Opening Anecdotes of General Mormon History Overviews

Back in 1976, LDS historians James Allen and Glen Leonard published The Story of the Latter-day Saints, still one of Deseret Book’s finest publications to date. They issued a prophecy that anyone could’ve made: “The history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been written many times before, and will be written again as new information becomes available and as succeeding generations ask fresh questions about their past.”1

More than thirty years later in the middle of this “Mormon Moment,” the MoStudies community has been abuzz about Matt Bowman’s brand spanking new book, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012). Bowman’s opening chapter got me thinking about the use of anecdotes in the opening of such historical overviews. If you were writing such a book, where would you stick your foot in the stream?

Bowman surprised me (not merely because he didn’t go with a pioneer tale). Here’s the beginning of chapter one, called “Joseph Smith and the First Mormons”:

On a Monday morning in November 1835 a slender man in his middle forties, curiously dressed in a sea-green coat and pants and sporting a curling grey beard, picked his way into the muddy frontier town of Kirtland, Ohio, twenty miles northeast of Cleveland along the Chagrin River. He had come from New York City to visit Joseph Smith, Jr.: a national curiosity, twenty-nine years old, a self-declared prophet of God and leader of a people most often called the Mormons (Bowman, p.3).

And visit they did. The slender man was “Joshua the Jewish minister,” aka the reincarnated “Matthias,” aka Robert Matthews, alleged murderer and religious impostor. Bowman relates the strange encounter of the two American prophets, Smith and Roberts, the latter taking a perhaps-jealous glance at Smith’s rising temple and burgeoning community, the men discussing reincarnation and resurrection, ultimately denouncing each other at their meeting’s end. Though Smith’s career ended in martyrdom he left a still-growing religious movement, while Matthews died in obscurity, no movement to his name.

Of course, it’s not atypical for historians to use anecdotes like this to frame narratives and grab attention. In some cases, certain anecdotes stick in the record and get reused. There’s a certain element of fait divers in Bowman’s selection—the introduction of “‘odd’ occurrences for which the established views of history, the world, and human nature do not easily account.”2 The colorful story implies a frame for Bowman’s overall project: whence Smith’s success and Matthews’s failure? Unexpected and interesting, and the book will tell the tale, and I highly recommend it. At a cheap 16 bucks there’s little excuse not to enjoy this latest rendition of Mormon history.

So how have other general overviews of LDS history started off? I checked out ten other books, not all of which open with proper anecdotes, many of which open at Nauvoo, and one of which opens at Kolob (or thereabouts).

1. Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1922).

This little general overview had a huge impact on the way the official church presented its narrative down to the present. But unlike most subsequent general overviews, Smith began with a chapter called “Antiquity of the Gospel,” describing the Israelites looking back on the story of Adam and Eve (Smith, p. 3). This placed the beginning of the Mormon story far before the 19th century, situating Mormonism within a dispensational view of history avoided by more secular-influenced works.

2. Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957).

O’Dea’s overview is one of the first sympathetic, scholarly accounts ever written by a non-Mormon. It is shaped largely by the lens of 1950s sociology. The opening chapter, “Who Are the Mormons” opens with some demographics (“over a million members”) and situates the Mormons geographically: “The Mormons were the first settlers in much of the West, having arrived in California by ship in 1846 and in Utah by wagon in 1847. A battalion of Mormons, five hundred strong…” (O’Dea, p. 1). He doesn’t mention the problems at Nauvoo leading to the exodus here, but the striking cover depicts a burning Nauvoo Temple. Best cover of the bunch, I’d love to have a framed print of that image (sans title, etc.).

3. Truth Restored (Salt Lake City: [Intellectual Reserve?], 1969). 

Perhaps the first officially “correlated” history of the Church, this one was adapted from an earlier work written by Gordon B. Hinckley called What of the Mormons? (1947). In “Chapter 1: Genesis,” we read a pretty straight-forward narrative without many quotations:

Western New York in the early nineteenth century was essentially frontier territory, a place of opportunity to those for whom the tremendous task of clearing and breaking the virgin land held little fear. Among these were Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith and their eight children, who in 1816 came to the vicinity of Palmyra, not far from Rochester (accessed online).

4. James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976).

As a direct offspring of the Arrington “Camelot” years, Allen and Leonard’s overview is still one of the best one-volume treatments available. The authors divided their book into parts, each with a lengthy italicized intro. Part one’s intro describes the more than twenty thousand missionaries in the mid-1970s who talk about modern prophets, Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon (Leonard, Allen, p. 3). The opening chapter, “The Religious Setting for the Restoration,” is aimed to please Mormons from the first line: “’This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!’ That, recorded Joseph Smith, is what he heard in the spring of 1820…” (Leonard, Allen, p. 7). They go on to situate the First Vision by backtracking to the Protestant Reformation.

5. Leonard J. Arrington, Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, (New York: Knopf, 1992 [1979 first edition]).

