Mormonism: Part of a Greater Whole?

By March 18, 2008

As I have been reading massive amounts of books on American History in preparation for my first PhD Comprehensive exam, I have started to ponder about the ways which historians have examined Mormonism as part of larger narrative in American History, Western History, the History of American Religion, or the History of Religion in general. I was reading through Battle Cry of Freedom the other day and was surprised to find that McPherson placed Joseph Smith and Mormonism into his narrative as part of the Western expansion that preceded the Civil War. His coverage isn’t extensive, but he does track the Mormons from New York to Ohio to Missouri and then to Salt Lake City. [1]

Last semester I read Timothy Marr’s The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism which tries to frame American attitudes towards Mormonism in the later 19th century within a tradition of American fascination and disdain of Muslims. To Marr, Mormons represented the American reincarnation of the dreaded Muslim horde with their harems, their gold-ceilinged tabernacles, and their American Mohammed (Joseph Smith/Brigham Young). [2] Some other historians that I can think of off the top of my head that have included Mormonism in greater narratives effectively include Patricia Limerick, Donald Worster, and Nathan Hatch. [3] So my questions for this post are: which historian (it doesn’t have to be one of the ones I’ve already named) has most effectively incorporated the history of Mormons into a larger world, national, or religious narrative? Which historians do you think have really “gotten” Mormons? Why are some effective and others not? I really want to know what everyone else thinks.

[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York:Oxford University Press, 1988), 43-45.

[2] Timothy Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 185-218.

[3] Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1987); Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985); Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This topic has been bounced around here at the JI before (see here and here), and has been discussed elsewhere, too. Thanks for bringing it up again, though, Joel. I think it is an important enough subject to revisit often.

    Stephen Fleming’s article in Mormon Historical Studies is a must-read on this subject.

    Re: which historian has “most effectively” incorporated Mormons into a larger historical narrative, I think Hatch stands out to me. Jon Butler also did a good job in Awash in a Sea of Faith. I am not as concerned with how each scholar interprets Mormonism, as much as I am about whether they are taking Mormonism seriously, as I think Mormonism really does have something to add to discussion of various aspects of American history.

    Comment by Christopher — March 18, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  2. Although it’s important not to ignore Limerick, White, and other western historians that have incorporated Latter-day Saints into wider narratives, I think that they still have a ways to go in comparison to the work of American religious historians. I agree that Butler does a great job, as do Moore and Hatch. The problem that I see with these works though is that none of them, except for Moore, seem to know what to do with the Mormons either before or after 1846. Like 1890, that’s an artificial chronological break that I think needs to be transcended.

    Comment by David G. — March 18, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  3. Christopher,

    I guess the nature of interpretation is important to me because I sat through the seminar where we discussed Marr’s book for quite a while without revealing my Mormon heritage to see what my colleagues might say about his portrayal of Mormons. The funny thing about Marr’s book is that, like Givens Viper in the Hearth, it uses Mormons more as a symbol to understand something about American culture instead of trying to discover historical reality. At some level this approach to Mormonism left my colleagues unsatisfied, but it also reinscribed academic myths about Mormons.

    Comment by Joel — March 18, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

  4. I am also interested in his issue because in my four years of coursework at USU and now at UIUC I can count on one hand the number of monographs that we have read that address Mormonism in any substantial way. Granted I don’t study religion, but in my post and your subsequent comments we have identified all of the books I’ve read in class. I think this demonstrates a bias in the secular historical world against religious studies, but it also means that most historians read few examples about how to incorporate Mormons into a larger story.

    Comment by Joel — March 18, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

  5. Daniel Walker Howe?s fairly recent What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 addresses Mormonism in a significant way. Laurie Maffly-Kipp has a great chapter comparing 19th-century Mormon and Protestant missiology in the Pacific Islands in Practicing Protestants.

    Comment by Christopher — March 18, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

  6. Then there is my apparent mentor-to-be, Todd Kerstetter and his book God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land.

