Mormon history in English schools

Schoolchildren in England and Wales are required to study history up until the end of “Key Stage 3” (age 14). They can then choose to study history as an optional examination subject at GCSE (16) and A-level (18).

One of the GCSE courses in history (there are several run by different exam “boards”) includes the study of Mormon history. As part of the “History A (Schools History Project)” syllabus, OCR (Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations) offers a component on “The American West.” Mormon history is treated alongside the Indians, the pioneers, homesteading, and the railroad.

Here are some sample examination questions for the Mormon component, with examples of high-standard answers:[1]

(a) What were the main beliefs of the Mormons?

Valid points include: the gold plates tell the true story of the lost tribes of Israel, Mormons was (sic) descended from the lost tribes, Smith was led to the plates by God, God told him to start and lead the Mormons, the Mormons were the chosen people of God, polygamy, gentiles were inferior, only Mormons would be saved.

(b) Why were the Mormons so unpopular when they lived in the east of America?

“The Mormons were unpopular because a bank they owned collapsed. Lots of people who were not Mormons had their savings in the bank and they lost all their money. It was not the Mormons fault, lots of banks were collapsing but the Mormons got the blame.” [Extra points for more specific reasons: “polygamy, their success in business, … they kept themselves to themselves, they looked down on gentiles and disapproved of how they lived, Smith planning to run for President.” ]

(c) The following were all equally important reasons why the Mormons were so successful: (i) the leadership of Joseph Smith; (ii) the leadership of Brigham Young; (iii) polygamy.’ Do you agree with this statement? Explain your answer, referring to (i), (ii) and (iii).

“I think it is impossible to say who was the more important out of Smith and Young. Young started the movement and was responsible for it growing very quickly. He gave the movement its basic beliefs and was an inspirational leader. However, he made the mistake of introducing polygamy which did the Mormons a lot of harm. So Young’s influence was not all good. Also when he died the Mormons were in crisis in Nauvoo. They were under attack and were being hunted down. It was Young who saved them by coming up with the idea of moving to the Great Salt Lake where they would be away from everybody and would be left to themselves. So both Smith and Young made important contributions. The Mormons needed both of them.”


I imagine most Mormons will be delighted that Mormonism receives a treatment in English schools. Note, however, that certain “errors” seem to have crept in to the examiners’ marking scheme:

– “the gold plates tell the true story of the lost tribes of Israel” — Not quite right: only the descendants of a few bands of Israelites who came to the Americas (plus the earlier “Jaredites”) are described in the book.

– “Mormons was (sic) descended from the lost tribes” — Does this mean Mormon was descended (sort of), or Mormons were descended (wrong).

– “gentiles were inferior” — This is a loaded statement with some truth in it, but there needs to be some nuance.

– “only Mormons would be saved” — Saved from what? From destruction at the Second Coming? From hell? Again, a strong case can be made that Mormons have never believed in such an absolute doctrine.

– “Lots of people who were not Mormons had their savings in the bank” — Weren’t the Mormons themselves the main investors in the KSS?

– “Young started the movement” — I think this is a typo, or a student mistake that was sensibly ignored.

– “However, he made the mistake of introducing polygamy which did the Mormons a lot of harm” — Not so much an error, but a statement that is crying out for further evaluation. One should note, however, that this is something a 16 year-old student is supposed to come up with. Grumble not .


[1] History A (Schools History Project), Specimen Mark Scheme Paper 1 (component 13), Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations


An account of how Mormon history ended up on the curriculum was told by a British teacher, Bryher Pennells, at the Vermont MHA conference. I am not yet familiar with the whole story. Were these sessions recorded?


  1. a random John says:

    I’m guessing that these answers are no more cringe-worthy to me than my own AP Biology essay answers (and certainly much less cringe-worthy than my AP European answers) would be. In other words this is incredibly cringe-worthy, but that is about what we expect from 16 year olds.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Very interesting.

    I’m not sure whether Vermont MHA was recorded; I tend to think not, but I think some later ones may have been. I would contact Larry King, the Executive Director, and ask:

    If that session wasn’t recorded, he would probably be willing to pass on a query from you to the presenter and get you in touch that way.

  3. Interesting. I would guess Mormon 16-year-olds will be ecstatic at such “easy” questions.

    Both the questions and answers seem much more accurate than those you are likely to find in American HS textbooks and AP tests.

