Mormonism in a US religious history grad seminar

By December 16, 2009

If you were to design a graduate seminar on American religious history, and you were allowing yourself one book on Mormon history, what would you pick? It should be a work that extensively engages themes from the wider field, not just Mormon studies. (Since I know almost everyone will pick RSR, I’m going to exclude it from our options.)

And for the Westerners [edit: by this I mean western historians] who read the blog, what book [edit: on Mormon history] would you pick for a West seminar?

For the two Steves, would you pick something different for a history seminar v. a religious studies seminar?

Article filed under Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Great question, David, but I’m going to have to be the annoying guy who asks for more clarification: is it a survey course that covers the entire American religious history, or a pre/post Civil War seminar?

    I’m just debating about how specific of a time period my book choice will have to cover.

    Comment by Ben — December 16, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

  2. Fair question, Ben. It also raises a few other questions. I think there’s a strong case to be made that Mormonism should be included in pre-Civil War classes (although I’m sure there are plenty of US rel.history profs who barely mention Mormons). But would Mormonism be important enough to include in a seminar that covered from colonial to the present? What about seminars that cover the post-Civil War period?

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  3. By the Hands of Mormon or People of Paradox by givens

    Or Angel and the Beehive for 20th century religious history.

    Comment by Daniel Ortner — December 16, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

  4. Thanks, Daniel. Good choices. If you had to explain or justify including those works, what would you say?

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

  5. If I had to choose a whole book for a US religious history course, I’d have to limit myself to one that engages Mormonism’s significance in a wider context as it does Mormonism itself. For the early years, I’d probably take a few articles out of the recent Oxford compilation on Joseph Smith (Richard Broadhead’s and Terryl Givens’s come to mind). I also think Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity, though it has some flaws, deals with early Mormonism well enough within its larger culture.

    However, I think the two books that deal with Mormonism’s significance to the broader religious scene come from the post-Civil War period: Sally Gordon’s The Mormon Question and Kathleen Flake’s Politics of American Religious Identity. Both do an excellent job of using Mormon history as a way to explore bigger issues.

    Comment by Ben — December 16, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

  6. Also, if I just wanted to introduce the class to Mormonism in its entirety, Arrington and Bitton’s survey text does a decent job.

    Comment by Ben — December 16, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

  7. You want a monograph, or a book that aims for total coverage? I’d second Flake’s book as a monograph that tells a larger story, or Givens’s People of Paradox (By the Hand of Mormon being more of a literary treatment of the Book of Mormon itself, rather than a history of the people).

    Also, is this specifically religious HISTORY, or a grand tour of American religion? I teach a course on American religious pluralism – sort of “how we got to be so diverse” (which implies and includes history, but isn’t structured like I would a grad seminar on AmRelHist) and if I had room in my course for an approachable book on Mormonism that would help non-M students understand who Mormons are within the American religious landscape, I’d pick Claudia Bushman’s Contemporary Mormonism, or Richard Bushman’s Very Short Introduction.

    Comment by Tona — December 16, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

  8. Thanks, Tona. I’m thinking more in terms of a monograph, rather than a survey. As for the type of class, I’ve left that open, since there are obviously many ways to approach the issue. You’re class sounds awesome. Wish I could take it.

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

  9. Also, you’re looking for advice from westerners on a good book on the West for a seminar on the West? Am I disqualified for not being a westerner? If not – the old chestnut of Virgin Land is still worth reading by grad students. So is Limerick, Legacy of Conquest. Richard White, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own does the service of taking the story of the West into the 20th century, but it’s all over the place – unwieldy, too long, and the writing is deadly dull. How far back do you want to go? Colin Calloway, the Native American West Before Lewis and Clark is one I’d recommend. Are you looking for synthesis or monograph for that seminar also?

    Comment by Tona — December 16, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

  10. Sorry Tona, wasn’t clear. The West question is supposed to be a variant of the first question. What book on Mormonism would you pick for a grad seminar on western history? And no, not being a westerner does not disqualify you–I meant Westerner in terms of readers who study western history, not necessarily those who live in the West. (and I’m not really asking these questions for a real life scenario–this is just for fun to get people talking about books on Mormonism that engage wider discourses)

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

  11. And I suppose another reason for this hypothetical discussion is to get people thinking about why certain books are chosen for grad seminars, while others aren’t. All of us in grad school or those already in teaching positions, who are working on dissertations or books, could benefit from asking these types of questions, imo. What makes a book important enough to be included among 15 or so other works that grad students get to discuss in their training (or conversely, upper division under grad classes that are reading intensive)?

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  12. I hope it’s not too much of a threadjack, David, but I wonder why the standard selection is Rough Stone Rolling. Even though it’s a biography, is it the best book-length treatment we have of Mormonism’s early years and development?

