(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.