It must have been good business to make fun of the Latter-day Saints in the 19th century, otherwise why did so many do it?
Famous authors, from Ambrose Bierce to Zane Grey to Jack London to Robert Louis Stevenson to Mark Twain, all made part of their living by writing about and, often, by distorting the beliefs of the Latter-day Saints. That era's portrayals of Latter-days Saints were often of a darkly secretive and violent people.
The title of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story, "Story of the Destroying Angel," demonstrates the stereotype — yes, this is the same Stevenson who wrote "Treasure Island."
But none of these authors had a more interesting relationship with the Latter-day Saints than did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the legendary character Sherlock Holmes. The staying power of this great, logical character is demonstrated by a new movie starring Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr.
Doyle wrote his first Holmes story in his 20s, "A Study in Scarlet." It features a story with Latter-day Saints at the center. Latter-day Saints — some of them, anyway — were coercive in the story. It was a hurtful portrayal.
According to scholar Michael Homer, Doyle left the Catholic faith of his youth before he had turned 20. But Doyle still had a spiritual void that led to a life-long quest for spiritual knowledge.
Doyle wished to believe in life after death but needed to have visual, rational proof, Homer says. So-called spiritualism with its seances and its moving tables and its directed writing through psychics became a life-long quest and seemed to provide Doyle the evidence he needed. (Of note, like the LDS Church, spiritualism was born in upstate New York, about the time the Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley.)
As Doyle researched the church, much of his research evidently came through a reading of many of the leading anti-Momon tracts of the day and may have led to some of the portrayals in the book.
Hence came "A Study in Scarlet" in 1887.
As a side note, a well-educated blogger writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month argued that Doyle was his first introduction to Mormonism and part of the reason why he had "trouble getting my head around the Mormons." He called LDS doctrine "barmy" and LDS practices "creepy."
Given the scholarly mien of the Chronicle of Higher Education, his distorted, shallow and stereotyped view of the Latter-day Saints led to a vigorous rebuke online. Smart, well-informed Latter-day Saints wrote excellent rebuttals to his work, and the discussion was noteworthy.
But back to Doyle.
Doyle became convinced that through spiritual mediums, people could see evidence of the dead. He became a leading advocate of psychic organizations.
His work was most prominent and public after World War I, a time of great loss and obvious interest in life after death. He had lost family in the Great War. He wrote tracts and traveled widely, lecturing about the meaning of spiritualism.
Latter-day Saints, Homer says, had been aware of and had spoken against spiritualism for many years. Nevertheless, Doyle traveled to Salt Lake City in 1923 to spread his work.
In a two-hour lecture at the Salt Lake Tabernacle, he showed photographs that he said showed the images of dead people. He talked of ectoplasm that emerged from mediums during their seances. Newspapers in Salt Lake City at the time extensively noted his visit.
Though he never fully apologized for his portrayal of the Latter-day Saints, Doyle acknowledged that his representation of Latter-day Saints was sensationalized and publicly praised the Latter-day Saints and their pioneer heritage. He expressed surprise he had been allowed to speak in the Tabernacle. He spoke favorably of Latter-day Saints in his memoir. It was a gracious ending to a long story.
Before Doyle's death seven years after visiting Salt Lake City, Homer says, Doyle had come to see himself as a spiritualist prophet — and had felt disappointment when his prophecies failed to come to pass. He had also been duped by two young girls who said they had taken photographs of real fairies when, in fact, the photos were of images cut out of a book. Doyle used the photos as evidence for a new form of life. Homer says Doyle never came to regret his work in spiritualism, however, and believed he had seen rational proof of another world.
It's hard to know exactly what lessons a Latter-day Saint should learn from Arthur Conan Doyle and from Sherlock Holmes. For me, it starts with something more. Even in a world of rationalism, where problems can be solved through deduction and logic and science, the soul hungers for something more. It wants to know if there is something beyond this mortal realm.
But the lesson expands from there. A second part of Doyle's life for me is that deduction will never be enough to get a full handle on that hunger we have for something more. The eyes sometimes deceive us. As Homer wrote, to learn of something more requires genuine faith. It requires spiritual processes too.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion and religion and politics.