Mormon folklore

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Resin grapes, a popular Relief Society craft in the 1960s.

Mormon folklore is a body of expressive culture unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and its members. Mormon folklore includes tales, oral history, popular beliefs, customs, music, jokes, and material culture traditions. In folklore studies, Mormons can be seen as a regional group, since the core group of Mormon settlers in Utah had a common religion and had to modify their surroundings for survival.[1]:115

Verbal lore for Mormons includes stories that missionaries tell each other as a part of initiation and also to encourage adherence to mission rules. Members tell stories about pioneers, The Three Nephites, and unseen benevolent spirits to bolster their faith. In pioneer times, folk songs alternately praised and punished prominent leaders like Brigham Young.

Common customs for Mormons include reciting belief narratives, which is especially common during fast and testimony meeting. Married members also commonly tell how they were inspired to choose their spouse, and some women with children recount that a vision of a future child inspired them to have more children. In the Mormon regional area, creative date invitations are a common way for teenagers to ask each other out. Pioneer Day is a state holiday in Utah, where members patriotically celebrate their religious predecessors.

Pioneer handicrafts were inspired by the many cultures that came together in Utah. Handicrafts were initially a necessity, and pioneers developed techniques to adapt their skills to the materials on hand. Later, the Relief Society promoted handicrafts as improving mental health. Along with quilting and needlework, pioneers also made hair flowers and silk thread. Towns in the Mormon regional area have a unique combination of features, including unpainted barns, irrigation ditches, wooden moveable hay derricks, and Lombardy poplars as wind breaks. Tombstones in this area commonly depict clasped hands or a Mormon temple.

Mormon fundamentalists have different folklore from Latter-day saints. They draw on their shared heritage of experience in government raids to unify them, and enjoy folk dancing.

Research into Mormon folklore[edit]

Alta S. and Austin E. Fife are generally recognized as the founders of research into Mormon folklore, a discipline that has expanded greatly since the couple’s initial work in the 1930s.[2] Although previous and contemporary scholars had briefly addressed the issue, the Fifes expanded the field, both through their collection,[3] now known as the Fife Folklore Archive, held at the Merrill-Cazier Library on the Utah State University campus in Logan, Utah. Their book on Mormon folklore, Saints of Sage and Saddle, was published in 1956. This book, according to folklorist Jill Terry Rudy, "remains the most complete book-length treatment of Mormon folklore".[4] Folklorist William A. Wilson also specialized in Mormon folklore, and helped establish the way Mormon folklore is organized in archives.[5]

Verbal lore[edit]

Missionary lore[edit]

Missionaries have their own set of folklore. According to William Wilson, missionaries tell stories for four main purposes: to build a sense of comradeship, to cope with the pressures of missionary life, to encourage missionaries to keep mission rules, and to assure themselves of future victory. They commonly tell stories about how new missionaries, or "greenies" are initiated into the existing missionary group through pranks. Learning missionary slang also helps new missionaries feel like part of the missionary community. Missionaries also tell stories to escape from the pressures of strict missionary life; often these stories include ways that missionaries try to escape missionary life but are discovered. The third reason missionaries tell stories is to help them conform to mission rules. In some of these stories a missionary disobeys the rules and suffers disastrous consequences. Other stories tell of missionaries miraculously saved from danger. Missionaries also tell stories about getting the best of a hostile world, even if it causes other people to suffer. Stories where people insult missionaries, only to come to an untimely end, are common.[6] In some missions, it is common to burn clothing to mark special missionary anniversaries, such as a tie after six months of service and a shirt after one year.[7]

Pioneer lore[edit]

Mormons often retell stories about how early members of the church endured persecution and hardships in order to inspire other members. Stories about plural wives often either tell of the women's plight in having to share a husband or the convenient companionship of her sister wives.[8] J. Golden Kimball was a member of the Seventy and a folk hero known for swearing and undermining authority; stories told about him are often humorous.[8] Stories about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Eliza Snow, and other founders have a near-mythic status.[7]

