Zane Grey and Mormonism today

I recall as a kid, enjoying reading the Sackett series of western books by Louis L’Amour.. Joining the Church at 16, I turned much of my reading attention to LDS and ancient literature. Still, I retained a love for good western literature.

Over the years, I’d wanted to read “Riders of the Purple Sage” by Zane Grey (1912), curious at his take on Mormonism a century ago.  After all these years, I finally read it this past week, and wished to comment on it.

The story takes place in 1871 in southern Utah. A woman, Jane, has inherited her father’s wealthy ranch. She is LDS, loves her bishop, and is being pressed to marry one of the elders.  Meanwhile, rustlers are stealing large herds of cattle, including Jane’s herd.

We quickly see interesting twists in the book. Mormons are pretty much either evil or pressured to comply by the Mormon leadership, who are not above doing evil things They drive off Jane’s herds, work in conjunction with the rustlers, steal her prize horses, kidnap her adopted daughter, etc.

Meanwhile, the two leading Gentile men, Venter and Lassiter are justified in killing others. Jane falls for Lassiter, while Venter falls in love with a young woman that ran with the rustlers.  All four seem to be redeemed by their rejection of rustler and Mormon, alike.

The bishop and elder end up being powerful beings that have sweet smiles, but black hearts. It appears all Mormon leaders are of the same ilk, deserving to be gunned down by Lassiter.

It was a very interesting read. A good book, a great Western. That said, it made Mormonism seem like the Mountain Meadows Massacre was a daily occurrence.  For Jane to first mentally, and then physically run from Mormonism and the Church leaders is a key breakthrough Grey wishes for us to cheer for in his heroine.

A century later, the Church is very different than the 1870s Mormonism that Grey envisions. Yet there are still those who see the LDS as a dangerous group, lorded over by dangerous men.

I think of the many comments I’ve seen over the years about the evils of Boyd K. Packer.  Many anti-Mormons continue to quote and misquote Brigham Young and other dead prophets and apostles, as if they had an inordinate power over the minds of the Morgbots. Ex-Mormon websites and forums praise the heroes who leave the Church’s death grip. They expound the evils said and done by Church leaders, who smile nicely on the outside, but within have black hearts.

With the exception that today’s anti-Mormon sites focus on quantity versus quality, which is nowhere near as good as Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage”, their efforts to scare people away from Mormonism is just as real.

Yes, LDS leaders do have power and authority.Occasionally terrible decisions and actions are taken by local or general leaders. However, the continual radical events described in Riders of the Purple Sage or in modern attack websites, are more rhetoric than reality.  They do not describe Brigham Young calling for the rescue of stranded pioneers in Wyoming. They do not make mention of the good works Bishops do weekly to help the poor and downtrodden. They ignore the tons of blankets and food sent to war torn Europe by the Relief Society. They neglect to mention the millions of people that are helped each year today.

Of course, such things do not make for intense and readable literature, nor does it make good attack material for anti-Mormons today.

I recommend Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage as a quality Western book that shows how one corrupt bunch of religious leaders can make things bad. I also recommend it as a study in how we can understand anti-Mormon critiques.

7 thoughts on “Zane Grey and Mormonism today

  1. I started reading ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’ a while ago but put it down because of my background of being raised in a family that took that version of Mormons as literal and universal, even though in daily life most of the really good people they knew were faithful members of the Church. The few hypocrites they knew were taken as a symptom of general decay. The irony in this is that others then use those who excuse themselves from keeping covenants because of the behavior of others as fodder for their own excuses. I have recently transcribed the first section of the autobiography of my father who was born at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was very vocal in criticizing what he saw as the whited sepultures who attended church, but when it came to actually committing it to paper, all the easy condemnation disappeared. He readily admitted that one of his brothers-in-law, a Bishop for many years, was a fine and decent man.
    To me it rather seems like going shopping and only bringing home the badly blemished fruit.

  2. Interesting, thoughtful analysis. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed some of his stories, but think I’ll pass on this one. Already have too many books piled up waiting enough time.

    One of the lessons I take from that, including the comments on general authoritie(s) is that people, regardless of the service they are called to perform, are people. Human. All with their challenges and foibles. It gives the rest of us a wonderful opportunity to try to be understanding, to see them clearly and the good they do, not just the challenges they face, while at the same time trying to get that mote out of our eye.

  3. But surely Riders of the Purple Sage can’t compare to A Study in Scarlet for characterizing Mormons as evil.

    Arthur Conan Doyle was in his way fictionalizing the anti-Mormon tropes first put forth by others, but striking while the iron was still hot (annualized in 1887, before the manifesto and while polygamous men, such as English hymnodist George Manwaring, were being incarcerated in the penitentiary for their beliefs.)

    Zane Grey was riffing off the anti-Mormon sentiment arising from the intense media coverage of Mormonalia associated with the Smoot hearings the previous decade. Ardis Parshall’s recent posts of the pressure her relative, <a href="http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2014/06/17/the-trials-of-cora-birdsall-part-1/"Cora Birdsall, received in that era to comply with a Church land court decision is a seed of that kind of story, though in the case of Cora, the entire episode was prompted by an ex-Mormon choosing to use the old Church land court system to press his claim to Cora’s land.

    Angels in America and The Book of Mormon Musical are two recent and highly celebrated works of fiction that present a negative view of Mormons. A co-worker talked with me about my Mormon faith in advance of seeing The Book of Mormon Musical. After seeing the show, he advised me to not to waste my money going to see it – he’d be happy to insult me for free, if I felt the need to be so insulted.

    On the other hand, fiction creates an immersive world for the reader. So even though they know they are reading something “fake,” it is a compelling experience (when the fiction is written by a good author). And this is part of why I am still intending to write a story about my ancestors as fiction some day. But for now, I am content to write about the facts related to that time period rather than my midrash.

Comments are closed.