When God became American is the novelized biography of Joseph Smith by the French author Marc Chadourne: Quand Dieu se fit Americain. More than 400 pages. It ends with a fascinating introspection on the essence of Mormonism and its place within America. I thought to share this with our readers, as it also raises some questions for discussion.
First a short intro to this French author. Born in 1895, brave pilot of a flying machine during the First World War, brilliant student, Marc Chadourne became a world traveler as colonial administrator. His first novel, Vasco (1928), is set in Polynesia and met with an immense success at the time. His next work of fiction, Cecile de la folie (1930) obtained the famous Prix Femina. After visiting the USSR during the first years of Stalin’s rule, he published a devastating account of his observations. The 1930s saw him in Cameroon, Mexico, China, Vietnam… from where his extensive, critical reporting was avidly read in France, as well as his new novels. He was traveling in Asia when the Second World War erupted. Unable to return to France, he found refuge in the United States, where he became professor of French literature at… the University of Utah. His three years there, characterized by a captivated interest in Mormonism, finally led to the publication, in 1950, of Quand Dieu se fit Americain. That same year the French Academy granted him the prestigious Grand Prix de Litterature. He died in France in 1975, at age 80.
So here speaks a man with an exceptional international background, vast critical insight, who, at a mature age, was able to live for several years among the Mormons. His novelized biography of Joseph Smith is high in detail, based on multiple sources, well written like a sweeping novel. In contrast to most non-Mormon authors, Chadourne’s approach also contains an intrigued questioning as to the veracity of Joseph’s claims. Through the eyes of various characters he leaves room for both acceptance or doubt, and is always respectful.
Much more personal are his observations in some parts of the book. Chadourne meditates on the Book of Mormon, a book which he considers a “prodigy”. He describes, in wonderment, various facets of the Book, emphasizing its revelatory power which, “extending beyond ancient and more recent Scriptures, stirs up the dust of the oldest humanity, theogonies and dogma’s, to exhibit in an increasing glow a concept of Christianity, a redemptive Logos which encompasses and enlightens them”. Approvingly Chadourne quotes Henry A. Wallace: “Of all the American religious books of the nineteenth century, it seems probable that the Book of Mormon was the most powerful.” The remarkable dimension of this evaluation of the Book of Mormon, by a French intellectual, can only be understood by comparing it to the mockery and denigration of all his predecessors for more than a century.
At the end of his novel, Chadourne turns his thoughts to Utah, to Zion, and from there to the ultimate question which gave the book its title. The translation of the following excerpts into English is mine, as literal as possible, but unable to convey the charming flow of Chadourne’s style.
… “This is the place.” Words forever engraved in all Mormon hearts. At the very spot where they were pronounced, on a most rugged side of the mountain, a bronze memorial, monument sealed to the rock, reminds them to the traveler and the passer-by.
For three years, evening and morning, in front of that Memorial, a Gentile stopped, an anxious spirit, perhaps even incredulous, solicited, haunted, as he entered into the history of this strong and growing people, by the secret of faith or imposture, taken into his grave by Joseph – “of the lineage of Jacob and Joseph” – as well as of all the Prophets of which he made himself emulator and descendant. This stranger, this Gentile, then continued along the road, his eyes each day dazzled, his soul each day refreshed by the sight of the predestined site as well as by the accomplished miracle:
This Zion oriented towards its Temple and its Tabernacle, pursuing its ascent from mountain range to mountain range, spreading its destiny beyond the limits of sight, projected into reality by the Seer as well as by the acting faith of men. The stranger questioned himself: God without them would not have made it… But would they have built it without God?
