19th-Century Mormonism Meets France

At a Women’s Studies Colloquium entitled “Amazons of the Frontier, Harems of the New World, and Other Tall Tales: Women & Mormonism in Nineteenth-Century France,” Heather Jensen and Daryl Lee discussed the French fascination with Mormonism during periods of social reform in 19th-century France.

construction_dune_barricade-1PROVO, Utah (Dec. 8, 2016)—What did the French think of Mormons during the 19th century? Perhaps not surprisingly, they thought about them much more than they do now. At a recent Women’s Studies Colloquium, associate French professor Daryl Lee and associate art history professor Heather Jensen discussed representations of Mormonism in 19th-century France as a radical socialist group.

About three years ago, professors Jensen, Lee, and Corry Cropper decided to try their hand at a Mormon studies panel for a 19th-century French studies conference at the University of Virginia. Delighted that the panel was so well received, they continued their work on Mormonism in France. Professors Lee and Jensen are now co-authoring a book tentatively titled Marianne Meets the Mormons: Mormonism in a French Imaginary, 1830-1914.

“Our book’s premise is simply this: we are looking at Mormons,” Jensen said. “What we noticed is that Mormons were approached as a kind of screen upon which the French could project their own issues. And we’re talking about issues of utopianism, colonialism, marriage and family, sexuality, property rights, labor structures and women’s roles within these.”

Using all kinds of primary sources, from novels and travelogues to caricatures and book illustrations, Jensen and Lee’s book will examine the ways in which the French composed a narrative of Mormons as radical socialist others.

Speaking to the significant range of French representations of Mormonism, Jensen added, “Some are quite serious and respectful and scientific in their inquiry into Mormonism, and others are not so much. They’re satirical and fantasized about this exotic religion out in the American West.”

To give some historical and political context, Lee explained that the LDS Church showed up in France between 1848-50, a highly formative moment in not only French and European history, but all of Western civilization.

“I’m willing to bet you’ve heard of Karl Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party written in 1848, so it’s about this particular time,” Lee said. “What you probably don’t know is that socialist movements existed in France for a good two or three decades before that particular moment, and sometimes they were called communist movements, and they were nothing like the Marxist communism that we think about today.”

Lee said that during the 1820s through the 1840s France had its own social reform efforts in response to industrialization and capitalism. People noticed that the demands on labor were contributing to an increasing attitude of individualism, and several people among the working class pushed back on this with their own form of socialism.

“There was this sense that the social fabric itself was frayed and coming apart,” Lee said. “They were very invested in spirituality and in some cases occultism. They wanted to formulate a new kind of Christianity slightly shaped by the French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.”

This was an especially important time for women, Lee added. Between 1830 and 1848, the French government changed from a monarchy to a parliamentary monarchy, and then a republic to an empire. In reorganizing the government so many times, many reform groups saw opportunities to expand the roles of women in government and society.

“It’s not surprising then that when Mormonism shows up, even though there are very few members, the French take very seriously the idea that Mormonism could be an alternative model for society in the way that it structured families, the way that work was carried out in a collective fashion,” Lee said.

Some of the earliest Mormon converts in France, Lee said, were associated with reform-minded, left-wing, socialist movements, which added to a more negative French conservative outlook on Mormons.

To conclude the lecture, Jensen discussed a series of 19th-century French images of Mormons that appeared in different artistic mediums. Many motifs in the visual and literary narrative circle around Mormon women, including portrayals of Mormon women as domestic slaves.

“Mormon women are these haggard, emaciated, de-sexed servants,” Jensen said. “Happy, negligent mothers is another motif. Surrounded by all of these children, French art is rife with this ideal of happy maternity. Sometimes it goes bad. For example, a newcomer to the state of Deseret finds that a baby has been thrown out in the laundry. There’s a suggestion of this maternal negligence that is there.”

Images of Joseph Smith and Mormon prophets associated with mesmerism also appear. Jensen said this serves as “a cautionary tale” to the French public. It’s saying, Jensen suggested, “Look what could happen here if we have this communitarianism and this polygamy and some of these other kinds of social practices.”

Lee concluded, “The French knew a lot about us. They were interested in us. And they’re interested often in questions that relate to family, sexuality and gender. Hopefully you got the sense for this with all of these images and texts.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

 Sylvia Cutler covers events for women’s studies for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French and a minor in women’s studies.

Image: Communards building a barricade in France. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons