Mormons appear in the most interesting places….

In 1888, a utopian novel arrived on the scene that, for almost two decades, heavily influenced nearly every area of public life.  It spurred the creation of a political party that furnished the first socialist to run for national office.  Several hundred clubs formed around the idea of promoting the ideas in the book.  And it doesn’t once mention Mormons, which is not surprising.  So, in doing research on this book, the last thing I expected was to find a “defense” of Mormonism coming from a New York Lawyer.

Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward is considered to be the third best-selling novel of the nineteenth century (after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur).  In addition to creating the Nationalist political party and spurring the formation of hundreds of “Bellamy clubs,” it also spurred an outpouring of utopian fiction never before (or since) seen.  In the decades following Looking Backward’s publication, utopian novels (especially unofficial sequels to Bellamy’s book) appeared by the hundreds. 

So far, in my dissertation research, none of these novels have even hinted at Mormonism in the slightest.  These novels touch on several other issues of the time – temperance, education, women’s rights, socialism – but Mormons aren’t an issue.  And then, this week I read A Leap into the Future, or How Things Will Be: A Romance of the Year 2000 by Donald McMartin, “Member of the Fulton County (N.Y.) Bar” (according to the cover).  As one of the many, many sequels to Looking Backward, it’s rather unremarkable.  It has the same main character, and mostly consists of an attempt to further defend Bellamy’s socialist utopia through additional lectures and episodes from the main characters of the previous work.  The one main difference is that McMartin shows more awareness of a wider range of issues than Bellamy did.  Bellamy stuck mostly to “the labor question” and Looking Backward focused on how the “industrial army” of the future had eliminated inequality and provided a secure living for all.  McMartin, on the other hand, explores several other issues, one of them being “the Mormon question.”

Near the end of Looking Backward, Bellamy has his protagonist (Julian West) wake up in the nineteenth century to discover that his visit to the future was a dream.  Wandering around in a daze, he attempts to preach reform and socialism, but is rebuffed by his fellow citizens.  Suddenly, he awakens again to discover his return trip to the past was the dream and that he truly is in utopia.  In A Leap into the Future, McMartin has West return to the nineteenth century in a dream as well.  While observing the past, West rebuffs the advances of a prostitute.  This prostitute refuses to leave, however, and instead engages West in a conversation over the evils of nineteenth century society.  This is where Mormons suddenly appear.  The prostitute asks West about a political rally that had been held earlier in the day: “Did you hear that one who was so down on the Mormons?” and West replied, “No; I don’t recollect any thing of that kind.”  The lady then gives him a lecture that functions as a sort of defense of Mormonism:

“Well, there was one; and he is the worst man in the city; a worse than Mormon.  But what I was going to say is, the real question is, not whether Mormonism will destroy civilization by increasing the number of men having more than one wife; for the tendency isn’t that way.  The question is, will bachelors destroy it through having no wives, but one or no wife, is what should come before the country as a serious question.  You have no idea of the utter loneliness of the good and virtuous but poor woman in this city.  They live lives of constant temptations; struggle on with the utmost heroism, year after year, and with no sign of getting their natural rewards for it; for husbands are not forthcoming.”


West admits her viewpoint has some validity, but eventually he is stabbed in a riot and awakens again in the future.

I don’t really have any profound thoughts on the quote.  I do think, given some recent discussions on the internet, that this quote shows there is nothing new under the sun. Also, given the recent unpleasantness in Texas, this quote doesn’t seem over a hundred years old anymore.

14 thoughts on “Mormons appear in the most interesting places….

  1. The woman’s speech could have come straight out of a Tabernacle talk almost any Sunday of the 1870s or 1880s! Fascinating.

    Clark, if it’s of any interest to you, I have an 1895 editorial exploring Bellamy’s national cooperative proposals, which “need not be enlarged upon to the people of Utah” who were thoroughly familiar with cooperation. He suggests that Looking Backward was verrrry familiar in Utah: “Nearly all of our readers, probably, have read Edgar Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ and are, therefore, somewhat acquainted with the social principles therein set forth and of the ideal condition of society which Mr. Bellamy depicts.” Anyway, if it is of interest, I’ll be glad to send it to you.

  2. Ardis –

    I’m very interested in that editorial.

    And it’s Ivan, not Clark – I know it’s hard to tell us sci-fi geeks apart. 😉

    (send it to rabidwolfe – at – yahoo – dot – com if you’ve got a PDF, or just tell me how I can get a copy).

  3. The effects of plural marriage are interesting to discover.

    From what I have read, plural marriage practiced by the Church way back when was very different from what is practiced by polygamous sects today.

    I’ve read in a number of places that in many cases, plural marriage was conducted precisely so that the woman would be provided for. In other words, it was a sealing to obligate a man to provide for the woman but was not really a marriage as we understand it.

    Of course, if I recall correctly, back then there was a trend of having each and every member sealed to a General Authority as security for salvation. This practice was soon abolished but would explain a good number of plural marriages which were more sealings and less marriages.

    In other words, plural sealings and plural marriages are different things.