    I have a friend who has been grading AP American History tests for years and she always has funny stories about questions and answers touching Mormonism. Frequently Mormon students will bring a lot of outside information into the Mormon questions that typical graders don’t know about so she becomes the go-to Mormon expert about how accurate the kid is being or if the answer is just wandering off into fantasy land. Most of the outside information she has mentioned to me comes straight from Seminary videos and Chruch movies, not deep historical study.

  4. aRJ,
    What I need to find out is whether the examples are real examples, or whether the examiners wrote them as examples. I’m guessing you’re hoping for the former.

  5. I’d be interested to see how the textbooks “fit” Mormons into the narrative of the American West.

  6. David Grua, by my best recollection, the AP American History textbook I used, The American Pageant, skipped Mormons in the American West altogether. There was a brief mention of Joseph Smith in the context of the Second Great Awakening. But nothing more. This is a common phenomenon, which Jan Shipps has described as the Utah-shaped doughnut hole in the historiography of the American West.

  7. Ronan, I’m pretty sure that the examples are real examples that the examiners have released to give a realistic view of what students have answered in the past. These definitely read like teenagers trying to get as many points as possible by trying to repeat as exhaustively as possible what they remember from lectures/readings on the given exam question.

  8. JNS,

    I like the description of a donut hole in the history of the West. I believe that if he hadn’t been a Mormon (or a polygamist, the two are certainly related), Brigham Young would widely be recognized as one of the great men in American history.

  9. JNS, that’s interesting considering that you (presumably) took AP American History in Holladay (assuming you still lived in that neighborhood during HS). I wonder why an AP American History class being taught at a high school in SLC would not include information on Mormons, i.e. why the teacher/board would not choose a text book that covers that material. In SLC, the Mormon experience is relevant to US history, even for non-Mormons, I would think.

  10. CSE, an argument exists that if he hadn’t been a Mormon or polygamist, BY would have been a local carpenter in New England.

  11. David,
    One popular textbook is called “The Struggle for the Plains” where the meta-narrative is the Indian-Settler conflict.

    Chapter 1 The Plains Indians

    Chapter 2 The settlement of the West
    2.1 What was America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’?
    2.2 Passing through: why did the early settlers cross the Plains?
    2.3 The Mormons: who made the biggest contribution – Joseph Smith or Brigham Young?
    2.4 Staying there: why did homesteaders settle on the Plains?
    2.5 The cattlemen and the cowboys
    2.6 Who had the most impact on the Plains Indians?

    Chapter 3 Law and order

    Chapter 4 Conflict on the Plains
    4.1 Why did war break out on the Plains?
    4.2 Case study: the Battle of the Little Big Horn
    4.3 Why did the Indians lose control of the Plains?
    4.4 The overall picture: what have you learned?

  12. This is far more than I ever got in high school. I was in Oklahoma so Mormon was a dirty word anyway, but I think we had one paragraph that said Mormons were polygamists and they walked across the plains. Then everyone in my class asked me to show them the plates. Then if I liked all my mothers.

    I like this, thanks for posting it Ronan.

  13. JNS: Thanks for the head’s up on the Shipps article.

    Ronan: So very Turnerian. Interesting.

  14. There wasn’t much in the course my son took in our high school here in Ohio – although one classmate did ask him afterward if her mother was right that Mormons are born with horns. (I’m serious; her mother had heard it at church.)

    When I was a high school AP History teacher, there was next to nothing in our textbook about Mormons – just the basics of crossing the plains and settling Utah. Those who write the texts and the tests simply don’t care or see it as important enough to American history to require study.

  15. David, nice one — if only it weren’t job search season, I swear I would have read your post from last week. Can I just mention how much I admire the new Juvenile Instructor blog? (Done feeling abashed now…)

  16. California Condor says:

    I think Mormons generally get the right amount of space in history books. I mean, we just settled Utah for crying out loud, and we’re a pretty small sliver of the American population. We deserve maybe a paragraph or two more than the Amish, and that’s about how much we get.

    Also, does anyone else think that Joseph Smith’s candidacy for US President is way, way overrated? I’m not an expert on how people ran for president in 1844, but it’s my impression that Joseph Smith pretty much just said he was running for president and that’s about it.

  17. When I was in American History we would use old AP test questions for our tests. There was one test where the big document based question was about the Westward expansion and one of the 3 or 4 supporting documents was extracted from a Mormon pioneer diary.

