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Mormons, Image of

[This entry consists of three articles giving a survey of the Mormon image as it has been and is reflected in the Visual Arts, in Film, and in Fiction from the earliest days of the Church to the present.]

The Visual Arts

The early History of the Church, especially the uniqueness of its beliefs and practices, influenced the creation of an LDS, or Mormon, image in art. Caricature and cartoon were particularly well suited to the mass market, and Latter-day Saints were a favorite subject. Although some early works conveyed the complexities of the LDS experience, most people developed their image of members of the Church from portrayals that were selective and caricatured. While stereotypical images linger, current depictions of Latter-day Saints, frequently employing works by LDS artists, more accurately reflect the diversity and richness of Mormon life.

By 1860, media depictions had firmly established national stereotypes of Mormonism. During the next decades, negative, stereotyped images of Latter-day Saints appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines such as Harper´s Weekly, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, and Collier´s Weekly. Although some images were humorous, the effect was essentially harmful. Bunker and Bitton explain: "The simple fact is that most of the illustrations treating the Mormons were not low-key or objective; they were cartoons and caricatures with an obvious point of view. And that point of view was, with almost monotonous regularity, negative" (Bunker and Bitton, p. 148).

This negative image developed when the social climate in the United States allowed open hostility toward unpopular religious and ethnic groups. Major themes about Latter-day Saints focused on the public disapproval of the practice of polygamy, the Utah War of 1857–1858, and clashes between U.S. officials and LDS leaders. Although artists created some fresh interpretations as new events transpired, they were usually only variations on established themes.

However, a few artists ignored the stereotypical image of the Latter-day Saints and produced work that conveyed the complexity of the religion and its people. Arthur Boyd Houghton, an artist for the Graphic, a British weekly pictorial journal, visited Salt Lake City in 1870 and created a series of drawings featuring the Saints. His scenes of LDS life are rendered with respect and dignity, and reveal his compassion for humble people. Two paintings attributed to Albert Bierstadt and one by Maynard Dixon show thriving LDS settlements, the result of Mormon cultivation of the desert. Enoch Wood Perry, Jr., painted excellent likenesses of Brigham Young and each member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Photographer William Henry Jackson´s pictures and sketches of the West include images of Salt Lake City, Mormon wagon trains, and farm life.

The Latter-day Saints have never lacked for artists and illustrators of their own to tell their story. While graphic artists in the East were generally creating negative, stereotyped images, LDS artists in the West were producing a rich and authentic pictorial record of their experience. The early Mormon experience, including the migration west and pioneer life in Utah, was chronicled by British artist Frederick Piercy and Danish artist C. C. A. Christensen, both converts to the Church (see Artists).

In recent years, interest in the portrayal of Mormons as Mormons has diminished in non-LDS media and among non-LDS artists. At the same time, the number of LDS artists, the diversity of their styles, and their interest in conveying LDS themes have all increased. Like the early artists who saw beyond the stereotypical images of their day, these modern artists have succeeded in conveying, at least in some measure, the complexities and richness of the LDS experience, made even more diverse as the Church has grown to include a worldwide membership.

[See also Art.]




Bunker, Gary L., and D. Bitton. The Mormon Graphic Image, 1834-1914: Cartoons, Caricatures, and Illustrations. Salt Lake City, 1983.

Gerdts, William H. "Utah." In Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting, Vol. 3, pp. 128–45. New York, 1990.



From the beginning of the twentieth century until the mid-1930s, the film portrayals of Latter-day Saints were generally negative. First publicly exhibited in the 1890s, commercial motion pictures continued the sensational characterizations depicted in the novels of the period. One of the earliest treatments was Thomas Edison´s nickelodeon film A Trip to Salt Lake City (1905). More humorous than sinister, the film satirized the problems of a polygamous Mormon husband trying to give his many children a drink of water on a Pullman car bound for the city of the Saints.

More common were films such as A Mormon Maid (Lasky-Paramount, 1917), which portrayed the Danites, stereotyped in earlier fiction as a posse of Missouri Mormon firebrands, as night-riding henchmen costumed like the Ku Klux Klan in D. W. Griffith´s The Birth of A Nation (1915). Inspired by anti-Mormon novelist Winifred Graham´s The Love Story of a Mormon (London, 1911), Trapped by the Mormons (Pyramid, 1922) brought to the screen a portrayal of a marauding LDS missionary in England preying vampirelike on unwary women. This film capitalized on the unfounded fear that LDS missionaries exploited women left widowed by World War I. A film version of Zane Grey´s Riders of the Purple Sage (Fox) was released in 1918 and rereleased in 1921 despite protests that its negative depictions of Latter-day Saints and Utah would hinder the state´s business development. A sympathetic treatment of the Church was the feature-length historical drama One Hundred Years of Mormonism (Utah Moving Pictures Co., 1913).

