What Mormon Books Do You Love?

Recently I read When Mormons Doubt, a new book by Jon Ogden. The book is a mix of philosophy on reverence and practical ideas for scenarios that Mormons increasingly find themselves in: What do you do when belief is no longer concrete, either for you, or for bookssomeone close to you? How do you move forward meaningfully in familial relationships that seem to be taking different paths? Jon writes optimistically about the possibility for both peace and reconciliation both for the people who step out of the church and for those who stay in. The book is a worthy read. Jon pulls the reader gently through a series of thought experiments that nudge in a direction of deeper thought, reverence and respect for the countless spiritual paths that personal Mormonism can offer if we allow it, even once a person has “left” the church.

I’ve written at least three separate pieces working through my ideas after reading When Mormons Doubt and while the book itself got me thinking, it is also the idea of the book that is interesting to me. I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of the history of Mormon literature, but I am an avid reader of non-fiction. The literary landscape available to me as a young BYU student was not encouraging of the type of brazen exploration and questioning my evolving faith asked of me. I realize now that in part this was because I did not know where to look and that devotional literature is not a new genre by any means. To quote a BCC writer and historian, J. Stapley,

Scholars of all sorts have been dealing with historiographical and epistemological concerns over Mormonism for much longer then 10 years. Richard Bushman’s  Rough Stone Rolling is over ten years old, but his JS and the Beginnings of Mormonism was  published in 1988.  Even BH Roberts was writing for Americana magazine at the beginning of the century.

I suppose then, in part, my being exposed to what feels like new Mormon non-fiction is because I am young— accumulation takes time—in part because I haven’t invested the time I hope to in knowing the larger timeline. I don’t think my experience of not knowing which Mormon writing to turn to is uncommon. I think many people feel lost and hopeless within their Mormonism precisely because they do not know or haven’t been exposed to writing that might help them.

In my own personal life the literary landscape is reforming, expanding, and taking space both on my bookshelves and in my mind. This has helped to make religion relevant to me and I see this landscape making a difference for people like my younger sister, for whom the church will never be less complicated than it was for me.

As a student, I found solace in authors like Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Terry Tempest Williams, Scott Russell Saunders, Eduardo Galeano, Ben Okri, and Maggie Nelson, and poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mark Doty, John Donne and Elizabeth Bishop. But with the exception of Terry Tempest Williams, I was not finding many books that overtly took on the task of faith and doubt within Mormonism. I know now that there were books I could have turned to, but they were not introduced to me by leaders, friends, social media and certainly not in my literature classes (much in part because a literature or creative writing class was not the correct context, at least not yet for Mormon writing).

A decade ago I did not realize that what I was missing and wanting were words from my own people. Not a road map or a how to or an instruction manual. Not books that side-stepped difficulty or worked on the pretense that all was always well in Zion, but also books that did not dwell in anger or pessimism. As another BCC blogger, Kristine H. so aptly said,

I think it might be worth thinking about these shifts as, in some ways, a return. I’m     thinking about Bryan Evenson and Neil LaBute and their aggressive                          transgressiveness–it seems to me that a lot of the good stuff going on now has to do  with people finding ways to complicate narratives rather than just trying to place          themselves on the pro- or anti- side of the old narrative.

At the time of my initial transformation of faith as a young college student who was freshly returned from a mission, I did not know much, if any, Mormon literature that allowed me to “complicate my narrative” while remaining faithful. I certainly wasn’t ready at the time to read Evenson or LaBute, nor would it likely have been helpful in helping me realize there was a space for me. However, I have found subsequent examples since that time that do make the space of honest questioning and parsing. These have powerful teaching tools in navigating the complex space of spirituality within a religion.

At the time I was working through a faith transition without wanting to leave my faith, I often felt alone, or like I was a burden to those who didn’t have questions to speak up. Rough Stone Rolling had recently, and at the time it felt a little rebelliously (ha!) come into my life, and began a filling in of a void in my literary home. I didn’t realize how much I needed the grappling words of Mormon writers.

I am only now unearthing, much because of books like ‘Mormon Feminism’ the many non-fiction writers that were writing things that would have helped me in my earlier years.. Even if I knew about this writing then, these works were stipulated as much too radical and scary, as many of the authors had excommunicated after writing them (http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/lifestyle/54514350-80/church-excommunicated-faith-hanks.html.csp) and so I didn’t even bother to open the books. I am sad for the words I missed out on then, but excited as some of them become unearthed to take shape and place within my current spiritual context. The humanness in traversing across real and difficult questions gives life to my own spiritual story.

