Episode 11: Our Favorite Books on Mormonism

John Dehlinbooks, history, joseph, LDS, Mormon, Mormons, smith 33 Comments

In today’s episode, J. Nelson-Seawright, David King Landrith and I discuss our favorite books on mormonism (listed below).

J. Nelson-Seawright’s Recommendations

David King Landrith’s Recommendations

John Dehlin’s Recommendations

Comments 33

  1. Cool list. I’ve read and enjoyed many of the works listed above. I won’t repeat any of those, but will mention a few I liked in addition to books you all mentioned:

    Todd Compton: In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith

    Robert Bruce Flanders: Nauvoo, Kingdom on the Mississippi

    Misc Authors: The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith (Signature Books collection); Bryan Waterman, editor.

    Jan Shipps: Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons

    Misc Authors: The Wilderness of Faith: Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought (Signature Books collection); John Sillito, editor. (Kind of like Barlow’s A Thoughtful Faith, but this collection is a little better, in my opinion)

    Thomas G. Alexander: Mormonism in Transition

    Levi Peterson: A Rascal by Nature; a Christian by Yearning

    Richard Bushman: On the Road with Joseph Smith

    Richard Bushman: Believing History

    Dan Vogel: The Making of a Prophet

    Misc Authors: Reconsidering No Man Knows My History (Newell Bringhurst, editor)

  2. Matt, good recommendations for further reading! One thing we tried to do in the podcast is supply a little context for people just coming to this literature about why they might want to read each book and what they might expect to get from it. Do you have any similar thoughts regarding your recommendations?

  3. A fantastic podcast, guys. And great set of recommended books. Some time back I came across a similar list of books that Todd Compton had put together. See http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Oracle/7207/#dibm Though his list does not appear to have been updated in several years, he includes most of the suggestions made here as well as many others.

    Now for the time to read them all . . . .

  4. Carlos,

    That is Sunstone’s address — and full MP3 coverage of the conference will be available soon. Also, if you (or anyone else) want to help be a part of sunstone’s future, please let me know, and I’ll add you to our “Friends of Sunstone” email list. We are planning lots of very exciting things, and need your help to make it happen.

  5. John, et al.:

    Thanks again for another great podcast. I am preparing an review of the first 11 MM episodes for my blog and hope to have it up later today. I am about halfway through this latest one. These are all great choices and there are a couple I haven’t read but will put on my list. Here are some of my picks (trying to choose different books than those mentioned):

    Overview of Mormonism: Jan Shipps, Mormonism: A New Religious Tradition. A little dated now, but a groundbreaking book in Mormon Studies.

    On Joseph Smith: The trifecta of Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, Vogel’s Making of a Prophet, and Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. Though Bushman gave it the college try, there is still not a single volume that can really get you to understand Joseph Smith (neither do these three, but if you read these three, and the next on my list, any other book on Joseph Smith is only going to provide marginal returns).

    On Emma Smith: Mormon Enigma. Can’t believe no one on the panel picked this book. Outstanding work.

    On Brigham Young: Blood of the Prophets by Will Bagley. But read American Moses as well. This is about the MMM, nad is not specifically about Brigham Young, but you certainly get enough of a flavor of the man, at least in the Utah years.

    On the fundamentalist strain that survives to this day: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. Very well written. What is most chilling about this book is the way Ron Lafferty was able to go from the most vanilla, cookie-cutter mainstream Mormon priesthood holder to fundamentalist nutjob in one day. The second-most chilling thing is how Dan Lafferty describes his motivation for going through with the killings–the Spirit told him to. He knew it because he felt calm and peaceful.

    On Hofmann and Hinckley: Salamander. The best of the four books written on the Hofmann affair, in my estimation. An interesting look behind the scenes at church leaders like Oaks and Hinckley.

    This is hard. There are so many. On Mormon theology, I recommend a good book with a klunky title. Jesus Christ: Key to the Plan of Salvation by Gerald Lund. The best description of the Mormon doctrine of the Fall that I have seen anywhere. The author later became known in Mormon circles for writing schlocky historical fiction.

  6. I posted comment #1 before actually listening to the podcast. I have since listened to it this morning. Great job you guys!

    Loved what you all said about No Man Knows My History, probably the most exciting book on Mormonism I’ve read. I say “exciting” because it reads like a page-turning novel. Lavina Fielding Anderson wrote a great essay that is part of Bringhurst’s “Reconsidering No Man Knows My History” that both celebrates and criticizes Brodie’s use of literary devices. To give NMKMH context, “Reconsidering” should absolutely be read in conjunction with Brodie’s bio of Joseph.

