Review: McDannell’s Sister Saints

Colleen McDannell, has been the Sterling McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah for several decades now. Mormonism has popped up in chapters in her widely circulated Heaven: A History, Material Christianity, and in a few articles. For the most part she has concentrated on other topics. This month, however, Oxford University Press is publishing McDannell’s overview of Mormon women’s history since the winding down of Polygamy. Do not make the mistake of thinking this isn’t the central history of the church.

Colleen McDannell, Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the End of Polygamy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 291 pp., $29.95.

McDannell reminds us of the incongruities of our pasts. The radicalism of those suffragists who were willing to work with the Mormons who confidently embraced them is entirely foreign to the inward focused ERA baiting of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Imagine the church tolerating Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (now mythical founding women) encouraging women from the Tabernacle pulpit to have less children, postpone marriage, and become financially independent. How was this possible, and how did things change?

Sister Saints is essentially a survey. In a couple of hundred pages we are swept upon the tectonics that shaped the lived geography of Mormonism. It is the seams or faults that receive the most attention, but this is the locus of change. Unsurprisingly, McDannell’s greatest strength is her understanding of other religions than Mormonism. The added context of female Catholic and Protestant progressive reformers and the demise of their autonomy adds a significant layer of understanding to parallel Mormon paths.

How McDannell successfully delivers is also noteworthy. A perennial challenge for historians of twentieth-century Mormonism has been sources. While church growth expanded an order of magnitude, the number accessible minute books, diaries, and manuscript collections contracted. While still leveraging these sources where available McDannell overcomes lacunae and finds impressive tractions in oral histories, both in interviews she conducted and in existing repositories.

“Deseret was built on a foundation of foreign and broken families.” So concludes and early paragraph describing church demographics. While this was specific commentary on nineteenth-century Utah, it could easily have been written in the late chapters that narrate the impact of expansive conversion in the twenty-first. Armed with conversations with a mulit-racial set of women from all over the world, we see how the church stitches up families (the Proclamation on the Family is far more liberal than many thinky American Mormons have been willing to imagine), just as it cuts them asunder (the practice of lobola or “bride price” does real cultural work despite the church’s disapprobation).

This volume, Sister Saints is an excellent complement to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s House Full of Females which brought us from the beginnings of the Restoration to 1870. And like Ulrich, McDannell is a writer as well as a thinker. The book’s foundation is Religious Studies and it is buttressed with smooth and witty prose. Check it out.

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BONUS: MWHIT is sponsoring a free public lecture by McDannell on the UU campus on November 8.

Comments

  1. Kristin Brown says:

    Your excellent reviews are some of my favorite posts. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for this, J. It’s very helpful.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, thank you.

  4. Kent Gibb says:

    I had to smile at the recurring use of Mormon and Mormonism in this article in light of the recent counsel of the Church to not use them. It brings up a problem in writing. What is the synonym for Mormonism? Churchism? Latter-day Saintism? Calling the use of “that word” as being a triumph of Satan is just silly. Tossing out these well established nicknames is to eliminate 100+ years of useful terminology.

  5. Thank you for this review. One of the things that I found Helpful in Richard Bushman’s work RSR was his added context of Mormonism’s origins against the backdrop of the religious environment of the time. I very much appreciate that Colleen McDaniel provides similar context for the time period she is presenting.

  6. Thank you.

  7. Oxford Press’s website notes that this work argues “that Mormon women have been critical to maintaining and transforming the Mormon faith” and that it rejects “the stereotype that Mormon women are oppressed, submissive, or passive.” Wow. Dr. McDannell has really changed her perspective of both LDS religion and LDS women in the last thirty years. I completed some graduate work at the University of Utah and at that time (and in my presence) Dr. McDannell was a harsh critic of the LDS Church and (IMO) possessed little to no understanding of LDS beliefs and practices. Dr. Dean May, the grand ol’ man of Utah and LDS history, took her to task multiple times. You can bet that I’ll give this work a close and hopeful examination. The back story of her changing views of Latter-day Saints is likely fascinating.

  8. Kent Gibb, How do you think I feel, having reviewed the Oxford History of Mormonism in the JMH? I’ll be repenting for a while.