Four books to understand Mormonism

For many of us, our life is demarcated. One of the grand narratives of Mormonism is that of discovery and knowledge often requires modifications in world-view. Perhaps not surprisingly, the intersection of disparate regions in my life is not too distant. Consequently, I offer my thoughts on the reading that at least offers the initiate substantial coverage of Mormonism while minimizing page count, enough to feign erudition.

Four books:

In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, by Todd Compton (1997).
This book outlines the lives of the 33 substantively documented wives of the Prophet. You are able to see the experiences, transcendent and banal, that synthesize the beginnings of our faith. You see faithful women raise the dead and polyandrously marry the prophet. The images are hard hitting. That is the reality of our history, but it is also often sublime.

Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890-1930, by Thomas Alexander (1986).
Alexander takes the reader through a period that is not well described in our modern discourse. Fun details on things like baptisms for healing, changes in how the Word of Wisdom is viewed, post-manifesto polygamy, politics and the Church. Meaty, but dry.

David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, by Gregory Prince & Wm Robert Wright (2005).
This biography not only sketches the life of one of our great prophets, but it also offers a window into the machine of our Church. We peer into the realm of administrators and policy makers as they grapple with issues such as blacks and the priesthood, correlation and finance. I found my place in the church connected to preceding generations.

Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood, by Gregory Prince (1995).
This was the most difficult to choose. I wanted a book that covered Mormon development of authority, temple worship and ordinances. While this book does not have the best treatments of every specific topic, it does brush over most. In flipping through it, I noticed several things that I imagine the author would change had he the opportunity (or that I think he should). That said, it is a fine little volume.

So, if you had to recommend four books to the neophyte, would they be different? Why?


  1. Sultan of Squirrels says:

    so. I’m in the middle of other books right now. what was the change in the word of wisdom?

  2. It used to not be a requirement of fellowhip.

  3. Sultan of Squirrels says:

    wow. I didn’t know that. well. theres my one new learned thing of the day. time to turn off my brain. and one more question. was there a revelation that said “this is now a requirement” or was it more of a “hey, this might be a good idea” kind of change?

  4. “enough to feign erudition”

    Oh! I want that. I don’t have the ambition for actual erudition, but the feigned type would rock!

    my type of book list!

  5. Still haven’t read _In Sacred Loneliness_ or _Power From On High_. You’re right that _Mormonism in Transition_ is dry. I tend not to think of it as a book, but rather as a collection of chapters, some of which are fascinating, others of which are chloroform in print. (But maybe that’s just because I don’t care that much about the history of the Relief Society, etc.) The McKay biography was excellent. I’m definitely in favor of biographies that are organized topically rather than in pure chronological form — easier to reference later.

    I’ll give my four picks later when I’m not so tired.

    Aaron B

  6. John Mansfield says:

    I’m not clear what you’re after here, Jonathan. Initiate to what experience? Are you talking about a convert? Or about someone who has read the Book of Mormon, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and such basic things and now wants further reading? An interesting thing about your choices is the concept that history is the path to understanding Mormonism.

  7. Mormonism in Transition is very useful historically, as it walks you through most of the institutional changes between the Nauvoo/Utah church and the modern church (including the “upgrading” of the WoW to a requirement to enter the temple.)

    On that topic, see also Kimball, Edward L. “The History of LDS Temple Admission Standards.” Journal of Mormon History Spring (1998): 135-175.

  8. J,

    Excellent choices! I’ve read two of them (In Sacred Loneliness and Power from on High) and really dug them both. Ronan convinced me to buy these others, and their on my hit list.

    J, your opinions are greatly valued–what did you thing of Bushman’s RSR?

  9. recommend four books to the neophyte

    Ah, the neophytes. Yes, weren’t they the splinter group which broke off from the Nephites, only to move south and practice polygamy and foot-washings? ;0

  10. Well, I would have to vote for The Book of Mormon at least.

    I think Mansfield makes a good point in the last line of #6. I wonder if there aren’t other types of approaches that would be just as, if not more, effective in understanding Mormonism. Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness, I think, is fairly emblematic of our religious thought and identity.

    And though the second book still hasn’t come out yet, I put in a big vote for the third book in Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought series, which I have not read.

  11. Nate Oman says:

    Pssst…do you really want to know how to look erudite on the cheap?

    Read the bibliographic essay appended to the second edition of Allen & Leonard _The Story of the Latter-day Saints_. It provides a very short summary of virtually every major bit of scholarship in Mormon history up until the mid-1990s.

