Whether taken as reality or mythology, Mormonism presents truly epic settings. Vast pre- and post-mortal realms entice the imagination, especially for creative writers like me. Mormonism has become my Middle-earth. Even after many years of abstaining from regular church attendance, I find myself wondering on it all. As part of my ongoing fascination, I recently sat down to read Nephi Anderson’s novel Added Upon.
Exploring Mormonism’s Middle-earth
Added Upon depicts the entire plan of salvation, from premortal life to exaltation. An ensemble of characters, with varying degrees of spirituality, come to Earth to learn and be tested. The novel derives suspense from readers wondering how things will turn out for these eternal brothers and sisters. Who will be born in the covenant? Who will wander and search, perhaps failing? Most importantly, who will marry whom?!
Anderson published Added Upon in 1898. I read the 1912 expanded edition, which divides into five parts. Part One covers premortal life. Part Two covers mortality. In this fashion, the novel progresses through missionary work in the spirit world, life on Earth during the Millennium, culminating in Exaltation for the worthy. Added Upon is perhaps best known for paving the creative way for the musical Saturday’s Warrior.
Flirting and Feuding in Premortal Life
Like Saturday’s Warrior, Added Upon uses premortal life to set up relationships which will play out in mortality, especially romantic ones. Interesting to watch spirit children crushing on other spirit children while trying to decide whether to support the Savior or Lucifer. Call it silly or campy, but really… Would that not happen?
Like other 19th Century Mormons, Anderson depicts premortal life as a realm where people attained a range of merits which affected their placement in mortality. Interestingly, some characters end up in difficult mortal lives because they volunteer for spiritually risky assignments. Not quite as simple as noble spirits being born in the covenant for a straight shot to exaltation.
The idea of spirits achieving differing levels of merit in pre-Earth life is natural speculation within the context of the plan of salvation. Tragically, Brigham Young and his ilk used the idea to justify racism, white supremacy, and a longstanding priesthood/temple ban against peoples of black African descent. Anderson doesn’t seem to play the race card in Added Upon, though he leaves plenty of room for people to read it that way if they so choose.
Mortality as a Series of Sunday School Lessons
I found Added Upon’s depiction of mortal life far more interesting than I thought I would. Anderson’s characters are plenty sympathetic. Still, the novel includes chapters worth of Sunday School speechifying. Wandering characters learn the gospel through conversations with members. The discussions are essentially sermons broken up by the investigator asking just the right questions to carry the lesson forward. Added Upon is belief-promoting literature, meant to make Mormon doctrines endearing by encircling them in the robe of conventional romance.
Unsurprisingly, Added Upon feels very Utah-church-centric. Travel east to places like Chicago at your own peril. Unless of course you are the protagonist. In that case, the Lord may set you on a sordid path through the lone and dreary world. After a suitable period of struggle, if you humble yourself, you may conveniently land on the doorstep of a home where your future eternal companion lives.
For all the times I felt cynically toward Added Upon, there came a moment I felt deeply moved. After some arduous wandering, one of the protagonists gets introduced to a certain pro-Heavenly Mother hymn. It’s the first full-on Mormon moment in the novel’s mortality section. For me, the scene struck just the right emotional chord. I could feel what it meant for these characters to realize how far away they were from their heavenly home. I sympathized with their poignant hope of returning there some day.
The Privilege of Patriarchy
One passage really troubled me in the section devoted to the spirit world. The author presents us with the spirit of a deceased missionary. We learn the young man’s death on his mission was no accident. The Lord “permitted him to be taken away” before he could give into temptation. Having arrived in the spirit world free of a big sin, he is able to find a suitable eternal companion and be wedded and sealed by proxy. On the page, this plays as a good thing. God protects one of his sons from committing a major transgression. But it amounts to God preventing the young man from exercising his free agency so as to ensure his exaltation. That would be the proposed plan which got Lucifer kicked out of Heaven. Now… here is the more troubling part.
Also in the spirit world, we encounter the spirit of a sorrowful woman. She seems to be someone the protagonist knew and cared for in mortality. It seems clear the world got the best of her and she ended up single in the afterlife. Unlike the deceased male missionary, whom God went out of his way to protect, this woman is allowed to go wayward on Earth and carry the consequences and her regret into eternity.
