Introducing Ordinary Mormons to Academic Mormon History

By November 7, 2011

Recently, I’ve been think about how ordinary members use church history in their everyday lives. In my limited experience, few members read much church history, especially if it wasn’t published by Deseret Books. I realize this isn’t news to anyone reading this blog, as we’ve discussed in several of Ben’s recent posts why many church members resist more academically-oriented literature if it challenges accepted oral traditions, is seen as unaccessible due to academic prose and/or jargon, among other reasons. But I’ve wondered what more we could be doing to encourage ward members to see the benefits of incorporating more academic history into their busy schedules.

So what do people read? This probably varies by ward and region. I’ve recommended Rough Stone Rolling to several people in my stake. Some have actually bought it and read it; others tell me every time I see them that they keep meaning to buy that book I mentioned (“What was it called again?”). Curious to know more, I asked those who had read it a couple of questions yesterday. First, had they read an academic work on Mormon history before Bushman’s book? The answer was invariably no. What did they like about Bushman’s book? They all liked that it portrayed the prophet in a much more complex fashion than they had seen before, and even though it had some eye-opening parts, they were glad they had read it. Were they more or less likely to read another academic work on church history after having read Bushman? Most said they were more likely to do so, if they had a good recommendation. So I recommended Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon. This last issue was a recurring theme in the answers I received. Most people who I talked with like to read, but they don’t know where to find academically-oriented church history books that they can “trust.”

So, what do y’all think? Have you talked much with members of your wards about their reading habits? Are there better works that I could be recommending other than Rough Stone Rolling? Several people, when I mention the book’s length, have shown some hesitance to commit to such an endeavor. What other books would y’all recommend?

Article filed under Polls/Surveys Scholarship at Church


  1. Most people who I talked with like to read, but they don?t know where to find academically-oriented church history books that they can ?trust.?

    This is also a problem with non-LDS Biblical scholarship. There’s so much of it out there, and lay LDS have no means of evaluating what is reliable and identifying the school or bias it comes out of.

    Comment by Ben S — November 7, 2011 @ 11:41 am

  2. The Davis Bitton book, “Knowing Brother Joseph Again: Perceptions and Perspectives” is a great short introduction to how many saw and understood Joseph. It could be a good bridge for someone who may not yet be ready to jump into Bushman. It’s a great way pointing out (from a faithful source) that there are many different and legitimate lights in which to view Joseph. I wrote a little review of it here.

    Comment by David T — November 7, 2011 @ 11:54 am

  3. Love this line of thought. A relative of mine is a country fellow from SE Idaho. When he found out my line of work, he wanted to know where he could find out the ‘truth’ about the MMM. He just didn’t want ‘crap.’ It heartened me. People want this stuff. They know that JS et al aren’t cartoon characters. They know authenticity when they see it. They just want fair-minded, honest history w/o worrying about whether the author has some agenda to push.

    Comment by Russell — November 7, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

  4. I live in an area with a good university and have frequently seen on the bookshelves of graduate and professional students (outside the liberal arts) books such as RSR, BtHoM, Mountain Meadows, and Prince’s DOM biography. (I have a feeling that some historians might underestimate the ability of well-educated Mormons in law, business, medicine, etc. to consume and comprehend academic history. Of course we don’t get it in the same way a trained historian does, but we can still “get it.”)
    I think the reason that more individuals don’t read these books is (a) education level and (b) interest level. Some people like history more than others and some people are more interested in the church than others. There probably aren’t too many more people in the church reading popular history than there are reading church history.

    Comment by Craig M. — November 7, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  5. Thanks for your comments, all.

    Ben, I’ve had biblical scholarship in mind as I’ve conducted my informal polls, and I definitely agree that there are similar issues at play. How do you go about trying to raise awareness of academic biblical scholarship in your neck of the woods?

    Thanks for the link to your review, David. That does look like a good book that would work well.

    Russell, thanks for sharing that experience.

    Craig, no doubt you are correct that there’s significant interest among the demographics you note and even people reading academic works. In my own stake, there are several med students, some of whom have shown a keen interest in academic Mormon history (although they usually only have time to listen to podcasts, not actually read). And I hope I didn’t give the impression that church members without historical training don’t have the ability “to get” academic history. I was actually trying to make the case for the opposite–that they have the ability and the desire, but often don’t know where to find academic works and just need a little encouragement.

