It is difficult to pass on the idea that our culture, Mormon culture, has produced things of value. It is something that we fight today and something that we have fought in the past. And the assumption that our culture is without much of value comes from within as much as without. When people aren’t familiar with the cultural goods that the Mormon people have produced, its hard to convince them that what is there is worth perusing.
While we struggle to address this problem today, it may help to recognize that others have tried to address it in the past also. And among those who have tried is Levi Edgar Young.
Young held a doctorate in history from Columbia University, obtained, unusually, while serving as a General Authority. After graduating from the University of Utah in 1895, Young taught there until he was called to serve in the Swiss-Austrian mission starting in 1901. A year later he was called as mission president, serving until 1904. He returned, married, and moved to New York City to attend graduate school at Columbia, and while he was there, in October 1909, Young was called to serve in the First Council of the Seventy. He was only set apart to as one of the Seven Presidents in January of 1910 when Apostle John Henry Smith visited New York City.
Young finished his Masters degree at Columbia University in 1910, and The Lakeside Press of Chicago published his book, Chief episodes in the history of Utah, in 1912. By 1916 he was in charge of an archeological expedition to San Juan county. Although a General Authority, he was also a history professor at the University of Utah from 1922 until his retirement in 1939. At his death in 1963 he had been a General Authority for 54 years and the senior president of the First Council of the Seventy for 22 years.
In the following 1950 conference address, Young makes a case for Mormon culture:
A People of Culture
By Levi Edgar Young
When the Latter-day Saints crossed the Mississippi River in the winter of 1846 and began their journey to the far west, they left the city of Nauvoo, a city of beauty and high religious and civic life. It had been built within a short period of time, but it came to be, under the direction of the Prophet of God, the greatest city, morally, in America. There was a civic consciousness that can well become the model of the cities of our country today.The people were rich in the Spirit of God, and they had a culture all their own. The men and their families were reduced to humble circumstances. They had little to eat, but living in their wagons drawn by mules and oxen, they were making their way to their new home in the West. They carried copies of the Bible and the Book of Mormon with them. They had come to love books of literature and history, and they sang their psalmodies by night and by day.
We have heard some of the brethren speak of the American Indians in this conference. We are carrying the gospel to all the tribes of America, and we have become particularly interested in the traditions of these people. The Night Chant of the Navajo and the Hako of the Pawnees have been translated into English. They are mysterious but beautiful dramas. The Indians, if understood, developed fine artistic feeling; and it has been said that their traditions will yet become the foundation for the richest American literature, and feeling. Everyone knows that the American Indian passed on to us, and through us to the world, a heritage of utility beyond the dreams of avarice. This was in such homely things as the inestimable food plants, which he had brought from the wild to a high state of domestication. Few seem to know that he has prepared a second heritage of beauty, a gift of fine arts, illusions, and immaterial creations which rise above mere utilities as the mountains rise above the plain. “The English find in the Arthurian romance a never-failing inspiration.” Americans in the future will surely realize an epic grandeur in the song sequences and world stories of the first Americans. We know that they once had their testimony of the Living God and Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. The following short poem will give an idea of the beauty of their thoughts. It was written by a Tewa Indian:
Oh, our Mother, the Earth; oh, our Father, the Sky,
Your children are we, and with tired backs
We bring you the gifts that you love.
Then weave for us a garment of brightness;
May the warp be the white light of morning,
May the weft be the red light of evening,
May the fringes be the falling rain,
May the border be the standing rainbow.
Thus weave for us a garment of brightness
That we may walk fittingly where birds sing,
That we may walk fittingly where grass is green,
Oh, our Mother, the Earth; oh, our Father, the Sky!
Yesterday Bishop Isaacson in his address referred with feeling to this Tabernacle. In the early days of this state, the Mormon pioneers built many public buildings and memorials that bore witness to their love of the beautiful. Everything that they did to create homes and cities showed a mingling of definite religious feeling with the creations, and they thought of it all as God’s work. It was from their faith and trust that their genius developed in the days of hardship and toil. There was something of emotional color in what they did, a something that made them strive to unite the work of their daily duties with the light of heaven. It was Ruskin who said that:
The power of the human mind had its growth in the wilderness; much more must the conception, the love of beauty be an image of God’s daily work.
This Mormon Tabernacle expresses something of the strength of character and religious idealism of the Latter-day Saints. The only building of its kind in the world, it is unique in the history of American architecture. While its massiveness suggests a people strong in spirit, conviction, and purpose, its lines indicate a splendid adoption of scientific principles in architecture. It is a plain, oval-shaped building, studded with heavy entrance doors all the way around; there is no attempt at ornamentation of any kind. The building is a fine example of the utilizing of the resources of the land for the purpose of having a place for divine worship. The building impresses one as an immense, irresistible force, “humanly super-human,” an expression of sovereign intelligence and feeling. It is as the great Ibsen has said of all art, “an illumination of life.” The interior impresses one with its majestic, vaulted ceiling, and “the vastness of the place grows upon one and inspires one with mingled feelings of solemnity and admiration.”
Casting your eye to the pinnacle of the center tower of the temple, you see Cyrus Dallin’s statue of the Angel Moroni, a beautiful creation by that noted sculptor, who was a native of Springville, Utah, and who died recently in Boston. I had the honor of his acquaintance. He was one of the noblest men I ever knew. One time in discussing his work, he said:To believe in angels marks one who lives near to his God. It is one of the most beautiful concepts a man can have. I am glad I came to believe that Moroni, whoever he was in history, came back to earth again as an angel from God’s throne.
