Is Mormon History Global History? Mormonism in Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World

By February 17, 2016

k10179One of my very first posts at the Juvenile Instructor (nearly nine years ago!) asked whether Mormon History was American History, surveying the inclusion of Mormonism in two of the most significant treatments of Jacksonian America—Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution and Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American DemocracyA year later, I took a closer look at Daniel Walker Howe’s handling of Mormonism in his (then) recently-published What Hath God Wrought.

Shortly after that, in 2009 German historian Jürgen Osterhammel published Die Verwandlung der Welt. Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts, which was subsequently translated into English and published by Princeton University Press in 2012 as The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. To call Osterhammel’s book ambitious is an understatement — it numbers nearly 1200 pages (over 250 more than Howe’s hefty tome) and is truly global in scope. The author describes it in the book’s preface as “a rich and detailed but structured, nontrivial, and nonschematic account of a crucial period in the history of humanity” (xiii). While many Mormons might consider Joseph Smith’s visions, the publication of the Book of Mormon, and the establishment of the Church of [Jesus] Christ [of Latter-day Saints] in 1830 as among the most important events of that crucial period, I was curious what mention (if any) Mormonism would receive in the book.

To my mild surprise, the index not only included an entry for “Mormonism,” but referenced five separate instances of its inclusion in the book. Reading through each instance, I was intrigued, and imagining that some readers here might be as well, thought I would briefly overview each.

The first mention Mormonism receives come in the book’s second chapter on “Time.” After very briefly summarizing the impact of political revolution and technological innovation on conceptions of time in Europe, Osterhammel asks, “Where else in the nineteenth century do we find the perception that something totally new has irrupted into familiar life cycles and conventional expectations of the future?” And then answers, “Millenarian movements and apocalyptic preachers lived on this effect. They did exist in various regions, from China via North America (among Native Americans as well as white such as the Mormons) to Africa” (75, emphasis added).

Mormonism does not receive another mention for some 450 pages, where, in Chapter 10 (on “Revolutions: From Philadelphia via Nanjing to Saint Petersburg”), it is brought up unexpectedly in a paragraph on the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864):

The charismatic founder of the movement [against the Qing Dynasty], Hong Xiuquan, was a farmer’s son from the far south of China. Having entered a personal crisis after failing an exam in his home province, he experienced visions which, owing to his reading of Christian texts (in Chinese), led away from Chinese traditions. In 1847 he sought instruction from American revivalist preachers in Canton, and his conclusion from all he learned was that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, commanded by God to spread the true faith. Soon there came an additional mandate to liberate China from the Manchus. The Mormon sect in America rose in a similar way, and the idea of an apocalyptic clash between the powers of darkness and fighters for a new world order also existed on the margins of the French Revolution. Uniquely in China, however, the religious awakenings of one individual led within a few years to a gigantic mass movement (548, emphasis added).

Fast-forward another 300 pages to Chapter 18 (“Religion”) for the next mention of Mormonism, a passing reference (alongside several other Christian communities) to the pluralism of late nineteenth-century America and its sense of itself as a Christian nation: “American nationalism had a strongly Christian charge, but this remained supradenominational, unlike the Protestant nationalism that had marked the German Empire even after 1879 and the end of the Kulturmapf against Catholicism. Its core was a vague sense that white America had been chosen to play a key role in the plan of salvation. And it had to be equally congenial to Methodists and Mormons, Baptists and Catholics” (548, emphasis added). [1]

Ten pages later, Osterhammel returns to his earlier passing comparison of Mormonism with the contemporaneous Taiping movement on the other side of the globe. It is, by far, the most extensive consideration of Mormonism in the book:

Other examples of attempts to build a state on religious charisma were the Taiping movement in China and Mormonism in the United States. First appearing on the scene in 1850, the Taiping under their prophet Hong Xiuquan were a social revolutionary movement that constructed a complex worldview out of Protestant missionary propaganda and the traditions of Chinese sects. Their state-building efforts finally came to naught, but the Mormons had greater political success. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as they also call it, was founded in 1830 by an American prophet, Joseph Smith, who, like Hong Xiuquan seven years later, experienced visions as a young man and interpreted them in the sense of a prophetic mission. After Smith was murdered by a hostile mob in 1844, his successor Brigham Young led an adventurous exodus in 1847-48 to the uninhabited Great Salt Lake region, taking several thousand followers with him. Other converts joined them, some from Britain and Scandinavia, and by 1860 some 40,000 Mormons were living in the state of Utah. The Latter-day Saints were not permitted to established a theocratic republic where the people deferred to their inspired leaders. Utah was founded as a territory under the direct control of the US presidency, and from 1857 to 1861 (as it happened, the high point of the Qing government’s war against the Taiping) the Mormon zone was actually under military occupation. If the Taiping doctrine may be understood as an indigenized Christianity, evidently remote from biblical sources, Mormonism was also a version of Christian doctrine adapted to local circumstances, complete with a holy book of its own from its founder. Its characterization as “Christian” is still disputed today. To many people living at the time of its founding, its adoption of polygamous practices made it as alien as an American Islam. But Mormonism answers the question of why the Bible is silent about America. With its bold speculations about westward migration in the age of the Old Testament, it includes the American landscape in the biblical plan of salvation and is thus the most American of all the religions in the United States (895-96).

