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2013 in Retrospect: An Overview of Noteworthy Books and Articles in Mormon History

By: Ben P - December 02, 2013
The last few years have been good for Mormon history.

The last few years have been good for Mormon history.

This is the fifth annual installment of my “Retrospect” series here at JI, in which I offer an overview of scholarship in the field from the last twelve months. (For previous installments, see, in reverse chronological order, here, here, here, and here.) I always enjoy these posts, as it not only allows me to keep track of everything that has been done, but also see broader trends in the field. And to better accomplish that latter goal, I include articles from the last twelve months as well, since that gives a broader understanding of the current historiographical interests and movements.

As always, while I aim to be broad and liberal in scope, I am still human with my own interests and biases. Thus, it is very likely I overlooked some important books and articles, so it is your job to fill in my gaps in the comments. And just like last year, at the end of the post I will offer my own picks for MHA’s awards, and encourage you to do the same.

Also, remember that you can find the best and most in-depth tracing of Mormon studies at the recently launched Mormon Studies Review!

The Heavyweights

These two books, I believe, will have the longest staying power of this year’s corpus of scholarship. Haws’s book, a revision of his UofU dissertation, fills an important gap in Mormon history by engaging 20th century American history that is not seen through a single biographical subject. (Seriously, people: can we please engage the 20th century in ways that are not solely biography?) It also does an excellent job in placing the most recent Mormon Moment in context by showing that America has always been fascinated with the LDS faith but that their shifting understandings reflect and reveal significant cultural transitions during the period. Talbot’s book is also a re-worked dissertation, and is a smart example of the new wave of political culture scholarship by interweaving gender and domesticity into broader questions of power and national authority. She previously published an article based on what is now the second chapter, which I believed should have won MHA’s article award that year. Foreign Kingdom is also of reasonable length, which should make it perfect for classrooms. Indeed, I believe both these books are sophisticated and significant enough to make ripples outside the Mormon history community, which I gauge as one of the most imporant characteristics for a book’s award.

The Joseph Smith Papers Project Reconstruct Mormonism’s Founding

The previous JSP volumes were all well and good, but the Documents series is the meat of the entire project. Here you have experts going document to document explaining the context, substance, and importance of every Joseph Smith text during Mormonism’s founding years, and doing so with precision and sophistication. These are nerdvana for Mormon historians, and will serve as bedrocks for future scholars of the period.

Second Editions of Classics

One could make a convincing argument that the appearance of these two books in the 1990s spark the new generation of Mormon historical studies, for at least two reasons. First, they used Mormonism as a case study to examine broader issues of, with Givens, the construction of heresy and, with Barlow, the malleability of biblical hermeneutics in America. Second, their publication with Oxford University Press signalled a new venue for Mormon scholarship in particular (as it is now a central hub for scholarly publications on Mormonism) as well as in general (as many other presses now follow suit). The republication of these two texts, though they are limited in new material (Barlow’s includes a new preface, Givens’s a revised final chapter), it is important, at this stage in the field’s development, to be reaquainted with what should rightly be seen as “classics.”

JIers rock the house

  • Max Perry Mueller, “Playing Jane: Re-Presenting Black Mormon Memory Through Reenacting the Black Mormon Past,” Journal of Africana Religions 1, no. 4 (Fall 2013): 513-561.
  • Benjamin E. Park, “To Fill Up the World: Joseph Smith as Urban Planner,” Mormon Historical Studies 14 (Spring 2013): 1-27.
  • Benjamin E. Park, “Early Mormon Patriarchy and the Paradoxes of Democratic Religiosity in Jacksonian America,” American Nineteenth Century History 14, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 183-208.
  • Robin Scott Jensen and Benjamin Park, “Debating Succession, March 1846: John E. Page, Orson Hyde, and the Trajectories of Joseph Smith’s Legacy,” Journal of Mormon History 39, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 181-205.
  • Ryan Tobler, “‘Saviors on Mount Zion': Mormon Sacramentalism, Mortality, and the Baptism for the Dead,” Journal of Mormon History 39, no. 4 (Fall 2013): 182-238.
  • Brett Dowdle, “What Means this Carnage?: The Civil War in Mormon Thought,” in Kenneth Alford, Civil War Saints, 99-118.
  • Joseph R. Stuart and Kenneth Alford, “The Lot Smith Calvary Company: Utah Goes to War,” in Alford, Civil War Saints, 119-134.

You see, we don’t waste all of our time on blogs! Especially check out the articles by Max and Ryan, which are substantive in length and very smart in analysis. Max invokes an impressive number of theoretical tools to engage Mormon racial issues both in Jane Manning’s day as well as in our own; it is rare that a work of scholarship can speak of two different periods with thoughtfulness and expertise. And Ryan’s article is phenomenal in addressing a seemingly known topic, baptism for the dead, and using it to basically re-write early Mormon ritual and thought; it is model scholarship.

