Latter Day Saints in popular culture

Latter Day Saints in popular culture

Mormons have been portrayed in popular media many times. These portrayals often emphasize controversy such as polygamy or myths about the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church).


In the 19th and 20th centuries

The second half of the story, The Country of the Saints, is set in the United States and includes an appearance by Brigham Young.

Arthur Conan Doyle's detective novel A Study in Scarlet is one such portrayal that caused controversy. Mormons viewed the portrayal of the Danites in the book as highly erroneous, being yet another instance of anti-Mormon antagonism in popular media. Conan Doyle, according to his daughter, had relied upon what had been published about Mormons by former Mormons (historians believing these probably to be Fannie Stenhouse, William A. Hickman, William Jarman, John Hyde, and Ann Eliza Young), believing those accounts to be factual. Conan Doyle visited the United States in 1923, and one leg of his lecture tour took him to the University of Utah, to lecture on spiritualism. During his stay he received a letter from a Dr. G. Hodgson Higgins, who had formed his impressions of Mormonism based upon the portrayal in A Study in Scarlet, which "gave the impression that murder was a common practice among them", and who suggested that Conan Doyle "express his regret at having propagated falsehoods about the Mormon Church and people". Conan Doyle refused to withdraw what he had written about the Danites and the murders, on the grounds that it was a matter of historical record, but stated that his treatment in the novel was more "lurid" than the treatment by a history textbook would have been, and promised that in the future his portrayals of the Latter-day Saints would be based upon his firsthand experience of them on his visit. Subsequent Mormon characters in Conan Doyle's work were indeed more sympathetic.[1]

Jules Verne's classic novel Around the World in 80 Days references a "Mormon Elder" who launches into a diatribe about his religion in a railcar where passengers Phileas Fogg, Detective Fix, Princess Auooda, and Passepartout become a captive audience. Verne follows the 19th century propensity to view polygamy as central to Mormonism, going so far as to call it, "the sole basis of the religion."

Portrayals of Mormons and of Mormonism in movies have also drawn criticism, with critics such as d'Arc describing the bulk of what the world heard of Mormons in the 19th and early 20th century, via the literature of the day, as "polygamy, mystic revelations to modern prophets, golden bibles, and scheming missionaries adding continually to their harem of wives", and stating that that this portrayal found its way into movies. He gives two examples of the films from 1905 to 1936 that incorporate this: the 1911 Danish film A Victim of the Mormons,1 where a young Mormon missionary in Copenhagen lures the fianceé of a close friend to elope with him to Utah, whereupon he locks her in his basement (a film whose showing Governor of Utah William Spry fought to prevent); and the 1917 film A Mormon Maid,2 incorporating what d'Arc describes as "the innocent-daughter-catching-the-eye-of-powerful-Mormon-leader formula". D'Arc argues that the reason that such portrayals became sparse in the 1930s was the introduction of the Hays and later Breen regulatory codes, which sharply curtailed the portrayal of polygamy in movies.[2]

Portrayals of Mormon characters in popular writing have not been universally viewed as negative by Mormons. The portrayals of Mormons in the work of Orson Scott Card, himself a Mormon, have been viewed as sympathetic portrayals of the Mormon world view that reach hundreds of thousands of readers worldwide, and thus that form a useful starting point for Mormons to explain Mormonism to non-Mormons. Similarly, the portrayals of Mormons and of Mormonism presented by Charles Dickens (describing the industrious, orderly nature of the Mormon emigrants he encountered on a ship leaving England), John Stuart Mill (using Mormon beliefs as test cases for his assertion that government should not interfere in the private lives of individuals), George Bernard Shaw (carrying Mill's argument further), Wallace Stegner (in The Gathering of Zion), and Harold Bloom (extolling Mormonism as the quintessential American Religion and Joseph Smith as "an authentic religious genius, unique in our national history") are all seen to be sympathetic to Mormons.[3]

