Review: Terryl Givens, The Viper on the Hearth, updated edition

By May 27, 2013

Terryl L. Givens. The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, updated edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Paperback. 978-0-19-993380-8. $24.95.

Since its original publication in 1997, Terryl Givens? The Viper on the Hearth has been a mainstay of the study of Mormonism and anti-Mormonism in American culture. And deservedly so. Givens? work provided the first substantial scholarly book-length exploration of images of the Latter-day Saints in American culture in any time period. His examination of the representations of Mormons in the United States in the 19th century is sweeping in its coverage of the period; thorough in its inclusion of a wide variety of sources, from newspapers to popular fiction to fictive memoirs; and convincing in its argument that, whatever American claims of separation of church and state and tolerance for differing religious views may have been, religion was at the heart of mainstream America?s intolerance, suspicion, and occasional violence toward the Mormons. For many students of Mormonism and of American religion, Viper has served as an introduction to anti-Mormonism in America. For the generation of scholars who have examined the subject since Viper?s first publication?including Megan Sanborn-Jones, Patrick Q. Mason, and J. Spencer Fluhman?Givens? scholarship has served as a guide. No one can engage in a study of anti-Mormonism in the United States without responding to his arguments about the mechanisms of and motivations behind anti-Mormon sentiment in American culture.

Much of the updated edition remains, in its essentials, unchanged, although it is evident that Givens has edited for clarity and smoothed out the language in many places?a very real improvement, given that the original text?s heavy use of theoretical language. The first part of the book?then and now?situates Mormonism within the broader context of the revivalism that swept the nation in the early 19th century and spawned numerous new movements within existing religions as well as entirely new religious communities. Givens dedicates this section of the book to explaining exactly what it was about this new religion that so offended the Mormons? American neighbors. He convincingly argues that what made Mormonism different from so many other new and existing religious movements in this period was its collapse of the distance between the sacred and the profane. Mormonism?s claims to ongoing direct communication with God and the eventual assertion that human beings can become gods and that God himself was once human?what Givens calls Joseph Smith?s ?unrelenting anthropomorphizing? (99)?radically transgressed traditional boundaries between humanity and divinity. By ?rematerializing? and ?rehistoricizing? Christianity, Smith and his followers put ?the unavoidable features of religion-making? on the table for everyone to see (93). In short, by infusing the profane with the sacred, Smith forced more orthodox Christians to confront the reality that their religions, too, were man-made: ?Mormonism stands as a defiant reminder that, much as it tries to, orthodoxy cannot escape the fact of its own construction? (102). As a result, Givens argues, orthodox Christians fought hard to define Mormonism as something completely other in order to protect the wholly sacred nature of their own religions.

In the book?s second part, Givens analyzes a wide variety of sources to demonstrate several strategies that American Protestants used in their efforts to combat and contain the new religion. Comparing anti-Mormon rhetoric to the language and images deployed against another religion feared and maligned in 19th-century America?Roman Catholicism?he shows that opponents of the Latter-day Saints recycled images that were already familiar to a wide American audience. The popular Indian captivity narratives of the 18th century, which had been adapted with great success into Catholic captivity narratives like those attributed to Maria Monk, morphed into salacious tales of Mormon kidnap, debauchery, and murder. Orientalist views of Islam?a religion all but unknown within the nation?s borders?provided Americans with handy imagery to cast the men of the Mormon hierarchy as foreign potentates at the head of captive harems and a subjugated populace. And because, as Givens shows, the boundaries between genres were unfixed in this period, the lurid imagery of popular novels couched as memoirs were considered ?true? enough to be used as evidence in the news and on the floor of Congress in arguments for containing or suppressing the Mormon menace. Givens effectively demonstrates that, popular claims to the contrary, 19th-century anti-Mormonism was inspired by religious difference and not simply by social and political concerns. (I agree with Fluhman, however, that religion is not as wholly the cause of the rift between Mormons and non-Mormons in this period as Givens argues. [1])

