Ask Mormon Girl: It’s time to learn Mormon history. Where do I start?

Dear Ask Mormon Girl:

I grew up a crazy liberal kid in a Democratic household.  In college, I was a political science / women’s studies major and an activist.  My mentor was an ex-Mormon and often talked bitterly about the Church.  I joined the Church my senior year while she was on sabbatical.  I’ve never had the guts to tell her I joined the church; in fact, I avoid telling people from my pre-Mormon past that I’m LDS. Part of it has to do with my lack of knowledge of Mormon History and my inability to articulate my beliefs.  I took a course on Mormon History at Institute (before joining the Church) but of course it was totally watered-down and sugar-coated. I want to learn as much as I can about our history, ALL of it. Could you recommend some books? I want to be as informed as possible. I want the good and the bad. It’s been almost five years since I joined the church; I feel like my faith is now mature enough to handle everything.  I tried doing some research on my own but it’s hard to find good sources.


RS in SoCal

Dear RS in SoCal:

First, I’d like to congratulate you on your intellectual curiosity and your independent frame of mind.  Were you not so healthfully curious and independent, you may not have had the fortitude to convert to Mormonism . . . in college . . . as a women’s studies major! My kind of Mormon you are:  a wonderful bundle of contradictions, held together by an inexplicable force we call faith.

It sounds to me that though you claim not to know much about Mormon history, you know there is more to the great Mormon story than the “sugar-coated” version you’ve gotten so far.  Mormonism is, after all, a complex tradition, made up of complex people like you and me, living in complex times, and trying to do the incredibly complex work of trying to know and manifest the will of God.

“Truth is the history of an error,” wrote the philosopher Michel Foucault.   In our history you will find the same elements you find in every history of every religion, every culture, every people:  truth and error, joy and sadness, foresight and failure, success and tragedy, ambiguity, contradiction, and even a little weirdness.  Nothing to be ashamed of, really. And please don’t fear the weirdness, RS.  Every religion has its own brand of weirdness.  What makes Mormonism special, I think, is that our weirdness is so much more recent.

Okay, enough forewarning.  You asked for books, and here’s a short list:

1. Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.  The acclaimed Joseph Smith biography by a legendary Mormon historian.  Scholarly and accessible, honest and reverent.  Start here.

2. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery, Mormon Enigma:  Emma Hale Smith.  Emma’s side of the story.  A Mormon feminist classic.

3.  Greg Prince, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.  Painstakingly researched, deeply humane portrait of the prophet who transformed Mormonism from a Great Basin movement into a global Church.   See especially the clear and carefully researched chapter on “Blacks, Civil Rights, and the Priesthood.”

4. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson, Sisters in Spirit:  Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective. Don’t miss chapters by Linda Wilcox on the history of discourse on Heavenly Mother, Carol Cornwall Madsen on women and the temple, Linda King Newell on Mormon women and authority, and Jill Mulvay Derr on the Relief Society.

5.Maxine Hanks, ed., Women and Authority:  Re-emerging Mormon Feminism. Includes important essays by D. Michael Quinn, Bettina Lindsey, Todd Compton, Maxine Hanks, as well as excerpts from historical Mormon women’s writings.

Of course, no list is all-inclusive.  There are some recent, popular Mormon histories I’ve left out in order to include some books that have been more personally meaningful to me and that I suspect might be meaningful to you too.  But I hope our ever-obliging readers will offer additional suggestions in the comments section, or you might check out helpful recommendations compiled by the Mormon historians who blog at the Juvenile Instructor.

Now, independent though you may be, RS, you may find yourself at some point wanting to touch base with other Mormons who have already discovered for themselves the complexity of our history. For some Mormons, reading real Mormon history for the first time causes profoundly mixed feelings.  For others, it’s not really a big deal.  And for some of us, it’s actually a relief to discover that we are not the first Mormons to live in some tension with a tradition we love (like Emma Smith did), or to realize that human inclinations rather than gospel doctrine were the foundation for regrettable policies such as the denial of priesthood to men of African descent until 1978.

