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Book and Journal Reviews

Book Review: Colvin and Brooks, Decolonizing Mormonism: Approaching a Postcolonial Zion

By September 9, 2019


Gina Colvin and Joanna Brooks provide an important intervention into the field of Mormon studies with their edited volume of essays by thirteen scholars. The authors in Decolonizing Mormonism show the power dynamics that become visible by looking at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through a global lens. By viewing Mormonism from the margins, these scholars argue, it is possible to see the colonial history and structures within the LDS tradition. Colvin and Brooks are not just interested in producing scholarship to observe these dynamics. They also call for change, saying that the metropole needs to listen to these voices forgotten both by the institutional church and by Mormon studies scholars. These authors argue that the margins provide the answers to decolonize both the church and scholarship and bring Zion into existence. This is not just an historical text. The intent of this book is to challenge the stories often reflected in Mormon history, arguing that scholars can no longer be complacent in the continued narratives of colonization.

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Book Review: Jake Johnson, MORMONS, MUSICAL THEATER, AND BELONGING IN AMERICA (Illinois, 2019)

By August 15, 2019


Once I wrote this sentence: “The musical Saturday’s Warrior might well be the most influential theological text within the church since Bruce R. McConkie’s strikingly assertive 1958 Mormon Doctrine.” At the time I stared at the line on my computer and then deleted them. It felt like the claim needed more unpacking that I was in a position to do at the moment. Thankfully, Jake Johnson has stepped forward to do that work. Here is a creative and often insightful reading of Mormon popular culture, a topic that certainly deserves this sort of attention.

Johnson’s argument is that musical theater has been particularly influential within the LDS church for two reasons.

First, Mormons embrace what Johnson calls a “theology of voice.” The spoken word is particularly influential among church members, he claims, because of the church’s emphasis upon prophecy. “Mormonism’s loquacious God,” says Johnson, delegates the power of his voice. (14) This phenomenon, which Mormon theologians have called “divine investiture,” dates back as far as Joseph Smith’s First Vision, in which God appointed Jesus to speak for him, and Jesus in turn made Joseph Smith a prophet. Smith then delegated that power to other authoritative figures. Though Johnson does not unpack this unfolding of prophecy as thoroughly as he might, this ecclesiology of delegation and appointment is for him preeminently an act of speech. Authority is expressed through echoing the language and even verbal style (that is, the voice) of those in authority, as David Knowlton has observed of the vocal patterns of the LDS testimony meeting.

This is, I think, a smart argument, and in an odd way I think it reveals the faith’s rootedness in American Protestantism, whose reliance on Scripture is always in an uneasy embrace with the verbal word of the preacher. Protestants produced innumerable manuals of preaching produced in nineteenth century America, and the ways in which they sought to reconcile the authority of the written word with the mass appeal of the verbal word are strikingly similar to the tensions of authority Johnson sees within Joseph Smith’s nascent movement. For instance, Johnson cites the famous minister Henry Ward Beecher, who dismissed the theater as “garish” and “buffoonery.” (58) But of course, Beecher was famous precisely for his skill in preaching, his theatrical, imposing presence behind the pulpit, and he had many ideas about the relationship between scripture, verbalization, and truth (most tending toward the liberal).

Johnson traces this impulse toward speech and investiture through Mormon history, spending much of his time with the famous “transfiguration” of Brigham Young in August 1844, at which Young, speaking to the gathered and confused faithful in the wake of the assassination of Joseph Smith, was said to have taken on the image and voice of Smith. For Johnson, this was an act of mimicry. Young was, as Johnson notes, known for love of acting and the theater, and Johnson believes he consciously took on Smith’s voice and affect in an attempt to demonstrate his loyalty and take on the mantle of the fallen prophet.

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Review: Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America

By July 31, 2019


Military chaplains are tasked with leading worship, teaching the faithful, and burying the dead, among other things. In her book, Ronit Stahl lays out a broad narrative that argues that the military chaplaincy was responsible for much more than the souls of soldiers; chaplains may have a distinct mandate of spiritual care, but the chaplaincy itself was involved in a much bigger project: that of reflecting and shaping modern American responses to religious pluralism, issues of race and gender, and the separation of church and state. As America changed and the hegemony of Protestantism waned, the chaplaincy underwent changes too. In eight chapters and an epilogue, Stahl demonstrates the shift in demographics and public life that took the chaplaincy from a generically Protestant institution to a tri-faith model accommodating Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, to the situation today where 221 faiths are recognized in one form or another.

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Review: Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith

By July 29, 2019


Juvenile Instructor is grateful for a JI-emeritus writer, Brett Dowdle, for writing this review! Dr. Dowdle is a historian for the Joseph Smith Papers Project and holds a Ph.D. in American History from Texas Christian University.

Review, Thomas G. Alexander, Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Image result for Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith

            Despite its immense popularity, few genres of historical writing are more complex than that of biography. Those figures who tend to merit the kind of biographies that will be widely read generally carry with them a host of popular perceptions and myths that either border on demonization or hagiographic adoration. In most cases, the best biographies must ultimately find someplace in the muddy middle, displaying the complexity and humanity of the subject. Thomas Alexander’s recent biography of Brigham Young does an admirable job of finding just such a place for the controversial leader. The result is a highly readable and fast-paced biography that is approachable to both trained historians and the interested public.

