One of “the great achievements of American literature”: Mormonism in Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, Part 1

By December 30, 2008

During Winter semester 2006 I attended Grant Underwood’s U.S. Religious History course at BYU.[1] Our text for the class was Martin Marty’s Pilgrims in their Own Land, a narrative overview of American religious history. Although Marty is widely recognized as one of the leading historians of American religion, his chapter on Mormons is, to put it kindly, lacking. Many of the students in Underwood’s class complained widely that Marty “got it all wrong,” and “if he’s this wrong on Mormonism, how can we trust the rest of the book?” I remember thinking that these students were missing a crucial point; the greatest value in Marty’s book was not in the details of his presentation, but rather in the placing of Mormonism within the wider tapestry of America’s religious history. I thought, “We can’t expect these major historians to know all the details. What is important is where they place us.” Similarly, a year ago Chris wrote a post on Charles Sellers’ The Market Revolution, in which Chris argued that the value of Sellers’s work was not in his admittedly-flawed discussion of Mormonism, but rather in the number of pages that Sellers chose to devote to Joseph Smith’s religion.

In that same post, Chris also mentioned the publication of a new survey, Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer Prize winning What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Recently, six major historians reviewed What Hath God Wrought on the H-Net discussion group for historians of the Early Republic, each examining the book from their respective specialties. All agreed that Howe had succeeded magnificently in crafting a narrative that reflects a solid understanding of the questions being asked by historians in such subfields as American slavery and Native American history. The same could be said, I think, of Howe’s treatment of Mormonism. Unlike Marty’s Pilgrims, Howe presents a synthetic work that not only features Mormonism prominently within the narrative, but also one that gets the details correct and relies on the best of recent scholarship.

Howe’s treatment reflects his broader assumptions concerning the place of religion within American society. Previously, Howe has written on American cultural and intellectual history, which leads him to see religion not as the cynical product of market forces and class, but rather a vibrant element of culture that shapes how people see the world. Whereas Sellers in The Market Revolution believed that Mormonism was a prime example of the farming and working classes that opposed market changes (in juxtaposition to the merchant classes that embraced evangelicalism), Howe sees the millenarianism of American religion as primary. In Chapter 8, Mormonism appears alongside William Miller’s movement, utopian experiments, Catholicism, and Nat Turner’s slave uprising. Given that Howe sees improvement as the driving urge in American culture during the period, millennialism fits his thesis well, as these disparate groups each sought an improved national landscape. Chapter 8’s section on Mormonism covers the 1820s through the 1838 Missouri expulsion, leaving for a later chapter Nauvoo and the Exodus.

What Hath God Wrought‘s discussion of JS’s early visions and the Book of Mormon illustrates Chris’s recent post on Howe’s divisions between believing and non-believing historians. For example, in a footnote Howe refers readers to the “Mormon accounts” found in Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon and Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, likely an implied contrast with the “non-Mormon” account written by John L. Brooke in the Bancroft-prize winning Refiner’s Fire. Howe likewise notes that “to the Latter-day Saint, this is scripture, a supplement to the Old and New Testaments. To the unbeliever, it is a fantastic tale invented by the imaginative Joseph Smith” (314). But it is in Howe’s treatment of the Book of Mormon narrative that Bushman’s impact on mainstream historical discourse on Mormonism is most apparent, especially Bushman’s argument that the Book of Mormon should be seen as a complex work of American literature. Howe states that “true or not, the Book of Mormon is a powerful epic written on a grand scale with a host of characters, a narrative of human struggle and conflict, of divine intervention, heroic good and atrocious evil, of prophecy, morality, and law. Its narrative structure is complex” (314). Howe’s reliance on Bushman is apparent when he (Howe) admits that although the Book of Mormon reflects some elements of nineteenth-century culture (like anti-Masonry), the book’s primary themes are biblical, prophetic, and patriarchal, not democratic or optimistic. Howe concludes by contending that “The Book of Mormon should rank among the great achievements of American literature, but it has never been accorded the status is deserves, since Mormons deny Joseph Smith’s authorship, and non-Mormons, dismissing the work as a fraud, have been more likely to ridicule than read it” (314). Howe acknowledges his debt to Bushman in a footnote, stating that “the leading Mormon historian Richard Bushman, if I understand him correctly, credits the prophet’s literary skills as well as his divine inspiration” (314). Whether there is some veiled sarcasm here or not, I’m not sure, but the fact that Howe relies on Bushman’s arguments without disapproval is highly significant.

