On Being Human: The Folklore of Morman Missionaries

On Being Human: The Folklore of Morman Missionaries

On Being Human: The Folklore of Morman Missionaries

On Being Human: The Folklore of Morman Missionaries


A collection of narratives, humorous stories, and songs from Mormon missionaries that has become a classic study of narrative folklore. The 64th annual Faculty Honor Lecture, in the Humanities, Utah State University.


Only a week before I received the invitation to write this introduction, two faculty members who are team-teaching an introductory class about world arts and cultures queried me. Their course concerns concepts and perspectives in the intercultural, interdisciplinary study of art, aesthetics, and performance. Among other matters, it examines the performative representation of cultural identity. the instructors sought articles outside their own fields that students should read. Immediately I recommended William A. (Bert) Wilson’s “On Being Human: the Folklore of Mormon Missionaries.” It deals as much with behavior, performance, and culture as it does with the lore of a particular religious identity. the piece is imminently readable; Bert is a marvelous storyteller and a fine writer. Based on a huge quantity of recorded data, personal experience, and years of reflection, this essay contains numerous insights about the nature of narrating and its impact on people’s emotions, behavior, and interactions.

I met Bert Wilson at Indiana University. He was completing his graduate studies in the Folklore Department as I was beginning mine. His book Folklore and Nationalism in Modern Finland (1976a), which grew out of his dissertation, remains the best study of the use of folklore in nationalistic movements. When we first met we talked about his interest in Mormon folklore. He was dissatisfied with earlier works. Either the publications consisted largely of documentation without analysis or, written by outsiders, the interpretations were inadequate and inappropriate. As a practicing Mormon, Bert has an “emic” or insider view of the traditions. He was a missionary to Finland. He has participated in some of the lore that he reports and analyzes in his publications.

Two major streams of scholarship appear to have influenced Bert’s interpretation of the traditions presented here. One is a behavioral perspective, which

This paper was delivered as the 64th Annual Faculty Honor Lecture in Humanities at Utah State University on November 18, 1981. It appeared the same year in a lecture series booklet published in Logan, Utah, by Utah State University Press. Reprinted by permission of Utah State University Press.

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