2015 in Retrospect: An Overview of Noteworthy Books and Articles in Mormon History

By December 7, 2015

Once again, this is my attempt to recap the historiography of Mormonism from the past twelve months. This is the seventh such post, and previous installments are found herehere, here, here, here, and here. I do not list every single book and article from 2015, but I do highlight those I found most interesting and relevent. Therefore, a strong bias is obviously involved, so I hope you’ll add more in the comments.

ReeveAs I say every year, I like this format including both books and articles because it allows me to take a larger look at the developing field. (By the way: if you like that sort of thing, make sure to check the latest issue of Mormon Studies Review, which I hope to highlight more in depth soon.)

It was especially difficult to select a limited number of articles this year due to the Journal of Mormon History featuring two special issues: the 50th anniversary issue (edited by Spencer Fluhman), which featured a number of state-of-the-field essays, and the issue on race (co-edited by Gina Colvin and JI former perma-blogger Max Mueller). But while that makes my job difficult, it meant that the JMH had perhaps its strongest year on record in terms of quality content. Horray for special issues with fantastic guest editors!

Mormonism and Race: The Books

BringhurstRace is so hot right now. You know what is specifically “so hot,” though? Showing how race is malleable, erasable, and constructable. That’s the great lesson of Reeve’s and Hudson’s books–they show how race was permeable during the nineteenth century through Mormon case studies. Reeve’s book has received plenty of attention, justifiably, and will probably go down as one of the most important books in Mormon historiography. Hudson’s book deserves more attention than it has received, both for its readability and fascinating tale. (You can read a preview of her book in the article listed above.) And Brighhurst and Harris’s documentary history is a fantastic source reader of the institutional Church’s interactions with race from the beginning to the present: its compact structure and professional editorial touch make it not only a crucial contribution to the field, but a perfect text for undergraduate classrooms. I expect it to have lasting influence.

Mormonism and Race: The Articles

  • Christopher Smith, “Playing Lamanite: Ecstatic Performance of American Indian Roles in Early Mormon Ohio,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 2: 131-166.
  • Elise Boxer, “‘The Lamanite Shall Blossom as a Rose’: The Indian Student Placement Program, Mormon Whiteness, and Indigenous Identity,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 4:  132-176.
  • Ryan Stuart Bingham, “Curses and Marks: Racial Dispensations and Dispensations of Race in Joseph Smith’s Bible Revision and the Book of Abraham,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 2: 22-57.
  • Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, “‘Playing the Whore’: The Domestic and Sexual Politics of Mormon Missionary Work on Tahiti Nui and in the Tuamotus,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 2: 58-96.

But you don’t have to make it through entire books to get a sense of these new scholarly directions! Thanks to Gina Colvin and Max Mueller, the JMH published an issue that holds a host of fantastic articles. I recommend all of these along with the other articles in the issue.

A New Academic Book Series

Two years ago, we announced the creation of a new Mormon Studies series at Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, co-edited by JI’s good friend Rachel Cope. These are the first three titles in the series, and they give hope that great titles are in the future!

Edited Collections

OxfordIn an academic world that is mostly moving away from edited collections, Mormon history is moving along full stream ahead. The Oxford Handbook is especially important because it will be the primary textual contact for academics who acquire a peripheral interest in Mormon studies. (Such is the nature of the Oxford Handbook series.) And fortunately, the volume includes chapters by the field’s leading experts that give an imcomparable overview of the last fifty years of research. The polygamy and antiquity volumes, though at times uneven, include lots of fascinating essays. And the Grow and Neilson volume collects the MHA’s Tanner Lectures from the last fifteen years, and is the sequel to a volume released a decade ago. (The reason for publishing it now is because the MHA recently renamed the annual lecture to the Smith-Pettit Lectures, based on the new generous financial backers.)

The Perpetually Provocative Field of International Mormonism

  • Jason H. Dormady and Jared M. Tamez, eds., Just South of Zion: The Mormons in Mexico and Its Borderlands (University of New Mexico Press).
  • Jehu J. Hanciles, “‘Would that All God’s People Were Prophets’: Mormonism and the New Shape of Global Christianity,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 3: 69-90.

