In January, JI got an email asking for a post highlighting the “essential” books to understanding the history of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints/Community of Christ. We reached out to David Howlett, author of The Kirtland Temple: The Biography of a Shared Mormon Sacred Space (University of Illinois Press, 2014), and visiting assistant professor at Skidmore College. David’s book is well worth your time, and I urge you all to read it. He graciously provided us with a list of five essential books for any readers interested in RLDS/Community of Christ history.
Five Essential Books on RLDS/Community of Christ History:
The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now called Community of Christ), the second-largest church to emerge from Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century church, is an understudied religious group. Yet, to say that a group is understudied is not the same as providing justification for studying it. Larger questions that frame a group or topic’s significance need to be addressed for its study to be justified. And, of course, significance is dependent on the communities who ask the questions, the purposes they have for asking them, and the assumptions they carry about meaningful questions in the first place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a scholar who studies the Community of Christ and a seventh-generation member whose great-great-great-great grandparents lived a few blocks away from Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, I think that the church in the present and the past offers a wealth of possible entry points into significant, wide-ranging academic questions. And, while the church may be understudied, scholars have already offered excellent beginning points for future synthetic monographs.
Assuming that readers of this blog have both academic historical questions they want answered while some may also have questions framed primarily by their religious communities, I’ve put together a list of what I consider to be five “essential” books on RLDS/Community of Christ history (read “essential” as a cypher for “I needed to limit my list somehow”). The following works engage topics like race, gender, sexuality, globalization, and the church’s genesis. As such, they analyze categories of difference relevant to larger academic discussions. And, they also may indirectly engage questions of religious identity relevant for individuals in most Restoration tradition churches. I’ve not included any articles in what follows, but I have appended a few paragraphs after my five essential books that briefly mention other books or booklets that may be of interest. And, you won’t believe the books that I list next! These works may change everything you think about the RLDS church! So, take the irresistible click bait offered by the last two sentences and read on.
Roger Launius, Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet (University of Illinois Press, 1988) Launius’s work is the most important book for understanding the nineteenth-century RLDS church. Well-written and accessible, Launius’s text addresses the major controversies and problems faced by Joseph Smith III as the leader of the RLDS church from 1860 to 1914. In Launius’s account, we learn how Joseph III initially welded together the fragments of other Midwestern Mormon groups into his Reorganized church; dealt with major doctrinal controversies left over from his father’s generation, such as baptism for the dead and teachings about a plurality of Gods; politicked against polygamy in Utah and in Washington D.C.; and grew a small sect of no more than 300 members into an organization of more than 74,000 members in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and Oceania. Beyond the more traditional biographical arc of following the story of a life, Launius’s book situates Joseph III by appealing to Weber’s classic framework for understanding leadership in an organization—rational grounds, traditional grounds, and charismatic grounds. Joseph Smith III, he argues, was a traditional leader, routinizing the charismatic vision of his father, Joseph Smith Jr. Thus, Launius attempts to show how Joseph Smith III serves an important case study in the routinization of charisma, not just an interesting personality in Mormon history.
Matthew Bolton, Apostle of the Poor: The Life and Work of Missionary and Humanitarian Charles D. Neff (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2005)—More than a just a biography, Matthew Bolton uses RLDS Apostle Charles Neff’s life to illustrate the post-WWII transformations in the RLDS church. Bolton addresses topics such as theological reform advocated in leadership seminars that Bolton calls “the RLDS Vatican II”; international expansion of the RLDS church through a missionary strategy of “indigenization” into Africa, Asia, and the Carribbean (a strategy with profound consequences for the contemporary Community of Christ); and the simmering progressive/traditionalist controversies that arose in the RLDS church over gender roles, scripture, and church authority. Apostle of the Poor is a revision of Bolton’s undergraduate thesis, but it is unlike any undergraduate thesis that I have ever read. Today, Bolton is an assistant professor of political science at Pace University in New York City. His book displays the intellectual abilities he would later use to study global politics.
Roger D. Launius, Invisible Saints: A History of Black Americans in the Reorganized Church (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1988). Launius has two purposes with this study. Firstly, he narrates the changing institutional policies towards African Americans in the Reorganized church from inclusion in the priesthood in 1865 to segregated congregations in the early 20th century to church policies reacting to the Civil Right Movement in the 1960s. Secondly, Launius narrate some of the historical experiences of African Americans within a largely white church, following the stories of individuals like George Graves, the first African American RLDS “appointee” missionary (a church employee) in the American South in the 1880s, and Amy Robbins, an early twentieth-century African American convert in Michigan. While Launius wrote his book to spark further research by scholars, little has been written on the topic since, and his work remains an indispensable source for understanding the African American experience in the Reorganized church.
Danny L. Jorgensen and Joni Wilson, eds., Herstories: Ten Autobiographical Narratives of RLDS Women (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2013). This work is a foray into rethinking historical narratives in the Reorganization that have been dominated by institutional histories of privileged men while women have been largely peripheral. Jorgensen frames the volume in a useful introduction that reviews scholarly literature on RLDS women and situates the present work within a larger gender studies perspective. Then, the editors present ten oral histories of mostly twentieth-century RLDS women, followed by a concluding section summing up the sources by Linda King Newell. Jorgensen and Wilson’s volume serves as both a primary source book and a work that offers a beginning point for new scholarly research on RLDS herstories.
William D. Russell, Homosexual Saints: The Community of Christ Experience (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2008). This volume offers 24 narratives by GLBTQ Community of Christ members or by their family members. Many of these stories reveal the struggles of GLBTQ individuals with various forms of exclusion in a largely heteronormative church and culture. Russell provides a helpful introductory essay about changing church policies and attitudes toward GLBTQ members since 1954 and D. Michael Quinn writes a preface to the volume. Five years after the publication of Russell’s volume, the Community of Christ in the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia authorized priesthood to perform same sex marriages and full GLBTQ inclusion in all priesthood offices.
If you want a very quick overview of Community of Christ history that can be read in one sitting, see a book that I wrote with two very talented co-authors, John Hamer and Barbara Walden: Community of Christ: An Illustrated History (Herald Publishing House, 2010). Longer overviews can be found in Richard Howard’s The Church through the Years: The Reorganization Comes of Age, 1860-1992 (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1993) and Mark Scherer’s The Journey of a People: The Era of the Reorganization, 1844-1946 (Independence, Missouri: Community of Christ Seminary Press, 2013).
There are several excellent academic biographies of church leaders beyond Launius’s Joseph Smith III, most notably Val Avery’s biography of David H. Smith, From Mission to Madness: The Last Son of the Mormon Prophet (University of Illinois Press, 1998) and Larry Hunt’s two-volume work on the RLDS church’s Progressive-era prophet, F.M. Smith: Saint as Reformer (Herald Publishing House, 1981).
Finally, specific regional histories of the Community of Christ history outside of North America have largely yet to be written, but a starting point for French Polynesia is a now dated study by F. Edward Butterworth, French Polynesia: Roots of the Reorganization (Herald Publishing House, 1977). I’ve written a very short history of the church in India that will soon be published by Community of Christ in India. So much more still remains to be written about the global Community of Christ! It’s that story, analyzed with a generous dose of cultural theory, that I hope the present generation of scholars will write.
 W. Grant McMurray, “A ‘Goodly Heritage’ in a Time of Transformation: History and Identity in Community of Christ,” Journal of Mormon History 30.1 (2004): 58-74.