Mormon History 101: Take the Plunge

This began as a comment over at Irresistible (Dis)Grace but rapidly got long enough that it felt spammy and needed its own post.

Mormon history is a fascinating and difficult field to navigate. To survive it you need to become a historiographer as much as a historian, because so few works in the field of Mormon history can be considered reliable, unbiased, and fact-based. Checking the publisher is helpful in knowing how to approach a work. If it’s been put out by Deseret Book, Intellectual Reserve, or bears the official LDS trademark, understand that the Correlation Department has edited the work, and that it likely has undergone some degree of sanitising. LDS publications are notoriously devoid of documentation and references and you’ll need to do plenty of fact-checking. Signature Books is either a high-quality independent Mormon press or the spewer of apostasy, depending on who you are. In general, their books are scholarly, well-documented, and useful for someone who wants history and not faith-promoting rumours. Books published by various Christian ministries should be regarded with caution. Many are just a polemical attack on Mormonism and are designed to persuade Mormons to join their cause, not to think for themselves.

I’d recommend the following list of books to read in a self-taught Mormon History 101 course. Unfortunately I have yet to find a history of the LDS Church written from a faithful perspective. There is “faithful history,” also known as “faith-promoting rumour,” but accurate, well-documented histories written from a pro-Mormon stance are not to be found. That’s a shame as I think there is a lot of room for faithful, non-Kool-Aid LDS Histories that give faithful LDS more to work with than the nonsense created by FAIR and FARMS. I tried first to provide a link to an online version of the text, second to a documentary source like Wikipedia, and third to a commercial site like Amazon.

Primary sources

Pro-LDS “Faithful Histories”

  • What of the Mormons? by Gordon B. Hinckley. Out of print. Probably the earliest publication demonstrating official LDS management and editing of Church history. Established the PR and apologetics approach that is still used today.
  • Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie. Out of print. An enencyclopaedia but invaluable as a reference. Compare first and last editions if you can.
  • Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Bushman. Received endorsements from the LDS Church but also won history awards. It’s sanitised enough to be palatable to LDS authorities but still almost qualifies as scholarly.

Non-theological works respected as scholarly, reliable research

  • In Sacred Loneliness: the Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton. The definitive work on women Joseph Smith married in his lifetime.
  • Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery. Award-winning biography, paints a full portrait of Emma and early Mormonism.
  • Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard S. Van Wagoner. Great source for statistics, numbers, demographics and sociology of polygamy. Excellent history of the 19th Century isolationist period in Mormon history and the LDS/FLDS schism.

LDS Authorities would not approve

  • The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother by Lucy Mack Smith. My understanding is that it’s no longer explicitly taboo for use by CES employees, although it still makes no appearances in official Church teaching materials. This work is a loving memoir, although it makes references to the folk magic beliefs of the Smith family that the modern Church would not want discussed.

Scrutiny of Mormonism’s historical claims

Exposés: Emotionally charged but historically important works

  • Tell It All by Mrs. TBH Stenhouse. Fairly even-tempered for an exposé. Personal memoir of a Godbeite dissenter and a viewpoint of the growing pains the LDS Church went through as it consolidated in Utah.
  • Wife No. 19 by Ann Eliza Young. Unreliable but entertaining for its histrionics. Brigham Young’s ex-wife considerably influenced the way Americans looked at Mormons.
  • No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie. Problematic but very influential work as the first psychological profile of Joseph Smith.
  • From Housewife to Heretic by Sonia Johnson. The leader of Mormons for ERA, Johnson was excommunicated for her activities protesting the LDS Church’s involvement in torpedoing the Equal Rights Amendment.

The first book I’d recommend in a Mormon History 201 course list would be The Book of Mammon by Daymon M. Smith, a bizarre and fascinating personal memoir of a Church Office Building worker. Smith tells history of the Church as a Corporation. It’s only been out a few months but I think it will turn out to be an important work as it is the first book to tell us a bit about what goes on behind the impenetrable concrete walls of the Church Office Building.