It’s exciting to see Just South of Zion not only because it is an important contribution to international Mormon history, but also because it is co-edited by one of JI’s founders, Jared Tamez. Congrats, Jared! And Hanciles’s article is the Tanner Lecture from MHA’s 2014 conference; Hanciles is a foremost scholar on global Christianity, this essay is a rousing call for more global coverage of Mormonism’s past(s).

Moronism’s Place within the American Political Tradition

CampbellAs you probably know, I’m a sucker for work that contextualizes Mormonism within America’s political tradition. And these three books excel at exactly that. The Campbell/Greene/Monson volume is a political science perspective of modern Mormonism’s political bent, and draws from important polling and surveys to give a much more nuanced and sophisticated look at LDS conservatism than you typically hear. The Balmer/Riess volume is a compillation of essays covers a host of topics from Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign to Mormon support of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008. And Young’s book, recently reviewed here, places Mormonism within the interdenominational coalition that formed the religious right.

Materials, Maps, and MoTab

It is becoming much more common in academia to demonstrate how one can understand a broader movement, and even broader themes, by focusing on a single element. These three books use specific case studies—cultural landscape, cartography, and the MoTab Choir—to tell a much larger story. Importantly, not only do these books cover fascinating material and offer important insights, but they are all exceptionally well-written.

Mormon Biography

HallFor better or worse, Mormon history has always been dominated by biography. Luckily, many of these biographies are good! Romig’s biography of John Whitmer is especially exhaustive, as is Kyle Walker’s look at Willaim Smith. Even more, Dave Hall’s biography of Amy Brown Lyman is especially important due to both the crucial topic—arguably one of the most important non-president Mormons in the twentieth century, not to mention the crucial transformation of the Relief Society—but also the context it gives for today’s cultural issues. (Indeed, A Faded Legacy may be one of the most important books in Mormon women’s history in quite some time.) Former JIer Steve Taysom’s article is a provocative preview of the biography-in-waiting, and Matt Grow offers an expert look at the field in general and its limits in particular. In fact, it’d be interesting to see someone judge these recent biographies in light of the thoughtful and important critiques of the craft posed by Grow.

Contextualizing Mormon Feminism

The last few years have introduced a bright spotlight onto gender issues within the LDS tradition, so it is always good to bring some context to these developments. The Mormon Feminism collection compiles many of the most important feminist texts from the past half-century and it is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand contemporary Mormonism.

The Historiographical World

  • Richard Bushman, “Reading the Gold Plates,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 1: 64-76.
  • David J. Howlett, “Ripe Field, Plentiful Laborers, Few Jobs: The Prospects and Challenges for Early-Career Mormon Studies Scholars,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 1: 174-183.
  • Matthew Bowman, “Toward a Catholic History of Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 1: 198-216.
  • Patrick Q. Mason, “Scholars, Saints, and Stakeholders: A Forgotten Alternatives Approach to Mormon History,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 1: 217-228.
  • Alexander L. Baugh and Reid L. Neilson, eds., Conversations with Mormon Historians (BYU Religious Studies Center).
  • Anne Taves and Steven Harper, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision: New Methods for the Analysis of Experience-Related Texts,” Mormon Studies Review 3.

If there’s anything Mormon historians love exploring more than, well, Mormon history, it’s how Mormon history has and can be performed. (We’re quite narcissistic, to be honest.) The JMH’s 50th anniversary issue hosts a number of reflective essays, even beyond the ones that I highlight above. I specify the Bushman, Howlett, Bowman, and Mason essays, though, because they also prognosticate on the future of the field—its methodological evolution as well as its material realities. The Conversations with Mormon Historians is a compillation of interviews with foundational figures in the field. And the Taves/Harper dialogue is a fascinating look at new ways to address a seemingly staid topic. Horray for navel-gazing!

