Anglo-American Culture Wars and the Early Missionary Effort in England

By February 9, 2009

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).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Ryan. I think the lenses you are using to view this important moment in Mormon missiology (that is, through cultural/arts)is significant and the type of interpretation Mormon Studies is finally getting around to. The fact that Pratt is quoting from Pope in Millennial Star shows how aware they were of the cultural climate.

    A related, yet tangential, point that came to me while reading this is how important these British converts were to Mormon arts growth in the second half of the nineteenth century. Can you imagine what arts in Utah would have been like if it were just pre-renaissance Americans? As Givens (and others) have shown, most of the arts in early Utah came from British immigrants, and it wasn’t until the turn of the century that the Church started sending artists out for higher training.

    Comment by Ben — February 9, 2009 @ 2:34 am

  2. Mormonism?s association with America may have devalued it.

    This is still the case, alas, at least in many quarters. American religion has the whiff of something crackpot among educated Brits (/Europeans), and as the quintessentially Yankee faith, Mormonism has an uphill battle. It would be difficult to substantiate, but my casual observation is that British Mormon converts tend to come from the pro-American half of the country. At the very least, they are people for whom the accents of the missionaries don’t immediately put them off.

    Comment by Ronan — February 9, 2009 @ 2:38 am

  3. Whoops…should clarify that in commenting on Mormon converts my grandfather was paraphrasing Dickens.

    Comment by Ryan Tobler — February 9, 2009 @ 3:17 am

  4. Ryan,

    If you have them, would you mind sharing the quotes / citations from Dickens, Mill, and Carlyle?

    Comment by John Turner — February 9, 2009 @ 10:34 am

  5. Interesting thoughts, Ryan. Malcolm Thorp’s fairly extensive research on Mormonism in England might be helpful (see here for a bibliography). His handful of articles on the reception of the first Mormon missionaries to England, the religious and social origins of early Mormon converts there, 20th century anti-Mormon literature and legal issues, and his analysis of the impact of Victorian depictions of Jesus on James E. Talmage’s Christology might all speak to your developing thesis here.

    Comment by Christopher — February 9, 2009 @ 11:37 am

  6. Reading this, I was reminded of Gordon Wood’s arguments in The Radicalism of the American Revolution. I wonder if the Mormons were proud of their uncouthness, and defiant about placing revelation opposite reason.

    Comment by matt b. — February 9, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

  7. I recall Heber C. Kimball saying that he felt intimidated by English high culture when he was first called. Yet the missionaries did not seem to feel all that intimidated when they got there. They report that the people they worked among were really impressed that they came all that the way from American to teach their message.

    Keep in mind that the early converts were almost entirely working class. This does not mean that they were not the pick and flower, 75 percent of England was working class and the Mormons seem to have been on the upper end of working class. There were significant cultural differences between the classes; ie the Mormons were working in a different crowd than Mill and Carlyle.

    Also keep in mind that there was an active transatlantic evangelical community (Richard Carwardine has got a book on it). Lots of preacher were coming from America (both Dow and Finney did it). The British evangelicals could be quite receptive to American evangelicals, which is why I think the Mormons found so many preachers that allowed them to preach to their congregations. They were just surprised when the Mormons “took” their congregations which the other evangelicals usually didn’t do.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 9, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

  8. so did my comments get moderated?

    Comment by David M. Morris — February 9, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

  9. As many of the early misisonaries were English, certainly the 1837 group, I would argue that success came less due to status but more on account of prosopographical methodology. This method of expansion secured the early British Church in both of the Apostolic missions and subsequent church growth. Steve and I share some very similar views, however, on facets of class and regional variation we somewhat differ (especially in my office in 2006!) although I tend to agree his remarks before. What ought to be remembered is that the British church resembled more of British Methodism and other Non Conformists in its organisation and practice, and less like the US based LDS church. Using various models of conversion, particulalry Bebbington?s, the British Mormonsim fits better with other contemporary groups.

    Malcolm Thorp et. al. have contributed greatly but there is a lacuna over the past 20 years or so of any rigourous research in to Europena Mormonism. EMSA is a godsend even if I do say so myself, as well as the International Journal of Mormon Studies.

    Of course one must still ask is there still a compettiive spirit across the continental divide or is it just a ?special relationship?? has lots of British information.