From 1918 to 1945, approximately thirty anti-Mormon films were released worldwide. In the 1930s, however, the motion picture industry drafted a production code, which, among other things, forbade negative portrayals of religious organizations and their beliefs. In 1938, Twentieth Century Fox informed President Heber J. Grant that it planned to produce a motion picture based on Vardis Fisher´s historical novel Children of God. While he privately expressed fears of another negative screen image, partly because Fisher´s novel was not fully understanding of the Church and its early leaders, President Grant nevertheless cooperated fully with the studio. The resulting film, Brigham Young, released in 1940, although not totally pleasing to Church leaders, was in most respects very positive and reversed almost four decades of negative stereotypes. Met with critical praise, it vividly portrayed the persecutions of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo during the 1840s, the murder of Joseph Smith, the trek west to the Great Basin, and the "miracle of the gulls" in 1848. The film showed Latter-day Saints not as the stereotyped wife stealers of earlier films but as industrious pioneers. In a fictional courtroom scene in which Brigham Young defends Joseph Smith, the dialogue depicts the LDS cause as inextricably linked with that of America´s founders seeking religious freedom. Produced at a time when Americans watched with concern the rising persecution of Jews in Hitler´s Germany, the film defended the right of Latter-day Saints, or any other minority, to exist in a pluralist nation.

Since the 1940 release of Brigham Young, portrayals of Mormon history and culture in Hollywood films and television generally have been limited to humorous episodes dealing with polygamy as in Wagon Master (RKO, 1950), Paint Your Wagon (Paramount, 1969), They Call Me Trinity (West Film, 1971) and Trinity Is Still My Name (West Film, 1972), and The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (Fox, 1976). The only commercial feature-length treatment of Mormons between 1940 and 1990 was Brigham (Sunset Films, 1977), a low-budget film covering approximately the same period as Brigham Young but lacking the dramatic value of the earlier film.




D´Arc, James V. "Darryl F. Zanuck´s Brigham Young: A Film in Context." BYU Studies 29 (Winter 1989):5–33.

Nelson, Richard Alan. "A History of Latter-day Saint Screen Portrayals in the Anti-Mormon Film Era, 1905–1936." Master´s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1975.

Nelson, Richard Alan. "From Antagonism to Acceptance: Mormons and the Silver Screen." Dialogue 10 (Spring 1977):58-69.



For the first hundred years of LDS history, interest in Latter-day Saints as a subject for popular fiction was remarkably high. Taking its stereotypes from the pseudo-histories and travel narratives that circulated widely, fiction about Mormons emphasized melodramatic characters and fantastic plots full of violence and mystery. Similar patterns continued into the mid-twentieth century, but since then, Latter-day Saints have appeared less frequently and usually only casually in non-Mormon fiction.

Themes of violence and melodrama appeared as early as the 1840s. Typically a beautiful young heroine was said to have escaped or to have been rescued by a heroic "Gentile" and carried from the Mormons and the drunken and lecherous clutches of a polygamous elder or bishop. Frequently the fleeing protagonists were pursued across the continent, sometimes even around the world, by secretive "Danites" or "avenging angels." In these pieces LDS leaders were characterized as scheming, rough, and tyrannical, and the culture as crude and repressive at best, violent and destructive at worst.

By the 1850s, fiction about the Latter-day Saints was almost a genre in itself. Often written by women (especially the wives of ministers) and following the pattern of the more famous Uncle Tom´s Cabin, these novels and short stories exploited popular ideas, fears, and societal concerns, as in Orvilla S. Belisle´s The Prophets; or, Mormonism Unveiled (1855) and Metta Victoria Fuller, Mormon Wives (1856; published again in 1860 as Lives of Female Mormons and republished many times in Europe and translated into several languages).

Each succeeding decade added to the tide of new authors and titles. In the 1880s, for example, more than a score of book-length best sellers came from British and American presses. Even some of the best known writers of the nineteenth century found the topic of Mormonism appealing: Robert Louis Stevenson (The Dynamiter, 1885) and Arthur Conan Doyle (A Study in Scarlet, 1887) held Mormons up as objects of fear, and Charles Farrer Browne ("Artemus Ward Among the Mormons," 1866) and Mark Twain (Roughing It, 1872) treated them as objects of satire and laughter.

In the early twentieth century the same patterns generally continued. Zane Grey (The Heritage of the Desert, 1910, and Riders of the Purple Sage, 1912) used Latter-day Saints as central figures, and Jack London wrote of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in his novel The Star Rover (1915). How firmly entrenched the pattern remained even beyond mid-century is illustrated by the images in Irving Wallace´s The Twenty-seventh Wife (1961) and J. C. Furnas´s The Devil´s Rainbow (1962), which paint Joseph Smith in terms of popular psychosis and caricature Mormon leaders in general. Even the works of more weighty novelists—Vardis Fisher´s Children of God (1939), for example—follow the old patterns, with a sympathetic protagonist outside the Church struggling against unfavorable, repressive antagonists from within.

Latter-day Saints are not now as popular a subject as they once were for non-Mormon authors, and writers´ interest in modern Mormons as Mormons is vastly different from what it was a hundred years ago. While Latter-day Saints may appear occasionally or casually in fiction (e.g., Alan Drury´s Advice and Consent, 1959), they have become both too conventional and too well-known as individuals to be placed easily into alien molds (see Stereotyping of Mormons). While some differences between LDS and non-Mormon culture still persist, these differences now seem to be less exotic or threatening and hence less accessible for exploitation.



Arrington, Leonard J., and Jon Haupt. "Intolerable Zion: The Image of Mormonism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature." Western Humanities Review 22 (Summer 1968):243–60.

Arrington, Leonard J., and Jon Haupt. "The Missouri and Illinois Mormons in Anti-Bellum [sic] Fiction." Dialogue 5 (Spring 1970):37–50.

Lambert, Neal E. "Saints, Sinners and Scribes: A Look at the Mormons in Fiction." Utah Historical Quarterly 36 (Winter 1968):63–76.