Best LDS Biographies

By July 21, 2010

For my nightly and Sunday reading, I’ve recently decided to read academic biographies of Latter-day Saints. I’ve now finished Ron Walker’s Qualities That Count: Heber J. Grant as Businessman, Missionary, and Apostle, Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses, Brooks’ John D. Lee: Zealot, Pioneer, Builder, Scapegoat, Scott R. Christensen’s Sagwitch: Shoshone Chieftan, Mormon Elder, 1822-1887, and I’m currently working through Allen’s No Toil Nor Labor Fear: The Story of William Clayton. While I’ve enjoyed all of them, I think Allen’s is an extraordinary piece of scholarship, solidly researched and engagingly written. Aside from Bushman and Prince’s bios of JS and DOM, which I assume most JI readers are familiar with, what do y’all think are the “best LDS biographies”? For my purposes, I’m interested in works written by academic historians that are both well researched and written, rather than more devotional examples like George Q. Cannon’s JS bio.

Article filed under Biography Historiography Polls/Surveys


  1. Great question, David. I’ll have to check out Allen’s bio of Clayton.

    I really enjoyed Edward Kimball’s bios of his father.

    I also enjoyed Quinn’s bio of Clark; however, like much of Quinn’s work, it was often too tangential and was at times bogged down by trying do cover every single document that had any relation to the subject.

    I’m sure there are a few others I’m forgetting, too.

    There should be some great biographies coming up in the next few years, including the two on Brigham Young, Tom Alexander on the St. George Stake president, and Grow/Givens’ bio of P Pratt.

    Comment by Ben — July 21, 2010 @ 9:38 am

  2. Nice post, David. I like Allen’s Clayton biography, too. I’m struggling to think of what other quality bios there are besides the ones you’ve named. I am looking forward to the forthcoming BY bios as well as Givens and Grow’s PPP bio.

    It seems to me that a gaping hole in Mormon historiography is biographies of rank-and-file Latter-day Saints whose lives shed light on previously ignored aspects of the Mormon experience–from those located in peripheral regions of the church throughout its history to racial and ethnic minorities who traveled west with the Saints. I’ve recently read biographies of this sort treating racial minorities in other religious groups (Sparks’s Two Princes of Calabar, Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival, and Greer’s Mohawk Saint), each of which works with very limited first-hand primary source material for each of their respected figures and utilizes an ethnographic approach to both narrate the individual’s life and the larger experience of African Methodists/Afro-Moravians/American Indian Catholics. I would think a similar effort focusing on someone like Elijah Abel or Jane Manning James could be quite fascinating.

    Comment by Christopher — July 21, 2010 @ 9:51 am

  3. I left my computer for a few minutes before returning to finish my comment, and I see that Ben noted the BY and Pratt biographies as well. And good call, Ben, on the Clark and Kimball bios.

    And re-reading your post now, David, I admit to not being familiar with Christensen?s Sagwitch biography. Perhaps it fits the sort of model I describe in my initial comment?

    Comment by Christopher — July 21, 2010 @ 9:53 am

  4. Thanks, Ben. I’ve only poked around in Quinn’s Clark bio, but it’s on my list to read fully. I agree it’s like most of Quinn’s stuff in terms of excellent research and at times tedious writing.

    Chris, I think that Christensen’s Sagwitch is the closest thing we have to what you’re talking about. It’s well researched and nicely written, but doesn’t really try to tackle bigger issues concerning race in Mormon history. The Four Zinas I think does a much better job at using the lives of one family of women to explore changing gender norms during Mormon history.

    Comment by David G. — July 21, 2010 @ 9:58 am

  5. The Kimball bios are exemplary.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — July 21, 2010 @ 10:31 am

  6. Besides those already mentioned, I’m really looking forward to Jill’s Eliza bio and Lavina’s Lucy bio. I’d like to hear more about Staker’s Emma bio.

    The fairly recent bio’s of George Watt and William Smart are interesting. The latter is maybe not as narrative, but his diary is so awesome that it adds a lot of flavor. Madsen’s Emmeline Wells bio is probably worth checking out. Though hard to come by Hartley’s bio of John Lowe Butler is very interesting. In the same category, but not as good in my opinion, is Cook’s bio of Joseph C. Kingsbury.

    Though I haven’t read it, I understand that Bitton’s bio of GQC is pretty good. Also on my to-read list is the JSIII bio,

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 21, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  7. I run a website that has lists of LDS biographies by category. Navigation is on the left (it’s so small, many people miss it).

    While not a life treatment, Adventures of a Church Historian is an outstanding piece of work, IMO. I have also very much enjoyed:

    – Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff by Thomas Alexander
    – David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince
    – Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life by Boyd Peterson

    Come to think of it, the MHA Best Biography Award winners might be a good place to find books that will interest you. I have a complete listing here:

    Comment by Bret — July 21, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  8. …I should have added Polly’s Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector, as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 21, 2010 @ 10:57 am

  9. …and I am also looking forward to Todd Compton’s forthcoming bio of Jacob Hamblin.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 21, 2010 @ 10:58 am

  10. I had forgotten about Alexander’s bio of Woodruff. That was the first academic book on Mormonism I’ve read, so it is especially important in my eyes. A very well-written bio.