In the past year I have read several books by Mormon authors that are doing the exciting work that Kristine had mentioned of “complicating the narrative”.  I see books like, Letters to a Young Mormon and Future Mormon by Adam Miller; Navigating a Mormon Faith Crisis by Thomas Wirthlin Mcconkie; Book of Mormon Girl by Joanna Brooks; Planted by Patrick Mason; The Living Faith Series produced by the Maxwell Institute (which Letters and Planted come from); Mormon Feminism co-edited by Rachel Hunt Steenblick and Joanna Brooks; Women at Church by Neylan Mcbaine; and When Mormons Doubt by Jon Ogden along with dozens of others (please expand the list in the comments!) not named here that are actively doing work to change the landscape. I know I am missing many, many titles here, I would love to know the Mormon books, both historically and contemporarily, that you’ve read that have changed your spiritual landscape.

While this post focuses on non-fiction, the fiction realm, which has always been more comfortable in jumping into complication has also begun to expand within my own periphery. Friends who were once hesitant to write about their Mormonism in their fiction MFA programs have begun to write stories that do indeed complicate the narrative and their stories have moved me to see my own faith in new ways. One example here writer Kate Finlinson (seriously worth heading over to read): http://www.joylandmagazine.com/regions/los-angeles/pioneer-trek.

For me, these published and emerging titles are part of the necessary making of more space—on bookshelves, in lectures, in conversations and discussions that don’t have to be secret. These books and stories are a continuation of doing the work of making space within our religious writing.

‘When Mormons Doubt’, the book I mention at the beginning of this post, spurred lots of thought and questions about contemporary Mormon non-fiction writing. Jon Ogden writes with a deliberate, thoughtful and clear voice that understands the vitality in creating a more mature space that supersedes culture when culture seems to have intersected itself overwhelmingly with a stifling sense of how things must be done. I went through some of my undergraduate courses and then my MFA with Jon in 2007-2011 and then for several years we fell out of touch. When I read his book I was not surprised at Jon’s ability and insistence that we must make space within our religion for the unconventional believers, because turns out, they aren’t so unconventional after all, but very much an important and emerging part of Mormonism. I was however, surprised that so many of our religious thoughts aligned when neither of us were writing about it in the four years that we had work-shopped our writing together. I wished that at the time we’d had more examples of overt Mormon writing that broached thinking and believing differently as a reasonable and worthy celebration of faith, and not as a reason to leave religion all together. I don’t think it is anyone’s fault that we weren’t exposed to more Mormon writers as students. John Donne is a far better choice to explore God than any Mormon literature I’ve come across. Clearly we have a ways to go as a young religion, but I feel optimistic about the breadth of Mormon writing emerging I feel inspired to dig further into the past to read what was written in the century before me.

Jon’s book falls easily into a tangible space within Mormonism that may have eased assumed spiritual loneliness that I experienced as I rebuilt my faith over the past ten years. I imagine that many people would have benefitted from words in books that could cross the spaces that seemed unnecessarily vast and void of fellow travelers.

As one example, I see Jon’s book as a literal manifestation of the space that is being planted, sown and harvested within the Mormon landscape. There is something so valuable about an actual artifact to point to, a book takes its place on a shelf, in a home, in a bookstore, and is thus insistent upon taking up some sort of space.  I think of “Jesus the Christ” by James Talmage and how the physical presence of that book, the fact that in a single suitcase that provided me with everything I needed in a foreign country for 18 months, it was important enough for me to take up some of that weight and space in books speaks to the cultural value we place on words that take up space in our religion.

What are the books that have made a difference for you spiritually, both recently and in the past?



  1. I have not read When Mormon’s Doubt. I will have to grab that one. Thanks for the recommendation. I leaned on the Essays in Robert Ree’s “Why I Stay”. Givens’ “People of Parodox.” And your aforementioned Planted, and Navigating Faith Crisis.

    I am having a hard day today. Your post was comforting.

  2. A Happy Hubby says:

    As much as I have read most all of the books mentioned, I really enjoy some humor. And for me the best in that category is “The Backslider” by Levi Peterson. I would warn it is for mature audiences and talks about “real life” and there is NO way Deseret Book will ever carry it. But left me with some tears at the ending.

  3. A handful of books that I find myself going back to from time to time include:
    “Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion,” by Sterling McMurrin.
    “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel,” “The Quality of Mercy,” and other collections of essays from Eugene England.
    And an old one, that has surprised me on more than one occasion, which is Steven R. Covey’s “Spiritual Roots of Human Relations,” written in his pre-7 Habits days.