Three Nephites stories[edit]

The Three Nephites are three Nephite disciples chosen by Jesus in the Book of Mormon to never die. In modern three Nephites stories, one or more of these men appear to give assistance to those in need and then mysteriously disappear.[8] The assistance ranges from providing childcare to fixing a car. According to William A. Wilson, Three Nephites stories "reflect and reinforce church programs and, by endowing them with mystical values, place them beyond criticism or questioning."[9]:209

Genealogy and temple lore[edit]

Many Mormons engage in genealogy research in order to perform baptisms for the dead. One common folk narrative is for a researcher to have lost hope of finding more information, only to miraculously find it in a book or cemetery. There are also many stories of spirits helping members to perform their temple work or conveying their gratitude somehow.[8]

Folk songs[edit]

Mormons in the 1850s and 1860s used all kinds of secular songs for their own purposes. They would write their own words to familiar tunes. One popular tune was "The Sea," which W.W. Phelps turned into a song about the sky and Joseph Cain put to words about a bee. Some songs satirized other religions, as in "The God that others worship" set to the tune "The rose that all are praising." Mormons also penned songs about persecution and Joseph and Hyrum's death.[10] Many songs about Brigham Young circulated, depicting Young as either tyrannical leader with a troubled home life or a righteous leader whose guidance leads the Mormons into prosperity. In the case of "Brigham, Brigham Young," the song was accepted when performed by a Mormon for other Mormons, but incited a riot when performed for mixed company. L.M. Hilton's version of "Hard Times" emphasized optimism in the face of persecution; Hilton said that it was one of Brigham Young's favorite songs and that he would sing it to Mormons to cheer them up.[11]

Descriptions of customs[edit]


Relating belief narratives is one of the many ways Mormons express their faith. During monthly fast and testimony meeting, some members voluntarily share their dedication to their faith in a ritualized way, including informal ritualized expressions that have become the subject of "testimony bingo" jokes.[12] Conversion narratives are commonly related by LDS members in a way that mirrors the conversion of Joseph Smith: as a search for knowledge, with epiphanies and doubts leading to a knowledge of the truth of the gospel. Research by one folklore student found that members who converted as adults were more likely to relate being surprised by the truth or that their conversion was part of a long process. Eric Eliason notes that Mormons tend to prefer sincere, even humorous, conversion narratives over melodramatic or self-serving ones.[13]

Marriage confirmation narratives, told in communal cooperation settings, relate how an individual left the decision of whom to marry with God or a leader, lessening their anxiety about whom to choose to marry. The folk belief that there exists only one suitable marriage partner, perpetuated in Mormon media but not supported by Mormon theology, exacerbates this anxiety. Generally marriage confirmation narratives support the idea that righteous living within Mormon expectations will lead to blessings like receiving spiritual revelation about one's marriage partner and a subsequent happy marriage. Such narratives help reinforce Mormon ideas about Mormons being a "peculiar people" who receive special spiritual experiences, and help establish and fortify socially desirable behavior.[14]

Some Mormon women experience a vision of a future child that inspired them to have more children. If the next child isn't the same as the child in the vision, the woman knows that the child is still "coming" and has another child. Margaret K. Brady documented this narrative type and sees it as a way to relieve Mormon women from their guilt in deciding not to have more (or any) children, by giving them revelation through their own future child. Even though the result is to support the status quo and have more children, the woman is the one who has the vision and decides to have more children. Sometimes these women share this experience in a visionary narrative. Telling the story reinforces the woman's spiritual identity, thus giving her a measure of power in her religious community.[15]

Courtship and families[edit]

Creative date invitations are pervasive in the Idaho, Utah, and Arizona area, starting in the 1970s when young women were encouraged to ask young men to Sadie Hawkins dances.[16] Folklorist Kristi Young writes that creative date invitations allowed young women to feel more comfortable asking young men on dates, since creative date invitations often don't require an immediate face-to-face response.[17]:29 Sometimes the recipient of a creative date invitation will accept even if they already have a significant other.[7]