    J: What’s this about Staker’s bio of Emma? I haven’t heard anything on that.

    Building off of Chris’s #2, I recently read Gordon-Reed’s Hemingses of Monticello which has likewise opened up my eyes to new ways of doing biographies of little-documented figures. Great stuff.

    Comment by Ben — July 21, 2010 @ 11:01 am

  11. Another great example of a (non-Mormon) multi-generational biographical study is Claudio Saunt’s Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family, which traces an Afro-Creek family from the South to Indian Territory and into the twentieth century. In a very brutal and eye-opening way, Saunt shows how racism is not just a white problem, as some Creeks adopted the white supremacist ideologies of their southern white neighbors. In this family, Saunt shows how those Creeks with some white ancestry came to forget and exclude their cousins who had black ancestry from the family and denied their “Creek-ness,” which is a timely subject given the ongoing debates over whether Afro-Indians should be allowed to claim citizenship within Native Nations.

    Comment by David G. — July 21, 2010 @ 11:13 am

  12. Ben, I don’t know much about it at all. He announced that he was working on it at the Women’s History Breakfast in Independence.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 21, 2010 @ 11:13 am

  13. While Alexander’s Woodruff bio is my all-time favorite, I also enjoyed:
    .Orson Pratt/Brett England
    .Sidney Rigdon/Richard Van Wagoner
    .Hugh B. Brown/Ed Firmage
    .James Strang/Vickie Speer

    Comment by larryco_ — July 21, 2010 @ 11:37 am

  14. David, I literally just bought Saunt’s book on Amazon for my readings course on gender and family in the early modern Atlantic world this fall, and then clicked back over here and saw your #11. It looks fascinating–can’t wait to read it.

    I’d like to see a family biography of the Whitmers, starting several generations back, tracing the religious genealogy of their German ancestors (a la Brooke) and going into the nineteenth century and John, David, et al’s experience with Mormonism. But that may be because I’ve been reading a lot about German pietistic sects lately and find them utterly fascinating.

    Van Wagoner’s biography of Rigdon is pretty decent. I’d forgotten about it, and I hear good things about Speek’s bio of Strang, though I haven’t read it.

    Comment by Christopher — July 21, 2010 @ 11:57 am

  15. Don’t know if you’d count it, but Arrington’s Autobiography “Adventures of a Church Historian” was amazing.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 21, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  16. This is a fascinating topic, and I’m grateful to all for mentioning worthy biographies.

    If I can pose it without hijacking the discussion, I have a question: does anyone here know whether a biography has been written about Luke S. Johnson? His story fascinates me…

    Comment by SLK in SF — July 21, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

  17. Or, to cast the net a little wider, biographies of any member of the Johnson family? 🙂

    Comment by SLK in SF — July 21, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  18. Re 16, 17: Lost Apostles (John Whitmer Books).

    Comment by Justin — July 21, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

  19. I now recall that I read here earlier this year that Signature Books was planning to publish Lost Apostles. Don’t know.

    Comment by Justin — July 21, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

  20. Chris, that is a cool idea about the Whitmers. Enjoy Saunt. It is a fantastic book, one that affected me both intellectually and emotionally.

    SLK in SF: There are a few scattered articles and book chapters on Luke Johnson, but no full-length study that I’m aware of.

    Comment by David G. — July 21, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  21. According to this, Justin, John Whitmer Books is right:

    Comment by David G. — July 21, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

  22. I second Petersen’s A Consecrated Life. I’ve probably read that one five times. It’s outstanding.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — July 21, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

  23. John Whitmer Books was going to be the publisher of Lost Apostles, but it’s now going to be a Signature title. We need to update the website.

    Comment by John Hamer — July 21, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

  24. @ Justin, David, John: Thanks so much for your quick and helpful replies!

    Comment by SLK in SF — July 21, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

  25. I really liked Launius’s biography of Joseph Smith III (Illinois, 1988). And, I have just begun to read Vicki Speek’s book on the Strangites (God Has Made Us a Kingdom: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons). While it does focus on James Strang, it is also more properly the story of his church, his plural wives, and the aftermath of his assassination. I’m half-way through it, and it is a fun read.

    Another really good biography is Avery’s From Mission to Madness: Last Son of the Mormon Prophet. This is a biography of David H. Smith and Avery really draws in her readers with her poignant tale of faith, mental illness, tragedy, and love. I liked this book so much that I have assigned it to my students in my seminar on Mormonism this fall. I’m using it to talk about religious schism in Mormonism as well as how a family coped with mental illness in a church (and a religion) that fundamentally believed in healing the body.

