Eugene England and the Modern Mormon Mind: A Review Essay On Two New Biographies

Eugene England was long due for a “moment,” and 2021 might finally give him one. Two new biographies, one just out and the other forthcoming, will introduce readers to one of Mormonism’s most prominent intellectuals from the late-twentieth century. England co-founded Dialogue as a graduate student at Stanford, taught English for two decades at BYU, helped establish America’s first Mormon studies program at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University), and was one of the tradition’s best essayists. His frequent clashes with church leaders, resulting in his expulsion from a tenured professorship, also highlight the fraught relationship between LDS authorities and academics during the era.

[Read more…]

Book Review: William Mackinnon’s Utah War

William P. MacKinnon, At Sword’s Point, Part II: A Documentary History of the Utah War, 1858-1859 (Arthur Clark, 2016). 

16521725_10103176001684139_1837689960_nFor such a small chronological scope, William MacKinnon’s documentary history of the Utah War covers a lot of ground. Though the armed confrontation in 1857-1858 was theoretically isolated to the Rocky Mountains, its tentacles touched far and wide. Soldiers were sent as far south as New Mexico to purchase supplies. Facing the threat of another Mormon relocation, the British government set to fortify their Pacific lands. Fearing an invasion, the Russian Tsar sought to sell the territory of Alaska. California appeared as both a boundary and a revolving door for either side of the conflict. And at the center of it all was American President James Buchanan, Mormon Prophet Brigham Young, and the very stakes of federal sovereignty in a country ready to go to war. This was no small, insignificant, nor parochial skirmish.  [Read more…]

Joseph Smith’s Religious Liberty, and Ours

One of the key themes that permeates the recently-released Council of Fifty minutes is the issue of religious liberty. (Note how the LDS Newsroom frames the discussion here, for instance.) In some ways this may sound odd, given that the council revolved around theocratic principles that appear ill-fit for modern conceptions of political order. In other ways it seems convenient, as religious liberty has become the dominant rallying cry for the LDS hierarchy who have frequently and loudly denounced what they believe to be an “attack” on the principle. (They recently unveiled a new website on the topic; I’m sure we’ll hear plenty about it at General Conference this next week.) And to a degree, the connection between the Council of Fifty’s minutes to questions of religious liberty are justified, as that is how Joseph Smith and the other council members discussed it themselves. (See my write-up here.) But the concept of “religious liberty” has never possessed a staid definition, as it has often evolved according to different contexts and concerns. Understanding how Smith and his successors conceived the topic is a crucial–and often confusing–step, but it may give meaning to how we have defined it within the LDS tradition ever since.

[Read more…]

Helping Hands in an Unnamed Storm

I must admit that I’ve rarely been very taken with the sacrament ordinance. Perhaps it’s because the mundane nature of deacons with untucked shirts and overly-long ties doesn’t mesh well with my high-church sensibilities, or perhaps it’s because sacrament meetings for the last seven years have mostly consisted of trying to keep my children reasonably quiet, but I’ve tended to side with Ralph Waldo Emerson who believed the ritual a bit too “dead” for his living faith. My family’s penchant for a lack of punctuality typically means we stay out in the foyer Sunday mornings, anyway. Which is usually fine with me.  [Read more…]

No, George Washington Didn’t Believe in the Mormon God

WashingtonWe live in an age and a country where intellectual authority is validated through an appeal to the “founders.” Even if one doesn’t believe in the extreme, and wrong-headed, philosophy of “originalism”–where we pretended all the men who crafted America’s foundational documents believed the same ideas, that those ideas could be objectively reconstructed today, and that those reconstructed ideas could serve as arbiters for modern society’s issues–it is still typical to couch our arguments in a way that adds historical heft. (On this modern dilemma, see these two recent and excellent volumes.) It just makes you feel good to know, in the words of #Hamiltunes, that “Washington is on your side.”
[Read more…]

The Necessity and Complexity of Editing the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church Manuals

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 2.55.12 PMThe third lesson of the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson manual, “Freedom of Choice, an Eternal Principle,” focuses on the importance of one’s moral conscience. It addresses a primary conundrum of modern democracy: today’s liberty allows both the ability to freely practice religion according to your own belief as well as the freedom to practice immorality and disbelief. The potential for a righteous life, then, is tethered to the potential for sin. This makes the stakes all the more fraught. “Life is a testing time in man’s eternal existence,” Benson preached in an excerpt included in the lesson, “during which he is given…the right to choose between right and wrong.” The absence of a strong federal government that dictates moral values both enables religious agency but also accelerates religious dissent. This makes it all the more crucial, he argued, to teach our children how to use their freedom wisely, especially in an age when there are so many corrupting choices and potential evils at every corner.
[Read more…]

Bloggernacle, Meet The Mormon Studies Review

(Cross-posted at Juvenile Instructor. Also, the first three paragraphs should be read in the voice of Billy Mays, and taken in the spirit of the “Tribute to Doin’ It Wrong” video. The pdf of the inaugural Mormon Studies Review‘s Table of Contents can be downloaded here.)

