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Review: The Mormons: An Illustrated History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 02, 2013

The Mormons: An Illustrated History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. by Roy A. Prete. London/New York: Merrell, 2013. 160 p. index. ISBN 978-1-8589-4620-7. Hardcover. Cover price: $34.95 (US); £24.95 (UK); $38.95 (Can.), but currently $18.90 on Amazon.

The subtitle “An Illustrated History” may conjure up expectations of familiar paintings of the First Vision and Joseph Smith at the Hill Cumorah, and old sepia-tone photos of the Kirtland Temple and a wagon company in the canyons of Utah. There is some of that in this attractive book of photographs with running commentary and interesting sidebar articles. However, that traditional (or stereotyped?) presentation of our history fades into the background here: This is overwhelmingly a look at contemporary Mormon life with historical context, rather than the far more common study of early Mormon history with a brief nod to modern developments.

I like it.

Most writers of Mormon history, including me, I’m afraid, speak almost exclusively to each other and whatever listeners want to come along for the ride. It really matters to us whether something happened on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and whether that pencil mark should be interpreted as a comma or a full stop. Sometimes, I think – although this time I’m going to excuse myself from inclusion – we forget that all this history belongs to a living, vibrant people, full of faith, for whom the history is merely background to what matters: individuals, families, and wards working to improve lives, increase faith, and provide service. This book addresses history that way: This is who we are, and this is why we are what we are.

Chapter titles give you a sense of this contemporary presentation:

1. A Visit to Temple Square
2. Salt Lake City and Utah
3. Joseph Smith and the Restoration
4. Jesus Christ and the Plan of Salvation
5. The Bible, the Book of Mormon, and Additional Scriptures
6. The Foundation of Apostles and Prophets
7. Meetinghouses and Church Programs
8. Mormon Lifestyle
9. Education: A High Priority
10. Reaching Out to Those in Need
11. Mormon Temples Dot the Earth
12. Family History and Genealogy
13. “Unto Every Nation”
14. Mormons Who Have Made a Difference

Chapters are written by individual contributors, whose names, so far as I can find, appear only at the heads of chapters and in a modest listing of contributors at the end of the book. You wouldn’t know without searching that the chapters were written by BYU professors of history and religion, and specialists in various LDS endeavors (meetinghouse facilities, law, public affairs). Many of these are writers I would have expected to continue the traditional begin-at-the-beginning-and-march-forward presentation of history; that they do not must be due to the design and guidance of the primary editor and his two co-editors.

A closer look at a couple of representative chapters:

“Reaching Out to Those in Need,” written by Neil K. Newell of LDS Welfare Services and BYU, begins with a story of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, then backs up to Joseph Smith’s day, with his 1842 instruction “to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide for the widow, to dry up the tear of the orphan, to comfort the afflicted, whether in this church, or in any other, or in no church at all wherever he finds them.” The commentary tells briefly of the development of welfare services in the midst of the Great Depression and describes the modern welfare plan. It discusses – always briefly – fast offerings, self-reliance, and humanitarian work (safe water, neonatal resuscitation training, wheelchairs, food and agricultural training, immunizations, eye surgery, and disaster relief), and concludes with an explanation that “caring for the poor is a covenant obligation … one of the key things that must be known to truly understand [the Church] and its members.” Illustrating the text are photographs both historic (a 1936 image of cannery workers) and contemporary (workers in today’s Welfare Square bakery and cannery), a photo of deacons in a Polynesian country collecting fast offerings, action shots of Mormon Helping Hands at work, an African hand turning the spigot on a water pipe from which gushes clean water, and small, frightened children receiving medical attention, among others. A sidebar suggests the scope of the Welfare program, giving statistics for farms and orchards, storehouses, employ services, family service offices, etc., with production facilities for soap, pasta, peanut butter, furniture, milk and cheese processing, and more. In short, the chapter focuses on contemporary Mormon life with its historical background, and, with a light touch, outlines the religious motivations for the temporal behavior.

A more traditionally history-focused chapter is “Joseph Smith and the Restoration,” by BYU’s Susan Easton Black. This chapter covers briefly the familiar (to us) story from the First Vision through the overland trail experience. Keepa’ninnies would find little new factual information, but might benefit from reading it through the eyes of someone who has never heard the story – that is the apparent intended audience for this volume. The text is brief, and clear, and would provide a convert or an interested neighbor with necessary information on the origins of Mormonism, without bogging down in the minutiae that many of us find fascinating but which – let’s face it – would bore and confuse too many people. (Unbelievable, I know! How can there be such people?! But then I think how fast my eyes glaze over when someone recites sports statistics, and I have a little more compassion for the poor souls who don’t appreciate history as much as you and I do.) This chapter is illustrated with paintings of Joseph Smith in various historical settings, a photograph of the Sacred Grove, an especially gorgeous modern photograph of the Kirtland Temple in its garden setting, several simple and necessary maps, and illustrations of the pioneer trek, among other images.

