Reading suggestions for the amateur historian

By July 19, 2012

The ecology of Mormon History has tremendous benefits. Among them are deeply committed institutional patrons, obsessive readership, and dedicated amateur researchers willing to slog through enormous volumes of minutiae. Some of these benefits can also yield challenges. I’d like to focus on one in particular: Denominational histories that even when not overtly devotional are disconnected from the historiography and analytical trends of religious history more broadly.

Some of you may know that my graduate training is in a field quite unrelated to Mormon history. While I did track down 100-year-old articles for my dissertation, they were written by German chemists, and I was interested as a chemist. I have greatly appreciated the accessibility of Mormon history since that time, as I have worked avocationally to develop a familiarity with the various sources, repositories, and authors in the field. I have also tried to read up on Atlantic religious history generally, and specific areas like Christian healing. However, not having endured the ultramarathon that is comps, and not having participated in the specific training of a graduate program, I certainly come up wanting.

Consequently, when I grabbed a copy of Hall’s edited compilation, Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, and read through the first chapters on a recent flight, I was thrilled to find language that clearly described ideas that I had been noodling for some time. It also opened up my perception to some cool new areas of application that I most certainly would not have found on my own. There I was, on the plane, and struck with how some of the material so readily applied to areas as disparate as early Mormon charismata, and John Dehlin’s disaffection therapy cultus.

Now, I picked up the book because of Hall and Brown’s chapter on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in early New England, which relates to a current research project. And I know that I should read Robert Orsi’s work more broadly (he opens the volume up), which I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. But I am a huge fan of review essays in general and as a book that is intended to introduce readers to “lived religion” through case studies including such an introduction, well, I sort of fell in love.

When I had a moment, I shot a quick note to my colleagues here at the Juvenile Instructor, who I imagine had read the book when they were nineteen years old. We like reading lists (e.g., here and here) and I asked them for their recommendations. If they were to offer a list of volumes which all members of the Mormon History Association (MHA) should read, what would be on it? You see, the MHA is chock full of non-traditional scholars: amateur historians like me, compulsive genealogists, Mormon battalion reenactors, irritated former Mormons (though not too many), and more, all of whom would benefit from such readings.

One response indicated that reading Alstrom’s A Religious History of the American People with a William Hutchison chaser was important as understanding American religion requires and understanding of Protestant cultural dominance. A subsequent response suggested Tweed’s edited volume, Retelling U.S. Religious History as a “very helpful for correcting the old model, of which Ahlstrom is the best example, [i.e.,] timeless and encyclopedic, but very top-heavy in its focus. Hall’s & Tweed’s contributors help provide the perspective from those with a lot less access to religious and cultural power.” I like the generational dynamic, and for me (very interested in women’s history and lived religion) a quick look at the TOC had me sold.

I remember reading through Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity, Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith and Hall’s World’s of Wonder and thinking they were huge winners and that they would be beneficial to others like me. Same with authors like Leigh Eric Schmidt and Ann Taves. But I like the suggestions of the edited volumes, as they can include a particular methodological focus. For example, I know that I should be better with material culture. I even sat at a recent gathering with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (discussing one of her essays) where if there was an anxious seat, I would have certainly confessed the conviction of my sins. But I still don’t really know where to look to get better.

The JI team instructed me that this topic was definitely post fodder, and so I beg of you dear readers and fellow bloggers, please offer your suggestions to the Mormon History Association and to me.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Re: Orsi, although Madonna is quite good and important, his Between Heaven and Earth is a good quick orientation to his approach if you don’t want to read about the Italian-American domus in detail. And I think JZ Smith is must-reading. His books are mostly collections of his various essays, which reappear commonly. Key essays that need reading are Map is not Territory, What a Difference a Difference Makes. he has essays on animal sacrifice, magic, and the definition of the word ‘religion’ that are great too. And I think the Marsden biography of Edwards is great.
    I find ahlstrom tedious but have slogged through it at various points.

    Comment by smb — July 19, 2012 @ 6:59 am

  2. This is not an edited volume, but I would recommend to any reader – amateur or professional – in US religious history that Matthew Avery Sutton’s _Aimee Semple McPherson and and the Resurrection of Christian America_. It is remarkably readable and offers a wonderful perspective on how old time theologies and new time technologies can work together. If you like that, then I would follow it with Tona Hangen’s _Redeeming the Dial_ which discusses several religious innovators who used the radio. And if you wanted to stick on religion and media innovation, I would then check out Lee and Sinitiere, _Holy Mavericks_ which gets to the Rick Warren’s and Joel Osteen’s of the world.

