Few Church members today remember that when the Relief Society was more independent, it had its own lessons, and one of the monthly lessons focused on literature and the arts. The text below is one of those lessons, from the January 1917.
In many ways this lesson is surprising, and not just for the fact that it was taught. I was surprised at how basic the lesson was, covering material that I think I was taught in High School, although I’m not sure that it sunk in very well. It is tempting, therefore, to think that one reason for dropping these lessons is that they were being taught in school. However, I’m not sure that in 1917 the school system was covering this material very well, and even today I think many Church members would benefit from repeating these lessons, even though they don’t have much to do with doctrine.
At this point, the sense I have is that Mormon attitudes towards literature and media stabilized by the middle of the 20th century, and hasn’t changed too much since then. LDS leaders generally praise classic works, especially those from at least 50 years before the discourse, while cautioning against the bad in media, especially the portrayal of sex, violence and profanity. And speakers often complain about the declining values in the media.
Perhaps the following excerpts from an article by Spencer W. Kimball and his wife Camilla will give a sense of what I mean. In most ways their comments could appear in a Church magazine today, except for the references to current technology.
In all the counsel from LDS General Authorities during the history of the Church, it is easy to find criticism of the media, including suggestions that range from condemnations of fiction for being “untrue” to current criticisms over sex, violence and profanity. Less frequently we find suggestions that members should fill their homes with good media. And even less frequently has come advice that we should support good media—both financially by buying media that support our ideals and also by expressing gratitude for the efforts of those who produce that media.
In the following, then-Apostle Gordon B. Hinckley urgest exactly this latter support of media. more
The idea that the audience might somehow control what the author writes could be considered a kind of post-modern concept, given the traditional view that literary works originate with authors and are then transmitted to readers. Somehow there is an assumption traditionally that the author is independent of his audience.
Of course that has never really been true, and even early in the development of literature authors acknowledge that they crafted their works to suit their audience and patrons. Still, the idea that a work might have been written quite differently had it been composed in another place and time can be somewhat jarring if you haven’t thought much about it. And, I suppose, it can be even more jarring if the works you are thinking about are considered scripture.
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.
Among the General Authorities of my own youth, perhaps the biggest promoter of books and learning was Sterling W. Sill. As a teen I received as a gift and read his The Majesty of Books (1974) and it reinforced my love of books and belief that they are, as Sill claims, the greatest of human innovations.
The following excerpts are from one of his most memorable and most literature-oriented conference talks, Medicine for the Soul, given in 1972.
Whatever your impressions of Mormon attitudes toward education, books and libraries, it is hard to find stronger praise than that in the following excerpt, part of an address given at the YMMIA conference in June 1888. While I haven’t included the final call of the discourse, by the end its author, James A. Langton, has called for an ambitious system of libraries established by the YMMIA, funded by “philanthropic men” and designed to benefit the public by providing quality literature.
The advent of ebooks and other digital media is making many of us rethink our personal libraries, just as it is making the various libraries around us adjust acquisition policies and revise collections and procedures. While he didn’t face a similar technological change, in the following excerpt from a YMMIA conference talk J. M. Tanner gives his ideas about what should be in a library. He isn’t actually talking about personal libraries (something beyond the imagination of the average listener of his day), but instead the libraries established for each MIA—Mutual Improvement Association, the ward and stake-based groups of the time meant to improve the lives (religious and otherwise) of youth and young adults. Among the policies Tanner advocates is acquiring what he calls a “running library”—materials like periodicals acquired through ongoing subscriptions.