  18. Each American history text book I used in schools had at least a paragraph on the Mormons — mostly that Joseph Smith started a new church so that he could have many wives, Joseph Smith got killed, Brigham Young was a polygamist who led the Mormons went across the plains to SLC.

    My teachers in Dallas TX, on the other hand, did not stick to this minimal treatment and waxed long on the depravity of Joseph Smith and the Mormons. Of course the teacher that I specifically have in mind also taught a segment on all the reasons why Hitler was fascinated with the occult, so presumably not all Mormon children in Dallas classrooms are confronted with such lessons on why the Mormons deserved what they got.

  19. When I was doing O-levels back in 1987 (in England)–we studied American West History and the Mormons were part of the sylabus.

    This is where I first found out that JS had multiple wives and was also involved in the collapse (fraud) of the Kirtland Savings Bank (is that right)–there was laos a good emphais on the trk west.

    The tone was purly historical the religious themes were secondary.

    And I think the teachers soft pedaled the cult angle because I was in class–I tried to put up a noble defence but unfortunatly bearing your teatimony in history class doesn’t really cut it–I knew that and did not share it–no faith promoting heroics here.

    Now I’m NOM–and it all feels better now.


  20. cje,
    Are you still in England?

  21. California Condor says:

    Like just about every other commenter on this thread I took AP US History in high school, and I had a Jewish teacher who was sort of a loud-mouthed character. I think she liked me because I took the class to an extreme and I made hand-written outlines of all of the textbook chapters for extra-credit.

    Anyway, she knew I was Mormon and when the lectures covered Mormonism and polygamy she tried to put a postive spin on polygamy, maybe to make me not feel so embarrassed (I was the only Mormon in the class). She said that it might be nice to have a “girlfriend” (i. e. sister wife) to help raise the kids with.

  22. RJH

    I live in Atlanta, GA now.

    But lived in Devon and Somerset until I went on a mission to Alabama in ’89.


  23. cje, what part of Alabama?

  24. Steve Evans says:

    Ronan, thanks for this. I find it refreshing and interesting in a way to peer into the mindset of the Other, even if that Other happens to be a British oppressor.

  25. LOL. The British oppressor of…Alberta?!

  26. Ray

    Birmingham Mission ’89-’91


    Floronce/Tri Cities
    Ensley, Birmingham


  27. California Condor,

    I think Mormons generally get the right amount of space in history books. I mean, we just settled Utah for crying out loud, and we’re a pretty small sliver of the American population. We deserve maybe a paragraph or two more than the Amish, and that’s about how much we get.

    Really? Mormons did much more than settle Utah. They also settled large portions of Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, and California. The Utah War seems like a fairly significant event, as does federal prosecution of polygamists in the later 19th century, in the American history narrative.

    As for your thoughts on Joseph Smith’s presidential candidacy … well, that’s debatable. It really depends on who you ask. Is it significant to American history? Probably not, and I don’t think anyone really tries to make it so. Is it significant to U.S. Religious history? Much more so.

  28. cje, I lived in Dothan for a few years, so I thought we might know some of the same people. Oh, well.

    Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

  29. I can attest to the “Utah-shaped donut-hole”. As has been already said, the course material that Ronan showed, though funny, is way more than I got in my AP US history class in Washington State here in the good ol’ US of A. I think we also had the American Pageant text. Just a paragraph. My non-LDS co-workers are always amazed when we discuss the history of the church and the mobs, etc. I agree with Christopher; though our history may not be as noteworthy as, say, the Lousiana Purchase or the Whiskey Rebellion, the settlement of the American West (especially California) and the story of the Mormon emigration are inextricably tied. It certainly merits more coverage than it currently gets in the US school curricula.

  30. BTW, I don’t think a full study of the religious foundation of American Manifest Destiny can be undertaken without considering the example of Mormonism – both as an expression of Manifest Destiny *and* as a challenge to the Protestant construct. From a strictly religious/philosophical perspective, I believe the visceral rejection and persecution of Mormonism is as vivid an example of the depth of the religious nature of Manifest Destiny as any other example we have in American history – and shows even now how deeply entrenched that idea is in the fabric of American Protestantism.

    They can’t accept us specifically because we claim to be who they claim to be. There isn’t much that is more fundamental to an understanding of American history than that. The problem is that there are relatively few people who could write and teach the proper textbook version of that concept. In a way, I’m glad it’s not given more time in high school, since it would get butchered so badly in most classrooms.

    Maybe I’m just too cynical when it comes to stuff like this.