    Comment by Edward J. Blum — July 19, 2012 @ 7:51 am

  3. Excellent, Smb. I’ve been meaning to read more Smith for a while now.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 19, 2012 @ 7:51 am

  4. I’ve often recommended Gordon Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution to interested amateurs. I think it really does a good job with the basic idea that people saw the world differently way back when.

    At UC Santa Barbara, Alstrom was the devil. I thought that attitude was a little overboard.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 19, 2012 @ 8:00 am

  5. Thanks Ed. Those sound great.

    Steve I am generally against demonizing previous generation’s work as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 19, 2012 @ 8:08 am

  6. I like the several recommendations so far, and am a big fan of Ahlstrom, in spite of its obvious outdatedness. I think Mark Noll’s America’s God would also be useful here.

    Comment by Christopher — July 19, 2012 @ 8:49 am

  7. It’s been a few years since I picked it up, but I imagine Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity would be helpful in thinking about religion and material culture.

    Comment by Christopher — July 19, 2012 @ 8:51 am

  8. And actually, now that I think about it, I think Rhys Isaac’s analysis of the Virginia landscape, building structure, etc. in his The Transformation of Virginia would be a great resource for Mormon history folks interested in Mormon settlements, communities, etc.

    Comment by Christopher — July 19, 2012 @ 8:54 am

  9. Such a great idea for a post. Besides saying “amen” to the books already mentioned, here are a few that jump out to me:

    -Randall Stephens, ed., Recent Themes in American Religious History (2009). A great and recent look at where the field is going.

    -Ron Hoffman et. al., eds., Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America (1997). A great set of examples of micro-history–a field that deserves more attention in Mormon studies.

    -Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought (2008). More than any other historical survey, Howe demonstrates how to integrate Mormonism into the broader narrative. Brooks Holifield’s Theology in America (2003) does the same thing, only in Christian thought.

    -Jon Butler, “Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religious Problem in Modern American History” (2004). A great call-to-arms to better integrate religion into broader historical narratives; Mormonism can be a prime mover, here, I think.

    -Catherine Brekus, ed., The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past (2007). A great collection of essays on where the field should go.

    I’m sure I’ll think of more later.

    Comment by Ben P — July 19, 2012 @ 9:21 am

  10. A few more came to mind:

    -Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: Mind on Fire (1995), and Dean Grodzins, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism (2002). Biography is a favorite genre in Mormon history, and these two bios are great examples of balancing an individual’s life with broader issues. Plus, everyone should read Richardson, because everyone should write like Richardson.

    -A couple books that are fabulous examples of sound archival research (something Mormon history does well) and sophisticated theoretical work (something Mormon history doesn’t): Trish Loghran, The Republic in Print (2007), and Carolyn Eastman, A Nation of Speechifiers (2009).

    Comment by Ben P — July 19, 2012 @ 9:39 am

  11. Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South is a classic. The newer edition includes an added-on epilogue pointing to subsequent academic developments since the time of original publication.

    Comment by BHodges — July 19, 2012 @ 10:07 am

  12. There are few things in life I love more than book lists. Great post Stapley (other than the gratituous cultus thing anyway). Thanks for the suggestions all.

    Comment by Randy B. — July 19, 2012 @ 11:17 am

  13. For books on material religion, I would start with Material Christianity , David Morgan’s Sacred Gaze and Embodied Eye, and the journal Material Religion, which published a very excellent special issue on key terms for the study of material religion in March 2011 (I have these all in pdf form, if for some reason you can’t get them). Orsi’s Between Heaven and Eart also does a nice job with materiality, and I really find it useful for the study of religion more generally.

    For recent developments in the study of American religions, I highly recommend the most recent issue of Religion, which takes aim at divisions between American religious history and American religious studies as well as arguing for engagement with critical theory.

    Comment by Kelly Baker — July 19, 2012 @ 11:28 am

  14. Randy B. lives! Good to see you commenting here again–it’s been awhile.

    Comment by Christopher — July 19, 2012 @ 11:30 am

  15. Jill Lepore In the Name of War, though not “officially” part of the religious studies canon, should be in my book. It’s wonderful history and wonderful theory.

    Comment by Max — July 19, 2012 @ 11:51 am

  16. Though outdated, Paul Johnson’s A Shopkeeper’s Millennium (1978) can be read, with great profit I think, in dialogue with works like Hatch’s Democratization and Mary Ryan’s Cradle of the Middle Class (1981), and in anticipation of Seller’s The Market Revolution (1991). These studies offer interesting perspectives on religion as an independent, dependent, and interdependent variable.

    Mention of works by Issac and Raboteau led me to think of another outdated but important work, namely Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness (1977), a kind of anthropological analysis and intellectual history of African-American culture.

