Directions to the Steed Farm Please

By March 5, 2008

Everyone reading this blog probably has an opinion about Gerald Lund’s The Work and the Glory series. I know I do. But that is perhaps saved for another post. I actually have some very specific questions in mind. I have heard from multiple sources, always at least second-hand, the following story:

Place: Church History Site (I have heard variants from Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Palmyra)
Setting: Summer tourist rush
Dramatis Personae: Church history guide (usually a senior missionary), idiotic tourist and or a family of same.

CHG: This is where (Joseph hid the plates under the hearth, the meetings to plan the exodus west were held, etc). Followed by some historical minutae.

IT: Where did the Steed family live?

That is where the story ends. We are left to imagine the awkard conversation that follows in which the gentle missionary guide explains that the only place to find the Steed’s farm is in Gerald Lund’s imagination.

I want to know three things: 1) has anyone else heard this, 2) is anyone out there an eyewitness to it and, assuming the answer to 2 is no, 3)what message(s) are we supposed to take from this story?

I suspect that the answer to 1 is yes and the answer to 2 is no. This thing obviously smacks of urban legend. In graduate school one of my professors, an expert in Zen Buddhism, would often say of the Zen lineage stories, “they are not true, therefore they are more useful.” In other words, invented stories tell you a great deal about the people who tell them. I have my own ideas about what this story is supposed to tell us, but I’m interested in what you all think.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Dozens of people called the Univ of Alabama after Forest Gump was released asking what year he graduated – hoping it was their graduating class.

    Messages? Not sure.

    Comment by Ray — March 5, 2008 @ 7:40 pm

  2. 1. Yes, I’ve heard this.

    2. I’m almost an eyewitness? I used to live in the Kirtland Stake and take all my houseguests out for the tour. The Newel K. Whitney home had a notebook that listed all the known 1830s family/property locations. The brother in the missionary couple who hosted in the home told me that he had more than once been asked for the Steed family location. I hadn’t read the book, but I asked if he thought Gerald Lund had any specific property in mind when he wrote up his fictitious family. So, if the 60-something missionary was making this up for me, the repeated bringer of visitors, why the Zen would he do that?

    3. The message to take from the story is a feeling of superiority to the people whose interest in local history was so shallow and misdirected that they would miss the real stories right under their noses. I used to give my people Karl Anderson’s Joseph Smith’s Kirtland. Even though Anderson’s little book was tantalizing and faith-promoting and more or less true, some people just couldn’t attend without that romance narrative to carry them along. And holzapfel&cottle was filled with really juicy stuff.

    Comment by Johnna — March 5, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  3. Very interesting point, SC. Your thoughtful questions run exactly along the lines of my studies in Mormon Folklore. I have heard this particular stories many times (several times on the blog), but have never had firsthand experience. I have not even heard it first-hand from a senior missionary, just people who talked with a senior missionary.

    Personally, the story seems to always be told by people who “know” church history, often making fun of those who “dont know” church history. Could it be possible we often make a strawman in order to show the need for better inoculation?

    Comment by Ben — March 5, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

  4. That’s funny about Forest Gump.

    Joanna,
    So you have actually heard it first hand. That’s closer than I have ever gotten before. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is based on some actual events. Even so, the retelling is interesting. How did the Elder act when he told you this? Did he find it amusing? Pathetic? Maybe you couldn’t tell, but it helps with at least one aspect of the issue.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 5, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

  5. Living out here near Nauvoo, I have heard this story several times, and it seems to me that the morals of this story are legion.

    First, it exposes the lack of true historical knowledge held by most average church members. Second, it stands as a critique to Lund and others that create a whitewashed version of church history. Third, it complains about the simplified version of church history portrayed at church historical interpretive sites. Finally, it could even be a sign that most members’ faith in church history is fictional.

    While I can sympathize with many of these claims, I also see a certain level of intellectual arrogance in each of these interpretations

    Comment by Joel — March 5, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

  6. Ben anf Joel,
    I, too, have noticed the condescension in the retelling of this story at times. I think you’re on to something.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 5, 2008 @ 7:55 pm

  7. 1) I’ve heard it a number of times.

