Religion

The best books on Mormonism

recommended by Benjamin E. Park

Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier by Benjamin E. Park

Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier
by Benjamin E. Park

Read

Mormonism is an entirely home-grown American religion. Nevertheless, as historian Benjamin E. Park explains, it struggled to win social acceptance in the United States in the 19th and early 20th century and that marginalisation profoundly shaped its development and, to some extent, its doctrines.

Interview by Benedict King

Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier by Benjamin E. Park

Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier
by Benjamin E. Park

Read

Before we get into the books themselves, I wonder if you could very briefly tell us what the core of Mormonism is and give us some sense of why it appeared when it did and what people in the US were looking for that couldn’t be catered for by the established churches.

Mormonism appeared during the era that historians called the ‘Second Great Awakening’. It was a period that saw lots of religious upheavals and revivals during the 1810s, ’20s and into the ’30s. This was decades after America had granted religious freedom, which allowed a market for different religions to spring up and address social and cultural issues that they felt were being missed. Mormonism fits into that genre quite well. It fits into a lot of standard American tropes, sacralising the land, saying that there were people who lived anciently in North America who were God’s chosen people, giving a sacred pre-history to the United States. They democratized church leadership, allowing the common man to be in charge, not insisting that you have to have a divinity degree to hold the priesthood. They critiqued the growing market economy in America by introducing a communalist approach to living and they also critiqued domestic arrangements in America, eventually, when they introduced polygamy. So a common refrain ever since has been that Mormonism is the prototypical American religion, in part because it represents all the crucial paradoxes and tensions at the heart of the American experiment. And I think that remains true today. Of course, Mormonism has evolved over the last two centuries, moving from the peripheries of American culture to being much closer to the centre now. But I really think that you can capture much of the American story when looking at the evolution of the Latter-day Saints.

We’ll explore all of these issues in more depth when discussing the books. First up is Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Tell us why you’ve chosen this one. Is it a straightforward biography of Joseph Smith?

Yes, this is one of the definitive biographies of Joseph Smith. It’s important not just because of the content, but also because of what it represented. It had been several decades since any other serious biography of Joseph Smith. Many still point to Fawn Brody’s biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, that was published way back in 1945. But a lot has changed since then. Richard Bushman’s was the first biography that was able to take advantage of access to lots of sources that had previously been restricted by the LDS Church. So it’s a prominent historian using lots of important sources, but it also marked a new age of openness. Looking at Mormon history over the previous decade, there have been lots of battles between academic historians of the Mormon tradition, and faithful Mormons. Richard Bushman was kind of a bridge figure. So his book is significant both because it is the best look at Joseph Smith and his psyche, but also because it represents an important cultural moment in Mormonism, as one of the first scholarly books that received wide recognition among the Latter-day Saint community.

You mentioned the way that Mormonism’s birth fitted into the wider American cultural milieu of the time. What drove Joseph Smith to found the religion?

One of the driving questions of Bushman’s biography is ‘How did tens of thousands of people both in America and, eventually, Britain come to see Joseph Smith as a prophet?’ As a result, the book is very much a psycho-biography that’s trying to dig into the psyche of Joseph Smith and unpack how he’s able to bring the divine into the banal, and how he’s able to find sacred principles in everyday living and everyday ideas. At the heart of Richard Bushman’s argument is that Joseph Smith was able to sacralise modern day American culture in ways that were seen as quite enticing to those who saw him as a prophet.

Let’s move on to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism 1835-1870. One thing that everyone who doesn’t know anything about Mormonism knows is that it’s polygamous.

Yes. Polygamy has always been and probably will always be a point of fascination for anyone who’s interested in Mormonism. Thankfully, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is the most prominent and skilled historian to address the topic. She is known for her great works in  women’s history, most prominently her A Midwife’s Tale, which won the Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize in the early 1990s. She was raised in the LDS tradition, and so she turned to House Full of Females to do two things. One, to really unpack polygamy for a broader audience, to explain how polygamy actually operated and where it fitted into the world, but also to centre women in the history of Mormonism. Because what A House Full of Females does is ask the question, ‘What happens if we frame the first 50 years or so of Mormonism, not around Joseph Smith and the men who held ecclesiastical offices, but around the women who lived in their households and ran their cultural events and allowed society to function?’

“You can capture much of the American story when looking at the evolution of the Latter-Day Saints”

So, while the book does exceptionally well at unpacking the nuances of how polygamy operated—from families where there’s just two wives connected to a struggling husband, to a commanding patriarch who has 50 wives—it really is also a social history of the day-to-day lives of the thousands and thousands of women who made Mormonism work.

What does it say about the women’s attitudes to polygamy? Was polygamy contested at all at the time?