The LDS church encourages families to meet together in "family home evening" on Monday nights. Assignments for prayer, song, lesson, game, and treat are often rotated between family members on homemade charts.[7] After a baby is born, it is given a blessing, usually by their father with other male relatives and friends joining the blessing circle. In Mormon funerals, the deceased wears their ceremonial temple clothing to be buried.[7]

Pioneer Day[edit]

The first Pioneer Day was celebrated in 1849, with Mormons in Salt Lake City marching in wards around Temple Square in a show of patriotism. Many other towns in Utah had their own celebrations. Steven Olson notes that Pioneer Day celebrations reenact an idealized culture, providing a window into Mormon culture. Celebrations in the latter half of the 19th century emphasized how Mormons were a free, blessed, and chosen people. Floats and decorations celebrated agricultural bounties that Mormons saw as God blessing their settlement. Mormon leaders were escorted from their homes to the celebrations, where they participated as speakers. Parades separated participants by age and gender and celebrated traditional gender roles. Dances and sports competitions were common.[18]

In Utah where Pioneer Day is an official holiday, the day is celebrated with fireworks and historical reenactments. However, outside of Utah, observance depends on local members; often a congregation will have pioneer-themed talks but no festivities.[19] Dutch Mormons tend not to celebrate it, but in Germany, Pioneer Day is a popular among Mormons.[7]


In the mid-20th century, several performance art traditions helped revive folk arts. Church-wide folk-dancing festivals taught folk dancing to Mormon youth in the 1970s. Roadshows allowed members to exercise their creative talents on a smaller scale.[20]

Material objects[edit]


Pine furniture, pottery, wool textiles, quilts, woodwork, decorative needlework, and toys have unique Mormon elements.[1]:33 In early Mormon history, pioneers gathered in Utah from Europe and other parts of the world, bringing their knowledge of handicrafts with them. Since pioneers had to make most of their clothes and linens, they were forced to adapt their techniques to the materials they had on hand. Shirley B. Paxman argues that the pioneers's limited materials combined with their isolation resulted in "marvelously unself-conscious" work.[21] Pioneer women in Utah made their own yarn, linen thread and silk thread.[21] In the 1870s, pioneer women sold their handicrafts in cooperative stores owned by the Relief Society.[22](in Romanian) When handicrafts were no longer a necessity, they were promoted as improving mental health. Handicrafts for Women, published by the Relief Society in 1935, encouraged women to learn handicrafts to relieve them of the monotony of housework.[23] In the early 20th century, Relief Societies held monthly homemaking days to learn and practice household arts and crafts including needlework and quilting.[20] In 1963, handicrafts saw a resurgence in popularity that coincided with the Relief Society Magazine's new feature on arts and crafts.[24]

Utahns created a Utah quilt guild in 1977 to promote and preserve quilt making techniques. In documenting pioneer quilts, the Utah quilt guild found a wide variety of styles, including paper piecing, applique, and crazy quilt styles. Quilts were a common wedding gift.[25] Pioneer quilts often featured natural imagery, with sego lilies and beehives being special symbols of Mormon pioneers.[20] Yvonne Milspaw's study of contemporary American regional quilting found that Utah Mormon quilters were the most innovative and relaxed about traditional quilt patterns. Pictoral quilts and quilts that incorporate memorabilia, like boy scout badges and silk-screened photos, were common.[26]:378 The annual Springville Quilt Show accepts both hand-stitched and machine-quilted quilts.[27]

Hair wreaths and jewelry were among the popular handicrafts in the 19th century, especially in the 1860s and 70s. Hair flowers made by Mormons, like those in the rest of the United States, traditionally had a woman's hair for the petals and her husband's for the center. Watch chains made from hair were commonly sent to missionaries to remind them of family members. The Salt Lake temple entrance had a hair wreath containing hair from prominent church leaders on display until 1967. During the time when polygamists were jailed, at least one convict attempted to make hair flowers. Hair wreaths contained hair from multiple people and were displayed in public areas, symbolizing community unity.[24]