Do you suffer too many sleepless nights, wondering if Mormonism can add anything to the study of ethics?

Struggling to keep up with developments in the seemingly always-nascent (sub)field of Mormon studies? Do you ever walk through the book aisle and think, “holy fetch, when did that book come out?” Have you ever found yourself wondering, “what the heck is Mormon studies, anyway?” Or, does a sleepless night rarely go buy without you asking, “well, how does the study of Mormonism illuminate the translocative elements of religious studies?” Well, you are not alone! [Read more…]

Missionary Memories and Regrets: Reflections after 10 Years

Look at my head of hair!

Look at my head of hair!

This Sunday marks my 10th anniversary of entering the MTC. This was back before they made you say goodbye to your family at the curbside, so I have vivid memories of sitting in the large room, watching the short video of missionaries singing “Called To Serve,” parents walking out one door while missionaries walked out another, and absolutely everyone weeping uncontrollably. (It’s probably for the best that saying goodbye is now like ripping off a bandaid.) While my opinion of my mission in particular and LDS missions in general have changed over the years—for instance, whoever thinks those were truly “the best two years” must have had a lousy post-mission life—I am still very grateful for my time spent in the Washington DC North Mission, for the people I worked with, and especially the people I served.

As I’m sure is the case with everyone, I have mixed memories. So without further ado, below are 10 of my favorite Mission moments, followed by 10 of my most painful regrets. [Read more…]

Announcing The Mormon Studies Series from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press


(Cross-posted at Juvenile Instructor.)

Did you hear? Mormon studies is so hot right now. This semester witnessed the start of the Richard Lyman Bushman Chair in Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia (held by Kathleen Flake), next month will see the innaugural issue of the newly re-launched Mormon Studies Review (be very, very excited), and several new and exciting books are about to hit the shelves. And all this on top of the other Mormon studies programs that have been launched and the flood of excellent books that have been published in the last few years.

And now, there is a new book series at an unexpected university press. [Read more…]

MHA 2013 Live Thread

So, because our valiant live-blogger Kevin isn’t here, we didn’t realize that we were missing an MHA live-thread until well into the conference. Our bad.

The schedule of papers can be downloaded at the MHA website. The conference is taking place in the beautiful, if over-commercialized, city of Layton, Utah. As with most MHA conferences that take place in the Wasatch Front, it is teeming with people, as over 500 individuals pre-registered.

For those in attendance, please feel free to share your reflections, experiences, and favorite points from the many fascinating papers.

And for those of you on twitter, you can follow along the frequent updates with #MHA2013.

“What Books Should I Read?”: Essential Readings in Mormonism for Every Member

The Mormon books on my "Currently Reading or Recently Read" shelf.

The Mormon books on my “Currently Reading or Recently Read” shelf.

I get asked this question often: “what books on Mormonism should I read?” Probably every other week or so. It comes from a broad range of people, including non-Mormon academics who have a small interest in the field, sunday school teachers who want to be better prepared to teach the Doctrine and Covenants, or fellow reading nerds who just want to banter about their favorite books. But most often, the question comes from average members of the Church who just want a better understanding of their faith tradition and its history. I usually refer them to my post on The LDS History Canon I wrote for JI a couple years back, but I often do so grimicingly because of three problems: 1) it is both out of date and flat-out wrong on some inclusions, which I hope to correct in a new version soon, 2) it is academically-oriented, and modeled more for an academic historian’s interest’s than the general member’s, and 3) it is only history.

So I decided to attempt to make, with everyone’s help, a list that is interdisciplinary, approachable, and relevant. Put simply, a list of books I wish every member of the Church would read. [Read more…]

Videos Available from BYU’s Joseph Smith & Antiquity Conference

JS Antiquity

(Cross-posted from Juvenile Instructor.)

A couple months ago, BYU and the LDS Church History Department put on a fascinating conference titled, “Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith’s Study of the Ancient World.” Thanks to the wonders of technology, most of the presentations are now available as youtube videos, which you will find below.

