2009 in Retrospect: A Glance at Important Books and Articles from the Last 12 Months

By December 1, 2009

Along with Jared T’s list of recently published and forthcoming book in Mormon history, I thought I would put up my own perspective on the past scholarly year. Not only does this allow me to mention some of the articles that caught my eye in the last twelve months, but it also provides a way to discuss major themes of recent scholarship.

[Note: Since this is going up before the end of the year, there are some works that will be coming out within the next mont that will be overlooked (most notably Mark Staker’s book on Kirtland as well as the new biography of George Watt). It also means that I will dip back into December of last year as part of my 12-month overview. Further, because of my own interests, I am bound to miss out on texts that are most likely of deep significance to other fields in Mormon history—that’s where readers’ comments come in handy.]

The Year of Documentary Sources

  • Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Wordford, and Steven C. Harper, eds., Revelations and Translations, Volume 1: Manuscript Revelation Books, Vol. 1 of the Revelations and Translations series of the Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian?s Press, 2009).
  • Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson, Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry (Provo, Utah and Salt Lake City, Utah: Brigham Young University Press and University of Utah Press, 2009).
  • Royal Skousen, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

I think that when we look back on 2009, what will stand out the most will be the excellent documentary editions that came out that year. The most recent volume from the Joseph Smith Papers folks, which will perhaps be eventually seen as the jewel of the whole project, has received plenty of praise from the bloggernacle, and even from the wider blogger world. The volumes on Eliza Snow and the Book of Mormon should not be overlooked, however, because both are vastly important contributions to Mormon history. I don’t think I could recommend any of these volumes nearly enough. (The recently released 5-volume Discourses of Brigham Young may also end up fitting in this category, but I haven’t been able to look through them yet.)

A Year of Dissent

  • Polly Aird, Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector: A Scottish Immigrant in the American West, 1848-1861 (Norman, OK: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2009).
  • Edward Leo Lyman, Amasa Mason Lyman, Mormon Apostle and Apostate: A Study in Dedication (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2009).

Dissent as a topic of study, anyway. Both volumes from from Aird and Lyman deal with an individual during the early Utah period that, through various issues or experiences, became disillusioned with the Mormon religion. What I most like about these volumes is that they have wholly different examples: Lyman’s is an apostle, while Aird’s is a common British convert.

Voices from the Bloggernacle

  • Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847,? Journal of Mormon History (Summer 2009): 42-87.
  • Nathan B. Oman, ?Preaching in the Court House and Judging in the Temple,? BYU Law Review (2009): 157-224.
  • Matthew Bowman and Samuel Brown, ?The Reverend Buck?s Theological Dictionary and the Struggle to Define American Evangelicalism,? Journal of the Early Republic 29 (Fall 2009): 441?73.
  • Samuel Brown, “William Phelps’s Paracletes, An Early Witness to Joseph Smith’s Divine Anthropology,” International Journal of Mormon Studies 2 (Spring 2009): 62-82.
  • Samuel Brown, “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden,” Church History 78, no. 1 (March 2009): 26-65.
  • Christopher C. Jones, “The Complete Record of the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute,” Mormon Historical Studies 10, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 181-204.
  • Christopher C. Jones and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, “‘John the Revelator’: The Written Revelations of John Taylor,” in Champion of Liberty: John Taylor, edited by Mary Jane Woodger (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2009).
  • Benjamin E. Park, “‘Thou Wast Willing to Lay Down Thy Life for Thy Brethren’: Zion’s Blessings in the Early Church,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal (2009): 27-37.