One of the great things about the book is that it shows the great variety of perspectives that women had toward polygamy: those who were staunch defenders of it, and who truly believed that it was of divine origin; and those who were on the other side, who were sceptical of the practice and ended up rejecting polygamy—as well as the many who fell in between those two poles, who maybe think it’s divine, but are struggling and not quite sure.

One of the key feelings you get from reading the book is a sense of ambiguity from a lot of women trying to make sense of their religious world. That’s something that lots of people can connect to, because many people are ambivalent about their religious, political, and social connections. And to be able to see those same anxieties in place with the Mormon women, ensconced in polygamy, really brings that story alive and makes it much more relevant.

Excellent. Next up is Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Colour: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness

Mormonism is known for having a racial restriction for a long time. Up until 1978, individuals with black ancestry did not have access to full membership, meaning that they could not go to the temple. If they were men they could not hold the priesthood. And that restriction, which was global, was in place until 1978—quite late.

But what’s fascinating about this book is that Paul Reeve unpacks the history of Mormonism’s racial restriction. He does an excellent job in tracing how that restriction came to be and how it was much more haphazard and elongated than many historians had thought. But as well as that, he also traces broader American conceptions of Mormonism’s race. When we think about Mormonism today, they strike us as about as white as possible. If you want to think of a stereotypical white religion, you think of the Mormons. But what’s fascinating is that in the 19th century, Mormons were often cast as a non-white community. Given that race is a construction, whiteness was typically associated with full citizenship and civilization, while Mormons were not granted full citizenship nor seen as a full part of civilization, both because of their religious actions, as well as their social activities, most notoriously polygamy. Many people were theorizing that the Mormons did not belong to the white race. And they cast them as an amorphous, vague fuzzy race of their own, which only reaffirmed the Mormons’ anxieties, which is what, in turn, forced them to separate themselves from racial minorities. In order to prove their whiteness, so to speak, to show that they fitted into American civilization, they had to do what many Americans were doing, which was separating themselves from black and Indian and other races that were seen as undesirable.

That’s fascinating. Is Mormonism now fully colour-blind, as it were, or does that remain contentious?

It’s still a hot topic. Mormonism is still predominantly a white religion, especially in America. Mormonism has become much more global since then. They’re building several temples in Africa right now. But there are still lingering racial issues and racial anxieties. If you look at the leadership of the church in Salt Lake City, nearly all of them are white and of American descent and are from an upper class. And so Mormonism is still struggling with the legacies of this racial question. I think one of the great phrases that Paul Reeve comes up with in his book is that Mormonism went from being ‘non-white to too white’ in the course of over a century, and I think we’re still dealing with those repercussions.

Are there any African-American or Native-American Mormons these days?

Yes, there are. There are growing numbers, especially if you go to inner-city communities. You’ll find more racial diversity there, but they’re still a minority among Mormons—disproportionately so—across the country as a whole.

Let’s move on to the next book, Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle. Tell us about this book and, indeed, who Reed Smoot was.

Mormonism goes through this fascinating transition at the turn of the 20th century. For much of the 19th century Mormonism was on the outside of American acceptance. They were polygamists, theocrats out in the American West. But then, after they give up polygamy in 1890, and accept America’s two-party system, and Utah is admitted as a state, they start going through what scholars termed ‘the Americanization process’, where they become much more assimilated to American culture. Perhaps the best bellwether of that transition was when Utah elected Reed Smoot, who was a Mormon apostle, to serve in the United States Senate. This happened in the first decade of the 20th century, and it drew lots of national attention, lots of national scorn because people questioned whether someone who served in the highest offices of the LDS Church could truly pledge allegiance to America loyally and serve in the American Senate. This sparked a five year Congressional hearing in which the United States investigated not so much Reed Smoot, but rather the Mormon church in general.

During this time, they uncovered that Mormons were still practising polygamy, even though they had promised they weren’t. They also tried to unpack what was really going on in the Mormon temples. They tried to decide to whom Mormons pledged true loyalty, the church or the state. And, in the end, both sides had to make compromises. The Mormon church had to act more like an American denomination, and the American Senate and politicians had to stop acting like a proto-Protestant denomination themselves. So we come out of this fascinating case study, where there are lots of fascinating characters on either side, with a church that was more assimilated to American culture and an American culture much more willing to assimilate the Mormons.

And what were Congress’s anxieties about more broadly, beyond polygamy? Mormonism didn’t have an external Pope like Catholicism, or anything like that, so why did they think Mormons might be disloyal Americans?

