Added Upon, and Mormon Art

One day, when I was in seventh or eighth grade or thereabouts, I stayed home because of illness.  (I can’t remember now whether I was really — really — sick, or whether I was just slightly under the weather but not in the mood to go to class.)

After a few hours, lazing around home became pretty boring.  So, on a whim, I picked up a novel that we had inherited from my maternal grandmother after her death in 1958.

Entitled Added Upon and written by a Norwegian-American Latter-day Saint named Nephi Anderson (d. 1923), it was, as I now know, a product of the “Home Literature” era of Mormon fiction.

To my enormous surprise, I was captivated almost immediately.

The narrative of Added Upon concerns several spirits who, interacting with each other in every phase, move from the pre-earthly existence to mortal life, from mortality into the spirit world, and on to the resurrection and the Celestial Kingdom.

(Some will immediately think of Saturday’s Warrior — which I, perhaps alone in the entire Church, have never seen.  It’s entirely possible that Added Upon influenced that much later Mormon musical; I can’t really say, one way or the other.)

I had, somehow — partially, no doubt, because I’d grown up semi-active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, son of a non-Mormon father and a somewhat marginally committed mother, but probably also because I just hadn’t been paying attention — never before really glimpsed the grandeur of what Mormons typically call “the plan of salvation.”  Church, to me, had simply been a round of dull and seemingly interminable meetings.

As I devoured Added Upon, though, the power and majesty of the Mormon account of the purpose of human life and the cosmic plan designed to realize it sank deep into my mind and heart.  It struck me as the most glorious and grand story I had ever heard, and the most wonderfully noble conception of humanity that I had ever encountered.  To be perfectly trite, it resonated with me.  And I have never, in all the years that have passed, lost that sense of awe, grandeur, and profound purpose.

It was a pivotal moment for me.  I’m grateful beyond words for having skipped school that day.

I’ve tried to re-read Added Upon a few times since then, but have never really been able to “get into it.”  Perhaps I should try again.  But I have no desire to argue that it’s great literature — it’s frightfully didactic, for one thing — and maybe, in my case at least, it’s accomplished its task and I should let the past remain in the past.  In and of itself, it wasn’t particularly important.  It served as a window for me into something far more fundamental.

I wish, though, that there were, in a sense, more such books.  And more works of musical and visual art broadly in its spirit.  Better, yes, but still conveying something of the enormous power of the Gospel vision.

I came to Brigham Young University partly under the influence of Added Upon.  And when I came, eons ago now — I never imagined that I would ever be so old — a strong sense of possibility pervaded the campus.  Mormon arts and Mormon artists were breaking through and out everywhere, we thought, and there were very great things on the horizon.

Alas, they never fully arrived.  Though the Mormon artistic and cultural situation isn’t nearly as bad as some critics claim, it’s also not nearly as good as we could wish.

Many factors played a role, I’m sure, in the failure of this anticipated new day to dawn:  Patrons were few, and the audience was small.  Sin and human defect and loss of faith cost us some of our best.  (This was, and still is, painful to contemplate.)  Bureaucratic/cultural inertia blunted and delayed many of those early hopes.  In any case — perhaps I’m merely jaded, simply old and tired; perhaps, compartmentalized, I simply don’t move in the right circles — I no longer sense that feeling of boundless but imminent possibility that seemed almost tangible among many people I knew at BYU in the 1970s.

But I still hope.  I certainly still have faith.  There are some very promising signs, and there have been some worthy achievements.  And there will, I believe, someday be an art fully worthy of the Gospel.  Not a preachy, overtly moralizing, or merely illustrative “art,” but also not an alienated, cynical, skeptical art, “aping the Gentles.”  Visual, literary, and musical art created by genuinely thoughtful, deeply faithful, fully communicant Latter-day Saints.  Powerful, and conveying Power.

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