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.

A History According to Amazon

Title: The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother
Author: Lucy Mack Smith
Date Acquired: December 25, 2003

Title: Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith
Authors: Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery
Date Acquired: May 4, 2004

Title: In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith
Author: Todd Compton
Date Acquired: May 17, 2004

Title: Mormon Mother: An Autobiography by Annie Clark Tanner
Author: Annie C. Tanner
Date Acquired: October 1, 2004

Title: Wife No. 19
Author: Ann Eliza Young
Date Acquired: November 14, 2004

Title: Tell it All: A Woman’s Life in Polygamy
Author: Fanny Stenhouse
Date Acquired: November 14, 2004

Title: Mormon America: The Power and the Promise
Authors: Richard Ostling and Joan K. Ostling
Date Acquired: January 31, 2005

Title: An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins
Author: Grant H. Palmer
Date Acquired: August 17, 2005

Title: Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church
Author: Simon G. Southerton
Date Acquired: September 4, 2005

Title: By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri
Author: Charles M. Larson
Date Acquired: September 4, 2005

Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism
Author: Maxine Hanks
Date Acquired: March 22, 2006

Title: A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
Author: Karen Armstrong
Date Acquired: August 2, 2007

Title: Grace Notes
Author: Heidi Hart
Date Acquired: November 17, 2007

Title: Goodbye, I Love You
Author: Carol Lynn Pearson
Date Acquired: February 14, 2008

Title: Early Mormonism and the Magic World View
Author: D. Michael Quinn
Date Acquired: July 13, 2008

Title: Standing For Something More: The Excommunication of Lyndon Lamborn
Author: Lyndon Lamborn
Date Acquired: December 31, 2009

Title: The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
Author: David Johnson, Jeff VanVonderen
Date Acquired: February 23, 2010

Title: Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective
Author: The Dalai Lama
Date Acquired: February 23, 2010