  4. Ivan, an off-topic comment, but one worth considering: I wonder what Bellamy and the other utopians would think if they were transported into our time. I think about this a lot. Keep in mind that in the 19th century the majority of people still spent most of their time working just for food and shelter. The idea that the primary problem of the early 21st century would be obesity among the poor would seem laughable to them.

    We have no idea how good we have it compared to past times. I recently sat next to a married couple, the “working poor” by U.S. standards, a garbage man and a teacher who were going on vacation to Brazil. Keep in mind that this trip cost them at least $5000. The idea that a Latin American garbage collector and a teacher could take two weeks and travel from a Latin American country to the United States is laughable, yet here our working poor have so much disposable income that they can travel internationally, and in style.

    Bellamy would certainly decry the continuing income disparities between the Bill Gates’ and workers today. But I wonder if he would, in the end, marvel and applaud all of the advances that have taken place. Has Utopia been achieved?

  5. Geoff –

    well, I have no specific lines of discussion in mind, so it’s not all that off topic.

    My initial answer would be to say that Bellamy (at least) would say no, we are not anywhere near utopia. For example, Bellamy’s utopia had the following aims:

    1. Everyone, except the severely disabled, would be guaranteed a bachelor’s degree and a paying job. Even 4 percent unemployment would be unacceptable.

    2. Income is that same across the board, regardless of the job you perform. Even though much of our poor have disposable income, Bellamy would be very upset by people having larger incomes.

    3. The government runs the entire economy. There is no such thing as competition.

    4. There is no need for any sort of fighting military, since the entire world is peaceful, what with everyone guaranteed a job and the exact same income.

    Of course, I personally find Bellamy’s ideas unworkable and unintentionally fascist, but that’s likely what he would say. He would probably find the current situation even more intolerable. But I can’t be sure. I know his widow and children lobbied pretty hard for the New Deal.

  6. Ivan,
    I personally find Bellamy’s ideas unworkable and undesirable. Also his ideas (at least as you have laid them out) are the very definition of fascism. Nothing unintentional about them.

  7. tp –

    no, I disagree. Of course they’re unworkable and undesirable, but when I say “unintentionally fascist” – well, reading Bellamy’s essays and personal correspondence indicates he had no fascist tendencies. He just figured no one could possibly complain about such a perfect system. His government had no police or military because no one would ever step out of line. There was no central, controlling authority in Bellamy’s realm – everyone just went along with it because it was such a great idea.

    It makes Bellamy clueless about human nature and unable to think outside his particular box, but he was hardly a fascist.

    Of course, any attempt to implement his ideas would likely quickly turn fascist, but since Bellamy had no fascist intentions, I said “unintentionally fascist.”

    That clear enough?

  8. Ivan,
    You are much more knowledgeable than I am about Bellamy and I understand your position. Still, your point “3. The government runs the entire economy” is exactly fascism. If that is his position then his position is fascist. If that is your take on his position then you make him out to be a fascist.

  9. tp –

    I guess I’m not sure I understand where you are coming from. Of course that is fascist, but my argument is that Bellamy didn’t realize it and figured that the government would be more of a manager than an outright dictator.

    “Unintentionally fascist” is still fascist – the unintentionally refers to the motivations, not the end result. I guess I’m not sure what your complaint is.

  10. I guess it’s just semantics around the word fascist. Nice people can be fascist, intentionally, without meaning to lead to dictatorship.

  11. Question: How is what Ivan describes about Bellamy’s vision different from Zion? (Except perhaps substitute “Church” for “government”–but isn’t Zion to be ruled by Priest-Kings?)

  12. Doug –

    easy. If you want to, you can leave Zion anytime you want. With Bellamy, there’s nowhere else to go (except maybe an insane asylum, or exile to a desert reservation – I always wondered if Huxley was alluding to Bellamy).

    Also, with Zion, individual needs and circumstances would be taken into consideration. With Bellamy’s ideals, everyone is treated exactly the same, no matter what.

    There will be a lot more freedom in Zion. Zion is not fascist. Bellamy was well-intentioned, but his ideas lead to Orwell’s 1984, in the end. So, you tell me – what’s the difference between what Orwell described and Zion?

  13. Of course, Bellamy did write a sequel which addressed the obvious lack of democracy, called Equality (1897). It’s not often taken seriously as a text in its own right, but it ought to be. Rosemont’s essay ‘Bellamy’s Radicalism Reclaimed’ (1988) in Daphni Patai (ed.) Looking Backward 1988-1888 is a good place to start.

    Regarding the authoritarianism he adopted a pretty standard error of Victorian socialists (including Marx) in assuming that the state would be synonymous the people, and therefore unproblematic. He also adopted Saint Simon’s idea that politics would be superceded by the impartial ‘administration’ of a social science. See Peter Beilharz ‘Looking Back: Marx and Bellamy’ (2004).

    Also, he did not only assume everyone ‘went along with it’, he also rooted it in ideas promoted by contemporary scientists like T.H. Huxley and Herbert Spencer (at least in Social Statics) that society would become more cooperative as it became more sophisticated. Bellamy also supposes that self-interest is reinforced by a Religion of Humanity.

    It is very unrealistic about human nature, but he had reasons for believing we’d evolve into something better. This argument about socialisation basically being everything when it comes to human nature is still very common today.

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