I get asked this question often: “what books on Mormonism should I read?” Probably every other week or so. It comes from a broad range of people, including non-Mormon academics who have a small interest in the field, sunday school teachers who want to be better prepared to teach the Doctrine and Covenants, or fellow reading nerds who just want to banter about their favorite books. But most often, the question comes from average members of the Church who just want a better understanding of their faith tradition and its history. I usually refer them to my post on The LDS History Canon I wrote for JI a couple years back, but I often do so grimicingly because of three problems: 1) it is both out of date and flat-out wrong on some inclusions, which I hope to correct in a new version soon, 2) it is academically-oriented, and modeled more for an academic historian’s interest’s than the general member’s, and 3) it is only history.
So I decided to attempt to make, with everyone’s help, a list that is interdisciplinary, approachable, and relevant. Put simply, a list of books I wish every member of the Church would read.
(Note for those who are itching to make this comment: yes, the scriptures, General Conference addresses, and, if you’d like, the Brethren’s shopping list is the most important thing for members to read. Sure. We are taking the importance of scripture reading for granted in this list; if it makes you more comfortable, label this “The List of Books You Can Read After Your Three Hours of Morning Scriptural Study,” or TLBYCRAYTHMS, for short.)
Now, for some rules and outlines. It is ridiculously easy to just give a laundry list of books people should read, but that almost defeats the point of the list. This is about prioritizing. This is about making tough decisions. As such, I am putting a limit on the number of books included on the list. There can only be ten in the “Essential” category and another twenty in “Nearly Essential.” If you suggest adding another book to these two categories, and I really hope you do, you not only have to make a case for it but you have to tell me which book to drop. I could make a case for a hundred books, but if I am forced to limit myself to twenty-five, it requires a lot more work. However, I know that it is also helpful to include lots of other books, so feel free to nominate “further reading” suggestions that fall in a category under the two mentioned.
The primary audience is the average member of the Church who sits next to you every sunday. If you had your wish, what books do you wish every member would read? With that said, though, there is the reality that there is a certain type of person who would read books in the first place, so I have tried to take that into consideration, even if I can’t clearly elucidate the difference. And besides the important content (which is definitely a criteria), and beyond the quality of writing (which I wish we had a better standard against which to judge), I have tried to select books that provoke a lesson or idea I find significant. So, for instance, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, as a book and a topic, may not justify its inclusion in the “Essential” list, but its lesson in the fallibility of human leadership and the pitfalls of blind obedience make me wish every member of the Church knew its tale.
Other factors that I invoked: I’d like every reader to experience the broad swath of cultural production, thus I think history, literature, philosophy, and personal essays, as well as other disciplines and approaches, should be included. I also aimed for better gender representation, though we still have a ways to go on that front. And I wished to have every major issue dealt with: polygamy, race, dissent, gender, etc, so that each member will have something to draw from when presented with crucial tensions and questions.
Note that this is not a “Most Important Books” list, a “Best Mormon History Books” list, a “Best Written Books” list, or even “My Favorite Books” list; those would look very different. Again, these are books that I wish the average member of the Church was familiar with.
Enough talking. On to my list. (And many thanks to fellow BCCers and the handful of people I reached out to yesterday for helping me craft it.)
Essential (10 Books)
Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of An American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012).
- Even though it’s just a year old, it is already the best one-volume history of the Church. I would argue that before jumping into all of the other issues, moments, and themes, it is important to have an overall grasp of the Church, and this book provides that.
Claudia Bushman, ed., Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997).
- Though the volume is somewhat uneven, it exposes readers to something we need a lot more of in the Church: women’s history. It may sound simple, but I think it is crucial to adjust how we view historical characters in order to be more inclusive of women within Mormonism, so these articles point us in the right direction.
Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005).
- I would imagine this book would receive the most votes if this list were put to a poll. Everyone has to come to grapple with Joseph Smith, and Bushman’s book is still the best introduction.
Kathryn Daynes, More Wives than One: The Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).
- Everyone needs to deal with polygamy, and Daynes’s book is the best on the topic. (At least in Utah, anyway; her Nauvoo period chapter is a bit lacking, but Bushman can (kinda) help buttress that section.) Within the next few years, though, Daynes will have competition from both Kathleen Flake and Laurel Ulrich, as those books promise to be important examinations of polygamy.
Jill Mulvay Derr, Janeth Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992).
- Still the best overall history of Mormon women, and gives the sweeping narrative of the Church since the Nauvoo period until 1990.
Terryl and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012).
- We need more discussions concerning our beliefs, and I believe The God Who Weeps is the best introduction to our theology for the average member. I honestly wish this were the assigned curriculum for institute classes.
Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989).
- Yes, it is date; yes, many of Nibley’s claims are confusing; yes, much of the book is problematic. But it is still one of the most innovative and creative looks at the potential for Mormon cultural, economic, and political thought and, even if you vehemently disagree with it, it can still get you thinking. Which is what a book is supposed to do. (Make sure to read the fantastic series on Approaching Zion currently taking place at Times & Seasons.)
Levi Peterson, The Backslider (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986).
- A classic Mormon novel, and captures the tensions of (desired) sacred and profane in everyday life. We are all fallen, imperfect people, yet within that status there is still beauty.
Ronald Walker, Richard Turley, and Glen Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
- Not only an important event in LDS history, but the carrier of an important lesson.
Maurine Whipple, Giant Joshua (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1942).
