Guest Request: Needed: A Good Intro to Mormonism

By March 31, 2008

John Turner, assistant professor of history at the University of South Alabama and contributing editor at the Religion and American History blog, asked me to post the following for him. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

I’m currently designing a course on the American West in the 19th Century. I’m going to divide the course into several units, one of which will be Utah and Mormonism.

I’m struggling to select a book that would provide an engaging introduction to Mormonism for my students.  In all likelihood, none of them will be Latter-day Saints, many will simultaneously have negative conceptions of Mormonism and know almost nothing about it, and most cannot handle books that are too analytically complex or obscure.

I would love to assign some of the books on early Mormonism that I like, such as Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith (too long and at times too complex) or Terryl Givens on the Book of Mormon.

I’m hoping that some of you Juvenile Instructor bloggers and readers can provide some suggestions.  What is a good introduction to Mormonism for college students?  It need not provide a comprehensive history of the church but needs to be accessible and interesting.

I should also mention here that John is currently working on research examining the influence of Methodism on the religiosity of Brigham Young. His initial research (“Nothing But Morals”: Brigham Young, Frontier Methodism, and Early Mormon Conversions) was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History. I’ve read portions of his research thus far, and it promises to be an excellent and important contribution to the literature on Brigham Young.  In addition, John’s first book was recently published by the University of North Carolina Press (2008).  Entitled Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America, it’s a fascinating journey into the world of 20th-century evangelical parachurch organizations.


  1. I understand that one of the most frequently used introductory texts to Mormonism is Arrington and Bitton’s Mormon Experience. I don’t think it’s too complex, and by omitting some of the later chapters on the 20th century experience, it might not be too long. I’ve flipped through David Bigler’s Forgotten Kingdom and I think it’s been well largely well reviewed. It might make for a useful introductory text for Mormonism in Utah/the west. I think it would fit the “useful”, “interesting”, and “engaging” criterion.

    Leo Lyman has a good review in the Journal of Mormon History 26:1 (Spring 2000) showing the weaknesses and strengths of the book. He concludes that it’s well done and had it ended with the Civil War it would have been excellent. He further states that the difinitive treatment of this period has yet to be written.

    In addition, Dean May?s Utah: A People?s History is the book that has been used in Utah history classes here at the ?Y?. I haven?t read it, though. When I took the class we read Tom Alexander?s Utah: The Right Place which good, though long and not always the most interesting read. Also, I think it?s out of print now.

    Comment by Jared T — March 31, 2008 @ 10:55 am

  2. Although it’s a bit dated, I still think that Jan Shipps’ Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition is one of the best introductions to Mormon history out there. It’s written from a religious studies perspective, which gives the book a coherent theoretical base. The book covers from the early JS period through the beginning of the 20th century and the transition away from polygamy. I also like it because it transcends the artificial barriers that have been erected around 1847 and 1890. And it’s fairly short.

    Arrington and Bitton’s book, that Jared mentions, is also excellent, although it too is a bit old. Their book takes a more topical approach in a rough chronological structure.

    I wouldn’t recommend Bigler’s book for this setting, although it is really the only history that covers the whole period from 1847-1896. For one, it has the potential to reinforce the negative stereotypes that the students may already have of Mormons. Not that Bigler is aggressively anti-Mormon, but he has an agenda to portray federal officials as white hats and Mormons as black hats, an agenda that he feels, perhaps correctly, is needed to compensate for the plethora of histories written by Latter-day Saints.

    Unfortunately, unlike work done on Mormonism’s place(s) in American religious history by Laurence Moore, Jon Butler, and Nathan Hatch, we do not have much that looks at Mormonism in the West that addresses current scholarly questions in academe.

    Other candidates:

    Klaus Hansen’s Mormonism and the American Experience

    Eric Eliason’s Mormons and Mormonism

    Comment by David G. — March 31, 2008 @ 11:27 am

  3. Jan Shipps’s Mormonism is a very good intro to both 19th century Mormonism and Mormonism in general (Louis Midgely’s thoughts notwithstanding). Douglas Davies has a book called Introduction to Mormonism but it’s not exactly introductory; it’s a bit technical and doesn’t cover early Mormonism in depth. Jan Riess does a good job as a generalist with her Mormonism for Dummies but again the focus is not quite on 19th century history. Givens’s Paradox is a good survey of 19th century and contemporary Mormon culture, but not history or historiography per se. Bushman’s RSR may be a little complex as an intro, but his Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism is not. I took a class here at Claremont Graduate University from Armand Mauss titled “Mormons and the American West: History, Sociology, Culture” which included most of the above titles plus a great smattering of Dialogue,Journal of Mormon History, and BYU Studies articles. Mr. Turner would benefit from contacting Armand and talking it over with him.

