Children of God:
Vardis Fisher's Objective Epic

Controversy over Vardis Fisher's point of view in Children of God has been a feature of Fisher scholarship ever since the book was published in 1939. The book has been praised by Mormon and non-Mormon for its accurate and sympathetic picture of the first hundred years of the Latter-day Saints and attacked by other Mormons for its lies and misrepresentations, its failure to capture "the Mormon spirit." (The gentile side of that extreme is to see the book as an indictment of the church.) Fisher himself described the writing of the book as a concentrated exercise in objectivity, then complicated things by saying, some years later, that if he had done the research for the Testament of Man before writing Children of God, he would have depicted Joseph Smith as "a scoundrel."

Dancing Badger

Author's Note Note

Books by Vardis Fisher I have posted an annotated bibliography of Fisher's work.

I have no doubt that the objectivity of Children of God would have been replaced by the polemical fervor of the Testament of Man, had Fisher returned to the book. But this would have been literature's loss, even if it were historical truth's gain. The objectivity of Fisher's novel gives it persuasive force. We do not need to be told that Smith was a scoundrel; we can decide for ourselves. We do not need to be told that the Mormon experiment was foredoomed, because we see its doom grow from within. The balance of sympathy and anger that Fisher strove for with such success is the book's greatest strength.

Children of God illustrates the idea that the first century of Mormonism recapitulates the beginnings of Christian history; or rather that the first century of Mormonism follows an ageless archetypal pattern for the founding, flourishing, and decline of a religion. For Fisher, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no more–and no less–than another expression of the god-making spirit of mankind that dates back to a pre-Pleistocene fear of ghosts. This point of view could not make him friends on either side of the Mormon question.

To understand Fisher's perspective, we must understand his rationalism, his rationality, and his refusal to special-plead for any religious point of view. The bulk of Fisher's fiction and non-fiction supports this generalization: He believed that all humankind is capable of the same aspirations, achievements, and iniquities under any religious or social system; and that all aspire, achieve, and sin similarly–man or woman, Indian or white, Jew, Christian, Mormon, or communist. In Children of God Fisher is not "clearly on the Mormon side." [1] His sympathies are with the good, who happen for the most part to be Mormons in this book, just as his sympathies are with the Hebrews in his The Island of the Innocent. Sympathy is not identification, nor even approval. Fisher admires the Mormons of his novel for their courage, loyalty, vigor, and sincerity–for their aspirations, their strength in adversity.

To understand Fisher's Mormons, we must first consider some of the ways one can identify a church. For some, a church is defined by the behavior of the best–by the principles intended by the founders, practiced by the good, espoused by the leaders, and aspired to by the average member. For others, a church is best represented by the behavior of that average member, by the secular results of the church's existence and its actions in the world. For still others, those the faithful would surely call cynics, the church is defined by the successful–by what is tempting, permitted, and rewarded in the world of that church. This tripartite distinction is the source of many passionate religious arguments. A confusion of the distinction accounts for the failure of communication between nineteenth-century Christian missionaries, proselytizing from the idealistic first position, and pagan Indians who often judged Christianity from the pragmatic second or even the cynical third. The distinction clarifies Professor Flora's otherwise confusing statement, in the introduction to the reprint of Children of God, that the McBrides are "true Mormons." [2]

That the McBrides are Mormon is inarguable. That they are "good Mormons" or "true Mormons" from the point of view of the church is arguable, however, because they become apostates over the issue of plural marriage when they reject the 1890 Manifesto. Describing them as "true Mormons" reflects an extreme application of the idealistic definition of the church, an application that even ignores the church's own right to self-definition. The McBrides are good people: there is no question that for Fisher they represent the best of the followers of Joseph Smith, but their goodness is not the result of their Mormonism, even though the church provides the moral vocabulary for their goodness; and only from an outsider's point of view can their apostasy be defined as an expression of both their goodness and their orthodoxy.