While there are many papers that I strongly recommend, those given by Bushman, MacKay, Heal, Wright, Holland, Bowman, and Grey were some of the highlights for me.

(Note: in the first four sessions, the last paper of each session is combined with the panel’s responder.) [Read more…]

Scriptural and Political Hermeneutics in the Mormon Tradition

SL Temple flagRecently, I attended a conference on the Civil War, hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Among the many great presentations was a panel on abolitionism, and the common thread was an exploration of how opponents to slavery positioned their action with regard to the Constitution: was the Constitution a pro-slavery document that must be decried? (Prominent abolitionist William Loyd Garrison argued it was a “covenant with death.”) [Read more…]

UVU Conference Reminder: The Expanded Canon, April 4-5, 2013

uvulogo_overThis week, Utah Valley University plays host to what promises to be a fascinating conference on Mormonism’s scriptural canon. Five reasons you should attend: [Read more…]

The New Scriptural Headings and Historicizing the Revelations

There is lots to be said about the new edition of LDS scriptures. (Race! Polygamy! Abraham!) One of the more seemingly mundane changes, but perhaps the most frequent, concerns the reference’s to Joseph Smith’s history.

Much of the historical changes come as a result of the great work being done by the Joseph Smith Papers Project (see here). And a major result of this new research has called into question the reliability of BH Roberts’s History of the Church, a seven-volume series based on earlier manuscripts. (See my overview here.) Put simply, these books took historic sources and often modified the language to make them seem more authentic and written in Joseph Smith’s own voice. They have been under increasing scrutiny, especially as the original sources these books were based on have come available. A few years ago, the Church’s RS/PH manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith explicitly mentioned that it bypassed the source because of those problems. Now the transition has influenced the section headings for the Doctrine and Covenants. A quick glance through the comparative changes shows dozens of headings that had references to the History of the Church removed. [Read more…]

Call for Papers: A Special Issue on Race and Mormonism in Journal of Mormon History

Journal of Mormon History

Call for Articles

Special Issue on Mormonism and Race

To be published in the summer issue of 2014

Finished papers due July 31, 2013

Special Editors:

Max Perry Mueller: mpmuell AT

Prof. Gina Colvin: gina.colvin AT

Goals of the Journal’s special issue on Mormonism and race:

This special issue of the Journal of Mormon History aims to broaden and deepen the conversation on Mormonism and race beyond the historical focus on the ban on black men from the Mormon priesthood, and its emphasis on the U.S. experience. In particular we aim to understand “race” beyond the black-white (European-African) binary. We welcome articles ranging in historical focus from the Mormon movement’s founding to the present day. Articles exploring international encounters, race and gender, and race and politics, and race and class are of particular interest.


Papers should be original work. Wherever appropriate, concrete evaluation results should be included. Submissions will be judged on originality, technical strength, primary sources, significance, and interest to our readers. Papers should range from 6,000 to 8,000 words. Please submit manuscripts simultaneously to both of the Special Editors listed above. Include separately a brief CV or biography.

Call for Help: International Mormon Studies Book Project

Highlighting a very worthwhile project headed by Melissa Inouye.


As Mormonism continues to develop internationally, so too does the field of Mormon studies. More and more foreign scholars are looking to do work in the area, but often lack the requisite resources. The International Mormon Studies Book Project is a new effort to provide critical resources for developing Mormon studies internationally by purchasing books to form a base Mormon studies collection at institutions where scholars have demonstrated a keen interest in doing research on Mormonism. Currently, institutions interested in partnering with the IMS Book Project span the globe, from Asia to Australia to Europe. The first two IMS Book Project collections are slated for donation to Jianghan University(江汉大学) in Wuhan, China, and the newly formed French Institute for Research on Mormonism (Institut Français pour la Recherche sur le Mormonisme) in Bordeaux, France. In the coming months and years we hope to place as many IMS Book Project collections as continued donations will allow and as interested recipient institutions can be found. [Read more…]

Why Would Someone Choose to Follow Brigham Young?

