Book Review Roundup

Again it’s my pleasure to bring you brief reviews of outstanding books that deserve (and have received elsewhere) much fuller review by more qualified persons. My goal here is not to replace that more fulsome review, but to give a layman’s perspective and some idea of where these books fit into the libraries of non-professional Latter-day Saints.

Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel: The General Epistles of the Mormon First Presidency. Reid Neilson and Nathan Waite, Eds. Oxfod University Press, 2017. From 1849 to 1856, the First Presidency issued fourteen general epistles, addressed at first to the Saints scattered throughout the earth then eventually to “the Saints in the Valleys of the Mountains, and those scattered abroad throughout the Earth,” the published letters give some practical advice on gathering to Zion, some spiritual guidance, news of the broader Church, and some doctrine to boot. For the leadership of the Church in the wilderness, the temporal needs of Zion and the spiritual needs of the people are inseparable: the time of gathering was come and the final preparations for the day of the Lord were underway. So there is a real spirit of millennialism in these epistles, a practicality stemming from urgency of the times: “We also desire that the Saints…should bring with them seeds of every kind, especially fruit seed”. Settling the Valley is probably of more interest to historians and scholars, but the book contains very helpful introductory materials that situate the letters in context for laypersons. Overall, the volume is a fascinating view into the primary messaging from Church leadership during the settlement of Deseret.

The Trek East: Mormonism Meets Japan, 1901-1968. Shinji Takagi. Greg Kofford Books, 2016. Dr. Takagi has undertaken a very ambitious project: documenting the initial preaching of the Gospel in Japan, the first translations of LDS scripture into Japanese, the survival of the fledgling Japanese Church from 1924-1944, and the resurgence of effort and membership which began with the American occupation of Japan in 1945. The book is detailed and meticulous in its approach. Takagi, a professor of Economics who has published extensively in multiple countries, refers consistently to newspapers, journals, diaries and other primary sources. His work is both detached and intimate: Takagi describes not only the key dates and places, he deals with the family stories and histories of the early Saints in Japan, luminaries such as Takeo Fujiwara and Tatsui Sato whose influence over the Japanese Church are still felt today. Annexes, figures and tables provide further backstory to the primary narrative, and Dr. Takagi provides a bibliography sorted by type of source. The book is fascinating. If there is a ‘fault’, it would be that Takagi’s approach is almost too clinical, too dry for a subject matter that is often heart-breaking. But this narrative space gives the reader the chance to form their own impressions. The Trek East is a terrific, rigorous look into an underserved area of Mormon history.

At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women. Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook, Eds. Church Historian’s Press, 2017. This is a priceless curated collection of 54 speeches, sermons and talks given by LDS women from the earliest days of the Church through the present day. J. Stapley has provided a more appropriate review here, and I agree with his sentiment that the idea of At The Pulpit is a lot more simple than the execution. Let’s say you want to showcase the spiritual power and importance of women in LDS exhortational discourse. How to pick the talks? How to find the talks? What do your editorial choices mean? How do you explain who these women were and are, beyond simply situating them in relation to LDS men? How do you adequately reflect a representative cross-section and variety of experience among LDS women? This is a monumental work in every sense of the word: it is a monument to the power that permeates the history and future of LDS women. It has already supplemented my study and my teaching in Church. The talks are excellent. At the Pulpit should be in everyone’s library.

A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Knopf, 2017. Ulrich’s latest book is an enigma. There are many reviews of the book elsewhere, which I commemd, and I would also highly recommend the book club being held by the Juvenile Instructor. I had expected a traditional history of Mormon involvement in the Women’s Rights movement. But maybe it’s better to talk about what A House Full of Females is not. It is not a resounding criticism of polygamy, or even a history of polygamy, at least not in a comprehensive sense. It is not a history of the Suffragette movement. It is not a devotional work, neither is it an entirely detached work. I admit that I was puzzled as I read the book, wondering when Ulrich was going to get past the personal histories and get to the macro perspective, the comfortable, detached historian’s view that would nicely patch these disparate threads as a neat, rich tapestry. That moment does not come in House Full of Females, at least not in the way I expected. Ulrich does not editorialize or coerce the personal narratives of early Mormon women to fit into some grandiose paradigm. Instead, Ulrich dives deeply into journals, letters, scraps of paper, ledgers, as well as material history: quilts, embroideries and other artifacts. The narrative here is composed by Eliza Snow, Vilate Kimball, Patty Sessions, Vienna Jacques, Caroline Crosby and others, who Ulrich lets talk in their own words. The tapestry is theirs. A House Full of Females is remarkable history and a must-read.

Pulpit & Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America. Spencer W. McBride. University of Virginia Press, 2016. In this brief book, Spencer McBride (from the Joseph Smith Papers Project) looks at the intermingling of politics and religion during the Revolutionary period and the first few decades thereafter. McBride’s thesis is that the interrelationship between politics and religion is central to understanding the American Revolution: “The American Revolution was not a religious event, but the very nature of the Revolution was determined in significant ways by the religious rhetoric employed by secular and clerical leaders alike.” McBride proves his thesis in six chapters that look at various clergy activities, but ultimately I believe the Pulpit and Nation has more to say about the crafting of American religion by political realities. It is clear that very early on in American history religion became all-too-often the obvious tool of political agenda. The myth of American religious identity was deliberately constructed – McBride shows us the earliest scaffolding. It’s a very approachable, straightforward and interesting book.


  1. rudy ray moore says:

    The US occupation of Japan began in 1945, not 1944.

  2. Sorry, typo on my part.

  3. House Full of Females is currently blowing my mind. In good ways. And in part, just when I think about the work it must have taken to compile and write the book.

  4. Terry H says:

    One other title that could be overlooked is Unpopular Sovereignty by Brent M. Rogers. It describes the early Federal Management of the Utah Territory. I had a hard time putting it down.

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