There’s an interesting sidebar in this chapter that neatly demonstrates how this book bridges illustration, history, and even a subtle bit of doctrine: A photograph of a page from the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon is accompanied by text that reports Joseph’s dictation, the scribe’s lack of punctuation, and the fact that scribes changed in the middle of a sentence. “This corroborates,” the text says, “the testimony of scribes. Joseph’s wife, Emma Hale, sometimes his scribe, said that when returning ‘after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.’” Then the author backs away from what casual readers might find uncomfortable advocacy for Joseph’s prophetic status by returning to a safe descriptive statement noting that the text flows throughout the manuscript with very few cross-outs.

Other sidebars in other places include the text of the Articles of Faith; an explanation of why we do vicarious work for the dead; points in the BYU honor code; and a beautifully written and remarkably non-defensive acknowledgment of historic polygamy, its origins and discontinuance, and a distinction between the Church and modern polygamists.

While this review so far has emphasized the written word, The Mormons: An Illustrated History is, above all, an album of images – a few historic photographs in black and white, but overwhelmingly attractive images in color.

There are many paintings familiar to LDS audiences – well-used scenes of the Restoration, Biblical scenes, a Minerva Teichert painting, and some Old Masters. Some of these imagined scenes were less familiar to me, including one of the westward trek

Historic photos include portraits of the Three Witnesses (but alas! since I am one of those who remains skeptical about the identification of the so-called Oliver Cowdery daguerreotype, I regretted seeing that one here; but that’s just me), and Brigham Young. A photograph of David O. McKay shows him as a man in the prime of life rather than as the white-haired patriarch that is usually shown – I really liked that. Perversely, perhaps, I also enjoyed the fact that several photographs of Thomas S. Monson show him as he is today, a man in his 80s, rather than in the more youthful portrait that is commonly shown.

Other photographs that I especially enjoyed were contemporary photographs of historic buildings, or reconstructions: the Peter Whitmer home, E.B. Grandin’s print shop, Carthage Jail, the Nauvoo Temple. Just as those buildings do when we visit them in person, the photographs collapse the distance between the 1830s or ‘40s and today.

If I have any real complaint about the images chosen, it is the stock, staged photographs that depict generic scenes of Mormon life: A child in a baptismal font, a family at prayer, a teacher standing before a class — and especially two obviously staged photographs of Mormon congregations where every available seat in the chapel is filled with a smiling, overly attentive Latter-day Saint;  but one of those is saved by the face of a little boy who is staring adorably at the camera rather than at the speaker. I suppose these images are inevitable, though, and they serve the same purpose they do in, say, Daughters in My Kingdom, where they broaden the ethnic or geographic depiction of Mormonism.

There are a number of photographs that might be stock photos, but which at least appear to be photos of real events where the photographer interrupted to ask everybody to smile for the camera: I think that really is an MTC district at work, a crowd of Latter-day Saints genuinely preparing to assemble Humanitarian Aid kits, and a crowd of happy BYU students walking to or from a Marriott Center devotional.

Photographs of temples around the world, of buildings on and near Temple Square, of modern chapels, are well chosen and flattering to us as a people. There is also a picture of the BYU campus in springtime that I find myself frequently stopping to look at again as I page through the book looking for images to spotlight – it may be the most beautiful shot of campus I have ever seen, and, if a single image were the only criterion for judging a school, the Ivy League and Oxbridge would have nothing to beat BYU.

I’ve heard that back in the day Sears, Roebuck designed their catalog to be slightly smaller than their competitor’s, so that when the catalogs were stacked on a counter, as they often were, the Sears catalog would naturally be placed on top. I have no way of knowing whether this tactic was in the minds of the book designers, but it might as well have been. This heavy, somewhat oversize (8-1/2 x 11 in.) book is not be quite large enough to be considered a coffee table book, although you may well display it there … and if you do, The Mormons will almost certainly be the top book of any such stack.

That’s a good place for this beautiful book. The only better place might be on the coffee table of someone you would like to better understand the Church. If we as a people always live up to the way we are represented here – and there’s no reason we can’t – we can hold our heads high.



2 Comments »

  1. Thank you for your review on this book. I look forward to getting one.

    Comment by Carl C. — December 2, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

  2. […] on last-minute Christmas gifts? Ardis P overviews a new coffee-table book on […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Studies Weekly Roundup: “Today We Renounce” Edition — December 8, 2013 @ 9:13 am

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