A French View of Mormonism, 1941

I’ve referred a time or two to one of my heroes, Leon Fargier, the only Melchisedek Priesthood holder in France during World War II.

He preserved in his scrapbook this article that appeared in the newspaper Paris Soir on 21 July 1941. (The translation is a little rough, but not too bad.)

Mr. Fargier, Sole Mormon Minister in the Free Zone, Has Baptized 15 Converts in the Municipal Swimming Pool at Grenoble

(By our special correspondent, Merry Bromberger)


With a wave of his hand, the Latter-day Saint indicated the carved Henri II buffet, covered with a floral tapestry, and the sewing machine of his sister-Mormon in the corner. “We meet in this room from time to time, to sing our songs, to preach to each other, and to share the bread and water of the Sacrament.”

But when there are more than five meeting together, the Mormons of the Grenoble district have to meet in an even stranger chapel: Although they are firm enemies of alcohol – of every fermented drink, and wine – of coffee, and even of tea, they hold their worship in the back room of a saloon, their songs ringing over the clatter of trays filled with cocktails and the burst of voices from the billiard players.

“We don’t have a chapel in Europe. But Zion is everywhere that God can be, especially where a member of the Church is found.”

Spiritual Mimicry

The accent of Valence rolls from the throat of Brother Fargier, the only Mormon priest in the free zone, living in Valence. The accent of Grenoble is heard in the voice of Sister Morard.

But to look at them without listening to them, one is struck by the internal mimicry that transforms them. He has the cool and energetic face of a minister from the other continent. One would guess by looking at her, with her glasses reflecting soft light, that she was an elderly American woman. Those who have lived for a long time in the Far East take on the slanted eyes and high cheekbones of that place; these devotees of Salt Lake City have ended up with the physical appearance of disciples of the prophet Smith.

A hundred years ago, he (Smith), a great oaf of a farmer from New York State, founded in Illinois the ideal city, Nauvoo, whose 25,000 residents were more numerous than those of Chicago. It was Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, whose revelations, since the age of 15, had exasperated his fellowmen, be they Presbyterian, Baptist or Methodist.

The Angel of the Far West

He told of having had a vision of the Angel Moroni, son of the prophet Mormon, who had led one of the lost tribes of Israel to America, 600 years before Jesus Christ. The Angel showed him a mountain where Mormon had hidden gold plates containing the new gospel. He copied them. Followed by his people, the prophet Smith fled from persecution to build a holy city in the desert. He was a young giant with blond hair, who lifted weights and boxed, and held daily interviews with the Lord, or with Moses or Elias, and dictated the rules for a new banking organization, and ran for president of the United States. After one particular revelation and a bolt of lightning, he instituted polygamy and took 30 women for his personal quota, while at the same time recruiting an army of 5,000, the strongest in the United States.

Mr. Fargier Follows the Teachings of the “Angel of the Far West”

The people of Illinois, already scandalized by this illustrious man, fought against him and his faithful with an unheard of ferocity. A Mormon having threatened to kill the governor, the prophet was arrested for the fifth time. He was going to be acquitted. The mob lynched him in prison.

Then his successor, Brigham Young, ordered a great migration, and the Mormons struck out for the promised land. At the head of their convoy rolled the black carriages of the 30 widows of Joseph Smith. They crossed the far west and the Rocky Mountains, decimated by Indian arrows, starvation, and sickness. Finally, at the mouth of the Rocky Mountain canyons, a great shining lake appeared in their sight in the midst of the sands, on the 202nd day of their march.

“There is the promised land, the New Jerusalem!” cried Prophet Young. It was the Great Salt Lake. There was born Salt Lake City, the Mormons’ holy city.

Baptism of the French Dead at Salt Lake City

“Until very recently when immigration to the United States became difficult,” Brother Fargier told us, “most European Mormons set out for the New Zion and went to live by the shores of the Great Salt Lake. That is why there are only 30,000 Mormons in Europe – 200 in France, 14,000 in Germany. We have 15 members in Grenoable who have been baptized by immersion in the city pool, 11 at St. Etienne, 3 at Lyons, 4 at Valence, 3 at Marseille, 2 at Nimes, and one family at Saint-Chamas.

“Even if we no longer emigrate to Salt Lake City, we must at least baptize our ancestors,” said the Latter-day Saint. “We send the birth certificates of our parents, our grandparents, and more distant ancestors to the Temple in the New Zion. The faithful there go down to the baptismal font as proxies for the dead. In that way our ancestors are assured of going to Paradise, having been baptized as we are. All Mormons do their genealogical research in order to send their ancestors to Eternity.”

From the Henry II buffet, the Saintess took out several civil documents and a family tree which she spread out, all of them papers she hopes to be able to send to the Promised Land soon. “We don’t have a temple in Europe. It is only in Salt Lake City that we can have our dead baptized.”

Platonic Polygamy

Too, only there are the mysteries of the temple accessible to the faithful, where spiritual marriages are made which permit the Mormons to enjoy platonic polygamy.

Since 1890, Mormons have had only one wife. The American law of that era threatened Mormon patriarchs with multiple households with severe punishment. The prophet of that day had a revelation, forbidding the Latter-day Saints from engaging in plural marriage from that time forward. But in the secrecy of their temple, the Mormons still contract spiritual marriages which prepare for the union of pure spirits in the world to come. God looks without displeasure on celestial polygamy.

Their detractors, referring to the weakness of the flesh, still fire angry screeds at these platonic unions.

In any case, the Mormons of France don’t participate in these “vicarious works” of the New Zion; they are legally and spiritually monogamous.