    2) It’s always been at least a second hand retelling of the story.

    3) I think Ben and Joel are apt in their suggestion that more often than not, it’s intellectuals repeating the story to demonstrate their intellectual superiority in contrast to the supposed stupidity of the average Saint.

    Joel, I’m intrigued by the suggestion that “most members’ faith in church history is fictional.” Could you expand on that notion a little more?

    Comment by Christopher — March 5, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

  8. Although I don’t think this is generally true. If a person’s testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith is based on a fictional recreation in a novel instead of the spirit, I think we have a problem. The problem can be that novels are written to stir emotions which in turn can be mistaken for the spirit. Truthfully, I don’t have much of a problem with The Work and the Glory series. I just worry that such LDS fiction comes with the possibility of emotional attachment to a portrait of the prophet that isn’t very real.

    Comment by Joel — March 5, 2008 @ 8:47 pm

  9. I’ve heard this story, but never firsthand. It isn’t such a stupid question. Gerald Lund picked an actual street in Nauvoo for the Steeds to live on. I don’t remember what street it was, but the street has an actual, historical existence. In fact, if I recall correctly, there are maps of Nauvoo on the inside covers of the Lund novels, with the Steed farms identified on the map.

    Now, if someone goes looking for Steed family gravestones, that’s pretty naive.

    But asking where the Steeds lived is no different than the people who travel to Prince Edward Island to see the setting for Anne of Green Gables. It’s a fictional character, but the locations are real.

    Comment by Melinda — March 5, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  10. Melinda,
    That’s a really interesting point. In the tellings I have heard, the teller emphasizes the point that the questioner is under the impression that the Steeds were real. It could be that people asked the question with the intent that you point out, but their intent was misunderstood and voilà, the story is born.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 5, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

  11. I just looked at the map in my book. The Steeds lived one block of east of Main Street, between Ripley St and Young St. They are about four blocks east of the Nauvoo Temple, which they could get to by walking along Mulholland St. I am fully aware that the Steeds are fictional, yet I just explained exactly where their fictional homes were located.

    I suppose the message we can take from this urban legend is that people liked the books, and want to know exactly where Gerald Lund placed his characters.

    Comment by Melinda — March 5, 2008 @ 9:21 pm

  12. That might very well be what actually happened, but it doesn’t explain why the story gets retold. In other words, the intent may be as plain as wanting to know where Lund placed his characters, but such intent must be mis-read in order for it to warrant retellings. If your proposed intent was correctly understood, then there would be no more interest in retelling the story than to tell a story about someone asking where Parley Pratt lived.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 5, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

  13. Yes, SC, but if someone heard the question with the pre-existing assumption that the average member is ignorant of Church history, the retelling would not depend on the intent. If the tour guide, for example, didn’t want to “embarrass” or “correct” the questioner, s/he might never know that the questioner understood that the Steeds were fictional. Also, if that person had experienced the question in sincere ignorance, s/he might extrapolate that first questioner’s naivete onto every other questioner s/he encountered.

    Comment by Ray — March 5, 2008 @ 10:07 pm

  14. SC, I agree. There’s no point in retelling the story without the humorous insinuation that someone thought the Steeds were real.

    Comment by Melinda — March 5, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

  15. I agree Ray. I think you are saying in essence what I was trying to say in #12. Unless I’m missing something.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 5, 2008 @ 10:20 pm

  16. Yeah, re-reading your comment, my first half, at least, is redundant.

    Comment by Ray — March 6, 2008 @ 1:14 am

  17. Ray, why don’t you just admit that you asked to see the Steed farm when you were in Nauvoo?

    Gerald Lund was my stake president at BYU. He came to speak at my ward and I cornered him.

    In “The Work and the Glory,” Joseph Smith meets the fictional Steeds in 1823, I believe. Smith tells the Steeds about the First Vision, but he explains it using the words we have in Joseph Smith-History, which was written in 1838, I believe.