Putting aside some missteps that might be attributable to translation issues (Utah “uninhabited” in 1847-48? Utah a state in 1860?), I find this all not only generally solid in its particulars, but provocative in its comparison to the Taiping movement, something I know next to nothing about. After moving onto other prophetic movements among Native Americans and in Sudan and Iran, the author again returns briefly to Mormonism, noting that “Along with Mormonism and Indian Sikhism, [Bahai] is one of the few new religious creations to have survived from the nineteenth century” (896).

The final mention of Mormonism comes five pages later, as part of a discussion on the spread of religious ideas around the world:

The new media did the rest to speed up the circulation of religion. One factor in Rome’s role as world capital of Catholicism was that the foreign press began to post correspondents there; the papacy had become newsworthy. The Mormon leader Brigham Young, at once theocratic ruler, sect boss, and businessman, realized which way the wind was blowing and soon had telegraph cables laid all the ways to Utah. Railroad links to Salt Lake City made it harder to keep temptations at bay and easier for the federal army to send in troops, but the farsighted leader of the sect also saw that they would steer Mormons away from extreme navel-gazing tendencies (901).

This post (and the bloggernacle more generally) might very well be evidence that Young’s efforts on that final point were unsuccessful, but let’s proceed with discussing this anyway. What do you think of Osterhammel’s treatment of Mormonism? Is Mormon history global history? And who wants to take up the larger comparative project comparing Mormonism with its Taiping counterpart in China?


[1] I hate to nitpick what is likely little more than a rhetorical move, but it seems fairly obviously wrong to suggest that late 19th century American nationalism needed to be as congenial to Mormons as it did to mainline Protestants or even Catholics. One might also rightly take issue (especially in light of Paul Reeve’s recent book) with the identification of Mormons during this era as “part of white America.”

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Comparative Mormon Studies Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Thanks for this, Chris. Very interesting ideas, especially the parallels between the Taiping movement and Mormonism. I believe that Melissa Inouye has begun exploring this comparison, at least its implications for post-1955 conversions in Hong Kong ( Maybe we could invite her to do a guest post?

    Comment by David G. — February 17, 2016 @ 8:14 am

  2. This is awesome! I actually researched the Taiping revolution for an undergrad class back in 2009. I recognized then some similarities with Mormonism, but this post has made me want to go back to the primary sources and my notes to engage the topic more comprehensively.

    Thank you for advancing the conversation on global Mormonism, Chris!

    Comment by Tod Robbins — February 17, 2016 @ 8:23 am

  3. Thanks, David and Tod.

    I thought of Melissa’s research on China’s True Jesus Church–an early 20c pentecostal movement–while writing this post, David. She’s mentioned to me before some similarities between its emergence and development and the beginnings of Mormonism in 19c America. But I didn’t realize she’d done some work on the Taiping movement and its connections/implications for Mormonism. Fascinating.

    Comment by Christopher — February 17, 2016 @ 8:33 am

  4. Thanks for this, Christopher. Quite the ambitious project.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 17, 2016 @ 10:30 am

  5. Thanks for this, Christopher! Interesting. To answer your question, yes, I think Mormon history is global history, but, crucial point here, perhaps not in the way it is currently being written..

    Comment by Saskia — February 17, 2016 @ 11:38 am

  6. Thanks, Christopher. Really interesting project, and important for understanding nineteenth-century Mormonism in the larger context. But the terrible vastness of the subject inevitably leads to glosses like the ones you mention.

    Comment by WVS — February 17, 2016 @ 12:30 pm

  7. I appreciated this. Thanks for the effort Christopher. I felt Daniel Walker Howe handled the Mormons very well in What Hath God Wrought and his essay in the Oxford Handbook of Mormonism is something I cover a bit in an upcoming review of it due out in the summer.

    Comment by Terry H — February 17, 2016 @ 4:43 pm

  8. Thanks for this, Christopher.

    Comment by Ben P — February 18, 2016 @ 3:12 am

  9. “would steer Mormons away from extreme navel-gazing tendencies”

    Clearly a major failure.

    Comment by Ben S — March 4, 2016 @ 9:30 pm


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