Mark Twain and the Mormons

“America’s Humorist”

Mark Twain is one of the great authentic American writers. He was a humorist who relied on exaggeration. He was an iconoclast who poked fun at religions, churches, scriptures, and well-established beliefs and practices.  

Mormons were not immune to his jabs. Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” is about his travels through the Wild West. He devoted five entertaining chapters to the Mormons.  Here are a few highlights:

The Book of Mormon

“All men have heard of the Mormon Bible, but few except the “elect” have seen it, or, at least, taken the trouble to read it. I brought away a copy from Salt Lake. The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so “slow,” so sleepy, such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print.”

“If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle–keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate. If he, according to tradition, merely translated it from certain ancient and mysteriously-engraved plates of copper, which he declares he found under a stone, in an out-of-the-way locality, the work of translating was equally a miracle, for the same reason.”

 “’And it came to pass’ was [Joseph Smith’s] pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.”

“The Mormon Bible is rather stupid and tiresome to read, but there is nothing vicious in its teachings. Its code of morals is unobjectionable–it is “smouched” from the New Testament and no credit given.”

[The Bible received an even greater “beating” from Twain.]

Polygamy and the “Homely” Weather-beaten Pioneer Women

“Our stay in Salt Lake City amounted to only two days, and therefore we had no time to make the customary inquisition into the workings of polygamy and get up the usual statistics and deductions preparatory to calling the attention of the nation at large once more to the matter. 

“I had the will to do it.  With the gushing self-sufficiency of youth, I was feverish to plunge in headlong and achieve a great reform here—until I saw the Mormon women.  Then I was touched.  My heart was wiser than my head.  It warmed toward these poor, ungainly and pathetically “homely” creatures, and as I turned to hide the generous moisture in my eyes.

“I said, ‘No–the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure–and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.”

Brother Brigham Bemoans the Cost of His Plural Wives’ Jewelry

(The next three stories are the purported statements of Brigham Young to a “Gentile” named “Mr. Johnson.”  Twain wrote a mild disclaimer suggesting that Mr. Johnson’s unreliability was outweighed by his entertainment value [if he even existed]. )

Brigham’s Wives and Kids

“A man can’t be wise all the time. In a heedless moment I gave my darling No. 6–excuse my calling her thus, as her other name has escaped me for the moment–a breast-pin. It was only worth twenty-five dollars–that is, apparently that was its whole cost–but its ultimate cost was inevitably bound to be a good deal more. You yourself have seen it climb up to six hundred and fifty dollars–and alas, even that is not the end!

“For I have wives all over this Territory of Utah. I have dozens of wives whose numbers, even, I do not know without looking in the family Bible. They are scattered far and wide among the mountains and valleys of my realm.

“And mark you, every solitary one of them will hear of this wretched breast pin, and every last one of them will have one or die. No. 6’s breast pin will cost me twenty-five hundred dollars before I see the end of it. And these creatures will compare these pins together, and if one is a shade finer than the rest, they will all be thrown on my hands, and I will have to order a new lot to keep peace in the family.”

Brother Brigham Grumbles About his Plural Wives’ Snoring and Their 96-foot-wide Bed

Brigham’s Bed

“…at a time when I had seventy-two wives in this house, I groaned under the pressure of keeping thousands of dollars tied up in seventy-two bedsteads …; and I just sold out the whole stock, sir, at a sacrifice, and built a single bedstead seven feet long and ninety-six feet wide.

“But it was a failure, sir. I could not sleep. It appeared to me that the whole seventy-two women snored at once. The roar was deafening.

“And then the danger of it! That was what I was looking at. They would all draw in their breath at once, and you could actually see the walls of the house suck in–and then they would all exhale their breath at once, and you could see the walls swell out, and strain, and hear the rafters crack, and the shingles grind together.

“My friend, take an old man’s advice, and don’t encumber yourself with a large family–mind, I tell you, don’t do it. In a small family, and in a small family only, you will find that comfort and that peace of mind which are the best at last of the blessings this world is able to afford us, and for the lack of which no accumulation of wealth, and no acquisition of fame, power, and greatness can ever compensate us. Take my word for it, ten or eleven wives is all you need–never go over it.”

Brother Brigham Bewails the Noise of His 80-90 Children’s Tin Whistles

Young Family Squabbles

“Once a gentleman gave one of my children a tin whistle–a veritable invention of Satan, sir, and one which I have an unspeakable horror of, and so would you if you had eighty or ninety children in your house.

“But the deed was done–the man escaped. I knew what the result was going to be, and I thirsted for vengeance. I ordered out a flock of Destroying Angels, and they hunted the man far into the fastnesses of the Nevada mountains. But they never caught him.

“I am not cruel, sir–I am not vindictive except when sorely outraged–but if I had caught him, sir, so help me Joseph Smith, I would have locked him into the nursery till the brats whistled him to death. By the slaughtered body of St. Parley Pratt (whom God assail!) there was never anything on this earth like it!” 

(See: Mark Twain, “Roughing It,” Chapters 12-17.)

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