Brigham YoungJohn Turner’s recent biography of Brigham Young, besides receiving lots of praise (including the most prestigious award possible), has raised some important questions about Mormonism’s second prophet. Perhaps the most common question is some rendtion of, “Why would anyone want to follow the cold, tyrannical, and unsympathetic Brigham Young presented in the biography?” This quesition can come in two forms: first, the person questions the validity of Turner’s reconstruction of Brigham Young’s character; surely, this reasoning implies, Young couldn’t have been that bad, or else no one would have accepted him as a prophet, thus leaving the fault with the author. Second, the person could agree with Turner’s interpretation, and are therefore flummoxed over why 19th century Mormons actually chose to follow such an unlikable fellow. While I personally don’t have many problems with Turner’s depiction of the Lord’s Lion, I will leave aside the question of the biography’s success in handling this issue, since even those who disagree with Turner will probably still admit that Young would have been a tough individual with whom to get along. Thus, I’d like to reflect for a moment on the question, “why would someone follow Brigham Young?”[1] [Read more…]

Steve Evans Reacts to the FMH/BCC War

After having all our fun with the meme war, we finally had to break the news to our absent, but not forgotten, leader.

John Turner: 2012 Boggs-Doniphan Non-Mormon of the Year

It’s too easy to pick a “Mormon of the Year.” It’s just too small a pool of candidates, and thus slim pickings. (Especially when there are presidential candidates, because heaven knows you have to pick one of those.) No, the real skill comes when your list of potential nominees number the entire world except the Mormons. Here at BCC, we take on the monumental task of choosing a recipient for the Boggs-Doniphan Gentile of the Year Award; it’s a tough and thankless job, but someone has to do it. This award recognizes the non-Mormon who had the greatest impact–for good (Doniphan) or ill (Boggs)–on Mormons or Mormonism this year. The past winners are:

2008: Mike Huckabee
2009: Stephen Colbert
2010: Judge Vaughn Walker
2011: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez

Just like previous years, 2012 produced many worthy candidates. Would it be Anderson Cooper, for smacking down that “Mormons-are-a-cult” preacher? Or Billy Graham, for deciding we weren’t a cult after all? Or how about Barack Obama, who had the nerve to beat Mitt Romney, our tibe’s “one mighty and strong” who was destined to save the Constitution’s loose thread? (Or something like that.) After much deliberation, and lots of fasting and prayer, we have decided to award John G. Turner, author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, the honor of possessing the 2012 Boggs/Doniphan crown. (Or is it a sceptre? I can never remember.)
[Read more…]

A Very Short Post on How to Deal with Joseph Smith’s Youngest Plural Wives

(Inspired by Kristine’s “Very Short Post” series.)

Polygamy is a sticky issue; a very sticky issue. Particularly Joseph Smith’s introduction of polygamy, and particularly his sealing to young girls less than half his age. (Helen Mar Kimball was 14 and Sarah Whitney was 17, for instance.) These issues can’t be sugar-coated; if they are to be dealt with, it must first be acknowledged that its messy and difficult to be resolved. I have come to find, however, that there are some approaches that help me contextualize and understand the history of what happened. (Though I fully admit that I still am, and will probably always be, troubled with it.) [Read more…]

“Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith’s Study of the Ancient World,” BYU, March 7-8

Curious about Joseph Smith’s relationship to, and appropriation of, the ancient world? Then you’re in luck. You can follow up-to-date changes at the conference’s website.

Approaching Antiquity:

Joseph Smith’s Study of the Ancient World


March 7-8, 2013

Jointly Sponsored by

The Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University

The Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [Read more…]

Organizing the Doctrine and Covenants Lessons: Or, Why the Topical Approach Doesn’t Work

Being an early Mormon history nerd, I was really excited for this year’s sunday school curriculum. However, two things have derailed my excitement: first, a calling as primary teacher will keep me out of the adult sunday school class. (Which is a shame, because we have two great Gospel Doctrine teachers—a rarity, in my experience.) Second, glancing over the manual for the year, I was reminded of how horribly the revelations are organized, and how that organization hinders our understanding of the revelations and their context. [Read more…]

Quotes of Note: The Perils of Blogs

[Quotes of Note will be a semi-regular feature in which I introduce an excerpt from a recent book or article that I found especially relevant, thoughtful, or otherwise worth discussing. Basically, this is a solution to a common problem in my reading: I often find myself stumbling upon a section of a book that I’m dying to disucuss, but the discussion never happens because I’m typically alone in a library, my office, or any of the other lonely places grad students frequent. Thus, this series.]

