Getting to know the nineteenth-century Church

A thoughtful young person approached me at church the other day, curious about the Journal of Discourses, and through them the rest of nineteenth-century Mormonism. I had recently shared with him an historical essay I wrote on Smithian Mormonism, and he was curious to read more. He asked for advice about how to orient himself to the world of nineteenth-century Mormonism, and I realized that it’s been two decades since I immersed myself in the literature surrounding the world of early Mormonism and that I have probably lost the capacity to understand that first transition into broader awareness of historical contexts. When a non-Mormon asks, I tend to nod toward Remini’s Penguin Lives of JSJ and Bloom’s American Religion. When a Mormon asks, I have tended to recommend Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling and Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon. I have specifically in mind not graduate students or undergrads eyeing a possible academic career, but good, thoughtful, faithful LDS curious about their spiritual ancestors but not satisfied with the mid-twentieth-century view expounded in many church manuals of that era (which continues in some respects to the present day). What do people think are the key articles or books for that specific group? Those of you BCConsentists who are not as nerdy as our dear friends at JuvInst, what books or articles have been important to you?

And with respect and affection for friends, peers, and coreligionists who have disaffiliated or are in the process of disaffiliation from the LDS Church, I wish you Godspeed in your life and faith walks, but today I am interested in materials that will meet the needs of those who wish to remain believing, practicing LDS over the long term.


  1. I think it helps to start with a good, basic history of the Church, like Allen/Leonard Story of the Latter-day Saints or Arrington/Bitton The Mormon Experience. An easy refresher course in who was who and what came when gives a framework for holding the more specialized readings that others will likely suggest.

    I’d also recommend that people read at least a few dozen pages (preferably more) in a facsimile printing of The Book of Mormon, the way people of Joseph Smith’s day experienced it. That’s a surprisingly different experience for most people and helps move them back into that older world.

  2. I love lists. And I think coming up with lists for the average reader is of utmost importance.

    My go-to’s have been Bushman’s RSR and Givens’s BtHoM, though Bushman’s Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction has been a favorite to give out and recommend over the last year. I also echo Ardis’s suggestions of Allen/Leonard and Arrington/Bitton—both are very readable, responsible, and informative. Givens and Grow’s bio of PPP, which will be out in a couple weeks, will also be a great introduction.

    For the Utah period, I’m generally at a loss, though Walker, Turley, and Leonard’s MMM is an obvious necessity.

    And for those who want a “nerdy” list, there’s this:

  3. Some of my faves (not yet mentioned):
    Nauvoo, Kingdom on the Mississippi/Flinders
    Orson Pratt/Brett England
    Wilford Woodruff/Tom Alexander
    The Heavens Resound/Backman
    In Sacred Loneliness/Compton
    Parley Pratt’s Autobiography
    Joseph Smith/The First Mormon/D. Hill
    Sidney Rigdon/VanWagoner
    George Q. Cannon/Bitton
    Magic World View/Quinn

  4. As a non-academic who is usually the one asking for advice on what to read, I wholeheartedly endorse recommending By the Hand of Mormon and Rough Stone Rolling to people like me. I am very grateful to a historian friend who pointed me to those books several years ago. I absolutely devoured them. They helped to satisfy a hunger that had been growing in me for some time. I suspect there are many Church members who feel the same way.

  5. My gateway drug was Mormon Sisters, ed. Claudia Bushman–it’s a nice, broad introduction to lots of aspects of 19th-century Utah life. And for folks who are daunted by RSR, JS and the Beginnings of Mormonism is a good sketch of the essentials.

  6. While each of these books may have its flaws (what book doesn’t?), each has proven repeatedly to be of great value in how I approach the Church.

    For general histories:
    The Story of the Latter-day Saints
    Great Basin Kingdom
    The Mormon Hierarchy, both volumes

    For more specialized treatments (and biographies):
    Mormonism in Transition
    Elder Statesman
    Trials of Discipleship
    David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism
    Brigham Young: American Moses

    Finally: And watch out for John Turner’s new biography of Brigham Young. It’s breath-taking.