“You must understand that this polygamy which has cast so much reproach on the Mormons,” said Sister Morard, warmly, “was not inspired by sensuality or depravity. It was given as a remedy for the disproportionate number of men and women, and to fight against prostitution. The holiest families were the most numerous. Wives submitted joyfully to polygamy in obedience to the revelations of the Angel, and the word of the Bible to ‘multiply and replenish.’”

The Call of the Promised Land

On the floral tapestry, the Mormon priest, the “Elder,” opened a colored folder with pious care. Salt Lake City, the Latter-day Rome – their Paradise, even, because it is a reward for the just on the earth until God decides to end the world and remove His elect from this present fallen existence – was displayed there in warmly colored postcards. Skyscrapers, store buildings, a university that looked like a sauna and a bath house that looked like a university, the lighted buildings of the local Broadway, hotels, movie houses, a white cathedral crowned with a statue of the Angel Moroni 200 feet tall, the gleam of the nearby lake, a horizon of tall mountains, small homes set in green bowers …

From the priestly pocket emerge more leaflets, proselyting brochures, travelers’ accounts testifying of the morality of that city without taverns, where Prohibition still reigns, of the comforts of its large homes, of the benefits of its agricultural schools which have made the Far West prosperous through “dry farming” (the scientific exploitation of dry ground), ruled theocratically by an 86-year-old prophet, successor to Brigham Young, where business, farmer’s work, and the banker’s telephone call are all acts as pious as prayer, and where the prosperity encouraged by the Church through raising sugar beets is sanctified through tithing.

In This, We Are All Mormons.

“Our religion has great merit,” adds the smiling Latter-day Saintess. “It has prepared us for the present restrictions in having us give up wine, coffee, tobacco, and alcohol, and allowing us only a small amount of meat.”

In this respect, at least, all Frenchmen are more or less Mormons!

11 comments for “A French View of Mormonism, 1941

  1. Merci, Ardis! Loved the verve and the style of Merry Bromberger, so typical of how French authors and journalists approached Mormonism over the years, and so different from writers in other European contries. Can we access the original French text somewhere?

  2. Wilfried, I have an un-proofread, un-accented, very quickly made and sloppy typescript in my file that I can send to you, if you can stand to pick your way through it. Watch your mailbox.

  3. Ardis,
    Thanks for this. The translation was charming. How long did you linger over how to render the “great oaf” descriptor for Joseph Smith, farmer? Merry Bromberger’s brief slide into the pop-anthropology of 1941 France — by which the “Elder” and “Saintess” assumed the appearance of Americans — is possibly a second cousin of the 19th/early 20th-century belief that the practice of polygamy had produced a Mormon population with a distinctive appearance. There was a fascination as what Mormons “looked” like. Hence, when Apostle George A. Smith met with U.S. Senator Sam Houston in D.C. during July 1856 to discuss statehood for Deseret, Houston wanted Smith to describe the size and shape of Brigham Young’s head and the bumps on it to indulge his interest in phrenology. For those interested in more of the French view of Mormonism and Utah, there is Pierre Benoit’s postboiler of the Utah War “Lac Du Salt” which came out in 1921 and was translated into English by Florence and Victor Llona and published as a Borzoi novel by Alfred A. Knopf in 1922. The latter can still be found on the used book market in the U.S.
    Ardis, any insights into how many German Latter-day Saints might have been in occupied France wearing the uniform of the Wermacht and how, if at all, they would have interacted with the few Mormons there?

  4. Thanks, all. I find it fun — and sometimes challenging — to look at statements in an article like this and try to figure out what was said by the Mormon being interviewed that could possibly have been twisted into what appeared in print. I mean, you can see how perhaps Bro. Fargier threw too much detail to the reporter about Joseph Smith’s biography, including the Kirtland bank and the athletic games, so that it all gets jumbled together this way — but where did the 30 widows and their black carriages come from? (There’s a great visual for Christopher Cain’s next movie, heh, heh, heh …)

    Bill, I tied the physical change attributed to the 1941 French saints to the same statements about polygamys causing similar physical alterations, too, and plan on sending this to a T&S reader who is working on that theme, as soon as I doublecheck my faulty citation. It’s funny, too, that you should zero in on the “great oaf” descriptor — that one did take me longer to decide on than most parts of the translation. The French literally reads “big devil” but that seemed too strong a translation for the overall tone used by the reporter.

    There is a man in my ward who was a toddler in Germany at the outbreak of the war. His father didn’t come home from his Wehrmacht service, but as an adult my ward member was able to piece together an outline of his father’s WWII movements from the accounts kept by LDS members in various European countries whose meetings came to a halt when a German officer, fully armed and uniformed, entered the meeting. He identified himself by the church leadership calling from which he was never released, and asked for the privilege of worshiping with his fellow Saints despite their political enmity. Those events were extraordinary enough in the lives of local Saints that a number of them recorded this man’s visits. I haven’t run into anything quite like that in Bro. Fargier’s history, but I know it happened elsewhere.

  5. Bill (5), let me add to your suggestion “for those interested in more of the French view of Mormonism and Utah”, my two articles on the Image of Mormonism in French literature in BYU Studies. Part I is to be found here and Part II here. Most French authors, indeed, approached Mormonism in pretty original ways.

    Pierre Benoît’s Le lac salé , however, was a little outside the usual focus. In his far-fetched novel he imagined a Mormonism where the leadership of the Church is actually been usurped by an immoral Methodist minister, Gwinett, with as other main character a Jesuit priest trying to save the heroin (with whom he is in love) from the clutches of said Gwinett. Not many real Mormons in his novel, but the backdrop was Salt Lake City.

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