Judged by the standards of the rest of the world, Mormons are pretty funny. Trust me on this; we’re a freaking riot. Funny underwear, Jackson County, Kolob. None of the punch lines in the Book of Mormon musical had to be forced or wrenched from context. It was all there just waiting for a clever satirist to do some clever satire. That’s pretty much how clever satire works.
It turns out that Mormons have always been pretty funny. Gold plates and peep stones are funny. Polygamy, when situated in the proper narrative, can be hilarious. And those beards! This is why Mormons have been a fixture of American satire since they came of age together a hundred and fifty years ago. This means Mark Twain, of course, but that’s just for starters. Dozens of nineteenth century humorists spoke and wrote regularly about the Mormons. It was, like, a thing.
What emerges from all this satire is a much different picture of the early Latter-day Saints than came through in the other great staple of American popular culture–the Dime Novel, which also shined its pulpy spotlight on Mormons, but did so in ways much more likely to emphasize their otherness and their sinister nature.
But humor can’t work that way. Even the sharpest satire ends up domesticating its targets, making them seem less threatening and, if not redeemable, at least defeatable. Some of the nineteenth century’s Mormon satire is Juvenalian–harsh and denunciatory in an attempt to destroy. But most of it is Horatian, the more gentle, corrective satire that incorporates it targets into a larger community and says, in effect, “hey guys, get over yourselves and join the party.” When we label such satire “anti-Mormon,” as LDS scholars have occasionally done with this material, misses the point rather completely–and proves to the world that we still have some getting over ourselves to do.
Here are some of the nineteenth century’s greatest hits where Mormon satire is concerned. For a hundred years or so, these books (other than Marlk Twain’s Roughing It) have been all but unavailable to any but the most dedicated (and well funded) scholars. But the 21st century’s grand effort to digitize the world’s knowledge has made them available, once again, to the masses.
Charles Farrar Browne: Artemis Ward Visits Brigham Young (1860), Artemis Ward, His Travels among the Mormons (1865), Artemis Ward, His Panorama (1869): In his own day, Charles Farrar Brown was as well known as Samuel Clemens was a generation later, and, like Clemens, he wrote under a pseudonym that was also a stage persona. In addition to writing books, Ward travelled through the world delivering his satire in a homely backwoods voice that masked much of its sophistication. In 1860, Brown wrote a fictional sketch about visiting Brigham Young’s harem in Salt Lake City. In 1865, he actually did make the visit and wrote about it “Artemis Ward, His Travels among the Mormons.” And four years later, he worked the artifacts of his visit into a “Panorama” (a nineteenth century version of a PowerPoint) that he presented, along with a humorous routine, to packed crowds London. Brown was the first humorist to make his living poking fun at the Mormons, and one of the last English writers to use the separated genitive in his titles.
Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain: Roughing It (1872): By far the most well-known humorist to make fun of the Mormons was Mark Twain, whose travel narrative Roughing It is deservedly famous for the chapters depicting Twain’s visit to Salt Lake City, where his wry observations (i.e., If Joseph Smith composed the Book of Mormon, it was truly a miracle–“keeping awake while he did it”) have become part of the standard repertoire of American one-liners about the Mormons.
Joaquin Miller: First Fam’lies in the Sierras (1875), The Danites in the Sierras (1881): Just about anybody can make polygamy funny if they try hard enough, but California’s first great humorist went one better: he made a delightful comedy out of murderous Danites (the same figures who populated most of the dime novels of the day). The Danite threat was mainly implied in his comic novel First Fam’lies in the Sierras, in which the denizens of a mining camp hear rumors of a young woman named Nancy Williams, who is being stalked by the Danites because her father was one of the men who murdered Joseph Smith. When Miller turned his novel into a play six years later, the Danites, led by the infamous Bill Hickman, who try to uncover Nancy’s identity in a well-wrought farce involving cross dressing, romantic intrigue, mistaken identity, and a few gruesome (but delightfully overacted) murders.
Marietta Holley: My Wayward Pardner; My Trials with Joshua, America, the Widow Bump, and etcetery, by Samantha Allen (1880): Marietta Holly was an early feminist, temperance advocate, and satirist who, like Charles Farrar Brown, wrote and spoke as the folksy persona “Samantha Allen.” Though Holley never married, her persona’s husband, “Joshua Allen,” was a frequent character in her routines. In this satiric travel narrative, Samantha and Joshua go through America meeting and speaking with representative characters of the day. One long section of this book entitled “Judas Wart and Sufferin Wimmen'” (398-469) features a dialogue between Samantha and a fictional Mormon elder on the subject of polygamy. Samantha, let us just say, is not impressed.
Charles Heber Clark: The Tragedy of Thompson Dunbar (1879): Like nearly every other satirist on this list, the American humorist and novelst charles Heb briefer Clark wrote under a pseudonym that was also a persona. Clark’s satiric alter ego was “Max Adeler,” who was (at least on the title page) the author of The Tragedy of Thompson Dunbar. The hero of this novella, Thompson Dunbar, is a young Mormon man who, in order to best a romantic rival, marries an entire boarding school full of women–33 in all. However, when he becomes shipwrecked on a desert island for 15 years, things go drastically awry.
Bill Nye (Not the Science Guy): Forty Liars and Other Lies (1883); Bailed Hay (1884): The moderately famous nineteenth-century Bill Nye was not a Science Guy; he was a Politics Guy who wrote short humorous sketches about the political events of the day. A half a dozen sketches from his first two books deal with the Mormons (click here for these sketches excerpted in a single .pdf file.). Though Nye treated Mormon polygamy in his sketches, his more common target was Mormon immigration, which he presented as a mechanism for bringing uneducated (and unhygienic) immigrants from Europe to the United States.