Another striking feature of Howe’s description of the Book of Mormon narrative is his decision not to ascribe to the book itself the racializations later attributed to it by Latter-day Saints in regard to Native Americans. Again, I see the hand of Bushman here. Rather, Howe waits until later in the chapter, when JS sends missionaries to Indian Territory, to discuss Mormon applications of a Lamanite identity to American Indians. Per Howe, “The Book of Mormon never explicitly asserts that the Native Americans of modern times are descended from the Lamanites; however, readers of the book invariably drew that conclusion, and Joseph Smith himself evidently shared it” (317). Howe then contextualizes early Mormon racial discourses within the then-prevalent Lost Tribes-as-Indians theories, and argues that many Mormons believed that once converted, the Native Americans would be white and delightsome like their Hebrew ancestors. Howe (like Bushman) therefore separates the text of the Book of Mormon from the interpretations later ascribed to it, and the genetic, geographical, and racial issues associated with those interpretations.

Chapter 8 also wades into controversial historiographical debates on the socio-economic makeup of early Mormon converts. Howe notes general class characteristics, like the fact that many Mormon converts were small farmers and workers, and that many of Charles Finney’s followers were middle class. Howe then moves beyond economic determinism to discuss culture:

Although it is tempting to try to fit them [early Mormons] into theories about premillennialism appealing to the disinherited of this world, the first generation of Mormons were actually defined more by their culture than by socioeconomic attributes. They tended to be people of New England birth or heritage, carrying the cultural baggage of folk Puritanism (as distinguished from Calvinist theology): communalism, chiliasm, identification with ancient Israel, and the practice of magic. Often they had been involved in other Christian restorationist movements, but no particular denominational background predominated. The prophet and his followers perpetuated traditions of a culture, Richard Bushman explains, “in which the sacred and the profane intermingled and the Saints enjoyed supernatural gifts and powers as the frequent blessings of an interested God.” Many people shared this culture, among them some jealous neighbors who tried to steal Smith’s golden plates. Seeking to build a new Zion, Mormon missionaries claimed to be “looking for the blood of Israel”: They assumed their converts would be descended from one of the tribes of Israel. They meant it literally, but one may also see “the blood of Israel” as a graphic, physical metaphor for the inherited biblical cosmology that predisposed converts to accept the Mormon gospel. (315-16)

Howe also argues that JS appealed beyond this culture, relying on Marvin Hill to contend that like JS, many converts were young, male, and mobile. Unchurched Seekers comprised many early followers, looking for religious authority in a culture that doubted its existence. Howe, perhaps following Underwood, also contends that Mormonism not only appealed to the working people of the United States, but also those in Britain and Scandinavia. I think Howe is smart to include both class and culture as reasons for conversion to Mormonism, as a common tendency is to deny one while highlighting the other, when it’s apparent that both were influential.

This is getting a bit long, so I’ll close this post and save for later an analysis of Howe’s other Mormon sections. In terms of general conclusions, I think we can give Howe high marks for his familiarity with recent Mormon scholarship and for his efforts to “get it right.” I do think that Howe uses kid-gloves when discussing Mormon racializations of Native Americans, given that race and the destructive consequences of white supremacist ideologiesĀ pervade much of What Hath God Wrought. Aside from the obvious influence of Bushman, and to a lesser degree Underwood, I found it striking that Jan Shipps made no appearance in the notes (at least in this section). Since the publication of Mormonism, her work has perhaps been more widely cited than any other in general surveys of Mormon history. Some have argued that Shipps’s influence has dwindled among Mormon scholars in recent years (and I’d agree with that), but now it seems that even mainstream historians are looking more to Bushman and less to Shipps in their interpretations of Mormon history.

My hope here is not to give a definitive analysis of Howe’s treatment of Mormonism in Chapter 8, but rather to get some discussion going. For those that have read Howe, what are your thoughts of Chapter 8? What grade would you give him?


