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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
William "Bert" Wilson, folklorist, has written several books about Mormon traditions.

PROVO — Mormons are usually conversant in stories about the Three Nephites, J. Golden Kimball and Mormon missionaries in general — all are part of the Mormon folklore tradition.

And its chief scholar is William "Bert" Wilson, professor emeritus of English from both Utah State University and Brigham Young University.

Wilson has written several books and numerous articles about his research on these subjects, the latest being "The Marrow of Human Experience: Essays on Folklore," published by USU Press.

During an interview in his Provo home, Wilson said that folklore is especially interesting because it spreads orally and "it helps us to understand what we already know."

Wilson said he was trained by the master — Richard Dorson of Indiana University. Upon learning that Wilson was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Dorson encouraged him to investigate Mormon folklore.

"The general perception by most people is that folklore is not usually very accurate," said Wilson, "that it should not be considered serious scholarship. They assume folklore stories are not true. But they actually fall somewhere between true and false. These stories don't make themselves up."

When Wilson studies these stories, he assumes they come from what he calls "issues of major concern in the culture." So he asks the question, "What needs are being satisfied by telling the stories?"

Mormons, he said, often tell stories about connections with people who have died and who return to comfort people. "The stories help us negotiate our way through life. They also might illustrate some concept or theology."

By far the most common stories from Mormon-missionary folklore concern "initiation stories," said Wilson. "Lumberjacks play practical jokes on new people. Missionaries do the same. They play jokes on the 'greenies.' When John Harris and I were collecting stories, returned missionaries were eager to share — except for one missionary who said he had never heard any of the stories — nor had he been initiated.

"Then he realized that he had never really 'fit in' socially with the other missionaries, perhaps because he had not been initiated. Basically, you abuse the new missionary in some way, and when it's over he's part of the group."

Wilson recounts in his book a story of a new missionary who is told to sing the first discussion in Norwegian to people investigating Mormonism — then the people turn out to be church members, and they all laugh about it.

In another case, a missionary demonstrates to his new companion how to place a copy of the Book of Mormon in a home — he literally throws the book into the house past the woman who lives there, then runs away. The "greenie" is left to "stammer out" an explanation to the woman — who, of course, is also a church member and in on the joke.

Wilson said that stories about the late J. Golden Kimball, who was a member of the LDS Quorum of the Seventy, are symbolically "knocking general authorities from their pedestals. Anti-clerical lore in other churches has a similar effect. In fact, stories from other cultures will sometimes appear as J. Golden stories."

One story has Heber J. Grant, who was president of the LDS Church for almost three decades, calling J. Golden into his office and telling him that he can't swear in General Conference any more. President Grant says, "I'll write your next talk for you, and I want you to read it word for word."

"So J. Golden agrees," said Wilson, "but when President Grant hands him the talk on his way to the podium in the tabernacle, he looks at it hard and says, 'Good Hell, Hebe — I can't read a damn word of this!"'

According to Wilson, this story is funny not only because J. Golden swears when he shouldn't, but because he addresses the president of the church by an intimate nickname. It serves the purpose of making LDS general authorities accessible to the average person — and also "less fearsome."

Stories about the Three Nephites emanate from the Book of Mormon, where it speaks of three men who "would not taste of death" but who would continue to live and do good deeds. Numerous stories have been told over the years about farm plots being plowed overnight, loaves of bread taken from windows and delivered to hungry missionaries, and many other stories in which people are aided through difficult times.

Wilson plans to write his own history of the Three Nephites (he has 1,500 stories) and analyze what they demonstrate about the culture from which they spring. The pervasiveness of the Internet has changed the way such stories circulate — with great speed all over the world, he said. Still, he feels that "It will not stop people from telling stories around the water cooler."

He added that, "The telling of stories improves the appreciation of any culture. A lot of the Nephite stories come from actual experiences. All the stories are true — it depends on the truth you're looking for."


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