The First Course in Mormon Literature?

3.27.14 | | 4 comments

Howard R. DriggsAs I understand it, university-level Mormon literature courses have been taught since the late 1970s, mainly at BYU thanks to the efforts of Eugene England. In recent years the number of courses have increased, and currently exist at least at BYU, LDS Business College and Utah Valley University. And there have been courses with Mormon literature components taught elsewhere as well.

But the university level isn’t the only place where Mormon literature courses could be taught, and as I’ve already noted, the idea of using Mormon writing to teach children, at least, occurred to Parley P. Pratt quite early. Now, I’ve come across another course, this one aimed at Relief Society sisters in 1948. And this course was apparently taught—at least in some Relief Societies. Still better, its author was a recently retired English professor who had taught for 19 years at New York University.

The author, Howard Roscoe Driggs, was born in Pleasant Grove, Utah in 1873. He graduated from Brigham Young Academy and taught at a small school in Pleasant Grove, while pursuing bachelor and master’s degrees at the University of Utah. He then joined the faculty of what is now Southern Utah University when it opened in 1897. In 1907 he joined the faculty of the University Of Utah, teaching English and serving as the principal of the teacher training school, and only left the university in 1923 to pursue a Ph.D. at New York University. When he completed the degree, he joined the faculty at NYU, remaining until he retired in 1942. With his wife and two sons, Driggs lived in Bayside, New York and served as a branch president and High Councilor in the New York Stake. He wrote at least three novels, Wild Roses: A Tale of the Rockies (1916), Ben the Wagon Boy (1944) and George, the Handcart Pioneer (1952). He passed away in 1963.

Below is the introduction to the course, as it was published in the Relief Society Magazine:

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Literature—Literature of the Latter-day Saints

by Howard R. Driggs

LITERATURE in its broadest sense applies to all that is written. Thus we may speak of the literature of mathematics, of science, of philosophy, of commerce, of advertising, or of any other field of study or activity. In a more restrictive sense, however, the term literature means that body of writings characterized by artistry of expression, of creative skill in portraying life, impressing truth, as in poetry, drama, fiction, oratory, essays, or sermons. A synonymous term suggestive of this product of literary art is belle-lettres.

This course on “Literature of the Latter-day Saints”—a pioneering venture—obviously cannot be spread over the whole field; nor can it be held within the narrow one. What is planned is a series of studies that will deal with such literature of varied types as portrays truthfully the story, the character, the ideals of our people. Whatever can be found that rings true to the highest and best in the epic rise of our Church may be presented for appreciation and uplift.

Naturally, in a two-year course, with eight lessons for each year, only the highlights of the alluring theme can be given attention. Yet from these selective lessons, carefully prepared by class leaders and members, should come a rich fruitage. Certainly these results from the work may be confidently expected:

First, help in clarifying the gospel as taught and lived by Latter-day Saints.

Second, an improved sense of selection, or skill to find true literature.

Third, new joy in discovery and enrichment from the best of our literature.

With a stream of materials, books and articles, pouring off the press, both within and without the Church, we need such guidance. Earnest, co-operative study will help to meet this basic need. Such training will save time and money and, better still, will give to those who take it a new and vitalized view of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

People live on through their worthy literature. Their hopes, ideals, achievements, written with artistry, continue to vibrate so long as the record endures and is read with understanding, with appreciation. Through the radiant influence of good books mankind may keep rising to higher levels, may gain guidance to follow ever the path of righteousness.

Think here of the scriptures. Have not the “chosen people” continued to live because of the “Old Testament”? What would we know of the creation, the patriarchs and the prophets—the epic story of the children of Israel—had this “Book of Books” not been created and preserved?

How much likewise would be known of our Savior had not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John written the precious gospels? Or what would be known of the rise of the early Christian Church if Luke had not made vibrant record of it through “The Acts of the Apostles”; had not Paul and .the other stalwarts who carried forward the divine work of the Master not written their epistles, and John not bequeathed to the worid “The Revelation”? Truly our indebtedness to these holy men who through inspiration and devotion gave us these sacred scriptures, is great and lasting.

Latter-day Saints have added reason for gratitude. Through sacrificial efforts of other men of God our people have an enriched heritage of sacred literature. Our Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price add treasures of scriptural knowledge and dramatic stories to help vitalize the gospel, to give it greater clarity, and to teach people how more surely to live it. These volumes, together with the Bible, make the basic, the standard literature of our religion.