As I lived among the Saints the question had not to be asked any more. Some kind of understanding established itself (even when I had to explain Voltaire, Renan or Gide to the students of their University). No, men who, between them, bankers or pastors, manufacturers, farmers or shopkeepers, continue to call each other “Brother …”, to pay to the Church, year after year, a tithe of their income, who, almost every evening, whether it snows, hails or storms, every Sunday at least, with wife and children in the car, gleaming Buick or pitiable Ford, go to the Temple or to the chapel, who forbid themselves even the lightest beer, coffee, tea, tobacco, who taste the water as if the staff of Moses had just made it gush out of the canyon, make appointments with Dad, Mom and grand-parents in the Millenial kingdom, make as many children as possible with their only wife now as the ancestors of the tribe with their circle of plural wives, who let their herds graze in the mountain sage, clear terrain, quarry, plant gardens when they return from works in the City, who only build with bricks and stone, like their fathers, for the future, men of such making, men thus carved for a wholesome and prosperous holiness, would not have built, would not build without God.
A God whose principle is action, dynamism, creation, who sanctifies the works by a demanding morality and that morality by the success of the works; a God who, in his Son, became Overman, Ubermensch, to teach humans what they can become; a God whose reign, remunerating their efforts, must establish itself not in a problematic hereafter, but on this earth… But this God, would he not be, finally, the one that most religious Americans honor? … Perhaps. Because, as America was being made, God became American. Just as the first and the last who came to the New World, He naturalized himself…
It is important for the stranger, who was welcomed during three years in this holy community, to mark its strengths and its virtues: endurance, energy, fierce temperance and sobriety, candor and positivism, materialism pressed to the point of mysticism, soaring youth. Hardened by the West, offshoots of the puritans of New England, the Mormons are reinforced Americans, simultaneously by the practice of a religion born from the need to reconcile the different Christian confessions dividing America, by the persecutions and trials of the past, and by their mission for the future. A triple essence of Americans.
And so, to certain visitors pressured by the imperatives of their itineraries – do you remember, Armand Hoog* and you, dear Marcel Ayme*? – the acclimatized says: “In this Utah which seems to you the most lost corner of this immense continent and where you wonder what I am doing here, you are in the heart of a true America, authentic, natural, primordial, profoundly religious and industrious at the same time. You are here at the source of the things you want to learn most, and which Hollywood, New York, Chicago will certainly not show you. Many times, me too, I journeyed from West to East and from North to South through the vast regions you fly over. Here, among the Mormons, I make the voyage in depth, in a different dimension, to the roots of American pragmatism and messianism. Nowhere will you find more determined Americans. Here they recognize the promise of the Eternal God and put in on the license plates of their cars: “This is the place.” This place is “the” place, the microcosm where the nature of the American man and of the American cosmos are encapsulated… There is, in the faith of this religious people a uranium which will carry far. What God was, said their prophet in substance, you can be.”
Also to this land I said farewell. But – will I ever forget? – nowhere in the world have I known, brilliant in purer air, a more limpid luminosity than on those hillsides where, each evening, I saw the herds amble, the Lake emerge from the magic of the horizon, the lights of Zion switch on and palpitate, innumerable through the valley… Like then, now that I complete this book which I lived doubly – of a man, of another faith or of another God? – my thoughts irresistibly return to the young visionary of Palmyra and to his eyes which, in his last hour, he turned away from his assassins masked with soot to lift them towards the blaze of an empty sky… or of the Most-High.
Salt Lake, 1947
Thus ends, on the same note of intrigued questioning, this gripping finale.
For possible discussion:
1 What impression do these words of the “Gentile” Chadourne make on us now?
2 Chadourne lauds, in no uncertain terms, a strong, authentic Americanness in Mormonism. Can and should the Church retain, as it becomes more and more international, this perceived American essence? Not an altered, weakened, embarrassed Americanness (“We are not an American Church”), but its visionary affirmation of being the Promised Land, its combination of pragmatism and messianism.
3 Chadourne was impressed by the doctrine of eternal progression – “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.” While we tend nowadays to deemphasize this principle, assuming it would hurt the way we are perceived, what to think when a critical outsider recognizes in such doctrine a major aspect of the uniqueness and majesty of Mormonism?
* Armand Hoog (1913-1999), French native, for 26 years Meredith Howland Pyne Professor of French Literature at Princeton. Literary critic, novelist. Marcel Ayme (1902-1967), famous French novelist, essayist, and playwright. Both men visited Chadourne in Utah.