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A friend loaned me a book published in 1956, "Saints of Sage and Saddle: Folklore Among the Mormons," by Austin and Alta Fife, that turned into a treasure over the weekend I read it.
"Saints of Sage..." is a collection of Mormon folk tales and tall tales. Anecdotes abound from diverse sources that include prophets and pioneers. The prologue essay, "A Mormon from the Cradle to the Grave," is just plain outstanding. It's folksy and witty, irreverent but never disrespectful. Latter-day Saints, warts and all, are captured in this book, but there's always an affection underneath the banter.
I'd wager that any reader who has been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for at least 40 years can recall hearing some of the folklore related in the book. One anecdote on polygamy recalls two LDS apostles on the way to Idaho to attend a church meeting passing a school with children tumbling out of the schoolhouse. A non-Mormon reverend turned to the apostle and asked him if the scene reminded him of his childhood. The apostle replied, "No, it reminds me of my father's backyard."
Long ago, when the church was more interesting (as my friend Cal Grondahl says), devils were frequently cast out of hijacked members and the Three Nephites tended not to be so publicity shy. In one anecdote, one of the Nephite trio is generous enough to show himself to an elderly lady who praised God that late in her life her prayer to see a Nephite perform a miracle had been answered. LDS folklore has it that Governor Thomas Ford of Illinois, who failed to protect the Prophet Joseph Smith, died loathsome, unpopular and in poverty. Another past anecdote involves LDS apostle and Logan Temple president Marriner W. Merrill arguing with Satan himself in his temple office, Old Scratch having visited to request that Merrill stop temple proceedings.
The LDS belief in a pre-existence is noted in the book. Allegedly the LDS Prophet Wilford Woodruff warned in his journal that there were literally trillions of Satan's army on earth doing their best to lead them astray. Woodruff's calculation of the earth holding 1 trillion people at a time seems way too high to this reviewer, though. Nevertheless, the Mormon belief in a pre-mortal existence is very personal to members, who worry that they may have lost friends and family members to Lucifer long ago. It can provide mixed emotions on how to respond to temptation of a personal nature.
No book on Mormon folklore would be any good if there wasn't a section on the legendary, cussing, LDS leader J. Golden Kimball. He has a chapter in "Saints of Sage ..." The former mule skinner once said, "Yeah, I love all of God's children, but there's some of them that I love a damn sight more than I do others."
Kimball also possessed wit: When former LDS U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot wanted to marry, he boasted to Kimball that he had just received the blessing of LDS Prophet Heber J. Grant. Kimball dead-panned, "Well now, I just don't know, Reed. I just don't know. You're a pretty old man, you know. And Sister Sheets, she's a pretty young woman. And she'll expect more from you than just the laying on of hands."
And once, during an excommunication trial for a man accused of adultery, Kimball, after hearing the man admit to being in bed with the married woman but not having sex with her, laconically said, "Brethren, I move that the brother be excommunicated. It's obvious that he doesn't have the seed of Israel in him."
The Mountain Meadows Massacre, and its aftermath, created much darker folklore. The wife of a Southern Utah Mormon, in the brief interlude where the spared young children of the slain settlers were being cared for in LDS homes, recalls a woman coming to her in her garden asking to see her child. She was led into the house. The Mormon wife followed the mysterious visitor, who disappeared the moment she reached the room where the child was.
"Saints of Sage and Saddle" is folklore history that the interested will spend hours poring over. Besides the tales, there are old LDS hymns, period photos and an index for quick reference. I choose to end this column with a song Mormons once enjoyed I encountered in this book, and once sung by Ogden's L.M. Hilton:
I was out upon a flicker and had had far too much liquor,
And I must admit that I was quite pie-eyed,
And my legs began to stutter, and I lay down in the gutter
And a pig arrived and lay down by my side.
As I lay there in the gutter with my heart strings all aflutter,
A lady passed and this was heard to say,
You can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses.
And the pig got up and slowly walked away.
Originally published at StandardBlogs