New Looks at Utah History

  • Jared Farmer, “Crossroads of the West,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 1: 156-173.
  • Thomas Alexander, “Brigham Young and the Transformation of the Utah Wilderness, 1847-58,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 1: 103-124.
  • Benjamin Lindquist, “Testimony of the Senses: Latter-day Saints and the Civilized Landscape,” Western Historical Quarterly 46, no. 1: 53-74.

The first two articles come from the JMH’s 50th anniversary issue; Farmer’s is a very thoughtful look at the past and future of Utah history, and Alexander’s is a glimpse at new research avenues. I have not yet had the privilege to read Lindquist’s article yet (gasp!), but I’ve heard great things about it from smart friends and it won the WHA’s Bert M. Fireman’s Prize, so it must be top-notch.

Documentary Editing

JSP J3Howe’s book is one of the most crucial historical sources for understanding early Mormonism, and Vogel offers an important edition of the text. And the JSP produced two very important volumes this year: the Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, which was then overshadowed by the newly released photos of Joseph Smith’s seer stone, and the third volume of the journals series, which covers the final year of Joseph Smith’s life. (See here.) This latter volume’s importance cannot be overstated due to the fact that it finally completes the journals series Dean Jessee started decades ago, not to mention all the crucial information it includes. And finally, the Grow/Walker volume is an important collection of letters between two historical figures that will be of great interest to scholars of nineteenth century political thought. (Review is forthcoming.)

Reassessing a Classic

  • Benjamin Park, “Camelot’s Crucible: The Historiographical Context for Refiner’s Fire,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 4: 178-187.
  • Susanna Morrill, “The Refiner’s Fire: Rites of Scholarly Passage,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 4: 188-197.
  • Stephen Fleming, Egil Asprem, and Anne Taves, “Refiner’s Fire and the Yates Thesis: Hermeticism, Esotericism, and the History of Christianity,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 4: 198-208.
  • David F. Holland, “Narrative Arcs and Scholarly Nerve,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 4: 209-220.
  • Neil Kamil, “The Refiner’s Fire‘s Atlantic,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 4: 221-227.
  • John L. Brooke, “The Refiner’s Fire in Retrospect,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 4: 228-237.

I’m biased, but I loved this roundtable that I (ahem) put together. You can read more about it here.

New Looks at the Joseph Smith Period

  • Michael H. Mackay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Religious Studies Center).
  • Jeffrey N. Walker, “The Kirtland Safety Society and the Fraud of Grandison Newell: A Legal Examination,” BYU Studies Quarterly 53, no. 3: 33-148.
  • Mark L. Staker, “Isaac and Elizabeth Hale in Their Endless Mountain Home,” Mormon Historical Studies 15, no. 2.
  • Joseph Johnstun, “William Vorhease and the Murder of Joseph Smith,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 35, no. 1: 38-61.
  • Joseph Johnstun, “Weapons Related to the Murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 35, no. 2: 12-61.
  • Alex D. Smith, “Symbol of Mormonism: The Nauvoo Boarding House,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 35, no. 2: 109-136.

Because we always need more on Joseph Smith, his family, his property, and his death! But seriously, all these works are written by document sleuths who tease out important lessons from previously overlooked themes/texts/materials.

Important Stand-Alone Articles

  • Kathleen Flake, “The Development of Early Latter-day Saint Marriage Rites, 1831-53,” Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 1: 77-102.
  • Samuel D. Brunson, “The Past, Present, and Future of LDS Financial Transparency,” Dialogue 48, no. 1: 1-44.
  • Cory Crawford, “The Struggle for Female Authority in Biblical and Mormon Tradition,” Dialogue 48, no. 2: 1-70.
  • David J. Whittaker, “Joseph B. Keeler, Print Culture, and the Modernization of Mormonism, 1885-1915,” BYU Studies Quarterly 53, no. 2: 97-122.

I really, really enjoyed Flake’s article, which looks at the evolution of Mormon marital theology through a series of marriages and tells a much broader story of gendered power and sealing authority in the early Church. Must read. And the other articles are expertly-written examinations of topics that have cultural capital today yet can only be understood within a longer historical context.

_______________________________________________

And now, if you’ll cue the drumroll, here are my awards….