Around the same time as Story, Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton put together their one-volume published by a nationally recognized press aimed at a national audience. They kick things off post-Nauvoo in their chapter, “The Beginnings”:

When Colonel Thomas L. Kane, Philadelphia military officer and would-be philanthropist, visited the Mormon refugees in Iowa in 1846, he was touched to hear a Latter-day Saint woman singing the psalm “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.” During much of their history the Mormons were, figuratively speaking, by the waters of Babylon, trying to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Theirs is the story of a religious minority, generally unpopular and often harassed—a group that some scholars think was the most persecuted religious community in early America. The intergroup friction between the Mormons and their neighbors tells something about American society and the limits of religious tolerance (xiii).

6. Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 1996).

This one starts with “Chapter One: The First Vision,” but doesn’t cut right in at the 1820s. Like Joseph Fielding Smith’s Essentials above, this story backs up, though not quite as far:

The Need for a Restoration: After the death of Jesus’ Apostles, the power of the priesthood and many of the truths of the gospel were taken from the earth, beginning a long period of spiritual darkness called the great Apostasy. The prophet Amos had prophetically foreseen…(accessed online).

7. Richard and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2000).

These journalists put together a one-volume treatment for HarperOne’s more popular-aimed audience. In good reporter style, they situate their sexily-titled chapter “Sealed With Blood” with a contemporary description of a historic location:

Nauvoo, Illinois, today sits at a picturesque bend in the Mississippi River, a tourist attraction and state historical park with visitor centers operated by competing churches at opposite ends of the restored town. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) owns the imposing brick Heber C. Kimball house and the Masonic lodge. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS) owns Joseph Smith’s grave and his two homes. Relations are polite… (Ostling, Ostling, p.1).

8. Claudia Lauper Bushman and Richard Lyman Bushman, Building the Kingdom: A History of Mormons in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Chapter one (“Joseph Smith’s First Visions, 1820-30”) begins with an epigraph from Joseph Smith’s account of the visit from Moroni in 1823, “While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room.” They move directly into church demographics (ten million compared to O’Dea’s earlier million), and a description of basic beliefs (faith in Christ, repentance, etc.) to situate Mormonism within Christianity (Bushman, p. 1).

9. Coke Newell, Latter Days: An Insider’s Guide to Mormonism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (New York: Macmillan Press, 2001).

Coke is the definite outlier of the group. His opening chapter (“A Heavenly Start”) doesn’t start with earthly dispensations, it kicks it off cosmology-style with Kolob:

“In the beginning” is a relative phrase. Latter-day Saint doctrine identifies no specific point on the cosmic ruler for the beginning of heaven, of earth, or of humanity. For the chronology of heaven—and of its God—we grant a very large ruler, one whose unit of measure is so vast as to render all calculations the nomenclature of eternity. As to the time of the creation of earth and its habitation by occupants we can begin a flirtation with numeracy, but the numbers are yet large, and unwieldy, and seemingly without inherent value. Not so in regard to the purpose of that creation. To that there remains no question. Far, far away—whether in physical distance or in metaphysical dimension, we make no claims—and long, long ago, you and I were born as spirit children of God and, naturally, a Goddess, actual beings of glorified human form and substance. Our home and theirs was a brilliant orb, a crystalline sphere, where the pure light of the greatest of all stars, Kolob, shone endlessly (and yet does and will forever)…(Newell, p.7).

10. Terryl L. Givens, The Latter-day Experience in America (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004). 

Like several others before him, Givens begins at Nauvoo, post-martyrdom but pre-Great Basin Kingdom (and like the Ostlings, he mentions that Nauvoo was rivaling Chicago in size prior to the expulsion):

On 10 September, 1846, the bombardment began and continued sporadically for three days. As many as eight hundred (some Mormons said 1,800) militiamen and area citizens with six pieces of cannon had surrounded the virtually deserted city ofNauvoo,Illinois. The two to three hundred remaining Saints converted some steamboat shafts to cannon and threw up barricades. After a stubborn resistance by the besieged and daring sortie that brought temporary respite but at a cost of three Mormon lives, the combatants signed an agreement of capitulation on 16 September. By October, the Mormon temple in Nauvoo—finished at such tremendous sacrifice even while persecutions raged—was desecrated, the beautiful city that had recently rivaled Chicago in size was a shell of its former self, and the last weary and infirm Saints had joined their fellow believers in forcible exile. They left behind not just the “City of Joseph,” but the very borders of the United States of America. At almost the same time and thousands of miles away, the Mormon Battalion, a group of Mormon volunteers, trudged toward Santa Fe to rendezvous with the federal Army of the West on their way to fight the Mexican War…It is one of the great paradoxes of the Mormon experience in the nineteenth century that the American flag suggested to the Latter-day Saints both promise and oppression…(Givens, pp. 1-2).

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised to see the post-Nauvoo, pre-Great Basin Kingdom moment as the most common point of initiation. This little overview demands more analysis than I’ve provided. Penny for your thoughts.



1. James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), ix.

2. Lionel Gossman, “Anecdote and History,” History and Theory 42:2 (2003):143–168.


  1. P.S.: My sincere apologies to the New York Times and Publishers Weekly for failing to mention Krakauer and the Osmond family in this blog post.

