20th Century Mormon History: August at JI

By August 1, 2013

“Seventy years ago this Church was organized with six members. We commenced, so to speak, as an infant’. We advanced into boyhood, and still we undoubtedly made some mistakes, which did not generally arise from a design to make them, but from a lack of experience. Yet as we advanced the experience of the past materially assisted us to avoid such mistakes as we had made in our boyhood. But now we are pretty well along to manhood; we are seventy years of age, and one would imagine that after a man had lived through his infancy, through his boyhood, and on until he had arrived at the age of seventy years, he would be able, through his long experience, to do a great many things that seemed impossible and in fact were impossible for him to do in his boyhood state. While we congratulate ourselves in this direction, There are many things for us to do yet.[1]”


Lorenzo Snow’s words to Latter-day Saints at the opening of the 20th century are telling. Snow had lived through Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, the trek west, and the presidencies of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and many of the most important events of the first seventy years of the LDS Church. He had known Joseph Smith as an adult, walked with him in Zion’s Camp, and helped settle and colonize Utah. Lorenzo Snow had as much right as anyone to create this narrative of the Mormon past: it had been born, felt its growing pains, and was entering maturity.

When thinking about 20th century Mormon History, Snow’s timeline provides a useful paradigm for understanding the progress of the field. The books in Mormon History that are most acclaimed and enjoy broader readership within the Academy (as well as the number of books in general) are largely rooted in the years 1830-1900, including Rough Stone Rolling, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet and The Mormon Question, and Refiner’s Fire. Mormon Studies journals are filled with articles on plural marriage, theocracy, economic systems, and the peculiarities of 19th Century Mormonism. Events of the 20th century are being highlighted more often in the past few years, but articles on the first seventy years of Mormonism far outstrip the events of the proceeding 113.

This isn’t surprising. Mormonism presents an interesting case study for the birth and maturity of a global religion. 19th Century Mormonism offers the study of the effects of charismatic leaders, how religious groups coalesce, and how burgeoning religious movements and their peculiar practices are portrayed in the public eye. Many of these items of interest hold value in academic conversation as well as in explaining Mormonism to the faithful.

Furthermore, in the study of 19th century Mormonism there are primary sources available. The study of 20th Century Mormonism suffers from the dearth of available sources. For every set of papers that are available (James E. Talmage, J. Reuben Clark, David O. McKay) there are a dozen that aren’t (Joseph F. Smith, Heber J. Grant, John A. Widtsoe, and Bruce R. McConkie’s papers come immediately to mind). This lack of sources makes it much more difficult to tell the “full” story of an event, or even to gain insight into how certain events happened or came to happen. This decision is institutional, though not unusual, in light of governmental and corporate policies that prohibit documents from being “de-classified” for a set number of years.

In spite of these difficulties, works such as Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity, the most acclaimed book on 20th Century Mormon History show the promise that 20th Century of Mormon History holds. Greg Prince’s David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, Ed Kimball’s biographies of Spencer W. Kimball, the J. Reuben Clark biographies, and Michael Quinn’s Mormon Hierarchy series provide invaluable insight to Mormon leaders.  Marti Bradley’s Pedestals and Podiums and Beecher, Cannon’s Women of Covenant and Anderson’s Sisters in Spirit have furthered the study of Mormon women beyond their participation in plural marriage. Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount, Mauss’s Angel and the Beehive and Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition have also given insight to Mormon History in the 20th Century. Some have been able to gain the trust of Church archivists, have received the papers required for their work as a gift, relied on oral histories, or relied on social, cultural, or environmental histories to alleviate the necessity of institutional records. In many cases, phenomenal work has been done without the primary material that may have added depth to already cogent analysis and argument.[1]

20th Century Mormonism has picked up steam in recent years: including forthcoming biographies of James E. Talmage, Joseph F. Smith, and Ezra Taft Benson, studies on the “Mormon Jesus,” and the public image of Mormonism in the 20th Century.[2] This month at JI, we will focus our posts on 20th Century Mormonism. In doing so, we hope to not only highlight the excellent scholarship that has been done on the 20th Century, but to call attention to areas that could be further developed in Mormon History.  We hope through our posts and the posts of guest-bloggers, to add to the contributions of 20th Century Mormon Historians and to spark further discussion on what can be done to further the study of Mormonism in the 20th Century.