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Roundtable on Quincy Newell’s *Your Sister in the Gospel*: The Appeal of Messiness

By June 26, 2019


This is the third post in a roundtable on Quincy D. Newell’s Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2019). Find the first and second here

Newell knows the value of a good story, but she is also wary of the simplistic historical messages that such stories send. Newell is critical of the scholars of religious history who tell only the liberatory story of Biddy Mason*, an African American woman who sued and won her freedom in a California court, and not that of Jane Manning James who repeatedly and unsuccessfully petitioned white male church leaders to receive her temple endowments. Newell critiques this absence in the historiographical record but she is also wary of the narratives that do get told about Jane. In the post-1978 era, after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lifted the temple and priesthood ban on its black members, historians and members alike have searched for racial diversity in the Church’s beginnings. They have resurrected Jane’s story because it highlights this diversity and, more importantly, because it shows her close interactions with the movement’s founder, Joseph Smith. Newell is, however, also unsatisfied with these narratives. She writes:

as a scholar of American religious history, I often find these popular representations of Jane James deeply discomfiting. The stereotypes of blackness, the “traditional” constructions of femininity, and the selective presentations of fact that they employ make me squirm. They flatten Jane’s experience, tidying up the messiness of her life. (4) 

Newell’s book therefore serves as a counter to this easy narrative about Jane. It is the anecdote to excluding Jane from the historical record and to over-simplifying Jane. 

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Mormon Studies in Unexpected Places, Volume IV: The Infinite Future

By February 13, 2019


This is the fourth installment in an ongoing but terribly irregular series dedicated to the appearance of Mormon Studies in popular media, including musical lyrics, popular television shows, movies, and so forth. Previous installments can be read here, here, and here.

Okay, the appearance of Mormon Studies isn’t entirely unexpected in a novel written by a Latter-day Saint author who graduated from BYU and whose books deal with explicitly Mormon themes and revolve around LDS characters. Indeed, it was the mention of “an excommunicated Mormon historian in Salt Lake City” among the characters featured in the description of Tim Wirkus’s 2018 novel, The Infinite Future, that sparked my interest enough to read a book about the search for the obscure Brazilian author of a mysterious science fiction book (that may or may not possess mystical powers).

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Sister Saints: Pain, Feminism, and Anti-Feminism

By January 16, 2019


Anne Braude once wrote, “American women’s history is American religious history.” The quote, to me, it meant that historians must listen to women, tell their stories, and understand the gendered contexts in which they lived. Women’s history is more than recovering voices. It is telling a more complete history.

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Sister Saints: Sources and Women’s Voices

By January 15, 2019


The Juvenile Instructor is conducting a roundtable this month on Colleen McDannell’s Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy, recently published by Oxford University Press. Follow along here at the blog as contributors explore different themes within McDannell’s book.

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Book Review: Lincoln Mullen–The Chance of Salvation

By December 14, 2018


Lincoln A. Mullen, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017).

In The Chance of Salvation, Lincoln Mullen argues that nineteenth-century religious conversion fundamentally changed American religion. Conversion, Mullen argues, made religion a forced choice for Americans rather than ethnically inherited tradition. Mullen’s conversion history is a creative study that should change both American Religious History and provoke Mormon historians to further analyze early Mormon conversion. Moreover, Mullen peppers The Chance of Salvation with mini-biographies of converts and clear prose. The Chance of Salvation should stand as an important piece of scholarship, and a pleasure to read.

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Review: Stone, William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet (Signature 2018)

By October 15, 2018


Christopher James Blythe is a Research Associate in Book of Mormon Studies at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. He is a documentary editor/historian for Joseph Smith Papers: Documents, Vols. 7, 9, and 12. Blythe is also the Associate Editor of the Journal of Mormon History.

Daniel Stone’s William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet is a biography of a significant nineteenth century Latter Day Saint “prophet, seer, and revelator.” It is largely a religious story, as much about the founding of a church, the Church of Jesus Christ, as it is the life of a man. One of Signature Books’ most significant contributions to the field of Mormon Studies has been its publication of scholarship on non-LDS Restoration traditions. Previous examples have included Vickie Cleverley Speek’s “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons (2006), Will Shepard and H. Michael Marquardt’s Lost Apostles: Forgotten Members of Mormonism’s Original Quorum of the Twelve (2014), Richard S. Van Wagoner’s Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (1994), and Victoria D. Burgess’s The Midwife: A Biography of Laurine Ekstrom Kingston (2012). These well-researched studies have added to our knowledge of fascinating but (unfortunately) obscure communities and individuals. Stone’s volume rightfully belongs on this list and admirably fills out some of the gaps in our collective knowledge. This volume is particularly significant as the first full-length academic study written by a Bickertonite scholar with interested outsiders in mind. It is exciting to see the contingent of Mormon Studies scholars whose numbers largely consist of LDS and Community of Christ scholars (with the occasional Strangite and Fundamentalist) add another unique voice to the conversation.

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