This is why Dallin created his masterpiece on yonder temple.
Wherever you go, you will find the buildings of pioneer days always great structures with artistic features. The State of Utah had its beginning over one hundred years ago when the pioneers arrived in this valley, and it was in 1850 that the Territory of Utah was organized. The people brought with them their ideals, which they had developed at Nauvoo. That city had a university and public schools. The people built a “Seventy’s Hall of Science,” which was to have a great library. …
Joseph Smith himself became a student of Greek and Hebrew, and classes in the ancient languages were organized in the Kirtland Temple, which the Prophet Joseph attended. The Mormon pioneers established schools in Utah at the beginning of their activities here. In 1850 they organized the first university west of the Missouri River, and in 1851 a library was brought across the plains by ox team. It had been purchased in New York City by Dr. John M. Bernhisel and was the finest collection of historical, philosophical, scientific, and literary works in the history of the American frontier. This collection contained the works of the classical writers of ancient Greece: Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle; the Latin writers, Virgil, Tacitus, and Herodotus; and the modern great writers, Shakespeare, Milton, and Bacon. These are just a few of the authors of the books that were brought in this great collection. The library from the beginning received copies of the New York Herald, New York Evening Post, the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, and the. North American Review. Of the scientific works there were Newton’s Principia, Hefschel’s Outlines of Astronomy, and Von Humboldt’s Cosmos. The treatises on philosophy included the works of John Stuart Mill, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Emanuel Swedenborg.
The ideals and daily lives of a people are judged by their standards of amusements. Among the fine arts encouraged by the pioneers of Utah were music and the drama, and hardly had the colonizers planted their fields of grain and begun building their homes when they built a theater in this wilderness—a theater that in pioneer days noted actors visited, among whom was Sir George Pauncefort of Drury Lane Theatre in London. He played Hamlet, and from that time on great artists graced the stage of the old theatre, including Edwin Booth, Lawrence Barrett, and many others. So successful were these early pioneers in carrying out their ideals that M. B. Leavitt, in his Fifty Years of Theatrical Management, says:
Sweeping as the statement may seem, I do not believe that the theater has ever rested on a higher plane, both as to its purpose and its offerings, than at Salt Lake City, the capital of Mormondom.
Even when the early-day missionaries went to England—and this as early as 1837—they went with open minds to learn everything they could that would be conductive of the ways of God. Let me here recite to you an example of love for beauty and truth when three missionaries from Salt Lake City in 1857 wended their way to the Missouri River, called as they were on missions to England. Seymour B. Young, Phillip Margetts, and David Wilkins pulled their handcart from Salt Lake City to the Missouri River, where they were able to take a train at Council Bluffs for New York. During that long journey on foot—for they walked all the way, camping at night on the streams of water—they would have their supper, consisting of dried meat and bread, and before rolling up in their blankets to get their rest, they always had their prayer to God. One night, we are told by one of these men in his journal, they sat by their fire, and Phillip Margetts, who became one of the noted actors of the Salt Lake stage and who was known in New York and London for his ability as an actor, recited the words of Hamlet:
… What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
And then he gave another of his favorite quotations, from Macbeth:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.
And then is heard no more…
To the youth, to the boys and girls of the Church, if you could only realize how our forefathers expressed their ideals of culture and learn to abide by those ideals today, you would know what happiness means. If this appreciation could grow in your hearts, there would be a revival of the stage as we used to have it, which would be a revival of the plays of Shakespeare and Moliere and Corneille, and all the masters of the great literature of the past. There would be an appreciation of music and the drama, of literature and sculpture, and the old ideals would come back to us as expressed by the Prophet Joseph Smith:
Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God. (D. & C. 88:119.)
And do thou grant, Holy Father, that all those who shall worship in this house, may be taught words of wisdom out of the best of books, and they may seek learning even by study, and also by faith, as thou hast said. (Ibid., 109:14.)
O Lord, we delight not in the destruction of our fellow men: their souls are precious before thee. (Ibid., 109:43.)
Remember the kings, the princes, the nobles, and the great ones of the earth, and all people, and the churches, all the poor, the needy, and the afflicted ones of the earth. (Ibid., 109:55.)
These are just a mere semblance of the teachings of Joseph Smith. Think of what they should mean to the students of universities and colleges. Think of what America will regain when nations accept this divine truth; as the Prophet Joseph Smith expressed it:
“I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”
To the youth of this land I give these words of Sir Francis Drake, who sailed up the Pacific Coast at the close of the sixteenth century, and then on around the world:
Men pass away, but people abide. See that you hold fast the heritage we leave you, yea, and teach your children its value, that never in the coming centuries their hearts may fail them, or their hand grow weak. Hitherto we have been too much afraid. Henceforth, we will fear only God.
May God ever direct us all in our holy work, I ask in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Improvement Era, v53 n12, December 1950, p. 994, 996, 998
While I agree that the cultural items Young mentions are examples of the best of Mormon culture to that time, I doubt that many Mormons today recognize the things that Young mentions. Our theatrical heritage has been all but forgotten. Our architecture is generally ignored. And both inside and outside of Mormonism it is often believed that Mormonism has an antipathy to the kind of culture Young is talking about—or at least that Mormonism ignores that culture.
I don’t know that Young’s observations would help us today, but I thing we need someone to make the points he makes more forcefully today.