    In Sacred Loneliness contains a brief overview chapter of Joseph Smith and polygamy before launching into 33 mini-biographies of each of Joseph’s plural wives. Many of these women are truly extraordinary. It is fascinating to see the various triumphant and tragic ways each of these 33 women’s lives evolved after the death of Joseph.

    Flanders’s Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi was first published in 1965. It does for Nauvoo what Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom did for Salt Lake City. You sometimes hear people reference “The Big 5” early seminal works on Mormonism, the books that really kickstarted the so-called “New Mormon History.” I’m going by memory, but I think they were Brodie’s NMKMH, Thomas F. O’Dea’s “The Mormons,” Juanita Brooks’s “MMM,” Arrington’s “Great Basin Kingdom,” and Flanders’s “Nauvoo.” Flanders comes out of the Reorganized CoJCoLDS tradition. Roger Launius has since written a nice companion volume called Reconsidering Nauvoo Kingdom on the Mississippi. Glen Leonard recently wrote a book about Nauvoo, but I have not read it and am not sure how it compares to Flanders.

    If I have time, I’ll add some context on some of the other books I mention later…

  7. Matt Thurston, In Sacred Loneliness is outstanding, I agree, primarily because of its focus on women. Too many Mormon books leave the sisters out, although women’s contribution to our past and present is obviously as much of the story as is men’s. And Flanders’s Nauvoo book is outstanding! I’d agree in adding it to the three classics we discussed on the podcast. I think O’Dea’s work hasn’t aged as well, and there’s less reason to read it today — but the other four remain essential reading. In my view, Leonard’s book simply isn’t as good as Flanders’s, although it has the familiar advantage of access to more raw materials. I also loved the Bringhurst collection on No Man… His biography of Brodie is also neat.

    Equality, I agree with most of your recommendations, as well. I think that Bagley overstates the case for Young’s direct involvement in MMM, but the book is a worthwhile update on Brooks — although I’d say you should read Brooks first. Salamander is a great read. I also agree with you about Krakauer’s book — with caveats. Krakauer should be disregarded when he starts speaking about religion in general, and he shouldn’t be taken too seriously when he talks about non-fundamentalist Mormonism. But his work with the Lafferty crimes is fascinating and well worth the read, in my opinion.

  8. The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith (Signature Books collection); Bryan Waterman, editor, contains 15 of the best essays written on Joseph Smith. A few of the essays are new, I think. Each essays delves a little deeper into a particular subject than any biography has time or space to do. As such, TPP is a great volume to read in conjunction with Rough Stone Rolling, or Brodie’s or Vogel’s work. I’ve heavily marked up my copy. See: http://www.signaturebooks.com/prophet.htm

    Jan Shipps’s Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons is just a wonderful colletion of Shipps’s writings on Mormonism over the years. Many of the essays appear in this collection for the first time. What a blessing Jan has been to the study of Mormonism. I like what one Amazon reviewer says of this book: “Reads like a combination of a coffee shop intimate chat and a stimulating history lecture. Mrs. Shipps writes clearly and engagingly about the evolving process of the LDS faith. I was engrossed the whole way through.”

    The Wilderness of Faith: Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought John Sillito, editor, is probably my favorite of the Signature Books “Essays on Mormonism” series. (Although I havn’t read them all.) Unfortunately it is out of print, but I always see copies available at Benchmark Books or online. See: http://www.signaturebooks.com/outofprint/wilderne.htm for more details. Philip Barlow’s fine volume A Thoughtful Faith collects personal faith stories from many big name LDS scholars, but all of them eventually settle down on the faithful side of the fence. The essayists in Sillito’s The Wilderness of Faith are not so uniformly represented. Some reconciled their faith and remain active LDS, others left the church, and others are somewhere in between, but all of their faith journeys are fascinating. TWoF reads like a Sunstone “Pillars of My Faith” greatest hits. Essayists include: Lavina Fielding Anderson; Arthur R. Bassett; Irene M. Bates; Elouise M. Bell; Hugh B. Brown; D. Jeff Burton; Richard J. Cummings; Edwin B. Firmage; Scott G. Kenney; Betina Lindsey; Ron Molen; L. Jackson Newell; Levi S. Peterson; Linda Sillitoe; Susan B. Taber; and Donlu D. Thayer.