    As for four books, I would suggest:

    _Rough Stone Rolling_
    _The Mormon Experience_
    _The Theological Foundations of Mormonism_ (it hurts me to recommend this book, but it is a good entre for the neophyte)
    _Zion in the Courts_

  12. John Mansfield (and Eric Russell), you raise excellent points. My opening paragraph is sufficiently obscure to not explain what was getting at, it seems. I was born and raised in the Church. I am an ethnic Mormon, but there is definitely a point in my life where I can look back and say there was a change. A point were I started to see how things came to be, who the characters are and what Mormonism means beyond my personal redemption. So, I guess the initiate would be one of Mormon Studies.

    I think books like Miracle of Forgiveness and Mormon Doctrine are important works in Mormonism. More important, I believe, is the reasons and context for their being. Why the authors wrote them and how the institutional and lay church responded.

    Consequently, history does win the day. I can think of no other way to really comprehend Mormonism. I understand my grandma because of the stories that remain…the details and narratives of her life. So too with the Church. To approach Mormonism from say devotional literature without historical analysis is to look at the thin veneer that covers us.

  13. RE: RSR. I was only able to peruse my copy before I lent it out (reading a couple of other things first). So I’ll have to rely on the words of others…and that seems to be a unanimous thumbs up.

    Thanks for that biblographic pick, Nate. I’m always looking for cheap ways to expand the appearence of erudition!

  14. Nate (#11),

    Dude, thanks a bunch for the tip on Allen & Leonard. I like bibliographies, but I don’t like them when they’re not annotated. I’ve got several annotated biblios for Biblical Studies which I find inestimable, and I was hoping somebody would post one for Mormon (history) studies. Thanks!

  15. Here is the BYU 1990’s Mormon Studies Bibliography.

    There used to be a Mormon History Bibliography hosted at the JFS Institute, but now that they are no longer it is also no longer on their server. I’m trying to track down a copy. I’ll let you know if I find it.

  16. I’ve got to wholeheartedly endorse J. Stapley’s list. Other books that people have mentioned in the comments are almost uniformly excellent. But I think that the books on Bro. Stapley’s list are in some ways more fundamental.

    If I were to propose two additions to the list, they would be Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History and Brent Metcalfe’s New Approaches to the Book of Mormon. Because you can’t be serious about Mormon Studies until you’ve read the best critical works out there, and I think these are they.

  17. Two other references I’ve found helpful: Mormon History (Walker, Whittaker, and Allen) and Excavating Mormon Pasts (ed. Bringhurst and Anderson).

    I think Story of the Latter-day Saints provides a solid and helpful overview of LDS history. I agree that Mormonism in Transition and David O. McKay and the Rise of Mormonism are good studies of key periods in the church. Rough Stone Rolling would be my fourth pick.

  18. I’m not sure I’d recommend Compton to the person just getting started in LDS history. Build up to it. (grin)

    I like LaSeure’s the Missouri war. (Forget the name) It’s a nice introduction to the whole issue of warfare in early Mormonism. Yeah some quibble with some elements. But it’s one of the better books on the subject.

    Rough Stone Rolling is obviously one now.

    I’d start anyone off with Arrington’s The Mormon Experience if only because if gives a nice, if brief, overview of the entire history – opening things up for those unfamiliar with it.

    I’d almost agree with Mormons in Transition, yet as others mentioned its prose style makes it hard to wade through.

  19. For those interested, Justin’s recomendation, Mormon History, is available electronically.

  20. Nate, in #11, why does it hurt you to recommend The Theological Foundations of Mormonism.”

  21. I would definitely put “Line Upon Line” in my list. After reading that book I can never look at Mormon doctrine the same ever again.

    I might also consdier Quinn’s “Mormon Hierarchy” books.

    Maybe “By the Hand of Mormon”.

  22. “Nate, in #11, why does it hurt you to recommend The Theological Foundations of Mormonism.””

    Because I regard the book as enormously overrated and in many ways distorted and inaccurate. The problem is that there are so few books on philosophical Mormon theology and this is clearly a book that a lot of people take as one of the starting points of the discussion. Ostler’s book is probably too technical for a lot of people, but I think that it is much better than McMurrin’s.

  23. I think Nate’s list is good…except the last one, which seems to be a biased pick :)

    I’d substitute Tom Alexander’s book or Kathleen Flake’s book. Those reading about early Mormonism might not recognize the Church today; an explanation is necessary to show when and how the transition happened.

    But almost everything mentioned are history books that give almost no information on the Mormon culture today. I think this book doesn’t exist, and it’s a real shame. I hope for the day when an excellent scholar can give the world a summary of what it truly means to call oneself Mormon, and how the contstruction of one’s identity as “Mormon” defines one’s existence.