The most significant changes in the updated text are to the final chapter, which focuses on the Mormon image in contemporary American culture. This is not surprising given the events and the materials produced in the 15 years since Viper?s first publication, from Jon Krakauer?s bestseller Under the Banner of Heaven (2003) to The Book of Mormon on Broadway (2011?) and Mitt Romney?s two runs for the presidency in 2008 and 2012. What is surprising, however, is how few new examples Givens incorporates into the revised chapter despite the wealth of new Mormon images available for analysis. By and large, the examples of ?contemporary? American images of the Latter-day Saints that he used in the original edition of Viper are untouched in the update. He extends his discussion of Tony Kushner?s play Angels in America, but does not address the substantially revised award-winning HBO Films adaptation first aired in 2003. He adds only one new writer to his description of contemporary novels (176?77), and his only addition to his discussion of Mormons on television is the HBO show Big Love (2006?2011). He retains an extended discussion of an episode of the show Picket Fences?cancelled in 1996?but makes no mention of other prominent examples of the Saints on the small screen, including a full season of the medical drama House and multiple episodes of the wildly popular Comedy Central series South Park (1997?) that deal with Latter-day Saint characters. [2] He also doesn?t engage with the numerous news magazine episodes on Mormon-related topics, or, aside from a brief mention of Dancing with the Stars, with Mormons on reality TV. [3] And while he discusses Krakauer?s examination of violence and Mormon fundamentalism, he does not engage with other depictions of Mormon violence like the 1996 television adaptation of Zane Grey?s The Riders of the Purple Sage or the 2007 film September Dawn.

Most surprisingly, Givens only devotes two pages to an examination of the media?s coverage of Mitt Romney?s Mormonism during his five-year campaign for the presidency. Further, Givens focuses exclusively on the most egregious examples of anti-Mormon rhetoric leveled at Romney?claiming, in a show of hyperbole, that these examples demonstrate that the media?s coverage in general ?seemed but a step away from calling for the pogroms that accompanied nineteenth-century anti-Catholic hysteria? (185)?without reference to the relative infrequency of attacks on Mormonism in the overall coverage of Romney?s campaigns. He also generally ignores related information or alternative interpretations that lessen the impact of his assertion that the media turned rabidly anti-Mormon in the decade of Romney?s candidacy. For example, he asserts that ?evangelicals publicly resorted to the pejorative ?cult? word? as if it were a general occurrence (184), without noting that popular evangelist Billy Graham?s organization removed all references to Mormonism as a cult from its website soon after Graham endorsed Romney. [4]

Givens? treatment of the media coverage of Romney?s campaigns is part of a larger lack of nuance in his choice and interpretation of sources in the updated chapter. In his expanded paragraph on Angels in America, for instance, he claims that Kushner ?reprises nineteenth-century anti-Mormonism? (178). (He cites my own essay on Kushner?s representation of Mormons in the play in such a way that it appears that the essay supports his argument that Kushner is simply intolerant [178?79]. It does not.) He entirely ignores the play?s final scene, in which Kushner?s ideal community comes together, led by one of the play?s central Mormon characters, to embrace a reinterpreted angelic vision. Similarly, he quotes Stephen Colbert ?mock[ing]? the miraculous experiences of both Joseph Smith and Moses, thereby, he asserts, using Americans? contempt for Mormonism to undermine more widely held Judeo-Christian beliefs (187). He does not acknowledge the possibility that Colbert connected Smith?s and Moses?s miracles not as a means of denigrating Moses, but rather as a means of challenging his viewers to consider that their own beliefs are not so different, in their essentials, from the Mormons?. Finally, Givens does not engage with sources that demonstrate increasing tolerance and efforts at understanding, including Helen Whitney?s widely respected documentary The Mormons (2007)?in which Givens was heavily featured?and more recent examples like NBC?s Rock Center episode ?Mormon in America? (2012). [5]

Givens? final purpose is not, however, to engage with non-Mormon American ambivalence toward the Latter-day Saints. Rather, he wants to show that the mainstream that Mormonism fought so hard to join in the 20th century is under attack, and Mormonism?s success in joining that mainstream is now the source of the attacks against the religion. He seems to lament that ?Murphy Brown and the Gilmore Girls [have] replace[d] Ozzie and Harriet and the Waltons.? He views the values celebrated by ABC?s popular sitcom Modern Family (2009?), with its celebration of second marriages, multi-cultural families, and gay parents, as the new ?ruling paradigm? (178)?the 21st century?s new orthodoxy?and regards Mormonism?s embrace of the traditional values represented by Ozzie and Harriet as the new target on the community?s back. He finally argues that anti-Mormonism is on the rise because anti-religious sentiment is increasing in the United States. Because Mormonism embraces the sacred and the supernatural that is at the heart of Christianity, he argues, ?attackers of Mormonism? are ?implicitly, and perhaps deliberately, really attacking the foundations of Christianity itself? (187). His updates, then, are not simply about describing and explaining the myriad responses to the Latter-day Saints in early 21st-century American culture?representations that have been sharply divided along the lines of the culture wars in the last several decades. Rather, in the new edition of Viper, Givens uses his analysis of Mormonism in the public sphere to place himself squarely on the side of the defenders of the traditional values that the Mormons?or at least the Mormon image?came to embody a half-century ago.