    Closer to my own interests, David Reynold’s Beneath the American Renaissance (1988), gets at the connection between popular culture and antebellum America’s canonical works. The first section, in particular, demonstrates the influence of religion, including, for example, the popular sermon style, on orators and authors such as Emerson and Melville.

    To conclude this rather aimless and eclectic list, David Holland’s more recent Sacred Borders (2011), demonstrates the centrality of debates over revelation and scripture in early America, and firmly situates Mormonism within this context.

    Comment by Jordan W. — July 19, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

  17. Richard Bushman’s The Refinement of America is a favorite of mine, not only for his use of material culture, but also in understanding the environment in which the Church matured. Perhaps Mormons have become a little too refined!

    Comment by Alan — July 19, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

  18. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven. Finke and Stark, The Churching of America. Moore, Selling God. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth. Putnam and Campbell, American Grace. Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God. Wilson, Baptized in Blood. Barnes and Sered, Religion and Healing in America. Dowd, A Spirited Resistance. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation.

    So many great books, so little time.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — July 19, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

  19. I hope this doesn’t come in too late, but, please, whatever else, don’t neglect the wesern literary canon. Besides helping to broaden and deepen your understanding of the world, there’s simply no better teacher when it comes to learning how to write. If you haven’t read the “Iliad” yet, do it now (check out the Lombardo translation). If you haven’t read “Moby-Dick” yet, do it now. If you haven’t read “Huckleberry Finn,” do it now. If you haven’t at least tried tackling “In Search of Lost Time,” do it now. You get the idea. Don’t put this off until you think you’ll have more time. It’s not a luxury. It’s an absolute essential. And you’ll quickly find it becoming one of the most amazing, satisfying adventures you’ve ever embarked upon.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 20, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  20. So… I’ve made a list of the books mentioned above. (When only an author was mentioned I picked what seemed a major book. Dates and page counts might be from different editions.)

    I’ve only read two of the books (Hatch/Democratization, Woods/Radicalism). Any suggestions on how to prioritize the list—say, a top five? top ten?

    1. Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People (Yale, 1973 [2nd ed 2004], 1,216p).

    2. Barnes, Linda L and Susan S Sered, eds. Religion and Healing in America (Oxford, 2004, 552).

    3. Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (Oxford, 2003, 291p).

    4. Brekus, Catherine, ed., The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past (UNC, 2007, 352p).

    5. Bushman, Richard. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (Knopf, 1992, 504p).

    6. Butler, Jon Butler, ?Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religious Problem in Modern American History.? The Journal of American History 90(2004:4):1357-1378.

    7. Butler, Jon. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Harvard, 1992, 376p).

    8. Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Johns Hopkins, 1993, 288p).

    9. Eastman, Carolyn. A Nation of Speechifiers: Making an American Public after the Revolution (Chicago, 2009, 304p).

    10. Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America: 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (Rutgers, 2005, 368p).

    11. Grodzins, Dean. American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism (UNC, 2002, 656p).

    12. Hall, David D, ed, Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (Princeton, 1997, 280p).

    13. Hall, David D. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Harvard, 1990, 336p).

    14. Hangen, Tona. Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, and Popular Culture in America (UNC, 2001, 224p).

    15. Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale, 1993, 312p)

    16. Hoffman, Ron, et. al., eds., Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America (UNC, 1997, 464p).

    17. Holifield, E Brooks. Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (Yale, 2003, 640p).

    18. Holland, David. Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (Oxford, 2011, 275p).

    19. Howe Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford, 2008, 928p).

    20. Hutchison, William R. Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (Yale, 2003, 288p).

    21. Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Omohundro/UNC, 1999, 451p).

    22. Johnson, Paul. A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 (Hill and Wang, 1978 [25th anniv. ed., 2004, 240p).

    23. Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 3rd ed (California, 2003, 336p).

    24. Lee, Shayne and Phillip Luke Sinitiere. Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (NYU, 2009, 208p).

    25. Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (Vintage, 1999, 368p).

    26. Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford, 1977, 544p).

    27. Loghran, Trish. The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870 (Columbia, 2007, 568p).

    28. Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale, 2004, 640p).

    29. McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (Yale, 1998, 324p).

    30. Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (Oxford, 1995, 336p).

    31. Morgan, David. The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012, 280p).

    32. Morgan, David. The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (California, 2005, 333p).

    33. Noll, Mark A. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford, 2002, 640p).

    34. Orsi, Robert. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton, 2006, 264p).

    35. Putnam, Robert D. and David E Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites (Simon and Schuster, 2010, 688p).

