Literature’ movement, it is perhaps best known for the prediction that Whitney, then a Bishop in Salt Lake City, made that Mormonism would “yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”

If you have studied anything about Mormon literature, I’m sure you have heard of this sermon. Have you read it?

While I skimmed over Whitney’s words in the past, I hadn’t read it closely before. Now, I’m quite captivated by it. Read it! You’ll be glad you did.

In this sermon, Whitney urges his audience to participate in what he sees as an inevitable accomplishment, the rise of Mormon literature to be not just an important literature, but the most important literature of all. In the following excerpt, Whitney’s remarks have far reaching implications:

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Home Literature

by Orson F. Whitney

“Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning even by study, and also by faith.”

Why did the Lord so instruct His Prophet? Why did the Prophet so teach his people? It was because God had designed, and His Prophet had foreseen a great and glorious future for that people. Chosen himself in weakness, so far as this world’s wisdom was concerned, as a foundation stone of the mighty structure which is destined to tower heavenward, reflecting from its walls and glittering spires the splendors of eternity, he knew there must come a time, unless God, who cannot lie, had sworn falsely, when Zion, no longer the foot, but as the head, the glorious front of the world’s civilization, would arise and shine “the joy of the whole earth”—the seat of learning, the source of wisdom, and the centre of political power, when side by side with pure Religion, would flourish Art and Science, her fair daughters; when music, poetry, painting, sculpture, oratory and the drama, rays of light from the same central sun, no longer refracted and discolored by the many-hued prisms of man’s sensuality, would throw their white radiance full and direct upon the mirror-like glory of her towers; when the science of earth and the wisdom of heaven would walk hand in hand interpreting each other; when philosophy would drink from wells of living truth, no longer draining the deadly hemlock of error, to poison the pure air with the illusions of sophistry; when love and union would prevail; when war would sit at the feet of peace and learn wisdom for a thousand years; when Zion’s sons and Zion’s daughters, as famed for intelligence and culture as for purity, truth and beauty, “polished after the similitude of a palace,” would entertain kings and nobles, yea, sit upon thrones themselves, or go forth, like shafts of light from the bow of the Almighty, as messengers and ambassadors to the nations.

Joseph saw all this; he knew it was inevitable; that such things were but the natural flowers and fruits of the work which God had planted. The roots of the tree might not show it so well—their mission is to lie hidden in the earth despised and trampled on of men—but the branches in a day to come would prove it. Joseph knew, as every philosopher must know, that purity is the natural parent of beauty; that truth is the well-spring of power, and righteousness the sun of supremacy. He knew that his people must progress, that their destiny demanded it; that culture is the duty of man, as intelligence is the glory of God. Rough and rugged himself, as the granite boulders of yonder hills, typical of the firm, unyielding basis of God’s work, he knew, and his brethren around him knew, that on the rough, strong stones of which they were symbolical—the massive foundations of the past—the great Architect would rear the superstructure of the future; that the youth of Israel, their offspring, would be inspired to build upon the foundations of the fathers, and yet would differ from their fathers and mothers, as the foundations of a building must differ from the walls and spires.

What shall I say, my young brethren and sisters, what can I say to awaken in your hearts, if perchance it sleeps, the desire to realize this glorious anticipation? Alas! what can my poor pen indite, what can my feeble tongue utter to rouse within you this determination? I can only call upon God, in humility, to make my words as sparks of fire, to fall upon the tinder of your hearts and kindle them into flame. That from this hour your souls may be lit up with the light of your glorious destiny, that you may live and labor for God and His kingdom, not simply for yourselves and the perishable things of earth.

What else shall make us worthy of such a future? What are we here for? Why did we come? Was it to waste our time in folly and dissipation, to laugh away our lives, pursuing the phantom of pleasure as an idle boy might chase a butterfly from flower to flower? Was it to bow down to mammon, to worship a golden calf, or stain our souls, and blur the brightness of our minds, with the vices of the ungodly? Was this what our fathers and mothers foresaw? Was it for this they sacrificed and suffered, to bring us into existence, teach us the truths of heaven, and place us on the threshold of the mightiest mission ever given to men in the flesh?

The answer falls like a thunderbolt from heaven: “I give not unto you to live after the manner of the world.” It echoes down the corridors of years: “If ye are Abraham’s children, ye will do the works of Abraham.” It speaks from earth, from air, from the roaring waters; it sounds from the depths of the oracular soul: “YE ARE AN EXAMPLE TO THE WORLD; FOLLOW NOT AFTER THEM!”

But what has all this to do with literature? you ask. More, perhaps, than is at first apparent. It is by means of literature that much of this great work will have to be accomplished; a literature of power and purity, worthy of such a work. And a pure and powerful literature can only proceed from a pure and powerful people. Grapes are not gathered of thorns, nor figs of thistles.