Relief Society crafts are one way that folk art is disseminated between Mormons. In 1963, Ruby Swallow made resin grapes using old Christmas ornaments as molds. She presented the craft at a stake homemaking activity, and soon after taught her technique in a local craft store. The craft remained unusually popular, and many homes in the Intermountain West had a set by the 1970s. Mark L. Staker believes that the staying power of resin grapes is partially because they were made as a community, and also because Relief Society Magazine began emphasizing arts and crafts in 1963.[24] One popular genre of crafts turn inexpensive utilitarian objects into decorative ones.[28]


Early Utah pioneers in 1847 used wood from hardwood packing boxes as material for furniture.[29]:24 Steam-driven lathes made Roman turned legs and furniture with spool-turned decoration popular.[29]:17 Leaders encouraged craftsmenship, and cabinetmakers made their own designs, usually influenced by fashionable designs like the Empire style. Furniture makers adapted designs to local softwoods like cottonwood, box elder, and red and yellow pine.[29]:27 The legs and spindles of furniture made with soft wood had to be thicker to accommodate the same amount of weight as furniture made with hardwood.[28]

In the 1850s and 60s, furniture was in great demand, but by 1869, there were enough cabinetmakers that there were a variety of competing styles.[29]:37 William Bell, a cabinetmaker from England, worked for Brigham Young and made a variety of simple yet fashionable pieces. He crafted a few unique pieces, including an octagonal rotating desk with painted graining to simulate other textures and a reclining chair. Ralph Ramsay, another Mormon pioneer furniture maker, used Bell's workshop to carve a large eagle that decorated the entrance to Brigham Young's property.[29]:55 Ramsay carved many other details iconic to Mormon architecture, including the original oxen supporting baptismal fonts in temples, the casework for the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ, and a magnificent personal bed.[29]:59–62

Other pioneer craftsmen tried to adapt to conditions in Utah. Potters made jars and pots for local needs. Local soil was high in alkali, and traditional glazes were ineffective. Pioneers preferred the cheaper factory-made, and by the end of the 19th century, only Erich C. Henrichsen's pottery remained in business, selling unglazed machine-made flower pots. Blacksmiths recycled any metal they could find and had consistent work shoeing horses and repairing farm equipment. By the 1890s, most craftsmen were struggling to support themselves, as they could not compete with factory-made goods brought by the railway.[22]:76

Since the church's emphasis on emergency preparedness, some Mormons have found created storage space for preserved food inside furniture.[28][30]


The rural farms of the Mormon pioneer region have grown into suburbs over time. The more rural landscapes have wide roads, irrigation ditches, unpainted barns, and special wooden hay derricks.[1]:30 Lombardy poplars were often grown in rows to act as a windbreak, and streets were often numbered in grid fashion.[7] A two-story symmetrical home with a chimney on either end was popular, and called "I"-style or "Nauvoo"-style homes. "I"-style homes were often built adjoining one another in "L", "H", or "T" style homes. Home were often built using adobe.[20]

Brigham Young instructed pioneers to build "beautiful" houses, and from 1847—1890, architects experimented with various decorations they found in house pattern books. Greek revival-inspired decorations included window heads in pediment shape, entablature, and plain cornice returns. For Gothic revival decorations, architects used intricate bargeboards and spired finials to traditional house plans. Dormers were popular and were built in many varying styles. Late 19th century styles like Victorian were not common. Traditional house plans came from Colonial Georgian architecture. External designs were usually bilaterally symmetric, with three distinct components, one of which was centered to preserve symmetry. Second-story windows were built direct above first-story windows in this style. Architectural eclecticism was common, and architects sometimes used unusual solutions to create symmetric facades.[31]