It’s always fun to hear common bloggernacle voices in print. I’m sure I missed other bloggers, so readers will hopefully fill in the gaps. Speaking of gaps, Stapley and Kris’s work on ritual healing is filling a monumental one in Mormon history, and their work is as meticulously detailed and exhaustively researched as any I’ve seen (just see their opening footnote!). Nate’s article is not only fascinating, but you can tell that every detail and fact is teased out to its logical conclusion and every angle of interpretation considered—as could be expected from a law professor and printed in a law review journal. Matt B and Sam’s article, while not directly focused on Mormonism, is in itself a wonderful contribution to antebellum religious history and the development of an Evangelical identity; they are also working on a companion article that focuses on Buck’s Dictionary and Joseph Smith. Sam’s other work is of special importance to my interests, and he is (rightfully) challenging common understandings of early Mormon thought; if his book manuscript follows the logical build-up from the fantastic articles he’s been producing in the last few years, we are really in for a treat. Chris’s first article, though primarily a documentary piece, still reveals not only his careful research but his scholarly wit (he even gets a jab in at Bill Hamblin in a footnote!). His John Taylor article, written with Holzapfel, is a very informative and important contribution to late 19th-century Mormonism.

Articles that Hint Toward Future Biographies

  • Todd M. Compton, ?Becoming a ?Messenger of Peace?: Jacob Hamblin in Tooele,? Dialogue 42, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 1-29.
  • Todd M. Compton, “The Big Washout: The 1862 Flood in Santa Clara.? Utah Historical Quarterly 77, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 108-125.
  • Gary J. Bergera, ?’This Great Thing Which Has Come to Me a Humble, Weak Farmer Boy?: Ezra Taft Benson?s 1943 Call to the Apostleship.? Mormon Historical Studies 9, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 155-164.
  • Gary J. Bergera, “?Weak-Kneed Republicans and Socialist Democrats?: Ezra Taft Benson as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1953-61, Part 2.? Dialogue 41, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 55-95.
  • Gary J. Bergera, “Ezra Taft Benson’s 1921-23 Mission to England,” Journal of Mormon History (Fall 2009), 85-111.

Both of these authors are veterans of Mormon history, and both have been quite prolific lately on these topics. Compton is currently working on a biography of Jacob Hamblin, and his meticulous research skills assures me at least that it will be an important contribution to Utah history. While I don’t know if Bergera is working on a biography of Benson—he may be working on a larger topic that incorporates Benson, or this may just be a pet topic—he has put out several important texts on the topic that makes me think he might be; and, if he is not writing a biography on Benson, he really should.

Important Stand-Alone Works

  • Matthew J. Grow, Liberty to the Downtrodden: Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
  • Philip Jenkins, ?Letting Go: Understanding Mormon Growth in Africa,? Journal of Mormon History (Spring 2009): 1-26.
  • Zachary R. Jones, ?Conversion amid Conflict: Mormon Proselytizing in Russian Finland, 1861-1914,? Journal of Mormon History (Summer 2009): 1-41.

That Grow’s book was interesting to me, someone who is quasi-allergic to any Utah War-related topics, demonstrates how well-written it is. Not only is it published by a major academic press, but it offers new insightful interpretations of Mormon-gentile relations in the early Utah period. Jenkins’s article, which deals with the cultural tensions of the American Mormonism being spread amongst western Africa, has taken, at least in my own experience, the position of “Article-most-sent-to-friends-and-family-as-well-as-discussed-at-dinner-groups-with-other-Mormons” (or AMSTFAFAWADADGWOM for short); it not only deals with issues central to today’s international church, but it is elegantly and simply written so as to be understood by the casual reader. Zach’s article is significant, in my opinion, in that it helps us turn our attention from traditionally popular narratives toward other international issues of the nineteenth century that deserve our attention. (Reid Neilson would be proud.)

Excellent Essay Collections

  • Reid Neilson and Terryl Givens, ed., Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries (New York: Oxford University Books, 2008).
  • Alexander Baugh, ed., Days Never to Be Forgotten: Oliver Cowdery (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center).

The former volume has already been reviewed on JI by Matt B. It has several prestigious authors, multiple perspectives, and more than a handful of must-read articles when approaching Joseph Smith. If I were to teach a course on Joseph Smith, I would reach for this volume for many of the assigned articles—if not the entire book; it includes enough different approaches to the Mormon prophet as to raise numerous questions and insights. The latter volume, based on a BYU conference focused on Cowdery several years ago, contains several intriguing articles by respected scholars.