I am not here, my friends, to tickle your ears with tinkling phrases, to deliver a learned lecture on Greek and Roman mythology; to quote Hebrew and Latin, and stun you with sound, and bewilder you with a pedantic display of erudition. No! Experience has taught me that it is the heart, not simply the head, we must appeal to, if we wish to stir the soul. The intellect may shine, but it is the bosom that burns, and warms into life every movement that is born to bless humanity. I, therefore, speak to your hearts, and I would rather say three words by the power of the Holy Ghost than lecture here for three hours on the fables of Greece and Rome.

Wake up! ye sons and daughters of God! Trim your lamps and go forth to meet your destiny. A world awaits you; rich and poor, high and low, learned and unlearned. All must be preached to; all must be sought after; all must be left without excuse. And whither we cannot go, we must send; where we cannot speak we must write; and in order to win men with our writings we must know how and what to write. If the learned will only listen to the learned, God will send them learned men, to meet them on their own ground, and show them that “Mormonism,” the Gospel of Christ, is not only the Gospel of truth, but the Gospel of intelligence and culture. The Lord is not above doing this. He is merciful to all men, not willing that any should perish, or have it to say they were unfairly dealt with. For over fifty years the Gospel has been preached to the poor and lowly. It will yet go to the high and mighty, even to kings and nobles, and penetrate and climb to places hitherto deemed inaccessible.

Our literature will help to take it there; for this, like all else with which we have to do, must be made subservient to the building up of Zion.

But remember this, ye writers and orators of the future! It is for God’s glory, not man’s. Let not vanity and pride possess you. Without humility there is no power. You must be in earnest. You must feel what you write, if you wish it to be felt by others. If the words you speak are not as red-hot embers from the flaming forge of a sincere and earnest soul, they will never set on fire the souls of your hearers. The days of buncombe and bombast are over. Over? They never had a beginning. Nothing really is that is not founded on fact.

The Contributor, v9 n8, June 1888

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The above excerpt comes early in the sermon; just a few paragraphs come before it. And in the second paragraph above, Whitney already claims that Mormon literature will inevitably be great:

Joseph saw all this; he knew it was inevitable; that such things were but the natural flowers and fruits of the work which God had planted. The roots of the tree might not show it so well—their mission is to lie hidden in the earth despised and trampled on of men—but the branches in a day to come would prove it.

To Whitney, culture and the Gospel are inseparably connected—the true Gospel must, of a necessity, have the highest culture; and, the creation of culture is not just the privilege of those in the gospel, but “culture is the duty of man, as intelligence is the glory of God.”

This vision has implications about the type of literature produced also, for if our purpose is to attain perfection in a celestial life, then the culture we are duty-bound to produce must be more than mere entertainment:

What are we here for? Why did we come? Was it to waste our time in folly and dissipation, to laugh away our lives, pursuing the phantom of pleasure as an idle boy might chase a butterfly from flower to flower?

While Whitney doesn’t quite end up saying that the purpose of literature is to preach the gospel, he comes close, seeing it as a way that “much of this great work will have to be accomplished.” I read that as suggesting that didacticism isn’t required, but literature should be the means for accomplishing the work of the Lord and spreading truth. Personally, I can’t see the distractions that mere entertainment offer accomplishing anything in the work of the Lord!

But he also adds a further requirement in producing such a literature: “a pure and powerful literature can only proceed from a pure and powerful people.” And, to back this up, Whitney adds that writing isn’t for vanity, but for God’s glory: “Without humility there is no power.”

I find Whitney’s words inspiring and motivating. They remind me that I must do more than I do. And they change my perception of Mormon literature—I agree that I shouldn’t be satisfied with mere entertainment. A great literature must be more than that.

Whitney’s purpose was to motivate Mormons toward that inevitable great literature and culture. For me, his words still ring with that motivation. May we all find that somewhere.

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5 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Whitney on the role of Mormon literature

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing

    Thanks for posting this. Much of it resonated with me, but I was particularly struck by “If the learned will only listen to the learned, God will send them learned men, to meet them on their own ground, and show them that ‘Mormonism,’ the Gospel of Christ, is not only the Gospel of truth, but the Gospel of intelligence and culture.” Sunday after Sunday I listen to a gospel doctrine teacher who has it out for “learned,” be they LDS or not. This is refreshing. Also, I think in this line we do get that sense, as you say, that didacticism is not required. The gospel can be reflected in our writing as both intelligence and as culture.

  2. William Morris

    I have read it. Back in the early days of AMV a quote from later in the esay (no–not that one!) was our motto.

    I like that Whitney was clear on the importance of craft:

    “we must know how and what to write”

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