Beliefnet News

By Menachem Wecker
c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Like many religious institutions, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) has commissioned countless works of art to educate believers and non-believers about its history and doctrines.
Now, like other churches, Mormons are engaged in a low-simmer dispute with artists over how the faith should be depicted, and the fight has raised an interesting question: Who gets to decide a faith’s official artistic record?
A group of Mormon artists, gathering online in a forum known as Images of the Restoration (, says the church can neither tolerate dissent nor keep track of its own history.
The debate is so sensitive that many of the artists decline to use their real names — it would cause family tension, most say.
Take, for example, Harold Kilbourn’s “Joseph Smith Translating” (1970), which appears on a church-run Web site dedicated to Mormonism’s prophet. It depicts an intent-looking Smith in shirtsleeves, translating the Golden Plates that became the Book of Mormon.
Yet, according to Mormon tradition, Smith translated the plates by looking at a “seer’s stone” in his hat, not at the plates directly. An alternative depiction on the artists’ site shows Smith sitting on stairs, his face buried in a hat, as his scribe writes down the translation.
Church officials have little appetite — or patience — for the site.
Kim Farah, a spokeswoman at church headquarters in Salt Lake City, expressed “zero interest” in commenting on the “anti-Mormon” blog.
William R. Stringham, a Mormon bishop in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, said trying to understand Mormon doctrine through the “anti-Mormon activists who are parading as historians” would be like trying to understand Judaism through the writings of Adolf Hitler.
While the site has annoyed church leaders, it reflects an age-old tug of war between church hierarchs, who feel duty-bound to preserve their teaching in all forms, and artists, who feel called to interpret it.
“Theology evolves throughout history as humans evolve,” said Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, who teaches art history at Georgetown University.
“Art changes in the way it interprets Scripture. There are times in which the artist acts as a prophet, a rebel from society, or a critic of society.”
Scott Gordon, president of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), an independent Mormon apologetics group, said the issues portrayed on the blog are “favorites that are brought up and highlighted by antagonists of the LDS Church.”
Others, like David Keller, a professor of computer science at Utah Valley State College who volunteers with FAIR, see artists who are probably unfamiliar with Smith’s translation story, not any kind of church conspiracy to paint over history. He noted that Smith translated the Book of Mormon twice, and official depictions “mix and match elements from different translation periods.”
By depicting Smith sitting on the stairs, he said, the blog is taking its own “artistic liberties,” he said.
The founder of the blog, who like others declined to be identified by name because of potential “personal fallout,” knew he was treading in delicate waters when he started the site.
But the founder, who goes by the name IOTR, says he is as willing to receive a critique as he is to give it. Images can be changed if someone can prove they have a better historical understanding of the illustrated events, he said.
Another contributor, a former Mormon missionary and Brigham Young University graduate who goes by the name JV, also works unnamed because he said his wife would lose Mormon friends if he were exposed. He has already altered his own work after opening it up to comments.
One of his illustrations, “Almera Woodward Johnson Smith,” depicts Smith seated on a bed beside one of his (much younger) wives. It’s clear that she has little interest in Smith’s romantic advances. When the artist showed the image to friends, they were “totally creeped out …
regardless of their personal investment or belief in Mormonism.” So he opened Almera’s eyes and lent her “a slightly amused” expression.
“If she isn’t totally excited to be there, then she is making the best of it,” he said. “I think that is a fair interpretation.”
Which is not to say it’s good art. Matt Bowman, a Georgetown graduate student who comes from a Mormon family, described the site as “ideological art … the Mormon equivalent of Thomas Kinkade,” the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light” with a reputation for kitschy Christian art.
Bowman said JV’s work “lacks subtlety” and is “designed to promote an uncomplicated agenda.” Still, Bowman said the blog exposes “problems in early Mormon history that the institutional church has been eager to downplay or smooth over.”
For his part, JV isn’t bothered by the critiques, though he considers his images more authentic than what comes out of Salt Lake City. “I don’t consider the images … to be high art in the sense that a `Mormon art’ movement would be, so I don’t mind if it is viewed as kind of limited and shallow.”
If nothing else, the site is stimulating discussion, even among non-Mormons. One viewer was taken by a drawing entitled “Joseph Smith Hunting for Treasure.” Like the translating image, it shows Smith bent over, peering into a hat, and it’s up to the viewer to decide exactly what he’s looking for.
“I do feel something affectionate for and about him,” wrote the viewer, who said he has “no illusions” that Smith was a real prophet.
“He’s a poor kid from a dirt farming background, and he’s got some moxie. He might not have much, but he’s got his own native smarts and charisma. It’s truly an American story.”

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.