    Comment by Christopher — December 16, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

  13. I like Paul Reeve’s volume for the west.

    Ben mentions the standard go-tos.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 16, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

  14. Also, are there other religious communities who are regularly represented in grad seminars by a biography of their founder?

    Comment by Christopher — December 16, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

  15. I think you ask good questions, Chris. I think Bushman is picked because of 1) who he is–Bancroft winner, Columbia history prof emeritus 2) he engaged important themes in US and religious history 3) the press and 4) its newness.

    What are the alternatives for monographs that deal with the 1820-1847 period? Hill? It’s twenty years old (older than that considering it’s a revised dissertation) and was published by a small independent press. Winn? Over 20 years old. Both of the works deal with themes–pluralism and republicanism–that reflect trends popular in the 1970s, not the 2000s. Underwood, maybe? How popular is millennialism these days in religious history circles?

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

  16. It occurs to me that prior to Bushman, Shipps was the most frequent candidate for inclusion. In terms of addressing themes currently popular in your circles, how do you think Mormonism stacks up? (I guess this opens up another can of worms–do you pick books that are new and hot, which can result in uneven coverage, or works that are classics?)

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

  17. For RS, I’d pick Davies’s Introduction to Mormonism, for history, hmm…. RSR is a little long, but I might pick it.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 16, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

  18. J, agree that Paul’s book is a good choice for a west seminar, since he deals with Indians, miners/mining, and the federal government, all themes that are important in the current disciplinary paradigm. It would be a tough choice between that one and Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount, which also engages Natives, but adds environmental history, landscape, and memory, other important themes. Farmer might actually get the nod, since his book was published by Harvard and won several awards, including the prestigious Parkman prize from the OAH.

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

  19. I also kind of like Hansen’s Mormonism and the American Experience. It’s dated a little screwy but I think it highlights interesting themes and would be fun to talk about.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 16, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  20. Even though I am not very interested in western history, discussions here and elsewhere continue to convince me that I need to read On Zion’s Mount.

    Comment by Ben — December 16, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

  21. Paul Reeve for the West.
    Very Short Intro for Mormonism.
    I agree that for RS/anthro Doug Davies is the way to go.

    Comment by smb — December 16, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

  22. I would probably go with Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition.

    Comment by SC Taysom — December 16, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

  23. Yeah, this has been a fun thing to think about.

    What are the alternatives? Hill? It?s twenty years old (older than that considering its a revised dissertation) and was published by a small independent press.

    You forgot Robert V. Rimini’s book about Joseph Smith… 😉 heh

    I guess this opens up another can of worms?do you pick books that are new and hot, which can result in uneven coverage, or works that are classics?)

    This is the question I was struggling over. I agree with several of the suggestions that have already been listed. (Is a VSI book appropriate for such a seminar? I have enjoyed several of these volumes, but is that the sort of book for a seminar?) I was surprised to see that Arrington’s classic Great Basin Kingdom wasn’t mentioned. I know it has been analyzed in subsequent books and articles quite a bit, maybe that’s why, but it’s still a classic.

    David, maybe you can give me a little more info about how the seminar would be structured and perhaps what the guiding goals would be.

    Comment by BHodges — December 16, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

  24. Blair, I agree using VSI’s for a seminar is a bit of an odd idea. I’ve never been in a monograph-based class where one was assigned. (although for an undergrad class, it would probably fit better)

    On the question of structure and guiding goals, I think it varies from professor to professor. At BYU, it seemed as though the profs were mostly interested in hitting important historiographical debates, organized in a chronological fashion, choosing important representative works for each week. The goal I think was to introduce students to important debates and works, some of which were several decades old. We got even coverage in terms of important topics, but were reading works that were at times seriously dated.

    At TCU, my profs take a bit of a different approach. They normally pick a few classic works, but the majority of books are new, representing recent trends from young scholars. The result is we get exposed to ideas that are hot right now, but the coverage is often uneven and important historiographical topics sometimes get ignored.

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

  25. On the West, I like Reeve’s Making Space on the Western Frontier and Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount, but because of its focus I would probably rely on Mormonism in Transition to get the job done. Although, after analyzing the treatment of religion in survey texts and edited volumes on the West, I have concluded that the transformation narrative predominates coverage of Mormonism in western historiography, so perhaps Mormonism in Transition would only serve to reaffirm what I view as a tired thesis.

    As an aside, nearly every analysis of Utah in western survey texts published during the last half century focuses on the Americanization of Mormonism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but because the topic of Mormonism dominates the discussion of religion in these full-scale histories, these works unwittingly advance the theme of Mormon exceptionalism, at least in the historigraphy. Further, the prominence and consistency of this familiar tale about how Mormonism became more mainstream actually serves to downplay the role of religion in the West, suggesting that not much else by way of religion exists in the region, and implying that even the most religious community declined in religiosity. The topic of Mormonism only seems ubiquitous in the discussion of religion generally, when in fact it often deserves a lengthier and more nuanced analysis than it receives.