14 thoughts on “Mormon History 101: Take the Plunge

  1. “LDS Authorities Would Not Approve” is most titles on your list, not just the one.

    A reasonable list. Naturally I would change a few things. A few points:

    1. You omit “Our Heritage” which is a small booklet that provides a quick overview of LDS history from the correlated perspective. A quick and concise summary of the “blessed” viewpoints, it’s also part of the standard “missionary” books elders and sisters are authorized to have.

    2. Mormon Doctrine is neither Mormon doctrine nor history. It’s an interesting topic within Mormon history and an influential if often wrong piece of work (in many senses of the phrase) but somewhat out of place on this list. One senses the Church is happy to have it out of print and has gradually been removing references to it from the correlated materials.

    3. BH Roberts’ “Comprehensive History” of the Church is a good counterpoint to the History of the Church. History and Journal of Discourses are useful historically, but have their limitations.

    4. Larson and Southerton might be overkill after Palmer, though certainly worth having.

    5. The absence of any Quinn books is an omission, though it’s hard to know which ones to suggest, my inclination is to say “read them all.” Though you might be placing those in a more upper division course.

    An interesting list. Not a reading list you’ll be getting for a BYU history course, that’s for sure. 🙂

  2. You’re right; the LDS Church would likely blow a fuse if it saw this list of books on a BYU syllabus. But that’s why it’s history and not faithful history. 🙂

    1. Our Heritage would be a very useful addition to the list. A comparison between that document and “What of the Mormons?” would be pretty useful in seeing how the PR/apologetics/marketing approach implemented decades ago by Hinckley is pretty much unchanged today.

    2. Mormon Doctrine might have recently been downgraded, but it was the most influential work in mid-20th century LDS-Mormonism. From its publication it was controversial, but it accurately reflects LDS beliefs as a whole and is very helpful in understanding contemporary and earlier publications. So yes, not history in itself, but very useful to a Mormon historian.

    3. Since leaving the fold I have often lamented the deliberate suppression of BH Roberts’ works by the LDS hierarchy. He spotted the problems the LDS Church is currently facing a century ago and tried to address them with honesty and the best interests of the members at heart. I wouldn’t include him on an overview/introductory list, though, because of the deep doctrine he gets into and the complicated politics around his role in the Church. He definitely should be featured heavily on a Mormon History 201 list.

    4. Overkill perhaps, but these three books taken together represent the strongest and most contemporary criticism of Mormonism’s historical claims and provide excellent histories of the early church and the crisis of history faced by the LDS hierarchy today.

    5. Quinn is very important, but I’d put him on a 201 list as with Roberts. His work is weighty, impressive, rigorougsly academic, and deserves more attention. But the length and subject matter of his titles make them a little too in-depth for a list of “getting started” titles.

    Perhaps we should follow up with a collaborative Mormon history 201 list?

  3. Thanks for the book reference to Matt Daymon. I’ve wanted to take a look at that ever since he interviewed over at Mormon Expressions/Stories (I still can’t keep the two podcasts straight). You may want to check his interviews out at least if you can’t be bothered reading a book. One of the better interviews online about Mormonism this year.

    I don’t think Southerton could really be classified as a “history 101” offering, no matter what you think of his work. The DNA thing is a highly specialized and niche issue that has little relevant bearing on overall LDS history I think.

    I think I’d question including Mormon Doctrine in there as well, but I think it passes muster. I definitely think it’s a good resource for anyone who wants to really comprehend popular Mormon thought. McConkie had the good fortune of publishing an authoritative-sounding book right when the Baby Boomer generation in the LDS Church was leaving home, and finding its own grown-up identity in the LDS Church. As such, his book had far more of an impact than it really should have, and profoundly imprinted itself in the minds of scores of LDS leaders – most of whom are now old enough to be manning most of the Bishoprics and Stake Presidencies of the LDS Church across North America. Now that the book is out of print – it’s influence is going to steadily decline I think, as the old guard is gradually replaced by people who hardly even know who Bruce R. McConkie is. Technically, I don’t think this book is really history-related – but still useful for comprehensive understanding.