Mormon literary critics such as Michael Austin consider the portrayal of Mormons in popular writing to have completely changed over the course of the 20th century, with the portrayal of Mormonism in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century being that of "a harsh, theocratic, and conspiratorial frontier community" and "a sinister secret society bent on tracking down and destroying its enemies wherever in the world they tried to hide" and of Mormons being icons of lawlessness, chaos, and sexual promiscuity, conceptions of Mormons and Mormonism that he views to have been incorporated into the works of Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Zane Grey (and even the 1995 made-for-TV movie The Avenging Angel3); whereas the portrayal at the end of the 20th century, in works by writers from Tom Clancy to Tony Kushner, being that of people who are "hyperobedient, patriotic, conservative, and, in all probability, sexually repressed". He argues that although the portrayal has changed, its relation to mainstream society has not. In both cases, the portrayal of Mormons and Mormonism is highly distinct from the mainstream, he argues, with the 19th century portrayal being in stark contrast to the Victorian values of the time, and the late 20th century portrayal being (ironically) that of a "Victorian misfit in a promiscuous society". He argues that the rôle of Mormons and Mormonism in popular writing is "to establish a foil for the [mainstream] values supported in the text".[3]

After a lengthy analysis of Mormon stereotypes in popular fiction, Austin draws the following conclusions:[4]

  • To the extent that popular literature is able to reflect popular sentiment, Mormons are not as well perceived in the larger American culture as most people would like to believe.
  • Most of these negative images have been fixed since the 19th century.
  • These stereotypes should not be confused with genuine political critique.
  • By studying the way that Mormons are portrayed in popular genre fiction insight can be gained into the way that Mormonism functions as a category in American culture.

In the 21st century

Positive portrayal of Mormons in popular media is still seen by Mormons as rare in the 21st century, with most portrayals being viewed as "usually just polygamy jokes for a cheap laugh, or the 'hip' thing nowadays — gay Mormon missionaries."[5]


Orgazmo is the story of a young Mormon who gets roped into making a pornographic movie.

Big Love

The HBO show Big Love stars Bill Paxton as Bill Henrickson, a modern-day polygamist who lives in suburban Salt Lake City with his three wives and seven children. Commentators such as Jesella and Ryan point out that polygamy was banned by the LDS Church "more than 100 years ago" and is against the law in Utah, the state where the show is set; and that the family explicitly isn't Mormon, with a statement to that effect preceding the first episode, but is presented as "being some sort of cult-like offshoot of the church".[6][7] Other commentators have simply described the Henricksons as a "Mormon family" and left it to others to draw the distinction.[8] The show has caused controversy, with Mormons and Church leaders reacting to what they perceive as being a veiled stereotype. The LDS Church released an official statement saying:[9][10]

The Church has long been concerned about the continued illegal practice of polygamy, and, in particular, about reports of child and wife abuse emanating from polygamous communities today. It will be regrettable if this program, by making polygamy the subject of entertainment, minimizes the seriousness of the problem. Placing the series in Salt Lake City, the international headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is enough to blur the line between the modern Church and the program's subject matter, and to reinforce old and long-outdated stereotypes. Big Love, like so much other television programming, is essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds.

HBO defended its show, asserting that its portrayal of the characters as outside of the LDS Church and continually having to hide their status from other people actually helps to educate non-Mormons about Mormonism, with Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment, saying:

It is interesting how many people are ignorant about the Mormon church and think that the Mormon church actually does condone polygamy. So in an odd way, the show is sort of beneficial in drawing that distinction.

The show again hit a sensitive spot when, in 2009, they recreated a temple ceremony that members of the Church consider to be sacred. The creators deemed it "a very important part of the story" and made it clear that they were going to air the episode as planned after "apologizing" for offending anyone. The Church's response to the news about the ceremony stated that as an institution, they would not call for a boycott. Also, they stated that despite assurances three years ago from HBO and the creators of "Big Love" that the show was not about Mormons, Mormon themes and increasingly unsympathetic characters were being woven into the show.

Cold Case

The portrayal of Mormons in Cold Case has also drawn criticism for being disrespectful by Chris Hicks. He has criticized the show for being an example of the unequal treatment of Mormons, stating that where insane people of other religions are portrayed in television drama, pains are taken to point out as part of the plot that they are "non-practicing", yet no such pains are taken when it comes to Mormons; and that instead, the faith is seen as directly related to the insanity of one character and that all Mormons were strange people. He also expressed concerns that the temple garments of Mormons did not receive the same sympathetic dramatic treatment or respect as do the sacred symbols of other religions.[11]

South Park

The Mormon family from the South Park episode "All About Mormons"

