Getting Started in Mormon History

By January 28, 2010

My first foray into Mormon history was a complete and abysmal failure. I think I’ve destroyed all evidence of that paper because I would probably be fired for my complete stupidity. The school project was to prepare an annotated bibliography on a topic that could become a senior thesis. It sounded fairly easy and because I liked Mormon history and lived within a stone’s throw of a major Mormon site, I chose a Mormon topic. I was working at the time in interlibrary loan so I assumed that on the odd chance my school didn’t have anything, I could find other schools nearby with good sources. At the end of the project, I was under the impression that no one was doing Mormon history because of the difficulty in finding the dozen books and two dozen articles I needed. I’ve learned a lot about doing Mormon history since then and have come to see first-hand the vast amount of work being done on the topic. But, I also learned a valuable lesson. It isn’t as easy to get into history as we sometimes think it is. It’s especially difficult to work on a topic that doesn’t receive a lot of attention on the national stage. (Just try explaining Mormon history to your professor specializing in 17th century German legal history. It isn’t even relevant.)

I often run into people who express an interest in learning more about Mormon history but don’t quite know where to get started or how to know who they can trust. To that end, I’ve developed a few tips that I pass on to others interested in the field. These are usually amateur historians or students wanting to work in Church history. I would be interested to hear your perspectives on my suggestions or to hear what suggestions you usually give to people.

The best thing you can do to study Mormon history is simply to start. Ask a question. Pick a topic you are interested in and see what you can find out about it. Look up the BYU library catalog as well as the online versions of BYU Studies and the Journal of Mormon History to see what has been published already. As you pick a topic and start reading, allow plenty of time for analyzing and pondering what you are reading. Good understanding takes time.

Learn your sources. Different publishers print different types of books and it is important to understand those differences. Don’t be looking at Signature Books if you really want the type of information available in Institute Manuals. I tell people to first check the notes and bibliography and acknowledgements. If the author primarily thanks the staff at small town state community college library for their research assistance, odds are they haven’t gone as deep into the sources as would be necessary. If the bibliography is heavily slanted towards one type of source, it may not be the best either. Good scholarly books will have a mix of primary and secondary sources, as well as a mix of items within those sources. A book with only anti-Mormon newspaper articles or Mormon newspaper articles when discussing why the Latter-day Saints left Missouri? Probably not a good idea.

Be cautious of stories you’ve heard but can’t fix a reference to or that seem really outlandish. Some of the really outlandish stories actually are true, however most of them started as truth but have picked up so much drama along the way they should be Hollywood movies. If you can’t remember what General Authority said it, please don’t ask me if it’s true.

All of this may be fairly obvious to those engaged in the study of Mormon history academically or professionally. But, there is a constant force of Latter-day Saints around the world who want to understand Mormon history more personally. One of my goals is to take the work we do as professionals and make it accessible to those who do it on their own. Mormon history is a rich and exciting topic and worthy of understanding. And, because Mormon history is tied closely to Mormon doctrine, understanding one can lead to greater application of the other.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. And read The Juvenile Instructor.

    Comment by Bob — January 28, 2010 @ 9:24 am

  2. Your tips are good. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — January 28, 2010 @ 11:42 am

  3. A couple of additional tips:

    1. You need some broad context in the field. So a read of, say, The Story of the LDS and RSR and maybe a few other general books would be useful.

    2. If you want to get serious about it, skim/read the entire runs of the journals that print a lot of LDS history, such as JMH, MHS, Dialogue and others. That’s a Nibley practice, and it’s a great way to get a feel for a field of study. And it gives you a sense of confidence, because you now have at least a sense for what has–and hasn’t–been done before.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — January 28, 2010 @ 11:55 am

  4. I think you are absolutely meeting your goal of making Mormon history more accessible. I appreciate hearing the mechanics of your process. Very valuable! Thank you for sharing your knowledge here.

    Comment by Elizabeth — January 28, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

  5. #1, hehe, thanks Bob.

    Great post, Emily. I’ll try to get back later and make a more substantive comment.

    Comment by Jared T. — January 28, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

  6. Thanks for the advice. Mormon history is a great subject.

    Comment by Todd Decker — January 28, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

  7. Thanks Emily.

    One of your phrases is particularly interesting to me:

    “good scholarly books will have a mix of primary and secondary sources.”

    As someone who has made a conscious effort over the past six or seven years to refrain from employing any secondary sources in my work, I am intrigued by this.(I am using “secondary” loosely here and except interpretive/synthetic sources contemporary with events I am concerned with). I have the luxury of working with topics narrow, mundane, and trivial enough that this is a feasible modus operandi.

    The benefits of avoiding secondary sources are obvious, but then there are certainly times when engaging the historiography makes the history more relevant to readers. Your sentence reminds me of how alive, for want of a better term, William Cronon’s environmental writings seem–and he excels at the practice you are advocating.

    I apologize for comments that seem to be moving increasingly away from central theme, but if you care to share your thoughts on the advantages of balancing primary and secondary sources it would be appreciated.

    Comment by Alex — January 28, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  8. #3:(or?), I would like in ‘Featured Links’ (sidebar), some links to these study sources or groups.

    Comment by Bob — January 28, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

  9. Bob, I’ve been putting them up at the Salt Lake Mormon Studies Student Association site under the “Reference” tab. But that doesn’t preclude us from potentially putting them up here.

    Comment by Jared T — January 28, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

  10. #9: Jared, even better than I wished for! Thank you. I will put it on my Rolodex.