  24. Giliam #21, yes, I definitely have to second the “Mormon Hierarchy” nomination. My guess is that, in fifty years, those two books will stand out from much of the rest of what we’re discussing in the same way that “Great Basin Kingdom” and Juanita Brooks’s work now stand out from that of their contemporaries.

  25. Aaron Brown says:

    It’s not clear to me that Arrington’s _The Mormon Experience_ is that great a pick for those already intimately familiar with the Church. For those unfamiliar with Mormonism, perhaps.

    Aaron B

  26. Aaron (#25), it really depends upon how familiar they are. I’ve been often surprised at just how ignorant the average LDS is of our history. I’ve bought Arrington’s book for quite a few well read Mormons.

    I should add that I agree with Nate on McMurrin. Of course I had a series of posts on the book ranting about all that was wrong with it.

  27. Elisabeth says:

    These are all great suggestions. I’m not sure if J. Stapley means “neophyte” to mean people who already have a basic background in Mormonism or not, but there aren’t many good books that I’ve found for the casual reader (member or not) who doesn’t want to wade through the likes of “Rough Stone Rolling” (fascinating as it is).

    What book would you give someone, say, at work (besides the Book of Mormon) who wanted to learn more about Mormonism? A few people have asked me for more information about the Church, and I’ve recommended the “Mormon Experience”, but I’m not sure that’s the best book out there for an introduction to the Church as an institution. It’s pretty old, for one thing.

    One book that I’ve given to people that’s a bit on the fluffy side is called “Why I Believe” – with testimonies of famous Mormons. It’s an easy read, but it doesn’t give much information about the Church.

  28. What book would you give someone, say, at work (besides the Book of Mormon) who wanted to learn more about Mormonism?

    That is a great question. I cringe when I think about it, but when I was a teenager I gave away a copy of A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. It has also been a decade since I read Our Search for Happiness. It seemed reasonable at the time. I haven’t read them (they are still in the queue) but maybe something from Jan Shipps would be good. Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition or Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons.

  29. …maybe even Mormonism for Dummies?

  30. what was the change in the word of wisdom?

    Questions like this always amaze me. Maybe the sorts of things I learned about the Church from a very early age, and which have thus become just uninteresting background knowledge for me, really constitute new information to lots of fellow latter-day saints.

    I remember my knowledge of shifts in how the Church viewed the word of wisdom being deepened at a mission zone conference, where my mission president openly discussed changes in the way the Church has done things over the years (touching on changes in how the word of wisdom was viewed and practiced, changes in temple worship- including in the endowment ceremony, polygamy (even touching on some of Joseph’s activities in that regard), etc.). The purpose of the discussion was to illustrate the difference between local church culture, prevailing church practices, and eternal principles.

    I think the real root cause of the discussion was to nicely ask the missionaries not to drink coca-cola in public because it offended local church members, even though there was technically no ban on coca-cola in the word of wisdom, but the discussion branched out into MANY practices which seem to have “changed” over the years throughout church history but which are always tied to the same eternal principles.

    Since we discussed this stuff, which I already knew about before my mission, so openly in Zone Conference, I assumed it was common knowledge among “average” church members, and really haven’t found it that interesting to look further into it as a result.

    At any rate, I’m going to have to re-evaluate how I view the “average” mormon, based on this and comments over at LSLF! And perhaps I should take more interest in the topics raised by those books listed by JS, because they sure seem important to others!

  31. Sultan of Squirrels says:

    Jordan. you’re right. over the past few years I have definetely tried to educate myself more though. I am just wondering if maybe it could be a detrimental practice (not letting people into the temple if they had coffee?) that god maybe never actually “revealed”. I think the wow is great. but I know there are great members and people who struggle with it. I’m gonna go do my research now. sorry if this is a thread jack. (I don’t think it is though)

  32. R.W. Rasband says:

    “Rough Stone Rolling” is the new, obvious choice for the open-minded newbie. It made me rethink a lot of things I had taken for granted. After I finished it I felt like my mind was on fire.

  33. I’m not sure I could suggest a general list (especially one that is limited to four titles) since so much depends on the individual in question, her background, experience, and interests, but it seems obvious to me that tomes like In Sacred Loneliness and Rough Stone Rolling would not be ideal introductory texts to Mormon Studies for most people.

    I’m uncertain that there ever could be a definitive list for an unspecified neophyte, but my own introduction to Mormon Studies (following immersion in LDS and non-LDS Biblical Studies) began with these titles:

    Mormons and the Bible
    Mormon Engima
    Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism
    Women and Authority

    Followed quickly by Mountain Meadows Massacre, A Mormon Mother, and The Mormon Experience.

