Today's misperceptions of Mormonism evoke old depictions by Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle

Published: Thursday, May 31 2012 10:01 a.m. MDT

Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle were both cited in national publications recently as 19th century authors who contributed to inaccurate perceptions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through their portrayals of life among the Mormons.

Writing on the Patheos website, Michael Purdy, director of media relations for the LDS Church, compared Twain's humorous-but-unflattering account of his travels among the Latter-day Saints with recent media attention that "is catalyzing society's deeper acquaintance with members of (the LDS Church)."

Purdy referred to the experience of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, who was "likely prejudiced by (Twain's) and other similar accounts" prior to his visit to the Mormons in Utah.

"After being favorably impressed there," Purdy wrote, "Grant declared in self-reproach, 'I've been deceived with regard to these people.'"

The same is true for many people today, according to Purdy.

"Some people are getting to know us for the first time," he said. "Like President Grant, their misperceptions are being allayed, and many are coming to see Latter-day Saints as a pro-social people of profound faith."

However, there are still many others who, in the words of late-night television personality Conan O'Brien, "haven't got a clue of what you (Mormons) believe in, or think or drink or do."

"Today people have ample opportunities to get to know Latter-day Saints and learn about our faith," Purdy wrote, citing information-rich websites like mormonnewsroom.org and mormon.org as valuable resources. "Those who truly take the time to learn about (us) might be pleasantly surprised by who we are."

You can count Doyle, the British author of the Sherlock Holmes detective series, among those who were "pleasantly surprised" by the reality of Mormonism. As noted by Hal Boyd and Stephen Webb on the Real Clear Religion website, Doyle set his first Sherlock Holmes mystery, "A Study in Scarlet," among "sinister" and "nefarious" Mormons in Salt Lake City.

"When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle finally came to visit Utah many years after writing that first book, he met Mormons in person," Boyd and Webb wrote. "What he found during his trip simply did not resemble what he himself had depicted more than 30 years before.

"In conversation he apologized for his inaccurate portrayal," the writers continued. "He admitted to Mormon Church leader Levi Edgar Young that 'he had been misled by the writings of the time about the church.' Doyle subsequently wrote that he had 'great respect for the Mormons.'"

Boyd (a Mormon and former Deseret News reporter) and Webb (a Catholic) used the story to illustrate that although there has been significant progress in the coverage of the LDS Church through the years, "the same tired rhetoric still resurfaces."

"Much like American Catholics during the 19th century, Latter-day Saints today recoil as enterprising journalists and well-intentioned members of other faiths call attention to theories that are inaccurate, overblown or driven by hostile or misinformed voices," the writers say. "In order to change century-long cycles of misrepresentation, it's imperative for opinion leaders and people of faith to work together in thoughtful exchanges of mutual respect.

"Though it will surely take time," they continue, "when fact takes precedent over fiction, prejudices will dissipate, misperceptions will dissolve and individuals will, like Arthur Conan Doyle, come to respect Mormons, and devout people of all faiths, who work for the common good and look to God for wisdom."

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