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“Without His Spirit We Are Left in The Dark”: The Spiritual Assistance of Literature

I have come to personal witness of the reality of the spiritual dimensions of existence. I have received, through the Holy Spirit, a witness, a testimony, of the reality of God the Father and the divinity of His Son Jesus Christ, of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, and of the divine re-establishment of the Kingdom of God in “the outward church below,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This belief was founded and fostered in my young years by believing parents and cultivated by many men and women who taught and exemplified for me the way and benefits of the happy, righteous, spiritual life.

As I grew in awareness, I learned, gradually, that the natural man/woman grows to spiritual man/womanhood to the extent that he or she becomes comfortable and familiar, while still in mortality, in the presence of spiritual realities. I learned that the ultimate goal of every person should be to become worthy, through personal endeavor and the grace of God, to overcome mortality and live in the presence of Deity.

I have learned, oh so gradually, that the key to belief and faith and spiritual oneness with the supernal is learning how to foster and use the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Learning to walk with the Holy Ghost is, of course, the study of a lifetime and a principal spiritual challenge for human beings. The wise prophet Brigham Young said, “The greatest mystery a man ever learned is to know how to control the human mind and bring every faculty and power . . . in subjection to Jesus Christ; this is the greatest mystery we have to learn while in these tabernacles of clay” (Journal of Discourses 1:46). And the key to achieving this subjection to Christ is, again, the Holy Ghost, who is also the key to finding the delicate in-the-world-yet-not-of-the-world balance between the world (always “too much with us”–Wordsworth) and the eternal realms of God.

I am a “man of letters,” a voracious reader who can state that, for me, as John writes, “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). In addition to being my introduction to God and the Plan of Salvation of Jesus Christ, literature, sacred and profane, has been, lifelong, my education, my profession, my scholarly engagement, and my daily avocation. For me, good and great literature, when selected and read by the power of the Holy Ghost, aids holy writ in clarifying our mortal purposes, enabling a vision of our mortal and eternal course, and reinforcing our divinely focused humanity. Literature is thus one of the great gifts of God.

To a great extent, I read my way to a testimony and then found that the eternal principles I was learning really worked in daily life, in losing ourselves in service to others. (I don’t claim to have accomplished that worthy goal, but there has been joy in trying.)

I was fortunate to have been strongly influenced by precept and example. Very early in my life, my parents and brothers and sister encouraged my reading by taking me to the public library and by giving me books for every occasion. There was always the expectation that I would be a reader. By the age of ten I was a devoted reader of boys’ (and girls’) books. I read all of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, and then discovered and devoured my father’s ancient volumes of Horatio Alger, the Motor Boys, and Dick Prescott at West Point. I learned contemporary history through reading Red Randall at Pearl Harbor and Agent 9 Solves His First Case, and Eddie Rickenbacker’s thrilling account of his raid over Tokyo in Seven Came Through; I learned to love football less by watching and more through reading John R. Tunis’s All-American, and Charles Lawton’s Ros Hackney, Halfback, and One Minute to Play, Goal to Go, and Touchdown to Victory, by cherished if forgotten authors. As I laid down the books after a reading session, I would rush out to join Sammy Park and other neighbors in a rousing game of sandlot football; I would hear triumphant music pounding in my head as I dashed for a touchdown or plunged into the line, a boyhood incarnation of whatever fictional player I was reading about, motivated by the prose of these thrilling stories.

It was clear, early on, that as a lover of words and stories, I was destined to be an English major, and I became such, earning the B.A. and M.A. (University of Utah) and Ph.D. (Wisconsin) in English, and enjoying (over nearly forty years) a productive career of teaching and scholarship at Brigham Young University, where I also served as department chair and as dean of the College of Humanities. But my great love was teaching eager students about literature, and writing many articles and books about American, Western, and Mormon literature.

