Mormon Books in the Wall Street Journal

By January 8, 2012

(cross-posted at Religion in American History)

In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Samuel Brown, professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Utah, friend of the JI, and author of the recently-released In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford University Press, 2012), penned a short annotated list of “the five best” books on Mormonism, which included the following:

  • Grant Hardy, ed., The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • Richard Bushman, Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • Terryl Givens, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Creation of Heresy (Oxford University Press, 1997)
  • Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (University of North Carolina Press, 2004)
  • Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Random House, 2012)

There’s quite a bit to discuss here, I think, and perhaps some to quibble with, too. As I understand it, though, Brown’s list was aimed at the average WSJ reader who might want to consult a book on the subject if (when?) Mitt Romney secures the Republican nomination for President, so we can probably forgive him for leaving off tomes like Richard Bushman’s 500+ pp. biography of Joseph Smith or those volumes focused solely on a specific event or topic in the Latter-day Saint past that sheds little light on the movement today (i.e. those treating the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Mormon trek westward to Utah, etc.).*

Beyond disagreements over whether or not the books listed here are actually the best, here are a few things that stick out to me:

  • All five books are relatively recent publications (Givens’s The Viper on the Hearth being the oldest), with four of the five being published in the last decade. Does this suggest that scholarship has made such significant advances in recent years that earlier classics (Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, Shipps’s Mormonism, or even Brooks’s The Refiner’s Fire)? Or is it simply that these books incorporate and converse with the veritable flood of recent scholarship on the subject and speak more directly to Mormonism’s place in the 21st century?
  • The list includes two general surveys of Mormon history and culture (Bushman’s and Bowman’s), two books dealing with the 19th century (Hardy’s edition of the movement’s founding text and Givens’s examination of early anti-Mormon literature), and only one focused on something that occurred in the 20th century (Flake’s splendid treatment of the controversy surrounding the seating of Mormon Apostle Reed Smoot in the U.S. Senate, and it should be pointed out that this episode occurred in the first decade of the century and speaks as much to Mormonism’s 19th century legacy of polygamy and avowed outsiderism as it does to its 20th century trajectory). It’s no secret (and a continually-voiced frustration among those invested in the field) that Mormon history has focused (like American religious history more generally) on the decades and centuries prior to the 20th century, and Brown’s list reflects that observation. It should be noted, though, that Bushman’s and (especially) Bowman’s (who studies 20th century American religion) books offer insightful and provocative interpretations of Mormonism’s more recent past, and that there are several recently-published and forthcoming books treating various aspects of that history as well. This list may well be more evenly balanced between time periods if written even 3 or 4 years from now.
  • All five authors whose books are included on the list are, in fact, Mormons. There is many ways to interpret that observation, and I’m not sure entirely how to account for it. It brings to mind, of course, ongoing debates among historians of Mormonism (and of course, scholars of religion more generally) about the perils and promises of being an outwardly religious individual and studying religion–debates that are, at long last, finally coming into conversation with one another. But it also raises important questions about the recent boon in Mormon studies more generally. With endowed chairs at several secular universities and an ever-increasing (in terms of quality and quantity) outpouring of scholarship on the subject, Brown’s list made me reflect on whether or not there are enough scholars outside the Mormon tradition studying the Latter-day Saint past to help Mormon studies become something more than a perpetual conversation among believers. The answer, I think (hope?), is that there are–our own John Turner‘s forthcoming biography of Brigham Young will very likely be given serious consideration on any such future lists, Laurie Maffly-Kipp has authored an introduction to another edition of the Book of Mormon, and several young scholars and graduate students outside the Mormon tradition are currently conducting fascinating research on many aspects of Mormonism’s past.

____________________________

*Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity is the notable exception, but the event it focuses on speaks so directly to the ongoing concerns over Mitt Romney’s Mormonism today that it would be hard to not include given the list’s parameters.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Great thoughts. I was surprised to see Barringer’s The Mormon Question left off the list. It tops my list as one of the best books of Mormon history. There’s also a surprising lack of work on women in this list.

    Comment by Amanda HK — January 8, 2012 @ 10:41 pm

  2. Good call on Gordon, Amanda. I meant to include her book (and her continuing) research on Mormonism but it skipped my mind at the moment I wrote this. And I agree with your critique of the lack of work on women. I wonder, though, what book(s) on Mormon women you would include and which book(s) it/they would replace on the above list.

