Book Review: Thomas W. Simpson, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867–1940 (UNC, 2016).
By September 27, 2016
Simpson’s thesis, stated baldly, is that “modern Mormonism was born in the American university” (1–2). By American university he means the archipelago of research and graduate education institutions that emerged mainly between the upper Midwest and the Northeast after the Civil War. By modern Mormonism, he means a Mormonism with “a genuine, passionate sense of belonging in America” (2). In some important senses, Mormons moved from outsider to insider status between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Simpson sees the American university as the most important facilitator of that transition. Between 1867 and 1940, university settings were uniquely irenic spaces where Mormons could “rehearse for American citizenship” and imagine themselves as both American and Mormon (2). So Simpson joins the significant historiographical minority—from Thomas O’Dea to Grant Underwood, Kathleen Flake, Steven Taysom, and recent graduates like Christopher Blythe—who have placed the makings of modern Mormonism long before and long after the 1890s.