    Comment by David G. — November 7, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

  6. As a recent amateur convert to the enormous value of non-LDS Biblical scholarship, I’ve been very, very selective about introducing bits I’ve read from those sources — “My commentaries tell me that the Greek word translated here as X is the same word used elsewhere to mean Y or Z” — until now my class members don’t cringe at all, although there were some questioning looks earlier in the year. Instead, they now ask to have those bits repeated sometimes, as they make marginal notes.

    I’m a better teacher now than I was two years ago during the Doctrine and Covenants year. I hope that I can teach that class again in the next cycle, and if so I hope to introduce bits of academic history as appropriate as context for the D&C sections that form the devotional message.

    Otherwise, I don’t have a clue how to introduce academic history to church members in general, or even if it’s worth the effort to try. People with an interest will ask for references, if you’ve made it known (and how can you help it?) that academic history is a large part of who you are. Otherwise, it’s like running, or genealogy, or Indian food: Some people are willing to listen to your stories; some people are bored by even that much exposure; very few are actually going to try it themselves. That’s human nature.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 7, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

  7. A post after my own heart, David 🙂

    These are important questions. I’ve been heartened at how open people are to academic literature when it is introduced by someone they trust. I learned that once I’ve proven my commitment to folks–often through teaching sunday school, institute, or just longer discussions–not only are they willing to take my reading suggestions but they are aching to learn more. In Sunday School, I’ll mention books that I’ve found influential in a very positive and enthusiastic manner, and often after class one or two people will come up and ask for more information.

    As for specific sources, I’ve recently (as in the last six months or so) taken a new route. Since there are very few short, important, and imminently readable books that are easy to recommend (Massacre at Mountain Meadows is one, By the Hand of Mormon is another, but we really have a lack of good recommendable books), I’ve gone to recommending articles. Givens’s “Lighting Out of Heaven” is typically the first article I’d recommend, with Bushman’s “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith” also very popular. (The former I’d recommend for theological or intellectual issues, the latter for early Mormonism’s culture in general.) For international church/culture issues, I pass on Philip Jenkins’s “Understanding Mormon Growth in Africa,” and for the priesthood ban I use Ed Kimball’s “Spencer Kimball and the Priesthood Ban.” (Both have only garnered loud praise as a result, with almost everyone I’ve given them to saying the articles were fundamental in their new paradigm of the Church. In fact, I assigned “Kimball and the Priesthood Ban” to my D&C classes over the summer at BYU, and I receive at least one email a week asking for another copy of the article because they’ve misplaced it and really wanted to share it with someone else.)

    I’ve just come to see articles as a much more approachable way to go.

    Another thing to do, and which I am just getting started out here, is start a book group. Patterned after what they do at the “other” Cambridge, we’re calling it “Outstitute.” I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Comment by Ben Park — November 7, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

  8. Thanks, Ardis: I’m glad to hear you’re gradually introducing biblical studies into your SS class. I definitely think it’s worth it to try to expose more people to academic approaches to Mormon history and the Bible, but knowing the best way of doing so is the trick. I’ve found that sometimes just asking them if they’ve ever heard of Bushman (or whatever book that we think they might be interested in) is enough to get them interested.

    Ben, thanks for weighing in. Recommending articles is an interesting idea. On the one hand, they’re usually short (not Kimball though!), but they’re also not very accessible for a lot of people. I guess with the movement toward offering free online pdfs in Mormon journals (Dialogue, BYU Studies, and now JMH) will help in this regard. I’ll have to try out the article approach.

    Comment by David G. — November 7, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

  9. I’ll echo Ben Park’s first comments. Once you establish some bona fides or “faithful” social capital, you can influence people in your local circles.
    I’ve gone so far as to hand out (with plenty of explicit caveats) short annotated bibliographies of recommended sources.

    In Institute, I’ve sent out a weekly email with the books, articles and other sources mentioned in class.