There are three male McBrides–Moroni, Timothy, and Nephi. The eldest, Moroni, is a convert whose birth predates that of Joseph Smith. Fisher's logical lapse, giving this man born in 1795, older than the discovery of the Book of Mormon, a name that originates in the Book of Mormon, may be editorially unfortunate, but it has the literary function of underlining an important point. Moroni is a patriarch; he is a good, thoughtful man who is present for the whole action of the novel, and he is named for one of the best men of the church's scripture, bearing a name as powerful and good as "Simon Peter" is in a Christian context. Furthermore, his namesake was the last of the ancient Americans, the very man who buried the golden plates that Joseph found in Cumorah. Fisher is making the point that any church can make good men and women, and as the novel concludes, the corollary point that good men often leave their churches as matters of conscience–whether they call themselves apostates or the conservators of the"True Church."

Anyone who reads the Testament of Man looking for moral absolutes will find them; Fisher is firm enough in his convictions that a point of view emerges very quickly from the series. But if he is polemical, yet there is fairness in his pictures of the evolving spiritual awareness of Western mankind. He passes the simplest test of this fairness–he manages to offend everyone. When I was a young student, a medieval scholar who agreed to read My Holy Satan with me insisted after reading it that it wasn't worth discussing–an emotional reaction I can find amusing now. The record of the reviews of the books, and their publishing history, both of which Fisher has written about with grim amusement, demonstrate that the books outraged many readers, reviewers, and publishers whose preconceptions and comfortable self-deceptions were threatened by the idea that religion has its origins in neurosis and is a greater refuge than even patriotism for the scoundrel; by the notion that the Bible is generally unreliable as history because its primary function is persuasive rather than documentary; or by the hardly uncorroborated assertion that Christianity is only the most lasting of a plentitude of Mystery religions which sprang up like weeds all around the Mediterranean of Caesar's time.

But for all his offense to the fundamentalist perspectives, there is also offense to the doctrinaire free-thinker–best illustrated with the novel on the Maccabees, The Island of the Innocent. Here philosophical Greek and rationalist Jew are allied against the chauvinistic, isolationist fundamentalism of the Maccabees, and the rationalist win, executing their own pogrom against a people they consider unfit to live. Fisher makes much of the essentially anti-human element of the Talmudic quibbles and strictures, nor does he fail to emphasize the basic misogyny of Judaism, that religion almost uniquely without a celestial mother. For all their neurotic obedience to law, Fisher's protagonist–a Greek named Philemon–finds in the Jews a loving humanity that his philosophical Hellene friends lack. He is a doctor–concerned with the practical application of rational knowledge rather than the Platonic abstractions–and he joins the Maccabees to die beside his Hebrew wife, slain in battle by the friends of "pure Reason."

Philemon is not so different from Damon in A Goat for Azazel. Damon, a Roman rationalist of the Senecan period, spends his life seeking the spiritual substance his Christian mother was willing to die for. He finds no supernal principle he can deliver up his personal conscience to, yet he dies helping Christians. Neither protagonist is very different from Hillel of My Holy Satan, the rational but pious Jewish physician who barely survives in medieval Europe. There are elements of Philemon and Damon in Vridar Hunter and, to return to Children of God, in the gentile Mark Browe, whom some have taken for Fisher's spokesman.

Examining that presumption about Mark Browe will illustrate the complexity of Fisher's s point of view. In a crucial early scene, Fisher dramatizes a confrontation on plural marriage between Joseph Smith and John Bennett which foreshadows the later introduction of Mark Browe. The scene's purpose, in part at least, is to question the presumption that Smith is "a scoundrel." From the beginning Joseph Smith is "sure" that God means to give him a revelation about plural marriage. Cleverly, Fisher shows us the other revelations, leaving us to decide for ourselves whether they are delusions, realities, or mass hallucinations. But this is one revelation we never see. Joseph expends great verbal energy justifying plural marriage and slips, almost unobtrusively, from expecting the revelation to behaving as if it had occurred. Fisher makes no bones about the self-serving element in Joseph's adoption of polygamy. It is indeed patriarchal and therefore confirmed by the Bible, and it may well be a way of reducing prostitution, and it certainly will build a community of believers quickly and efficiently, but it also can serve to satisfy one powerful man's sensuality.