Best Book Award: Reeve, Religion of a Different Color

Best Biography Award: Hudson, Real Native Genius

Best First Book: Hall, A Faded Legacy

Best Documentary History: Joseph Smith Papers Project, Journals, Vol. 3

Best Article Award: Flake, “The Development of Early Latter-day Saint Marriage Rites, 1831-53”

Awards of Excellence: Boxer, “The Lamanite Shall Blossom as a Rose”; Taysom, “The Last Memory”

Best Personal History/Memoir: Garcia, Chicano While Mormon

Best International Article: Barbara Jones Brown, “The 1910 Mexican Revolution and the Rise and Demise of Mormon Polygamy in Mexico,” in Dormady and Tamez, Just South of Zion

Best Dissertation: Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, “Imperial Zions: Mormons, Polygamy, and the Politics of Domesticity in the American West, Britain, and the Pacific”

_______________________________________________

What did I miss? Add your reflections concerning the year in the comments.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Ben, I might suggest adding, and not just because I know the publishers, the following:

    Jamie Zvirzdin’s compilation, “Fresh Courage Take: New Directions by Mormon Women” (Signature)

    and

    Dan Vogel’s source- and text-critical study of Joseph Smith’s “History of the Church,” 8 vols. (Smith-Pettit/Signature), due out as early as this week, I’ve been told.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — December 7, 2015 @ 7:44 am

  2. Thanks for the additions, Gary. I’m especially excited for the Vogel series—any chance there will be a digital/less-than-thousand-dollars edition?

    Comment by Ben P — December 7, 2015 @ 9:33 am

  3. Good stuff, Ben, thanks!

    Comment by Heather S — December 7, 2015 @ 12:27 pm

  4. As always, great job, Ben. These annual retrospectives are immensely helpful!

    Comment by Jeff T — December 7, 2015 @ 10:49 pm

  5. Nice list, thanks Ben!
    I can’t help to notice that almost all of the mentioned articles come from journals with focus on Mormonism. I guess this reflects the state of Mormon studies. Isn’t there anything noteworthy from academic journals with larger scope?

    Comment by Niklas — December 8, 2015 @ 1:46 am

  6. Nilas: I think we’ve seen a lot of development in that in recent years, with many fantastic articles on Mormon studies appearing in non-Mormon volumes. (One might argue the best articles were outside Mormon venues.) However, I struggled to find any this year, which very well be my own error. Does anyone know of any articles on Mormon studies in non-Mormon journals in 2015?

    Comment by Ben P — December 8, 2015 @ 8:50 am

  7. Ben did point to the Lindquist article published in the WHQ. Other than that, I’m not aware of anything published in a non-Mormon journal.

    Comment by David G. — December 9, 2015 @ 4:32 am

  8. Thanks, Ben! Great list as always. Agree wholeheartedly on Reeve and hope my review in a forthcoming issue of JMH reinforces your view that this is one of the most important books we’ve seen in a while.

    Comment by John Hatch — December 9, 2015 @ 10:59 am

  9. An article on Mormon exorism will be showing up in the very non-Mormon venue, Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. Look for it next year. Ben, excellent work.

    Comment by SC Taysom — December 9, 2015 @ 11:31 am

  10. Thanks, Ben, for the shout-out and the excellent year-in-review.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — December 9, 2015 @ 2:50 pm

  11. Thanks, Ben. Maybe fix a couple of misspellings, though: Fairleigh Dickinson (not Farleigh) and BYU Studies Quarterly (not Quearterly).

    Comment by Lew Scannon — December 11, 2015 @ 10:20 am

  12. Lew: how embarassing! My sincere thanks for pointing out those typos.

    Comment by Ben P — December 11, 2015 @ 11:05 am

  13. What Christopher said. Thanks, Ben!

    Comment by Ryan B. — December 13, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

  14. […] Park has his annual post reviewing the year’s best books and articles up at Juvenile Instructor. He reviews several books and offers his insights into their importance […]

    Pingback by Mormon News, December 14–18 | Signature Books — December 18, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

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