In his lecture, Dr. Francaviglia presents a fascinating framework in which to understand American history and culture, as well as Mormons specifically. Orientalism was defined for the lecture as the assimilation or imitation of that which is oriental in religious or philosophical thought, or in art. Through various mediums, including architectural examples, quotes from Mormons and their detractors, and travel literature, Dr. Francaviglia demonstrates that not only Mormons were compared to Oriental peoples and assigned Oriental traits, but they also actively attributed such traits to themselves; they assumed an Oriental identity. By understanding how Mormons were Orientalized by others and themselves, he suggests that we can better understand the Mormon experience.
In brief, the following was addressed in the lecture: Orientalism defined, Orientalism in history, particularly American history, how Mormons were Orientalized by others, and Orientalized themselves and their surroundings (including the belief that Native Americans come from the Holy Land), and “real” and attributed connections or similarities between Mormons and various Eastern peoples, including ancient Egypt, Muslims, and ancient Israelites. A major theme running throughout was that the West’s ambivalent attitude toward the Orient enables Orientalism to serve at least three purposes: to differentiate, to venerate, or to denigrate. Detractors of the Mormons have compared them unfavorably to Oriental peoples and traits that were held in disregard, others Orientalized the Mormons to better understand and differentiate them from other groups, and Mormons created an identity for themselves that connected them and their surroundings to that which was revered and considered wise and sacred from the East.
A very interesting aspect of the Mormons’ Orientalizing behaviors is their affinity with Egypt, a subject that was touched on very lightly in the lecture. According to Dr.Francaviglia, Egypt is associated with both negative and positive characteristics, as is the Orient in general (e.g., servitude and oppression, as well as wisdom and accomplishment). In the official canon of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was allegedly translated were inscribed with “reformed Egyptian” (see Mormon 9:32 and 1 Nephi 1:2 in the Book of Mormon), and the Book of Abraham is purportedly translated from an Egyptian papyrus (Smith, 1978, pp. 236, 248-251). Dr. Francaviglia also briefly mentioned in the lecture that the name Deseret, taken from the Book of Mormon, supposedly denoting the honeybee, could be related to the Egyptian word Deshret. This is the desert land surrounding Egypt, the Red Land (David, 2002, pp. 12-13, 46, 49; Mercantante, 1978, p. 35). Lower Egypt, also called the Red Land, is symbolized by the honeybee (David, 2002, p. 49), and, as was explained in the lecture, the crown itself bears a stylized tongue of the bee.
The similarities and connections between Mormonism and Ancient Egypt extend beyond that which was covered in the lecture. Surprisingly, in many respects, there are a seemingly large number of overlapping characteristics between the two religions. There are far more dissimilarities than similarities; the theologies are fundamentally and substantially different, but those connections which can be demonstrated, whether they are directly linked or coincidental, attest to the Orientalized nature of the Mormons and their theology.
Fronk, Alexander, "Egypt and Mormonism: Oriental Traits of the Latter-Day Saints" (2011). Arrington Student Writing Award Winners. Paper 7.