    Comment by Jacob — March 31, 2008 @ 11:28 am

  4. Jared T beat me to it — Arrington and Bitton is the best there is. It was intended for a non-Mormon audience so doesn’t take it for granted that its readers are familiar or sympathetic with anything Mormon. It also has the virtue of allowing a pair of Mormon scholars to define Mormonism, rather the cynical voice of an unsympathetic outsider like Bigler whose volume will reinforce the professor’s student’s negative conceptions.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 31, 2008 @ 11:30 am

  5. I second David’s suggestions, especially Shipps’ volume. Eliason’s volume is a good suggestion, too. It’s a collection of essays written by different authors, which might be either good or bad for your purposes, John.

    In addition, you might want to look at Bushman’s recent Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction . I haven’t read it, but imagine it would meet your general criteria.

    Comment by Christopher — March 31, 2008 @ 11:32 am

  6. The topic of what book to use when teaching Mormonism came up at the SBL/AAR panel in November, “Teaching Mormon Studies: Theory, Topics, and Texts” (about a fifth of the way down.)

    According to my notes, one uses Mormonism for Dummies, another Mormon America “if forced to choose only one text.” My notes weren’t that extensive, but I’m sure the participants (Maffly-Kipp, Riess, Schmaltz, Birch, Taysom, Simpson) would offer and discuss suggestions if contacted.

    Comment by Nitsav — March 31, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

  7. I would just echo the suggestions of Arrington and Bitton, Shipps, and especially Eliason. I feel that Eliason’s compilation is greatly underappreciated.

    Comment by Ben — March 31, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

  8. Definitely Shipps and Eliason, I had forgotten about both of them.

    Comment by Jared T — March 31, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

  9. It does occur to me that if this is a class on the American West, that it would be good to look at Mormons in the West, which most of the introductory works mentioned above do not. There are two recent books that look at Mormonism in the West, but are not introductory in nature.

    Paul Reeve’s Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes examines contacts and interactions between the three groups mentioned in the subtitle in southern Utah from the 1860s to about 1900. It’s an excellent work that is theoretically adept and that is well-grounded in western historiography.

    The other work is Todd Kerstetter’s God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land, a comparative study of Mormons, Lakota at Wounded Knee, and Branch Dividians. The premise of his work is that the West is normally imagined as a place of pluralism and refuge for divergent religious groups, but by examining the three most glaring exceptions to this image, Kerstetter is able to show a more nuanced vision of religious toleration in the West.

    Comment by David G. — March 31, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

  10. I’ve long felt that Marvin Hill’s Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism is one of the more under-appreciated books out there on Mormon history.

    Comment by Chris — March 31, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

  11. The Arrington and Bitton book is unfortunately a bit dated. Particularly the first chapter, on Joseph Smith.

    Comment by Chris — March 31, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

  12. Chris: I also feel that Hill’s book is also pretty outdated, because it presents a more extremist history of the saints that most historians have moved away from.

    Comment by Ben — March 31, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  13. Thanks for the many good suggestions. I’ll investigate!

    I should have mentioned both Shipps’s Mormonism and Reeve’s Making Space as among the books I like. I know the analysis in Shipps is too complex (the religious studies terminology would be lost) for my students.

    I might try Arrington and Bitton, at least select portions of it, and mix in a few articles. I might also investigate the new Bushman text mentioned above.

    It’s ironic — there has been such a tremendous wealth of great books written in the field of Mormon History over the past 25 years, but it is still hard to select something for an undergraduate classroom.

    Comment by John Turner — March 31, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

  14. Glad the blog could be of some help, John. You really should check out Eliason’s volume, too.

    Comment by Christopher — March 31, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

  15. John, I second the suggestion to contact Bushman, Shipps and Mauss directly. I think each of them would be more than willing to give you personal input.

    Comment by Ray — March 31, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

  16. I think Remini’s biography would be very useful for undergraduates. It’s steeped in good general history, is sympathetic but external, a breezy read, and is short.

    Comment by smb — March 31, 2008 @ 4:50 pm

  17. Givens also has a recent general introduction to Mormonism out which is a bit apologetic but seems readable overall.

    Comment by smb — March 31, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

  18. I have had some success with Building the Kingdom: A History of Mormons in America by Richard and Claudia Bushman. It’s part of a series of short, accessible books on religion in America published by Oxford.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 31, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

  19. Nobody has mentioned Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses, which keeps the focus on the 19th century (at least for two-thirds of the book) and doesn’t get bogged down in religous terminology or analysis.