During my first fourteen years, the only sacred writ I read and committed to heart was a thick comic book rendering of the stories of the Old Testament. I discovered this little book when I was about eight years old and read it so often that I distressed my Junior Sunday School teachers with my eagerness to spill the beans to the other kids about the stories’ conclusions and then turn back to disrupting the class, playing my various roles as FBI agent (wooden pistol in right breast jacket pocket), Superman (cape, towel concealed under jacket), or a P-38 pilot (fur-lined, goggled, pilot’s cap, parachute [pillow] tied on back)—at least so I’ve since been told by hand-wringing parents and teachers. Even today, in my mid-seventies, before undertaking any challenging task, I shout, internally, as I charge into the fray, a lá that long-ago Bible comic book, “The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon” (Judges 7:20).

Regardless of my youthful ignorance of scripture, I must have been paying partial attention to bits and pieces of the gospel as taught by the Latter-day Saints, for rudiments of my faith were congealing and rising to my soul’s surface. The Plan of Salvation all came together for me when I stumbled onto it one wintry Sunday afternoon in 1950, when I was fourteen. Passing the long, boring time between roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and Sunday evening Sacrament Meeting, I took up my father’s LDS triple combination, counted the relatively few pages (sixty) comprising The Pearl of Great Price, and decided I would try to read in one afternoon an entire Standard Work (the LDS faith recognizes four books of scripture as “the Standard Works”—The Bible, The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price). So I sat down and read The Pearl of Great Price, which comprises the visions of Abraham, Enoch, Noah, Moses, and Joseph Smith. It was an illuminating Sunday afternoon. Clearly enlightened by the Holy Spirit (I say this from hindsight), I stumbled suddenly and without warning, like Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” onto a new world. That afternoon’s reading—attentive, authentic, and inadvertent—settled the philosophical foundation of my being and testimony, and forever changed my life.

From the moment I read “Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name” (Book of Moses 1:3), the Holy Spirit excited my imagination, which was primed by my voracious reading habits, and I was suddenly and surprisingly reading the adventures of Moses and Abraham, Adam and Eve, Noah, and Enoch with the same attention, absorption, and excitement I brought to the adventures of Robin Hood, The White Company, The Three Musketeers, Ben Hur—or Ros Hackney. The Salt Lake City living room (1067 East 4th South) dropped away and I was there, with Moses, viewing worlds without number; I was one of the Grand Council in Heaven watching the great immortal drama unfold before my mind’s eye; I thrilled to hear Elohim say to us assembled spirits, “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). I thrilled at hearing the Only Begotten say, “Here am I, send me”; I shouted with the two-thirds of God’s children who thrilled at the choice of God the Father: “I will send the first” (Abraham 3:27). I stood with Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, Noah, and Enoch and chilled at the dramatic “Enter, Satan, Stage Center,” as Lucifer comes a-tempting each prophet. I read, as if for the first time, Joseph Smith’s account of his First Vision, and I stood by his side, about the same age, fourteen, in the Sacred Grove, and felt very nearly overcome by Satan’s attempt to re-enter the drama; and I viewed again, this time with Joseph Smith, the same Alpha and Omega vision I had seen through the eyes of Moses and Abraham and Enoch, and imagined that I could see, reading words from The Pearl of Great Price and illuminated by the Holy Ghost, something like the glory of the Father and the Son, and hear, with all of them, the awesome witness, “This is my Beloved Son, hear Him,” and hear the call to “awake and arise,” and be about teaching “all men, everywhere his [Christ’s] Plan of Salvation” (Moses 6:62).

Reading this inspired literature seemed to make everything clear, dramatic, true—and vastly important, for I seemed to glimpse the repeated patterns of God in speaking to His mortal children. I felt marvelous, uplifted, good. And as I closed that book, now become more than a mere book, and returned to that Salt Lake City living room, everything looked the same, but everything was different, for I had read, partially comprehended, envisioned, and experienced for myself the Plan of God, as recorded in The Pearl of Great Price and which I first encountered in the sixty pages of The Pearl of Great Price and illuminated by the Holy Ghost.

