Needful Opposition: Addressing Conflict and Controversy in Mormon History Plays

Stephanie Foster Breinholt and Marvin Payne in BYU’s 2001 production of  Tim Slover’s_Hancock County_.

How to present Mormon History has often been a sensitive thing within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Especially with the understandable impulse to protect the faith and culture of an entire people, it can be tempting to soft pedal it, to not get into the nitty gritty of historical details, or to side step explosive issues when presenting history in a dramatic work. Although there are plenty of white washed Mormon history plays out there, there has also been a tradition of strong, engaging  playwrights involved in Mormon Drama who haven’t been afraid to tackle head on the inherent conflicts, human flaws and controversies that are unavoidable when writing plays based on history.

Mormon History, whether dramatized or not, has been a hot button issue within the Church in the past. Even when written by active, faithful Latter-day Saints who are writing from a place of faith, there have been times in recent Mormon record when there was discouragement from people high in the Church about writing honest history that addressed controversy or contradiction in the history of the Church. There have even been instances where historians have faced Church discipline because of their writing. Fortunately, that day seems to have changed and attitudes within Church leadership have become increasingly progressive regarding its history.

For example, Richard Bushman’s very forthright and honest biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling deals very directly with Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, possible character flaws, treasure digging, seer stones, and 19th century folk practices. While Bushman writes from the perspective of a believer, yet he is not afraid to address in detail facts about Joseph Smith’s life that may make some Mormons uncomfortable. He honors Joseph Smith as a prophet, but he never sets him up as infallible.

Instead of going after Bushman for writing this monumental biography, the Church ordained him to the priesthood office of a Patriarch and vigorously promotes Rough Stone Rolling in its chain of Church owned book stores Deseret Book. Long gone are the days where the Church will punish its members for writing forthright history, even when some elements of it are unflattering, as long as the faith of the writer is still evident.

The Church itself has recently sponsored its own projects in the same vein. It encouraged Richard Turley (official Assistant Church Historian of the LDS Church), Ronald W. Walker (a BYU professor of history), and Glen Leonard (director of the Church’s Museum of Church History and Art) in the writing of Massacre at Mountain Meadows, detailing one of the greatest wrongs ever perpetrated by members of the LDS faith. The Church has also invested heavily in the Joseph Smith Papers project, officially publishing multiple volumes of all of the known writings of Joseph Smith, without censoring the material. It’s a huge accomplishment by the Church, and they ought to be commended for the strides they are making in how it represents (and how it lets other represent) its own history.

Thus in this same spirit, Mormon dramatists ought to feel the same freedom in writing about its own history (I should note that this ought to include all Mormon writers and artists, but I’m specifically writing from the perspective of a playwright and screenwriter). Ranging back to the foundations of Western Drama in Greece, and being heralded by the history plays of Shakespeare himself, history has always been a ripe place for the playwright to explore, and there have been many talented Mormon playwrights who have chosen to write from a Mormon historical perspective.

Again, there is no lack of plays that are afraid to show an imperfect form of Mormon history, but many of Mormon drama’s best playwrights have tackled very complicated aspects of Mormon history with grace, courage and intelligence.

Mormon playwright Tim Slover’s Hancock County is a personal favorite of mine. The play is set after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, and focuses around the murder trials brought against anti-Mormon newspaper editor Thomas Sharp and others who were accused of organizing and inciting the mob that stormed Carthage Jail and murdered Joseph and Hyrum Smith. The play is not particularly inflammatory, fortunately (it was “safe” enough to play at BYU, after all). It is largely pro-Mormon in its sympathies and I believe most Mormons would completely enjoy the play. But in following the play’s characters, it does address the possible fallibility and humanity of Joseph Smith.

One of the main protagonists of Hancock County is Eliza Graham, the chief witness against Sharp, as she heard him admit to inciting the mob while she worked in a tavern. Within the play, Slover presents Eliza as a woman who once followed the Mormons, but had withdrawn a great deal from the faith. When the Prosecutor for the State Josiah Lamborn tries to convince Eliza to testify against Joseph Smith’s murderers, Eliza resists out of fear. When Lamborn accuses her of not caring about her prophet, Eliza’s doubts and faith struggles regarding Joseph Smith come out:

ELIZA. And then, a couple of years ago, they were just opening this part of the Mansion House. Emma—that’s the Prophet’s wife—she’d been clear to St. Louis to buy furniture and linens and silverware. I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a new red carpet. And the Prophet and Sister Emma decided to make a party of it. They used to do like that all the time: everything was a celebration. So I was flying around, helping get everything ready, singing a hymn I was so happy.

ELIZA. Around noon I came up into the passageway from the private part of the house.

She stops, remembering, suddenly sober.

LAMBORN. Yes?