Theocracy Mingled with Progressivism in the City of Zion
During Added Upon’s depiction of the Millennium, a secular king of Poland visits the city of Zion. Through his eyes, we see how everyone from resurrected beings to non-members experience Christ’s personal reign on Earth. Those not of the Lord’s kingdom still have free agency, or at least the appearance of it. All secular governments are expected to welcome missionaries. Furthermore, it is made clear “the nation and kingdom that will not serve the Lord shall perish.” Hard to see that as genuine free agency for the Polish king—seems more like an offer he can’t refuse.
Far more entertaining to me is how Added Upon drifts into futurism. In the Millennium you can say goodbye to Big Oil and coal. The city of Zion champions renewable sources of energy and clean air initiatives. Gone are the smoking chimneys of pre-Millennial Earth. Furthermore, capitalist competition, wealth acquisition, and libertarianism are no more. In God’s wisdom, the blue-collar worker with a large family receives more compensation than his white-collar supervisor who has a small family.
Smooching in the Morning of the Resurrection
Even with all the Sunday School moralizing in Added Upon, there is a richness to the book. It rolls out the intricacies of premortal, Millennial, and spirit world realms, speculating in detail about what they would actually be like. The scale is operatic, but the plot remains human and relatable. And the novel revels in Mormon peculiarity—especially the mingling of spiritual and romantic warmth culminating in eternal marriage. There’s even a post-resurrection kiss which dare I say is kinda hot—albeit a properly modest hotness.
I’ve never fallen out of love with Mormonism’s story—both its manicured front lawn and its overgrown backcountry. I can get onboard with Nephi Anderson’s need to explore it creatively. In 2020, as the pandemic began to drag on, I wrote a story about a premortal boy and his premortal dog for the comfort it gave me. It took me out of the painful present for a while and returned me to what poet Eliza R. Snow called “a more exalted sphere.” Added Upon journeys to that sphere as well. For all its problematic implications, it makes for a decent yarn.
Questions for Discussion
What do you imagine premortal life, the Millennium, and the spirit world would be like? What specific details do you envision?
Have you read Added Upon? If so, what were your impressions?
What should consumers of Mormon creative work expect, both in terms of literary quality and spiritual messaging?
Featured image from Pixabay
“ … this woman is allowed to go wayward on Earth and carry the consequences and her regret into eternity.”
On the other hand her exposure to patriarchy & attendant bs may be eternally limited so maybe she didn’t do so bad after all? Just sayin…
Here’s my big question about pre-mortal life: do I really have free will in this (mortal) life if my place here is influenced by my performance in pre-mortal life?
And if our performance in pre-mortal life varied, is that because we all started with a clean slate and then some of us did better than others? Or was our pre-mortal placement influenced by some kind of pre pre-mortal performance? How far back does that go?
Read Added Upon as a teenager in the 1960s, book recommended by a friend in the ward. I was left with an “ick” feeling. Hadn’t thought of that book in 60 years. I appreciate your insights into its merits, yet don’t want to revisit because I believe the ick is still there for me.
Read it as a teenager. Enjoyed it, but was turned off at the end when I learned that one protagonist’s reward after a lifetime of ditch-digging in the arid West was that he became Heaven’s Resident Expert of Waterflow, installing ditch-based irrigation systems throughout all the Spiritual Realm . . I was disappointed at the author’s lack of imagination at that point.
Great comments everyone.
p, I don’t know why, but immediately after I read your comment the Monty Python song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” popped into my head.
Josh, interesting premortal life questions. My sense is that the scientific/philosophical juries are out on if we even have free will. But if there was a premortal life, and we had free will in it, I think would continue to have it in mortality for the express purpose of testing it with flesh and blood experience. The “how far back does it go?” question is probably only ever going to result in hypothetical answers. That said, speaking as a creative writer, it can be really interesting to superimpose current scientific ideas like the multiverse onto Mormon theology. I bet that’s what Nephi Anderson would be doing if he lived in the time of Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, etc.
