Book Review Roundup

Some really exceptional books out there, but not a lot of time to review. Below are some quick roundup thoughts on some of the major Mormon Studies books that have crossed my path in the last several months. Each deserves a far lengthier treatment than I’m able to provide, so view these brief reviews as more of a condensed thumbs up-thumbs down approach.

Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History, Gregory Prince, University of Utah Press, 2016. This was probably the most anticipated LDS biography since Greg Prince’s masterpiece, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. It is extensively researched with access to Arrington’s private papers as well as many other significant sources. The subject matter is of immense importance to modern scholars of Mormonism, and Arrington’s story is both inspiring and heartbreaking. As a book of history this volume suffers a bit from a fair amount of editorializing — it might have been more effective to let readers connect their own dots or draw their own conclusions in a few spots. The result is a book that recounts the important history of a vitally important Church Historian, and yet the book takes an approach to history that Arrington himself, one supposes, might not have appreciated. Nevertheless a must-read.

BYU New Testament Commentary: The Revelation of John the Apostle, Draper & Rhodes, and The Testimony of Luke, Brown, BYU Studies, 2016. The New Testament Commentary series from BYU Studies is an interesting experiment: produce a book for home study of the NT that combines traditional LDS approaches to scripture with up-to-date Biblical scholarship. Given how LDS approaches to the New Testament originated (e.g., via modern revelation, JSJ translation, etc.), I am not certain (ok, maybe a little bit certain) that these two can really coexist without a lot of fancy footwork. Still, it is a noble effort to take the Greek texts and utilize cultural scholarship, linguistic theory and other scholarship approaches to equip Mormons as they study the Bible. Each author in the series takes their own personal bent, using scholarly sources and their own LDS materials in unique ways. I am looking forward to Julie Smith’s upcoming volume, as well as Eric Huntsman’s. The two volumes here were not my favorite, I must admit, but I am not a Bible scholar. The Draper/Rhodes volume in particular seemed more focused on prooftexting and a highly personalized eschatological view than I would look for out of a Bible commentary. I do think that the comparison to the Greek and the use of outside resources in a trusted imprint like BYU’s is a good thing, and the series is a worthwhile effort.

The Joseph Smith Papers: Administrative Records, Council of Fifty, Minutes March 1844-January 1846, Church Historian’s Press, 2016. When was the last time you had new sermons of Joseph Smith’s to read? This volume is fascinating — a peek into Joseph Smith’s super-secret Kingdom of God, wherein the daily affairs of the world are run by Mormons and non-Mormons. To be sure, there’s a lot of Robert’s Rules of Order and attendance-taking and administrative stuff (NB: these are categorized as “Administrative Records” by the JSPP, so you get what you pay for here). But then there are patches of absolutely amazing commentary by early leaders of the Church on minority rights, planning for the Saints, relocation and mere survival. The introduction and notes from the JSPP staff are very helpful. A great volume.

American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940, Thomas Simpson, UNC Press, 2016. Once they established their kingdom in the Rocky Mountains, the Saints swiftly realized that they needed access to education — technical, legal, medical, all kinds, really — and that until those resources were available in Deseret, envoys would need to be sent to American universities. Simpson describes a vital period in Mormon history, with the intriguing thesis that “Modern Mormonism was born in the American university, and the Mormon path to citizenship – to a genuine, passionate sense of belonging in America – ran directly through it”. Sending these key persons out for their education had a dramatic and lasting impact upon Mormonism itself, shifting Utah from total insularity towards a detente with the world. The book’s description of the first Mormon women sent East is absolutely riveting. I defer to Bradley Kime’s review at the Juvenile Instructor for a more scholarly take, but my personal take is that Simpson’s thesis is perhaps a bit reductive (something that Simpson himself acknowledges as a potential problem) – while certainly Mormonism was shaped by exposure to American campuses, it was surely shaped by a thousand other forces equally compelling and pushing Mormons on their path to citizenship. Simpson is not wrong but the comparative impact of American university study on Mormons has not been weighed. A short book, a provocative one.

One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, Ashley Mae Hoiland, Neal A. Maxwell Institute For Religious Scholarship, 2016. I am so proud to know Ashmae. Others have reviewed her book here and I recommend their reviews, though I personally think they understate Hoiland’s keen ability to pierce the reader. This book is a personal monograph, the description of an ongoing spiritual exploration. As such it is deeply personal, often describing an experience completely foreign to me — and yet Ashmae’s gift lies in finding the universal in the personal. I would not dare to diminish the importance of the book by saying that it focuses on lived Mormonism; if anything, Hoiland powerfully demonstrates that it is through lived Mormonism that we find our best religion and our best selves. If Zion is to exist, if all these ideas are to mean anything at all it will be through living and experiencing. Hoiland takes us with her as she tries to reach out to those loved but now lost, or those found but unloved, and as she tries to make sense of what God is telling her through the world. The result is a sort of ecumenism that nevertheless is uniquely Mormon. As Hoiland says, “Maybe I do not need to go on hoping that everyone in my church will think like me. Maybe even in our differences we can look each other in the eyes and say sincerely, “I could not do this without you.”” Such a message has become more important in recent weeks. This is the sort of book you read and then buy for all of your friends and family.


  1. Aussie Mormon says:

    Minor typo in the link text for Ashmae’s book. You jumped the double L in Maxwell gun and put them in Ashmae’s surname :)

  2. Your synopsis of the Arrington book summed my thoughts up succinctly. It was essential, and important, and revelatory, and very readable. But for a book whose central theme was the dangers of hagiography, it sometimes felt ironically hagiographic itself.

  3. Yes, just read Ashmae’s book on a long flight and it was wonderful and powerful at the same time.

  4. jimbob, I tend to agree with your assessment (and Steve’s) that perhaps Prince became a bit too enamored with his subject and engaged in too much editorializing, though he does frequently note Arrington’s naivete and failure to play the office politics game, which is essential in every organization.

    I thought the episode recounted in the epilogue was an excellent way to the end the book. The moral of the story: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  5. That’s certainly true and the epilogue rang true.

  6. Another valuable lesson I derived from the Arrington book is the caution we must exercise when interpreting responses to our prayers.

    Arrington claimed that he received a very strong spiritual confirmation about his work as Church Historian, that the Lord supported his efforts and that he had been divinely called to this position. Arrington, I believe, felt that such a powerful response to his supplications meant that he would eventually succeed, that he would bring to pass a sea change in the Church’s attitude toward objective and scholarly history. But it didn’t work out that way, at least not during his life time.

    I don’t doubt the genuineness of Arrington’s spiritual confirmation, but his vision, like that of most of us, didn’t extend far enough. He didn’t realize, until much later, that his mission was simply to begin (perhaps “continue” would be a better word) a process that will likely take a couple of generations to complete. He was merely one of many pioneers, albeit a courageous one. And, as you noted Steve, his successors have frequently taken an approach to history that differs significantly from what Leonard originally envisioned, which is an effective reminder of the law of unintended consequences.

  7. Let me put in a plug for another new book that may not be on people’s radar: IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME, by Scott Abbott. Abbott is a former BYU professor, currently at UVU, and a startling writer. Some excerpts of the book have appeared in Dialogue before, but the book is finally out from U of U press.

  8. Greg. Haven’t heard of this. I’ll look into it. Thanks for the heads up.

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