Commentators have been surprised by the portrayal of Mormons in South Park. Mormon commentators have described it as "unexpectedly, our best treatment". In South Park, while Mormon characters are "generally pollyannas with bike helmets and missionary tags", and an entire episode, "All About Mormons", is devoted to lampooning Joseph Smith, Jr. and the founding of the religion, the portrayal is considered to be generally positive. In the episode Super Best Friends, Joseph Smith is portrayed positively, appearing in a Superfriends parody involving other religious figures who are allied in the fight against David Blaine. In South Park it is only the Mormons who "got it right" and who go to Heaven after death and all adherents of other religions go to Hell, though this 'reversal of fortune' is likely just a literary device for giving debates of religious salvation a humorously ironic twist, rather than a meaningful endorsement of Mormonism (note creator Trey Parker's parodic portrayal of a Mormon character in Orgazmo). And the Mormon characters in the series are the only ones who commentators view to be "consistently compassionate, or even courteous".[12][13]

Latter Days

The gay romantic drama Latter Days was released in 2003. Set in Los Angeles, California, it portrays a young party animal who sets out to seduce an LDS missionary, but ends up falling in love with him. The film received mixed reviews,[14] and was banned in one movie theater chain.[15] However, reception of the film at some film festivals was very positive, including standing ovations. The movie was a commercial success and has received at least nine 'best film' awards.

Last Days

Gus Van Sant's film, Last Days, which is inspired by the final hours of Kurt Cobain's life, shows an addled musician being visiting by Latter Day Saint missionaries.[16] The character is unresponsive and puzzled by their presence.

The Strangers

In the 2008 American horror film entitled The Strangers, two children—named "Mormon Kid 1" and "Mormon Kid 2"—make a brief appearance at the end of the film. They hand Christian pamphlets to the 3 murderers as they drive away from a murder scene.

The Book of Mormon musical

In March of 2011, a religious satire musical opened on Broadway entitled The Book of Mormon. Conceived by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez, the play tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries sent to a remote village in northern Uganda, where a brutal warlord is threatening the local population. Naive and optimistic, the two missionaries try to share their scriptures — which only one of them knows very well — but have trouble connecting with the locals, who are worried about famine, poverty, and AIDS.[17]

Mrs Brown's Boys

Irish hit series, Mrs. Brown's Boys features an episode about religion in which the Mormon missionaries turn up at her house and discuss religion. She mistakes them for undertakers, and holds them "hostage" for a couple of hours.[18]

See also



  1. ^ Harold Schindler (1994-10-04). "Conan Doyle's Tale of Mormonism Had Utah Faithful Seeing Scarlet". Salt Lake Tribune. 
  2. ^ James V. d'Arc (Fall 1976). "The Saints on Celluloid: The Making of the Movie "Brigham Young"". Sunstone Magazine. 
  3. ^ a b Michael Austin (1994). "The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time". Annual of the Association for Mormon Letters. Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association Conference. 
  4. ^ Michael Austin. "Mormon Stereotypes in Popular Fiction: 1979-1998". Mormonism in Popular Literature Bibliography. 
  5. ^ "Notes From April 2006 General Conference — Saturday". The Baron of Deseret. 2006-04-04. 
  6. ^ Kara Jesella (2006-03-10). "Is Three Wives a Crowd?". AlterNet. 
  7. ^ Maureen Ryan (2006-03-09). "It's hard out here for a polygamist: "Big Love"". The Chicago Tribune. 
  8. ^ "Chuck Tryon" (2006-02-24). "TV Reads". the chutry experiment. 
  9. ^ Peter Bowes (2006-03-10). "Polygamy drama debuts on US TV". Los Angeles: BBC News. 
  10. ^ "Church Responds to Questions on HBO's Big Love". Salt Lake City, Utah: 2006-03-06.,15331,3885-1-22339,00.html. 
  11. ^ Chris Hicks (2005-06-05). "TV portrayal of Mormons mean, callous". Deseret Morning News.,1249,600131613,00.html. 
  12. ^ Serenity Valley (2006-05-29). "Trapped By the Mormons". 
  13. ^ Steve Evans (2006-06-03). "South Park Mormonism". 
  14. ^ "Latter Days reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2008-06-29. 
  15. ^ "NATIONAL THEATER CHAIN SAYS “NO” TO LATTER DAYS.". MCN Press Release. 2004-01-20. Archived from the original on 2007-05-24. Retrieved 2006-12-18. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ Michael Riedel, "Just 'Park' it here: Cartoon duo write Mormon musical", New York Post, 2010-04-14.
  18. ^

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