Dependable history of our Church—of its leaders and its members—constitutes another body of literature—ever being enriched and expanding as the great work progresses. Significant incidents from this developing epic, events of dramatic cast and reveaHng import, truthfully, inspiringly written, help bring out the inner meaning of the gospel in action. Stories of the men and women who have lived it help to humanize the messages of the Savior as applied to today. Words of truth and light from leaders and others who feel and know the gospel, help to interpret and impress it.

Out of all this wealth of materials, too, may come songs and lyrics that live—stories and drama of stirring true-to-life cast, orations and sermons that impress truth. Our part is to discover these gems of expression, these life-giving thoughts, these dramatic events, and to appreciate them. To that end this series of what we hope may be practical and inspirational lessons is planned.

For the first year the work will be on what may be called ”Literature of the Gospel Restoration.” A brief outline suggestive of the studycenters of this part of the course follows:

1. Literature oi the Beginnings
Background study of family and boyhood of Joseph Smith in source writings—and study from literary viewpoint of Joseph’s own story of the restoration.

2. Highlights oi the Book of Mormon Epic
Study of some of the dramatic events portrayed in this new “Book of Books”—this from the standpoint of effective story-telling.

3. Gospel Messages horn the Book of Mormon
Study of distinctive contributions of religious import and of literary quality in the Book of Mormon.

4. Words of Light and Truth From the Prophet
Study of choice selections from the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

5. Earlier Evangelistic Literature
Study of selected excerpts from diaries, autobiographies, and other writings by loyal ones who helped in establishing the Church through testing years.

6. Lyric Expression of the Restoration
Study of gospel songs and other poetic expression vibrant with the message of the new dispensation.

7. Literary Sidelights of the Founding Years
Study of selections from this expository literature written to clarify and impress basic principles of the restored gospel in action.

8. Literature of the Prophet’s Closing Years
Study of distinctive and dependable literature portraying soul-testing, dramatic incidents that mark the rise of the Church under the inspired leadership of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

This spread of inviting work, may we again impress, represents a pioneering venture into a rich realm. It is entered into humbly with one thought, that of doing good. Our hope is not to cover the wide field with adequacy; rather do we trust that it may be opened alluringly, that new interest will be wakened, enjoyment and enrichment come to those who pioneer with us. Further, this first year’s work on “Literature of the Gospel Restoration” should lay a good foundation for the second year’s course which is to be centered round the general theme, “Literature of the Expanding Pioneer Period.”

Relief Society Magazine, v35 n7
July 1948, p. 479-481

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The above introduction was followed by the first lesson, intended to be taught on October 19, 1948. Subsequent issues of the magazine carried another 7 lessons, completing the first half of the course, as outlined in the introduction, with a lesson to be taught on May 17, 1949 that was published in the February 1949 issue. But the planned second half of the course never appeared, and at this point I do not know why.

Still, I’m sure this half was taught in at least some Relief Societies. I think that the three-fold purpose of the course is especially intriguing: Clarify the gospel, improve selection of literature and find joy in the discovery and enrichment from the best of our literature. I don’t think a university-level course could have quite the same purpose.

Given our discussions here about Mormon literature courses, I thought the existence of this course might help push the discussion forward and help us think more about what the purpose of a Mormon literature course could be.

I do intend to include excerpts from this introduction and from the eight lessons that were published in the Relief Society Magazine in the Sunday Lit Crit Sermon series, so I’ve avoided discussing the aspects of literary theory that the above introduction raises. Join me in discussing those aspects when I publish them separately.

Instead, let’s talk about what this might mean for an online Mormon literature course.

4 comments: “The First Course in Mormon Literature?

  1. Th.

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    This is a very . . . curious outline. I agree eight ain’t a lot of room, but he seems to have gone for getting to know one corner of the room rather well.

  2. Kent Larsen Post author

    Yes, its a curious list. I wish the other half had been published. I’ve got to look and see if his papers are somewhere and if he actually got around to writing up the second half of the course.

    I’d prefer a broader course personally — the whole room instead of just the one corner.

  3. Th.

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    Me too. But this is still rather ambitious.

    The more I learn about The Relief Society Magazine, the more I mourn its loss. (see this, and page 18 here)

  4. Doug Jenson

    Driggs’ papers are located at the university in Cedar City, is it SUSC?

    His step-daughter, with whom I am acquainted, lives in the Denver area.

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