Mormonism in the French Imagination

Student Amy Read created an exhibit exploring the French perception of Mormonism in the 19th century, on display in the Harold B. Lee Library during March.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 31, 2017)—During the second half of the 19th century, while the Mormons were carving out a life for themselves in the desert of Utah, the French became fascinated with their small religion. The Mormons, as the French imagined them, appeared in a myriad of French books and artwork from 1850–1900. During the month of March, an exhibit in the Harold B. Lee Library Special Collections created by Amy Read, a French and Biology double major, explored this French fascination with Mormonism.

Read first became interested in the French people’s conception of Mormonism last year while taking a class from associate professor Daryl Lee in which the students became involved in his research on the subject. During a trip to Special Collections to look at French literature that dealt with Mormonism, librarian Greg Seppi suggested the research would make for a good exhibit. “We have all these pieces [of literature],” Read said, “and people don’t know that we have them.”

Read volunteered to spearhead the project and submitted a proposal with the help of Lee and Seppi, but not after months of hard work. In addition to the research she conducted in Lee’s class, she spent time in Special Collections sifting through lots of books that the French had written about Mormons. She said, “There were a lot more pieces that could have been in the exhibit that weren’t, so I looked at all of them, read through a lot of them, and chose the ones I thought would be most appealing to students and faculty at BYU.” Upon returning from a biology internship in Paris, Read spent January and February doing more research, specifically on the background and authors of the pieces she had chosen and writing descriptive plaques for each piece before submitting her proposal.

Asked what her favorite thing she learned from the project was, Read replied, “I’d never really studied the polygamy aspect of Church history. We looked at Church history and what [the French] thought of the practice of polygamy, which I had never learned about before. I thought that was really fascinating.”

Read explained that the French were fascinated with the “exotic” nature of polygamy. “They look[ed] at polygamy as something primitive that came from very far away,” she said, “and these Europeans going over to America and living this lifestyle was completely foreign to them.”

This is illustrated in a drawing entitled Marriage docks: Large selection of spouses of all kinds that appears in Albert Robida’s book The Twentieth Century. The book is set in an imagined France of 1953 when, the plaque reads, “a Mormon Republic based in Salt Lake invades and colonizes England.” Brigham Young is pictured at the “marriage docks” inspecting a variety of women as potential wives. The plaque continues, “Robida emphasizes the racial and cultural diversity of the potential brides, possibly to highlight the exotic otherness of Mormon polygamy as viewed by late 19th-century French readers.”

Besides polygamy, Read believes the French were fascinated with Mormonism due to its attempt to create Zion. She explained, “In France at that time, there were several groups who were trying to have a Utopian, almost socialist society, and they saw Mormonism as another one of these attempts.”

To the French, Mormonism was “a culture and a way of life.” Henri Rochefort, in his book Return from New Caledonia of Noumea to Europe, agrees. After visiting Utah he wrote, “Mormonism is, incidentally, much more of a social than a religious organization. The spiritual dictator [Brigham Young] had grandiose designs, and seeing the man’s 95 children, it is impossible to deny that he achieved them.”

Jules Rémy is another Frenchman who visited the Mormons during the second half of the 19th century. His drawing of the Salt Lake City Temple in his book Voyage in the Land of the Mormons strongly resembles a French neo-Gothic Cathedral. The plaque next to the illustration reads, “The image transforms the Mormon Temple to appeal to a French reader accustomed to seeing the architectural motifs of a Notre Dame de Paris.” Although many French had a “lurid fascination” of Mormonism, the plaque says that “Rémy’s account of his trip to Salt Lake City in the 1850s is one of the more detailed and evenhanded accounts of Mormons from an outsider’s perspective published in the 19th century.”

Other pieces, however, were not so generous. Female life among the Mormons, published under the pseudonym of Maria Ward, “was the most popular work on the Mormons published in the 19th century,” according to the plaque. “A distinctly anti-Mormon piece, the novel follows the experiences of the purported ‘wife of a Mormon elder’ as the Church and its leaders rock from one scandalous event to the next. It ends outside of Salt Lake City as the narrator flees east.”

As noted by art historian Heather Belnap-Jensen, who contributed to the visual analysis of several of the pieces, Joseph Smith’s Vision by Jules Gros pictures Joseph Smith, under the influence of opium, receiving the gold plates from a female angelic figure, who “holds tablets over her head in a manner that evokes the image of Moses and the Ten Commandments.”

In addition to all the pieces on display that demonstrated the French peoples’ conception of Mormonism, the exhibit included a first edition French translation of the Book of Mormon, covered in Moroccan leather with gilt tooling. It came from the library of former LDS President of the Seventy Levi Edgar Young. The plaque details how over the course of two years and with the help of three different translators, Curtis E. Bolton managed to print 850 copies of the Book of Mormon into French, allowing missionary work to begin in earnest.


Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)

Olivia covers events for the French Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.


Photos via Amazon and the BBC