Before Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830, he was already drawing media attention.
According to historian Richard Bushman, Abner Cole, a writer from Palmyra, N.Y., published a satiric version of the Book of Mormon, which he called the "Book of Pukei," in the Palmyra Reflector.
At the time, the press treated Smith's claims to visions and the golden plates with contempt. Cole wrote that Smith was a "spindle-shanked ignoramus."
Then in 1831, the year following the organization of the church, the great American penny press-era editor James Gordon Bennett traveled up the Erie Canal and ended up in Palmyra.
According to historian Leonard Arrington, Bennett wrote a story about the young faith of only a few hundred followers, which had just left New York for Ohio.
"You have heard of MORMONISM — who has not?" Bennett wrote. "Paragraph has followed paragraph in the newspapers, recording the movements, detailing their opinions and surprising distant readers with the traits of a singularly new religious sect, which had its origin in this state."
Bennett said Smith was "a careless, indolent, idle, and shiftless fellow."
This was the beginning of a long relationship between Bennett and the Latter-day Saints. Bennett, whose New York Herald pioneered many news techniques still used today, wasn't always so unkind to Latter-day Saints.
He published excerpts of the Book of Abraham and wrote favorably, at times, of the Saints. Because of this, Smith made him an honorary general in the Nauvoo Legion.
Bennett wrote in great detail of the political intrigue surrounding the arrest and murder of Smith to his New York audience, the largest in the country at the time.
Bennett and Cole are just two examples of evidence that from the very beginning, the church was a force in garnering attention, even when much of it was not very positive.
Important national news organizations have rarely ignored Mormonism, and Latter-day Saints have never been shy about their attempts to use the media to defend their interests and to tell their story.
It is a long litany of interesting events.
Latter-day Saints including John Taylor, George Q. Cannon, Emmeline B. Wells, Erastus Snow, Orson Pratt, W.W. Phelps and Willard Richards also created media to support the work of the church and of Mormon communities often with great sacrifice. This is part of the story of Mormons and the media.
Writers including Mark Twain, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle and Zane Grey made Mormons part of their books, showing that Mormons were also prominent in popular culture, even if the portrayals were often unfair and filled with stereotype.
At other times in Mormon history, powerfully favorable stories showcased Latter-day Saints, including some coverage in the Reader's Digest that said Mormonism was a complete way of life.
This colorful relationship continues today as the church continues to move out from obscurity, and this week marks a milestone of sorts in this relationship between Mormons and the media.
Under the direction of BYU scholar Sherry Baker, historians, media scholars and other interested people will gather in Provo, Utah, Thursday and Friday for the first-ever Mormon Media Studies symposium. Panelists and speakers will discuss the trends in Mormonism and media studies; the relationship between the church, politics and the press; and the remarkable history of these stories of media and Mormonism.
This conference could hardly be timelier with so many new developments in the church regarding to media with a potential new presidential candidacy by Mitt Romney, the continued influence of Glenn Beck, and the church's efforts to use new media.
Indeed, this conference may mark a beginning of a new field of study: Mormon Media Studies.
Speakers include University of Richmond scholar Terryl Givens, whose books on the Mormon story, including his remarkable writings on the Book of Mormon, have been published by Oxford University Press, and UNLV scholar Dan Stout, a Latter-day Saint, whose work led to the founding of an academic journal on the study of religion and media.
While Cole may have been largely forgotten, the Mormon religion he was among the first to write about is still having its movements recorded and its opinions detailed, and as Bennett said, surprising distant readers — all sufficient reason for further study.
I plan to tell you what I learned next week.
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