ELIZA. And there was Sister Emma, just standing there. Her eyes were red, and her face was terrible with grief. I was going to walk on and leave her private, but she spied me. “Oh Sister Eliza,” she said. She looked so stricken, I took her hands. She just clung to me then and sobbed and sobbed. And then she . . . she told me. And my heart just broke up into pieces.

LAMBORN. Now wait. Wait. I’m just not following this.

ELIZA. Have you ever heard of spiritual wifery, Mr. Lamborn?

LAMBORN. No, I can’t say—

ELIZA. Joseph Smith took another wife. People don’t know this. Lots of Mormons don’t know it. But it’s true. And it broke Sister Emma’s heart.

LAMBORN. Well.

ELIZA. She said it came from God. And Brother Brigham says sometimes God asks painful, unhappy things. And I guess he’s right, if you read your Bible. “He’s still the Prophet,” Sister Emma kept saying. She believed it, too. She stayed loyal ‘til the day he died. But my belief in him just flew away like sparks from a fire.
(Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, editor’s manuscript part two, p. 195-196)

In the play, Eliza regains her faith when she defends Joseph Smith in her testimony in court. Yet the above moment from the play showed just how hard won that faith was and how complicated, and in some cases devastating, elements of Mormon history are.

Even for the Mormon believer (as I consider myself to be), being informed about the nitty gritty of Mormon history can challenge your faith. But it is in the heat of that challenge where faith becomes a more vigorous, more sure conviction. You are not believing in ignorance, but rather believing with an informed, courageous perspective.

Mormons believe what the Book of Mormon says, that there is “opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11), and that opposition is a necessary part of their faith and their existence. In including this “opposition” in the context of their work, even when they’re ultimately telling a faith promoting narrative, Mormon playwrights need not feel like they’re enemies of the faith or working against their beliefs, but rather fulfilling the expectations of Joseph Smith when he said: “Thy mind, O man! If thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity, thou must commune with God” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 137).

In her play Burdens of Earth, Mormon playwright and poet Susan Elizabeth Howe portrays a very sympathetic, yet human version of Joseph Smith. In the play the Mormon prophet is suffering in prison with other Mormon leaders after their people have been expelled from the state of Missouri under the threat of extermination. In Liberty Jail (an ironic name for a prison) Joseph Smith is suffering from extreme guilt after seeing the suffering of his people, wondering if something he did is part of the reason his people have been driven from their homes, killed and raped as part of the Missouri militia’s efforts to drive the Mormons from their midst.

Throughout the play Joseph Smith re-plays various memories in his mind (which are dramatized for the audience) as he dwells on his faults and mistakes (and, in the context of the play, some of them are seen as mistakes…Joseph Smith is not infallible in this play). Joseph is portrayed as being in a place of great self-doubt:

JOSEPH. When we were boys, one day I found a beetle crawling up the rock pile behind our field… It stopped for a moment, confused, and then turned aside, trying to get around the stick. But no matter how it turned, I kept blocking its path… Finally it stopped trying to get around the stick. It bumped up against it, as if it were testing it with its head, and then it climbed up onto it to try and get over… So I picked up the stick. I kept the beetle crawling up and around that stick again and again. When it would reach the top, I’d turn the stick upside down. It crawled on and on and never really got anywhere. But when I finally tired and let it down, it wouldn’t climb back onto the rocks. I finally had to hit the stick against a rock to jar it loose. The beetle fell, and I lost it. I hope I didn’t kill it. (Short pause.) I wonder if they hibernate . . .

HYRUM. I don’t want to talk about beetles—

JOSEPH. . . . or if the snow kills them.

HYRUM. —I want to talk about you.

JOSEPH. I am talking about me. Listen, can’t you?

HYRUM. What is wrong?

JOSEPH. You know what’s wrong. They’ve driven the Saints from this state. They tried to exterminate them, like insects. Those who didn’t die from the cold or the journey have spent the winter camping in snow, surviving on nothing but air and a little parched corn. And I rot here, like a frozen potato, of no use to them or to anyone.

HYRUM. The Lord will take care of them.

JOSEPH. How can you think that now?

HYRUM. What are you saying?

JOSEPH. I don’t know what to do, Hyrum. I don’t know how to help them.

HYRUM. The Lord will let you know.

JOSEPH. Not this time. I try with all my soul to understand where we should go now, what we should do, and I think I have something, and then I pray, and it’s as if my prayers echo off the walls. As if I’m only speaking to myself.

HYRUM. The Lord wouldn’t abandon us here.

JOSEPH. What’s wrong? Is it me? Have I failed in some way?

HYRUM. You have given everything. Your life. I don’t see how you can do more than that.

JOSEPH. When I lost the manuscript of the Book of Mormon and the plates were taken from me, at least I understood my sin and could repent. But I don’t know what sin is in me, what evil could have brought us here.

HYRUM. It is not you.