I recently finished Armand Mauss’s memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic (UofU Press, 2012). The book is a gem that deserves a broad readership: it offers background to his major scholarly contributions, a personal view of Mormon culture in the second half of the 20th century, an overview and loving critique of Dialogue, and an insider’s perspective to the origins and growth of Claremont’s Mormon studies chair, all written in a readable style that is both entertaining and informative. While there are definite points of curmudgeon-ness—hell, isn’t that what memoirs by seasoned academics are for?—the curmudgeon-ness comes from a loving and informed perspective that should be seriously considered. [Read more…]

Responses to Nate’s “How Mormonism Changes and Managing Liberal Expectations”

Yesterday, Nate Oman, at the “other blog,” wrote a thoughtful post on liberal angst within the Church. Addressed to his “liberal friends,” he argued that the common narrative of the Church being too late in making changes, coupled with a misunderstanding of hierarchical power, has led to an unfortunately misguided framework in which we understand change within the Mormon tradition.

Well, a thoughtful post deserves thoughtful responses. Unfortunately, many of the responses have been scattered throughout several spaces: the original post (which at this time already has 74 comments), Nate’s facebook wall (where he set an all-time record by tagging 85 people–I didn’t even know that was possible!), and BCC’s backlist (and I’m sure numerous other places). We thought it would prove useful to gather some of the most cogent responses from BCCers and reproduce them, in a slightly edited form, here. [Read more…]

Reflections on the D. Michael Quinn Article

If you haven’t read David Haglund’s extremely well-written profile of D. Michael Quinn, you should do so now. It is sympathetic, responsible, and has the pitch-perfect prose we have come to expect from anyone with the last name Haglund. While there are some details, inclusions, and information that could certainly be debated, on the whole I think the piece very informative and a must-read. It also prompted some ideas and questions worth exploring. [Read more…]

The Limitless Canon of Truth: “Mormonism” in The God Who Weeps

Fiona and Terryl Givens’s excellent The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of the World (Ensign Peak, 2012) has received quite a bit of attention this last week, with good reason. Specifically, make sure to follow Jacob B’s fantastic multi-part review, which he started yesterday. For the major details, critiques, and ideas, you’ll have to read every word Jacob writes. (Who doesn’t?) But I want to riff off of one of Jacob points in his first review, something that I found enormously important in the Givens’ work: the expansive notion of canon, the decentralized notion of authoritative truth, and the broad array of intellectual sources brought to bear on Mormonism’s theological claims. [Read more…]

Collapsing Historical Distance

There are a lot of details, events, and insights found in John Turner’s excellent Brigham Young Biography that will trouble LDS readers: the practice polygamy, the promulgation of sobering racial beliefs, Young’s violent rhetoric and coarse language, you name it. But the thing that troubled me, as a believing Latter-day Saint, the most was not found in the prose. Rather, it was a picture found on page 395 that depicts John D. Lee shortly before his execution in 1877. Lee’s calm, serene look is enough to make my hair raise, but that’s not the only thing that troubles me about the photograph. No, it’s how “contemporary” the picture looks. Despite obvious wear-and-tear, the photo is generally of high quality. Lee’s wardrobe looks quite modern and not too ancient. And when I look into Lee’s aged, solemn face, I can almost see my own grandfather. This troubles me, because I like past events to seem more, well, past. I like historic photographs of historic figures, if they do indeed exist, to look grainy, out of focus, and pre-modern. Put simply, I feel much more comfortable when my LDS history, especially the unsavory aspects of that history, remain far enough in the past to seem foreign.

I have a confession to make: even with my background in researching and publishing on Mormon history, I hardly ever make historical comments at Church. (By “historical comments,” I mean comments that use history as a lesson for the present.) This is difficult, because we have a tradition of being so transfixed with the past that some have claimed (wrongly, in my opinion) that we have a history in lieu of a theology. Sacrament meeting talks and Sunday school lessons are inundated with references to historical characters from our rich legacy. Mormon bookshelves are filled with hagiographies, faith-promoting stories, and even historical fiction. We Mormons love our history–as long as it is told the right way and for the right purpose, of course. [Read more…]

(Re)Conceptualizing our Gendered Missionary Image

First and foremost, let me say that I am absolutely thrilled with today’s announcement lowering the age for prospective missionaries, for many of the reasons that have (and will be) written here and elsewhere: the transforming popular image of sister missionaries, the increase in scriptural knowledge and service opportunities amongst female members, the growing possibilities for female leadership, the adjusted goals of the young women’s program, the larger amount of young adults being tethered to the gospel (and humanity), and many other examples of the slow, uneven steps toward gender equality. All of these are important results that I fervently celebrate; I suppose that such things, if proved true, will make today a significant milestone in our ever-growing progression as God’s Kingdom.

But I’m interested in another impact this policy change could have on our culture: the possibility of re-conceptualizing our highly gendered image of missionary work. [Read more…]