    More recently, I have enjoyed Grant Hardy’s “Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Readers Guide,” and Brant Gardner’s “The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon,” both of which have helped me immensely with many of the difficulties surrounding the Book of Mormon.

  4. Alf O'Mega says:

    Top of the fiction list: The Backslider, by Levi Peterson. It’s probably the greatest Mormon novel. (Brady Udall is coming up hard on his flank.)

    For short stories, Douglas Thayer’s Under the Cottonwoods is superb, as is Wasatch. For a gentle and amusing introduction, look for his “Carterville” in Dialogue vol. 38 no. 3.

  5. Thank you already for these suggestions. I knew everyone would have many great additions, many that I’ve haven’t even heard of and probably should have. I’ll turn all of these comments into a list that I’ll post next week.

  6. I would recommend, “An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown”, by Edwin Firmage (his grandson). It is enlightening to read of President Brown’s navigation within a church of good, but mortal general authorities. President Brown’s perspective is wise and refreshing.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    Brant Gardner’s stuff has been fantastic and I recommend that to everyone I know, despite having a few qualms in a place or two. I really like Blake Ostler’s philosophy work despite again disagreeing with it in a few places. I think it’s more approachable than some of the work from a more Continental perspective. (Which I love a lot – just that it’s harder to recommend to people without the appropriate background) I heartily recommend Givens, Wrestling with the Angel for an overview of Mormon theology. I think it’s much, much better than McMurrin’s work (which I find problematic for a slew of reasons I’ve discussed in the past) While it doesn’t stay on any one topic long, it’s amazing how much he packs in and in a very fair way too. While there wasn’t much in it that was new to me, Bokovoy’s Authoring the Old Testament is something I’d really recommend to people trying to understand the nature of scripture.

    It’s a weird one, but one book that’s stuck with me a ton is Ron Walker’s Wayward Saints. Finding out the details of that period of history ends up being surprisingly useful for understanding more contemporary stresses and movements. It also explains a lot of structures and tensions in the state of Utah that don’t always make sense. (Such as why there are two newspapers)

    An interesting one that really made me change how I viewed the NT was N. T. Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said. He’s not Mormon but that approach to Paul had a huge effect on Mormon scholarship I think. I certainly came to appreciate better certain Pauline texts. I think that a certain divide between Protestants and Mormons ends up being over Paul. This in turn affects how we talk to non-Mormons. Wright gives us (to my eyes) a very Mormon Paul and makes texts like Romans much more understandable. I’d probably throw in Faulconer’s Faith, Philosophy, Scripture which is one of those books affected by Wright and engaging with Paul in a very Mormon way. (Although it’s much more than that)

    I confess I’ve lost some of my love of Nibley over the years, but if I had to pick one book of his it’d be The Ancient State. The second half is a bit more flawed, but the first half is fantastic. I’d definitely put it above Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints which is what many pick. (I just think Nibley problematic politically for various reasons)

  8. I will echo kevinf, reading McMurrin’s book many years ago caused me to look at and consider my religion in a way i never had before, and reading Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Guide to the BofM did the same thing to the way I think about it.

  9. kevinf- thanks for reminder of Spiritual Roots of Human Relations. I loved that book as a teen. I had totally forgotten about it.

  10. As a bishop I found myself very unprepared to help those struggling with church history and navigation of a faith crisis when I first encountered it. Reading these books and listening to countless hours of podcasts helped with those I later worked with. I now serve in stake leadership and continue to work with people in such circumstances, but I am now much more prepared because of many of these great books. And frankly I need these now more for myself than to help others. For what its worth, below is a list of most of the books I’ve read over the last couple of years. I also tried to read all the articles mentioned in the notes. I know many of you read this many books in a month and are not providing extensive lists. I provide this list in case there are other bishops/stake presidents reading here who want some resources. I found these helpful:

    – Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis (McConkie)
    – From Darkness Unto Light . . . (Mackay)
    – When Mormons Doubt (mentioned in the post)
    – Worship: Experiencing and Being Transformed by God (Huntsman)
    – The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs (Peter Enns)
    – Greg Prince’s books (McKay, Arrington, Priesthood Power books)
    – Adam Miller’s books (have them all)
    – This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology (Harrell)
    – A Reason For Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History (Hales)
    – Brian Hales Polygamy series (yes, I bought them all)
    – Understanding the Book of Mormon (Hardy)
    – The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Gardner)
    – Planted . . . (Mason)
    – Crucible of Doubt (Givens)
    – Rough Stone Rolling (Bushman)
    – By the Hand of Mormon . . . (Givens)
    – Joseph Smith Papers (haven’t read too much but it is interesting)
    – Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Walker/Turley)
    – First Principles and Ordinances: Fourth Article of Faith in light of the temple (Brown)
    – Lots of Interpreter, Dialogue, and other journal articles

    I’m looking forward to reading some that others have posted here.