JOSEPH. Then why has the Lord left us in this jail? Why so much misery for the Saints? (Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, editor’s manuscript part 1, p. 311-312).

Eventually Joseph Smith is able to come to terms with his own humanity and move past the guilt and receives a powerful revelation from God. But that revelation is hard bought and comes only after the Prophet is able to look into his own soul and the complexities of his own life and see that urgent need for grace and forgiveness.

This need for self-reflection is not only important in Mormon Drama, but in Mormonism in general. Too often we assume that “all is well in Zion” and that to reflect on our cultural faults and failings is to somehow be unfaithful to the Church. I believe it’s quite the opposite. To stubbornly ignore our mistakes and shortcomings is a far cry from the “broken heart and contrite spirit” which the Book of Mormon requires (3 Nephi 9:20). Mormon playwrights like Howe understand this principle well when they’re able to cross themselves and ponder upon their faith from a reflective, sometimes even self critical, viewpoint.

In Margaret Blair Young’s play I Am Jane, Young tells the little know story of 19th century African-American, Mormon pioneers, centering specifically around the life of Jane Manning James. Because of the Church’s former policy of denying its priesthood (although not membership) to black Mormons until 1978, many have assumed that this policy was always in place in the Church before then. This is not the case.

During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, no such policy was enforced in the Church and there were a number of faithful black Mormons, even some who held the priesthood such as Elijah Abel. Joseph Smith was actually quite progressive on the issue of race for his time period, having (as before stated) welcomed black men into the Church’s priesthood, ran for the American presidency on a platform that included the abolishment of slavery, and he and his first wife Emma asked to have Jane Manning James sealed (a priesthood/temple ordinance that was later denied her) to his family as an adopted “daughter.” Jane declined this invitation, not quite understanding it, but later regretted it.

The play represents these and other events, including Jane’s vision of Joseph Smith which caused her and her family to walk hundreds of miles to Nauvoo, Illinois to join the Mormons. After Joseph Smith’s death and the Mormons’ famous pioneer trek West, things change for black Mormons. Brigham Young, swayed by racist teachings that had infiltrated the Church, changed the policy that had once allowed black men like Elijah Abel to receive the priesthood and black women like Jane to be invited to be sealed to the Prophet’s family.

One of the most shocking historical events in the play occurs when a black man is lynched in Utah after he had attacked a white man, creating fear and prejudice against the other black Mormons in the play. The ugly racism that had infiltrated the Church is disturbingly portrayed in the play, as well as Jane and other black Mormons reaction to it. People like Jane and Elijah Abel remain stalwarts in the faith, despite the inequality and prejudice directed towards them. Others fall away and never come back to the Church, creating a hurtful divide that was never healed in their day.

For those who expect infallibility in the Church and are defensive about any perceived errors in Church History, the play can have difficult implications. But for those who believe the Church’s doctrines about Eternal Progression apply to even the Church itself, there is much to admire about the play—and much to learn from it.

Near the end of her life, the play portrays Elijah Abel encouraging Jane to keep petitioning the Church for increased rights for black Mormons:

ELIJAH. The Lord will prove me. Now before I leave, I must ask you: Do you understand your position?

JANE. Pardon me?

ELIJAH. You and me, Jane James, we the only colored folks in this whole valley who knowed Brother Joseph Smith.

ELIJAH. We the only colored folks here with such memories and such position. We got a little voice. Now, you know I’ve asked time and again for my blessin’s in the temple. I doubt I’ll even be alive to see the temple when it’s finished, but you likely will be. Ask for your blessings, sister. Don’t let the petitions stop just because I’m gone. Go visit President Taylor, and keep askin’.

JANE. I will do that. Elder Abel, you’ll be missed. Wherever your mission takes you, I hope you find yourself among friends.

ELIJAH. I hope the same for you. I been prayin’ for you since all your troubles began.

JANE. My troubles began before you ever met me (Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, editor’s manuscript, part two, p.587).

Jane continued to write the President of the Church (at that point, John Taylor) and her stake president, pleading to have their former opportunities restored. Eventually, she was allowed to stand in and do proxy baptisms for the dead on behalf of her ancestors, which was a major victory for her. However, she still pled on behalf of her people, requests which were never fully implemented in her life.

These peaceful demonstrations to her Church leaders, however, were a strong testimony of her belief in the Book of Mormon’s teaching that “none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33).

Whether it is controversial principles like Mormon polygamy referenced in Hancock County, the very human and intimate fallibility of Church leaders as portrayed in Burdens of Earth, or the portrayal of heart breaking mistakes in policy like the priesthood restriction in I Am Jane, Mormon dramatists should take encouragement from these plays when they attempt to represent the complexities of Mormon History on stage (or film, or literature, or art).