    I asked then-president Lund why he had Joseph Smith explain the First Vision this way in 1823, and he cowered at my question. I really meant to be respectful but president Lund acted like he was being attacked a little, as if he had perhaps been targeted before for historical inaccuracies in W & G. He humbly said that he used the 1838 version in the book because that was the version that Joseph Smith had chosen to represent what he saw.

    Comment by California Condor — March 6, 2008 @ 1:32 am

  18. I am fully aware that the Steeds are fictional, yet I just explained exactly where their fictional homes were located.

    Melinda, you sound a little defensive. I suppose that is to be expected if you actually have a copy of a W & G volume handy.

    Comment by California Condor — March 6, 2008 @ 1:38 am

  19. An interesting issue.

    Is there a difference between looking for the Steed family house and looking for the Dalloway house in London or the murder house from Crime & Punishment in St. Petersburg? (FWIW, I’ve done both.)

    As folklore, even if true, the stories show an antipathy between literature and history, specifically religious history in this case. In other words, if the author has set a work in a real location, why wouldn’t there be a house he or she specifically imagined? Don’t Anne of Green Gables fans take holidays to PEI without being accused of not knowing the work is fiction?

    Comment by Norbert — March 6, 2008 @ 5:13 am

  20. I’ve had this conversation before:

    Me: “I’m quite interested in Mormon history.”
    Other: “Me too! I love TWATG!”

    Comment by Ronan — March 6, 2008 @ 7:01 am

  21. Well, you learn something new everyday. I’d never heard of the Steed family before.

    That said, I’ve been to Giulietta’s bubble gum encrusted balcony in Verona, so I have a testimony of fictional places really existing.

    Comment by Peter LLC — March 6, 2008 @ 7:51 am

  22. My daughter, who served her mission in Kirtland, says she was asked about the Steed family on numerous occasions. I know that’s not first-hand, but her letters from the mission occasionally included a weary “was asked about the Steed family again today”. It doesn’t help much that while Elder Lund’s Steed family was fictional, there was a real Steed family in church history who settled in Davis County, Utah – Steed Creed in Farmington is named for them.

    Comment by J. Michael — March 6, 2008 @ 9:21 am

  23. Oops. #22 should be “Steed Creek” – to my knowledge, nobody in Farmington recited the “Steed Creed”

    Comment by J. Michael — March 6, 2008 @ 9:22 am

  24. Second, it stands as a critique to Lund and others that create a whitewashed version of church history.

    Is it whitewashing or romanticizing?

    Comment by Ben — March 6, 2008 @ 10:08 am

  25. California Condor,
    I think it’s a fair question that you asked of Gerald Lund. I’m not terribly satisfied with the answer you were given, but can you imagine the questions he would have had to answer if he had chosen to include an earlier account that differed from what most of the readers of his books probably think of as THE First Vision account?

    J. Michael,
    The letters from your daughter are important sources and lend credence to the notion that people really were asking those questions for one reason or another. The Steed Creed could be a prequel–the story of the Steed family during the Reformation.

    Ben,
    I think it’s probably both.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 6, 2008 @ 10:38 am

  26. Ronan, I’m sure many of us have had that conversation. About 10 years ago it seemed like every testimony meeting I went to included at least one person who bore witness to the hand of God in church history based on their reading of The Work and the Glory. Come to think of, it was right around this time that I started hearing the stories about people asking to see the Steed sites.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 6, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  27. In one of my wards, the stake president actually felt the need to tell the whole ward not to reference TWATG in their talks and lessons. Within about a month, the visiting high council member spoke on a Pioneer Day theme. He spent the entire time telling our ward about the adventures of the fictional Steed family, without a single mention of any actual Mormon pioneers.

    Comment by Nick Literski — March 6, 2008 @ 11:05 am

  28. When I worked up in SLC in a Church history-related office, my boss said that as soon as someone mentioned they loved TWATG in a job interview, that would basically be the end of the interview.

