If you haven’t noticed, there have been a plethora of fantastic books on Mormon history in the past few years. This year is no exception, and we have two fabulous and long-awaited books coming out this September, both written by friends of JI.
The first is Spencer Fluhman’s A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press). Fluhman, formerly in BYU’s Religion Department but has since made the move to the history faculty, served as a personal mentor for each of the five founding members of JI, and I think several of us credit him for our interest in academic Mormon history; I can remember many of us excitedly passing around digital copies of his dissertation on which this book is based. His several articles that have led to the book are all fascinating and sophisticated–including one that earned MHA’s best article award–so we can be assured that the book will be tremendous. Here is the book’s synopsis:
Though the U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion, it does not specify what counts as a religion. From its founding in the 1830s, Mormonism, a homegrown American faith, drew thousands of converts but far more critics. In A Peculiar People, J. Spencer Fluhman offers a comprehensive history of anti-Mormon thought and the associated passionate debates about religious authenticity in nineteenth-century America. He argues that understanding anti-Mormonism provides critical insight into the American psyche because Mormonism became a potent symbol around which ideas about religion and the state took shape.
Fluhman documents how Mormonism was defamed, with attacks often aimed at polygamy, and shows how the new faith supplied a social enemy for a public agitated by the popular press and wracked with social and economic instability. Taking the story to the turn of the century, Fluhman demonstrates how Mormonism’s own transformations, the result of both choice and outside force, sapped the strength of the worst anti-Mormon vitriol, triggering the acceptance of Utah into the Union in 1896 and also paving the way for the dramatic, yet still grudging, acceptance of Mormonism as an American religion.
The second book is John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Belknap Press of Harvard UP). Turner currently teaches at University of South Alabama but will soon take up his new position at George Mason University, and is a close friend of many JIers. As a monument of his dedication to the book, he has uprooted his small family to move to Provo every summer for the past few years, and the resulting book is a testament to his dedication: it is well-researched, engagingly written, and surprisingly balanced. He is also a very engaging personality: I invited him to guest lecture to my BYU students last summer, and they sang his praises for several weeks. He is also a killer tennis player. Here’s the book’s blurb:
Brigham Young was a rough-hewn craftsman from New York whose impoverished and obscure life was electrified by the Mormon faith. He trudged around the United States and England to gain converts for Mormonism, spoke in spiritual tongues, married more than fifty women, and eventually transformed a barren desert into his vision of the Kingdom of God. While previous accounts of his life have been distorted by hagiography or polemical exposé, John Turner provides a fully realized portrait of a colossal figure in American religion, politics, and westward expansion.
After the 1844 murder of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Young gathered those Latter-day Saints who would follow him and led them over the Rocky Mountains. In Utah, he styled himself after the patriarchs, judges, and prophets of ancient Israel. As charismatic as he was autocratic, he was viewed by his followers as an indispensable protector and by his opponents as a theocratic, treasonous heretic.
Under his fiery tutelage, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints defended plural marriage, restricted the place of African Americans within the church, fought the U.S. Army in 1857, and obstructed federal efforts to prosecute perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. At the same time, Young?s tenacity and faith brought tens of thousands of Mormons to the American West, imbued their everyday lives with sacred purpose, and sustained his church against adversity. Turner reveals the complexity of this spiritual prophet, whose commitment made a deep imprint on his church and the American Mountain West.
To add to the excitement, though the books are slated for September, I’ve been told that both may be available as early as August. Leave a spot open on your night stand.