What are some 20th Century topics that you would like to read more about? Any particular decades, leaders, or movements that deserve more attention? I would like to see greater study of the global(izing) Church as it expanded from the United States, studies in the development of Mormon political conservatism, and perhaps studies on the lived religion of the Latter-day Saints. As Mormon History “grows up,” to borrow Lorenzo Snow’s term, the study of Mormonism should continue and expand their embrace of the 20th century Church and its people.


[1] These studies could have only benefited with more material to draw upon for analysis and argument.

[2] Spencer Fluhman, our very own Steve Taysom, Patrick Mason, John Turner, and J.B. Haws, respectively are working or are soon releasing their work on these topics.

Article filed under Announcements and Events Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism


  1. J., I’d love to see someone tackle the rise of conservative political thought/activism in the LDS Church during the 1960s. (Nudge, nudge.)

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 1, 2013 @ 9:52 am

  2. I think you mean The Mormon Question in the second text paragraph.

    Comment by Benchmark Books — August 1, 2013 @ 9:59 am

  3. Gary: We’ll see how everything comes together…I would love to explore it myself.

    Benchmark: Thanks! It’s the peril of writing a blog post while registering for classes; it’s been changed.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 1, 2013 @ 10:23 am

  4. I’m interested in the 20th century experience of the polygamist “hangers on” — those members of the LDS church who were already in officially sanctioned plural marriages *prior* to the Manifestos, but who lived on and on into the 20th century. I’m interested in the lived religion of these people, as well as how the post-Manifesto generations/the younger generations dealt with them.

    Comment by Hunter — August 1, 2013 @ 10:59 am

  5. Don’t overlook the periodical literature, such as Dialogue and JMH, especially if you want to cover “the globalizing Church.”

    Comment by Armand L. Mauss — August 1, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

  6. Great introductory post. I agree that much work needs to occur on the lived experiences of members of the church. While the church might take a significant amount of time to release documents, individuals are often much freer with their memories and papers. One thing that would help significantly would be the digitization of the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune through the 20th century. Another would be a policy at the Church History Library to release documents after a certain amount of time like they do at the National Archives. I also wanted to point historians toward the Arrington Papers up at USU as a potential source for 20th century historians.

    Comment by Joel — August 1, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

  7. Sounds like another great month at the JI! I think the study of collective memory has great potential to illuminate twentieth-century Mormonism. Flake asked the key question in The Politics of Religious Identity: As the Mormonism experienced great change at the turn of the twentieth century, how did the church-as-institution and the church-as-members come to see continuity in their past? She of course argues that the declining significance of polygamy was coupled with an increasing emphasis on the First Vision and Joseph Smith’s birthplace. Similar examinations into memory could illuminate how Mormons have dealt with their racial, gendered, theocratic, and other pasts.

    Comment by David G. — August 1, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

  8. I have seen physical evidence of D&C 20th.cen.polygamy in N.Y.State…P.S.I remember in scripture that it said there will be a time when ten women will take hold of one man and desire to wed with him,I wonder if it`s this day and age…PPS. I am (LDS).PPPS.I don`t know what the ratio is in the U.S., or the World for That matter of men to women:

    Comment by Donald D. — August 3, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

  9. Great intro to the monthly theme, Joey. I think we have some great things in store!

    Comment by Nate R. — August 3, 2013 @ 3:49 pm


Recent Comments

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks for this. I think about this book all the time and I'm always glad to have a refresher on its contents and arguments.”

Tyler on Guest Post - Mormonism: “Thank you, all, for your help and support!”

J. Stapley on A Quick Note: Historicizing: “Here is the YM org chart from 1967, which doesn't include a YM's presidency, so perhaps that dating of the presidencies to the mid 1970s…”

Mees Tielens on The Mechanics of Applying: “Just a gentle tip that if you are one of the interdisciplinary folks presenting at MHA your panel will probably not be well attended, but…”

Ardis on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J. My memory isn't perfect, but so far as it extends I don't recall ever seeing such a comprehensive and easy-to-follow explainer of the…”

J Stuart on 2019 Book of Mormon: “Eccles Conference Center, Rooms 201 and 205. I don't have any further information and their website doesn't seem to be updated.”