By Lynne Gorton Cropper
SINCE ITS FOUNDING in 1830, the Mormon Church has had to deal with disparagement from outsiders. In the Church’s early days, the stress created by unfavorable media attention sometimes resulted in violence as is evidenced by Joseph Smith’s 1844 decision to destroy The Nauvoo Expositor’s printing press. In an attempt to protect sacred things from a wicked world, the Church settled into an attitude of insularity for more than a century, though to outsiders, it appeared that the Church and its members were being unnecessarily clandestine and secretive.
Today, when confronted with disparaging media coverage, the Church reacts much differently. From spending millions of dollars to enhance its SEO (search engine optimization) to taking out full-page ads in the playbills for the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, the Church is becoming more creative in its reaction to negative media content.1 Clearly something has changed. But what? Two recent studies on humor lead me to believe that this change took root in the late 70s and early 80s with the publication of some influential Mormon cartoon books.
The first study, “Humor and Group Effectiveness,” by Eric Romero and Anthony Pescosolido (2008), concludes that successful group humor can create an attitude of psychological safety for the group members, enabling them to feel less defensive when faced with tension and giving them the emotional resources to find creative solutions.2
A 2010 study by Christopher Robert and James E. Wilbanks, “The Wheel Model of Humor: Humor Events and Affect in Organizations,” concludes that positive humor events can spread from an individual to a group in a wheel-like pattern, producing positive cumulative effects.3 Both articles argue that successful group humor causes individual and group change over time, and alters how the group functions both internally and externally.
Interestingly, it is not necessary for all members of a group to experience the initial humor event in order to be influenced by it. Just a few group members experiencing the humor event can be enough to get the humor cycle moving.
Successful humor events are most effective when three conditions are met:
- Both the humor creator and the humor appreciator are from the same group.
- The humor events come in a series or in clusters.
- The humor events create a humor-conducive environment that spawns more humor events over time.
I believe that a series of humor events matching these three criteria may have been partially responsible for the Church’s recent creative responses to disparaging media. These humor events were specifically created by and for members of the Church, came in a cluster, and spawned other humor events over time prompting a feeling of individual and group psychological safety.
IN THE FALL of 1978, from out of nowhere, it seemed, came the first Mormon cartoon book, entitled Freeway To Perfection: A Collection of Mormon Cartoons by Calvin Grondahl. The book was published as a way for the Sunstone Foundation to raise money for its fledgling periodical. The book was an immediate commercial success. Over the course of its run, more than twenty thousand copies were printed and sold nationwide.4 A cluster of other Mormon cartoon books by Grondahl soon followed: Faith Promoting Rumors (1980), and Sunday’s Foyer (1983). According to Peggy Fletcher (Stack), who was the magazine’s editor at the time, by 1983, Faith Promoting Rumors had sold more than thirty thousand copies.
In 1987, a few months before Grondahl produced his fourth book, Marketing Precedes the Miracle (Signature Books), Pat Bagley’s first Mormon cartoon collection, titled Treasures of Half-Truth (Signature Books), was published. Both of these 1987 collections were financially successful with over 12,000 being printed.
The sales figures are illuminating. Assuming that the buyers of any of these five books were members of the Church, and based on the Church’s membership records at that time, one out of every eighty-nine Church members would have owned one of these books.5 Given the fact that these books reached a substantial Mormon audience, I believe that the psychological safety created by these books contributed to the recent change in the Church’s media relations I described earlier.
The decade between 1977 and 1987 was eventful one for Mormons. According to Peggy Fletcher Stack, religion reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, “In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hot controversies were abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, how to write Mormon history, and, to a lesser extent, Book of Mormon historicity.”6 In the spring of 1977, Stephen W. Stathis and Dennis Lythgoe wrote a paper analyzing the Mormon topics that received the most attention from the media during the 1970s.7 Combining the two lists gives us a more complete understanding of the issues that concerned members of the Church at that time.
In Table 1, I have listed the topics that received the most media attention, and used + and – to indicate which topics received positive or negative media attention according to Stathis and Lythgoe. I have also included a column that matches up the media topic with the number of Grondahl or Bagley cartoons that addressed the topic.
We can see that Grondahl and Bagley had at least one cartoon that addressed each controversial topic. By putting a humorous spin on these issues, Grondahl and Bagley helped Church members learn to laugh at themselves and to view the controversies in more constructive, less defensive ways. According to Ron Priddis of Signature Books, Grondahl and Bagley “held up a mirror” for members of the Church and served as “kind of an outlet for the difficult things people were facing.” Bagley affirmed this in an interview with me when he said that one of the motivations for his Mormon cartoons was to “work out my own issues” with the Church. Michael DeGroote of the Deseret News stated that Grondahl and Bagley were “willing to go farther than others . . . poking around where others didn’t.” It was this willingness to confront the controversial issues of the day that empowered other Church members to do likewise.
