Adventures of a Mormon Bookseller: Title Fights!

By Curt Bench

During my nearly four decades in the LDS book business, I’ve seen a lot of interesting (and not-so-interesting) books. Sometimes the title of the book can be just as fascinating as the content (sometimes even more so). Most book titles are made short, simple, and utilitarian in order to fit on the book’s front cover, spine, and title page. Moby Dick is a famous example of secular titular terseness; Mormon Doctrine (coincidentally, with the same initials) is equally succinct. The former provided a brief subtitle, “Or, the Whale,” while the latter didn’t seem to require one.

In previous centuries, perhaps because ad space was cheaper, attention spans longer, and libel laws scarcer, book and pamphlet titles (like their content) were often long (even rambling), dramatic, and sometimes downright caustic. Apologetic and polemic works abounded, waging a war of words. And, of course, Mormons were no exception (on both the receiving and giving ends). For example, La Roy Sunderland, a revivalist preacher and social reformer, lashed out against Parley P. Pratt’s 1837 work, A Voice of Warning (long subtitle omitted here), in his periodical, Zion’s Watchman. Then in 1842, Sunderland published a tract with the inflammatory title: Mormonism Exposed; in which is shown the monstrous imposture, the blasphemy and the wicked tendency of that enormous delusion, advocated by a professedly religious sect, calling themselves “Latter Day Saints . . .” The next year, Pratt responded to Sunderland’s periodical with Mormonism Unveiled: Zion’s Watchman unmasked, and its editor, Mr. L. R. Sunderland, exposed: truth vindicated: the devil mad, and priestcraft in danger! (Fun sidenote: During this period, many authors used exclamation points liberally in their titles. For instance, LDS pamphleteer Orson Spencer wrote a tract with an unusually concise title: Character. However, in one printing the title is followed by two exclamation points. In another, it is followed by three!!!)

In 1858, British anti-Mormon lecturer John Theobald published Mormonism Harpooned; or, the blasphemies of Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Latter-day Saints, exposed. It is probably more than mere coincidence that he chose that title just seven years after the publication of Moby Dick, written about another “monster” which was harpooned. If that tract weren’t cheeky enough, Theobald had earlier printed a broadside (single sheet, printed on one side) entitled, I John Theobald, challenge any man in the universe, to public discussion, to discuss the merits or demerits of “Mormonism” and “Protestantism.” It is unknown whether anyone from the region of Kolob or thereabouts took up the challenge.

Not to be outdone title-wise, another rabid British “ex-Mormon priest,” William Jarman, produced such scathing printed attacks as Britons!! Beware of the vile deceivers! “Certain lewd fellows of the baser sort.” (ca. 1885) He is best known for Hell upon earth, the doctrines and practices of the “Latter-day Saints” in Utah.

These represent only a small sampling of the printed vitriol and polemics produced in the 19th century. But there were many other publications with titles that were more curious than long or bombastic. For example, one would surely wonder what The young bachelor’s wish, or maid’s desire, a broadside apparently written by LDS author Joel Hills Johnson, is all about. Peter Crawley describes it as a “poem in twenty rhyming couplets” that “expresses the hope of finding a spouse so ‘That when our days on earth should end, / We both might be prepared to spend, / A blessed eternity above, / ‘And ever’ praise the God of love.’”

Other book titles took a long, deep dive into the strange and disturbing. Charles B. Thompson, who converted during the 1840s, wrote some notable defenses of Mormonism early on but became disaffected to the point of starting his own church. Reflecting America’s prevailing beliefs at the time (and probably those of the Church in 1860), he published The Nachash origin of the black and mixed races, Negroes are not the children of Adam; their status by creation is that of subjects. Negro slavery was instituted by divine authority at the creation of man. Adam was created for dominion and the Negro was made slave subject in the Garden of Eden.

Other favorite titles of mine (some truncated below) and their authors:

A short account of a shameful outrage, committed by a part of the inhabitants of the town of Mentor, upon the person of Elder Parley P. Pratt . . . (Parley P. Pratt, 1835?)

Startling disclosures of the great Mormon conspiracy against the liberties of this country: being the celebrated “endowment,” as it was acted by upwards of twelve thousand men and women in secret, in the Nauvoo Temple . . . (Increase and Maria Van Dusen, 1849)

Spiritual delusions; being a key to the mysteries of Mormonism, exposing the particulars of that astounding heresy, the spiritual wife-system . . . (Van Dusen, 1854)

Brigham Young’s daughter! Terrible Excitement in Utah among the Mormons. A bloody struggle coming! The narrative of her escape from Salt Lake! . . . (no author, 1870?)

Uncle Bob and Aunt Becky’s strange adventures at the world’s great exposition. (Wilbur Herschel Williams, 1904)

Dialogue between Joe. Smith and the devil! (Parley P. Pratt, 1845?)

Finally, one of the strangest titles I’ve encountered: “Haman” yn hongian ar ei grogbren ei hun! (Dan Jones, 1847). Its English translation: “‘Haman’ hanging from his own gallows.” There has to be a great story behind that one!