The First Work of Mormon Science Fiction? Maybe, but at Least the Pterodactyls are Cool

The original cover and title page of A Trip to the North Pole; or, Discovery of the Ten Tribes (1903)

On the first Sunday of December in 1903, a headline in the Salt Lake Tribune announced the startling news, NORTH POLE DISCOVERED—six years before explorer Robert Peary’s famous, if disputed, expedition. According to the article, a Mr. O.J.S. Lindelof had, on a recent trip to Europe, been given a waterlogged manuscript that he brought back with him to Salt Lake City. When he finally got around to reading it, the manuscript turned out to be a record of the discovery of the North Pole by a San Francisco-based expedition some years earlier. Unlike Peary, who discovered an uninhabitable frozen wasteland, the explorers in Lindelof’s manuscript describe a verdant, densely populated region that has been hidden from the rest of the world for thousands of years.

As the Tribune reported, “it tells of finding a white and civilized people; tells of their customs, habits, wars, and dissentions, their flora and their fauna, and gives a complete record of their country from the time they arrived until the record was sealed up.”  And, as the book’s subtitle reveals, these are not just ordinary people living in a hidden population center around the North Pole. They speak a form of Hebrew and make sacrifices to “the God of Abraham” (97)—because, as the narrator concludes, they are indeed the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel (9). 

It hardly needs to be said that the story was not true. A Trip to the North Pole was a fantasy novel in the “lost world” tradition that H. Ryder Haggard popularized at the end of the 19th century with novels like King Solomon’s Mines and She. The Salt Lake Tribune, which published the novel on its own press, was certainly in on the joke, though, like most newspapers at the time, it would publish anybody’s book for the right fee.

We know very little about the book’s author, Otto Julius Swenson Lindelof, a Swedish convert to Mormonism who emigrated to Utah with his parents in 1861, when he was nine years old. He later returned to Scandinavia as a Mormon missionary from 1887-1889 and, throughout his life, worked at a number of odd jobs. Otto’s occupations included picture engraver, watchman on a steam railroad, and county selectman.. [i] Later in life, he dropped the “Lindelof” and became simply Otto Julius Swenson and faded into such obscurity that, in 1921, his own daughter placed a notice in a Salt Lake City newspaper trying to determine whether or not he was still alive.[ii] He died in 1828 in St. Peter, Minnesota, having left behind only a few census records, a half a dozen items in newspapers, and, arguably, the world’s first science fiction novel by a Mormon.

The Arctic society of the novel is led by the wise and beautiful Queen Manasherous (Manasseh, get it) who, quite naturally for books of this sort, falls hopelessly in love with the American narrator. The Arctics are constantly at war with vast network of robbers lead by the wicked robber king Shenackeribbous. This comical name, while startlingly out of place in a book presented as serious history, clearly alludes to Sennacherib, the Assyrian king who lay siege to Jerusalem in 701 BCE. But an antagonist society consisting of robbers also alludes to the Gadianton Robbers in the Book of Mormon, who, shortly before the appearance of Jesus Christ, “had become so numerous, and did slay so many of the people, and did lay waste so many cities, and did spread so much death and carnage throughout the land, that it became expedient that all the people, both the Nephites and the Lamanites, should take up arms against them (3 Ne 2:11).

Parallels to the Book of Mormon abound in the novel. It is a record of a people who escaped from the Holy Land before their kingdom was destroyed and led to a promised land that was hidden from the rest of the world. They still speak a form of Hebrew and pray to “the God of Abraham,” and they have a record containing part of the Old Testament that was “handed down from generation to generation.” And they have a tradition that they were once visited by a man described as “the Son of God, crucified for the sins of the world.” Furthermore, the record itself is completed during the course of the narrative and deposited in a location so that it could come forth at a later date and lead to the salvation of the chosen people. All of these things tie it structurally, and even typologically, to the Book of Mormon. The parallels are not exact, however. The Book of Mormon makes no mention of airships or pterodactyls, for example, so we are left to fill those gaps in the best that we can.

There is no indication that A Trip to the North Pole made any mark at all upon the world of its creation. But it has had a strange afterlife in scholarly publications about the Lost Ten Tribes. Two recent books on the topic treat Lindelof’s magnum (and only) opus in some depth: Zvi Ben-Dor Benite’s The Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Elizabeth Fenton’s Old Canaan in a New Workd: Native Americans and the Lost Tribes of Israel (New York University Press, 2020). As unsatisfying as the book may have been as a factual travel narrative or an adventure novel, it appears to be succeeding beyond the author’s wildest dreams as quirky Mormon cultural history.

And that is a good thing because Mormon quirkiness is fascinating–especially as it concerns the Lost Ten Tribes. Most of the Christian world, of course had been hunting for the Lost Tribes in every continent available. A lot of people thought they were in the Americas and that they could have been the ancestors of the American Indians. And even though the Book of Mormon is now often seen as central text of the “Hebraic Indian Theory,” it does not–as Fenton’s work clearly shows–advance the theory as it was stated in most of the literature of the day. The Lehites are not presented in the Book of Mormon as descendants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, but as a remnant of the Southern Kingdom of Judah during the time of the Babylonian Captivity. Thus, the Book of Mormon did not solve–even for Mormons–the mystery of the location of the Israelites who were dispersed from Samaria by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. They still had to be somewhere.