In the 19th century, the most popular symbol for gravestones in the Mormon cultural region was that of two hands clasped, as if in a handshake. Carol Edison interprets the symbol as flexible, representing either a goodbye to living relatives or a greeting to deceased relatives.[32]:83 The clasped hands design was especially popular for upright marble grave markers. Starting around 1910, images of temples on gravestones appeared, reinforcing Mormon beliefs about families remaining together after death. With sandblasting technology in the 1960s, carving images of temples became much easier and the temple symbol on gravestones became popular. Over a quarter of gravestone orders in 2013 included a temple image.[32]:86 Many temple gravestones include the names of husband and wife on the same gravestone and the date of their temple sealing. The names of the children of the couple are sometimes also listed on the gravestone, showing the importance of the family unit.[32]:88

Mormon fundamentalists[edit]

Fundamentalist communities are intentionally built and are a different community from the more mainstream Latter-day Saints. Fundamentalists dedicate themselves to polygamy out of religious devotion. Family organization depends on individual style; in some families the first wife takes a superior role to the younger wives; in others, they are scrupulously treated equally. Traditional dances are popular, especially the double scottische. Modest but modern clothing is common. Fundamentalist communities strongly value frugal cooperative self-reliance, often home-schooling their children and relying on alternative medicine. Many families receive financial assistance from the government. Past government raids provide touchstones for communal memory, and members recount their own and their ancestors's experiences with persecution.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Eliason, Eric A.; Mould, Tom, eds. (2013). "Mormondom as Regional Culture: An introduction to Society, Symbols, and Landscape". Latter-day lore: Mormon folklore studies. ISBN 9781607812852. Retrieved 22 June 2017. 
  2. ^ Wilson, William A. (1994), "Fife, Austin and Alta", in Powell, Allan Kent, Utah History Encyclopedia, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, ISBN 0874804256, OCLC 30473917, archived from the original on 2013-06-09 
  3. ^ "FOLK COLLECTION 4: No. 1: Series II: Vols. 10-18: The Fife Mormon Collection: Manuscript Sources". Retrieved 2011-05-29. 
  4. ^ Rudy, Jill Terry (2005). "Mormon Folklore Studies". Irreantum. 7 (1). Retrieved 4 May 2017. 
  5. ^ "Folklore (William A. Wilson Folklore Archives) | World History & Culture | L. Tom Perry Special Collections | HBLL". Archived from the original on 2016-01-06. 
  6. ^ Wilson, William A. (1981). On Being Human: The Folklore of Mormon Missionaries. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press. ISBN 087421114X. Retrieved 10 May 2017. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Eliason, Eric A. (2006). "Mormon Culture Region, Mormon Fundamentalists, Mormons". In Bronner, Simon J. Encyclopedia of American folklife. Armonk (N.Y.): M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 9780765680525. 
  8. ^ a b c d Wilson, William A. (1996). "Mormon Folklore". In Brunvand, Jan Harold. American folklore: an encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publ. ISBN 978-0815307518. 
  9. ^ Wilson, William A. Wilson (2013). "Freeways, Parking Lots, and Ice Cream Stands: The Three Nephites in Contemporary Society". In Eliason, Eric A.; Mould, Tom. Latter-day lore: Mormon folklore studies. ISBN 9781607812852. Retrieved 22 June 2017. 
  10. ^ Hicks, Michael (2003). Mormonism and music: a history (1st paperback ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252071476. 
  11. ^ Rudy, Jill Terry (2013). "Portraits in Song: Gleanings from the Brigham Young Folk Song Cycle". In Eliason, Eric A.; Mould, Tom. Latter-day lore: Mormon folklore studies. ISBN 9781607812852. Retrieved 22 June 2017. 