[1] See Fluhman, ?Peculiar People?: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 53?54.

[2] Givens does engage in an extended discussion of The Book of Mormon on Broadway, another Trey Parker and Matt Stone creation, but in some ways the Broadway show softpedals the television show’s sharp wit. See ?Probably? (2000), in which Saddam Hussein is banished from hell to live with the Mormons (who are, incidentally, the only people who get to heaven); ?Super Best Friends? (2001), in which Joseph Smith is one of Jesus?s team of supernatural crime fighters; and ?All about Mormons? (2003), in which a Mormon family moves to town and their son gets the last word.

[3] The first category not only includes numerous profiles of fundamentalist polygamy, but also NBC?s Rock Center episode ?Mormon in America? (2012). The latter ignores TLC?s popular reality series Sister Wives (2011?).

[4] See for example The Washington Post, ?After Romney meeting, Billy Graham website scrubs Mormon?cult? reference? (October 16, 2012).

[5] In her seminal essay ?From Satyr to Saint: American Perceptions of the Mormons, 1860?1960? and her later follow up ?Surveying the Mormon Image since 1960,? Jan Shipps notes that while negative images of the Mormons have persisted throughout the 20th century, there has been an increase in positive images across the same time period. Both essays are printed in Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000). My own research has also demonstrated that the frequency of positive images increased during the 20th century, as well as showing that many depictions of the Mormons in the late 20th and early 21st century are richer and more nuanced?in short, treating the Saints as fully developed human figures rather than caricatures.


Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Cultural History Intellectual History Popular Culture


  1. Thanks, Cristine, for the review of the updated edition. Do you know the background story behind this version? Did OUP reach out to him, or did Givens approach them with the idea?

    Comment by Christopher — May 27, 2013 @ 7:15 am

  2. Thoughtful and thorough review, thanks, CHJ! I second Christopher’s question.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 27, 2013 @ 7:18 am

  3. Thanks, Christopher and J Stuart. I don’t have an answer to that question. Perhaps someone else in the JI community does?

    Comment by Cristine — May 27, 2013 @ 7:57 am

  4. Great and informative review, Cristine. Thanks.

    Comment by David G. — May 27, 2013 @ 10:32 am

  5. Thanks for the extensive review!

    Comment by Saskia — May 27, 2013 @ 11:43 am

  6. Thanks, Cristine. One of the great points I took from the new edition was the apt analysis that American culture often tries to present the extremes of Mormonism–e.g., the many books and tv shows on fundamentalists–in order to demonstrate the broad extent of their (at times superficial) toleration. I thought that was a brilliant point worth noting.

    Comment by Ben P — May 27, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

  7. It’s true, Ben. Givens makes a great point that American culture uses Mormons and other minorities to show off its much vaunted toleration. I wish, though, that he had spent some time on the *other* extreme end of the spectrum… Extreme, unrealistic positive images. As it is, he focuses wholly on the negative imagery, and misses an opportunity to talk about the interplay of and reasons behind the uses of representations of such opposing extremes.

    Comment by Cristine — May 27, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

  8. Thanks for the review, Cristine.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 28, 2013 @ 8:59 am

  9. Thanks for the review Cristine. Some pushback on some of your characterizations, however–

    For starters, I think Givens clearly narrows the scope of his added material with the first subtitle in that added final chapter, “New Variations on Old Themes.” Givens is updating a history of anti-Mormonism– not a history of general perceptions of Mormonism. He is interested, therefore, in focusing on the continuity between old forms or rhetorical devices in anti-Mormonism, and what shows up in today’s print culture and popular culture. (Which brings me to another point– that Givens doesn’t focus on Whitney’s PBS documentary because that isn’t print or popular culture; it’s a documentary. It’d be a great compliment to American audiences if documentaries were considered popular culture, though- hopefully I’m wrong! I do think he could have done more on other popular culture TV shows, etc.) The point is, Givens was not trying to show the whole media went rabidly anti-Mormon. Clearly, there were more positive treatments. But the stuff he quotes (again, in a history of anti-Mormonism– not general Mormon images) is *pretty wild*, you’ve gotta admit. I don’t think it’s a show of hyperbole to say that the *implications* of statements like those of Jane Barnes, Francis Boyle, and others (that suggested “criminality, dark designs, and governmental subversion” in Mormon intentions) were a “step away from calling for the pogroms that accompanied nineteenth-century anti-Catholic hysteria.” The relative infrequency of these statements overall doesn’t detract from the fact that they happened in mainstream forums (like CNN) where such statements would never in a million years be made about Jews or Muslims. And in any case, the presence of positive statements wouldn’t have detracted from the abuse or implications in these statements anymore than positive statements about blacks or Jews would detract from the reality of anti-Semitism or racism. And as I said, this is a book *about* anti-Mormonism, it’s continuities and underpinnings.