LHCA and Raymond, thanks for sharing your experiences with the novel. Totally understandable to find it off-putting for any number of reasons. If Added Upon were a Shakespeare play, scholars would label it one of the “problem plays.”
I read an opinion years ago that Added Upon has had more influence on general Mormon perception of the Plan of Salvation than actual doctrine has had.
I keep thinking I ought to read the book again to see if that seems right, but I don’t actually have enough interest in it to give it another go.
I’d never heard of the book before this post, so thank you for the education. I’m kind of delighted to find out that a Mormon novel was published in 1898, regardless of its problems. And I must confess to a cringe moment – I was in my early teens when Saturday’s Warrior was released on VHS and my Beehive friends and I watched it non-stop for months. We all had crushes on Jimmy and were outraged the Church wouldn’t endorse it as official doctrine.
I’m on a Deseret Book mailing list still, and I got their catalogue in the mail yesterday. They’re selling General Conference journals – that was the front page merchandise. Then there was another book about RMN, and a biography of DHO, and then I stopped reading it.
Mormon creative work tends to be faith affirming. I wrote a contemporary LDS family drama (never published) that followed all the proper faith beats. It was an expression of the testimony I had at the time, back before life made me a little more cynical. If I wrote an LDS character now, things wouldn’t work out so well. Mormon readers expect to connect with the author, and see their own experiences reflected. I went to a Mormon writers conference several years ago. An editor from Des Book spoke. She said the content needed to be “sensitive to our most sensitive reader.” Nothing immoral could be a plot point.
I got a chuckle out of this: “In the Millennium you can say goodbye to Big Oil and coal. The city of Zion champions renewable sources of energy and clean air initiatives. Gone are the smoking chimneys of pre-Millennial Earth. Furthermore, capitalist competition, wealth acquisition, and libertarianism are no more. In God’s wisdom, the blue-collar worker with a large family receives more compensation than his white-collar supervisor who has a small family.”
The law of consecration would not match up with capitalism at all, no it would not. I think this book’s take on the economy of heaven is a lot closer to heaven than the prosperity gospel and disdain for the poor that dominates modern day LDS thinking (or at least the Mormons elected to the Utah legislature who refuse to pass legislation to make life easier for poor people).
My grandfather gifted the book to me when I was about 12, around 1990. It was for the purpose of shoring up my faith and commitment to the church, as were all the books he gave me. But as a 12yo it was a hard read. I didn’t really connect all the dots. I read it again a few years later, as a teenager or young adult and have not been interested in reading it again, because it left a nasty taste in my mouth. The taste of speculation masquerading as Truth, with a hint of – IDK – privilege or unfairness or hustling for worthiness, maybe? I do remember the moment of O My Father being sung/overheard and the powerful effect it had on the protagonist. I recall that being a beautiful passage.
Read it as as a faithful teenager and really got into it. Also loved Saturday’s Warrior at that time as well. Fast forward to about 15 years ago, fould the book on my shelf and re-read. Yikes! What was I thinking? The writing and doctrine both seemed really stilted and troubling. I don’t think I made it more than half way through that time.
I never saw Saturday’s warrior. I was in that generation though. My parents probably thought better than to let it in the door.
My take on stories such as these is like votive fiction. Someone tells a story and then says, “…so what if that were true?” Enough people say,”Yeah, I think so.” And it moves into mainstream belief even without endorsement. If enough people say so, then it’s so. Democracy in action.
Technically, the mortal experience was was placed up for a vote. Maybe the caveat then was,”I’ll send everyone who votes for that guy, to hell.” He couldn’t be a God of truth and not let that one get by. He threatens us now, often enough.
Regardless, Mormon fanfiction never attempts to explain the experience of the heathen. Or the Muslim. Or the Buddhist. Just the odd and entirely unrealistic 1/10th of 1 percent. Even less as you stretch back into history. The Isrealites were tiny compared to the rest of the world’s populations. Yet they are the stars of the biggest and best selling piece of religious fanfiction ever. RMN could only hope to have it so good.