    Comment by Christopher — January 8, 2012 @ 11:20 pm

  3. That is the thing, Christopher. Considering the audience, and looking at my shelf, I don’t know that we have anything that really fits the bill. Sam did bring up the point that Matt devotes space to women in his volume, but I agree, that this is a lacuna.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 8, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

  4. I saw the WSJ on Saturday and am glad to see this post. I have read the WSJ for many years, but only because DH subscribes to it. He reads the financial and business sections, while I read the book reviews, art, theater, fashion and garden articles. You get the picture. He is an attorney/CPA who deals with many business and tax clients. I too am an attorney (retired) and political science undergraduate (emphasis on political theory.)

    I agree with J. Stapley: consider the audience. These may be the best books for WSJ readers, but not necessarily the best overall. For me Flake’s book is the best–but it’s hard to imagine DH’s clients reading it. (And I haven’t read all five either.)

    So if you have an acquaintance who knows little about Mormonism and would possibly read one book–which one would you suggest?

    Comment by Susan W H — January 9, 2012 @ 2:16 am

  5. Good question, Susan, and I hope others weigh in. I’d suggest one if the two general surveys–Bushman’s is shorter and more concise but Bowman’s is the better of the two, I think, in terms of exploring Mormonism’s complex past in an accessible manner.

    Comment by Christopher — January 9, 2012 @ 8:03 am

  6. Thanks for posting your reflections, Chris, and thanks to Sam for doing the original list. I love these types of lists, because the are meant to invoke discussion as much as anything else.

    My reaction was the same as Amanda’s: I think Gordon’s Mormon Question is, if not the best, then one of the best books on Mormonism. And if we were including Givens, I’d replace Viper on the Hearth with either People of Paradox (which is a good introduction to Church culture beyond the elite) or By the Hand of Mormon, which could replace Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the BoM. (I doubt many would want to read the BoM anyway, no matter how readable the text.) And though Matt’s book is excellent on the twentieth century (and I agree that it is probably the best book to recommend to a WSJ audience because of its scope, depth, and sophistication), I’d want at least one book dedicated to the 20th century–probably Mauss’s Angel and the Beehive.

    Comment by Ben P — January 9, 2012 @ 8:32 am

  7. Christopher, I don’t know which I would suggest… My personal favorite is Avery and Newell’s Mormon Enigma, but something like Mormon Sisters or Sisters in Spirit would provide a more general overview.

    On a side note, does everyone suggest general overviews when people ask them what they might read about Mormonism? When people ask me for book recommendations, I rarely offer a generalized intro. Instead, I suggest the best books I’ve read regardless of how specific they are. It might be a reflection of my own personal taste, though. I hate reading general introductions. In my own field, I would much prefer Carol Karolsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman or Catherine Allgor’s Parlor Politics to broad introductions to the time period. I’ve never actually finished one of those “Very Short Introduction to…” books, in spite of having bought several.

    Comment by Amanda HK — January 9, 2012 @ 10:04 am

  8. I wonder if Greg Prince’s biography of David O. McKay (which, for me, functions more as a refreshing history of the Church during the 1950s and 1960s) doesn’t deserve a place somewhere on such a list. It also acts as a bracing corrective to some prevailing preconceptions about the Church and its members. (I also feel much this same way about Mike Quinn’s biography of J. Reuben Clark.)

    Comment by Gary Bergera — January 9, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  9. Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion. I’m a huge fan of both “An Introduction to Mormonism” and “The Mormon Culture of Salvation” (sorry, can’t seem to get italics to work) by Davies. I would likely recommend the latter to an interested reader before almost anything else.

    Comment by Alex — January 9, 2012 @ 11:11 am

  10. “does everyone suggest general overviews when people ask them what they might read about Mormonism?”

    Not always, no. But given the parameters above, I would, yes.

    Comment by Christopher — January 9, 2012 @ 7:36 pm

  11. Gary, I think Prince’s book is probably the best treatment of 20th century Mormonism available. My guess is that its length factored into its not being included on Sam’s list.

    Alex, I’m interested in what you like so much about Davies book. What makes it your number one choice to recommend to interested readers?

    Comment by Christopher — January 9, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

  12. Thanks, Chris.

    Comment by Jared T — January 9, 2012 @ 8:22 pm


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