The Return of Jill Mulvay Derr

  • Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson, Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry (Provo, Utah and Salt Lake City, Utah: Brigham Young University Press and University of Utah Press, 2009).
  • Jill Mulvay Derr and Matthew J. Grow, ?Letters on Mormon Polygamy and Progeny: Eliza R. Snow and Martin Luther Holbrook, 1866-1869,? BYU Studies 48, no. 2 (2009).
  • Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen, ?Preserving the Record and Memory of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 1842-92,? Journal of Mormon History (Summer 2009): 88-117.

I have yet to read a piece of scholarship from Jill Mulvay Derr that I am not impressed by. Even while serving in numerous administrative positions, she provided important and insightful articles on various topics. Now, fortunately for all of us, she has been freed from the many administrative shackles and has much more freedom for her own scholarship. These three works, each in collaboration with another respected author, are not only excellent texts in their own right, but probably hint at what is to come from her. (Just glance over the notes of her recent presentation here, as well as some of the comments that follow, to get a taste of her brilliance.) Once she finishes her biography on Eliza R. Snow, I have a feeling that we will (finally) come to acknowledge her as not only the preeminent scholar of Mormon women’s history, but one of the premier historians of Mormonism in general.

Introduction of Another Venue for Scholarship

  • Trenton Olsen, “Conflict of Church and State: Two Latter-day Saint Poets? Perspectives on the Utah War of 1857?58,” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies.
  • Joshua Wheatley, “The Prophet-Editor: Joseph Smith?s Revisions to Two Revelations,” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies.
  • Nate Olsen, “Marriage and Divorce in Islamic and Mormon Polygamy: A Legal Comparison,” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies.

This is not merely to praise these articles, though they are interesting, but to praise the new press they were published in. As mentioned elsewhere, Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies is a graduate student-run journal that encourages young scholarship. Being that it is located at Utah State University, as well as the growing importance of religious studies methodologies within Mormon studies, there will likely be much scholarship that at least touches on Mormonism. I look forward to articles in forthcoming issues.

Concluding Notes

  • As we have come to expect, Bill MacKinnon produced several (3, by my count) insightful pieces on Utah War-related topics.
  • John-Charles Duffy had a fascinating two-part series on the debates concerning Book of Mormon historicity. I found them fairly balanced, and they were definitely well researched.
  • Due to the economic problems, we saw a decrease in book production. Not the least significant casualty was Signature Books, who, despite their history of mixed-bag scholarship, has offered many significant volumes in the past. However, even if they had to pause production, they have nevertheless offered a major contribution to Mormon studies by expanding their online library; their website is now, even more than the past, a treasure-trove of online sources.
  • There will be more discussion on this shortly, but the roundtable discussion in the summer issue of Journal of Mormon History is a “can’t-miss.” Titled “What Will We Dow Now that New Mormon History is Old,” 10 respected and up-coming scholars discuss the future of Mormon history. I thought each entry was thought provoking, and it really gave me hope for what future scholarship will be like.

I’m well aware that I have probably over-looked other important books or articles; not only am I limited in what I read, but I have my definite preferences. I am now interested, however, in what others think are notable works from the last twelve months and what major themes you see in the current field.

One thing is clear, however: the field of Mormon history is definitely thriving, and has a very bright future!

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Methodology, Academic Issues State of the Discipline


  1. Ben, this is great. Thanks. I’m hoping the break in between semesters provides me with some time to catch up on a lot of this.

    Comment by Christopher — December 1, 2009 @ 9:25 am

  2. Thanks for putting this together, Ben.

    Comment by David G. — December 1, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  3. Thanks for the write-up and the kind commentary. I don’t get the JWHA Journal and was unaware that you published your piece on the Zion’s Camp blessings. I have pointed a number of people to your blog posts and will track down your paper now that it is in print.

    I agree with your assessment of Jill. She is one of our best scholars and her ERS bio will be extraordinary. I also agree that Jenkins piece should be required reading for Church leaders especially.