I picture the Spirit World almost exactly as our world is and on our world, but I imagine there may be some “spiritual structures” in which they reside. I don’t picture the millennium as too much different from now, but without the wars and malice among human and animal. I have a hard time picturing the premortal realm. I’ve also encountered two different thoughts among LDS. One is that premortal Spirits still reside with our Heavenly Parents before coming down. Another is that when Adam and Eve fell, the entire premortal realm fell with them, so that the Spirit World basically has both premortal and postmortal Spirits interacting. I’m not sure where I stand on it or if I care.
I only learned about Added Upon a couple of years ago. It’s still on my list and sounds intriguing.
In just the last few years I’ve started dabbling in LDS fiction. I find myself enjoying it more than I would have thought. I think it was Brandon Sanderson that said (along with others) that a character’s weakness is more interesting than their strengths, but I often find myself just as invested in the characters who can almost do no wrong as I am with those who fall, so long as their struggle to maintain that level of commitment is real and shown as such.
I also prefer the stories that embrace LDS doctrine and culture rather than veil it on various levels. I used to think the veil was only for broader appeal, but I realize now it’s also likely to avoid reprisal from members or the Church itself regarding doctrinal interpretation or portrayal of all things considered sacred. I’m about as conservative LDS as you can get, but I had no problem with some of the things portrayed in God’s Army and Brigham City, and was surprised by how many members did. I also have no problem with speculation as long as the author presents it as such and nothing more.
Currently I’m rereading Captain Justo from the Planet Is, by Stephen Miller. It’s aimed for middle schoolers, is riddled with typos and bad grammar, and has occasional corny dialogue, but I feel the story makes up for it. It veils its LDS references as well, but more thinly than most stories I’ve read. Calling it Flash Gordon meets PofGP doesn’t quite do it justice, but it did manage to capture the fascination I have with science fiction and combine it with my love of the Gospel without feeling I had to compartmentalize either of them, which was surprisingly refreshing. Lots of speculation, but a lot of fun as well. The author has some background in Physics, which lent some credibility to his otherwise fanciful explanations and speculations. It may not be literature, but it is enjoyable.
I’m really enjoying the various perspectives you all are sharing on this post. Thank you.
Eli, God’s Army came out not too long after my mission, while I was in the closeted phase of my faith crisis and still attending church. I very much identified with the missionary who struggles with anti-Mormon literature and historical claims. Brigham City came out soon after I had gone inactive, so church culture was very fresh in my mind. I’m a fan of both films and feel Richard Dutcher’s depictions of church culture were spot on, including everything from mission pics on toilets to members taking note when fellow members don’t partake of the sacrament. Importantly to me, Dutcher showed these things not to have audiences gawk, but to use such moments to move his stories forward. I also agree with you and Sanderson about weaknesses being more interesting than strengths. So true in literature.
AW, the term “votive fiction” is new to me, though I’m familiar with votive candles. It made me think of the term “home literature” used to describe Mormon works like Added Upon. That term was also new to me until I started prepping this post.
Janey, I’m totally with you on the Saturday’s Warrior VHS production. It came out right as I was entering my Les Miz freak phase, which set me on a path into high school musical theatre. Goofy, blissful memories of that time. At Weber State, I had a theatre major as a roommate. He was a practicing wiccan by that point, but told me how Paper Dream from Saturday’s Warrior remained one of his go-to audition songs. I think it holds up, though not every tune from the show does. Intrigued by your unpublished family drama. I haven’t looked at my pre-faith crisis creative work in awhile, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got some potentially eye-rolling poems/short stories in a box somewhere. But like you say of your piece, it has a value in presenting who and where I was at the time.
Thanks again for the comments everyone!
I hadn’t heard of this book before but I totally agree that the Mormonverse is a ripe place for fantasy, sci-fi, and drama. I used to love reading the Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites book series and have a hunch that they still hold up despite the problems with racism and polygamy that they inadequately try to deal with. They have a Tolkien-esque black and white morality about them where the heroes are noble, the villains monstrous, and things like prayer and Priesthood are wielded like magic or the Force. It was like catnip for teenage Mormon me.
Kirkstall, I’d almost forgotten about Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites. I haven’t read them, but a companion of mine had me try out the first one on audio. Wouldn’t have been mission approved, strictly speaking, but it seemed interesting. I could see trying them someday just to satisfy my curiosity.