Table 1 shows us that the top three negative topics that had cartoons associated with them were “Historicity of the Book of Mormon” (30), “Church History” (22), and “ERA (women’s roles in the Church)” (19). When asked why there were more cartoons about some issues than others, Grondahl said that he often had to compromise regarding what was published and that there were “always more ideas than were included.” From the distribution above it seems that Grondahl and Bagley were trying to address issues that caused recurring stress for Church members. One particularly stressful issue was the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
According to John Ben Haws in his 2010 PhD dissertation, during the forty-year period between 1968 and 2008, there was increasing tension surrounding the public’s view of the Book of Mormon. One prominent criticism was that there was no archaeological evidence to support the existence of the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon.8 Bagley addressed this controversy in a cartoon showing an archaeologist standing in a series of empty trenches saying, “I’ve looked everywhere and haven’t found any evidence of a Book of Mormon civilization in America.” Meanwhile, the evidence he’s looking for is hidden right under his nose. This type of cartoon uses wit as a weapon, which humor theorist Hans Speier says can be used to make the “arrangements or precautions of an opponent seem ridiculous.”9
Another criticism of the Book of Mormon is the lack of evidence for some of the specifics it mentions, such as horses. Grondahl addressed this controversy with a cartoon showing a man in a chariot being pulled by miniature horses. “I wrote in the plates that we Nephites have horses,” says an observer. “I hope you didn’t mention their size?” says the charioteer.
Humor is an excellent way to reframe controversy; it gives the audience some creative viewpoints that can help them feel psychologically safe. Grondahl and Bagley’s cartoons did just this, which is why their humor was and still is so soothing for Mormon angst.
One of the best examples of how humor can be used to deflect controversy is a Grondahl cartoon about the translation of the Book of Mormon. Over the years, many Church members have been bothered to learn that Smith may not have actually been reading the golden plates while translating the Book of Mormon. According to an affidavit signed by David Whitmer near the end of his life, “Joseph would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine.”10 This description runs counter to the translation process widely depicted in LDS Church art and other Church media.
The fallout over this contrast is well illustrated in a New York Times article from July 201311 where Hans Mattson, a former area authority for the Church in Sweden, asked, “Why does the Church always portray Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon from golden plates, when witnesses described him looking down into a hat at a ‘peep stone’?” This is one of many questions that eventually led Mattson out of the Church.
Elder Russell M. Nelson discussed the translation process in a July 1993 Ensign article, but Grondahl addressed the issue six years earlier in Marketing Precedes the Miracle (long before Mattson was a prominent Church leader). In the cartoon, the golden plates are nowhere to be seen while the controversial top hat is sitting on a table. Angel Moroni has popped his head out of the hat to give Emma a message for her husband regarding the seer stone’s battery life. Speier would label this cartoon as a diversionary and soothing joke because it deflects the controversy by lessening “the discontent that [the] circumstances produce.”12
Grondahl is especially adept at offering creative solutions to many of the criticisms directed at Church history and the historicity of the Book of Mormon, possibly because, as Grondahl stated in an interview with me, he always “wanted Mormon history to be more than it was.” He envisioned Smith’s accounts of his interactions with immortal beings to be more natural, imaginative, and even futuristic.13 It is too bad that Mattson was not able to get his hands on Grondahl’s book before he became disillusioned and left the Church.
In their study, Robert and Wilbanks state that an initial successful humor event can spawn additional humor events over time by creating a humor-supportive environment. The initial humor event created by the publishing of Grondahl and Bagley’s cartoon books seems to have done just that.
After this initial cluster of cartoon books, Grondahl went on to author or illustrate at least ten other publications that lampooned the idiosyncrasies of Mormonism and Utah. Meanwhile, Bagley authored or illustrated over thirty works that implicitly or explicitly included Mormon subjects, such as his 1990 series of books about Norman the Nephite.
Another successful humor event is the advent of Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby. When Grondahl’s first book came out, Kirby took it to church and thumbed through it during sacrament meeting. He ended up laughing so hard that he had to leave the chapel.14 Kirby has credited this event with launching him into humor writing. He has established himself as an award-winning Mormon humor creator, poking fun at Mormon culture in his weekly articles. Although Kirby’s take on Mormon culture is not always appreciated, he receives many positive comments from Mormon readers thanking him for helping them lighten up.
