A few months ago I had lunch with Joseph Spencer, a professor of ancient scripture at BYU and author of a number of books on Mormon theology and scripture. Our conversation there led us to what has been formally announced: a new book series, titled Introductions to Mormon Thought, which the University of Illinois Press will be publishing in coming years. Below, a description that Joe and I have worked up.
This series takes as a model Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series. Its purpose is to provide accessible and short introductions to important figures in Latter-day Saint theology, intellectual life, and culture: the men and women who shape how Mormons today think about what Mormonism is.
Each volume will be approximately 40,000 words, and will follow a common structure. An introductory chapter will offer a brief biographical sketch that in addition to providing relevant biographical information will accomplish two things. First, we expect each figure to be positioned both in Mormon intellectual history and in other relevant fields (American Christianity, indigenous history, women’s history, and so on). Second, these chapters should discuss the figure’s influence on Mormonism today.
Following these introductory chapters, three following chapters will focus on major themes in this figure’s thought. Authors will have a great deal of leeway to select the themes which they judge key. Within these chapters we will expect contributors to treat not only each figure’s ideas, but also context, taking seriously the influence that her world, education, and background had upon the course of her thought.
Last, each volume will close with a short chapter introducing readers to the figure’s most important works. We conceive these to be something of a reader’s guide to the figure or a bibliographic essay, summarizing and offering analysis on the figure’s speeches and writings.
Although increasing attention has been given in recent years to Mormon studies, there has not as yet appeared anything like the proposed series. Terryl Givens’s number of books on Mormon intellectual history have laid an important foundation for this project, and full historical biographies of some major LDS figures who will also be covered in this series have begun to appear (see, for instance, Turner, Brigham Young, and Cornwall Madsen, Emmeline B. Wells). Such work has drawn the attention of scholars and laypersons interested in Mormon intellectual history and provided them with the historical resources to understand the lives of influential LDS figures. What is lacking in such work, however, is a focused investigation – presented in a digestible way – of how particular thinkers have directly shaped the Mormon self-understanding. Further, published biographies of influential Mormons have often failed to probe especially the intellectual contributions of such individuals.
Occasional publications over the past few decades have attempted to draw attention to the intellectual contributions of at least some major LDS figures. In the 1990s, Signature Books published a six-volume Classics in Mormon Thought Series, which anthologizes important works from some LDS thinkers. The volumes, however, focus on just a few figures, most of them limited to the nineteenth century, and none of them women. Survey works from more recent years have attempted to synthesize work across the whole of Mormon history – as in Givens’s two-volume Foundations of Mormon Thought–but such works do little either to highlight the specific contributions of LDS thinkers or to provide needed contextualization to make the best sense of each figure’s thought. And again, such works almost systematically overlook the contributions of women to the intellectual shaping of Mormon self-understanding. The proposed series draws from throughout Mormon history – moving right up into the present – and highlights a wider variety of intellectual contributions, from women and from men, from conservative voices and from more progressive voices.
Ultimately, we envision a complete series of between twenty-five and thirty volumes. For the moment, we have identified subjects and authors for the first ten. We envision the first ten volumes as including a range of contributors to the history of Mormon thought—women as well as men, ecclesiastical leaders as well as scholars, figures from the nineteenth century as well as the twentieth, faithful and ex-Mormons, white Mormons and Mormons of color. The same pattern will continue with subsequent volumes, but we have made efforts to open the series with a clear indication of its scope.
We anticipate the first volumes will focus on the following figures (listed in order of historical succession): Brigham Young (Joseph Smith’s successor and colonizer of the Utah area), Eliza R. Snow (poet and leader of the Female Relief Society for decades), Orson Pratt (the most important early thinker on Mormon cosmology and divine anthropology), B.H. Roberts (probably the single most influential Mormon theologian), Emmeline B. Wells (feminist activist, publisher, and major leader of the Female Relief Society), Bruce R. McConkie (systematizer of Mormon ideas and perhaps the most influential shaper of modern Mormon theological conservatism), Hugh Nibley (remarkable scholar and ardent apologist), George P. Lee (interpreter of the Native American Mormon experience), Eugene England (literary scholar, liberal theologian, and the most important Mormon essayist), and Sheri Dew (modern writer and speaker, biographer of church leaders and synthesizer of modern Mormon gender norms).
Beyond the first ten volumes, we are also developing projects on Parley P. Pratt (influential theologian from the earliest generation of Mormonism), James E. Talmage (whose church-sponsored works on Mormon theology remain standards), Susa Young Gates (founder of several church’s women’s organizations), John A. and Leah Widtsoe (thinkers and scientific reformers), J. Reuben Clark (mid-twentieth century institutional reformer), Joseph Fielding Smith (the most prolific twentieth century Mormon theologian), Ezra Taft Benson (conservative Church president who promoted the Book of Mormon), Sonia Johnson (feminist activist), Neal A. Maxwell (influential late 20th century apostle), and Margarito Bautista (the intellectual leader of the Mexican Third Convention movement).
We have a long list of other possible candidates from which to choose further volumes, and envision two to three volumes published a year beginning around 2020. As we get contracts for authors, we will be able to announce who’s writing them—hopefully, the first few will be announced shortly!