- Another classic Mormon novel. I think it’s important because it humanizes historical figures and makes our pioneers look human. Also, it’s story is moving and makes our past seem a lot more, well, real–much more than academic history, I would argue.
Nearly Essential (20 Books)
Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).
- It is important to look at the institutional rupture that the end of polygamy brought, even if it overstates the changes in everyday life. Alexander’s is a classic, and looks at how the Church began the process of cultural assimilation after decades of isolation. (Personally, I like Kathleen Flake’s Politics of American Religious Identity more for this time period and issue, but it is likely a bit to academic and theoretical for most readers.)
Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
- Besides the fascinating content and sweeping scope, it teaching the multivocal history of Mormon scriptural interpretation. No, we haven’t always read the Bible the same way, and we have a dynamic (and, at times, quixotic) history of scriptural hermeneutics.
Martha Bradley, Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2005).
- A crucial moment in modern Mormonism told by a master historian. The tensions of gender issues, women’s rights, and the tension between church and state will continue to be a major element of today’s Church, so this is especially relevant.
Joanna Brooks, The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (New York: Free Press, 2012).
- A poignant, sweet, and thoughtful story of what makes Mormonism so powerful, frustrating, and, in the end, rewarding. It is also designed to build emphathy and demonstrate diversity.
Samuel Brown, In Heaven as It is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
- Besides being a brilliant reconstruction of early Mormon thought, the book is an important introduction to tough issues like treasure seeking, polygamy, and the relationship between masonry and the temple.
Eugene England, Making Peace: Personal Essays (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995).
- It has been argued that the personal essay is the best form of Mormon cultural expression. And Eugene England was the master of it. Would that all Mormons were exposed to his thoughtful, peaceful, and worshipful version of Mormonism. (Also, note that you could pick up any of England’s collections, like Dialogues with Myself and Quality of Mercy, and still turn out alright.)
James Faulconer, Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2010).
- One of the best works written on faith and reason by a Mormon and for Mormons; it should help develop a more sophisticated, rigorous, and rewarding approach to faith in general and scriptural reading in particular.
Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
- Arguably one of the best Mormon history books to date, it is a beautifully-told tale of Mormonism’s relationship to Mount Timpanogus. But it is also much more than that: it is a reflection on Mormonism’s influence on culture, colonialism, environmentalism, and consumerism.
Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
- This is a classic in the Mormon history field, and an important telling of not only how the Book of Mormon came to be, but how we have come to interpret the Book of Mormon.
Angela Hallstrom, ed., Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction (Salt Lake City: Zarahemla Books, 2010).
- We’ve had an explosion of great short stories of late, so something needed to be included. This compilation is worthy of the list and a great read.
Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- One of the best books on the Book of Mormon itself, and a great introduction to the complexity within the text.
Edward Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005).
- Among many other things, a significant account of Official Declaration 2.
Armand Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).
- Race will always be a sticking point for Mormonism. This provides a good overview, and the chapters on the priesthood ban should be read by every member.
Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
- This was the last cut from the “Essentials” section, so consider it #11 on this list. Crucial to understanding the tensions of 20th century Mormonism, and Mauss’s sociological approach will encourage readers to examine their tradtion in new and provocative ways.
Steven Peck, The Scholar of Moab (Torrey, UT: Torrey House Press, 2011).
- Even the approach, speculative western, merges the sacred and profane in a way that perfectly captures one of Mormonism’s paradoxes. And though a comedic tale, it asks fundamental philosophical questions that will last long after the laughs. Bonus points if you also read his A Short Stay in Hell, which might make you start hating our doctrine of eternity.
Gregory Prince and William Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005).
- How did the modern church come into being? McKay presided over one of the most crucial moments of the Church’s history, and this book, because of its access to key sources, provides key insights into the transition.
Wallace Stegner, The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail (1964; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992).
- Beautifually written, and makes our pioneer stories come alive in tragic and moving ways.
Stephen Taysom, Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011).
- There is something in here for everybody. It would serve as a very useful introduction to the broad, dynamic, and evolving field of Mormon studies.
Brady Udall, The Lonely Polygamist: A Novel (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).
- Though about a fictional modern polygamist in a fundamentalist group, it touches on notions of solidarity, community, and fallibility that are at the crux of the Mormon tradition.
Laurel Thatch Ulrich and Emma Lou Thayne, All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1995).
- Another collection of essays by phenomenal writers, this compilation offers poignant reflections on the experiences of Mormon women.
My “further reading” list includes Jan Shipp’s Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (as much as I wished members could be exposed to a sympathetic outsider’s take, I concluded it would be difficult for them to weather the religious studies/theoretical arguments; plus, many of her best points have been appropriated by other books on the list), Ronald Walker’s Wayward Saints (it’s the best written book in Mormon studies, and deftly deals with the issue of dissent), John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (probably a bit shocking to the average member, but an important read once they have a foundation), Sally Gordon’s The Mormon Question (perhaps the best book in Mormon history, though probably not relevant enough for the average reader), Eric Eliason’s useful collection Mormons and Mormonism, Michael Hick’s Mormonism and Music, Adam Miller’s Rube Goldberg Machines (just a step too difficult for the average reader), and Joe Spencer’s An Other Testament (I really wish there were more scritpural study books). I really wanted to include a compilation of poetry, and likely would have used Tyler Chadwick’s Fire in the Pasture.
I’m sure I’m not including many; indeed, some of my favorite books (like those by Spencer Fluhman and Patrick Mason) didn’t make the list.
Now, the fun starts. How would you change the “Essentials” and “Nearly Essentials” list? What would you add to “further reading”?