    Also this year we have had Christopher’s thesis, which I haven’t finished yet but am liking. Robin’s thesis is also done, isn’t it? I’ve only seen a chapter of that, but thought it was very important. Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissy was also finished late enough last year that it may count for this year in review. I’m probably missing some more.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 1, 2009 @ 11:07 am

  4. Thanks, David and Chris.

    J, you bring up a good point with the dissertations and theses. I think Rob is putting finishing touches on his as we speak (hopefully he can give us an update), but Mark’s and Chris’s are both must-reads.

    Comment by Ben — December 1, 2009 @ 11:13 am

  5. Yes, I defend my thesis in the next week or so (and am indeed putting on the finishing touches right now). I can also vouch for Chris’s and Mark’s work and can only hope that mine might approach their level of depth and scholarship. Another thesis that finished up December of last year that is a very important contribution is David Grua’s work on memory and persecution.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — December 1, 2009 @ 11:55 am

  6. I love end-of-year lists. And I especially love it when folks in the ‘nacle take the time to provide their opinion on available resources. So, double thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — December 1, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

  7. Ben, thanks for this list. J. I have been meaning to get a summary up of the JWHAJ, I’ll move on that next week.

    Comment by Jared T — December 1, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

  8. Well done on compiling this and the other list of forthcoming studies. Keep up the great work at JI. ZJ

    Comment by Zach Jones — December 1, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

  9. Nice survey, Ben. Like Chris, I’m looking forward to working through much of this.

    Comment by Ryan T — December 1, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

  10. Interesting and helpful survey. I do have serious qualms about one item in the Concluding Notes John Charles Duffy’s two part paper on Mapping Book of Mormon Issues. Sunstone highlighted the reader response to this “map” as “If this is correct, what meaning does my life have?” None of the four people who offered response essays commented on what I saw as the most serious problems with Duffy’s map. It lacked a discussion on cartography, how maps such as Duffy’s are made. It lacked a compass, a means of navigating the territory. And it lacked a legend, a way to make sense of a relativistic environment. These three deficiencies explain why their readers responded the way they did.

    All of the heavy lifting in the article depends on the two metaphors that Duffy offers as interpretive guides to his map. That is, the Stanley Fish story about English students trying to interpret a list of linguist’s names a a poem. If you play around just a little with that metaphor, it’s easy to change the overall cartography a great deal. Because slight variations change so much, comparison also exposes the implications of the his choice. The second metaphor he uses revolves around a subplot of Foucault’s Pendulum, a husband and wife interpreting a fragmentary parchment in unresolvable ways. I notice that Nibely’s discussion of the best method for dealing with ancient documents says that the “closest we can come to certainty is when we have a long historical document,” which means that metaphor that Duffy follows, involving fragment, is really inappropriate.

    Secondly, while he invokes Kuhn and a few of the non-scientific reasons for paradigm debate (social and personal ones), he completely neglects the other far more significant values, such as accuracy of key predictions, comprehensiveness, coherence, fruitfulness, simplicity, aesthetics, and future promise. He does this despite citing a long article of mine on that specific topic (Paradigms Crossed in RBBM 7/2). It happens that neglecting the compass, the stronger values available for paradigm choice, serves the agenda of the article.

    Finally, I’d suggest the Parry Scheme for Cognitive and Ethical Growth as a Legend, a guide for entering relativistic territories.

    I wrote a detailed paper on the topic, but apparently Sunstone would rather have readers saying “If this is correct, what meaning does my life have?” than to publishing something critical of a major effort by one of their favorite authors. And perhaps, they like his not-so mysterious agenda, his argument that if the scholarship issues are unresolvable, why not just make your decisions based on who you want to hang around with.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — December 2, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

  11. Ben — I love end-of-year lists of all kinds. Sometimes they’re nostalgic (favorite posts, memorials to the newly deceased), but I find this one looks forward as much as back. Do you realize how many scholars you have listed who were almost or entirely unknown to Mormon studies five years ago?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 2, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

  12. I don’t know, I thought that the responses to the Duffy articles were absolutely brilliant! Genius even!

    Comment by SC Taysom — December 2, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

