“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
― L.P. Hartley
It’s important to state upfront that I am using the term “academic” very loosely. Proper usage would imply works that have undergone a substantial peer review and publishing by a reputable university press. While I definitely privilege such titles, writing on Mormonism is often seen as a “service” to Mormons and not something of tremendous interest to the academy, broadly. This is changing somewhat with the growth of Mormon studies programs at various universities. However, by and large, books that are published by academic scholars about Mormonism tend to be directed at a Mormon audience and are published by a variety of presses–some universities, some national, some independent. Some are peer-reviewed, some aren’t. Some are written by professional scholars, others are written by talented hobbyists. So what do I mean by academic? Well, the following:
- There is a certain amount of rigour involved with the gathering and interpretation of original sources. In other words, the bibliography reads more like an archive collection catalog than a list of books or blog posts by other authors.
- Ideally, there was a peer review process. While peer review has its own political challenges, it is still the best way to minimize obvious bias and add expertise to a book.
- It has a dispassionate tone. Academic scholarship is rarely about proving religious claims to be true or false. Its focus is more secular, even when studying a religious group or topic. Yes, there may be a healthy amount of skepticism at play, but the ultimate goal of academic scholarship is to present a picture that is as close to reality as possible, and let the sources speak for themselves.
- It is dull. There’s no way around it. The more jargon-filled and foot-noted an academic book, the more applause it tends to receive from its intended audience: other academic scholars. Academic scholarship can be quite the yawner. On the upside, academic writing can be quite useful to those who suffer from insomnia, so long as the voluminous opus doesn’t smite you in the forehead whilst you lay prone attempting to read its brittle pages. Perhaps stick with ebooks on these titles to avoid head injury. Or paperback, at the very least.
A word of caution: academic scholarship is still written by humans. In fact, not only is it written by humans, but it is using sources that were also mostly written by humans. At each stage, personal interest, intentional distortion, or even delusion, must be taken into account. This is what peer review attempts to mitigate. However, peer review also happens to be done by humans. And the questions we ask the historical record to answer today are not the same questions that historians of yesteryear asked. As our social interests change, so to does the way we view the past. This is why we can continue discussing the Civil War after what seems like every possible record has been squeezed dry. The records haven’t changed, but the way we think about the past has.
That was a long introduction. If you’re still following along, here are my recommendations to get started in your study of academic scholarship (again, loosely defined):
Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. I suggest this book as your first book for a number of reasons: 1.) It offers an overview of Church history from its origins to modern day. 2.) This overview is offered in roughly 350 pages. 3.) Its 350 pages are well-written and interesting, thus reducing the likelihood of head injury (see point #4 above). Additionally, because this book was published by a national publisher (Penguin) it is easy to find and relatively inexpensive. It also has an audible version.
Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. I really wish I could suggest a shorter book. There are shorter biographies of the Mormon prophet; however, Bushman’s work stands head above the rest. But at 700+ pages, it’s a marathon. And it’s dry compared to Bowman’s book. Only one in five readers make it through the entire text. But, if you want to understand the history of Joseph Smith from a careful scholar who, despite being a professed believer, is unafraid of wandering into the darker hallways of history, this is really the best book to sink your teeth into. On the upside, there is an audible version available, and the reader isn’t half bad.
Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. Emma Smith is a difficult historical figure to write about because she left very few records. There is no known diary that gives us a window into her life and thoughts. Most of what we can say about her comes from other sources: correspondence, reminiscences, and the writings of her children and other family members. However, Newell and Avery did an admirable job of reconstructing the life of Mormonism’s elect lady. Plus, after reading Bushman, the brevity and reader-friendliness of Mormon Enigma will come as a welcome relief.
John G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. John Turner is not a Mormon, but he is empathetic towards his subject. Well, as empathetic as one can be towards Brigham Young. Be prepared to not like Brigham Young after reading Turner’s book,; not because Turner was unfair in his assessment or sloppy with his research, but because Brigham Young is a colorful and paradoxical character. Turner captured Young’s brashness and loyalty better than any other biographer of Mormonism’s “Moses” so far. While not quite as lengthy as Bushman’s work, Turner’s biography of Brigham Young still carries some heft at 500 pages and tends to follow typical academic dryness in some areas. But it’s well worth the read and vital in understanding the development of Mormonism in early Utah. An Audible version of this book is also available, and the reader is almost sufferable.
Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930, 3rd ed. With this book, Alexander provides a general history of Mormonism during its transition from pioneer, frontier, polygamous outsiders into the modern era, when the religion began to gain increased acceptance in America, and when Mormons became slightly less weird. Originally commissioned by the Church as part of a multi-volume history that never saw the light of day (more on that to come), Alexander writes to a general Mormon audience. Yes, it is dry in places and feels somewhat text-booky, but it’s still (unbelievably, despite being originally published during the Cold War) the best reading on this era. Bear in mind that because this was originally commissioned by the Church, Alexander carefully steps around sensitive topics such as the continued practice of polygamy after the 1890 Manifesto.
Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Continuing forward from Alexander’s work on the early twentieth century, Prince and Wright tackle the mid-twentieth-century with their careful and well-executed biography of David O. McKay. Issues such as race and the social changes taking place during the Civil Rights Movement are addressed, along with the Church’s international growth. Much of what is written about in this book sheds light on the Church as it exists today, including the formalization of the Correlation Department that is to blame for our dreadfully boring Sunday School lessons.
Gregory A. Prince, Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History. Almost a companion volume to Prince’s previous work, his biography of Arrington continues much of the same themes–analyzing a period of history in Mormonism through the study of an important figure. In case you aren’t familiar with Leonard Arrington, he was called as the official Church Historian in 1972, and was the first professionally trained historian to assume that role. However, things did not go so well as personalities clashed within the Quorum of Twelve. Several of Arrington’s projects were cut (including the above-mentioned Mormonism in Transition), the Church Historian’s Department closed, and Arrington and his staff quietly relocated to BYU. If you want to know why the history that has been taught in Sunday School, Seminary, and Institute has been so averse to controversial details, this is the book for you.
Here are a few others that I would suggest:
In addition to these books, I would suggest the following blogs and podcasts, which tend to stay true to an academic historical perspective:
Gospel Tangents Podcast. The host, Rick Bennett, interviews LDS scholars and historians about a variety of topics, including race, polygamy, Mormon schisms, women’s history, and much more. His interviews are typically several hours long, but cut up into bite-sized episodes.
Maxwell Institute Podcast. Although the primary focus of this podcast has been religious studies more broadly, when host Blair Hodges does a Mormon topic, he does an amazing job. As the Maxwell Institute is part of BYU, certain sensitivities regarding faith are practiced; however, the conversations are always thoughtful and intelligent.
The Juvenile Instructor. Juvenile Instructor is the premiere blog for up-and-coming LDS scholars in the fields of history and religious studies. While the blog does get a little insider-baseball with its focus on Mormon studies programs in the academy, topics with broader appeal are regularly posted.
Keepapitchinin. Ardis Parshall is without question one of the best archival researchers in the field. She keeps a blog that is primarily dedicated to tidbits of interesting, amusing, or touching artifacts that she comes across in her regular excavation and digitization of records. Once in a while she posts a long-form blog on a current topic. They are always very good. Besides her blog, Ardis is also writing She Shall Be an Ensign, a history of Mormonism told from the perspective of the women who were often in the background.
Journal of Mormon History. This is the peer-reviewed journal of the Mormon History Association, founded by Leonard Arrington in 1965. The journal has been in publication since 1974. Published quarterly, many renowned LDS scholars cut their teeth with this journal; and you might be surprised by the topics covered over the past forty years. At $40/year for the digital journal, it isn’t a terrible investment. If nothing else, it’s something to read on your tablet while pretending to pay attention during Sunday School (thanks, Correlation). Also, their issues five years and older are free to download.
The Joseph Smith Papers. The official website of The Joseph Smith Papers project contains an abundance of documentary records digitized, transcribed, and contextualized for your consumption. In addition, the Reference section will get you to some pretty specific events in Church history, and the videos in the Media section aren’t half bad. If you think academic scholarship is a snore, just wait until you begin diving into documentary history. You’ll have the joy of reading lists of timber orders and payouts, land surveys and purchases, and the occasional golden nugget of Joseph Smith referring to his adversaries as “dough headed.” This is the kind of intense excitement that historians live for.
Church Historian’s Press. Similar to The Joseph Smith Papers website, the Church Historian’s Press website has done an admirable job of posting documentary records that have been transcribed, and contextualized. Digitization projects include the extensive diaries of George Q. Cannon and a large collection of key documents of the Relief Society during its first fifty years. I know I said in the “Apologetics” section that much of what the Church produces can be considered apologetic (or defending the faith), but the documentary projects of the Church History Department (this includes Joseph Smith Papers and everything published by the Church Historian’s Press) are really held to a high standard and are top-notch.