    Shipp’s Sojourner in the Promised Land, a collection of essays and articles, should also offer two or three articles of interest. The one about integrating Mormon History into Western History would be especially useful, I think.

    Comment by Dave — March 31, 2008 @ 7:19 pm

  20. >>I also feel that Hill?s book is also pretty outdated, because it presents a more extremist history of the saints that most historians have moved away from.

    What do you mean by “extremist”? I’ll admit to being a partisan of contextualism, if that’s what you’re getting at. My biased opinion is that in order to understand the origins of Mormonism, one really needs to read both Quest for Refuge and Democratization of American Christianity. Plus, Quest for Refuge is available for free online, so you save your students money! While the book unquestionably has deficiencies, i think it remains the best and probably the only book of its kind.

    Philip Barlow’s book on Mormons and the Bible might also function will in an undergrad classroom setting, though that one also has some noteworthy deficiencies.

    Comment by Chris — March 31, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  21. Chris: I would agree that this was an important book on early Mormonism; few books are based on so many primary documents. Plus, if it is free online, then there is no excuse not to read it! I just feel that it tries to paint the church as a little too counter-cultural, but that is all up to interpretation.

    Just out of curiosity, what problems do you find in Barlow’s work?

    Comment by Ben — March 31, 2008 @ 10:18 pm

  22. Mostly minor quibbles. For example, he argues that in 1822 Smith was familiar enough with Malachi 4 to notice that Moroni quoted it differently from how it reads in the KJV. But the evidence is pretty clear that these changes were made retroactively when Smith penned the account years later. On page 23 he suggests that Smith did not understand his revelations to be verbally inspired. His evidence for this is that Smith freely altered his own revelations. But there is some pretty clear evidence that Smith claimed his revelations were verbally inspired; I think Barlow ignores this evidence because he is bound by his assumption that Joseph made retroactive changes in good faith. On page 30 he follows Sidney Sperry in the argument that the Book of Mormon’s use of Isaiah 2:16 reflects ancient Bible manuscripts, but I think it’s safe to say this has been debunked. On page 37 I think he misinterprets Brigham Young in support of the view that Joseph may have “expanded” texts as he translated them. Anyway, nothing really major, so “noteworthy deficiencies” was probably the wrong phrase. It’s certainly important, and well-done enough to recommend for the classroom setting.

    By the way, if my paper proposal for SLC Sunstone gets accepted, I’ll be presenting a paper called “Joseph Smith in Hermeneutical Crisis.” Shameless plug. 🙂

    Comment by Chris — March 31, 2008 @ 11:15 pm

  23. Thanks again to all respondents. I need to read or review several texts before making a choice.

    I had an experience this week that reminded me how difficult it is to teach Mormonism to unfamiliar undergraduate students (I’m sure there are a whole host of different difficulties teaching LDS students).

    I gave a lecture moving quickly from the origins of the church through the Utah War and Mountain Meadows Massacre. I started with Mountain Meadows to get their attention (I can hear many of you groaning). Then I got down to the business of explaining how this could have taken place, including Haun’s Mill, Joseph Smith’s murder, and the Utah War.

    I require my students to write several questions related to their weekly reading (i.e., points of curiosity or clarification). I read through the questions yesterday. They included the following: How could the Mormons have murdered 120 pioneers? Were all Mormons like that? Do the Mormons still practice polygamy?

    It reinforced my desire to find a good, fair introduction to the topic to avoid false conclusions and overturn preconceptions!

    Comment by John Turner — April 2, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

  24. I would recommend Building the Kingdom: A History of Mormons in America by Claudia and Richard Bushman. It’s an inexpensive, brief primer on the Church.

    Comment by BHodges — April 3, 2008 @ 9:15 am

  25. I think Mr. Turner’s task, given the nature of the course he is trying to craft, is to find a book that best explains Mormonism’s emergence IN the American West and its relationship TO the West as well as to the eastern power centers that gave shape to what we today call “the West.” How does Mormonism’s isolation from eastern learning centers affect the development of its culture? How does Mormonism’s modernization temper its regional (and radical) qualities as it sought accommodation with national mores and sensibilities? I think the right book is a kind of Mormon “Angle of Repose,” except written by a historian.

    On my view, the books that best answers such questions are of recent vintage: Givens’s “People of Parodox,” and Ethan Yorgason’s often overlooked gem, “Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region.”

    Comment by Jed — April 11, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

  26. I’m thinking a quick introduction of Mormonism should probably include a reading of Joseph Smith’s Testimony. It isn’t long, and it allows students to consider exactly what Joseph Smith was teaching.,4945,104-1-3-1,00.html

    Comment by Steve — April 14, 2008 @ 10:28 am


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