Mormon History (2001 Printing)
James B. Allen, Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whittaker
University of Illinois Press , 2001. Hardback:
Suggested retail price: $32.50 (US)
The telling of history is funny stuff. It has been said that thevictors get to write the story, leaving open the real probability thatthe story will be skewed in favor of those who won.
But sometimes there are neither winners nor losers, only participantsin an ongoing story of birth, growth, accommodation and assimilation.The history of the birth and growth of the Church of Jesus Christ ofLatter-day Saints is just such a tale.
Mormon History tells the story of the telling of the story. Inother words, how has Mormon history been written by the Church itself?How has this history been reported by outsiders, friendly orotherwise? The story of the story is nearly as interesting as thestory itself.
The chapter headings are as follows:
- Beginnings: Nineteenth-Century Historical Writing
Beginning with Howe's "Mormonism Unvailed," the authors documentthe "highly partisan" writings of both Mormons and anti-Mormons.
The virtues and defects of early Mormon history may be traced to the fact that it was highly partisan. Mormons believed that their church was the "only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth," and they wrote with the settled conviction that this belief generated...Not surprisingly, non-Mormon writers disagreed. (1)
The authors consider the many histories written by, and about,the pioneers, as well as observations by outsiders as theytravelled through the Utah territory.
- Traditionalism Meets Modernism, 1900-1950
Here the tone is set for a major shift in the way Mormon historyis written:
As the twentieth century began, Mormon society was in the process of rapid change. The major events of the previous decade -- the financial panic of 1893, the granting of Utah statehood, and the Spanish-American war -- each reflected the economic, political, and cultural forces that were bringing once-isolated Utah into the national mainstream. Brigham Young's Great Basin kingdom, with its emphasis on Mormon peculiarity, was giving way to national aims and more secular ways. (31)
This chapter integrates the contributions made by the RLDS Church(now the Community of Christ) to the telling of Mormon history.Especially helpful to me was the recounting of the varioushistories written/compiled by B.H. Roberts.
- The New Mormon History: Historical Writing since 1950
The phrase "New Mormon History" has taken on something of anegative aspect in recent years. However, the authors explainthe evolution of this phrase very nicely:
the expression "new Mormon history" [has] assumed several connotations, some pejorative. However, the general tendency of the phrase -- and the movement that it described -- remained the same. Instead of defending or attacking LDS faith claims -- one of the major characteristics of nineteenth-century Mormon historiography -- the new historians were more interested in examining the Mormon past in the hope of understanding it -- and understanding themselves. Their tools were the same as those of other professionally trained historians: secular or naturalistic historical analysis. But instead of being put off by the study of religion, as the earlier rural agrarians or Mormonism's "lost generation of intellectuals" had been, the new generation believed that Mormonism, in all its diversity, deserved study. They accordingly asked new questions and explored new topics, many of which had nothing to do with the "truth" of the religion. Their hope was to broaden the base for understanding Mormonism's history. (61)
- The Challenge of Mormon Biography
Here the authors survey the two-fold task of evaluating earlyefforts at Mormon biography -- not surprisingly, some fare betterthan others -- and producing more accurate biographies today.They offer interesting insights into the wide range ofbiographies -- particularly those of Joseph Smith and BrighamYoung -- that fill our bookshelves.
- Flowers, Weeds, and Thistles: The State of Social ScienceLiterature on the Mormons (by Armand L. Mauss)
Mauss closes this fine volume with an insightful view of theincreasing interest the social sciences have had in the Mormonphenomenon.
During the early decades of the twentieth century, historians and social scientists studying the Mormons tended to look at the past itself or at the persistence of nineteenth-century Mormon institutions and beliefs into the new century (village or community organization, economic cooperation, family life, and so on). In midcentury, however, scholars began to focus more on how Mormons were changing, or at least being seriously challenged to change, as a natural and inevitable outcome of having finally engaged the modern world. (169)
The scope of this work is very ambitious, the challenges evengreater. How do you report on such a broad subject in so fewpages? How do you tell all sides of the story and maintain afair, impartial view? How do you avoid being called neither anapologist, nor a critic, of the Church?
The answers can be found in this fine book's spare prose andrapid pace. The focus is on supplying facts, rather than flowerypraise. As such, it is a valuable work in the field of Mormonhistoriography. Readers of Mormon history will find much ofvalue here.
Particularly interesting is the authors' attempt to document,clearly and concisely, the trajectories of both faithful andcritical Mormon history-telling. One can see a clear line fromthe earliest anti-Mormon literature to that which followed, oftenshowing an unfortunate dependence on prior unsourced material.Likewise, faithful Mormon writers faced challenges of sourcingand dependency.
As mentioned above, I was especially glad to read the sectionthat discussed the B. H. Roberts histories. It helped clarify forme the chronology and the motivation behind each work.
I gained some important insights on the lives and writing of somefamiliar authors: Fawn Brodie, Joseph Fielding Smith, etc. But Imust confess that I didn't recognize many of the people mentionedin this book. New names, new book titles -- what an education Ireceived reading this volume!
Mauss's essay breaks the model of the book somewhat. In a ratherleisurely style, he surveys the state of Mormon studies among thesocial scientists of our day. As always, his insights are sharpand helpful.
This is one book that will remain in my collection. I have nodoubt I will be referring to it as I continue my own studies inMormon history.
I gladly recommend this book.
© 2001 Jeff Needle