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).