  12. ^ Eliason, Eric A.; Mould, Tom, eds. (2013). "Making Mormons: An Introduction to Formative Customs and Traditions". Latter-day lore: Mormon folklore studies. ISBN 9781607812852. 
  13. ^ Eliason, Eric A. (1999). "Toward the Folkloristic Study of Latter-day Saint Conversion Narratives". BYU Studies Quarterly. 38 (1). Retrieved 11 May 2017.  "It should be noted, too, that Latter-day Saints often evaluate conversion narratives and testimonies based on an antiperformance aesthetic. Stories that seem contrived, melodramatic, self-centered, or manipulative can be deemed in violation of the principles of this genre's raisons d'être."
  14. ^ Schoemaker, George H. (2013). "Made in Heaven: Marriage Confirmation Narratives Among Mormons". In Eliason, Eric A.; Mould, Tom. Latter-day lore: Mormon folklore studies. ISBN 9781607812852. 
  15. ^ Brady, Margaret K. (October 1987). "Transformations of Power: Mormon Women's Visionary Narratives". The Journal of American Folklore. 100 (398): 461. doi:10.2307/540905. Retrieved 15 May 2017. 
  16. ^ "Creative Invitations for Dates and Dances - World History & Culture -L. Tom Perry Special Collections". Brigham Young University. Archived from the original on 7 November 2017. Retrieved 1 May 2017. 
  17. ^ Young, Kristi (2013). "Now that I've kissed the ground you walk on: A look at gender in creative date invitations". In Eliason, Eric A.; Mould, Tom. Latter-day lore: Mormon folklore studies. ISBN 9781607812852. Retrieved 22 June 2017. 
  18. ^ Olson, Steven L. (1996). "Celebrating Cultural Identity: Pioneer Day in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism". BYU Studies. 36 (1). Retrieved 15 May 2017. 
  19. ^ Bruner, Rachel. "What is Pioneer Day to Mormons?". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 15 May 2017. 
  20. ^ a b c d Bradley, Martha Sonntag (1992), "Folk Art", in Ludlow, Daniel H, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing, ISBN 0-02-879602-0, OCLC 24502140 
  21. ^ a b Paxman, Shirley B. (1976). Homespun. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book. ISBN 0877475849. 
  22. ^ a b Richards, Nancy. "Mormon Craftsmen in Utah". In Cannon, Hal. Utah Folk Art: A Catalog of Material Culture. Brigham Young University Press. p. 76. 
  23. ^ Beeley, Glenn Johnson (1935). Handicrafts for Everywoman. Salt Lake City, Utah: The National Women's Relief Society. 
  24. ^ a b c Staker, Mark L. (1995). "By Their Works Ye Shall Know Them: The World View Expressed in Mormon Folk Art". BYU Studies. 35 (5). Retrieved 3 May 2017. 
  25. ^ Covington, Kae (1997). Gathered in time: Utah quilts and their makers, settlement to 1950. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. ISBN 0874805414. 
  26. ^ Milspaw, Yvonne J. (Autumn 1997). "Regional Style in Quilt Design". The Journal of American Folklore. 110 (438). doi:10.2307/541664. Retrieved 3 May 2017. 
  27. ^ Larson, Chase (5 August 2010). "Quilt Show is serious business at Springville Museum of Art". Daily Herald. Retrieved 11 May 2017. 
  28. ^ a b c Thatcher, Elaine (1992), "Material Culture", in Ludlow, Daniel H, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing, ISBN 0-02-879602-0, OCLC 24502140 
  29. ^ a b c d e f Barker, Marilyn Conover (1995). The Legacy of Mormon Furniture. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith. ISBN 0879056320. 
  30. ^ Berteaux, Kelsey (17 September 2013). "Food Storage Strategies". LDS Living. Retrieved 11 May 2017. 
  31. ^ Carter, Tom. "Folk Design in Utah Architecture 1849–90". In Cannon, Hal. Utah Folk Art: A Catalog of Material Culture. Brigham Young University Press. p. 44; 49. 
  32. ^ a b c Edison, Carol (2013). "Mormon Gravestones:A Folk Expression of Identity and Belief". In Eliason, Eric A.; Mould, Tom. Latter-day lore: Mormon folklore studies. ISBN 9781607812852. Retrieved 1 May 2017. 

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