  31. Ray,

    My wife is from Huntsville and her father was the first stake president in Alabama. I guess the space program brought a lot of Saints to that neck of the woods, and he was already district leader when the calling came.

  32. Mormons did much more than settle Utah. They also settled large portions of Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, and California. The Utah War seems like a fairly significant event, as does federal prosecution of polygamists in the later 19th century, in the American history narrative.

    Mormons deserve to be mentioned. But I don’t think they merit, say, an entire chapter. Maybe a section of a chapter at the most.

  33. #16 CC: I think you are wrong about the presidential campaign.

    Bushman in RSR says of Joseph’s candidacy: “it may have been a gesture,” (which apparently was designed more for beneficial PR than a realistic shot at being elected) but a lot more is described as being done other than just saying he was running:

    Joseph “planned a campaign,” “had the missionaries stump for him” (no pretense of neutrality back then) and “conceived a series of conferences throughout the nation.” W.W. Phelps wrote a platform, “[Joseph] took positions on the great issues of the day,” and a “convention of the state” was held, where Joseph was nominated. RSR p. 515.

  34. MCQ (33),

    I guess I’m not persuaded that Joseph Smith was ever really a legitimate candidate in 1844. A lot of people in our era “run” for president who never have a chance of winning. I would name names but some people might be offended.

  35. It’s okay, CC. Ron Paul can take it.

  36. StillConfused says:

    “The Utah War seems like a fairly significant event” — I never heard of such a thing.

  37. Back in the olden days, Confused, we called it “Johnston’s Army.”

    One reason why the Mormon migration to Utah may be left out is that it doesn’t fit the pattern–the individual who ups and strikes out, like Huck Finn, for the territory. Which eventually gets filled up with civilizers like the Widow Douglas, but not until after the Huck Finn types have a rowdy good time of things.

    The Mormon migration to Utah was a whole lot more like that Sunday school picnic, with wagons.

  38. StillConfused — Please visit — there isn’t enough up, really, but there’s enough to give you an overview of the Utah War.

    We’re in the middle of its sesquicentennial now — anybody game for a restaging of Lot Smith’s burning of the wagons?

  39. California Condor (#32), I’m glad that you’ve changed your stance from “a paragraph or two” to “a section of a chapter.” It is perhaps significant that many non-LDS historians feel Mormonism has much to reveal about American history, as revealed by the comments in this post over at Religion in American History blog.

  40. I want to give a shout out to my Alabama Mormon homies. :) I’m a 2001 convert in Birmingham, so I don’t know anybody y’all are talking about, but it’s just great to hear Alabama and Mormon in the same sentence sometimes. I grew up here without ever meeting a single Mormon. When I converted after contact with LDS friends online, I met local saints for the first time, and was amazed at how many there were. The church is growing here quite a bit, thanks to missionary efforts like cje’s. It’s great to see. =)

  41. Tatiana and cje, It’s a longshot, but do either of you know Carol and Barry Avery? They are my aunt and uncle and were missionaries in Birmingham a few years ago.

  42. As a missionary in Runcorn England, I was invited to give a one hour presentation on Mormons at the local school and their Churches of the World class. I am not exactly sure of the class name, but other religions also came over the course of the year.

    The teacher was LDS and hence the invite; so sometimes kids get accurate lessons

  43. As a missionary in Runcorn

    My commiserations…

  44. I was homeschooled so I missed out on the joys of AP history, but my college American History courses didn’t even mention Mormonism; we were too busy reading an excessive amount of Willa Cather’s stuff.

    Then again, we also got treated to the ten second version of World War II, i.e.: “If you want to know what happened, go watch the History Channel. We call it ‘All Hitler All the Time’ in the faculty lounge. Moving on, the Cold War…” We covered the CCC and Hiroshima in the same 40 minute lecture period. So I’m not that fussed, we probably would have had the five second “Mormons went west and had a lot of wives” treatment if we’d been mentioned at all. ^_^

  45. Ronan, As a West End boy who had never been beyond Oxford; it was a great time. Spent 8 months in Runcorn and even managed to split the area.

  46. Oh yeah, you get used to the smell after 5 or 6 weeks.

  47. “The teacher was LDS and hence the invite; so sometimes kids get accurate lessons”

    TStevens, I think the idea that missionaries would give ‘accurate lessons’ about Mormons in the west from a historical perspective is up for debate.

  48. After re-reading your comment, I see they were there as reps of the church in a religion class, so my apologies. A much more appropriate setting.