Another significant humor event is the cluster of Mormon-targeted movies from Utah-based production company HaleStorm Entertainment. Founded in 2001, the company has produced eight Mormon-centric comedies.15 The humor in these movies is similar in tone and intent to the humor produced by Grondahl and Bagley. Michael De Groote, a reporter for the Deseret News, told me that he believes we have Grondahl and Bagley to thank “for providing a way that had an effect on future ventures such as the movies by the guys from HaleStorm.”16
Since the publication of Grondahl and Bagley’s cartoon books, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become a worldwide church. And now, with the power of the Internet, Church members almost anywhere in the world can connect to the regional culture of Mormonism even though they are not living in Utah or even the United States. This is significant because it means that a new audience can be exposed to Grondahl’s and Bagley’s early cartoons even though the books themselves are out of print.
Signature Books has made four books of cartoons by Grondahl and Bagley available on their website. A blog called Doves and Serpents has an entire column devoted to the cartoons from Grondahl’s Sunstone-published books.17 Many viewers have expressed how much they have enjoyed the cartoons over the years. One wrote,
Thanks for this introduction. I guess growing up with parents who were both converts, in Oregon, has meant that I missed most of the Mormon culture stuff. Maybe I would have picked more of it up if I had gone to BYU like the rest of my sibs, but I never was interested in living in Utah . . . Thanks for sharing another part of Mormon culture I missed, and now find value in.
The influence of the Internet means that the initial humor events created by Grondahl and Bagley are still having a positive impact some 36 years later. Because of Grondahl and Bagley, members of the Church are more comfortable with and confident about the controversies that continue to swirl around us. Because of them we are able to poke fun at ourselves as well as respond to negative media with clever and constructive comebacks.
I have loved and carried Grondahl and Bagley’s books with me for many years as my family has moved across the country. Their cartoons have enriched my religious life in many ways. I actually believe Grondahl and Bagley were inspired to create these books and that the editors of Sunstone were inspired to publish these successful and influential humor events.
- Michelle Boorstein, “Mormons Using the Web to Control their Own Image.” Washington Post, 11 August 2011, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/mormons-using-the-web-to-control-their-own-image/2011/08/11/gIQA1J6BMJ_story.html (accessed 27 August 2014).
- Eric Romero and Anthony Pescosolido, “Humor and Group Effectiveness,” Human Relations 61, no. 3 (2008): 395–418.
- Christopher Robert and James E. Wilbanks, “The Wheel Model of Humor: Humor Events and Affect in Organizations,” Human Relations 65, no. 9 (2012): 1071–1099.
- Lavina Fielding Anderson, “Dreams, Dollars, & Dr. Pepper: Allen Roberts and Peggy Fletcher Years (1978–1980),” Sunstone 117, 44–54, https://sunstone.org/pdf/117-44-54.pdf (accessed 14 October 2014).
- The Deseret News 2013 Church News Almanac, (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 2013).
- Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Decennial Reflections,” Sunstone 155–156, 113, https://sunstone.org/pdf/115-6-113-115.pdf (accessed 27 August 2014).
- Stephen W. Stathis and Dennis L. Lythgoe, “Mormonism in the Nineteen-Seventies: The Popular Perception,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 10, no. 3 (1977): 95–113. Note: Stathis is currently a senior staff member in American history with the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. Lythgoe was a professor of history at Massachusetts State College at Bridgewater. He later worked as a columnist for the Deseret News.
- John Ben Haws, “The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Shaping Public Perception of the Latter-day Saints, 1968–2008,” (PhD diss., University of Utah, 2010), iv.
- Hans Speier, “Wit and Politics: An Essay on Power and Laughter,” American Journal of Sociology 103, no. 5 (1998): 1354.
- Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1993/07/a-treasured-testament?lang=eng (accessed 27 August 2014).
- Laurie Goodstein, “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt,” New York Times, 20 July 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/us/some-mormons-search-the-web-and-find-doubt.html (accessed 27 August 2014).
- Hans Speier, “Wit and Politics.”
- Telephone interview with Calvin Grondahl by author, 29 April 2014. In my interview with Grondahl, he stated that he is a huge Star Trek fan and compared his depictions of the angel Moroni to the Star Trek character named Q. Grondahl also included many cartoons that were about a Mormon Church of the future—particularly in Marketing Precedes the Miracle (1987).
- Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Mormons Can Be Funny, Just Ask Them,” Salt Lake Tribune, 12 December 2009, http://www.sltrib.com/ci_13978315 (accessed 27 August 2014).
- “About Halestorm.” Halestorm Entertainment, www.halestormentertainment.com/about-halestorm (accessed 27 August 2014).
- Telephone interview with Michael De Groote by author, 22 February 2014.
- Paula Jensen Goodfellow. “Grondahl,” Doves and Serpents, 14 December 2011, http://www.dovesandserpents.org/wp/category/columns/grondahl-restored/ (accessed 27 August 2014).