True to form, the online discussion over differing journalistic approaches to the reporting of the death of President Thomas S. Monson, sixteenth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appears to have run its course. Mormons quickly took to Twitter to respond to one particular article perceived as far too negative. In turn, those believing the article portrayed an accurate depiction of the church and its leaders responded. Hundreds debated the nuance of words and those words’ implications for the nation’s view of the church and its leaders—all in 280 characters. In other words, it was a typical day on Twitter.
Mormons and non-Mormons have a long history of throwing headlines at each other. In the 1850s, the nation’s media would not stop talking negatively about the church—or at least that is a reasonable conclusion drawn from one set of mid-nineteenth century Mormon sources. The LDS Historian’s Office—an official church institution tasked with keeping a historical record—turned its attention to contemporary newspaper articles. Clerks identified and clipped newspaper articles pasting them into scrapbooks. The bound volumes held page after page of clippings negative towards the church offering Mormons a documented claim to their persecuted status. For the Historian’s Office clerks and many other Mormons, the scrapbooks bore the weight of a nation’s constant barrage against Mormons. Scattered throughout these volumes, one can read obsessed newspaper editors who saw nothing positive in the church, its practices, or the flocks of individuals joining its ranks.
But the reappropriation of one’s words was not limited to clerks in the Historian’s Office. The national media used church-produced material, including articles from the church-owned newspaper the Deseret News, to justify negative portrayals of Mormons. For instance, on 23 February 1857, Justin S. Morrill, a U.S. representative from Vermont who would go on to sponsor the anti-bigamy act of 1862 that bore his name, printed a speech, apparently not actually given, against the Mormons and their practice of plural marriage. The lengthy speech quoted a number of excerpts from a variety of sources, including government reports of 1851-52; sermons from Brigham Young , Jedediah M. Grant, and Orson Pratt that had been published in the Deseret News; Utah’s territorial laws; the Book of Mormon; and Joseph Smith’s revelation on plural marriage (now section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants). This documentary pastiche sent a clear message about the obstinacy of Brigham Young, the perceived immoral activities of Mormons, and the need to curtail or remove the practice of plural marriage. Readers who read Morrill’s negative depiction of Mormons had no reason to doubt him; he quoted directly from Mormons and their own words. Mormons, of course, would have been hard pressed to recognize themselves in the narrative Morrill constructed.
Newspaper editors printed Morrill’s speech spreading his narrative throughout the East Coast, ultimately reaching readers in Utah Territory. Once there, Historian’s Office clerks read, identified, clipped and pasted the article into the Historian’s Office scrapbook. Shortly thereafter, Brigham Young delivered a sermon on 7 June 1857 wherein he quoted Morrill’s printed text in an attempt to discredit the congressman’s narrative. The Deseret News printed Young’s discourse, making it possible for eastern newspaper editors to read and quote from Young’s sermon. The cycle of (mis)information thus continued. Both sides incorporated the others’ words to frame their own ideas about the “enemy,” escalating tensions between them. The malleability of words and narratives shaped a two-way conversation that ultimately led to President James Buchanan sending a military force to Utah to put down a perceived Mormon rebellion.
I engage in a more complete analysis of the Historian’s Office scrapbooks of the 1850s in a chapter of my forthcoming dissertation. This and similar episodes, however, remind us of the power of media and its influence in society. For those of us today saturated in a 24-hour news cycle, it should come as little surprise that offensive headlines or tonal differences in news stories offer a chance to take umbrage at the “other side.” Words can and do matter, but how individuals and institutions use those words to either understand themselves or characterize other individuals or groups matter even more. Historian’s Office employees gathered words, books, statements, photographs, and newspaper clippings (among many, many other projects) to stabilize their own identity at a time of intense social pressure. It’s hard not to compare today’s Twitter wars and declarations of fake news as a similar time of social upheaval. Among the many lessons of history, perhaps we should better appreciate and seek for a nuanced and critical analysis of today’s media.