Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Edinburgh Review, 1854: "All Is 'Of the Earth, Earthy'"

In the May 1854 issue of the journal The Leisure Hour, there is a scathing article on Mormonism, describing it as the  the "foremost" among the "social or religious impostors" of the day.[1] Drawing on a recent depiction of Salt Lake, the article bemoans "the grossly secular and sensuous character of Mormon worship."[2] This relied heavily on an April 1854 report in The Edinburgh Review, which noted the following:

But the most remarkable feature in the practical working of Mormonism, considered as a Religion, is the almost entire absence of the devotional element...All is 'of the earth, earthy.' One of the ablest writers against Christianity has lately stated it as his chief objection to the Christian System, that it discourages the love of earthly things, and requires its votaries to set their affections on things above. He proposes to amend the precept of Saint John, ---'Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world; the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,' by simply leaving out the word not. Mormonism seems exactly to realise the ideal of this distinguished controversialist...[3]

Neither of these descriptions are exactly flattering, but both capture something significant about early Mormonism: the religious nature of work. The review continues: "The Gospel which they proclaim consists of directions for emigration, instructions for the setting up of machinery, the management of iron-works, the manufacture of nails, the spinning of cotton-yarn, and the breeding of stock. The same undevotional aspect is exhibited by their public worship, at least in Utah."[4] This "grossly secular" form of practical religion seems to have been something of a surprise to its outside observers. It's overly "earthy" nature was off-putting.

In its description of the Mormon worship service, the review mentions

a discussion, in which any one may speak. This part of the service is usually a conversation on local business, like that in an English vestry meeting. The sermon follows; but even that is not confined to religious exhortation, but embraces such questions as the discipline of the Legion, the Californian gold-digging, and the politics of the Territory. The most curious specimen of these discourses which we have discovered is the following, which we take from the official report:

"Elder George Smith was called upon to preach an iron sermon. He rose, and took into the stand [pulpit] one of the fire-irons [the first productions of the Utah founderies]. Holding the same over his head, he cried out "Stereotype edition," and descended amid the cheers of the saints. The choir then sung the doxology, and the benediction was pronounced by Lorenzo Snow." (XV. 492.)

This kind of religious service would satisfy the aspirations of [Thomas] Carlyle himself, whose rather lengthy sermons on the text laborare est orare [to work is to pray], are thus condensed into pantomime by 'Elder George Smith.'[5]

Even early outsiders noticed what Terryl Givens calls the "collapse of sacred distance" in Mormonism.


1. The Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation, No. 126 (May 25, 1854), 334.

2. Ibid.

3. The Edinburgh Review or Critical Journal, Vol. XCIX (January - April 1854), 369.

4. Ibid., 370.

5. Ibid.

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