  11. Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (Linda King Newell)
    Rough Stone Rolling (Bushman)

  12. MDM, what a list! That’s great and so hopeful to hear the way you are using them to help other people with empathy. thank you for taking the time to write that out.

  13. Joseph Spencer’s For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope was such a good, informative, and important book (for me) that I read it twice — given my busy professional life and how little free time I have in my personal life as a father of a young family, that is saying a lot. In fact, I think it is probably the only book I’ve read twice since some novels I read as a teenager.

  14. Special K says:

    The Gift of Giving Life: Rediscovering the Divine Nature of Pregnancy and Birth (Felice Austin, et al)
    –Ended up re-reading this one as part of my scripture study during a rough pregnancy. It was exactly what I needed.

    Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Michael Austin)
    –We so don’t do this book justice in Sunday School. I learned about friendship, empathy, more ways to understand the old testament as a text, and reconsidered my knowledge on the nature of God.

  15. “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It,” by Peter Enns.
    “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible,” by Richards & O’Brien
    “New Testament History and Literature,” by Dale Martin. (Yale Open Course Series)
    “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” by Metaxas. (Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes—a true prophet in every sense of the word.)
    “Introduction to the Bible,” by Christine Hayes. (Yale Open Course Series)
    “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,” by Turner.
    “The Mormon Jesus,” by Turner.
    “This is My Doctrine,” by Harrell (already mentioned, but I had to second the recommendation; this book convincingly demonstrates that what is taught as doctrine in the church has changed considerably since 1830, and will likely continue to change in the future).
    Greg Prince’s books about David O. McKay and L. Arrington (also already mentioned). These works do an excellent job of peeling back the curtain on the political machinations of church leaders and their efforts to control and sanitize the Mormon narrative. They are fair and balanced and greatly increased my respect and appreciation for McKay and Arrington.
    “Papa Married a Mormon,” by Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, this book is no longer in print, though you can find used copies on-line. Read it. It will make you smile.

  16. Letters to a Young Mormon – Adam Miller (okay, I’m pretty much a Miller junkie, but this is my favorite)

    The Place of Knowing – Emma Lou Thayne (she is my Mormon Idol. I found her story and how she navigated so many difficulties with faith hugely inspirational. She also really changed how I see God and spirituality)

  17. Farside, I a Papa Married a Mormon fan. Love the book. Love Fitzgerald. And I think Papa Married a Mormon should be required reading for all members.

  18. Tolkien’s essays “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics,” and “On Fairy Stories” have probably done more to improve my own scripture study than anything else I’ve read. I reread them often.

    Jim Faulconer’s “Made Harder” series comes in a close second.

    And all of Tolkien’s fiction, of course.

    After those, I loved the autobiography of Parley P. Pratt when I was younger, as well as Virginia Sorensen’s “A Little Lower than the Angels.”

    Oh, also, Miranda Wilcox’s “Standing Apart” is essential reading.

    And of course, RSR.

  19. I second or third or whatever number we’re at, the recommendation re. Greg Prince’s books. I’m currently reading the Arrington bio, which is excellent in its own right but is also reminding me of how significant Prince’s McKay bio was in changing my faith. It was perhaps overshadowed by RSR due to the closeness of release dates. I’ve read RSR a couple of times (the essentialness of which almost goes without saying), but on reflection, after 10 years I think the McKay bio has had a bigger impact on my faith and my relationship with the church (in a positive way, I think). I think this is probably because the history is more contemporary and so detailed and personal. I doubt we’ll ever have again such access to the inner workings of the highest authorities of the church. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  20. A Happy Hubby says:

    Once again, I like humor and I really liked Craig Harline’s “Way Below the Angels”. I even laugh at the subtitle of “The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary” – which is fairly descriptive. Best read AFTER you have served a mission, not before.

  21. jlouielucero says:

    The Divine Center – Covey
    The Holy Secret – Farrell

  22. JKC, great point about those Tolkien essays!

  23. The Crucible of Doubt and The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens

  24. Sidebottom says:

    Mormons and the Bible by Philip Barlow.
    Asimov’s commentary on the Bible.

  25. Bound on Earth by Angela Hallstrom is something redemptive.

  26. Left Field says:

    Heaven Knows Why!

