In the summer of 2002, while knocking on doors in the sweltering August heat of suburban Phoenix, my missionary companion and I were handed a small booklet by a less-than-friendly individual. Entitled The Visitors, the short illustrated tract told the story of two Mormon missionaries who arrive to teach a woman considering converting to Mormonism. Arriving at Fran’ doorstep with the hope of committing her to baptism that evening, the Elders are greeted not only by their anxious investigator, but also her niece, Janice, also a missionary preparing to do humanitarian work as a nurse in Africa.
A few minutes into their lesson, the missionaries are confronted by Fran’s surprisingly knowledgeable niece about various points of Mormon doctrine, doctrine the missionaries had failed to previously reveal to Fran. Horrified to learn that the Mormons believe, among other things, that Jesus and Lucifer are brothers, that God is a man (and not a spirit) with multiple wives in his heavenly abode, and Joseph Smith was fluent in the occult culture of early 19th century America, Fran asks the missionaries to leave and not come back. But Janice not only saved her beloved aunt that evening. She also, as we discover in the strip’s final frames, sparked the seeds of doubt in one of the missionary’s own minds.
I remember reading the tract with my companion and laughing. Over the course of the next two years, I was given no fewer than a dozen copies of the pamphlet, along with several other tracts illustrated and authored by the same person. They were clearly popular and widely circulated, but I knew next to nothing about the person behind them. They were, to me, just another in a series of anti-Mormon materials I encountered in Arizona.
It would be nearly a decade before I learned anything about the man behind the tracts. While attending the 2009 Spring Meeting of the American Society of Church History in Montreal, I ended up listening to a panel discussion on Jack Chick, an evangelical fundamentalist author, illustrator, and publisher. When the first presenter’s powerpoint included images from several of Chick’s tracts, I immediately recognized them as the small evangelical comic books I’d amassed a small collection of as a missionary. I learned more about Chick himself: Born and raised in southern California, he served in the United States Navy. Upon his return, he married Lola Lynn Priddle, who helped spark Chick’s own conversion to Christianity. I also learned more about his illustrated pamphlets and the publishing house behind them. Beginning in the 1970s, Chick published the Crusader comics series, as well as several shorter comic books, all evangelically-themed. In addition to Mormons, Chick’s tracts warned evangelical Christians of the dangers of Catholicism, liberal Protestantism, Satanism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, communism, the occult, rock and roll, and evolution.
Yesterday, Jack Chick died. He was 92 years old and continued to produce new tracts until the final months of his life. As news of his death spread, my twitter timeline was suddenly flooded with reminiscences from several fellow historians and scholars of American religion from their evangelical upbringings. This brought to mind my own introduction to Chick’s comics in the summer of 2002 and caused me to consider his significance within the anti-Mormon/Christian countercult intellectual tradition.
Chick published additional materials on Mormonism – The Enchanter (published in 2007 and timed, no doubt, to coincide with the first of Mitt Romney’s bids for the Republican nomination for POTUS) was published as Volume 18 of his Crusaders comic book series, and featured full-color illustrations of several scenes from Joseph Smith’s life and the history of Mormonism, emphasizing JS’s early involvement in the occult and with freemasonry and portraying him as a violent sexual predator.
All of Chick’s tracts treating Mormonism emphasize its most bizarre teachings and its most controversial history. The goal is clear: Mormonism is not only a false philosophy disguising itself under the veneer of clean-cut conservative Christianity: it is the embodiment of several of the other dangerous -isms Chick warns Christians of in his publications: the occult, freemasonry, sexual promiscuity, violence, Islam, and so on and so on.
It’s easy to laugh at Chick’s tracts, but I wonder if scholars of Mormonism might also take them seriously. In one sense, Chick stands amidst a long line of anti-Mormon writers. Indeed, he draws explicitly on their research, citing everyone from John C. Bennett to Jerald and Sandra Tanner. But my sense is that his illustrated pamphlets and comic books have also been enormously influential in introducing young evangelical Christians to the dangers of Mormonism and equipping them with tools to combat the religious advances of their Mormon friends and neighbors. They not only provide easy-to-read and strangely interesting illustrations, but also several talking points, complete with citations to (sometimes obscure) Mormon sources, including Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, Orson Pratt’s The Seer, and the History of the Church. Basically, I’d love to see an analysis of more recent anti-Mormonism on par with what Spencer Fluhman has done for our understanding of that literature’s 19th century predecessors.