    So, if only to change up the discussion, I probably would go with either Reeve or Farmer, though I agree with Steve in that Mormonism and the American Experience would be fun.

    Comment by Jordan W. — December 16, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

  26. Charly.

    Comment by Steve Evans — December 16, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

  27. That’s what you get when you don’t name me as one of the Two Steves.

    Comment by Steve Evans — December 16, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

  28. LOL 3rd Steve.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 16, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  29. Where the Two Steves are gathered, there am I also, glaring at you from a distance, snark at the ready.

    Comment by Steve Evans — December 16, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

  30. I cannot speak from the perspective of a historian, but I think that David is right in #15 about why they would use Rough Stone Rolling. I would add that it might also be because of the historical interest in Joseph Smith that might go beyond an interest in Mormonism.

    It is a good read, though I cannot compare it to other books mentioned above.

    Comment by Chris Henrichsen — December 16, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

  31. Question: How does Arrington’s stuff hold up in this context?

    Comment by Chris Henrichsen — December 16, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

  32. Story of the Latter-day Saints. It’s a little dated now, but I still think it does very well.

    Comment by Bret — December 16, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

  33. Chris H., I think Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom has yet to be replicated. But, it was published in 1958, and a lot of new scholarship on Utah has appeared in the last fifty years. And western history has changed significantly in recent decades, historiographically speaking. His bio of BY will likely be superceded in the next five years (apparently four different historians are working on individual biographies).

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

  34. This is what I assigned my M.A. “Religion in 19th-Century U.S.” course on Mormonism this past fall. I chose the two mountain meadows books, not because they are the best entry point to Mormonism for the uninitiated, but because they are good reads and I wanted students to learn how to critically examine evidence presented by secondary sources. Partly because the MMM subject matter necessarily skews one’s initial impression of Mormonism, I assigned the primary sources. After that, I was looking for provocative and influential and brief interpretations of Mormonism. I gave myself the luxury of taking multiple weeks on the topic.

    Joseph Smith, ed., Dean Jessee, “First Vision”

    Laurie Maffly-Kipp, BOM, “Introduction” and “Note on the Text”

    Book of Mormon Excerpts (title page, 1 Nephi, chs. 1, 18; 2 Nephi, ch. 29; 3 Nephi, chs. 1, 11-15; 4 Nephi, ch. 1; Moroni, chs. 9-10 )

    Joseph Smith, ed. Stan Larson, “King Follett Discourse”

    Nathan Hatch, Democratization of American Christianity, chapter two and pp. 113-122

    R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders, chapter one (“How to Become a People: The Mormon Scenario”)

    John L. Brooke, “Preface” (xiii-xvii) and “Secret Combinations and Slippery Treasures in the Land of Zarahemla”

    Walker, et al., Massacre at Mountain Meadows

    Bagley, Blood of the Prophets

    Comment by John Turner — December 16, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

  35. My pick would be a book I’d bet few on this list has ever read: David L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896.

    But please, Jan Shipps? As a friend of mine, now a senior archivist at the LDS history library, commented during one of the Great Expert’s pontifications at MHA back in 1992–on how LDS missions weren’t about converting people, they were a right of passage for young men–“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

    I’m always surprised at how little most Mormons know about the American West–I mean outside of Utah Valley. If you’re going to recommend a book, it’s nice to get the title right:

    Colin Gordon Calloway. One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

    Will Bagley

    Comment by Will Bagley — December 19, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

  36. I think you would lose that bet. Many of us have read Bigler’s book; it’s exclusion isn’t out of ignorance. Shipps’ observation about the ritual role of missions in the life of LDS is based on a well-accepted sociological theory of investment. But, in the face of an anonymous, whispered, “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about” I think that entire branch of sociology may have been blown out of the water. How can any theory stand up in the face of such trenchant criticism?

    Comment by SC Taysom — December 19, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

  37. That’s funny, Mr. Bagley. I’ve heard more than just a few hushed whispers that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Comment by Patrick — December 19, 2009 @ 6:50 pm

  38. “on how LDS missions weren?t about converting people, they were a right of passage for young men” (in #35)

    Is that to mean that this is not common knowledge. I am so often confused. Anyways, this might point to Shipps understanding the culture better than those who are too close to it.

    Comment by Chris Henrichsen — December 20, 2009 @ 12:15 pm


Recent Comments

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”

Ben S on CFP at BYU Studies:: “Some clarifying comments here.”