  27. Ashmae, I appreciate your thoughts. I discovered Eugene England in college as a young BYU student and his writings changed me so profoundly it is hard for me to take its measure. It was liberating, but it was more than that because I did not feel chained at the time. No, a better word is that it was re-creative. It wasn’t all about what he wrote necessarily, it was how he taught me I could think differently. I could “complicate narratives” to use this beautifully descriptive term I learned by reading your post. His essay, The Weeping God of Mormonism was then and continues to be a favorite of mine. Although it continues to be a favorite probably for more nostalgic reasons. I am fond of Eugene’s legacy for a number of reasons, but I bring him up here because for me he held open the gate.

    Terry Tempest Williams was also a revelation. I had to add her despite you and others referencing her. She was particularly good for me to read as a young Mormon male.

    Richard Bushman deserves one more mention.

    I have little to add to what others have already listed (so many works listed line my own shelves) but will draw your attention to Gregory Prince’s David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Talk about a category killer. The revelation here for me personally was that the church has flaws, as well as its leaders. But that is the beauty of it. And it gave me hope honest histories could be written about our leaders, the good, the bad and the ugly. And precisely that approach wasn’t counter to promoting faith, it could be the essence of it. As Wm. Robert Wright wrote in the preface, “The more we learned about David O. McKay, the more he became a true and unique form, and not a Rorschach inkblot upon which we project our own biases and the biases of our time.” This work, a biography of a church prophet of all things, indirectly helped me become more comfortable and confident I could carve out space where questions about my faith and my yearning to hold to it could more comfortably co-exist.

  28. Michael H says:

    John Bennion’s “Falling Toward Heaven” is a delight. It presents much of Adam Miller’s “Letters” advice by way of funny and heartfelt fiction. Read it free on signaturebookslibrary.org or get it used for $.000000001 on Amazon. John Bennion is also the nicest dude.

  29. Women and Authority by Maxine Hanks (and most of the other Mormon feminists of the 80s and 90s)
    Mormon Polygamy by Richard van Wagoner
    Liberating Form by Marden J. Clark
    Strangers in Paradox by Margaret and Paul Toscano
    Carol Lynn Pearson, especially her play, Mother Wove the Morning

  30. Kevin Christensen says:

    “Shakespeare and the At-One-ment of Christ” by Gene England in Why the Church is as True as the Gospel
    Nibley, easy to criticize or dismiss, but show me any critic who fills his shoes or casts even a portion of the same shadow.
    Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism by Bushman who reminded me what marvelous story we own.
    Cosmos and History: The Myth of Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade
    Otherworld Journeys by Carol Zaleski, a cross cultural approach to NDE accounts that changed the way I read the Book of Mormon
    Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
    The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter
    Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye, who reminds me that there is a difference between measuring against an ideology (especially one unconsciously held) and genuine criticism/discernment, a difference between dismissing as “not us” and considering “why us?”
    The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God by Margaret Barker, which was for a me a life-changing event before I was even halfway through.
    People of Paradox by Terryl Givens, for original and useful insight what makes Mormon culture distinctive.
    Please Understand Me by David Keirsey, which introduced me to MBTI and Type Theory, and a way to approach different people in LDS culture, and a way of helping set my expectations in a liberating way.
    An email from Veda Hale on The Perry Scheme for Cognitive and Ethical Growth which provided more insights into different people in LDS culture, and realistic and useful expectations regarding individuals and institutions. She used it in a study of Levi Peterson’s Canyons of Grace as a window into the character arcs. I find it much more helpful that the Fowler Stages of Faith Model because it focuses on how people process information differently, rather than on the conclusions they hold.
    The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, which I find endlessly relevant to discussions in and about Mormon things. It teaches me that when I run across something I did not expect, that the best response is to seriously explore what I should expect.
    The Mother of the Lord vol 1, by Margaret Barker, which is by far the most impressive work on the topic I have seen, grounded in wide research rather than personal speculation and therefore more window than mirror.
    Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount by John Welch, which changed everything.
    Sorenson, Gardner, Poulson, on setting the Book of Mormon in a real setting, and what a difference it makes.
    I See Satan Fall Like Lightning by Rene Girard, and a shock of insight on social politics on pages 180-181 from which I have not yet recovered.
    Out of the Shadows by Patrick Carnes for insight into a key aspect of widespread human behavior from which I have recovered.

  31. While I appreciate Bushman’s RSR, to me it feels more like a history of the church than a biography (though I wonder if they are synonymous in this case), I much preferred Donna Hill’s “Joseph Smith: The First Mormon”…more readable and just as scholarly, written at a time when such scholarly research was so much more difficult.

    For the feminine perspective: Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (Linda King Newell), and Red Water (Judith Freeman).

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