In 1887, the now-famous detective Sherlock Holmes was introduced to the world through Arthur Conan Doyle's story A Study in Scarlet. At the time, Doyle was a struggling physician hoping to supplement his income by writing fiction.
While shaping his protagonist, Doyle found a ready-made villain in sinister depictions of Mormons. Set partly in Salt Lake City, Utah, A Study in Scarlet painted Latter-day Saints as nefarious characters involved in evil plots. The popular book fermented false perceptions and perpetuated wildly misguided stereotypes.
Indeed, some 20 years after the release of Doyle's book, magazines were still selling similar type "exposés" on the Mormons. In fact, over the span of just two years (1910-1911) Pearson's, McClure's, and Cosmopolitan magazines combined for no less than seven such scathing pieces on the faith.
"[The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] lies coiled on the country's hearthstone," read one of the articles, "and asks only time to grow and collect a poison and a strength to strike."
Newspaper reports were no different. A piece in the New York American said, "Mormonism is a repulsive anachronism, a dangerous plague spot, a gross offense to the nation's moral sense."
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle finally came to visit Utah many years after writing that first book, he met Mormons in person. He spoke to them in the famous Mormon Tabernacle and stayed in the Hotel Utah. What he found during his trip simply did not resemble what he himself had depicted more than 30 years before.
In conversation he apologized for his inaccurate portrayal. Furthermore, he admitted to Mormon Church leader Levi Edgar Young that "he had been misled by writings of the time about the church." Doyle subsequently wrote that he had "great respect for the Mormons."
People today do not have to travel to Utah to become familiar with Latter-day Saints. In fact, Doyle's experience is being repeated all over the country. For example, a recent cover story in the National Review took the time to research what Mormons actually believe, how they worship, and who they are. The piece was therefore able to rightly dispel a century-old myth that the Mormon Church surreptitiously attempts to influence Latter-day Saint politicians -- a claim falsely made against the Vatican in relation to John F. Kennedy.
The article cited scholar Richard Bushman, who has written: "Anxiety about a Mormon politician knuckling under to a Mormon Church president replays the debate in 1904 over the seating of [Mormon] Apostle Reed Smoot in the United States Senate. Now, a century later, we can judge the actual dangers of the Mormon Church to national politics from the historical record. Have any of the Church presidents tried to manage Smoot, Ezra Taft Benson, Harry Reid, or Gordon Smith? The record is innocuous to say the least."
Despite obvious progress in the coverage of Latter-day Saints, and religious people more generally, even today a small handful of conspiracy theorists stoke the fire of media outlets more interested in fostering a spike in ratings or readership than relaying facts and fairness. Subsequently, the same tired rhetoric still resurfaces. Much like American Catholics during the 19th-century, Latter-day Saints today recoil as enterprising journalists and well-intentioned members of other faiths call attention to theories that are inaccurate, overblown, or driven by hostile or misinformed voices.
In a recent academic conference at Columbia University, seasoned reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack recognized the laudatory efforts of the majority of thoughtful journalists and opinion leaders covering the Mormons. Yet, Stack added, "I have also been astonished at the misrepresentations, biases, absurdities and flat out hostility towards [the Mormon] faith that have found a voice on the editorial pages of prestigious newspapers and websites. It has made me deeply skeptical of my profession."
Some may say that prejudiced coverage or bigoted commentary has always been a rite of passage for Jews, Catholics, Baptists and other religious minorities in the United States. Sadly, while this may have been part of our country's past, we ask whether it need be part of our future.
In order to change century-long cycles of misrepresentation, it's imperative for opinion leaders and people of faith to work together in thoughtful exchanges of mutual respect. Though it will surely take time, when fact takes precedent over fiction, prejudices will dissipate, misperceptions will dissolve and individuals will, like Arthur Conan Doyle, come to respect Mormons, and devout people of all faiths, who work for the common good and look to God for wisdom.