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.
- Journal of Discourses, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young et al.
- History of the Church, Joseph Smith et al.
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
- An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer. This work is a rigorous step-by-step dissection of Mormonism’s foundational claims. Palmer argues that Joseph Smith fabricated the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price, and encourages Mormons to de-emphasize these works and concentrate on the Bible and Jesus Christ. Palmer was disfellowshiped and forbidden from ever speaking about his work.
- Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church by Simon Southerton (About DNA research and Native Americans)
- By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus by Stan Larson. Examines the text and history of the Pearl of Great Price.
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.