The Plan was indelibly imprinted on my heart and mind and soul; and, when my earthiness and waywardness would permit, it would come to the fore. Even when my humanity too often pushed The Plan to the back of my consciousness, it had become so riveted to my soul that it dogged me, haunted me, and colored everything. Getting myself together at age nineteen, I answered the call to serve an LDS mission (Swiss-Austrian Mission) for two and one-half years. That experience was my spiritual coming-of-age. After teaching the Austrian and Swiss people the Plan, I would spend the rest of my life trying to teach others the reality of the visions of those prophets, and the way, the truth and the light. My ministry in teaching the gospel has been done as a missionary, a teacher of youth and adults, a father, twice as a bishop, as a stake president, and mission president (Zürich Switzerland). In my various teaching roles I have often been sustained by glimpses of that vision and been quickened by the intervention of the Holy Ghost in promptings, whisperings of the Spirit, counseling, healings, prophesying, and by direct revelation. I have been guided and strengthened by what I have come to call “Surprises of the Spirit,” which have recurred throughout my life.

Through it all, I have been, strengthened, in a lesser but reaffirming way, by my immersion in literature—which I read through spectacles tinted by The Plan. For example:

One summer evening in 1952, when I was sixteen, I bought a paperback book (35¢), Immortal Poems of the English Language, edited by the poet Oscar Williams. I devoured the book, cherished it, and ran, without warning, into William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” a poem which I found my parents knew and also responded to, a poem which thrilled me with what I recognized as a poetic rendering and reaffirmation of my experience with Abraham, Moses, Joseph Smith and the Plan of God. Wordsworth, feeling the mortal “prison house” growing around him and gradually shutting him off from his earlier intimations of immortality and bringing him face-to-face with the ironic fallen world, ponders, “Whence our lives come and where they go,” and asks, “Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” and sighs, “But yet I know, where’er I go,/ That there hath passed away a glory from the earth.” Then he declares, in words as familiar to Latter-day Saints as “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents” (I Nephi 1:1):

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:

He continues:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Still, we have, throughout our lives, fleeting and haunting glimpses of our Eternal Home: Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither. . . . (in Williams 260-62,265 passim)

I thrilled—and still do sixty years later—sensing in William Wordsworth a kinship with a fellow “stranger and pilgrim in the earth” who has glimpsed the eternal and is haunted by the Cosmic Irony which besets us here below. I found these heavenly intimations echoing in other poets and thrilled, for example, at discovering Gerard Manley Hopkins, who taught me that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” and that the world and its stranger/pilgrim inhabitants are daily renewed, “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings” (in Williams 458).

The Cosmic Irony I refer to describes the macro-micro jokes with which human life is fraught—the funny and sad differences between great expectations and mundane realities; the painful incongruity between is and ought to be; the wisdom in the comment by William Hazlitt, the great English essayist, that “man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.” Cosmic Irony, then, describes the macro-micro joke, the gap between man as he is and man as he ought to be and will be, or, as Robert Frost puts it, cosmic ironically,

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me. (Frost 428)

Believing readers who have once become aware of Otherworldly Reality in the midst of Present Worldly Reality and partaken of the Cosmic Irony in which we exist will find that their sense of being strangers and pilgrims in the earth” (Heb. 11:13; D&C 45:13) infuses and informs all of their lives, their philosophy, their enjoyment of music, their reading, and certainly in my case, their literary criticism, aware as they always are of the spiritual reality which overlays the temporal reality. This dimensional gap is affirmed in Mormon poet Eliza R. Snow’s profoundly true lines in the LDS hymn, “O My Father,” as she envisions our veiled lives with heavenly parents in a pre-mortal existence and sighs, “Yet ofttimes a secret something whispered ‘You’re a stranger here,’/And I felt that I had wandered from a more exalted sphere” (Hymns).