    36. Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The ?Invisible Institution? in the Antebellum South (Oxford, 1978 [new ed, 2004], 416p).

    37. Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Oxford, 1988, 656p).

    38. Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire (California, 1995 684p).

    39. Ryan, Mary. Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (Cambridge, 1981, 336p).

    40. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Harvard, 2002, 336p).

    41. Sellers, Charles. The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (Oxford, 1991, 512p).

    42. Smith, Jonathan Z. Map is not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Chicago, 1993, 352p).

    43. Smith, Jonathan Z. Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion (Chicago, 2004, 424p).

    44. Stephens, Randall, ed., Recent Themes in American Religious History: Historians in Conversation (South Carolina, 2009, 160p).

    45. Stout, Harry S. Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Penguin, 2007, 576p).

    46. Sutton, Matthew Avery. Aimee Semple McPherson and and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard, 2007, 351p).

    47. Taves, Ann. Fits, Trances, and Visions: experiencing religion and explaining experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, 1999, 448p).

    48. Tweed, Thomas A, ed, Retelling U.S. Religious History (California, 1997, 321p).

    49. Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (Georgia, 1983, 264p).

    50. Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Knopf, 1992, 464p).

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 20, 2012 @ 9:59 am

  21. I’ll second Edje’s question about which of these is the most valuable.

    For the amateur historian who is fitting an interest in Mormon history into the edges of an already busy life, has already read widely in Western literature as Gary suggested, and is now mainly interested in Mormon history and people, which of these would be the most valuable? (Top five might be pushing it. Top two or three might be more likely to get read.)

    Comment by Amy T — July 20, 2012 @ 11:57 am

  22. I’m sure all our top 10s would vary (though we could vote and take a tally). I actually think Hatch and Wood are a pretty good start Edje. From there I would tell you to pick what interests you.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 20, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

  23. Thanks Edje, that was tremendously helpful. I’m going with the various edited volumes, then perhaps the Orsi volume.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 20, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

  24. So one thing I have noticed about this list is how early republican and early American religious history it is. For obvious reasons, that makes sense to some degree. But, after attending a panel on how Latin American history it transforms our understandings of the War of 1812, I wonder what blinders it places upon us. May I suggest Neil Gunson and Greg Dening as two historians whose work on the Pacific has been absolutely formative on my own.

    Comment by Amanda HK — July 20, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

  25. That’s a great point, Amanda. I imagine books on Euro-American-Native American interaction would be useful to. Hopefully David and Jared chime in with more recommendations on the Native and Latin American front.

    Also, I really want to hear more about the panel on how Latin American history transforms our understandings of the War of 1812, esp. since my dissertation deals a bit with the War of 1812 and also deals a bit with the Caribbean.

    Comment by Christopher — July 20, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

  26. Chris, the opening plenary session for SHEAR tried to place the War of 1812 in a global perspective. Two of the panelists were Latin Americanists and one was a Europeanist. The moderator was Alan Taylor. The overarching theme was that we need to be cognizant of the fact that the War of 1812 was part of a series of wars fought in the Americas between 1810 – 1815, and that most of these wars were wars for independence. The panelists argued that Americans saw themselves as part of a pan-American movement that would rid the hemisphere of European influence and colonialism and adopted Simon Bolivar and others as emblems of freedom. They also argued that American historians need to understand the small scale of the conflict in the United States and recognize the fact that the British unmistakably win in this time period. They are able to firm up the foundations of British Canada and transform much of Latin America into a British satellite. Spain also loses its empire, which fundamentally changes the game as far as imperial competition in Europe.

    Comment by Amanda HK — July 20, 2012 @ 10:35 pm

  27. If this has been mentioned already in the comments and I missed it, forgive me, but is there a book or article that specifically tackles the methodological problems of addressing religious truth claims, miracles, visions, etc. in scholarship? The new Religion volume was mentioned. (I need to figure out of Georgetown has a subscription.) Any others?

    Comment by BHodges — July 21, 2012 @ 11:26 am

  28. BH: check out the last few issues of Fides et Historia.

    Comment by Ben P — July 21, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

  29. I am nothing if not a rank amateur, but it seems to me that dipping a toe into anthropology of religion is very helpful, in part because contextualizing history as one discipline among others that deal with religions is important for Mormons, who have until recently thought of Mormon History and Mormon Studies as essentially coextensive. Talal Asad is my favorite, probably because his writing is just elegant (Geneaologies of Religion is a good intro.) And Fennella Cannell’s Anthropology of Christianity is a good, basic anthology.

    And Charles Taylor, of course.

    Comment by Kristine — July 21, 2012 @ 5:22 pm


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