Some years ago I toyed with the idea of there being a hypothetical individual which was interested in understanding Mormonism beyond the modern devotional aspects of the faith. I wondered what four books I would recommend and then posted the list. When I revisit the same question today, I’m quite torn and my list is quite different:
Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989).
I recently came back to this volume while preparing a manuscript and it really is great. Hatch gets a few things wrong about Mormonism; however, these errors are quite small and are greatly overshadowed by the massive contribution this volume offers to understanding the context in which Joseph Smith worked out the Restoration. Very readable and covers a wonderfully rich period. Priestcraft, Thomsonian medicine, anti-creedalism, vernacularism, and more!
Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
This one volume history of Mormonism is a short and smooth trip through the founding of the Church to the Modern era. As such, it misses a boatload, but I think readers of all stripes will come away with an excellent view of Mormonism’s development. A nice compliment would probably be Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, the now definitive biography of the foundational prophet.
Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).
This is one volume that I have kept from my previous list. It isn’t perfect, but it does what no other single volume does. The four decades spanning 1890-1930 really are a dramatic shift for the Church. While dry, Alexander chronicles important shifts in Mormon liturgy, belief and practice. A nice targeted compliment might be Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.
Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball [Manuscript version on the CD which accompanies the book] (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005).
Last time around I went for Prince’s McKay biography. It was a hard call this time around, but I think that with Kimball’s tenure being more proximate, that perhaps many of the details will resonate more with the reader. The manuscript version that accompanies the volume is also the must-read. It not only includes the annotations, but much of what the editors were uncomfortable publishing.
I think this list of four has a lot of weaknesses. Reading a diary of an early Mormon has a great impact on our perceptions of these people and their lived religion – perhaps the diaries of Patty Sessions, Helen Mar Kimball Whitney or Charles Ora Card would be a good place to start. It can be slow going, but it is definitely worth it. Two things that get somewhat short-shrifted are Women and Mormon cosmology. Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society, really is a great starting place for the Relief Society. I tend to recommend Andrew Ehat’s thesis for temple stuff.
So, what four books would you recommend this time around?