Last Saturday I gave a walking tour of Mormon history sites in lower Manhattan, one of the services our stake history committee offers regularly. One stop on the tour is the location where an early LDS newspaper, The Mormon, was published by John Taylor. That newspaper featured an interesting statement in its masthead–what it called The Mormon Creed.
More than 150 years later, I don’t think many Mormons know what the Mormon Creed is or what it says (and when they learn, in my experience, most laugh!) I’m not sure that Mormons should know the Mormon Creed. Its more than 150 years old now, and doesn’t necessarily reflect Mormon experience today. But its existence makes me wonder: how many more cultural tidbits have been lost over time?
Those elements of American culture and the English language that we have decided are of true value get used over and over again. Shakespeare, in particular, has lines from his plays used and reused not only in other literary works, but completely out of context. We find them on t-shirts and mugs, notepads, bookmarks and calendars. And not just Shakespeare. Quotations from all sorts of authors, politicians and others show up in the most pedestrian of places, from “Thought of the Day” lists to email signatures. A whole genre of publishing exists for churning out books of quotations, calendars, and the like, for a public hoping for a nugget of truth, well-expressed.
A decade ago, the “Best Loved â€¦ of the LDS People” series was published, eventually including anthologies of poems, humor, talks and three volumes of stories. To me the series has always been an annoyance. It was mostly “borrowed” culture — apparently few or no poems or stories loved by the LDS people were actually written by LDS Church members.
Its not that we don’t follow this same phenomenon. Its that we only have one source for the material used in these tidbits: General Conference. Statements made there do show up in Mormon culture — “Families are Forever” is found on walls all over Mormonism, everyone knows “every member a missionary” and “no success can compensate for failure in the home.” More recently we have the “six be’s,” “faith in every footstep” and “standing for something.” Conference is the principal transmission point for Mormon Culture.
For most of us, our national culture, and especially our “high” culture, was learned more through school than through the events that normally happen in our lives. We (Americans) read Wordsworth and Melville in high school, not because it was popular literature passed around among our friends or because it dominated what was on television. Brazilians are most often introduced to Machado de Assis and CamÃµes through their schools, not through music or film or their neighbors. The French, Germans, Italians and every other culture teach their children through schools about the best of their culture.
But this can’t happen in Mormonism. To the extent that Mormonism has a high culture, there is no way to pass it on to our children. Conference, the Church magazines and talks in LDS meetinghouses have purposes that don’t include education about Mormon high culture. While these tools do pass on Mormon culture, they only pass on those elements that fit their purpose, and then just in passing, as needed to communicate a religious message.
For all of us this means that we are ignorant of the best of Mormon culture. To find out the best that Mormons have produced, we have to explore, guide less, the landscape of what has been produced, looking for that which is worthy–the materials that would have been taught in high schools, were Mormonism an independent culture. Its kind of like trying to find the most important books in a large bookstore or library without the benefit of a card catalog or the cultural education we received in childhood. Its quite impossible.
As a result, until we have a way of educating ourselves about Mormon culture, I suspect the current ignorance of Mormon culture to continue. Those interested will have to cast about trying to figure out what’s worth their time, and many others will look at what is sold in LDS bookstores and conclude that there is nothing worth their time in Mormon culture (a little like judging English literature by looking at Danielle Steele).
And some of us will continue trying to come up with solutions. Solutions that will help Mormons get to know their own culture — and perhaps even the Mormon Creed, which is, according to the masthead of The Mormon, a quote from Brigham Young: “Mind your own business.”