Mormon Folklore, Part One

By November 14, 2007

We have all heard the stories. Joseph never losing a game in stick-pull, the Japanese bomber who’s bomb wouldn’t release while flying over the Laie Temple during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the hundreds of Three Nephite Stoies, the thousands of J. Golden Kimball stories, etc. Our culture is absolutely filled with folkloric stories. This has been noticed by outside scholars, and almost every major folklore conference has several sessions discussing Mormon folklore. Some have even suggested the the Mormon Culture has more folklore stories than any other subculture in America.

However, many Mormons don’t like to admit that our stories are folklore. This is because to most people, Mormon=true and folklore=false. But, it should be kept in mind that just because a story is folklore, that doesn’t mean that the story is not true. Folklore merely means a story which is passed on orally from one person to another.

So, has folklore taken the place of actual history in our community? It appears that the average Mormon is more familiar with the folklore surrounding our ancestors rather than actual facts. Part of this may be because folklore is a lot more accessable; it is a lot easier to hear an oral story than to read through a “boring” history book which depicts actual facts. A problem, however, rises when someone finds out that the oral history that they have believed all these years is actually not very accurate.

I recently spoke with a english/folklore professor who mentioned that a collegue of his suggested a website based on testing the validity of Mormon folklore (basically a Mormon snopes). He said that he really does not want to take part in such a project, because he does not want to crush stories which people believe are true. He explained that Mormon folklore is not only prevalent in Mormon circles, but it is also crucial to many member’s experience and belief.

Therefore, what role does folklore play in our society? Does it hinder us from eventually learning historic facts later on? Or, does it perfom an important part of our culture by helping create our past? Why is folklore so important to us?

NOTE: I plan on posting two more posts on this subject: one on the folklore aspects of polygamy (based on my upcoming presentation at the Folklore Society of Utah Conference), and another on the contributions of folklore to Mormon Studies (based on a summary of William Wilson’s presentation at the same conference).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Current Events


  1. It certainly doesn’t help when we describe justifications for the priesthood ban as “folklore.” That reinforced the notion that folklore is false.

    Comment by David Grua — November 14, 2007 @ 12:14 pm

  2. I think SHIELDS has kind of a Mormon Snopes, thing. If I remember correctly there was even a FP message a couple years back that discouraged folklore.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 14, 2007 @ 12:18 pm

  3. We need more nuance about folklore. I’d hate to see folklore sneered at as something to be avoided — songs, jokes, dances, home furnishings, fun stories that don’t pretend to be doctrinal, are all folklore, and enrich our culture. Maybe they even *create* our culture.

    Building testimony around incorrect folklore, or teaching as doctrine and history the folklore of men, can be harmful. But folklore, the raw life of the folk, is a good thing.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — November 14, 2007 @ 12:37 pm

  4. My opinion, the Mormon appetite for folklore often serves to validate (and possibly replace) faith. It is used as a shield against attack and a blanket to hide doubt. I think we have a lot of it because of our past persecution and continued marginalization. Often, folklore is used for faith-promoting. If we know the church is true, the Book of Mormon is true, why do we so readily latch onto these faith-promoting stories or “signs” of evidence?

    Other than that, I think the folklore is fun and kind of cool.

    Comment by hplc — November 14, 2007 @ 12:45 pm

  5. I am fine with folklore as long as it is put forth as folklore. As you noted, a problem arises when faith is placed in folk lore. Some may feel they received a witness of the spirit while listening to folklore, and later experience doubt regarding their former experiences.

    I have made a habit of pointing out false stories, such as the “generals in the war in heaven” example and the story of Sami Hanna.

    Comment by BHodges — November 14, 2007 @ 12:59 pm

  6. I’ll disagree with some of the commenters here. Folklore, in the technical sense, is highly valuable historiographical tool. If you check out the BYU and USU libraries, there are many first hand accounts of events and periods that would go othewise unrecorded. The ethnographer’s records are quite valuable.

    Even family lore can be valuable. See for example Compton’s recent piece in the JMH.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 14, 2007 @ 1:12 pm

  7. J.: I definitely agree with you there. For historians, folklore is an important window into how ordinary Mormons organize their understandings of the past. Although folklore doesn’t always shed light on the actual past, it tells us a lot about the people that repeat the stories.

    Comment by David Grua — November 14, 2007 @ 1:20 pm

  8. But I think folklore often does “shed light on the actual past.” That’s why we need more nuance than is being allowed here.

    Example: Probably a lot of people can tell a story, more or less accurately, about the child lost one day on a handcart trek, and about the mother who gave her red shawl to the father, telling him she would know at a distance whether her son had been found alive by how the father carried the shawl. Most of those retellings will be more or less correct, whether or not the teller remembers the Parker family name or which handcart company it was, or perhaps mistakes the lost child as a girl instead of a boy. And even if the details are fuzzy and become somewhat romanticized, a folkloric retelling of this event still sheds light on the actual past, as well as the modern story tellers: Children did get lost on the trek. Children were important to their parents then as well as now. Fathers cared enough to hunt their children. Mothers cared enough to face the news as soon as possible, even if it were bad news. There were happy endings (middles?) to the Martin (or was it Willey?) handcart company story. Whatever.