  2. I’m getting a little tired of BCC’s anti-Krakauer, anti-Osmond agenda.

  3. P.S.: My sincere apologies to the New York Times and Publishers Weekly for failing to mention Krakauer and the Osmond family in this blog post.


  4. Adamjpowell says:

    What is the most recent history of Mormonism that you would recommend using in an undergraduate class?

  5. Amanda HK says:

    He’s actually borrowing his introduction from the Kingdom of Matthais, by Johnson and Wilentz. They begin with the same anecdote and use it to place the cult that Robert Matthews founds in context. The book is great and is frequently used in American history surveys to talk about the religious movements of the 19th C.

  6. I’m echoing Adamjpowell here, as I’m right now trying to develop a syllabus for the undergrad class I’ll be teaching in April. My students will be freshmen and sophomores, perhaps you can suggest a comprehensive text? Thanks!

  7. Adamjpowell and Saskia: I know your questions weren’t directed to me, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend Matt Bowman’s volume that Blair opens the post with. It’s the most up to date, exhaustive in topics and people, and is exceptional at touching on so many issues in such a sophisticated way.

  8. Adam, it depends on what sort of length, breadth and depth you’re looking for, really. Carl Cranney is teaching a Mormonism class at Georgetown this semester and he opted for Bowman’s book sight unseen based on the preliminary buzz. I think it’s a solid choice. I haven’t read the Givens volume (anyone out there have some perspective on it?). The folks over at JI have some great advice:

  9. Adamjpowell says:

    Thank you. I have not yet perused Bowman’s work. I will also have a look at Juvenile Instructor.

  10. Givens was made for teaching in class. I highly recommend it for covering both history and theology. Bowman’s might be good, but I don’t particularly trust the press to decide what to read. Price difference might be an issue.

  11. When I was a boy of eight years or so, I had a strong interest in pioneers of the American West and read what I could find in the library on the Donner Party, the Oregon Trail, the Gold Rush, and such. These books were simple narratives that a child could understand and enjoy, often telling the story of a single family or party. A few books about the Mormon pioneering of the West were part of my reading. At the time I knew the Mormon church had something to do with me (my mother was an inactive member), but I didn’t know much about it as a religion. Well along in this course of childhood self-education, there was one book that opened with Brigham Young receiving word of Joseph Smith’s death. I had already become familiar with the great Brigham Young, but who was this Joseph Smith, this person that Brigham Young regarded as his superior and whose death he deeply mourned? In a way, Brigham Young is the one who first shared a testimony with me of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I wonder which book that was.

  12. Although I probably wouldn’t have pegged the post-Nauvoo pre-Great Basin moment if you had asked me to guess, I’m not too surprised after consideration. That moment was tailor-made for a storyteller: It drops us in medias res at one of the most dramatic moments of our history and allows the narrator to look either forward for the coming epic or backward for the “what brought them to this moment?” tale. You might argue that “This is my Beloved Son” is even more dramatic, but then you’re faced with evaluating truth claims or explaining “where did that come from?” at the very beginning, before you’ve had a chance to establish characters and plot and attitude. Many of us are aware that the Nauvoo/Salt Lake break was a major turning point in our development in many ways, but in ways that are difficult to outline for the novices who presumably are the major audience for history overviews — the westward migration is something a storyteller can show and that novices can understand at some levels, even if other levels escape them.

    Krakauer. Osmonds.

  13. Ardis, nice point. It does provide a great moment to either trace back or shoot forward from.

  14. As an aside, BHodges, I read your distillation of Bowman’s opening anecdote and realized that it had been used before. Or at least the story of Joseph Smith and Matthias meeting had been used before. Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz began their book The Kingdom of Matthias with an account of the two prophets meeting in Kirtland. You can read it at

  15. Oops. Didn’t see Amanda’s note (#5) above before posting my comment..

  16. Adamjpowell says:

    For a general introduction to Mormonism in the classroom setting, has anyone used An Introduction to Mormonism by Douglas Davies? If so, what were the results?

  17. Adam, I haven’t read that particular book, but it has received pretty solid reviews regarding its utility in terms of making Mormonism more understandable to Christianity at large. Davies is less historian, though, more anthropologist/theologian. I reviewed his recent book Joseph Smith, Jesus, sand Satanic Opposition here:

    Basically, Davies takes comparative look at LDS theology and presents some excellent snapshots of various LDS beliefs. Sometimes he takes a minute to trace the development in history of a particular LDS belief, but more often he is doing a broader comparison, and he’s certainly not trying to give a historical overview. If you’re looking for a history-driven narrative about Mormonism Davies isn’t the route, IMO. If you’re looking for more of a theology.doctrinal view, and an interesting one written by an informed outsider, then Davies is really useful.

  18. Thanks for the reviews Blair. Looking forward to reading the Bowman volume.

  19. “P.S.: My sincere apologies to the New York Times and Publishers Weekly for failing to mention Krakauer and the Osmond family in this blog post.”

    Totally FTW.

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