America's changing perception of Mormons

Published: Friday, Nov. 12 2010 10:30 a.m. MST

PROVO, Utah — First they were portrayed as liars, deluded country bumpkins and blasphemers. Then, Mormons were philanderers with multiple wives and malevolent motives. But America's perception of Mormonism dramatically shifted at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago when the relatively new Mormon Tabernacle Choir dazzled the crowd and the judges, earning a silver medal and requests for national tours.

"Suddenly, Mormons weren't just legitimate, they were popular," explained University of Richmond professor and religious scholar Terryl Givens during his lecture, "Fraud, Philanderers and Football: Negotiating the Mormon Image," at the first Mormon Media Conference Thursday and Friday at BYU.

However, in a religious gathering at that same world's fair, Mormons were deliberately not invited. Petitions for an invitation were eventually granted, but LDS apostle B.H. Roberts was not allowed to present his paper as were other delegates.

"(America) will let Mormons sing and dance ... win all the slots on 'So You Think You Can Dance?' keep the NFL supplied with a steady stream of quarterbacks, and they're pretty good in a disaster too," Givens said. "But as Charles Dickens said, 'What Mormons do seems to be excellent ... but what they say is mostly nonsense.'"

From the beginning, early public perception of Mormonism was rarely if ever informed by theological beliefs or doctrine. Instead, critics were too busy belittling the culture or reviling the leaders, Givens said, "invalidating the message without a hearing."

Early church missionaries were often unprepared against polished clergymen and left the debates beaten without ever getting to doctrine.

In fact, in order to keep a safe moral distance, the American public developed a false sense of radical differences between themselves and the Mormons, Givens said.

In 1861, two scientists at the New Orleans Academy of Science went so far as to describing the physical characteristics of Mormons: "the yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; the greenish colored eyes; the thick protuberant lips, the low forehead ... constitute an appearance so characteristic of the new race as to distinguish them at a glance."

Despite such maligning rumors, Mormons did little to combat them, Givens said. In fact, most felt that such alienation and persecution reminded them of God's favor and helped them create greater unity among themselves.

"Their response was to engage in the debate according to the terms of the attackers," he said. "They were rather reticent to lead with those doctrines that tended to be most differentiating and polarizing. That seems to clearly be the pattern of early church public affairs, and to some extent, continued ever since."

However, early LDS apostle Parley P. Pratt was far from reticent. In response to "Mormonism Unveiled," a religious leader's pamphlet that criticized LDS doctrines like spiritual gifts, visitations by angels and the deification of man, Pratt responded with a pamphlet of the same title.

"Yes Mormonism will be unveiled," Givens said, imitating Pratt, "but we will do the unveiling."

"What Pratt accomplished with his pamphlet, he forced the conversation to theology," Givens continued. "He was leading with an unabashed presentation of the doctrines that differentiated Mormonism from those others in the arena."

Pratt believed that while there was much that united Mormons with those of other faiths, Mormons shouldn't be afraid to stand up and share their differences.

"As Mormons we almost shy away from our faith," Amy Roskelley, a BYU senior in media arts said after the lecture. "We need to be bolder, be brave about the differences. It's nice to be told it's okay to be different."

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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