    When I was in Rome, I got to see the home of Juliet from Shakespeare’s play. They got asked so many times where the balcony was where Romeo courted Juliet that they eventually designated a specific spot.

    Comment by Ben — March 6, 2008 @ 11:13 am

  29. “They got asked so many times where the balcony was where Romeo courted Juliet that they eventually designated a specific spot.”

    Kind of like the burial place of Jesus?

    Comment by Ray — March 6, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  30. #27 – Nick, that is hilarious – and disturbing.

    Comment by Ray — March 6, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

  31. Being from Palmyra, I’ve heard the story from the nice senior missionary guides, though I have not actually been an eyewitness.

    Here’s a question. I don’t like the Work and the Glory. But I love J. Reuben Clark’s “They of the last wagon.” Most of my friends share my like/dislike of these two tales. Both are fictional, both are romanticized, and both are whitewashed, to a certain extent (though you could argue that Clark’s story is less so). Why the difference? I’m not sure I have an answer.

    Comment by JKC — March 6, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

  32. TWATG was a great book series if you are realizing it is a work of fiction. I think Lund in the later book series, specifically his one about the life of Christ tried to cite his sources.

    I find the way people get worked up about TWATG or Tennis Shoes as slightly ridiculous. They are after all fictional accounts not meant by the author to be taken as LITERAL history. I think basically Lund took the safe path with his book so to allow him to sell some books.

    I do not fault him for this. People often consider fictional characters as real, see Baker Street and Sherlock Holmes as one example or those who follow Pro Wrestling.

    I do think however that the story telling of those who repeat the Steed thing is at one blush academic arrogance. (similar to how some people really hate BYU sports for the way it was favoured by the church and repeated followed by those who went there)

    At the end of the day I think the retelling of this Academic Faith Promoting Rumour (People are stupid and here is why…) is well is just silly.

    And yes I do have copies of the series and I know a number of people who would not give a fig about church history if not for the questions brought up by the series.

    Comment by JonW — March 6, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

  33. JonW,

    Are you telling me that Pro Wrestling isn’t real?

    Comment by Christopher — March 6, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

  34. I am fully aware that the Steeds are fictional, yet I just explained exactly where their fictional homes were located.

    Melinda, you sound a little defensive. I suppose that is to be expected if you actually have a copy of a W & G volume handy.

    CC – I didn’t intend it to sound defensive, but if you’d like to read a tone into it, go ahead. I liked TWATG. I’ve liked most of the non-fiction Church history books I’ve read too.

    Comment by Melinda — March 6, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  35. Okay, so let’s take a different look at this from the standpoint of an author. Any work of fiction has to be at some level plausible, in order to garner readership and sell books. So why wouldn’t Lund put his fictional family in as authentic a setting as possible?

    I’ll admit to sharing retellings of the “Looking for the Steeds” story, usually with some condescension, for which I repent. I say that, because I spent a lot of time after reading Orson Scott Card’s Saints/Woman of Destiny looking for parallels between the life of Dinah Kirkham, a fictional character, and Eliza R. Snow, a real person. So it’s the perception of reality that allows fiction to catch a reader, and hold them to the end of the book.

    A little pride goes a long way, I’ve found. And for what it’s worth, I got tired of TWATG after the second volume, and never finished the series. Any comment more than that, and I would be exercising prideful condescension. (smiles smugly to himself)

    Comment by kevinf — March 6, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

  36. When I was in Rome, I got to see the home of Juliet from Shakespeare’s play. They got asked so many times where the balcony was where Romeo courted Juliet that they eventually designated a specific spot.

    Blasphemy! Juliet’s baclony is totally in Verona–I’ve seen it!

    Comment by Peter LLC — March 7, 2008 @ 7:16 am

  37. Peter: Your right, I meant to say Verona. My bad.

    Comment by Ben — March 7, 2008 @ 9:49 am

  38. […] Directions to the Steed Farm Please […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From The Archives: Posts You Might Have Missed, March-April 2008 — July 2, 2009 @ 2:21 am


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