    Just managed to snag a used copy of “Mormon Enigma” over at the used book shelf at Deseret Industries when we visited family July 4th, so hoping dive into that soon. Compton’s book is considered to be the best resource out there for understanding early LDS polygamy. It’s high on my must-read list – although I think the conclusions people draw from Compton are sometimes less well-supported than Compton himself.

    All in all, a nice reading list. Good job.

    • RE: Mormon Doctrine — its massive impact is the reason I include it. As you said, whether or not it should have been an influential work does not change the fact that it was proudly displayed in most Mormon homes for half a century as an authoritative reference.

      • I would make that a separate course, focusing on doctrinal history and evolution, apart from 101. I would start with JS’s evolution focusing on the development of the origination mythology and Nauvoo period with attention to King Follett, then move into Brigham Young and all the things later prophets wish he never said, Orson Pratt and his ongoing pissing match with BY, Roberts/Widtsoe/Talmage, JFS/BRM, then Correlation.

        A case could be made that Journal of Discourses works better here than in a 101 course. Not sure where I’d put it….still mulling it over.

        • Interesting. I think there may be something to this conversation. When we’re done we’ll have evolved a self-taught A-level Mormon History curriculum.

        • It’s kind of a big deal for a lot of us bloggernacle types. For us, the impact that Talmage had in steering Mormonism away from the BH Roberts strain of thought, is a crucial component in understanding where Mormon theology went in the 20th century.

          An equally crucial component is where Joseph Fielding Smith took the theology – followed by his disciple Bruce R. McConkie.

          This topic is such a big deal to bloggernacle types, because it reveals to us where the “wiggle room” in our religion is. It allows us to look at the scriptures, and look at what these men said, and determine for ourselves if we really agree with them.

          In many cases, we disagree with them quite strongly in their conclusions and choose to place our Mormon identity and beliefs elsewhere.

          In short, reading and understanding the positions of these men is crucial – agreeing with them is not.

        • I think it’s more accurate to say the impact Roberts and Talmage had in steering the Church away from the excesses of the pioneer era and away from a theology that required plural marriage. Roberts never presumed to speak for the Church with a single voice (unlike many of his detractors), and his writings were often too intense to have a wide audience. Put simply, his strain of thought was never something that needed steering away from.

  4. Just found this blog site by chance. Keep up the work as many people are wondering and just need a chance to find the right information to nudge them out of a bogus religion.

    • Well, I don’t want to nudge anybody anywhere. Part of the reason I stopped participating in the LDS Church was because I got sick of being stuffed into a box, and I promised myself I’d never do the same to anybody else. I’m here to ask questions. I’m opposed to people staying in the LDS Church because of rote tradition, fear, or because they never thought about it. But if somebody finds value in the institution, it’s not my place to tell them to leave it. For now, those of us opposed to racism, sexism, and homophobia are largely walking out, but maybe those who stay behind will one day effect change.

  5. Wow what a list.

    It seems strange to me that RSR is filed under the faithful history category. Sure, Bushman stretches the facts as far as he can, and sometimes even further, to paint a sympathetic portrait of The Prophet, but I still know many memebers (probably 99% of the ones in my little part of the world) who would totally sh!t themselves if they knew even less than a quarter of a half of the stuff that he brings up in there. I guess the brethren implicitly support what Bushman does, because they need something to help stem the tide of people who up and leave when they discover that faith promoting rumors are just that: faith promoting rumors. If it takes spinning folk magic and other kooky stuff into something remotely palatable to retain some members then so be it. In that sense it probably is faithful history after all.

    Anyways, do you think that Terryl Givens (a sympathizer) has anything to add to the conversation. How about Leonard Arrington? He ushered in the age of New Mormon History, has he got any good stuff floating out there? Keep up the awesome work!

    • Arrington was more the midwife of the New Mormon History. He did make several notable contributions, such as Brigham Young: American Moses, but his real importance was in waking up Mormons to the idea that they could and should examine primary documents for themselves. Without his short-lived tenure, you are correct, we never would have had the new Mormon History.

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