Thesis ID: CBB556098679

Celestial Mechanics: Technologies of Salvation in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and American Culture (2019)


This dissertation describes the relationship between innovations in sonic technologies and religious faith. Specifically, I address experimental efforts of Mormons to develop technologies that would more purely convey celestial messages. Chapter One considers the Urim and Thummim, an ancient biblical device that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claims enabled him to faithfully reproduce the word of God. Smith lays a foundation upon which subsequent attempts to directly relay sacred doctrine were built, including the Salt Lake Tabernacle, a space of gathering to hear revelation and doctrine through sermons and music. Chapter Two looks at stereophonic sound, developed by Mormon physicist Harvey Fletcher in the 1920s, with reference to the Tabernacle. Stereophonic reproductions were meant to achieve the affective experience of having been in the presence of the source, in whatever context it was received. Fletcher drew inspiration from the Tabernacle insofar as its acoustic design sought for its congregants a pure aural experience. The last chapter addresses an unorthodox study on miniskirts conducted by Fletcher’s student, Vern Knudsen, in 1969. Knudsen tested the sound absorption levels of several women dressed in miniskirts to prove that they “would disturb the balance of sound designed into the auditorium.” According to Knudsen, the study was inspired by an occurrence in the Mormon Tabernacle in 1875, when Brigham Young asked women to bring extra overcoats and skirts to help dampen unwieldy or rampant echoes so congregations could better hear his sermons. Finding that this abbreviated clothing functioned poorly acoustically, women were thus readily characterized as the source of aberration, consistent with a pervasive understanding that women and their bodies were antithetical to pure communication. These case studies demonstrate that Mormonism has played a critical role in the development of sound technologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially in its use and elaboration of media technologies to transmit sacred information. Among the contributions this project makes to sound histories is its insistence on the inextricable enmeshment of technology and faith, and in so doing it sheds light on how a new religion was able to gain traction in a moment largely dominated by secular narratives.

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Authors & Contributors
Horning, Susan Schmidt
Bijsterveld, Karin
Boyer, Paul S.
Fletcher, Stephen H.
Godfrey, Matthew C.
Kaur, Raminder
Technology and Culture
Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences
Engineering Studies
Icon: Journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology
The Journal of Communication
The Senses and Society
Cambridge University Press
Duke University Press
Johns Hopkins University Press
Oxford University Press
The University of Utah Press
Technology and religion
Sound Recording Industry
Technology and culture
Sound studies
Benson, Ezra Taft
Fletcher, Harvey
Vern Knudsen
Time Periods
20th century
19th century
20th century, late
21st century
17th century
20th century, early
United States
Saudi Arabia
Middle and Near East
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS); Morman Chuch

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