    You also completely misread his take on Colbert; Givens believes Colbert was, in fact, “challenging his viewers to consider that their own beliefs are not so different, in their essentials, from the Mormons.?” Givens was showing that Colbert had astutely linked the supernaturalism of both Mormonism and Christianity, and therefore, Colbert’s comparison of the two directed his “devastating sarcasm” towards those oblivious to the similarities between the two– not towards Judeo-Christian principles themselves.

    Also, your comment about his “lament” of the eclipse of Murphy Brown and the Waltons seems quite a bit of extrapolation. He is making the point that Mormonism’s conservative values were once in perfect alignment with mainstream America’s; and now that mainstream America has embraced multiculturalism rather than conservatism or conformity, Mormonism is “revolting” in its “cleanliness” (acc. to one author’s novel) rather than celebrated for it. The shift in American values as portrayed by the media, and the failure of Mormonism to follow suit has made Mormonism out of place. Not sure that really opens Givens up to any disclosure of his personal opinions about any of those values, period. Your conclusion, then, that Givens was using his entire analysis to illustrate his own position is, not to be rude, patently absurd and rather offensive. Treating his scholarship as a guise for his own views without solid foundations is inappropriate.

    Also, I think you misrepresent his citation of your work. He isn’t arguing that Kushner is “simply intolerant” or that you espouse such a view; Givens quotes you simply to the effect that for Kushner, tolerance is insufficient as “the only legitimate principle guiding human behavior.”

    Finally, my understanding is that OUP asked for an updated section on the Romney election for their paperback release of the book.

    Comment by Rachael — May 28, 2013 @ 9:38 am

  10. “The relative infrequency of these statements overall doesn?t detract from the fact that they happened in mainstream forums (like CNN) where such statements would never in a million years be made about Jews or Muslims.”

    Please tell me you’re kidding. Please.

    Comment by Christopher — May 28, 2013 @ 10:49 am

  11. Rachael: thanks for chiming in. Save for the bit of exaggeration that Christopher pointed out, I actually think you bring up valid and important points that should certainly be read with Crissy’s review.

    This is a good conversation to have, so thanks to both of you.

    Comment by Ben P — May 28, 2013 @ 10:59 am

  12. You think the CNN or the New York Times would really host a speaker or publish an op-ed that calls Islam or Judaism “more ridiculous than any other religion,” or says that we can’t elect a [Jew or Muslim] to the presidency because they would subvert the constitution and “illegally use its money and influence to defeat Roe v. Wade”? You’re kidding, right?

    It was a Jewish magazine that recognized that very point: “the conservative Jewish magazine Commentary decried anti-Mormonism as the ?last socially acceptable hate? and noted that Dowd had gotten away with a level of religious invective that would never be tolerated against Jews or Muslims.”

    Comment by Rachael — May 28, 2013 @ 11:00 am

  13. On the other hand, if you’re objecting to the phrase “never in a million years” for its literal numeric meaning, you’re obviously correct (given our ample history of anti-Semitism etc in mainstream forums of the past). I should have used a different phrase to express that in today’s climate, such sentiments would not be articulated in mainstream forums.

    Comment by Rachael — May 28, 2013 @ 11:03 am

  14. Perhaps anti-Semitism is no longer acceptable, but anti-Islamic sentiments are pervasive. Ever been put in a room at an airport and kept for hours because there was a recent terrorist threat and you look vaguely Middle Eastern? I know of at least one person who has. Fox News routinely makes comments about Islam and its unAmericanness. Salon also has a helpful list of anti-Islamic actions and statements.

    When a news anchors calls for listening devices to be installed in all ward buildings, I’ll believe that anti-Mormonism is more pervasive than anti-Islamism. Until then, I’m skeptical.

    *Note: In my mind, Fox News is just as mainstream as CNN. I know FAR more people who listen to Fox News than I do who listen to CNN.

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 28, 2013 @ 11:10 am

  15. Sure, we can haggle about my- and the magazine Commentary’s– inclusion of Islam; Judaism and race are, I think, common ground. This was a pretty minor point in my overall critique of Crissy’s critique, in which I was trying to explain that Givens deliberately focused on these anti-Mormon portrayals, not to give a general overview of Mormonism in the media (in which case the call for greater focus on positive views would be appropriate), but to show the continuity between old forms of anti-Mormonism and current ones.