  9. RT,

    I just listened to the rest of the podcast. I put my plug in for Krakauer before hearing David blast him. I disagree that Krakauer gets almost everything wrong about the mainstream church. There are some minor errors, most of which have been corrected in later editions of the book. Indeed, the version I have includes an appendix in which Krakauer prints in its entirety a blistering review from Richard Turley (a church employee). Krakauer then responds to Turley’s criticisms. I had put off reading the book because of an interview I heard on NPR with Turley and Krakauer when the book first came out. Turley made it sound like Krakauer was just using his study of the Laffertys as an excuse to attack religion generally. Having now read the book, I don’t think that’s what Krakauer does at all. Instead, Krakauer is pointing out the potential consequences of black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking in religion. In telling the story of the Lafferty brothers, he is sounding a warning that I think liberal Mormons would embrace.

    I agree with you on Bagley’s book. I think a lot of Mormons dismiss it out of hand or would make disparaging comments about Bagley being a “fringe historian,” ahem, but tit is much more than simply a “Brigham was in on it” book-length conspiratorial screed. It is well researched and well written, and provides a lot of the “context” that Ann and you were saying is necessary to understand the MMM (see episode 3 of Mormon Matters). The background on the Fancher party is nicely done. Certainly, Brooks’ master work should also be read.

    I am wondering: what would the panelists (and commenters here) recommend on the Book of Mormon? Is anything by Nibley still relevant? Welch? What about Brent Metcalfe’s stuff? I know you were mainly discussing Mormon historical works and books that examine the church as an institution but you did mention a book discussing Mormon theology. What about exegetical works?

  10. Equality, in my opinion the place to start for Book of Mormon exegesis is Mark D. Thomas’s Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon narrative. It’s an exceptional book that engages more seriously with the text, in my opinion, than nearly anything else that’s ever been written. Thomas leaves the reader with a new appreciation for the depth and power of the book’s message. Highly recommended.

    For people who want to dig into battles over historicity, Metcalfe’s edited volume as well as the Vogel and Metcalfe volume are unavoidable. As also are various FARMS volumes certainly including some of Welch’s work on chiasmus, the volume on warfare, Sorenson’s geography hypothesis, etc. The debate is notoriously a mess, as both sides are sometimes seemingly willfully ignorant of each other’s claims and evidence. How much do these books contribute to exegesis? In my view very little. Most of this scholarship is so overwhelmed with the problem of historicity that the mere text vanishes in the mist.

  11. I think it is hard to leave off “Children of God” by Vardis Fisher. Joseph Flora from the University of North Carolina said that “in 1939 the two novels that generated the most comment and largest sales in the United States were John Steinbeck´s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and Vardis Fisher´s ‘Children of God.’ Both were by writers from the West, and both novels chronicled memorable treks across the American West.”

  12. Cut s Dean:

    Heber J Grant called “Children of God” “Mean as the devil” and considered it anti-mormon.

    I am surprised no one has mentioned Ed Kimball’s bigraphies of his father. They are pretty great. Also, everything I’ve read by Terryl Givens, I’ve loved.

  13. Wes, on Beck’s book, I’ve read it, and I consider it to be readable, but rubbish. Some time ago Sunstone published a review that respectfully panned it, and I think that it offered the most positive opinions that anyone could reasonably offer about the book. (And I’m saying that as someone who’s unwilling to call the Tanner’s magnum opus inaccurate.)

    Equality, what has steered me away from reading Bagley’s book isn’t that I think it’s just a conspiracy theory. I’ve read most of what the Tanner’s published, Martha Beck’s book, Krakauer’s book, and many others. I haven’t been very interested in it, because I consider Bagley himself to be a bit out there. I understand that he believes that Brigham Young had a plan to actually subvert the US government and take over. I’m sure that it appears well researched and all if you look at the bio, but come on.

    I heartily agree about Dan Vogel’s Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet. What I love about that book is the biography of the Book of Mormon. Every other biography writes off the period of time spent translating, simply noting that time was spent translating. Vogel actually offers a specific and rigorous chronology that is related to events in Joseph’s life. This is, perhaps, the most ambitious project in Mormon Studies in the past two decades, and he pulls it off in spades.

    Of the Metcalfe and Vogel edited essays on Mormon Scripture, all the ones that I’ve read are excellent. I think that New Approaches is the best one. American Apocrypha and The Word of God are also excellent. I haven’t read Line upon Line.