    Comment by David G. — March 18, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

  7. Although you might fight the details, Will Bagley’s series Kingdom in the West is a large scale placement of Mormonism in the wider frame. The series looks at Deseret’s interactions with other western territory, with European travelers, with eastern politics, etc., and publishes documents that are not easily accessible elsewhere. The newest volume, due this week, is part 1 of William P. MacKinnon’s two-volume history of the Utah War, which I know ranges from Washington to St. Petersburg.

    Comment by Anon this time — March 18, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

  8. Good to hear that Bill’s volume is coming out this week. I’ll look for it.

    Comment by David G. — March 18, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

  9. Christopher,

    Have you read Howe’s book? I put it on reserve at the library, but I’m on a waiting list.

    Comment by Justin — March 18, 2008 @ 5:21 pm

  10. Justin, I’ve read most of it, though not in-depth. I recommend it.

    Comment by Christopher — March 18, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

  11. I actually think that Hatch’s treatment of Mormonism isn’t nuanced enough. In my judgment he overplays what he sees as the egalitarian impulse in early Mormonism, especially as it shows up in the Book of Mormon, at the expense of what was a pretty heavy-handed authoritarian streak present from at least 1830.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 18, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

  12. While I agree that Hatch lacks some in nuance, I think that he does recognize that there are strong authoritarian streaks in early Mormonism. I’m thinking specifically of these statements from his intro:

    “It is easy to miss the democratic character of the early republic’s insurgent religious movements…The Mormons reverted to a rule by a single religious prophet and revelator…The rise of popular sovereignty, as Edmund S. Morgan suggests, often has involved insurgent leaders glorifying the many as a way to legitimate their own authority” (9).

    “The Mormons used a virtual religious dictatorship as the means to return power to illiterate men? (11).

    Comment by David G. — March 18, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

  13. Thanks for the quotes David. I guess my issue with his treatment is that his model needs Mormonism to be egalitarian, so it is. He nods at the authoritarian side, but does not grapple with the full implications of it. The strength of the book for me, as with the Butler book which I like more, is that he ranges over so much material and focuses on so many apparently divergent traditions.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 18, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

  14. Per placing Mormonism within its larger context: two old masters come to mind: Bernard DeVoto (in “1846: Year of Decision”) and Wallace Stegner.

    Will Bagley

    Comment by Will Bagley — March 19, 2008 @ 11:33 am

  15. Thanks Anon, for that notice and thanks Will for stopping by. I’ve really enjoyed the Kingdom in the West series. Its authors are to be commended as well as Arthur Clark for publishing it.

    Comment by Jared — March 19, 2008 @ 11:46 am

  16. I just got back from a business trip and I revisited Hatch’s volume on the plane. I think he does an excellent job on the whole and captures some very important elements of Mormonism. His introduction to chapter 4, though, includes some mischaracterization of Smith:

    Campbell and Smith found this emphasis [on enthusiastic revivalism] misguided, Campbell opting for Biblical rationalism, Smith trusting only a new word from heaven. Leland remained an adamant opponent of slavery, a position that Asbury favored but could not enforce. Smith found little room in his kingdom for people of color, even as Richard Allen insisted that black be granted equal opportunity to frame the gospel in their own terms and under their own authority. Campbell, Leland, and Asbury all watched second-generation leaders of their movements yearn to be pillars of American society; haveing set his face toward building a tangible Zion, Joseph Smith never bowed to the dominant culture’s idols of respectability. (67-68

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 30, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

  17. Do you take your entire library with you when you travel, or did you just happen to have it with you? Or maybe you have a Kindle, in which case I hate you.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 30, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  18. LOL. I needed to review it for a paper I am working on. I find that the airplane is one of the most effective reading locations (because what is there else to do really?), and I usually take a couple books on a trip.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 30, 2008 @ 9:07 pm


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