Book Review Roundup

The purpose of these periodic book review posts is to provide a succinct layman’s (or in my case, dilettante’s) impression of recent works in Mormon Studies. The ultimate goal is to inform consumer buying choice, as the selection criteria for home libraries can be vastly different from professional or academic libraries. All of these books deserve far deeper examination and hopefully will be the object of further study.

Salt Lake School of the Prophets, 1867-1883. Devery S. Anderson, editor. Signature Books, 2018. Many church members are familiar with the School of the Prophets as established by Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio in 1832-1833, or the Missouri School of the Elders established by Parley P Pratt in 1833 and held sporadically in various forms and various names through November 1837. The Lectures on Faith are a vestige of some of the instructions stemming from that School. Thirty years later, Brigham Young resurrected the School, as part of the University of Deseret. Branches of the School were founded throughout Utah, and mingled secular education with theological questions, questions of church procedure, the transcontinental railroad, and other matters pressing on the Kingdom. By 1874 the School shifted into a council overseeing the United Order, and it soon ceased to meet. Nine years later, John Taylor briefly reinstated the School in Salt Lake and in St George, but it fizzled out quickly and has never been seen again. Anderson here has sifted through the available minutes and has provided a useful introduction and organization. This was a colossal endeavor, and the results are an engaging view into the who’s-who of the time period as they exchange views on church theory and administration, life in Deseret and the gradual shift away from the Kingdom to the State. It is not a casual read, with lots of minutes describing how to treat livestock and various quotidian matters, but I appreciated the back-and-forth between Young, Orson Pratt, Daniel Wells and others as they figure out how to steer the good ship Zion. Overall, while the book is probably not the sort of thing you’d find in everyone’s library, it is extremely valuable.

Faith Is Not Blind, by Bruce C. Hafen and Marie K. Hafen. Deseret Book, 2018. Bruce Hafen is an emeritus general authority, former president of Ricks Collenge, former dean of the BYU Law School, and has been involved in church administration and education for over forty years. His wife, Marie Hafen, speaks frequently on LDS topics, wrote “Celebrating Womanhood — Sustaining and Being Sustained by the Priesthood”, and is the co-author along with her husband of The Contrite Spirit: How the Temple Helps Us Apply Christ’s Atonement. This new book is a very slim volume that is designed to help people navigate through faith crises. It is composed of a series of essays on a number of sub-topics commonly expressed by those going through rough patches in their belief. The Hafens are thoughtful and optimistic in their work; they reiterate that the complexities of gospel issues ultimately can bring us to a contrite spirit where real spiritual knowledge can begin, if we let it. However, I do not believe that their book will help much if you’re in the throes of doubt. It seems more written towards the parents of someone doubting, or perhaps their stake president. Telling people to ignore “historical quibbles” or to be careful about the internet is fine advice — probably good advice — but it shows an ignorance of modern interaction with issues of church history or complexity. The Hafens have written a book that will strength the testimonies of those with strong testimonies, but ultimately I believe it may alienate as many doubters as it helps.

Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, by Tisa Wenger. UNC Press, 2017. Wenger deftly describes how our commonplace notion of religious freedom has been negotiated, interpreted and constructed (and re-constructed) by forces of race, wealth, and empire. Religious freedom is a tool towards broader legitimacy for some (Jews), a club to de-legimitize others (African-Americans and Muslims). In other words, we falsely assume that religious freedom is an independently existing notion, when in reality it is a construct emerging from the confluence of broader factors. Her book is concise and fascinating, and highly educational to those who are interested in the concept of religious freedom and our own contemporary movements. Wenger spoke last week at the Maxwell Institute at BYU, and hopefully her lecture will be made available online soon (and maybe a podcast — Blair??).

Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy, by Colleen McDannell. Oxford University Press, 2018. This is a very spicy book. Any history of women in contemporary Mormonism is bound to be piquant, dealing with the disenfranchisement of the Relief Society, the ERA and prominent excommunications, and many other events. There is a tremendous lack of scholarship on Mormon women, primarily because male leadership has largely driven the public narrative of the Church since its inception. I defer to J. Stapley’s very good review and agree with him in most respects — in particular as viewing this as a companion piece to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s excellent House Full of Females, both in terms of subject matter and in her use of oral histories to complete the historical narrative. But this is, as I say, spicy, and McDannell’s examination of polarizing figures like Margaret Toscano or Kate Kelly seem at times perhaps more fleshed out than other, more well-behaved women. Were those women not making history? Perhaps not in terms of public headlines or demonstrating the internal tensions faced by Mormon women. But McDannell’s book is, in my view, the best overall history available in tracing the lives of Mormon women from the 1880s to the present. If her book seems at times controversial or difficult, this is probably a testament to its accuracy in bringing to the present the tensions of the past. This is a good book to add to the home library of those casual readers of Mormon Studies.

Confidence Amid Change: The Presidential Diaries of David O. McKay, 1951-1970. Harvard S. Heath, ed. Signature Books, 2019. God bless Claire Middlemiss, without whom we would never have had these diaries. Heath has taken those diaries, which originally count over 40,000 pages, and brought them down to a still-chunky 800 pages with an excellent introduction, footnotes and a list of cited sources. As Matt notes in his great review, one wonders what was left on the cutting room floor. Those familiar with Greg Prince’s excellent biography of McKay will recognize many of the themes in these diaries: dealing with race relations, modernization, and administration of a rapidly-changing church. The personalities of both McKay and those in his entourage come out in vivid detail. It is somewhat shocking, for example, to read of McKay’s faith in the church while on the next page to see him using starkly racist language. The diaries are a good companion piece to Prince’s book, and stand on their own as an excellent way to read the private thoughts of a modern prophet.

The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, Book of Abraham. Robin Jensen and Brian Hauglid, volume eds. The Church Historian’s Press, 2018. It’s main event time. This was one of the most highly anticipated volumes in the JSPP, and now that it’s here I am more impressed by the volume than I expected — yes, I expected high production values, clear printing and great references, but I was especially excited by the thoughtful introduction and explanatory notes throughout the volume. I believe the content here, and the introduction to this volume, in particular its discussion of what “translation” means, makes this volume perhaps the most important book published by the church in decades. I would not recommend most JSPP volumes as additions to home libraries (though the later Nauvoo ones will be extremely interesting), but this one is really a landmark book. Though other forthcoming books may be a better narrative/explanatory history, Vol 4 is an unparalled documentary source, and is useful for understanding both the history of the Book of Abraham and what will be our new, possibly permanent paradigm surrounding Joseph Smith’s translations.


  1. J. Stapley says:

    These round-ups are extremely useful, Steve. Thanks.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, much appreciated.

  3. Mike Harris says:

    helpful. thank you.

  4. LaJean Purcell Carruth says:

    George D. Watt reported a large number of sermons from the Salt Lake School of the Prophets from its opening in December 1867 until an argument with Brigham Young on 15 May 1868 ended his reporting career. He only transcribed one of these sermons, and there is little content available, at best, for School proceedings during this time. I have completely transcribed all of Watt’s shorthand from the Salt Lake City School of the Prophets. Devery Anderson’s book includes my transcript Watt’s shorthand of one sermon delivered by Brigham Young. The remainder of my transcriptions of Watt’s shorthand from the School is in the Church History Library public catalog, in collection CR 100 912, under “Addresses and sermons”, then “School of the Prophets.” These are unedited transcripts, just as I typed them.

  5. LaJean!! I’m so glad you chimed in. Your transcription efforts were indispensable to that project (and so many others).

  6. Thanks, Steve. Very useful summaries and observations.

  7. Kristin Brown says:

    Excellent reviews. Great work. Thank you!

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