[1] That class would introduce me, at least at a distance, to future blogmates. One student, who sat in the back and wore a black leather jacket, iirc, asked a question about Book of Mormon historicity, which Underwood interpreted as a direct assault on his testimony of the book, resulting in a classic Underwood smackdown of a cowering student. JI’s readers know that student as Jared T. I sat in the back left corner, accross the room Chris and Jordan, the latter of whom received a positive appraisal of his Rel. Ed. student paper on the Council of Fifty from Underwood. It would be another year before Jared, Chris, and I met in Brian Cannon’s Utah history course and realized our previous experience in Underwood’s course. I like to remember that Stan was in that class as well, but I don’t think he was actually there.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Historiography


  1. I thought Howe’s treatment of Mormonism in What Hath God Wrought was right on the mark. I think the book, as a whole, is outstanding.

    Comment by DavidH — December 30, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

  2. I’m only about halfway through Howe’s book, but in the spirit of Christmas, I’ll give it an A+++++++ in his treatment of Mormonism. He is quite sympathetic to all the religious movements and prominent figures of the era.

    And as I am always a sucker for odd trivia, I have to admit that I didn’t know that the Oneida community’s free love experiment ultimately put the silverware on my table.

    He has a flair for illuminating small items that give the reader some real insights into the times. One of my favorite statements had to do with the Jackson-John Quincy Adams presidential election, which he claims is one of the dirtiest on record. It was remarkable in its negativity, he says, in that just about everything Jackson said about Adams was untrue, and everything Adams said about Jackson, except that his mother was a prostitute, was true,

    Comment by kevinf — December 30, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

  3. David, thanks for this excellent analysis of a portion of Howe’s treatment on Mormonism. I’ve got this book on my
    “To Read” short list.

    Comment by Jared T — December 30, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

  4. Thanks for this, David.

    I would give Howe an A+ for the book and an A- on Mormonism (the second best scholarly treatment of Mormonism within a larger framework that I have read in my very short experience). He focused primarily on JS, but that is completely expected because most of his sections on groups focused on the leaders, and the alternative is very tough when biting off a topic as big as the book, so dealing with more than just JS is almost impossible.

    I guess my one problem with the book was what I felt was an overemphasis on their millenarian thought, which I guess is understandable since that was his major focus within religious movements (as well as the fact that he was Underwood’s graduate advisor). I also felt he was a tad too restrictive in placing Mormonism strictly within the other religious movements of the day, continuing the compartmentalizing of intellectuals shifts to religions/politics/racial relations/etc., rather than acknowledging that the boundaries between these different types of movements are a lot less fuzzy. Maybe I just had my hopes too high from first reading his Unitarian Conscience and Making the American Self, where he does a much better job at placing religions within the other intellectual contexts of the day.

    Or, maybe it is just preference. Anyways, I felt Howe did an absolutely remarkable job; the only work I felt did better was Holifield’s Theology in America.

    Comment by Ben — December 30, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

  5. Kevin: You’re right that Howe has a special eye for good anecdotes. He’s especially adept at crafting what they call “braided narratives,” or weaving together effectively several stories.

    Ben: Given your comment on Chris’s recent thread, I figured you had a complaint or two about Howe. Thanks for explaining them; I agree with your second point about segregating religion from other strands. He probably could have done better at pointing to connections with other intellectual streams. Although Howe concentrates broadly on millennialism in chapter 8, I don’t think he overemphasizes it in his discussion of Mormonism. Aside from the section intro and a brief mention of millennialism in the paragraphs on early Mormon converts, millenarianism isn’t a major theme. But I suppose you were hoping for more romanticism, right? You or Terryl need to get that book out soon.

    Comment by David G. — December 30, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

  6. Thanks for the review, David. I give Howe an A on his treatment of Mormonism. I especially appreciated that he didn’t try and cram the entire Mormon experience into two paragraphs (or even one section). That he sees the 1830s Mormon experience as speaking to certain aspects of the larger American historical narrative and the Nauvoo era as key in highlighting other aspects of that narrative is significant, I think.

    Regarding Stan’s presence in the class … he audited the course and only attended 3 or 4 times. Stan was (at the time) the only other individual I knew in the class, though he introduced me to Jordan that semester. I remember well the episode you mention, and still chuckle about it. I remember you primarily as the know-it-all grad student who was regularly frustrated with the ignorance of us measly undergrads.