    Comment by Rachael — May 28, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

  16. Rachael,

    I apologize for the initially flippant comment, though my shock that anyone would claim the mainstream media treats Mormonism worse than Islam or Judaism remains. I’m glad to see you’re at least willing to rethink your inclusion of Islam. More broadly, though, I think playing “who is the most persecuted religion?” is a largely fruitless game that detracts from more important questions.

    Comment by Christopher — May 28, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

  17. Thank you, all, for continuing this discussion.

    Rachael, I stand by my reading. I’m sorry if that reading is offensive to you or to anyone else. I certainly didn?t intend to offend anyone. I respect Givens? work enormously, and I deeply appreciate the insight he’s brought to my own work ? often through our disagreements ? both through his writing and in our personal interactions. I never said the book was any kind of “guise,” and I don’t think it’s illegitimate for a scholar to use their work on a specific, relatively limited subject to express views on wider issues. But I also don’t think it’s illegitimate to discuss those wider views, whether they’re openly stated or implied.

    While the first section of the final chapter may be subheaded “New Variations on Old Themes,” the actual subtitle of the chapter as a whole is “The Mormon Image in the 20th Century – and Beyond.” In order to cover “the Mormon Image,” as the chapter’s title promises, positive representations and new takes on the Mormon image should be engaged alongside the continuing negative images.

    Regarding my statement that Givens ?seems to lament? the shift from Ozzie and Harriet to Murphy Brown, I don’t have all of my notes or my copies of the book with me at the moment, and I don’t think that a point-by-point over language and tone would be effective in a comments section on a blog post ? nor do I think it will change either of our minds. Suffice it to say that my own close reading of Viper ? including a line-by-line comparison of the final chapter in the original and updated editions ? led me to my interpretation that Givens is focused on negative images of the Saints to the exclusion of significant evidence of changing representations of and responses to the Mormons in recent decades. He expresses the conviction that anti-Mormonism is flourishing, but the significant evidence of changing representations at least challenges and complicates such a conclusion. He also directly connects attacks on Mormonism to attacks on Christianity and the ?mainstream,? and his tone of disapproval with regard to anti-Mormon images (which is entirely understandable) bleeds over into his discussion of the relationship between attacks on Mormonism and what he sees as attacks on the ?mainstream? more generally.

    I agree with Christopher and AmandaHK regarding the images of other minorities, particularly Muslims, in the contemporary media.

    On the Colbert point, I can only say that my reading and yours don?t agree. Your assertion of Givens? opinion on Colbert?s bit is entirely plausible, but it didn?t come through clearly in the text.

    Finally, on Kushner, Givens states that Kushner ?reprises nineteenth-century anti-Mormonism? (178). He does not discuss Kushner?s admiration for specific aspects of Mormonism, nor does he acknowledge that a Mormon character remains a believer in angelic visions and is the spiritual leader of Kushner?s community at the end of the play. He focuses entirely on aspects of the play that critique Mormonism. (We actually discussed our disagreements about the play at length when I was preparing the essay for publication.) And, from my perspective, he does cite my essay in such a way that it appears that our arguments agree.

    Again, thanks to all for engaging in such a vigorous discussion of this important book with me.

    Comment by Cristine — May 28, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

  18. Thanks Crissy. And all for useful discussion. I’m excited to do my own comparison of the original and revised editions.

    Comment by Jjohnson — May 28, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

  19. […] which details anti-Mormonism primarily in 19th century literature. (Something Cristine seems to have forgotten in her recent review.) My dad finished the book in 1997, when I was still in high school, so it was a good time for me […]

    Pingback by New Low for Anti-Mormons: | Difficult Run — June 13, 2013 @ 10:33 am

  20. A probably-too-late follow-up, The New York Times has featured a very vocal Islamophobe in the past.

    Comment by BHodges — June 13, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

  21. Thanks, BHodges, for the addition (and sorry I’m just noticing it!). It’s true that there are plenty of examples of intolerance given full voice in American culture. I think it’s both a symptom of the larger problem of intolerance in the US AND an important recognition of freedom of speech. After all, if the opinions exist but people aren’t allowed to express them in legitimate forums, then those of us who would speak back aren’t as likely to see/hear them and respond. (As you might imagine, I’m a big fan of counter-protests against groups like Westboro Baptist Church. I also think it was a good thing that Columbia University allowed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak in 2007 — and allowed members of the audience to question and respond to him.)

    Comment by Cristine — June 19, 2013 @ 8:42 am


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