Excavating Mormon Pasts: The New Historiography of the Last Half Century
Lavina Fielding Anderson
Greg Kofford Books , 2004. Hardback: 408 + index pages.
Suggested retail price: $39.95 (US)
Telling the story of the Mormon experience can be a tricky enterprise.Apologists tend to brush aside the trickier aspects of Mormon history;critics tend to focus on them. In the end, getting to the truth can beeven trickier. Seeing through the biases requires a nuanced understandingof "Mormon pasts," something most of us don't possess.
The early years of Mormonism saw the publication of antagonisticliterature, books and broadsides aimed to tear down and expose the Mormonprophet and his religion. Some of these tracts engaged in wildspeculation; others raised serious questions. In the last fifty years,defenders of both positions have become more sophisticated in theirwriting. A study of this fruitful period is most welcome, and constitutesthe content of this fine book.
The phrase "The New Mormon History" is no doubt familiar to readers of thisreview. It is, of course, a rather modern phenomenon as scholars andhistorians have obtained both access to documents and the courage topublish their findings. For some, such publications have resulted inmarginalization from the Church proper. Purveyors of this "new" historywere seen as enemies of the Church. "Faithful history" was, in the mindsof some, the only history.
But many have believed that there is more to the story. And while, in thepast, seasoned readers have had access to the wide variety of historicalresources, recent changes in policy have made such access impossible.
The current volume consists of sixteen chapters, each written by anindividual, or a team of scholars, especially qualified to address thegiven topic. Each chapter is branded with the wisdom and experience of thewriter, with the whole carefully edited to provide a pleasing, andenlightening, reading experience.
A look at the Table of Contents gives you an idea of the scope of thisbook:
1. "Mormon History and the Conundrum of Culture: American and Beyond," byKlaus Hansen
2. "The Search for Cultural Origins of Mormon Doctrines," by David L.Paulsen
3. "Mormon Origins: The Church in New York and Ohio," by Roger D. Launius
4. "The Mormon Experience in Missouri, 1830-39," by Stephen C. LeSueur
5. "The Nauvoo Experience," by Glen L. Leonard
6. "Mormonism on the Frontier: The Saints of the Great Basin," by Craig L.Foster
7. "Mormonism in Transition: 1890-1945," by M. Guy Bishop
8. "The LDS Church in the United States since 1945," by Jessie L. Embry
9. "Growth and Internationalization: The LDS Church since 1945," by KahlileMehr, Mark L. Grover, Reid L. Neilson, Donald Q. Cannon, and GrantUnderwood
10. "Studies of Mormon Fissiparousness: Conflict, Dissent, and Schism inthe Early Church," by Danny L. Jorgensen(This was the one place in the book where I needed a dictionary, if only tounderstand the chapter title!)
11. "Travelers on the New Mormon History Trail: Community of ChristContributions to the New Mormon History Movement," by Mark A. Scherer
12. "The New Mormon Women's History," by Todd Compton
13. "Out of the Closet and into the Fire: The New Mormon Historians' Takeon Polygamy," by Martha Sonntag Bradley
14. "Mormon Biography: Paradoxes, Progress, and Continuing Problems," byNewell G. Bringhurst
15. "Mormon Society and Culture," by Davis Bitton
16. "Fictional Pasts: Mormon Historical Novels," by Lavina FieldingAnderson
As you can see, great effort was made to include all ends of Mormonscholarly spectrum. Its very inclusiveness implies a desire to provide anobjective, but scholarly, view.
But rather than a dry recitation of titles and authors, each chaptercontains a narrative covering a particular period, or aspect, of Mormonhistory. Sprinkled throughout the text are numerous references to books,magazines and other printed materials that can guide the reader toward adeeper understanding of the material.
This book will be of use to both beginners and experts. For the beginners,the stories that surround the bibliographical references constitute an easyto read, and easy to understand, chronicle of an aspect of Mormon history.People and places come alive; the writing is crisp and clear. Experiencedresearchers will revel in the wealth of resources documented, a richtreasure trove of journal articles, books and pamphlets.
The diversity of the contributors to this volume, and the editors'reluctance to remove duplication among the articles, offer the reader apleasing panorama of Mormonism's layered, and sometimes uncertain, past.Excavating Mormon Pasts is, in my opinion, a valuable tool in the ongoingquest for clarity, for truth, for certainty. It is one of several volumesI've seen in the past few years that qualify for a "must have" rating.
I'm glad to recommend this book, and look forward to its wide readership.
Jeff Needle August 13, 2004
© 2004 Jeff Needle