From the very beginning of the Restoration movement, Mormons taught that the Ten Tribes were living in the North Pole. This belief was attributed to Joseph Smith by Benjamin Johnson, who claimed that the Prophet told him that the Lost Tribes were “in the north pole in a concave just the shape of [a] kettle.”  In 1835, Church leader W.W. Phelps wrote in the Messenger and Advocate that “there may be a continent at the north pole, of more than 1300 square miles, containing thousands of millions of Israelites.”  A generation later, in 1867, Orson Pratt wrote an editorial for the Millennial Star reporting that, based on his understanding of the scriptures, the Lost Tribes “evidently had a highway made for them in the midst of the Arctic Ocean, and were lead to a land in the neighborhood of the North Pole.” 

The 19th century Mormon understanding of the Lost Tribes assumes, at least implicitly, that their experience paralleled the experience of the people in the Book of Mormon—and that we would eventually find them living together in an unexplored region of the world with yet another Testament of Jesus Christ that would become part of their canon. After the Peary expedition reached the North Pole and found it barren and uninhabited, Mormon leaders stopped suggesting specific locations for the Lost Tribes, but they continued to say that they were somewhere and that, when they were finally discovered, they would have their own scriptural record. Jesus Christ “visited and ministered among them following his ministry on this continent among the Nephites,” wrote Apostle Bruce R. McConkie in the 1958 edition of Mormon Doctrine. “Obviously he taught them in the same way and gave them the same truths which he gave his followers in Jerusalem and on the American continent; and obviously they recorded his teachings, thus creating volumes of scripture comparable to the Bible and Book of Mormon.”  Statements like this formed the context in which Lindelof created the ostensible record of modern-day Israelites living in the Arctic region.    

Is it the first Mormon science fiction novel? I think so, though it is always difficult to say that anything is the first of any genre, since genre is fluid and history is weird. But it anticipates books like Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series, in which the Book of Mormon becomes the basis of a very un-Book-of-Mormony work of speculative fiction. I have no hope of ever finding an actual paper copy of the book–there appear to be very few that have survived. But the good people (and techno-overlords) of Google have made it freely available through their Google Books project, so you can check it out here. Come for the domesticated pterodactyls and stay for the quirky Mormon theology of the Ten Lost Tribes.


[i] Most of the (very few) details about Lindelof’s life can be found in Susan Easton Black, Shauna C. Anderson Young, and Ruth Ellen Maness, Legacy of Sacrifice: Missionaries to Scandinavia, 1872–94 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2007), 416-17. Many thanks to Adris Parshall of Keepapitchinin for helping me track down this and other source material–as well as for transcribing the whole novel for easy reading.

[ii] Salt Lake Telegram 13 May 1921, p. 2.

Comments

  1. There are arguments to be made for earlier science fiction, which I make here: http://associationmormonletters.org/blog/2020/07/early-mormon-speculative-fiction-religion-and-world-building/

    Nonetheless, this was a great read.

  2. keepapitchinin says:

    One of the inexplicable puzzles for me — well, second perhaps to the presence of pterodactyls — with our notion that the Lost Ten Tribes are still living together in some as-yet-unidentified hidden vale rather than being scattered among the peoples of the earth is this: One of the Lost Tribes is Ephraim, from whom virtually every Latter-day Saint claims descent.

    Am I just not being invited to the secret family reunions at the North Pole?

  3. That’s a fascinating find. Thank you.

  4. Deborah Christensen says:

    My first year of seminary was 1990-91 in Seattle. The teacher still thought the 10 Tribes were in a hidden location in the South Pole.

  5. Kent Larsen says:

    I saw this title several years ago — its an odd and not very well written book. But, I can’t help but mention that:

    1. This isn’t the only Mormon treatment of the Lost Ten Tribes near the north pole. I know of another novella by a well-known Mormon author.

    2. And there is a “Connecticut Yankee” style time-travel short story: https://www.amazon.com/Grandmothers-Rocking-Chair-Nephi-Anderson-ebook/dp/B08HJHQG5T/

  6. Mike, thanks for the article, I loved the background on Mormon ideas at the time, and the art of the escape by pterodactyl airships.
    Kent, that is cool that you republished the Nephi Anderson story, “Grandmother’s Rocking Chair”, and wrote an introduction putting the story into context, and giving a biography of Anderson. Available on Kindle for just $1! Do you plan to do more publishing like that?

  7. Kent Larsen says:

    I already have, and more is on the way.

  8. Thank you for this. I never put 2 and 2 together, but the theory the lost tribes were at the North Pole fits neatly with 19th century speculation that Earth’s cap was actually a habitable wilderness surrounded by a warm sea (you know, once you break through the barrier of ice). (See Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides.) I would be interested in additional sources linking this forgotten “doctrine” to prevailing 19th century views, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

  9. If you recognize that stories about things like heavenly visitations and stone-in-the-hat translations involve some pretty fantastic scientific manifestations, you might conclude that LDS science fiction started in the 1820s.

  10. tr43fb368852b87 says:

    In a more recent variation on speculations on the Ten Tribes’ whereabouts, I have heard many claims that Russian converts are receiving patriarchal blessing assigning them to various of the Ten Tribes other than the traditional Ephraim. I would be curious to know if this is a widespread report.

  11. There’s always Steven Peck’s account of the 10 tribes at the North Pole.

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