The prevailing ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States is of fairly recent vintage (1). It has grown out the close cooperation of the two nations during the World Wars and other political engagements since. Previous to this, there was much political jockeying and often animosity that has now been lost from public memory. The American Revolution (or The American Rebellion, I suppose) was, of course, not a time of harmony; the War of 1812 ensured that the separation between the two nations was permanent and reaffirmed their differences.
Connected with the political relations of Britain and the United States is a long history of cultural competition, even war. In the beginning many English perceived American colonists as either religious zealots or philistines – in either case the excrescence of their society. Colonists (and later rebels and Americans), the English felt, might be economically or even politically competent, but were certainly culturally deficient in the sense of a society with refinement, taste, and intellect. We can speculate that at first their visualizations of America involved nondescript persons of low birth hunting about in primitive forests, probably clad in homespun. Some of this was eventually dispelled, some of it confirmed by visitors such as Tocqueville.
Such a view was, in fairness, not totally untrue – after all, the White House actually was built in the middle of a primitive forest. Even by generous standards America was culturally inferior and most of what it could claim was derivative. With an existence less than 50 years old, America could hope that cultural development would come in time. It was John Adams who explained to his wife Abigail:
“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine” (2). Apparently Adams anticipated that the advent of high culture in America was several generations away.
Perhaps it did not take quite that long; by the mid-nineteenth century that a flowering of independent American thought emerged. Ben and I would argue with Oliver Wendell Holmes that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” was indeed (at least part of) our “intellectual [and cultural] declaration of independence” (3). We might also suggest that this was ratified by the cultural achievements (including those of Emerson) in the American Renaissance. Arguably, America would ultimately overtake Britain with the onset of ‘modernity’ and its cultural outgrowths.
Perhaps the British cultural condescension of the early nineteenth century is best captured in Syndey Smith’s famous query in the Edinburgh Review in 1820, where he asked bitingly: “Who in the four corners of the globe reads an American book?” (4). It was actually a fair question: in truth, not even Americans were reading their own literature, and literature was the standard by which the British in particular measure culture. Washington Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffery Crayon, Gent., being published in the Review even as Smith wrote, was the first American book to be favorably received by the London cultural establishment, and unsurprisingly it was deferential to British writers and ideals.
But what does this have to do with Mormon studies? Consider that when missionaries arrived in Britain, only a few years after America had begun registering a cultural pulse, certainly much of the perception of Americans as yokels from the hinterlands likely still persisted. If it was painfully suggestive to ask who in the world read an American book a few years previously, it must have been excruciating for culturally sensitive ministers of the gospel to ask the British to read an American book of dubious authenticity – i.e. the Book of Mormon. Perhaps this sensitivity even contributed to the deemphasized role of the Book of Mormon in early preaching in England.
American missionaries, then, faced a dilemma: they had to conduct themselves as religious authorities from a position of cultural inferiority. Certainly this would provoke an uneasy tension between their conviction of their divine calling and their keen sense of cultural crudity. Why else would Parley Pratt, in the first run of the Millennial Star, open with an epigraphic couplet from Pope?
Truths would you teach, to save a sinking land,
All fear,—few aid you, and few understand (5).
Confident enough in the “truths” of their message, the Mormon messengers still apparently felt compelled to negotiate their cultural credentials, lest they as bearers of high truth seem unworthy of their message. At junctures like this they must have sensed how simultaneously marvelous and ridiculous it was for the gospel to be dispensed to the broader world through the weak and the simple.
Of course, for many of those among whom the early elders moved in the North of England, cultural credentials were immaterial. Steven Fleming (a participant here on JI, I think?) has done a nice job accounting for the religious factors that were often more substantial (6). And despite being apparently uncultured, English converts were reportedly of good stock. Dickens, Mill, and Carlyle all observed Mormon growth and emigration with interest and with something of a perplexed regard. As my grandfather once observed, Mormon converts were not the “riff-raff” they could be expected to be. Rather they were often unaccountably the “pick and flower of England” (7). Still, American cultural (dis)credit must have influenced the harvest in Britain, especially among the educated. For some, Mormonism’s association with America may have devalued it.
Most of these thoughts and assertions, of course, will need further research, but I enjoyed making this initial foray. It seems that much research might be done, both into the British reception of American Mormon elders and the experience of those elders in adapting themselves and their message to a culturally elevated venue. Ben was good enough to direct me to the upcoming Mormon Scholars Seminar (revolving around the Pratt brothers), where I hope to do some of this; I hope to examine how (and if) the rhetoric of the Millenial Star – produced under the editorship of Parley Pratt – sought to help ingratiate the Mormon message to British polite society.
All this a bit ironic considering the sway of American cultural capital today. Since then our conceptions of culture have changed; in our postcolonial age we are much more sensitive about cultural hierarchies. And yet missionary efforts now, as then, are still heavily informed by perceptions of the United States – for good or bad. Missionary work will probably always be a theatre of ongoing culture war.
1. The label was first applied by Churchill.
2. John Adams to Abigail Adams, 12 May 1780, in Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 3, ed. L. H. Butterfield and Marc Friedlaender (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1973), 342.
3.Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884), 88.
4. Sydney Smith, Edinburgh Review 33:68 (January 1820), 79.
5. Editors. “Preface.” Millennial Star 1:1 (May 1840).
6. See Stephen J. Fleming, “The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism,” Church History and Religious Culture 77:1 (March 2008), 73-104.
7. Douglas Tobler, Ensign to the Nations, VHS, directed by Russ Holt (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997).