Is Joseph Smith a scoundrel and a hypocrite? The confrontation with John Bennett suggests an answer to that question. "We are two of a kind," Bennett insists (p. 259), "You saw in [Mormonism] an instrument of power." Joseph is first astonished, then outraged. As the scene progresses, it is clear that Bennett has misjudged Smith's self-awareness. The Joseph Smith who is outraged by Bennett's Machivellian hypocrisy is the same Smith who "behaves like a real prophet" in the Carthage jail. A scoundrel deceives others for his own ends, and a hypocrite is one who professes what he does not believe. Smith is at worst self-deluded, and his astonishment and outrage are genuine, as is his belief that God stands behind the doctrine of plural marriage. [3]

If we look carefully at Mark Browe's attack on plural marriage, we will find no more right on his side than on Smith's and only slightly more than on Bennett's. Like Smith and Bennett both, Browe has a great deal to gain from winning his argument; he is, after all, trying to seduce Nephi McBride's youngest wife, Chloe. True, he uses arguments Philemon used to penetrate the orthodoxy of his beloved Judith, arguments Vridar Hunter used later to try to educate his Mormon wife, Neloa Doole. In the abstract, Browe's condemnation of Mormonism and polygamy, is "right," even in a sense "true." But the novel does not let us focus narrowly on abstractions. Nephi McBride is a good man, a man of conviction, willing to go to jail for his beliefs and willing to abandon a church leadership that violates those beliefs. He loves his wives, and the brutal, demeaning picture of polygamy that Mark Browe creates for Chloe McBride may be accurate in principle, but it is far from her experience, and only her vanity and superficiality induce her to accept it and run away with Browe.

We must not be misled by the parallels to Philemon and Judith, because the differences are at least as significant. Mark Browe is a flattering seducer who happens to speak reasonably. He is a character true to Fisher's sense of the complexity of human nature, but only in a limited sense is he Fisher's spokesman. It could be argued with equal vigor that Nephi McBride is the authorial voice, as much as the kindly Joshua of Jesus Came Again speaks for Fisher, or Hillel the Jew when he praises lovingkindness or David the Christian in Peace Like a River when he strides like a living scourge into a monastery of Desert Fathers, carries off the monk Apollo who preaches to women that they can be sanctified by copulating with him (like the medieval priest of My Holy Satan), and leaves pieces of the monk strewn across the desert.

The Fisher of the Testament of Man focuses on the humanity of his characters, not merely on their commitment to a particular point of view. His prophets are a case in point. Whether Fisher changed his mind about the conscious hypocrisy of Joseph Smith, he did not assume the position that prophets are by species scoundrels. People may be at once prophets and scoundrels–Yescha of The Divine Passion comes to mind, or the various prophets numerous as squirrels in Jesus Came Again. They may be "prophets" essentially good and dangerously deluded, like the clinical hysterics whose love eventually costs Joshua his life in that latter novel, or they may be as loveable and harmless as Fisher's friend "Boles," clearly the model for many of his prophet-characters. To underscore the varieties of moral character that can fall under the aegis of prophet, Fisher included in Children of God a number of portraits of bad people who claim–sometimes sincerely, often not–prophetic gifts. An outstanding example is John Morris, who confronts Brigham Young and offers to take over the Mormon church for him. He says that he, unlike the pedestrian Mr. Young, gets "so many revelations I got six clerks writing them down," and goes on to speak a bit of Bible-ese to prove his point: "I am he that opens and he that shuts–" (p. 569). Young sees in his face both "the zeal of a fanatic" and "diabolical cunning," and compares him to J. J. Stang and Sidney Rigdon. Few of the prophets have the dignity or the unaccountable rhetorical skills of Joseph Smith, or the essential kindness, love and good will of Boles. And even the best of them, including Boles, serves his own personal ends with his righteousness, though those ends may not involve material gain or secular power.

