Mormon Manners

Are good manners gospel? I’m wondering after reading LDS author Josephine Spencer’s 1904 short story, “By Natural Selection.” The surprise ending occurs when the protagonist, Nell, decides not to marry Jere Radbourne but, instead, return to her very-absent and elusive boyfriend. Apparently Jere lacks what a girl wants in the way of cultured manners and civilized breeding; when he finally comes to propose (fifth installment), the “easy grace of the strong, lithe limbs was wanting” and he becomes “self-conscious” and “awkward.” Uh, yeah. Was that moment easy and graceful for anyone?

In any case, Nell cries about it and is torn, but says no—despite the fact that Jere is pretty much perfect in every other aspect. The first four installments of the story establish that he is handsome, rich, industrious, religious, brave, loving, and kind. He dotes on his two motherless children (his wife died), works hard to maintain his business, and rescues Nell when her raft overturns in choppy water. His only bad quality is that he might be stingy, though the gossiping women who report this realize the difficulty in establishing the line between frugal (good) and stingy (bad).

So it all comes down to bad manners. And not even bad, bad manners—just a lack of social ease.

Considering that this story was published in the LDS Young Woman’s Journal and was published during the Home Literature Movement—when stories were explicitly didactic—I was, well, surprised. I thought we liked the hard-working farm boy hero, not the dandified city slicker, though I suppose that might come from my Wyoming-wild-west heritage rather than my Mormon background. In any case my impression was that the poor Horatio Alger kid who pulled himself up by his bootstraps was supposed to win the girl. Apparently not. Manners matter to nineteenth-century Utah Mormons. Here’s the “lesson” of the story as expressed by a few female characters in dialogue form:

“Country people are not alone in those flagrant mistakes,” said Mrs. Trane. “I’ve seen some of our city boys born and reared in our best families committing inexcusable offenses against the simplest rules of good breeding.”

“So have I,” agreed Mrs. Smedley. “It’s just an idea some people have that a boy’s manners don’t count in the world. It’s funny, too, when every parent thinks his boy will surely be president or some sort of big-bug in life.”

“They’d only have to sit at a state banquet and see their offspring advertise their bringing up, in some terrible break of etiquette, to know just how much it counts to be on familiar terms with its rules,” quoth Mrs. Smedley.

“To my mind,” said Rilla, “it has always seemed that our people should lay particular stress on such things. There is no excuse for us—with the claims that we make of being an ‘elect people’—that we do not reflect the best attainments of civilization in all ways. We should be an actual standard in all things that are ‘lovely and of good report,’ as our tenets teach.”


I just deleted my rather sarcastic and witty conclusion that made fun of this story and its suppositions; I think I’ve changed my mind. Josephine Spencer might have a point. When I picture Heavenly Father, I imagine a very dignified and mannerly person, not someone who chews with his mouth open, slouches at the table, or uses crass vernacular. I imagine someone perfectly at ease in any social situation with any person, since we all our His children. Perhaps we do need elect manners for an elect people. I just don’t know who will decide what, exactly, constitutes lovely manners. Emily Post? President Monson?

17 comments for “Mormon Manners

  1. I’m guessing that most new wives quickly develop complaints about their husbands’ manners. I will not detail those I had soon after my marriage, because they’re irrelevant. I will say that my ex-husband was fastidious but not kind. Bruce, who I married 24 years ago today, had some quirks, but he was a very good man. I chose long ago to look past any “bad manners.” The emphasis on appearance is dangerous, don’t you think? And maybe Jesus will chew with his mouth open or neglect his napkin. Will that interfere with our worship? I want to read “By Natural Selection”, and I always like Kylie’s insights and writing, though I admit I’m quite bothered by the phrase “elect manners for an elect people.”

  2. I should have quoted that phrase, Margaret. It came from the story.

    I agree with you in your worry about the emphasis on appearance. That’s why the story set me back. The heroine chose to marry her (absent) boyfriend rather than Jere seemingly on the basis of manners and his unproven stinginess. It certainly wasn’t the direction I expected the story to go.

    And yet, a simple search on “manners” at will show that we, as a people (or at least our leaders), are concerned about them. I thought Sister Lifferth’s talk from April Conference was one more example of that, though she–like most–ties appearance/manners to deeper feelings of respect and reverence for God, for others, and for ourselves.

