Plague: The Mormon Opposition to Pornography, 1850s-1966

Mormons have called it a plague, a cursing, a disease, and the surest sign that the modern world loves to gaze at Gomorrah.  For several years, hardly a General conference, stake conference, or even Elder’s quorum meeting went by without at least a passing reference to pornography’s evils.  But pornography hasn’t always been around, and the Latter-day Saints have not always been fixated in destroying it.  At what point did Mormonism begin to conceptualize pornography as one of the greatest evils of our time?   

Erotic literature had been around for some time, in various forms. Even the Greeks dabbled in it.  The wide proliferation of visual pornographic literature only prevalent in the late-19th-century.  For the past centuries, erotic literature had served that role, and then, only among the literate upper-classes.  It was hard to access and seen as a shameful pleasure. Further, it was inaccessible, as it contained several Greek and Latin references to ancient erotica.   Anti-Mormon dime novels depicting the evils of polygamy were often described as “pornographic” with their lurid depictions of sexual depravity.  Novels such as BoadiceaThe Prophetess, and Mormon Wives all presented scintillating portrayals of sexual depravity.  Though doubling as anti-pornography propaganda, its images also aroused the curiosity of Eastern readers interested in the sexual deviance of this strange mountain population. 

As targets of the pornography industry, Mormons certainly would have had an interest in opposing its dissemination.   George Q. Cannon blamed their reading for “many of the evils in the world” (George Q. Cannon, Editorial, The Juvenile Instructor 5 (8 January 1870): 5).   He condemned them for “appeal[ing] to the lowest and most brutal passion” teeming with depictions of “adultery and arson, murder and mystery, gloom and ghastliness, [and] bastardy and bloodshed…from beginning to end” (“What Shall Our Children Read?” Deseret Evening News, April 21, 1869). ,

Beginning in the 1880s, visual pornography spread rapidly as printers began to place nude images on small postcards.  It received the tacit approval of government entities; in 1886, the Congress of the Universal Postal Union approved the postcards for international distribution.  They often contained subjects of the imperial colonies in the “native” habitats, but the images often contained sexual hints–depicting images such as harems and full-frontal nudity.  It was not a natural photo like those taken by the National Geographic Explorer decades later; it had been “staged” for the consumption of Western readers.  Similar images from the Philippines and Cuba made their way into the hands of American viewers.  Nudity had long been considered to be an attribute of the colonized.  In 1890, the Deseret Evening News published a description of Suakim, Africa in which the natives were described as “real children of nature and eye each other’s nudity as much in a matter of fact way as one ox stares serenely at another” (Deseret Evening News, June 21, 1890).

Pornography was widely perceived as a menace, but the Saints did not use it as a defining aspect of their moral code . In 1889, the Salt Lake Tribune referred to the works of Paul Bourget and Guy de Maupessant as “pornography” that was among “the vilest of the literary productions which emanate from the Paris printing press “(Salt Lake Tribune, November 17, 1889).  In 1917, Joseph F. Smith blasted it in article written for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, calling pornography as the product of a “modern nation [about] to bring upon itself the doom of destructive depravity,” citing the “flood of immoral fiction in printed literature, in the drama, and notably in moving picture exhibitions” (“Unchastity, the Dominant Evil of the Age,” Liahona, vol. 14, no. 44, 692).

The Mormons’ past of polygamy made them vulnerable to charges of consuming pornographic literature. Senator Reed Smoot, an avowed proponent of censorship laws, had to deflect charges of pornography consumption when Senator Wheeler suggested that Brigham Young’s writings supporting polygamy certainly qualified. Wheeler publicly gave Smoot a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s book, Pornography and Obscenity, suggesting that it might “fill some of the hours used in reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” Smoot shot back that “no man would write a book like that unless his soul was so black it would be a shining light in hell” (Trenton Evening Times, March 18, 1930).The Mormons’ opposition to pornography, however, remained informal for the next three decades.  Condemnations of it peppered leaders’ addresses but it had yet not become the Mormons’ bete noir.  

By the 1960s, the Saints had shed whatever associations with perversion had defined them in the nineteenth-century. Seeking to cultivate an identity wrapped in conservative Americana, Mormons had become bastians of the nuclear family, well-defined gender roles, and cultural conservatism–all during the melee of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  In 1966, the First Presidency released a statement condemning pornography, marking the beginning of the Latter-day Saints official crusade against it.

Church News, February 26, 1966

The move represented the Latter-day Saints’ first foray into sexual politics; past statements had focused on issues such as Communism, the New Deal, or wartime neutrality.  It cast pornography as perhaps the greatest evil of corporate capitalism unleashed, threatening long-term destruction and catastrophic consequences on family life.

What are the roots of the Mormon opposition to pornography? For the modern Mormon community, opposition to pornography has tended to be seen as a doctrinal tenet, a commandment written in time immemorial. While Mormon antipathy toward it can certainly be found throughout LDS standard works, there might be a motive a little more immediate–and a little more personal.  Throughout the nineteenth-century, the Mormons had been on the receiving end of writers’ efforts to objectify and scandalize.  The Saints knew what it was like to be caricatured and exploited.  Nineteenth-century literary pornography had turned Mormons into victims, monsters, and devices for giving Eastern readers a new taste for sexual depravity. Aware as they were of what such caricatures had done to their own people, they sought to eradicate from the communities in which they lived.


One comment on “Plague: The Mormon Opposition to Pornography, 1850s-1966

  1. thebenbailey says:

    I have wondered. Thanks for sharing Russ

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