The Holy Ghost is in all of this. He enables us to read authentically, to balance and harmonize the two realms which we occupy: Mortal and Immortal, Flesh and Spirit. To balance literature of the fallen world, which must by nature describe the lives of fallen mankind, against the literature of the spiritual world, which attempts to describe the spiritual and ideal world. So the Holy Spirit makes us aware of Cosmic Irony, or Cosmic Incongruity, which haunts most of us believers on our mortal journey. In fact, a Latter-day Saint who has emerged from her own Sacred Grove must learn to walk the mortal walk cockeyed—if you’ll allow it—with one eye cocked to the pressing daily realities of this life—to the here-and-now, the temporal, while the other eye is cocked to the reality of infinity, the eternal now, the out-there. The spiritual mortal learns to read mortality like the youth in 2 Kings who is allowed to see beyond the threatening great host the “mountain full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17).

In reading, as well as in daily life, the Holy Ghost can refine our tastes and sensibilities as we learn how to cultivate, discern, and respond to the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Even in reading. Brigham Young counseled us to, “Read good books, and extract from them wisdom and understanding as much as you possibly can, aided by the Spirit of God, for without His Spirit we are left in the dark” (Journal of Discourses 12:124; 29 Dec. 1867; my italics). He said at another LDS conference, “It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading [the scriptures]. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences” (Journal of Discourses 2:93-4; 6 Feb. 1853).

For me, reading has helped me to harmonize heaven and earth. My baptism by immersion in the realm of spiritual literature (especially the Holy Scriptures) has increasingly enriched my faith and further established my testimony of the reality of the spiritual dimension, of Jesus Christ, of His Plan of Salvation for every soul, and it has schooled me in seeking the direction of the Holy Ghost; and my immersion in world literature has enriched my life and humanity and given me a better understanding of the forces at work in the world of man of God. I am still engaged in the struggle of finding that delicate balance between the flesh and the spirit (see Romans 8), and I still have setbacks, but I cautiously believe my course is set for Eternal Life, and I hope the current I have been following, in fair and foul weather, will lead my family and me—and each of you in your discovered way—safely Home.


Richard H. Cracroft (1936- ) grew up in Salt Lake City. As he explains above, he has been a consummate reader since his early boyhood; by high school, he was thrilling to Julius Caesar and Macbeth and Cyrano de Bergerac and was already planning on majoring in English at college–and he was named as an All-State center on his state championship high school football team. Majoring in English with a minor in German literature, he earned the B..A. and M.A. at the University of Utah, and the Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison (1969). He joined the Brigham Young University English Department faculty in 1963, retiring in 2001. At BYU he was chair of the English Department, dean of the College of Humanities, coordinator of American Studies, and director of the Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature. He received BYU’s Abraham O. Smoot award and was the first holder of the Nan Osmond Grass Professorship in English. He established the courses in Western Literature and Mormon Literature at BYU and taught them for many years. With Neal E. Lambert, he published A Believing People: The Literature of the Latter-day Saints (1974), the first anthology of Mormon letters, and has published numerous articles and reviews on Mormon literature; for over twenty years he has written a book review column, “Alumni Book Nook,” in Brigham Young Magazine. He was president of the Association for Mormon Letters and was named a Lifetime Member of AML. He has published extensively in American literature and historical and LDS-centered journals and has authored and edited thirteen books on American literature and biography, Western literature (particularly on Mark Twain and Wallace Stegner), and Mormon literature. His article,”‘Cows to Milk Instead of Novels to Read’: Brigham Young, Novel Reading, and Kingdom Building,” BYU Studies, 40.2 (2001):102-131, was winner of the 2001 T. Edgar Lyon Award for the Best Article of the Year on Mormon History, sponsored by the Mormon History Association. Since retiring, he has taught for ten years a course in literature for the Elder Quest senior citizens group. He has been a lifelong local leader in the LDS Church, serving as a missionary in the Swiss-Austrian Mission, in bishoprics, on high councils, and as a youth leader, bishop (twice), stake president (of the Provo Utah East Stake), president of the Switzerland Zürich Mission, Branch President at the Missionary Training Center (MTC ), and high priest group leader (three times)–which adds up to about forty-five years in his ministry. He has been joyfully married for over a half-century to Janice Alger Cracroft; they have two sons and a daughter and seven grandchildren.

Posted June 2010