In the past 40 years the descriptions of Mormon literature published by Eugene England and his successors have designated oratory as one of the primary forms of our literary output, one that Church members are most familiar with. It is in oratory, as well as the personal essay, that Mormons are sometimes thought to excel. Given the pattern of Mormon worship, that makes sense.
But we also might ask whether a strength in oratory is best for our literature. Are some forms of literature inherently better than others? And does the Mormon view differ from that of others who have examined literature?
Its no surprise that Orson F. Whitney had has opinion about oratory:
Literary theory often leaves out any spiritual element or claim—something that separates religious thinkers and writers from others. I believe that the role of spirituality in literature is particularly important in Mormonism, since we believe in personal revelation and that such revelation is relevant to everyday tasks, such as writing and consuming literary works. I believe, therefore, that spirituality must be an important element of any Mormon literary theory.
Nor is my belief unique. For example, Ramona Wilcox Cannon decried the lack of spirituality in the following article in 1926.
What makes poetry work? Why is it different than fiction and other genres? I’m not sure any scientific answer is possible to this question, since it involves so many elements, many of which simply can’t be measured objectively. But this view hasn’t kept appraisers of literature from trying to say what makes poetry different.
Part of the difference is found in the “music” of poetry—its use of rhythm, rhyme and other features to connect to the reader or hearer of its words.
As a non-fiction literary form, the essay is sometimes left out when we consider literature—fiction, drama and poetry seem to get the bulk of attention. But the essay is a well-developed and commonly used form, and I’ve even heard claims (can’t remember where at the moment) that Mormons excel at the essay.
So what makes it different than other forms? Is there something about the essay that is more appealing or more conducive to Mormon thought? The following article might answer these questions to some degree.
Perhaps the most widespread literary art practiced among Mormons is oratory. The three or four weekly sermons given in every LDS congregation, usually by members of that congregation, sum to a formidable amount of practice at public speaking. And while the average active member may speak in church once every few years, local leaders certainly get plenty of practice. I don’t know if prayer should be considered a literary art or not, but if not, then oratory is likely our most commonly used art form.
While perhaps not as important a question as “what is poetry,” the question “what is a poet” is at least a significant part of the former question, if not an independent question. And when Orson F. Whitney defines a poet as a prophet, the definition might seem to be complete. But he sees something more than a simple association with a prophet. To Whitney, both prophets and poets are not made. To put it in familiar Mormon parlance: poets (and prophets) are foreordained to so be. They must be born with the spirit of poesy.
To a large extent, theory is definition. A theory of literature is therefore definition of its many elements and how they work together to allow the creation of literature. And as far as I can tell, before Orson F. Whitney, few Mormons attempted anything near a theory of literature. A few definitions of elements of literature appeared here and there, but no one covered as many elements of literature as Whitney.
In the following extract, also from the 5-part article he published in 1926, Whitney discusses poetry, and after rejecting a common definition, he provides his own:
When Mormon Literature folk think of Orson F. Whitney, it is usually in regard to his 1886 talk that predicted that Mormonism would yet have “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” But in 1926, after two decades as an Apostle, Whitney was still writing about literature and the role it would play in Mormonism. That year Whitney penned a five-part article for the Improvement Era in which he explored the question of literature and Mormonism, and in doing so came closer than any previous author to a Mormon theory of literature.