  3. Manners are just social customs that vary from one culture to another. In Japan it is considered good manners to slurp your soup. In many cultures you eat with your hands. In others, you eat only with your right hand, and anyone who uses the left hand has committed a serious breach. My son who served a mission among Chinese-speaking people reports that belching at the table in the Chinese culture isn’t considered impolite at all.

  4. Late 19th c. and turn of the 20th were an interesting era. The Gilded Age/Belle Epoque. In pictures every gentleman wears those flat-topped light-yellow or white straw, “campaign hats,” as we now call the styrofoam versions at political conventions, I think. And a tie (not the kind that comes straight down the front, yet). Women wear something a step down from a ball gown (the material buttoned up in the back to the top of her neck, however… ). Might it have hoops and stays? If you’re not laboring somewhere and have the freedom to be going about your business somewhere, you dress up and walk or go
    downtown by buggy or horse-pulled public conveyance (or, I dunno, new-fangled electric tram). Then you board the stage or passenger train car.

    “All aboard! First-class folks please go to the cars to the right, coach class to the left….” Since, yes, there were folks of some leisure and prestige — who were to attain refinements and distinctions, of course, only quite naturally, ahem — along with those lesser folks who unfortunately had to slave much more than eight hours a day for a mere pittance. And everybody who was anybody put on at least a veneer, or tried to, of being as much as possible in that former category, I think, right?

    Burnett’s Little Lord Fountleroy. O. Henry’s tale of the protagonist hubby who sells his sole, inessential-but-prized possession of material value, his pocket watch, to buy a fancy comb for his wife to pin up her luxurious hair — which she’d cut and sold to the wigmakers to buy a precious-metal watchchain for her dear hubby. (Did I get that right?)

    The US prez: Teddy, that son of prestige and money (Dutch New Yorker family that WPdia says owned a hardware and plate glass importing business) who pursued being a professional historian, naturalist, writer, and soldier, along with Progressive politics. In fact, part of this era’s “progress”
    was the achievement, yet unattained, of universal elementary education; right? and was before universal Women’s sufferage and university co-education, too.

    So, we have *l-l-l-ladies* — who are supposed to be especially attuned to cultural refinements, literature, art, music, and the general stuff of gentility, according to our social expectations — who are writing in lady’s literature how they are looking for *g-g-g-gentleman* callers who exhibit markers of social prestige and class.

    Having made arrangements at the social gathering to “call,” he brings his buggy over to the lady’s city, residential neighborhood, his calling card in hand to present to a servant, then the young gentleman awaits for the young lady to finish freshening up before coming out and saying hi. As promised, he takes her in a ride in his buggy through the nearby city park. Perhaps a chaperone accompanies them. Then he drops her off back at home. In his travels to other locales on business, he sends her correspondence in which he includes stanzas of poetry he’s written her. (sigh.)

  5. And I missed all that. Darn. (except the poetry. I’d really like to see my husband compose a line or two for me.)

    And, yes, Mark Brown. That’s the problem. When I imagine a perfect God, I imagine one who would be perfect in all things–including manners in any culture, at any time.

    That makes me wonder if there are any manners than transcend culture. Are there? (I guess not, according to your definition).

  6. I have consistently noticed that the most gracious people never criticize the manners of others. This seems to be a core principle of gospel living as well.

  7. As my kids’ book, “Richard Scarry’s Polite Elephant” has taught me: having good manners and being polite is just another way of saying that you are trying to be considerate of others. So, to the extent our rules of social etiquette are based on the Golden Rule, then, yes, I’d say that good manners *are* gospel.

    A lot of the peripheral rules, like tipping one’s hat, or using the correct fork, or burping at the dinner table, seem to be unique to particular cultures and societies. To what extent we will have multiple cultures in the next life, and thus multiple rules for manners, I don’t know. And so I don’t know that I can say that these “lesser” manners are gospel or not.

  8. Agreed, Aloysius. Criticizing someone else’s manners is not only uncharitable but, somewhat ironically, low class.

  9. While I agree, Aloysius and Wm, I have to point out that–as a mother of five young children–I spend much of my day “helping” them see that they need to be more mannerly, which is, no doubt, a very critical thing to do.

    We talk constantly about not hurting others through our actions and words, and, yes, we even talk about not chewing with our mouths open and about answering the phone politely (not “yeah?”). We try to engage in “polite conversation” at the dinner table and mom (me) will probably point it out if one of us has been talking about Pokemon for ten straight minutes or some such thing.