    I often think of D&C 123:12 as applied to books. “For there are many yet [in the Church], who are blinded… and who are only kept from [really good and useful books] because they know not where to find [them]”

    It’s really a question of education and getting the feel of the landscape, as John Welch talks about on p 8-9 of his excellent (and introductory) Toward Becoming a Gospel Scholar. Who are the publishers, what are their biases, learning a few generally reliable scholars, etc.

    Comment by Ben S — November 7, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

  10. I have a lot of PDF copies of articles, and I’ll often say something like “If you want a copy of that, email me.”

    Also, I had to read “Visionary World of Joseph Smith” at BYU for my Book of Mormon class in 1998.

    Comment by Ben S — November 7, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

  11. I like to introduce whatever academic mormon history I know with something like “As Bruce R. McConkie said in his Mortal Messiah series…”

    Seems to help it go down better. Bruce R. McConkie reference is like a spoon full of sugar.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 7, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

  12. Even for people who are interested in academic history but are out of school it’s difficult to keep abreast (raises hand). It’s the same dilemma I’ve found since graduating: The abundance of academic literature on any subject is difficult for an interested layman to unearth and access outside a university setting… I use bloggernacle recommendations to find things to read, along with occasional issue of Dialogue in libraries and used book stores, but beyond that it’s tough to know where to start.

    Comment by Casey — November 7, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

  13. Casey: make sure to check JI every December for our year wrap-up posts!

    Comment by Ben Park — November 7, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

  14. When it comes to OT scholarship, I’d love to recommend A History of Ancient Israel and Judah as a fantastic survey of actual historical information concerning those ancient nations contrasted with how they are presented in the Biblical record…but the beginning parts summarizing and dealing with the severe historic problems of the Genesis-Judges narrative would probably scare people away before they got into the stuff that actually has a degree of correspondence with the Biblical narrative.

    I’m really looking forward for Ben S to write his Understanding Genesis In Context For Dummies LDS Readers.

    No pressure. 😉

    Comment by David T — November 7, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

  15. I think Story of the LD Saints by Allen and Leonard is a good way to start. Ditto Leonard’s Nauvoo. Once they’ve got sea legs, then more advanced material makes sense.

    Comment by smb — November 8, 2011 @ 8:00 am

  16. I’ll echo Ben Park too. Among some people in the Church is the sense that those who study LDS history eventually apostasize. My wife was afraid that would happen when I started getting into it. They shy away from it because they don’t trust it. After a few years of teaching Sunday School and the like, people have started to trust that I won’t stear them in the wrong direction. But I always wait for them to come to me. Not everyone wants to hear about history.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — November 9, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

  17. I base my recommendations on what I feel they are looking for. People have to be looking for something to start on their exploration. You’ve got to understand their goals so you can point them in the appropriate direction.

    For example, one sister approached me and asked for a recommendation but was nervous of reading something “not approved” so I referred her to a book written by a BYU prof and sold at Desert Book. Another time, a church friend asked me how I liked RSR, so I shared with him a tidbit about JS that he hadn’t heard before. I was still interested, so I let him borrow it. He loved it and came back for more, so I gave him Prince’s DOM.

    Another example, I was discussing the Bible with another engineer at work who is also the son of a pastor. In the discussion, I mentioned Ehrman and his critical discussion of Biblical texts and their origins. My coworker was already aware of many of the issues scholars have with the Bible, so I recommended Misquoting Jesus to further explore Ehrman’s (and many other scholars’) views. I wouldn’t have recommended Ehrman if he wasn’t already aware of those issues.

    Comment by jose — November 13, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

  18. I loved Rough Stone Rolling for the very reason David mentions in the OP: Joseph Smith became a real, multi-dimensional character I could relate to. However, By the Hand of Mormon just didn’t do that for me; for that, I turned to (and loved) Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide.

    Ben – do you have a reference for Jenkins’ article? I found the others, but a quick Google scholar search didn’t turn up this one.

    Comment by Ryan — November 18, 2011 @ 10:53 am

  19. Ryan: Philip Jenkins, ?Letting Go: Understanding Mormon Growth in Africa,? Journal of Mormon History (Spring 2009): 1-26.

    Comment by Ben Park — November 18, 2011 @ 12:01 pm


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