    As far as the Book of Mormon, the idea was to talk about books that many listeners would not have read. I, for one, assume that the listeners have read the Book of Mormon. If not, then I’d have assembled a different list.

    One can read the stuff in the FARMS review that RT mentions, but I tend to think that it’s very uneven in quality, and that even the best stuff is not that good.

  14. Matt W, I am happy to hear that Heber J Grant read it. (Did he read Steinbeck as well?)

    I still chortle with the juxtaposition: children of God mean as the devil….

  15. I read and enjoyed Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets. Bagley is more fair and balanced on the pages of this book than he is in person or online. I found BotP rather restrained and lacking the usual Bagley hyperbole.

    Bagley heaps much praise on Juanita Brooks and her MMM book, and sees his own tome not as a revision, but an update of Brooks. I think it should be read in conjunction with Brooks. Just as Bushman, Vogel et al have updated, but not necessarily reversed Brodie, Bagley updates Brooks.

    I’ll be interested to see what Turley/Walker/Leonard’s treatment has to say. Is that thing ever going to come out?

  16. I have to put another plug in for Terryl Givens as Matt W did already. I’m a bit surprised he isn’t mentioned and wonder why? Viper on the Hearth was good, By the Hand of Mormon was excellent, and I’ve just picked up The Latter-day experience in America, which is part of a series on religious experience in America. I have high hopes for A People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Cultue, which comes on on Monday August 27, 2007.

    So what are your thoughts on Givens?

  17. Matt Turston,

    Last I heard on the Turley/Walker/Leonard MMM book was that there was too much for one book, and they are producing 2. One will be the History, and one will focus on the Legal pieces post-MMM. The History book will be published first, and should be pretty close.

  18. I think Viper on the Hearth is a good book — it’s just not an important enough topic to be a starting point for a new reader. By the Hand of Mormon is, in my view, a mess. Givens covers a lot of ground, but in such a strange, distorted, and partisan manner that you know less after you read it than before. It’s one of my least favorite Mormon Studies books.

  19. DKL,

    Do you believe Ms. Beck’s allegations? I do and I think what happened to her is horrific and may be more common in the Church than we might think.

  20. My wife lent out Mormon America to a woman in our ward. It nearly destroyed her testimony. Personally I think it is a pretty even handed overview of a number of aspects of the Church.

  21. Wes, I do not believe her accusations. I have no doubt that there is more sexual abuse in the church than is publicly acknowledged, but that’s because of the nature of the crime — I’d guess that there is more sexual abuse in any community than that community cares to acknowledge. But “suppressed” memories are a very week justification for accusing someone of something that is (a) going to destroy their reputation, and (b) a felony.

  22. DKL,

    After reading your review, I stand by my own. We just disagree on the value of Krakauer’s work. I would characterize most of your criticisms as minor and of little consequence to the larger point Krakauer was making and the story he was telling (Btw, you misspell Mark Hofmann’s last name–one “f.” A common error, and no more trivial than some of the things you criticize Krakauer for getting wrong.) I don’t view his book as an attack on the modern LDS church; rather, it serves as a warning about the potential consequences of religious zealotry and relying on personal revelation from the “Spirit” to trump reason and morality. The description that Dan Lafferty provides of his state of mind when he committed the murders is eerily similar to what we read about in the Book of Mormon with Nephi slaying Laban. That is not a coincidence. That Ron Lafferty was in all respects a normal, typical mainstream Mormon who rather quickly turned to fundamentalism and fanaticism is a fact worthy of examination and exposition. The mainstream church’s emphasis on authority–and the use of history as a basis for that authority–and the moral relativism found in the Book of Mormon and Mormon history coupled with a culture in which individuals are taught that God speaks to them through spiritual feelings all combine to provide a catalyst for the Lafferty brothers’ actions. Not all religions provide the impetus for religiously motivated violence. And Mormonism is not unique in this regard. You won’t find any religiously motivate murderers among the Unitarian Universalists, for example. What is interesting to me is that 19th-century Mormonism produced a fair amount of religiously motivated violence. The church liberalized in the mid-twentieth century and we didn’t see this sort of thing. In recent years, the LDS church has swung back toward a more fundamentalist culture, and we see this sort of thing with apparently greater frequency. I think this sort of thing points tot he urgency and importance of liberalizing the current church culture. It’s not just about losing intellectuals and feminists to other faith traditions; it may literally be a matter of life and death.

  23. Equality,

    Do you happen to have data on murder rates among active UUs vs active LDS? I for one have seen the murder rate skyrocket in my ward.

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