    Finally, Ron Romig has been working for several years on a biography of John Whitmer, but with his current duties as site director at Kirtland Temple, work on that has been put on hold. (Running a historic site is a lot of work!) When completed, Ron’s book should flesh out a lot more information on the first official church historian in the Restoration movement.

    Comment by David Howlett — July 21, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

  26. I agree with David on Mission to Madness and would even suggest it’s the best Mormon biography I’ve ever read.

    Comment by smb — July 21, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

  27. Thanks, David and Smb for the plug on the David Hyrum Smith bio. I’ve skimmed parts of it before, but on your recommendations I’m going to move it up my list.

    And it looks pretty unanimous that Alexander’s Woodruff bio is a top three contender.

    Comment by David G. — July 21, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

  28. Thanks for the run-down David and for the subsequent comments. I haven’t read it, but didn’t Scottish Shepherd win an award?

    Comment by Jared T. — July 21, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

  29. The hardcover of From Mission to Madness has tripled in price since going out of print. Luckily for me I got a few extra copies while the getting was good 🙂

    Comment by Jared T. — July 21, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

  30. The David Hyrum Smith bio is really well written, I want to add my thumbs up. (Also the Launius Joseph III bio.)

    I just re-read the Andrew Smith biography of John C. Bennett — that’s actually a fascinating and wonderful read, even though it leaves me wanting more.

    Erin Jennings and Connell O’Donnovan are working on a bio of William Smith and all his plural wives (a la In Sacred Loneliness) that promises to be incredible — can’t wait for that.

    Comment by John Hamer — July 22, 2010 @ 1:26 am

  31. Well, it seems the take home message–for me, anyway–is to make an excuse to read the David Hyrum Smith bio and wait excitedly for the exciting forthcoming volumes.

    Comment by Ben — July 22, 2010 @ 2:34 am

  32. Arrington’s biography of Edwin Wooley, From Quaker to Latter-day Saint, is worthy of comment. But perhaps another question along this line: what scholarly biography have you read that leaves you nonetheless wishing for a better, more scholarly and literary treatment? I have been left with that empty feeling a number of times, most recently with Watt’s The Mormon Passage of George D. Watt. A very complicated, significant and little known life that should be dealt with with much better style, depth and understanding. Sometimes the subject matter wants for the talent and the intellect to do it justice.

    Comment by Blaue Blume — July 22, 2010 @ 7:43 am

  33. I had the Clayton bio in my yard sale pile. It is now packed with the keepers.

    Comment by Chris H. — July 22, 2010 @ 11:00 am

  34. I’m really looking forward to the new Pratt bio myself.

    The Four Zinas is a great book. Zina Huntington has long been a hero of mine though so I might be somewhat biased.

    Comment by Clark — July 22, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

  35. Arrington?s biography “From Quaker to Latter-Day Saint: Bishop Edwin D. Woolley” is indeed worthy of comment, since he wrote virtually none of it. As he explained to a biography symposium I attended in 1990 or 91, Rebecca Cornwall (later Batholomew) wrote it (along with Carl Arrington) and Leonard didn’t object when Roland Rich Woolley, the divorce attorney to the Stars who bankrolled the project, insisted only Arrington get credit.

    I’m not complaining: he gave Abner Blackburn the Evans Manuscript Prize, $1,000.

    Comment by Will Bagley — July 22, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

  36. I think the question is not who wrote it, but what are good biographies to read.

    Comment by Chris H. — July 22, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

  37. Total Amateur here, but I didn’t notice a mention to “Mormon Enigma” by Newell and Avery. I quite enjoyed it as a narrative about Mormon beginnings from Emma’s (rather than the usual “Joseph’s”) point of view. Not as footnoted as I would have liked but a great read nonetheless.

    Comment by MormonDeadhead — July 23, 2010 @ 9:16 am

  38. MD (37): I think the lack of mentioning comes as a slip on our part rather than a conscious decision. I agree that Mormon Enigma is a great book and was a significant step in Mormon studies.

    Comment by Ben — July 23, 2010 @ 9:19 am

  39. “what scholarly biography have you read that leaves you nonetheless wishing for a better, more scholarly and literary treatment?”

    such a good question; my answer would be:

    B. H. Roberts/Truman Madsen

    George Q. Cannon/Davis Bitton (this one, in particular, was filled with “facts”, but I never felt like it answered the question of how really powerful Cannon was and how he got that way)

    and a whole slue of “faithful” biographies of presidents of the Church which have great stories for sacrament meeting talks but give little understanding of person and milieu.

    On a personal note, I’m still waiting for someone to nail Nauvoo. Flinders came the closest, but Leonard’s is much like Bitton’s (in my opinion) in
    discussing all the trees and missing the forest.

    Comment by larryco_ — July 23, 2010 @ 5:08 pm


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