    I would recommend the earlier Bushman time and again to an inexperienced student before RSR. Women and Authority is sadly out of print. Barlow’s book should certainly be on any list as should the Tippets and Avery. There are also some fine collections of essays like Eric Eliason’s that I would probably put in someone’s hand before other volumes dealing with more specific issues. Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon ranks up there too.

  34. I am 6 chapters into the Rough Stone Rolling Book. I have found the topics to be very interesting that are covered in the biography. There are certain topics discussed that the average person might find “troubling”, but they manner in which Bushman presents the information is done very professionally. There isn’t any information found in the book (so far) that I did not already know about or had not heard about. Presenting the history of Joseph Smith from a Cultural perspective is an excellant way to understand Joseph Smith.

  35. How would you guys that have read Mormon Heirarchy rate it against Magic World View? I found the latter full of so much conjectural material that it didn’t really do it for me (ie, because a certain spooky book was sold at a bookstore near Palmyra doesn’t mean JS actually owned it, or because Lewis Bidamon’s son had a talisman in his closet when he died doesn’t mean it was Joseph’s, etc. etc.). I’ve been balking at reading the Heirarchy books because of my impression of MWV, but I’ve always wanted an excuse to peep into them. I like Quinn’s articles from Dialogue and Sunstone, however. I have a strong stomach, so don’t be shy if you really think they’re commendable.

  36. David,

    I think the Hierarchy books are far, far better than the Magic Worldview book. The Hierarchy books are based on Quinn’s dissertation, and there’s just nothing like them in terms of in-depth discussion of how decisions have been made and implemented throughout Mormon history. There are some speculative parts, as for instance the argument near the end of Vol. 1 that all church presidents since Joseph Smith occupy a fundamentally different calling than Joseph did. (Speculative in nature, but I buy the argument nonetheless.) But there are also long stretches, such as the chapter on Ezra Taft Benson’s political sermons, that are simply outstanding history.

  37. Hey, I’ve had a question and this might be the place for it:

    Are there any quality books that deal with any sort of Mormon mysticism? Is there even such a thing?

  38. By Mormon mysticism, you mean charismatic Mormonism (i.e., tongue speaking, phrophecy, visions)?

  39. No, J, not so much. . . I was thinking more along the lines of contemplative, experiential spiritual traditions, similar to Kabbalah, Sufism, Zen or something like that. I don’t know, maybe the question is too vague or too contradictory. Just wondering if someone might have done work into systematically researching and compiling what Mormonism might say about directly experiencing the divine.

    For that matter, I’m no expert on mysticism either. I did just check out the Wikipedia entry, and that’s more or less what I’m getting at, if that helps.

  40. John Mansfield says:

    What book would you give someone, say, at work (besides the Book of Mormon) who wanted to learn more about Mormonism?

    Several years ago I thumbed through Rex E. Lee’s What Mormons Believe. I remember it as a readable, candid volume that would serve a curious non-Mormon well. I particularly recall his clarification that there isn’t a Mormon conspiracy to control the U.S. government, at least none that involved him, and that he couldn’t imagine such a conspiracy leaving him out.

  41. For mysticism maybe you’re looking for John Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844. It discusses mormonism in relation to the hermetic tradition.

    I haven’t read the earlier Quinn, but I thought the Hierarchy books were excellent.

  42. That sounds interesting, Bill. Thanks.

  43. The Joseph Smith chapters in Harold Bloom’s American Religion book are also an interesting discussion of similarities between Mormonism and Kaballah.

  44. Logan,
    I think that there are two reasons that Mormonism doesn’t have a “mystical” branch. First, we’re simply not old enough. We haven’t been around long enough to have the kind of calcified, dogmatic positions that mysticism has usually been a reaction against. Second, as a denomination, we believe in active, personal contact with the divine. This is what mysticism seeks to provide for the traditional Western religions, which over time tend to restrict access to the divine. As a church with an open canon and an enthusiasm for individual communion with the divine, I don’t see this becoming a need unless the structure of the church radically changes. Joseph Smith is sometimes compared to Christian mystics like Swedenborg, but I agree with Terryl Givens that Joseph’s insistance that he experienced the divine in the actual world separates him from traditional Christian mysticism and makes him a prophet. Threadjack concluded.

  45. Sultan of S ? on the WOW.

    This is an interesting topic. I have 85 year old former SP in my ward. He taught sunday school a few months ago on the WOW. He told the class how in the 1930’s in SE Idaho the church was really clamping down on the WOW. It was really tough because many of the then active members (usually men) had WOW issues and had been temple worthy prior to this time.

