Return to About Mormons home
J. Golden Kimball, by Gordon N. Cope (1933, oil canvas, 31" x 24"). J. Golden Kimball (1853-1938), a member of the First Council of the Seventy from 1892 until his death, was known and loved for his frank, sometimes disturbing, wit and humor. Church Museum of History and Art.
by Margaret P. Baker
Although LDS doctrines, practices, and experiences have in some circles evoked a measure of scoffing and laughter over the years, only since the 1970s has a body of published humor dealing with the Mormon experience appeared. Institutionalized LDS humor divides roughly into an early period when the Church was the object of outsiders' jokes and a modern period when members have become able to laugh at themselves.
As with many minority groups, the first humor that dealt with the Church was created by antagonists to turn people away from it. Much of this humor took the form of cartoons in the popular press, and verses and parodies of popular or folk songs (Bunker and Bitton, 1983). These attacks were prevalent in nineteenth-century periodicals, and such noted writers as Mark Twain and Artemus Ward took aim at available targets like Brigham Young and polygamy.
From this early period, almost no pro-Mormon humor or humor regarding the Church created by the members of the Church themselves survives. While it is certain that members enjoyed humor, as evidenced in numerous journals and letters, little of it was apparently directed at their own experiences and cultural practices. This was particularly true of published material. Latter-day Saints were too involved with building a new way of life to indulge in frivolity or of anything that might appear to question their commitment. Humor, therefore, was incidental.
Around 1900 this attitude began to change, expressly in the talks of Elder J. Golden Kimball, of the Seventy. During his long tenure as a General Authority, his iconoclastic wit and biting sense of humor not only made the Saints love and quote him, but also helped them to see a lighter side of their often difficult existence.
Still, little in-group humor appeared in print before 1948, when Samuel W. Taylor's novel Heaven Knows Why! was published. Playing on the cultural patterns of typical small-town western Mormonism, the book gained limited success and recognition as an alternative selection of the Literary Guild, but it also caused a stir of discontent in the LDS community, hitting too close to home and seeming to ridicule not only lifestyle but also sacred doctrines. Because of its limited acceptance, it quickly dropped out of print.
A turning point seems to have come as a result of World War II, which brought outsiders into the almost exclusively LDS Rocky Mountain communities and spread members of the Church throughout the world. The resulting interchange showed both groups that in many ways they were not as different from each other as they had assumed, and allowed them to laugh at their common foibles and presumptions.
As the Church became better known as an American lifestyle, its members felt freer to find humor in their own cultural patterns and practices. Concurrently, its rapid growth created a larger audience for specifically LDS materials as well as an audience educated, sophisticated, and affluent enough to understand, enjoy, and buy them.
Taylor's book, reissued in 1979, now has enthusiastic readers, as have the works of cartoonists Calvin Grondahl and Pat Bagley. Jack Weyland's A New Dawn and Alma Yates's The Miracle of Miss Willie are among recent novels that depict LDS cultural idiosyncrasies. Parodies and spoofs aimed at the LDS audience include Orson Scott Card's Saintspeak, Carol Lynn Pearson's "notebooks," and numerous articles by Chris Crowe.
However, this growing acceptance of culturally bound humor has limitations. LDS doctrines, ordinances, and temple ceremonies are not usually the objects of humor, although unexpected or unorthodox responses to specific doctrines, particularly those by nonmembers or of small children may be. Scandal or notoriety that might reflect on all members is not considered funny, but the everyday problems of family life, Church and missionary service, as well as the need to reconcile principles and practices, lend themselves well to humor. Latter-day Saints generally seem willing to laugh at themselves and their lifestyle, but not at sacred things (see Lightmindedness).
(See Daily Living home page; Church History home page)
Bunker, Gary L. and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Graphic Image, 1834-1914. Salt Lake City, 1983.
Cracroft, Richard H. "The Humor of Mormon Seriousness." Sunstone (Jan. 1985):14-17.
Wilson, William A. "The Seriousness of Mormon Humor." Sunstone (Jan. 1985):8-13.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, Humor
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
All About Mormons