  13. Well SC Taysom, Duffy’s essay was promoted as a Map of Mormon Issues, and early readers complained that “if it’s correct, what meaning does my life have?” (Sunstone, Dec 2008, page 62) None of the four respondents called attention to the things that I thought were most important. How are such maps constructed and why is this one constructed in this particular way? Why the choice of this cartographer? As one who has read nearly all the material in Duffy’s bibliography and lived through the period he describes as a participant, I know the territory independently. As as English major and writer, and long time, careful student of Kuhn, my own reading leaves me acutely concious of how Duffy went about constructing the map. I’m not so dazzled by the scenery that I cannot see choices and their implications. As interesting as the four respondents little essays were, they all accepted Duffy’s view at face value, whereas I see it as a flawed construct with an obvious agenda.

    In part 2, page 47 first paragraph, for instance, Duffy says “Paradigms, Kuhn maintains, are embraced or rejected for non-scientific reasons ranging from personal idiosyncracies to social reasons such as reputation or national prestige.” He doesn’t tell you that the support for this statement comes from a single sentence on page 153 of the second edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and that sentence, far from representing Kuhn’s overall view, completely overlooks Kuhn’s detailed discussion of far more important values that guide paradigm choice, values I discussed at length in essays that Duffy lists in his biolography. See my “Paradigms Crossed” essay in RBBM 7/2, for instance. This key representation is thus neither accurate, nor ideologically innocent.

    And look at the story from Professor Fish that Duffy employs as his interpretive key, his paradigm-defining metaphor, showing what historicity debates are most like. Change it slightly. Instead of letting the students interpret the list of names as a poem, “inventing evidence” in support of their socially defined approach, suppose Professor Fish has said, “Is this a Shakespearean sonnet?” Would the students be inventing and concluding in the same way? And are there questions in Book of Mormon studies that resemble this changed situation? (Yes! Thousands!) So could not we liken the new situation to Book of Mormon debates? Can we so then so easily follow Duffy in labeling all the evidence as “invented?” Or suppose that one English student had also taken Linguistics courses, and interupted the misguided invention of evidence for a poetic reading, and said, “Let’s compare the names with Professor Fish’s linguistics syllabus.” What effect would that comparison have on their group committment to reading the names as a poem?

    I can do the same kinds of thing with the “likening” that Duffy takes from Foucault’s Pendulum, the story of the ambiguous fragmentary parchment. He uses the misrepresentation of Kuhn and then his key metaphors to slant everything away from any discussion, definition, or appreciation of the most rational values applied in paradigm choice, those which are not socially constructed, not self-referential, group-defined criteria. I’ve long been fascinated that Alma 32 offers equivalents to Kuhn’s key values for paradigm choice.

    None of the four Sunstone commentators analyzed the cartography and its implications. All the responses, however interesting and thoughtful, take Duffy’s map for granted as given, rather than seeing it as constructed for a specific purpose, by specific methods, toward a specific ideological end.


    Kevin Christensen
    Bethel Park, PA

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — December 3, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

  14. 13: Déjà lu.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 3, 2009 @ 10:42 pm

  15. None of the four respondents called attention to the things that I thought were most important.

    That’s a shame

    Comment by SC Taysom — December 4, 2009 @ 9:11 am

  16. I’m also underwhelmed by Duffy’s work. Kevin may have an odd way of presenting his reservations, but I wouldn’t let his form interfere with his content. There seems to me a dull and uninformative circularity in the style of work that Duffy endorses.

    Comment by smb — December 4, 2009 @ 9:24 am

  17. #12 was meant as a joke (because I was one of the respondents, get it?) Sunstone asked me to respond to what I liked about Duffy’s article and I did it. I had completely forgotten about the entire thing until Kevin brought it up.

    Comment by SC Taysom — December 4, 2009 @ 11:32 am

  18. #17, aha. I’m sure your comments were marvelous.

    Comment by smb — December 4, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

  19. […] love year-in-review lists. Building on last year’s post, this is a retrospective of 2010′s scholarly output in Mormon studies. I hope to add to the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » 2010 in Retrospect: A Glance at some of the Scholarly Books and Articles in Mormon History — December 6, 2010 @ 4:28 am


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