Whatever your reaction is, know that you are not alone, but know also that very few of us feel comfortable talking about these complex dimensions of Mormon history in our regular Sunday meetings.  If you’d like a little company as you process the knew knowledge you’ll gain, perhaps you might consider dialing into the Mormon Stories podcast, which features interviews with some of the authors I’ve recommended, and a brand new Mormon Stories on-line community.  Feminist Mormon Housewives also has an on-line community of women seasoned in coming to terms with truth and error, joy and sadness, mistakes and successes, and weirdness as well. Thanks to the internet, there is no reason to go it entirely alone.

And so, readers, let’s not let RS feel entirely alone.  What books on Mormon history might you recommend? And how have you come to terms with Mormon history, or the history of your own religion?

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Filed under faith transition, mormon history

5 responses to “Ask Mormon Girl: It’s time to learn Mormon history. Where do I start?

  1. MG, I can’t believe you left off “No Man Knows My History” by Fawn Brodie. OK, it’s not as recent as “JS: Rough Stone Rolling,” but it was the first serious, scholarly biography of JS, and it’s damn good! Reading that book transformed my sense of Mormon history, because it was respectful, well-researched, informative, eloquent–and reviled by Mormons, primarily because it wasn’t sugar-coated.

    “Early Mormonism and the Magic World View” by D.Michael Quinn contextualizes the origins of Mormonism very intriguingly. Quite a trip.

    “From Housewife to Heretic” by Sonia Johnson is a book I avoided for years because…. well, because it was another book that people around me reviled. But I really enjoyed it. RS, it would help you understand your mentor’s perspective, so that you could respond to it if/when you encounter it again.

  2. Leanne Gard

    Hi RS,

    The above list that MG has recommended are great choices. One of my favourite biographies on Joseph Smith is by John Henry Evans. He is not a member of the church and never has been. It gives a balanced perspective of the Prophet Joseph and it follows facts instead of opinions. The author in his preface states,

    “perhaps 95% of what has been written about Joseph Smith consists of opinion, and opinion, too, by those who could not, and did not, have any first hand knowledge on the subject. This is the unpardonable sin in historical work. But, while I have gone to the sources, I have endeavoured to evaluate this material; for, in the case of the prophet particularly, there was a strong tendency on the part of those who knew him in life to love him or hate him or to hate him overmuch. His aquaintances were never neutral. If I have erred on the side of those who thought well of him, it is because love is always less likely to be wrong than hate.”

    The title of the book is Joseph Smith, an American Prophet. John Henry Evans.

    Hope this helps.


  3. Steve-O

    Rough Stone Rolling is a wonderful starting point. As a young lapsed Mormon, I read a lot of awful books on my faith. What they lacked in seriousness, they compensated for with self-righteousness. These books spoke to a need to wrestle with some of the uncomfortable issues in our history. We rarely receive the opportunity to do this within the official context of Church. I almost fell into the vain trap of believing I was too intelligent to be a Mormon.

    Bushman destroyed all of that.

    It’s solid history & pointed me towards some other quality work, most of it critical (yet still valuable) like that of Brodie. The unflinching honesty effectively countered the nagging doubts that had been killing my faith. This may sound silly. Basing faith on mimicking a “smart guy” is a recipe for disillusionment. But this was no divine book. It won’t give one a testimony, still need to work for that by prayerfully studying scripture & humbly serving others.

    Best of luck to you, RS.

    BTW-Bushman also pointed me towards All Abraham’s Children by Armand Mauss. It’s more sociology than history. He digs into the average Mormon members feelings about race rather than rely on official Church statements. The tone was a little defensive, but the book deserves a credit for wrestling with the uncomfortable process of racialization.

  4. spencer

    What about Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins? Much of the LDS history has been well kept by the church. The Journals of Discourse is 26 volume set of teachings, statements and other compiled records. Although the church has declared that the Journals of Discourse are not official church doctrine. Many church lesson manuals reference back to the JoD.(?) This only adds to the ambiguity of “official” church doctrines and history.

  5. Robin Gattis

    How about: The Mormon Hierarchy by Quinn.

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