    Comment by David M. Morris — February 9, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

  10. David: sorry about that; for some reason your comment got caught in the spam net.

    Comment by Ben — February 9, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

  11. John,

    These are the sources I’m aware of…though I’ve not yet made any systematic search.

    Mill’s comments appear in Chapter IV of On Liberty. He may have weighed in elsewhere…I’m not sure.

    Dickens recorded his laudatory observations of a company departing for Salt Lake in The Uncommercial Traveler, chapter XXII. As I understand it, they were also published serially.

    Carlyle wrote a “draft essay” on the Mormons that has recently been analyzed by Paul Kerry. See his article, “Thomas Carlyle’s Draft Essay on the Mormons” Literature and Belief 25:1&2 (2005), 261-288.

    Comment by Ryan Tobler — February 9, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

  12. There were significant cultural differences between the classes; ie the Mormons were working in a different crowd than Mill and Carlyle.

    Agreed that there was a vast cultural divide between the classes – it was Victorian England. That’s why I think that cultural credentials were often beside the point. But it seems hard to believe that Mormons would confine themselves to that demographic by choice. And why did they adopt those methods as opposed to alternatives? Could cultural awareness have informed this?

    Your point about the transatlantic community is well-made, Steve. Seems like evangelizing was in some ways an exception to the larger cultural questions; evangelicals and religious figures in general had freer rein and perhaps met less resistance than others.

    Comment by Ryan Tobler — February 9, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

  13. Right, Ryan, your project is an interesting one.

    David. What the heck is “Prosopographical methodology?” Is that some sort of fancy elitist English talk? And all I remember saying in your office was that the Americans didn’t keep any accurate membership numbers during Joseph Smith’s lifetime and so that all the stuff in the Church Almanac for those years were guesses.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 9, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

  14. Great topic, Ryan. Another source you might find interesting is Craig L. Foster’s book Penny Tracts and Polemics: A Critical Analysis of Anti-Mormon Pamphleteering in Great Britain (1837-1860), Kofford Books, Salt Lake City, (2002). The book includes reproductions of some of the tracts distributed to the British public to discourage conversions to Mormonism.

    Comment by Phoebe — February 9, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

  15. Thanks all, for the suggestions and critiques. Can’t tell you how nice it is to participate in real dialogue.

    Comment by Ryan Tobler — February 9, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

  16. Hehe, I guess Mike Quinn was aspiring to be an elitist Englishman even during his MA days.

    On a more serious note, great post, Ryan.

    Comment by David G. — February 9, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

  17. Ryan,
    Please feel to contact me if you want UK based or British materials. I have a large amount of stuff, and my PhD is nearly complete on British Mormonism, so I am familiar with the historiography and context.davidmmorris @ hotmail . com.

    David G: Therein is the special relationship, one half of the world aspires to be an elitist Englishman, while the other half simply are.

    Steve: Yes, there was great debate about the veracity of records but also some skirmishes over class disctinction and defintion. I think you are doing some really interesting work and at the end of the day, these are still seen as academic fetishes for a small portion of the unwashed community. But hey elitism is what it is all about, finding that niche. You would make a very good Englishman. I am not so English or elitist, that I can’t call you my friend. Hope to see you in Turin, Italy.

    (Blatant advertising: EMSA Conference 2009,, or speak to your chapter rep. and this years concerence co-ordinator Mr Ronan James Head.)

    Comment by David M. Morris — February 10, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  18. excellent post Ryan.

    Comment by stan — February 10, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

  19. Whoa, a stan sighting. I am pleased.

    Comment by matt b. — February 10, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

  20. Hehe, I had the same reaction. But since this is his once-every-six-months visit to the blog, he probably won’t see our gentle ribbing. 😉

    Comment by David G. — February 10, 2009 @ 10:14 pm

  21. I hope this is not too far off thread, but I would like to mention that there was an interesting correlation between Mormon and British millenarian hopes for the literal return of the Jews to Palestine at the precise time when Orson Hyde dedicated the Holy Land for that aspiration. On a broader plain, I expect that cultural differences between a barely literate Heber C. Kimball and a Charles Dickens would be too much to manage. But at more appropriately matched “levels” – and given a sympathy of ideals there (like the example I mention above), and a commonality of frustration about prevailing societal and religious norms (however mis-matched between the two hemispheres), there were many British subjects who were ripe for a harvest by Yankee prophets.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — February 11, 2009 @ 1:50 am


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