    I submit that much genuine folklore sheds light on the actual past in the same way. A folksong about the Utah War tells us about people’s bravado attitudes. Tales of the Three Nephites tell us something about the faith (use your own term if faith is unacceptable) of Latter-day Saints in, say, rural Utah of the 1890s.

    But if you’re meaning “false” and “distorted” and “fantasized” and “sentimentalized” and “misleading” when you say “folklore,” then yeah, I suppose I agree with you.

    That’s why we need to be sure we’re all talking about the same thing.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — November 14, 2007 @ 1:40 pm

  9. Ardis: Notice that I said:

    folklore doesn’t always shed light on the actual past

    I in no way intended to imply that it never does. My comment (#7) simply was pointing out the multifaceted ways in which historians analyze folklore. When speaking as a historian, I don’t categorize folklore as “false,” but rather as a story that tells us not only about the past but also about the “present” of the people that tell that story.

    Comment by David Grua — November 14, 2007 @ 1:52 pm

  10. I’m not sure that the line that separates folklore from history and even doctrine is that cut and dry.

    Nevertheless, one of the classic Sunstone articles on this subject is On Being Human: The Folklore of Mormon Missionaries by William A. Wilson. It shows how Folklore is a valuable and useful tool, not just for evaluating our culture and history, but dealing with the challenges of the here and now.

    I couldn’t find that article available online, but I did find the following, also by Wilson:

    The Paradox of Mormon Folklore from BYU Studies:

    Interview with Bert Wilson, linked from T&S:

    Comment by Matt Thurston — November 14, 2007 @ 1:54 pm

  11. Thank you everyone for your comments. I think everyone has made some valuable points, and has helped me see value and problems with folklore.

    The question I would now like to ask, is if there should be limits to folklore? If not, then how should we keep people from getting their past beliefs crushed? If yes, then how do we help regulate it? Is there a safe way in telling someone “That story is false, quit telling it”?

    Comment by Ben — November 14, 2007 @ 1:59 pm

  12. J. (#2), I’d forgotten about SHIELDS’ page on Mormon Hoaxes. Thanks for the reminder. It can be found here for any interested.

    hplc (#4), I assume that “we so readily latch onto these faith-promoting stories or ‘signs’ of evidence” because of this.

    J., David, & Ardis, I agree that folklore is valuable in both shedding light on the period of history portrayed and also on the story-tellers. I tend to think it reveals more about the story-tellers, though.

    Comment by Christopher — November 14, 2007 @ 2:00 pm

  13. There used to be a blog called “Mormon Folklore” that addressed many of these issues, but I haven’t seen it in a while.

    I agree with Ardis and J. Stapley that folklore is valuable as one kind of history and cannot be simply categorized as “true” or “false.” Members of the church perhaps need a more balanced view of history than one that assumes that all folklore is false and certain “facts” are true.

    Besides, LDS folklore often revolves around discrete personal experiences which cannot be easily verified or disproven using other historical records. I think that most people are smart enough to contextualize folklore that has been handed down against the broader historical narrative. Jesus often used parables to promote faith, parables that were true in one sense if not in another. Why discard our modern parables?

    Comment by lief — November 14, 2007 @ 2:28 pm

  14. Lief: thank you for your wise comments. I think your relation to folkloric experiences with personal experience has some valid points.

    I also think that folklore flourishes in the Mormon culture, especially the faith-building type, because of what Terryl Givens called the collapse of the sacred. We always seek, and find, God’s hand in our everyday dealings. Hearing these types of stories, whether they be true or false, help perpetuate this belief. As the Book of Mormon scripture that Chris links to points out, we not only believe in divine intervention, we believe it is a crucial element of the restored gospel.

    Comment by Ben — November 14, 2007 @ 2:42 pm

  15. Speaking of folklore: Eric Eliason is lecturing on J. Golden Kimball tonite at 7 pm on the 1st floor of the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU.

    Comment by Stan — November 14, 2007 @ 7:31 pm

  16. Eliason’s lecture was rescheduled for Nov. 28, presumably at the same time, 7 pm.

    Comment by stan — November 15, 2007 @ 1:54 am

  17. Glad to see that Matt Thurston partially rescued Bert Wilson from the semi-anonymity of “William A. Wilson.” The A is for Albert, and he was a neighbor, friend, teacher for years. Nobody ever called him anything but Bert.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 15, 2007 @ 5:34 pm

  18. Of course, that last post may simply be folklore.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 15, 2007 @ 5:34 pm

  19. […] on a previous post from earlier this week, I would now like to discuss a specific example of Mormon Folklore. In […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Folklore, Part Two (Polygamy) — November 15, 2007 @ 11:53 pm

  20. …I never hear of a man being damned for believing too much; but they are damned for unbelief.

    Joseph Smith Jr., Sermon on the Plurality of Gods.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — December 3, 2007 @ 4:07 pm


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