  7. Researcher says:

    How many books is the thoughtful young person going to read?

    If just one, I would suggest one of the two that Ardis mentioned and Ben seconded, with a slight personal preference for The Story of the Latter-day Saints.

    If the young person is a good reader and a larger number of books is within reason, then I would suggest some of the following in no particular order, including some basic biographies and autobiographies and few doctrinal works to give a bit of a flavor of the Restoration:

    1. One of the comprehensive histories mentioned above
    2. The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother — an interesting read for a young person
    3. Brigham Young: American Moses (Arrington)
    4. Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt — there have to be some enjoyable selections on this list, and this would be one of them
    5. Lectures on Faith — it’s short and sweet, widely available, and non-canonized
    6. Three Mormon Classics (Wilford Woodruff, George Q. Cannon, Jacob Hamblin) — an easy, enjoyable read on the topic of missionary work with a good flavor of the times
    7. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (yes, really)
    8. The Book of Mormon (I’m serious here, too)
    9. The Doctrine and Covenants (ditto)

    If the thoughtful young person manages to make it through those, I would suggest moving on to books like:

    1. Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society (Derr, Cannon, Beecher) — the closest thing we have to a women’s history of the church
    2. Rough Stone Rolling (Bushman)
    3. Great Basin Kingdom (Arrington)
    4. More Wives than One (Daynes) — for a good history of polygamy
    5. Any of the newer biographies and the relevant books listed over at JI.
    6. The selections in the Joseph Smith Papers project.

  8. Thanks for the great input. What do people think about Michael Quinn’s oeuvre for the population identified in the opening post (ie non-academic, wanting to stay LDS)? I find his bibliographical detail quite useful for academics getting their start, but I haven’t yet been persuaded that his books are as useful for the group identified in the OP. I am interested in empirical observations on this point, though, and not feeling dogmatic. I love Tom’s Mormonism in Transition for this application, and I also remember a lot of non-academic readers strongly praising Greg Prince’s McKay biography.

  9. Researcher says:

    I’m assuming you’re talking about a teenager here. I would suggest starting at a much more basic level than Quinn. Do some of the basics first, then start to move into the sort of works mentioned at JI, then start to branch off from there into areas of particular interest, which could include works by Quinn but wouldn’t have to.

  10. What about a shorter work, possibly a stand-alone essay, to set the stage with this young person? I’m thinking of Dick Poll’s “What the Church Means to People Like Me.” For many people, myself included, it’s become something of a touchstone in how they’ve learned to relate to the Church.

  11. I think there are sufficient problems with Quinn’s books — all of them — to think that there must be better ways to introduce people to 19th century Mormonism. When readers have learned to cope with the flood of I-never-knew-thats that will come with any of the suggested books, they’ll be better able to cope with the problems in Quinn’s theses.

    But I realize I’m in a minority, never having jumped aboard the Cult of Quinn bandwagon.

  12. For me it was Building the City of God by Fox, Arrington, and May.

  13. I’m in the middle of volume 2 of the J of D, and I think there’s ultimately no substitute for the primary sources themselves. I think usually what we get through secondary sources tends to emphasize the more sensational aspects, when reading the actual texts themselves both gives one more of a sense of proportionality in terms of importance. It also helps one realize how many pages one has to wade through to get to the little nuggets that are thrown about and have come to be representative of the J of D for many people. Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the J of D to an investigator.

  14. I agree with Ardis (I love it when that happens!). Quinn’s books tend to overwhelm with detail and be somewhat short on the sort of analysis that a non-professional or newbie can make use of to get her arms around all that new information.

    It’s a bit premature, but I’m inclined to think Bowman’s forthcoming history will be a nifty brief intro., too.