    Comment by Christopher — December 30, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

  7. Chris, agreed. Splitting up the Mormon experience between a chapter on religion and a chapter on the West makes sense, and I’m glad he went that route.

    As to Stan, that explains why I’ve only got a flickering memory of him sitting over with y’all in the corner. That’s hard to believe that was almost 3 years ago.

    Comment by David G. — December 30, 2008 @ 11:15 pm

  8. David: You got it. While I don’t feel Mormonism is completely romantic like Hughes or Remini, I think they definitely are in the tension present between the two intellectual shifts. That is where I think Holifield hits it right on the head. But don’t get me wrong, I think Howe did an extremely excellent job; I don’t want to sound like I’m bickering over what I found as a great treatment.

    Comment by Ben — December 30, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

  9. Ben, could you explain a bit more why you feel the chapter on millennialism is out of place? Given that the book’s overall framework revolves around the idea of “improvement”, I found the extended discussion of how religious eschatology of the day reflected the tensions inherent in the ideology of improvement (postmillennialism vs. premillennialism) in a pluralistic society not only appropriate, but quite insightful.

    Comment by Christopher — January 2, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

  10. Chris: Gosh, your making me remember things when I don’t have my book with me. Off the top of my head, I think I just found Howe’s treatment as slightly simplistic and one dimensional–that his focus on millinarianism overshadowed other important theological features. It could just be personal preference, though.

    Anyways, I would have to look over it again. But I do understand that this approach is what fit within the intillectual framework he was going for–O kist tjoml there were more theological dimensions of “improvement” than just eschatology.

    Comment by Ben — January 2, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  11. O kist tjoml

    What langauge is that?

    Comment by David G. — January 2, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  12. Ah, I think with the help of the Urim and Thummim I’ve deciphered it. It’s Benjian for “I just think”

    Comment by David G. — January 2, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

  13. “O kist tjoml” = “I just thought”

    Don’t you know the “when-you-place-your-fingers-on-the-wrong-keys-and-don’t-notice” language?

    Comment by Ben — January 2, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  14. yeah, think and not thought.

    with that comment and my “four centuries” comment, I think I need to get a full-time editor.

    Comment by Ben — January 2, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  15. Or at least practice your proofreading skills. šŸ˜‰

    Comment by David G. — January 2, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

  16. Wait a minute. I think that we are giving short shrift to Ben’s idea that Woodruff is 400 years old. I mean, have any of you actually seen his dead body? Were any of you scoffers present at his birth, which he claimed to have occurred on March 1, 1807? Ya, didn’t think so. Preach on Ben.

    Comment by SC Taysom — January 2, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  17. I liked Howe. I think he proposed a useful synthesis of recent scholarship even if he didn’t bring much new to the table on Mormonism. I thought he did a great job of integrating religious themes more generally.

    I think that Shipps was quoted primarily when there was not anything better, but her role I think was often a religious one, providing a space for Mormons to come to terms with themselves and building bridges with outsiders, a work of breaking out of the cult vs. Christianity model. Now that this has happened largely, there are new studies to be cited.

    There’s not enough quality work on Mormon Indianism yet, but you’re right that Howe would not be pleased to find Phelps arguing in the church organ that Removal was actually God gathering the Indians as lost Israel. Let’s not e-mail him about that just yet. He did a great job of treating the Jacksonian genocide in fair but rigorous terms that aren’t quite as overpowering as Howard Zinn (I like Zinn, but he’s not much of a consensus-builder).

    You guys and your grade inflation–you’re like a bunch of Ivy League professors bestowing A+s on students.

    Also, the Working Papers roster is starting to fill out with some interesting papers and presenters. Are the JI crew going to participate?

    Comment by smb — January 2, 2009 @ 8:48 pm

  18. […] hop on over to the Juvenile Instructor blog and check out this post on Howe’s treatment of Mormonism, and this one on Howe’s discussion of Mormon historians and historiography (in his […]

    Pingback by Howe on Mormonism « U.S. History, 1815-1848 — February 10, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

  19. […] my previous post on Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, I discussed Howe’s treatment of Mormon history from […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormonism in What Hath God Wrought, Part 2 (Concluded) — March 7, 2009 @ 4:06 pm


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