    He noted that it was not unusual in this period for active members to get married outside of the temple due to the husbands WOW problem and get sealed many years later. He said that if you read the church news and read the little notices about 70-75 year wedding anniverseries one thing you would notice is that many of the couples had been married civily and then sealed many years or decades later after the husband had overcome his WOW issues.

    He called this time period the “WOW wars” He claims that many many men went inactive in rural Idaho and Utah during this time period.

  46. Thanks, JWL. I think I really will check these out.

    John C., I’m still trying to decide what I think about your analysis. It’s plausible and interesting, but I’m not sure I know enough about the sociology of either mystic traditions or the Church to agree or disagree yet. I’ll keep thinking about it.

  47. I think the Heirarchy books are better than Magic World View, but then there are still some doozies of claims in Heirarchy. (Thinking here of the announcement that Joseph was going to get rid of garments with questionable footnotes – this after what was largely a more uncontroversial text in the first volume)

  48. There really isn’t a good book on mysticism and Mormonism. As John C pointed out, there are good reasons why there isn’t much of a mystic tradition in the LDS tradition. One could also argue that this was set up early by Joseph’s critique of some Protestant charismatic movements (with similar things in early converts). There he basically said that if intelligence wasn’t communicated it wasn’t of God. (Or words to that effect anyway) Thus there is an odd bifurcation of what is often found in the mystic tradition. The vertical nature of mysticism is normative in LDS circles. (The emphasis on personal revelation) Yet the focus in mysticism on the experience is intentionally devalued. Although one could arguable suggest that LDS emphasis on feeling the spirit has a similar structure in certain ways.

    The big difference is that there is no belief that one has to engage in certain structured kinds of meditation in LDS thought to receive these experiences. If one calls it a mysticism, it is certainly a mysticism of the everyday act. (Which actually can be found in some strains of Zen – consider the tea ceremony or painting for example) However even in this practical there just isn’t the emphasis on particularity that one finds in say the practical manifestations of Zen in Japan.

    Having said that though, if there is a mysticism in Mormonism it is probably best seen by comparison not to Zen, Kabbalism or traditional European mysticisms. Rather it is found in the unique American form found in the transcendentalists like Emerson – who were also contemporary with Joseph. Unfortunately a book doing a rigorous analysis on this point has not been written. Instead we have only scattergun approaches via parallels such one finds in Brooke and Quinn.

    That’s not to discount everything those two bring up. Just that it really needs to be engaged in a more careful and thoughtful fashion with less of an emphasis on parallels for parallel sake and more on context, meaning, and analysis.

  49. Just to add, there are also metaphysical reasons that LDS thought isn’t mystical. Mystical experience usually focuses in on an ineffable experience of the fundamental unity of all existence. Thus the God (if one calls it that) one experiences has to be much more this ontological source of existence and we have to already be part of this God. (This is why mysticism was often heretical in the Christian tradition)

    With Mormonism, we tend to see the spirit and such experiences as primarily a communication with a being like us. That’s not to devalue the huge difference between God and man. But fundamentally rather than seeing religious experience as an experience of the unity of existence we see it in terms of communication with an other being.

    It’s hard to have a mysticism when that is the underlying framework of thought. Those Mormons who’ve tried to introduce mysticism into LDS thought end up having to deal with this in different ways – and typically I think it ends up positing a transcendence above God and focuses in on that rather than God in religious experience. One can quickly see how that could become heretical quickly.

  50. Clark, I often take issue with you on the topics of world religion and spirituality, but not today. I like what you’ve said here; maybe we could explore this further on a different post sometime.

  51. Julie in Austin says:

    Melissa, I didn’t realize that you had read RSR. I guess I am having a hard time figuring out how/why Mormon Enigma would work for a newbie but RSR wouldn’t.

    FWIW, my list:
    American Moses
    David O. McKay and the Rise of MM
    Lengthen Your Stride: Pres. of SWK

    If you think these are ‘too historical/biographical’ and don’t cover doctrine, well, they do an excellent job showing how/why our doctrine is tied to our history and leaders.

  52. Melissa, I didn’t realize that you had read RSR.

    You must be kidding? Given the role you know I played in the symposium I find this surprising.

    The reason for Mormon Enigma over RSR is a simple one—focus and length. The important sections of RSR are in JS and the Beginnings of Mormonism. I think there’s more of interest for a beginner in those two than in RSR, but it really depends on the person in question.

