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A French Fascination with Mormonism

Explore 19th-century French stereotypes of Mormonism.

During the 19th century, France became obsessed with Mormonism. French citizens found Mormonism so captivating that they produced pop culture media about the new religion in the form of plays, musicals, literature, caricatures, and political cartoons. Professors Heather Belnap (19th-Century French Art and Culture), Corry Cropper (French), and Daryl Lee (19th-Century French Culture and Literature) joined forces to write about this cultural phenomenon in their new book, Marianne Meets the Mormons: Representations of Mormonism in Nineteenth-Century France.

Professors Heather Belnap, Corry Cropper, and Daryl Lee discussing their new book.
Professors Heather Belnap, Corry Cropper, and Daryl Lee discussing their new book.

The authors noted that the French weren’t writing about the actual religion of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Latter-day Saint mission in France was terribly small at that time, and consequently not many French citizens understood the nuances of the religion. The French found the idea of Mormonism fascinating rather than the religion. They used the concept of Mormonism as a way to understand their own changing social norms, often by exaggerating what little they did know about Mormonism.

The title of the book plays on this idea of French fascination with Mormons. Marianne symbolizes France in much the same way that the Statue of Liberty (or Lady Liberty) symbolizes America. French liberty, or Marianne, showed up in many political cartoons from this time period. The many depictions of her interacting with Mormons gave the authors the idea for their title.

Belnap, Cropper, and Lee credited the digitization of the French National Library with making their research possible. While gathering information from the French National Library’s database, they found hundreds of depictions of “the Mormon” often accompanied by the description “le fou” or “the fool.” These images personify Mormonism as a court jester surrounded by knowledgeable nobles, who were the French.

Publications from this time period stated that Mormonism was “an experiment that goes against rationality and reason.” And that “the West has unleashed the fool [or jester].” However, Cropper took the analogy one step further. He explained that the humor and jokes made by a court jester often reflect the issues of the court. The French used Mormonism as a way to talk and laugh about their own issues.

A French cartoon of a large shipment of wives coming in at the docks.
French cartoon of a shipment of wives coming in.

Because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contains many cultural aspects within its theology (such as beliefs, economic views, family views, urban planning, and social systems), it was a perfect target for the French to use when describing bold new social ideas.

Belnap pointed out that Mormon polygamy and politics in the Utah Territory allowed the French to discuss their own thoughts about rising feminist ideas. For example, women received the right to vote in Utah around this time, and that scared French men. One cartoon from the period showed women controlling a man like a pack of rabid wives. This made light of the fact that many French women were looking for ways to make money independently.

The French used the idea of polygamy to give women legitimacy in their relationships with men. They considered the title of wife more secure and honorable than that of a mistress, who could be discarded on a whim. It was common in Europe for men to have many mistresses with no official place in the home, so the idea of elevating the status of these women by accepting them as wives was radically feminist.

French cartoon of ethnically diverse wives for sale.
French cartoon of ethnically diverse wives for sale.

In the cartoon, “Docks du mariage: Grand choix d’épouses” (“Marriage docks: Big selection of wives”), we see women of various ethnic backgrounds being presented as suitable wives. The artist invoked the idea of racial equality through the “quirky” practices of Mormons, who were willing to take on wives of any race. Media about Mormonism also explored other hot topics such as socialism and communism.

Lee reminded everyone that Latter-day Saints have a tendency to take themselves too seriously and that these representations weren’t meant to be an attack on the Church. Instead, 19th-century French media allowed people to have conversations about their own changing social climate in the guise of making fun of Mormonism.

The book, Marianne Meets the Mormons: Representations of Mormonism in Nineteenth-Century France, is available for purchase on Amazon and at other bookstores.