    Comment by Bob — January 28, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  11. And read the Juvenile Instructor. Sorry I left that one out. 😉

    Alex, your comment about balancing primary and secondary sources is a good one. While you are only citing primary sources in your work at the moment, I’m pretty sure you are up to date with the latest historiography and use it to inform your research. I would hope all scholars understand the bigger issues at play but come up with their own interpretations instead of always relying on someone else’s version of events. In my own work researching historic sites and their associated events I start with secondary sources to inform my understanding but only cite primary sources in the final publication.

    The caution I give to people just starting in Mormon history is to find that balance. Secondary sources can be used to give context to the subject but should never be the final word. For example, if a biography came out today about Brigham Young that didn’t at least reference Arrington’s work in some way I would be a little suspicious. But I would be equally suspicious if they only referred to Arrington.

    Comment by Emily — January 28, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

  12. A study should acknowledge the previous work on the topic.

    Mormon History is great because we have so many digitized documents, from academic journals to primary and secondary sources. Getting a quick primer on historiography would be a good idea. Perhaps reading Walker, Whitaker and Allen’s Mormon History.

    The Studies in Mormon History database is very handy. There is no real substitute to reading primary documents though, so that is a great place to start (Bitton’s Guide though outdated is now available digitally and quite helpful); however searching theses, journal articles and books is necessary. Signature’s New Mormon Studies CD is useful, but also googlebooks and even gospelink. Even trolling through UMI turns up stuff.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 28, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

  13. I am surprised by all this talk about primary sources. Those who simply want to know more about Mormon history they can probably gather all they need (and then some) from secondary literature by Arrington, Allen, Quinn, Bushman, etc. For those doing research… well, it should would expect they understand the importance of primary documents contextualized by existing secondary sources. I should note that it is important to contextualize with readings outside of Mormon history as well.

    For the inquisitive non-academic Mormon, however, I think time is best spent reading books rather than visiting the archives and reading committee minutes, diaries, letters or other obscure and fairly narrow content. There really are a lot of great books and I’m sure somebody affiliated with this blog can refer us all to a great bibliography someplace (I suspect such a list appears in some earlier posting on this blog).

    Now, for the researcher historian, what archival sources are out there? I think that is a worthy question (though as a relatively new visitor to the Juvenile Instructor I may be overlooking an earlier post on this subject). There is of course the Church Archives in Salt Lake and BYU’s Special Collections has quite a bit. Where else might researchers look for Mormon history collections? Certainly we can look in one of the several books dedicated to this question, but perhaps someone here can truncate that guidance or highlight a few favorites. I would be curious to hear where individuals have found unexpected gems in thier archival explorations.

    Comment by Matthew — January 29, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  14. I think I am contractually obligated to point out that Dialogue belongs on the list with JMH and BYU Studies as a source of some good historic work.

    Comment by Kristine — January 29, 2010 @ 10:12 am

  15. Emily,
    Sorry for waylaying your post.

    Let me see if I can distill your comments like this (not a direct quote, obviously):

    “I don’t understand the need for all this talk about primary sources…but a worthy question would be, where do we find more primary sources?”

    (sorry, just kidding around with you)


    Agreed that “a study should acknowledge the previous work on the topic.” As always, you have said it well. When speaking of avoiding the citation of secondary sources I was referring more particularly to the situations where a topic is specific enough there have been no preceding secondary publications. Much of your own work seems to fall into this category–for which I am grateful. I think it would be an interesting discussion (and probably more appropriate in a setting where I wasn’t detracting from Emily’s comments) to discuss other situations when citing secondary sources may not be desirable.

    For instance, let’s pull back slightly from the situation where there are no previous secondary sources on a topic. If the existing secondary treatments have only superficially touched on the subject, and have not provided any intellectual contribution to your own research, they could be mentioned out of interest, or to educate the reader about available sources, but, to me, reference to such a source would not be mandatory.

    Removing one step further: If secondary treatments talk about the topic extensively, but you were not indebted to them for primary source references, and your own work differs enough from them to warrant publication–either through disagreement or content generally–would you be obliged to cite them? I think it would depend on the venue and audience. In an article published in a historical journal, it might be a necessity. In a documentary edition, it would likely be inappropriate. In a historic site presentation guide like those that Emily crafts, it would probably be more academic than helpful, depending on the anticipated interest level of the site visitors. One thing is certain–engaging the historical dialogue by responding to secondary sources will immediately date a work. Some (like Dan Feller) have even argued that it introduces an unnecessary finality to the usefulness of a publication.

    Apologies for the length.

    Comment by Alex — January 29, 2010 @ 11:15 am

  16. Those are some important thoughts, Alex. In the sciences (my graduate training) journals frequently publish review articles, which go through at update the state of a given topic and cite all the work. These are great resources to not only get up to speed (I’ve thought something like that for Mormon Studies could be helpful), but also to cite when introducing a topic. We don’t really have that option, though. That said, in scholarly studies, I tend to want authors to point to previous work and at least briefly explain why the new study is relevant (the older studies were insufficient, or flawed, or whatever). This need not overwhelm the piece, shouldn’t really need to go beyond a couple of sentences in most cases. While it may date it, I think it is nevertheless important.

    I think your work is extremely particular in its intent and function. And certainly communications outside standard scholarly discourse, like historic sights guides, have less need to engage in historiographic debates.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 29, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

  17. J.,

    I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed with anything you’ve written, so I’ll be good and quiet now.

    Regards as ever.

    Comment by Alex — January 29, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

  18. A little in support of seconardy reviews of history. When two drivers crash in an intersection,they may not be the best source as to what happened. Maybe an independent witness has a better, more complete prospective. Perhaps the police officer will get it even more correct(?)

    Comment by Bob — January 30, 2010 @ 1:26 am


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