  53. I think that no books so far that have been mentioned would help others understand Mormonism. Rather, I think they would confuse rather than illuminate. Aside from perhaps Rough Stone Rolling, all of them are far from an introduction and some of them are downright hostile to a proper understanding of Mormonism. This is especially the case if you are talking every day Mormonism of believers and Church goers. Frankly, I think the picks say more about the person who suggests them than about Mormonism. I suppose the “to feign erudition” pretty much says it all; pompus and arrogant, but lacking fundimental faith and values at the religious core.

    As for my own picks, other than the Scriptures, I don’t have any recommendations at this time. What is LSLF anyway?

  54. Jettboy’s comment is very overstated (_no_ books so far would help, RSR aside? Hello, overstatement!). That said, he may be right on the broader point. I think it depends on how one reads Stapley’s question. Stapley asked which books were best for the neophyte. Who that neophyte is is not well defined.

    If the question is, “which books are best for the average-Jane, Sunday School Mormon, who wants to broaden her knowledge?” then the suggestions given thus far are great.

    On the other hand, the books best for the average-Jane member aren’t necessarily those best for someone with very limited knowledge of the church. (New member, non-member, exceptionally clueless member). It is hard to engage in a good discussion about Mormonism without knowing the basic assumptions of the doctrine and the culture. Thus, it helps greatly to have at least a basic knowledge of several basic sources of official and popular Mormon belief — the standard works, the missionary set (Marvelous Work and Wonder, etc), Mormon Doctrine, Miracle of Forgiveness, and so on.

  55. And I’m with Melissa, Julie — it’s little strange to suggest that she hasn’t read a book when she’s actively participating in putting together a symposium on it. (Plus, given my own limited understanding of how Melissa operates, I think the best assumption is that she read it within a few weeks of its publication. Ditto you, of course, and ditto Nate.

    Slackers like Kaimi skipped ahead to polygamy and the banking scandal, read about 60 pages intermittently, and are secretly hoping that no one quizzes them about any serious points from the rest of the book. Such slackers are also _very_ glad that the T&S symposium is providing such a useful cliff-notes version for their perusal. And such slackers also tend to leave the book out in plain view on their coffee table so the ward members think they’re well-read. “Feigning erudition” indeed — it’s my specialty!)

  56. Jettboy, I guess I can accept the idea that you don’t have a sense of humor, but I would greatly appreciate your evidence for my lack of faith and values. I would also appreciate any evidence to support your assetion that these books are hostile to Mormonism.

    I already confessed to lack of clarity in my post and added supplemental information to hopefully explicate the premise (Comment #12).

  57. J.,
    You should know by now that:

    “It’s difficult to stand up for moral values against people who don’t believe in moral values.”

    “It’s a slap in the face.”

  58. Verily, verily, I say unto thee Kaimi, repent of thy slackerness! Even though thou hast fled unto to the ends of the earth, yea even unto San Diego, do not think that the day will not come when thou shalt come before Richard Bushman at some social, church or academic gathering, and he shall embrace his good friend Kaimi whom he doth greatly admire and respect, and wo then shalt thy mind be harrowed up unto a keen memory of all of thy slackeritude, and the day when there is enough time to read all of RSR shall be past, for lo, this Christmas break is the time for guys like thee to get all of RSR read. Do not procrastinate the day of thy reading as thou hast with the Book of Mormon (you should be through all eight chapters by now).

    With love unfeigned


  59. Aaron Brown says:

    If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that Jettboy is a fake persona invented by yours truly.

    Jettboy, I have this friend named Prudence that I’d like to set you up with. Trust me, she’s a total hottie!

    Aaron B

  60. Thanks y’all for your input on the Heirarchy volumes. My library has ’em both, so I might check them out if I have the time later on. They’re very big — I noticed Amazon won’t let you ship ’em for cheap.

    As far as Mormon mysticism or whatever, John C. took the words out of my mouth. We’re just not old enough (yet). The only thing I’ve read that even comes close (and still is a long-shot) is Written by the Finger of God by Sampson. His is the only attempt I’ve ever read where one attempts Mormon kabbalah-style gematria in the BofM and messing with numbers in the BofM and PofGP, concepts of right vs. left and north vs. south, the mystical use of names, etc. etc. The book is otherwise very conjectural and unreliable, but at least somebody out there attempted it.

  61. I agree with Aaron B that Jettboy’s stirring the pot: “Come out of the closet, Jettboy.” I think J. Stapley’s list is great, and I’ve read each of the four books he suggests and agree with the list except, rather than the more narrowly focused Compton tome (good as it is), I’d sub in RSR, which includes a hefty dose of the Compton data but gives us the complete story, warts and all, of the first prophet of the last dispensation.