They believed that Mormons could not truly be patriotic because their full allegiance was to the Mormon hierarchy. There’s this great political cartoon from this period of the nefarious Mormon patriarch with the long beard and the ragged clothes, who looks like an Old Testament prophet, dangling Reed Smoot as a puppet into the American Senate, saying that this guy is just going to be our own plant in America. They didn’t think that Mormons were truly loyal to America and they did not think Mormons could truly hold American principles. And if that’s the case, then here is their representative who is the fox in the henhouse, and he can’t be trusted with one of America’s highest offices.

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So Mormonism had to bend over backwards. The Mormon leader, Joseph F. Smith, who was the President of the Church at the time, came to Washington DC and testified in the Senate trial, arguing that Mormons were no different from any other American denomination. Then, at the same time, there were other people coming to testify that the Mormons were nefarious and were doing lots of bad stuff. In the end, it came down to a political compromise, but one that really changed both the church and the state.

And what was Reed Smoot’s time in the Senate like? Did he have a long and distinguished career?

He served in the Senate for 32 years. In fact, he became known for the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which was an influential tariff a few decades later. He became known as a staunch partisan Republican, who in many ways was a bellwether for how Mormons became Republican in general.

Let’s move on to your final choice. Colleen McDannell’s Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy.

Colleen McDannell is one of the most eminent American religious historians and she’s written about Catholicism and material religious culture. In this book, she casts her eyes on Mormon women in the wake of polygamy, from 1890 to today. This is a fascinating book, with a very wide scope that looks at all these different lived realities of Mormon women, from Mormon women who were living during the Progressive Era and saw their church as a vehicle for social change, to women using social media in the 2010s and the advent of Mormon mommy-blogging and influencer culture. She also has a chapter on Mormon women in the international context. So, while my list of books is very American-centric, which reflects my own interest as an American historian, Colleen McDannell also points to the possibilities of placing Mormonism on a global scale, and seeing what happens when we make these comparisons between Mormon women living in Utah and Mormon women living in Ghana.

So polygamy has ended now in Mormonism?

That’s the $10,000 question. In general, the practice has officially ended within the mainstream church. If you practise polygamy, you are excommunicated from the faith. However, the doctrine is still there. There’s still a revelation found in the Doctrine & Covenants from Joseph Smith that’s still a part of the scriptural canon that outlines polygamy as an eternal doctrine, and you have lots of men, including the current president of the church who, when their first wives pass away, get sealed to a second wife and the doctrine implies that they’re sealed to both women for eternity. So that anxiety is still there. It’s going to be there until there’s a more direct confrontation. But the practice is generally changing. You’ll find most Mormon women, at least in America where I study, are more scared of the doctrine than they are pining for it to come back. The ghost of polygamy haunts Mormon America, even if it does not have as firm a bodily form as it has in the past.

One final question of a more general nature. What’s the relationship between the Church of the Latter-day Saints and more mainstream forms of Christianity? To what extent is Mormonism a form of Christianity? Does it accept the authority of the Bible, as well as the scriptures produced by Joseph Smith? Or is it not as simple as that?

This is a debate that lots of people get really animated about. In the Mormons’ minds, they see themselves as 100% Christian. They emphasize that it is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Jesus Christ always has the bigger font than all the other words in the title, and they call the Book of Mormon ‘another testament of Jesus Christ’. You saw this anxiety recently, where the President of the LDS Church came out and said, ‘We don’t want to be called “Mormons” anymore because that downplays our connection to Christianity.’

Of course, you’re going to have lots of evangelicals who say that if you’re going to be accepted as a Christian you need to accept specific doctrines, especially the Trinity, or the Bible as the sole repository of scriptural truth. So it comes down to who you’re granting the authority to define what Christian is. From my perspective as a scholar, it’s problematic to allow one partisan group to define what Christianity is. Evangelicals want to define what Christianity is because they have a stake in that.

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There is a great book that I was tempted to include on my list by John Turner. It’s a biography of the Mormon Jesus, and it looks at all the Mormon Christological conceptions and shows how Mormon beliefs fit into a much broader scope of world Christianity—something that evangelicals have sometimes tried to pretend doesn’t exist. I would argue that Mormons are theologically a lot closer to mainstream Christianity than some Christians would admit. Also, culturally and socially, Mormons are very much in tune with what we would call evangelical culture.

What do you mean by that?

They’re politically and socially conservative. In their voting patterns American Mormons are much in line with evangelical voting patterns. Their beliefs on morality, on issues like abortion, and modesty—those are very much in line with what we would see as evangelical.

Interview by Benedict King

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Benjamin E. Park

Benjamin E. Park

Benjamin E. Park is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University. He is the co-editor of Mormon Studies Review, editor of Blackwell’s A Companion to American Religious History. His most recent book is Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier.