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Feel Like Reading Some Mormon History? Here Are Some Recommendations

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 12, 2013

A reader asked me a week or two ago for some book recommendations. That’s an intimidating request, something more typical of Juvenile Instructor, or of Jared T.’s new blog Mormon Church History. But I think my friend was not asking for anything comprehensive, nor for the latest scholarship – just some recommendations for good reading.

So I’ve looked over my shelves and picked out some books – some new, some standing the test of time – that I think many Keepa readers would enjoy. These are all reliable in their history without being riddled with the specialized vocabulary of some of the best recent academic books. They’re self-contained: You can read any of them without having read anything on the topic as a prerequisite. They’re well written and accessible

If you’ve read them, tell us what you liked, or whether you disagree with my recommendations (as if! :) ). Suggest others that you find interesting and readable by the non-specialist. (That’s key: A lot of really good Mormon history has been published. But please offer recommendations for the general reader, not the graduate student, this time.)


Richard E.Turley Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman, Women of Faith in the Latter Days, vol. 2. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2102). 491 p., index.

This volume deserves a review as simply one of the finest of current books for Latter-day Saint readers … yet every time I try to review, all I can come up with is “See my review of Volume 1. Everything I said about that applies here.” The quality of the chapters is just as high, the women are just as likeable and as inspiring… they’re only born a decade or two later than the sisters whose writings made up the first volume. Some are probably somewhat familiar – Patience Loader, Jane Manning James, Romania Pratt – others you’ll meet for the first time. There’s even a chapter written by Keepa’ninny Amy Tanner Thiriot, on Ann Prior Jarvis. This is a book you want to buy, not borrow.

James B. Allen and Glen M.Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints. 2nd ed., rev, enl., and updated. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992). 802 p., index.

The 1976 original was dated so the 1992 revisions were definitely called for … and now 20 some odd years later, even the 1992 enlargement is a generation out of date. Even so, this remains the best one-volume history of the Church currently available. The authors emphasize social history (how Latter-day Saints really believed and lived) over institutional history (the development of programs and policies), If you want to sort all the bits and pieces of half-remembered Church history into one coherent narrative, this is a narrative that will do that.

W. Paul Reeve and Michael Scott Van Wagenen, Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore. (Logan, Utah: Utah State University, 2011). 243 p., index.

Ancient robber bands, Bigfoot, UFOs – what’s not to love about a volume of essays exploring the connections between Mormonism and pop culture manias, between the physical world of 19th century Mormons and the worlds of scripture? These chapters are enjoyable if only for the guilty thrill you’ll feel at the juxtaposition of religious faith and things you’d never expect to be discussed in Sunday School – but there’s solid folklore study and history behind each of the essays. You’ll not only learn about the specific cases under study, but you’ll come away with some ideas that may help you evaluate modern Mormon urban legends.

Reed L. Neilson and Riley M. Moffat, Tales from the World Tour: The 1895-1897 Travel Writings of Mormon Historian Andrew Jenson (Provo, Utah: BYU, in cooperation with Deseret Book, 2012). 446 p., index.

The title pretty well tells you what to expect from the content. It can’t tell you how charming the narrative can be, though. Andrew Jenson traveled the world gathering the history of the Church from everywhere he could reach, and you’ll enjoy the history he tells. But the book is more than that – it’s an account of a traveler, and how he got from here to there, and what he saw, and who he met, and what he ate, and how the locals dressed and housed themselves. These writings were letters published in the Deseret News, so they were geared toward people just like us, full of anecdote and color and life. The book is oversize, not something you’ll carry to the beach with you, but leave it open on your desk if you can, and read it in installments as they appeared in the newspaper.

Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System 1840-1910. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001). 305 p., index.

One of the more scholarly books on this list, it is almost as accessible as any of the rest. Kathy Daynes studies Mormon plural marriage – its rise and decline, who the women were who became plural wives, their religious devotion, why they married, the nature of their married lives, the economics of polygamy, their divorces and remarriages – by focusing on one community, Manti, Utah. Manti was large enough to encompass the full polygamous experience, yet small enough to be comprehensively studied. The study of polygamy becomes the story of polygamy in this book – the theory and the practice is fully illustrated by the lives of those involved. Get away from the “ick”and the “ugh” that usually accompanies bloggernacle discussion of plural marriage, and learn from a genuine scholar.

“Dallin H.Oaks and Marvin S.Hill, Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1975). 248 p., index.

Another of the scholarly books on the list, this study of the trial of those accused of Joseph Smith’s murder was written while Elder Oaks was a lawyer, long before he was called as an apostle. The vast majority of Mormon history books have been written for Mormons entirely within the Mormon world – Carthage Conspiracy was one of the first to examine a Mormon event by stepping outside Mormonism and placing the event in a wider context: that of American law and history. Part history, part Law&Order, you don’t have to be a lawyer to follow the legal arguments and understand the principles. The generic “mob” of most Mormon martyrdom accounts comes into sharp focus as you see the individuals involved and the townsmen who supported and protected them.

Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). 430 p., index.

You may think you’re burned out on Mountain Meadows after so many years of its being at the center of Mormon/non-Mormon debate. If so, you’ve probably heard too many conflicting and mutually exclusive theories for this and that aspects, too many arguments to trust that the truth can ever be known. If so – and because you’re a Keepa’ninny who doesn’t automatically assume the worst about your people – this is the book to read for better understanding of who did what, when and where and why. Rather than re-arguing the arguments, the authors give a straightforward narrative of their best understanding of what happened, letting alternate theories and conflicting conclusions drop out of view. It isn’t pleasant reading, but it is accessible, at times passionate, and always tries to face the truth without excuse or rationalization.

W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall, Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia. (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2010). 449 p., index.

Yes, I’m going to plug a book I co-edited. Don’t buy it – it’s too obscenely expensive for individual purchase. Instead, look at it in your local library, or encourage your library to buy a copy. That was the publisher’s intended market. I recommend the series of six 5000-word essays at the beginning of the volume, as forming a short (short-ish) account of the whole sweep of Mormon history; also, the collection of 3000-word “issues” essays later in the book. These essays focus on individual aspects of the Mormon past: polygamy, Mormonism and blacks, Mormonism and Native Americans, Mormonism and Women (also, Mormonism and Men, which is not as obvious a topic as you might think). There are essays on the history of the missionary experience (Mormon Missiology), on the history of the genealogical program, on other branches of the Restoration, on science and violence and education and government and scripture.

Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Book of Mormon. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011). 154 p., index.

Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Doctrine and Covenants. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012). 146 p., index.

I’ve been meaning for more than a year to do a formal review of the Book of Mormon volume, and now it has a twin volume on the Doctrine and Covenants. These are two of the most intriguing books in recent memory – and unexpectedly so. Rather than discussing the content or meaning or reception of scripture, these are books about the books themselves. Think of them as biographies: Where was the book born, and where did it travel, and what new clothes did it appear in from time to time? There is a surprising amount of story and anecdote available about why new editions were printed, and who paid for them and why they look the way they do. The photos are amazing, too, largely pictures I’d never seen before. The physical volumes are lovely, too – embossed jackets, marbled endpaper, heavy coated paper, exquisite color photography.

Nephi Anderson, Added Upon (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1898. 228 p. [my 16th edition, 1939]

The oldest book on the list, and the only fiction. Added Upon was incredibly popular for an incredibly long time – I’m not sure it has ever gone out of print (it may have), and since it has long been in the public domain you can find all kinds of cheap reprints out there, as well as many copies of old editions. This story follows a group of souls from the premortal existence, through mortality, and on into the next life – long before Saturday’s Warrior repeated the idea. The writing is a bit stiff and stilted, but you’ll soon adapt. It’s fun to see where so many non-scriptural folk notions of pre- and post-mortality came from.



20 Comments »

  1. Added Upon is in Kindle/mobi and Nook/e-pub formats at several free, public repositories such as this one:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/search/

    Comment by Allison in Atlanta — March 12, 2013 @ 7:51 am

  2. My experience in reading Mormon history has been very anti-climatic: the first book I read was Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. I’ve read about 50 books since and nearly everything else has failed to match the lofty bar set by Bushman. Others that have wowed me include Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon, Prince and Wright’s David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, Ed Kimball’s biography of his father’s tenure as church president Lengthen Your Stride, and Massacre at Mountain Meadows.

    Another Mormon studies book I rank with these, though not history, is Grand Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon. It totally changed the way I read the scripture.

    Comment by Bill West — March 12, 2013 @ 8:43 am

  3. Darn. I was going to try to be esoteric and original by recommending “Carthage Conspiracy.”

    And I’m pleasantly surprised to see Anderson’s “Added Upon” a book I was very fortunate to receive as a gift when I was young. Much, much better than most Mormon Fiction.

    I agree with Bill’s addition of “Lengthen Your Stride” by Ed Kimball. Everybody read the first book on Pres. Kimball’s life. This second volume is so much better and basically ignored. The chapters on the Revelation on the Priesthood (OD2) are fascinating.

    Comment by Grant — March 12, 2013 @ 9:19 am

  4. I’m a biography nut, so if that’s you’re thing, here are some I’ve enjoyed:

    Best old book: Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt.
    Best “unknown” book: Tate’s “LeGrand Richards, Beloved Apostle”
    Best new book: Another endorsement for “Lengthen your Stride”
    (I liked Prince’s McKay Bio, but thought it fell short of its potential by largely ignoring the rise of Mormon Conservatism, of which McKay played a major role).
    I haven’t yet read Turner’s bio of Pres. Young, but that’s on the list, too…

    Comment by The Other Clark — March 12, 2013 @ 10:20 am

  5. This is a really great list. I’ve read through most and agree that they are great. I’m getting to the point where I don’t know what I would recommend anymore, there is so much to read.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 12, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

  6. Thanks for the list. I’m in my second go round of Carthage Conspiracy after a recent trip to Nauvoo. Literally stumbled upon it in the university library way back in 1984 or so while taking a break from studying. I went on to law school and understood some of the technical proceedings a little better, but you are right. Any reader can understand the jargon and order of proceedings. Will look into the other recommended books.

    Comment by IDIAT — March 12, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

  7. This looks like a Thanksgiving feast of reading — even the exotic relish tray is included! I’ve only read one of these (Carthage Conspiracy) so it’s all new to me. I have some of these on my wish list, better get off the computer and read a book!

    Comment by MDearest — March 12, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

  8. Nice list. (And I’m not just saying that since I’m mentioned!) The Women of Faith collection is really extraordinary. I haven’t finished the book yet — I’m saving it to read a little at a time — and they are amazing accounts. As I explained elsewhere, it’s a drop in the bucket in correcting what has been a male-centric telling of our history, but it is a step in the right direction.

    The Allen and Leonard history of the Church is good; I just handed it to one of my teenagers the other day when some questions arose.

    Comment by Amy T — March 12, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

  9. Ardis, thanks for the list,…..and to think I thought that I’d read most of the “good stuff”.
    This gives me plenty to consume for a week on the Mexican Riveria.

    Comment by PJD — March 12, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

  10. Thanks for your comments and suggestions. As several have said, there is SO much out there, so where do you start?

    My list won’t give anybody a well rounded Mormon history education — it’s only meant to be ideas for when you’d like to read something historical, no particular topic but just something interesting and reliable, something to stretch your knowledge but nothing that you have to read with an open dictionary, or that turns reading from pleasure to a chore.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 12, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

  11. I would suggest Bushman’s “Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism.” A joy to read, short and to the point.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 12, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

  12. Is it OK if I make a plug for my mother (Susan Buhler Taber)’s book, Mormon Lives: A Year in the Elkton Ward? I’d echo Lengthen Your Stride and Rough Stone Rolling, along with the first Kimball biography. Also David O. McKay and the Roots of Modern Mormonism.

    Comment by John Taber — March 12, 2013 @ 8:42 pm

  13. Sorry about mixing up the em tags there.

    [Fixed! -- AEP]

    Comment by John Taber — March 12, 2013 @ 8:43 pm

  14. Great list, Ardis, and thanks for the shout-out. It’s probably sacrilege, but I’ve never read Added Upon, and I like the idea of including a classic work of fiction with this group. I will have to check it out.

    Comment by Jared T. — March 12, 2013 @ 11:43 pm

  15. I assert only one cautionary note about Bushman’s “Jospeph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism.” I remembered that I annotated my copy indicating Hoffman forgeries in the notes once his “partial” confession came out. I think there’s only one, the fake 1829 letter from Lucy Mack Smith to her sister in Vermont. I checked the paperback edition (1987) on Amazon and the same letter is in there. I don’t know if there was a later edition of Bushman’s book that corrected it. Well, of course “Rough Stone Rolling” doesn’t rely on forgeries – to the extent we know of them.

    Comment by Grant — March 13, 2013 @ 8:58 am

  16. I recall that Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism was published between the time that the Hoffman documents were “found” and the time they were exposed as forgeries. My recollection (and it’s been nearly 30 years since I read the book, so my memory may have faded nearly to black) was that Bushman didn’t “rely” on the forged documents. Instead, he placed Joseph Smith in a culture where even if the documents were real they shouldn’t destroy one’s faith.

    But I’m inclined to pull the book out and read it again. Thanks, Grant.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 13, 2013 @ 9:46 am

  17. While the question of forgeries is important, I do like Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism for a list like this. A lot of readers would find Beginnings more approachable than Rough Stone Rolling. And this is a good place to make the probably obvious observation that new books on old subjects continue to be written in large measure because new sources are found, or new understanding is available … and that just because you’ve read one biography of Joseph Smith, or one account of plural marriage, doesn’t mean you won’t find a new book on that subject just as worth reading.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 13, 2013 @ 9:56 am

  18. Yes. I don’t mean in anyway to discount the book. It’s a really good one. I have a lot of underlining and notes in it. It appears to be how I learned of Oliver’s “divining rod” or “sprout” as the case may be – now amazing linked by the JSP to the Gospel Doctrine Manual! (Or was that in Lyndon Cook’s class at BYU?) Anyway, it was an important book for me and I agree with Mark B. that Bushman is so great (as well as in “Rough Stone”) because he puts Joseph in context of his culture and what people were supposedly saying about him – which isn’t necessarily who he was. I mean, Brodie at least got her title right (sorry, I don’t mean to be too hard on her either.)

    Comment by Grant — March 13, 2013 @ 10:15 am

  19. JSPP (Joseph Smith Papers Project)

    Comment by Grant — March 13, 2013 @ 10:18 am

  20. Great list. Thanks.

    Comment by queuno — March 24, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

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