  62. When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study
    by Leon Festinger (New School for Social Research)

    Festinger pioneered work on cognitive dissonance. He applied his ideas to a Midwestern UFO cult, but one can utilize them to understand all kinds of (primarily if not exclusively) new religions – like Mormonism. Some years ago at BYU I enrolled in a psychology of religion class (I was a psych major) where I thought we’d discuss mechanical issues like this. Sadly mistaken. The class was a case study in deceptive advertising, and I dropped out. This book was written 50 years ago and it’s still current.

  63. Lots of good ideas and important books to understand the Mormon doctrine and experience but I start newcomers off with the basics, the Lowell Bennion books and manuals. Gene England’s Best of Lowell Bennion is a great start. Bennion’s own Understanding the Scriptures, The Religion of the Latter Day Saints, I Believe and The Things That Matter Most, as well as several more of his old manuals, are excellent. And, even after reading most of the books suggested in this thread and referring to most at times in my church teaching, I never prepare a lesson without consulting Bennion.

  64. I am stiring the pot because I think you are all arrogant and wrong headed. There is a reason very few “average” Mormons participate here. The list of picks proves that piont abundantly. After all, how many Mormons outside of the “Nacle” would actually suggest most of the picks any of you have given? None, because very few outside this cyber-reality consider any of those books of gospel teaching value. By the way, I am already happily married thank you.

  65. These books aren’t meant for “gospel teaching value.” They’re meant to teach history. (Ambiguities of the post, I guess, as to who the intended neophyte is.)

    I find your comments somewhat ironic, given your Nauvoo board profile lists “Mormon history/doctrine” as one of your interests.

    What books make the ranking on your average Mormon non-arrogant counter-list? Just curious.

  66. “There is a reason very few “average” Mormons participate here. The list of picks proves that piont abundantly. After all, how many Mormons outside of the “Nacle” would actually suggest most of the picks any of you have given?”

    So what? You seem to completely misunderstand the point of this post. No one solicited a list of books that the “average” Mormon would pick as meaningful. I took Stapley to be soliciting a list of academic works that were impactful to the avid reader of Mormon Studies.

    Aaron B

  67. J,

    It seems to me that people are offering great substitutions and appendices to your list. My question, then is:

    If you could expand your list by maybe 4 more titles, what would they be? Let’s expand this list to maybe 8 or 10. I’m very intrigued with all of this, as I’ve spent most of my Mormon studies time in original sources (Dean Jessee and Dan Vogel) but never bothered to venture into the (to me) new and exciting socio-historical realm of Mormon studies like Jan Shipps, Lowell Bennion, Armand Mauss, etc.

    Very good stuff! Let’s keep it going.

  68. Julie M. Smith says:

    ‘impactful’ is a nasty word

  69. It is?

    Aaron B

  70. J,
    I would probably ignore Jettboy. What he has to say that is helpful has been said by others here, and what he hasn’t seems to indacte that he was a bit lazy in reading the comments of others. Your difference between Mormonism (meaning something like the restored gospel–although the term could also mean a certain cultural reading of that restored gospel) and Mormon studies is a useful one. I admit that until that point in the thread, I had some of the misgivings others had expressed.
    I would also like to comment that while I find historical sense vital to our understanding of most issues, I would qualify it. First, your intorduction about changes in worldview is important. It would probably not be best to introduce someone to the restored gospel primarily as history, at least if what you mean by that is confronting the difficult matters of church history that often seem (and I emphasize this word) to present contradictions. It takes time to build depth of doctrinal understanding and the strong understanding and testimony of the atonement that helps us to see through some of the seeming paradoxes that such study can lead to. This is not to say that we should hide church history from new members, but that we oughtn’t to get those who are more involved in learning the vital truths that are central to the gospel bogged down in the finer points of history.
    Second, I would like to point out that historical sense is of very little use without the ability to read texts for nuance. Thus, while you claim ’ Consequently, history does win the day. I can think of no other way to really comprehend Mormonism. I understand my grandma because of the stories that remain…the details and narratives of her life. So too with the Church. To approach Mormonism from say devotional literature without historical analysis is to look at the thin veneer that covers us.” I would counter that there is some very good “devotional literature that gives a secondary place to the discussion of history and yet strikes very much to the heart of our beliefs by the careful exegesis of texts with attention to prophetic interpretation of those texts. It is when such texts wander too far from good reading that they tend to gush the stuff of cultural trapping disguised as true religion. In fact, some of these great works of excellent reading are ones that I would recommend to a new convert before those that approach history with a critical eye, though this is definitely a worthy pursuit if approached in the spirit of better understanding one’s faith.
    I am wondering why you cringe to have given away a copy of A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. I am probably a member of the church today because my mother read that very book. However, I am very ambivalent about this, as my mother hadn’t read much of the Book of Mormon before her baptism, and this has been one of the factors, I believe, why she is no longer an active member of the church. Because of this, though it sounds obvious, I would like to point out that whatever else we read, it will not lead us to Christ if we neglect the book of Mormon (I’m not saying anyone here implied this), and I would try very hard to make this the book I would give to someone outside the church interested in “Mormonism,” if they were at all willing to accept it.

  71. You make good points, Steve H. First, I think that it is important that Redemption through Jesus is the message of the restoration and as such the most important volumes are the Book of Mormon and the New Testament – the witnesses of Christ. Devotional literature is great in as much as it helps people lead Christ-like lives, be better parents, etc. Moreover, correlated church materials are also focused on redemption. Evangelism, consequently, should also revolve around the scripture.

    Regarding A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, I regret giving it away as I find the arguments and views contained in it not particularly in harmony with the modern message of Mormonism (and often times, my beliefs). I imagine that this is why it was removed from the Missionary Library.

    Beyond redemption, what does it mean to be Mormon? This is, I believe, where history enters. I believe that there is value in understanding the Prophet in his own time, how our doctrines develop, and how the Church operates.

    Your point on analysis is I think very important. The big criticism of the New Mormon History is that it is just a bunch of data and authors like Quinn are often assailed for weak analysis.

    David J., there are a ton of titles that are worthy of the top 10. Many have been mentioned. I’ll have to put some thought into this if I am to make a cogent comment.

  72. I’ll have to put some thought into this if I am to make a cogent comment.

    Please do. And don’t worry about some of the less bona-fide comments and commentors here when you do this, because your list above is really cool, and I’d just like to see what the next 4 or 5 would be.

    One thing I like about this, as I’ve said before, is the notion of an annotated bibliography, vs. just a slap-in-your-face-1,000-references sort of biblio when the reader of the biblio has no idea why the compiler put a certain book or article on that list. For example, I keep my own biblios for Biblical Studies, but I annotate them so that I know why I liked (or disliked!) a given volume. And yes, I do put works in some of my biblios as examples of “WTF?” scholarship on occasion. The Tanners or Ed Decker would be a relevant example of WTF scholarship for Mormon Studies (or is it “study of Mormonism”?).

    PS – I’m finished on Wednesday, and should have the goods in the mail by Thurs. or Fri. (No, this is not a drug deal).

  73. Regarding Molly’s post 63 on her consistent use of Bennion and England to enrich her Sunday lesson preparations: “Amen.” I use them “religiously” in my talks and lessons. I love their ability to combine intellectual and spiritual reasons to believe in both Christ and the Restoration and put that belief system into action by doing good in our Mormon and non-Mormon communities, often in ways that would take both orthodox and less-than-orthodox Mormons out of their comfort zones. Both Bennion and England give plenty of great reasons to put both the Jettboys and more typical BCC participants on notice that happiness here and exaltation later only come in and through humble belief in the Savior and his teachings, and practicing what he taught and practiced. I’ve been an avid Dialogue/Sunstone reader my whole relatively short life (if recently passing 40 can be called short), but folks have also recently decided that having me serve in ecclesiastical leadership is also in the cards. As I serve in Church leadership, I often wish both orthodox and less orthodox members would spend a bit less time worrying about Church doctrine and practice (as interesting and fun as they are), and spend more time loving and serving. I include myself in that wish.

  74. Dear Mr. or Ms. Stapley: Interesting choices. I hadn’t thought of my book as an introduction to Mormonism for neophytes, but why not? Someone contact the missionary committee immediately and let’s get a copy in every investigator’s hands. I think it should be introducted maybe on the 3rd or 4th discussion — not the first. Let’s not push things.

    As for my four books — that is really tough. On the spur of the moment, I would pick Arrington and Bitton, The Mormon Experience (as a general overview); Quinn Mormon Hierarchy (I’m cheating, that’s two books) (as a more detailed general overview); Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant (covering the church’s most important transition point); and The Best of Lowell Bennion (to show the real heart of Mormonism at its best).

    Actually, picking only four is really tough, isn’t it? Tomorrow might be a totally different four. A Mormon Mother. Mountain Meadows Massacre. The list goes on and on.

  75. Thanks for stopping by Todd – not only are you a excellent scholar, but an hilarious commenter…and it is Jonathan.

    I had to qualify the original post several times in the comments to acknowledge the list as an introduction to Mormon Studies.

    I think one of the most interesting things noted so far is that the most experienced commenters have recommended Bennion. I think he is an author that is definitely neglected by the younger generations (myself included). Hopefully Laurie will give us some Bennion posts in the near future.

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