Any attempt to put Fisher unequivocally in the pro- or anti-Mormon camp does must ignore his fairmindedness and over-simplify his picture of human nature. What do we mean by Mormon? A people's initial aspirations and the good work that they did serving those ideals? The swamp of neurotic motivations–some conscious, most unconscious–from which religion often effervesces? The inevitable perversion of ideal and aspiration that any religion sinks into as the founders die and the church seek the democratic level of at best, pragmatic social awareness, at worst, exploitive self-interest? Do we mean the church Joseph Smith meant to found, or the megacorporation that stands imposingly across the political and social landscape of the Great Basin and do we consider them one and the same? Simply put, is it Wilford Woodruff or Moroni McBride who is the "true Mormon"? And if Woodruff lied, if the manifesto was a time-serving concession rather than a "revelation," what is a Mormon then?

It is part of the greatness of Fisher's Children of God that he did not paint Smith a scoundrel, or Young a scoundrel, or Nephi McBride; that he did not make Mark Browe the voice of Truth. The truth is that we are all subject to our delusions and vanities, philosopher and saint, all orphans in the worldly garden of hope and pain, temptation and despair. Fisher called Children of God "an American epic," and an epic is a celebration, not an indictment. But what is celebrated in the novel is not a church, it is a spirit and the achievements of that spirit.

Mormonism is the transfiguration of the essential American character–that essence which finds its worst manifestation in the mundane grotesques of Sinclair Lewis, its best in such mythic figures as Lincoln. The church cannot claim credit for creating that essence, nor is it even an exclusively American character. Perhaps early Mormonism is the most organized manifestation of that character, just as contemporary Mormonism is middle-American culture made religion.

For Fisher, the Mormon pioneer attempt was an effort toward self-determination, an act of social and religious idealism. He was fair enough in his novel to allow those pioneers their courage and personal greatness, and realistic enough to know that, as he has John Taylor tell Nephi McBride, "No comrnandment that God laid down can prevent the slow modification of a religion that is in daily contact with its enemies" (p. 618). Much has been made of the idea that Fisher saw Mormon and Jew as twin brothers in character and history.[4] But Fisher did not invent the comparison; it is one Mormons are fond of making. And the direct statement in Children of God that suggests the comparison is not as ambiguous, or as pro-Mormon, as some might wish.

"Would the Mormons, like the Jews, become a wandering and outcast people; or would they mix with the gentiles and yield their principles and traditions one by one?" (p. 739). So Nephi McBride muses as the novel draws to a close. The question is not merely rhetorical, nor does Fisher mean to suggest that Mormon and Jew are indeed kindred in this regard. The question receives two clear, unequivocal, and uncontradictory answers in those final thirty pages of Children of God. The first answer is implicit in the denouement: it is the McBrides, the apostate polygamists, who are wandering, cast out historically by the official church; and the "true Mormons," in any but the most Platonic sense of truth, abide today in Utah and the world, side-by-side with gentile and Jew. As if that contrast were not clear enough, Fisher concludes the novel with a more poetic answer to the question. Embarked for Mexico, the McBrides pause south of the city, at the dramatic pass called Point of the Mountain which stands as the boundary between secular Salt Lake and the orthodoxy of Provo and points south. They look back one final time on what they had taken for Zion. The older members of the family remember looking back so on Nauvoo. A child asks, "Was Nauvoo more beautiful than Salt Lake City?" and Moroni McBride, nearly a century old, answers, "Much like it. Only there, the temple stood above the homes" (p. 768). A symbol of Mormon hypocrisy? No, only a sad commentary on the evanescence of dreams.

—Mick McAllister

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