  15. I can’t do much more than echo the good suggestions already made:

    By the Hand of Mormon
    Great Basin Kingdom
    Thomas Alexander’s bio of WIlford Woodruff

    Neither White nor Black, Bush and Mauss, ed
    Wilford Woodruff and the Mormon Reformation of 1855-57, article by Thomas Alerxander in Dialogue from 1992, I think.
    Take Up Your Mission, by Charles Peterson, a good look at how colonizing both worked and didn’t work.
    Jan Shipps, Mormonism
    Defender of the Faith by Truman Madsen, bio of BH Roberts, less rigorous than some of the others, but very readable, and covers the transitions from 19th to 20th centuries.

  16. I’ll add another vote for Alexander’s bio of Woodruff. That was actually the first academic book on Mormon history I read, and I found it very approachable and fascinating.

  17. I think one of my favorites was, Allen, James B. Trials of Discipleship: The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon (1987). It gave me a better ‘feel’ for the times than any of the more recent histories. But I have no idea how it was received academically, I just liked it.

  18. Well, I’m not a member of the LDS church, so the books which spoke to me and helped me understand (better) early Mormonism may not work for your young person. First, I’d second the suggestion of ROUGH STONE ROLLING. Then, you might look for a history that puts the emergence (restoration) of LDS beliefs in social and historical context. If you like contemporaneous social history, Apostle Ben E. Rich’s little book, MR. DURANT OF SALT LAKE CITY, while kinda a predecessor to LeGrand Richard’s A MARVELOUS WORK AND A WONDER, is nonetheless a very readable description of the social world of his time – and it can be quite illuminating to read something that old, rather than a new book about old times. Since I’m into fiction, I might also throw in Orson Scott Card’s SAINTS — I really thought he “got” the bubbling excitement of those early days in Nauvoo. Finally, and more recently, Virginia Sorensen’s WHERE NOTHING IS LONG AGO, and Rodello Hunter’s DAUGHTER OF ZION, describe a way of life that I suspect is closer to the 19th century than the 21st – their stories stretch back to the 20s and forward to maybe the 60s — and are wonderfully intimate descriptions of lived faith.

  19. oooh, also Stegner’s Mormon Country, maybe for younger kids–I loved it when I was about 12 (?), and it’s good prep for Great Basin Kingdom.

  20. An interesting fiction read is Maureen WHipple’s The Giant Joshua. Not a bad look at 19th century Mormon life in St. George.

  21. Jeff Elhardt says:

    How about the Book of Mormon?

  22. Richard and Claudia’s book Building the Kingdom is a nifty little introduction. If the reader makes it through with increased interest they would enjoy a lot of the suggestions in this thread as well. Building is a good length, a good treatment, an accessible tone, to help bridge into more academically-geared works, imo.

  23. I should note my suggestion is a revamped version of a book they originally wrote for a young adult audience. So I think it fits the OP’s seeking especially well.

  24. Yes! I was trying to remember the title of the Bushman and Bushman book. Building The Kingdom will be summer reading for my oldest next summer. BHodges, I am lost without you.

  25. Good post, Sam. I’ve recommended Bushman’s VSI to Mormonism to several friends in the recent past. I’m anxious to start recommending Bowman’s volume when it comes out, too. For the more ambitious, I think RSR and By the Hand of Mormon are great recommendations. And for those wanting a better understanding of 20th century Mormonism, Prince’s McKay bio is great.

  26. My introduction was American Moses (by the way, when is Turner’s book coming out?), but after recently reading The Story of the Latter-day Saints I wish I had begun there. I felt like I “got” the books I was reading before, but as is always true, with broader context comes greater understanding.

  27. John Turner’s biography of BY is close to production, but production at academic presses takes 10-12 months. It’s Harvard University Press, so look for some advertising from them next year. John is a wonderful scholar and a good friend, writing perceptively and sympathetically from outside our tradition entirely.

  28. haha JJ, nice.

    Sam, looking forward to Turner’s book. I wish Ron Walker would get his BY volume out faster too.

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