I spent an interesting few hours looking through some old books about Mormons which were in the collection at The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne - a prestigious provincial club and library dating founded in 1793.
What I found surprised me in several ways. There were plenty of books on "The Mormons" dating from about 100 years ago - which was the first surprise; the second surprise was how very, very strongly anti-Mormon they were; the third surprise was the utterly outrageous things they said.
The oldest account was of Lord Redesdale's visit of 1873 (published in his Memoirs of 1915):
Brigham Young was all-powerful, bearing a more undisputed mastery than king or tsar or kaiser. He was a law unto himself, and had his Vehmgericht, or rather was also a secret court unto himself. True, there was no Folterkammer, no eiserne Jungfrau, but those old methods were out of date ; the revolver and the bowie-knife were swifter and as sure ; Jordan was the oubliette. There has been some attempt to deny the existence of the Danites or Destroying Angels who were Brigham Young's executioners. That is futile, for the men, as I can testify, were as well known in Salt Lake City as the Prophet, and the Old Man of the Mountain himself was not more faithfully or more bloodily served by his hashishin than was the Lion of the Lord by his band of bravos. There were whole-sale murders like the Mountain Meadow Massacre, but there were also other crimes, secret murders actuated by private spite, jealousy or lust, the stories of which are well known to those behind the scenes in Zion. It was not healthy for a man to incur the wrath of the Prophet or of the leading Saints. It was not conducive to long life to love a maid or wed a wife upon whom the eyes of one of the holy ones might have fallen.
The Mystery of Mormonism by Stuart Martin (1920) presents itself as a balanced view - in between the official church history and the more sensational anti-Mormon books.
Its introduction ends like this:
Since Mormonism was born in that small wood its story has been mostly tragic, with here and there a gleam of heroism lighting up the dull, terrible sadness of pitiful, wasted effort and misguided action. The scars of its sufferings are plainly marked upon Mormonism ; and, if the creed is to live, its final adjustment to the demands of the civilisation of the twentieth century has yet to be made. The author has tried to indicate what that adjustment demands of Mormonism, and how the finer men and women of the Church shrink from the coming crisis. When the adjustment takes place — as it inevitably will, though most likely by slow degrees — the Mormonism of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young will be strangled in Utah, and the last vestige of its abominations will disappear.
The final word is as follows:
As for the religious part of Mormonism, its doom is clear. It is the author's belief that before long it will be attacked, and it will crumble before the attack. Its wave of fervour is nearly spent, and in the day when it is finally attacked by its opponents this organisation,
which has been a thorn in the flesh of the great American Republic since it was founded in 1830, will vanish as a creed. In that day Mormonism — the Mormonism which has quarrelled with every neighbour it has had, the Mormonism the history of which is one black page in the story of the United States — will cease to exist. Rent by internal schisms, attacked by forces as
relentless as Knowledge and as powerful as Time, it will ultimately totter to a gaping grave ; to a tomb dug by itself.
When that day comes, the last vestige of the abominations of Mormonism, as its founders intended it to be, will disappear from the earth, and the name of Joseph Smith will be but the memory of a man who, in his delusion, founded a gigantic fraud.
That may sound pretty extreme - however Brigham Young and the Mormon Empire by Frank J Cannon and George L Knapp (1913) goes even further. This has Brigham Young engaged in wholesale castration and assassination related to his "modern gospel of human sacrifice".
That's correct: human sacrifice.
After that there isn't really any further to go.
Still, the other books had their moments.
I Woodbridge Riley's The founder of Mormonism: a psychological study of Joseph Smith Jr (1902) has the following heading for its final section: "Was He Demented or Merely Degenerate" (he seems to suggest both at once).
R Kauffman and RW Kauffman take a different angle in The Latter Day Saints: a study of the Mormons in the light of economic conditions (1912) - they see the Mormon phenomena from a socialistic perspective in terms of just another instance of capitalistic exploitation, on a gigantic scale. But for the Kauffman's that is all any religion ever is.
If the books written about the Mormons were indescribably hostile and foolish - books written by visitors to Salt Lake City tended to be very positive.
Charles B Spahr wrote an interesting account of America's Working People (1899,1900) in which he visited New England, Chicago, The South and various other places to report on conditions. He was very impressed, on the whole, by what he saw in Salt Lake City:
The general level of morality is unquestionably high. Inquiry at police headquarters confirmed the Mormon claim that the Mormon population hardly figured at all among those arrested for crime or disorder, or among those who ministered for gain to criminal and vicious tastes.
But the statistics were the least trustworthy signs of the high morality. The real evidence of it was in the care for the poor, the temperance, the thrift, and the public spirit, that were apparent.
There was, however, one point upon which the impression revived was distinctly unfavourable, and this was the supremely important matter of sexual morality. (...) But what I heard from frank and conscientious Mormons in deprecation of these charges, even more than what I heard from Gentiles in their support, convinced me that the sin of polygamy in the fathers was bearing its fitting fruit in an epidemic of sexual immorality among the children. (...)
Nevertheless the impressions I received in the streets and from the testimony of scandal-hating people, without regard to creed, convinced me that sexual morality in Utah was much lower than in any other American community I had visited, and but little higher than in Continental Europe.
That point point about sexual morality being a weak point (the one-and-only weak point) of Mormons a century ago, makes for an interesting contrast with modern times. And it is perhaps an encouragement to modern Mormons.
A Church of England Priest the Rev. HW Haweis published Travel Talk in 1896 in which he reported on a vist to Salt Lake City of 1893:
...what I saw and what everyone may see spoke for itself. I saw a happy and contented people, a clean and sanitary city (...) neat houses and prosperous farms, well-behaved children, venerable elders, agreeable and cultivated ladies...
The fascinating thing is that we now know that the travellers' eye witness accounts were correct, and the surprising numbers of people who wrote specialist (referenced, supposedly scholarly) books about 'The Mormons' - several of which were distributed some 5000 miles way to Newcastle upon Tyne England - were wrong; very wrong, absurdly and wickedly wrong.
This strikes me as an early example of political correctness based on and in the mass media.
One more matter. When I became interested in Mormonism a few years ago I got the impression that the Mountain Meadows Massacre was something which had been hidden and suppressed until recently; and it was an atrocity that modern Mormons were supposedly having to come to terms with.
Not so. It features in all these early anti-Mormon books and the Rev Haweis goes so far as to remark on the "everlastingly quoted Mountain Massacre".
So, not such new news, after all...
All in all - my morning in the library confirms CS Lewis's advice on the value of Reading Old Books.