    It seems to me that raising mannerly children means I have to determine what is and what is not appropriate. That makes me critical, doesn’t it? The most unmannerly thing of all? Please advise.

  10. Yes, Kylie, I agree that friction can develop when teaching good manners but while trying to be good mannered. Crossing the line defeats the purpose. For example, when I’m yelling at the kids to “Get in here now!” for Family Home Evening and I’m royally ticked off at them, it feels pretty lousy to then start a lesson on “Kindness.” Your comment just reminds me of the fact that being a parent is tough, tough work.

  11. 11 by all means. Parents get a free pass on teaching children manners. But in hindsight teaching them in a mannerly way has a huge impact.

  12. I’m a huge fan of manners but find myself usually recoiling from the biggest promoters of manners and manners training. People who have great manners are so nice to be around, but people who evangelize manners I often find to be very unpleasant people. I think some of the above discussion is useful in picking apart why that is. While guidelines are helpful, it is so easy to become overly concerned with the superficial and miss the whole point.

    Also, I instinctively recoil anytime I hear the word “breeding” used in any context involving humans.

  13. What is … classiness?

    Much of any truly philosophical analysis of manners tends to focus on one pole, that of morality/ethics. However, I think the other pole, that of symbolic social custom, is equally important.

    For example (again, sorry!) dress — specifically, menswear: What is the purpose of wearing a necktie? It’s real purpose IMO was to cover up the front fasteners on a shirt. (As I’ve deduced from having read somewhere that it was men’s military blouses that were the first to fasten up the front — since a gentleman in the field would have no family member or valet along to fasten him up the back. Therefore, once such shirts become the norm among men generally, to avoid “tacky” -ness ((get it?)) of showing off these fasteners now at the front, a gentleman would finish off his ensemble with a scarf about his neck(?)) But what it really signifies is something drenched in symbolic custom. It means — formality.

    Sometime symbolic customs supply boundaries necessary for the maintanance of communities. Othertimes they are merely expectations.

    ”Eg” wrt boundaries (A) certain requirements must be met in order to claim the rights and responsibilities of US citizenship; and (B) baptism is required for entrance into many Christian churches.

    “When did your family become US ‘citizens’?”

    “I was born in the States in ’56; my wife became naturalized in the mid-’90s.”

    “How did she do that?”

    “She held up her right hand and said some words. Then I’m pretty sure somebody entered her name upon some official register somewhere.”

    “Oh, I see. And is your family ‘Christian’?”

    “Well, we have been formally recognized as ones who have been symbolically washed and reborn into our acceptance of the customs and fellowship within the community of believers in Christ.”

    “Can you tell me something about your practices as a Christian?”

    “Well, on Sunday morning we both get up, she gets ready and puts on a dress, I put on a white shirt and a necktie….”

    “Wow, all that is required?”

    “No, not really. But it is a custom genearlly in my Latter-day Saint community. But, I think someone could be a fully straightlaced Mormon in practice and/or one who’s very orthodox in belief and go to church dressed in bluejeans and a teeshirt, I’m pretty sure. And, someone could be at church in a fine suit and be a real scoundrel and/or extremely heterodox in belief, on the other hand, as well.”

    – – –

    FROM the WPædia article “Tzniut”: “[… …] Style of dress involves cultural considerations distinct from religious requirements. There are many Conservative and Reform synagogues in which suits and ties are socially expected, while there are many Orthodox synagogues (especially in Israel) where dress, while meeting religious modesty requirements, is quite casual. [… …]”

    Would this be because the folks at some synagogues consider formal attire a marker of respect (dressing at one’s religious services as one would in one’s culture to meet a dignitary)? Whereas others see a come-as-you-are type thing as more egalitarian, more — “class-less”?

    – – –

    A GUEST blogpost by Richard Florida at Andrew Sullivan’s blog today starts: “Why Class Still Matters. Class is a word that elicits strong, and sometimes strange, reactions from many Americans. Once a powerful construct understanding economies and societies, class has been all but banished from the lexicon of social scientists and from the public conversation.”

  14. Thanks 15. That raises more questions than it answers, I suppose. I’m looking up the Richard Florida blog right now.

  15. Manners show consideration for the people whose company you find yourself in. Which is why we try to learn about different cultures before we visit them and do as they do.

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