Apparently, the Albemarle County School Board in Virginia has taken A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, off its sixth-grade reading list (though older students can get access to it) on the grounds that the book is insufficiently respectful to Mormons, and if it’s the first thing children read about the faith, they’ll be left with an unfairly bad impression.
While lost of accusations of racism, sexism, or anti-religious bias that lead to book-banning are specious or un-subtle, this is a sensationalistic novel. There’s no question that Arthur Conan Doyle’s depiction of Mormonism in A Study in Scarlet, written in 1886, 42 years after Joseph Smith’s death but four years before the 1890 manifesto that disavowed plural marriage in the church, is sensationalist. The plot revolves heavily around a forced plural marriage and Mormon military units like the Danite bands. But A Study in Scarlet isn’t entirely unsympathetic to Mormon characters. The Latter-day Saints save John and Lucy Ferrier from death by dehydration. And Sherlock Holmes dogs the murderer of the two Mormon victims without regard to their religion. Non-Mormons and Mormons alike use mysterious symbols, campaigns of terror, and write things in blood on walls—touches like this are in keeping with the tastes of the age rather than any unique anti-Mormon bias. Readers are unlikely to mistake a novel where we meet one of the heroes beating a corpse with a riding crop for a definitive history of the faith, in the same way no one, even young readers, will mistake The Eagle of the Ninth as a definitive history of pagan religion.
And more importantly, even if the details are sensationalistic, it is true that plural marriage and defense of the faith by force are part of early Mormon history. There’s a difference between a right to have the fact that you believe treated with respect, and the right to have the history your faith presented only the terms that make you comfortable, no matter the actual facts. Children also have a right to learn critical thinking in school, and works that offend no one are unlikely to help them develop those skills. If the parent who complained about A Study in Scarlet had asked that it be taught as part of an interdisciplinary curriculum that points out where Conan Doyle exaggerated for dramatic effect while acknowledging the realities of early Mormon history, I might have been sympathetic. But given that the school’s responded by removing the book from the curriculum rather than placing it in context, I think it’s time to get the Baker Street Irregulars to buy a bunch of Sherlock Holmes books for Albemarle County schoolkids, just as the Vonnegut Museum did with Slaughterhouse Five after the book was banned in Missouri.