A few months ago, on a fast Sunday, Taryn (my wife) stood up during fast and testimony meeting and expressed her emotional and spiritual conviction of the value of our community fasts. Perhaps somewhat unusually, she didn’t emphasize the spiritual learning or comfort that she received through fasting; nor did she discuss miraculous, divine interventions that had been prompted through fasting. Instead, she talked about the social and economic solidarity reasons that, in Leonard Arrington’s interpretation, were the original reasons for the development of community fast days among the Mormons. In effect, my wife bore her testimony of Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom, a book that is neither canonized nor even published by the church.
I don’t think that’s problematic in any way; as we all know, Mormonism is said to include all truth, whatever the source. In fact, there are books about Mormonism not published by the church that I have a testimony of. Let me quickly mention three.
I, like Taryn, love Leonard Arrington’s work. The book of his that I have a testimony of, however, isn’t the pathbreaking classic that Taryn loves best. Instead, it’s his collaborative effort with Davis Bitton, Saints Without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History. Saints Without Halos is a collection of 16 short biographies of people in Mormon history who were never presidents of the church — indeed, most never served in general-authority leadership positions at all, and most never appear in general discussions of church history. Each story is emotionally powerful; each person is fascinating and vividly rendered. The stories cover a range of times from the earliest foundations of the Mormon faith (Joseph Knight, Sr.) through the mid-20th century (T. Edgar Lyon). What could be better than spending a little time getting to know some of the people who’ve walked this path before us, than learning the little ways that their faith experiences parallel or differ from our own?
I also find that I have a testimony of Mark D. Thomas’s book, Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narrative. Thomas’s book is one of the only examples I can find of his approach to the Book of Mormon: reading the text itself as closely as possible, not with the goal of determining when it was written, but rather to discover how it says what it says. Rejecting the nearly-ubiquitous tendency to import cultural ideas from either ancient Mesoamerica and the Middle East or 19th-century New England, Thomas instead looks at the words on the page. He studies the book’s narrative strategies, symbolism, and structure, an approach that allows Thomas’s book to create a level of appreciation for the Book of Mormon as a document that I’ve never found in any other source. We’ve been famously challenged, by the Doctrine and Covenants and by Ezra Taft Benson, to take the Book of Mormon more seriously. One way I’ve found of doing that is by reading Digging in Cumorah.
Last, but certainly not least, I want to mention perhaps my favorite book from the last decade in Mormon history: Martha Sonntag Bradley and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward’s 4 Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier. This biography of four generations of women named Zina is so beautifully written that it almost feels like reading a novel. Yet it’s also profoundly grounded in historical evidence, primarily an extensive collection of papers (preserved by the family) written by the Zinas. These women are almost certainly not as well known as some of their husbands (who include Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Hugh B. Brown), but maybe they should be. After reading 4 Zinas, I feel that each of these women is a hero of Mormonism; their life stories are beautiful epics of faith and commitment. Probably the best known of the 4 Zinas is Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young, the subject of Kris’s beautiful recent post. Get to know her better — and meet her equally amazing mother, daughter, and granddaughter — by reading 4 Zinas.
Are Taryn and I the only folks with testimonies of non-church-published Mormon books? What books do you all have a testimony of? (The scriptures are, I suppose, a given for the purposes of this discussion.)