Articles/Essays – Volume 03, No. 3

A Mirror for Mormon’s | Richard F. Burton, The City of the Saints

A superlative is an automatic challenge, and when Mrs. Brodie calls City of the Saints “the best book on the Mormons published during the nineteenth century,” my impulse is to disprove it. At surface glance this seems easy, for Burton’s book is of the I-was-there genre of personal journalism, a literary form long cheapened and debased by a flood of atrocious material. The ap palling I-was-there trash that has issued from Vietnam, from race riots, and from everyone who had a nodding acquaintance with John F. Kennedy, for example, is on a par with the incredible output of nineteenth-century hacks who, if they could contrive an afternoon with the Mormons, could get a book out of it. Burton demonstrates, however, that no art form is good or bad per se, but must be judged on how well it’s done; in his hands, the I-was-there approach is merely a framework to support a superb and scholarly study of the Mormons. So my first challenge failed. 

A test of a book is how well it ages. After a hundred years, much of Burton sounds remarkably like something written just yesterday. Tongue in cheek, he dryly reports the incessant Mormon claim to “obeying, honouring and sustaining the law” — this from a people who had come west to get out of U.S. jurisdiction; this at a time when U.S. troops who had marched on Utah three years previously to quell the “Mormon rebellion” were still garrisoned at Camp Floyd; this on the eve of federal legislation against polygamy that the Mormons would flout for almost three decades. But how like today, when Mormons place great stress on being a law-abiding people while evading or ignoring laws they don’t like, such as those designed to prevent anti-union activities and discrimination because of race, creed, or color. (Actually, I am baffled by our pretense of being an absolutely law-abiding people. One of the most glorious pages of our history was the futile defiance of man-made law for what we considered the law of God. Why should this embarrass us?) The “God is dead” furor of recent years, Burton reveals, is not so new after all. The Mormons “are not forced to think that God is virtually dead,” he reports in 1860. At the Historian’s Office, he notes that “every slight offered to the faith by anti-Mormons is there laid up in lavender.” Regarding the busy bees of Deseret, he says, “The object of the young colony is to rear a swarm of healthy working bees,” and adds the penetrating observation, “The social hive has as yet no room for drones, bookworms, and gentlemen.” How true a century later. 

I found that the book is full of surprises, such as mention of the revelation predicting the Civil War (which, I had thought, was not pulled from the safe until after its provisions had been fulfilled); and there is a most interesting commentary on a reason for changing the policy of sending out missionaries without purse or script: “When a man has no coin of his own he is naturally disposed to put his hand in his neighbour’s pocket, and the greediness of a few unprincipled propagandists, despite the prohibitions of the Prophet, had caused a scandal by the richness of their ‘plunder’,” Burton reported. In con sequence, thirty new missionaries being sent out “were forbidden to take from their converts, and in compensation they would receive regular salaries, for which funds were to be collected in the several wards.” The new missionaries also received a certificate of good character. 

Burton’s penetrating analysis of the Mormon milieu cut too close to the bone, resulting in rejection of his book by the Saints, even though he said, “The Mormons are certainly the least fanatical of our faiths,” and even though he was virtually alone among Gentile writers in his understanding and sym pathetic treatment of polygamy. Ironically, his objective attitude regarding plural marriage outraged the Gentile world, so City of the Saints fell between two stools. In recent years Burton’s book has been issued in abridged form, because of its superb portrayal of the times, but with Mormonism deleted, no doubt because of the material on the Principle. 

“What is remarkable about his discussion of the subject, considering the hysteria of the anti-Mormon writers of the period, was his detachment,” Mrs. Brodie states in her admirable introduction, which also contains a moving biography of the author. He “brought to his research the urbanity of a scholar already intimately acquainted with polygamous marriages of every conceivable variety in Africa and the Near East.” Burton had, in fact, visited Turkish harems in the disguise of a doctor from India. He reprints the excellent defense of the “plurality of wives” which at that time followed Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants and which, considering the abysmal ignorance of Mormons today on the subject, might very well be re-inserted in the next edition. 

Burton was an author whose books came from genuine adventures. “He was an explorer of immense courage and endurance who penetrated the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina at great risk and wrote a detailed description of his experiences,” the editor points out. “He was the first European to explore the forbidden city of Harar in Somaliland, the first to discover and properly identify Lake Tanganyika.” 

Burton might never have come to Utah, except for tarnish on his reputation resulting from the Tanganyika expedition He incorrectly designated the lake as the true source of the Nile, and was discredited by his companion on the expedition, who had pushed on to find the source at Lake Victoria. Dis graced, Burton abruptly fled London for America and the city of the Saints, pouring his immense scholarship and talent for research into a book that he hoped would rehabilitate his name. It didn’t, because the public rejected an objective and penetrating evaluation of the Peculiar People, and the last thing the Mormons themselves have ever wanted is a mirror. But we can at long last be thankful that Burton’s hurt was our gain. 

When accepting an award by the Utah State Historical Society for her contribution to Mormon scholarship, Fawn Brodie said, “It seems that every one in Utah must wear a label.” Certainly this is one of the most cogent observations ever made of the Mormon literary scene, where people are judged almost entirely by the color of their hats—white or black, for or against (no 

shades of gray). The most fatuous, superficial, warped, and dishonest out pouring is praised as a great book if the author’s hat is white, while a work characterized by the most careful and exhaustive research is utterly damned for the smallest inaccuracies (as was Mrs. Brodie’s No Man Knows My History) if it is decided that the hat is black. We can be grateful that City of the Saints was resurrected by Mrs. Brodie from the limbo reserved for those who wear no hat at all. The book has none of the apostate’s animus characterizing a

T. B. H. Stenhouse, and which marred his Rocky Mountain Saints; it is not saturated with the fervor which made the works of one such as Parley Pratt religious tracts rather than literature; it did not have the preconceived Gentile viewpoint of outrage which could warp even so great a talent as a Mark Twain; nor, finally, was it subjected to the gutting of ruthless censorship that butchered so much work of a B. H. Roberts. Whether City of the Saints is or is not the best book on the Mormons published in the nineteenth century, I must admit that I have failed the challenge of the superlative. If it isn’t, it must at least stand until a better one is put forward.

The City of the Saints. By Richard F. Burton; reprint of the 1861 edition, edited with introduction and notes by Fawn M. Brodie. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963. 654 pp., $8.50.