It is a common goal of both artists (theatrical or otherwise) and spiritual seekers (Mormon or otherwise) to find meaning through their explorations. Meaning, however, can’t be taken out of its context. Conflict, even controversy is part of that context. Joseph Smith said, “In proving contraries, the truth is made manifest.”

Brigham Young, specifically speaking about the appropriateness of portraying evil on the stage, and its instructional capacity, said, “[T]he Lord understands the good and the evil. Why should not we likewise understand them? We should. Why? To know how to choose the good and refuse the evil; which we cannot do unless we understand the evil as well as the good” (Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses, 289).

I believe this attitude can also be employed with how we portray Mormon history, on stage or otherwise. Mormons, after all, are subject to the same mistakes, the same “good and evil.” To portray an unconflicted, infallible view of our history would be to rob it of its meaning, for that conflict and controversy is all part of the process and context that God has placed us within. So, in creating Mormon History plays, I believe it is not only intellectually important, but spiritually needful, if we are going to gain any meaning or light from the stories being presented. The shadows are needed to contrast the light.

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a national award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri is currently attending graduate school in ASU's Dramatic Writing program. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, Zion Theatre Company, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, Arizona State University's Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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8 Responses to Needful Opposition: Addressing Conflict and Controversy in Mormon History Plays

  1. I really appreciate this post. In my novel Lightning Tree, I did my very best to tread that line–I feel it is time for some fiction about the dark chapters of our history (in the example of my book, the Mountain Meadows Massacre) that actually addresses historically documented fact without glossing things over, while at the same time, not making into a platform for bitterness & accusation. The pioneers were people; imperfect, Traumatized by the violent episodes of their past. They did bad things sometimes, and we can’t get around that if we’re going to be honest with ourselves. But we have to see their humanity, too. That means no pedestals, but also no demonizing.

    I think my book has been well-received both by people who enjoy realistic historical fiction that doesn’t cut corners or shy away from reality, and people who want to read an inspiring story. This, more than anything else, has made me feel good about what I did with Lightning Tree. There are a couple reviews (in particular the one in Meridian Magazine, which got details of my story and characters wrong) that make me think a few people really were upset at the way I addressed history, but for the most part… yeah. People are ready. I’m so excited to see this new trend in LDS literature.

  2. Sarah,

    I bought Lightning Tree and it’s high on my reading list. I’m very excited to read it and it seems like a good example of exactly what I’m talking about.

    I talk about my own encounters with those who resist this kind of narrative in a similarly themed essay I wrote at A Motley Vision. That essay focuses on my own work, unlike the overall approach to Mormon Historical Drama in general that I take in this essay. That’s over here:
    http://www.motleyvision.org/2012/blinded-by-the-fire-cultural-memory-and-the-response-to-my-mormon-history-plays/

  3. Thank you for directing me to that :) I’ve been without internet at home for a while & haven’t had much time to peruse the LDS arts blogs. This is such a great topic for discussion.

    • I agree. Church History is so rich, complex, vibrant, and interesting to me.

      Although I understand why many people are reticent to dig deep with Church History, there are some legitimately disturbing things there if you’ve only been fed a certain, pristine version of Joseph Smith and our leaders. Yet I feel that my faith has only strengthened, matured, and blossomed through its study. I believe just as firmly, if not more so, in the Restored Gospel because of studying Church History than I ever did when I didn’t have the knowledge its study has provided me.

  4. Amen. When you put people on pedestals, you cannot fully appreciate the sacrifices that they make. When you see our faith as inherently perfect & unchanging, you also see it as stagnant and brittle. People forget to look back on the past and see that the church has never been perfect, it takes time & effort to understand and refine gospel principles, and prophets have *never* been perfect.

  5. Sarah,
    Have you had any negative reactions or criticism from people with how you represent history? Has anyone been vocally defensive about it, or have people generally been mature about it? With my Mormon history plays, most people came to me fascinated, even touched. There were a minority of people who did struggle, though.

  6. I think, for the most part, my book is not well known enough to generate controversy. There was one article in Meridian Magazine that was rather dismissive, and the writer (like I said) got details about the book & characters wrong, which made me wonder if she really read it carefully, and I wondered if it had something to do with the history.
    But most have said they appreciate that I did the hard work of researching, and then accurately portraying, the sort of mystery and danger than hung over the pioneer communities in the wake of MMM. Just so you know, it’s only backstory in Lightning Tree. I don’t portray the MMM at all. It just feeds my plot and motivates a few of my characters. But I am currently writing the next book (which I hope my publisher will want) and it will have more direct reference to it.

  7. …and since you are reading it, I should also warn that the editing was rough. My first published novel, so I suppose that’s to be expected, perhaps. But I go back and read some passages and cringe at word echoes, misplaced commas. There is one unfortunate page break, too, that makes the story seem a little abrupt at the end. Anyway. The things we learn.

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