The Importance of Folklore

  • Eric A. Eliason and Tom Mould, ed., Latter-day Lore: Mormon Folklore Studies (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press).
  • Eric A. Eliason and Tom Mould, “The State of Mormon Folklore Studies,” Mormon Studies Review 1:29-52.

Sometimes ignored by Mormon historians, the study of folklore can be an important insight into history and culture. Luckily, these are two experts in the field who make sure we understand all of the basics.

Territorial Utah

  • Todd M. Compton, Compton, A Frontier Life: Jacob Hamblin, Explorer and Indian Missionary (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press).
  • Ronald W. Walker, “The Affairs of the ‘Runaways': Utah’s First Encounter with the Federal Officers, Part 1,” Journal of Mormon History 39, no. 4 (Fall 2013): 1-43.
  • Ronald W. Walker, “Buchanan, Popular Sovereignty, and the Mormons: The Election of 1856,” Utah Historical Quarterly 81, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 108-132.
  • Richard E. Turley Jr. and Eric C. Olson, “Fame Meets Infamy: The Powell Survey and Mountain Meadows Participants, 1870-1873,” Utah Historical Quarterly 81, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 4-24.

A period always in need of revisions. Compton’s book is hefty and exhastive, as we have come to expect from the author; it was nice to see the end result of all of those articles on Hamblin he’s been publishing over the years. And it is always a good year when we get to read more from Ron Walker who, regardless of whether you agree with his arguments (and I do), should be seen as the best writer in the Mormon history community. He promises that he has more work in store, and if they are as nuanced and thoughtful as these articles on politics in the 1850s, we are indeed in for a treat. And with Turley and Olson’s article, I guess we could always use more Mountain Meadows.

Early Mormonism and Politics 

  • Brent M. Rogers, “To the ‘Honest and Patriotic Sons of Liberty': Mormon Appeals for Redress and Social justice, 1843-44,” Journal of Mormon History 39, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 36-68.
  • Steve LeSueur, “Mixing Politics with Religion: A Closer Look at Electioneering and Voting in Caldwell and Daviess Counties in 1838,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 33, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2013): 184-208.

If Glenn Beck’s rule that you must run away from any church that preaches “social gospel” was in force during the 1840s, there might not have been many Mormons. Rogers’s article is not only a useful overview of Mormon petitions during the period, but a subtle critique of how we have positioned Mormonism’s Illinois kingdom in relation to the federal government. And in “Mixing Politics with Religion,” LeSueur is doing LeSueur-like things.

Other Titles from Oxford UP

Though it seems OUP has, of late, placed more importance on quantity over quality when it comes to Mormon history, many of their books still make important contributions to the field. While I wasn’t impressed by Hammarberg’s book (as one friend put it, it’s like if a non-Mormon wrote Preach My Gospel and packaged it in a university press spine—an exaggeration but contains a nugget of truth concerning its lack of critical analysis), and I’m not enough of an expert to engage Webb, I really did enjoy Kester’s book and thought it was a solid contribution not only to Mormon history but also to Pacific studies. (My review of it is here.)

Personal Essays

These aren’t necessarily “history” per sé, but I include them for two reasons. First, some of the essays deal with historical issues in smart ways. Second, they are themselves important historical products that I imagine will be used in the future to examine Mormon culture in the 21st century. (Also, many of these essays are wonderful, so I just want to promote them as much as I can.)

(Re-)Examining Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

You know what we really need? More books on polygamy. [pause] Wait, people think I’m serious? [pause] Ok, you’re right, there are still some serious holes in the (over-studied) field, and these books make some solid contributions. And they should whet our appetites for the forthcoming volumes by Ulrich and Flake.

Mormonism(s)

  • Mark A. Scherer, The Journey of a People: The Era of Restoration, 1820 to 1844 (Independence, Mo: CoC Seminary Press).
  • Lee Wiles, “Monogamy Underground: The Burial of Mormon Plural marriage in the Graves of Joseph and Emma Smith,” Journal of Mormon History 39, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 1-59.
  • Christine Elyse Blythe, “William Smith’s Patriarchal Blessings and Contested Authority in the Post-Martyrdom Church,” Journal of Mormon History 39, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 60-95.
  • Christopher James Blythe, “‘The Highest Class of Adulterers and Whoremongers': Plural Marriage, the Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerite), and the Construction of Memory,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 46, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 1-39.
  • Steven L. Shields, “The Role of ‘Prophet': Variability within the Smith-Rigdon Movement,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 33, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2013): 132-143.

It is becoming harder and harder to overlook work done on non-LDS Mormonism when the work continues to be solid. The excellent articles by the Blythes are especially indicative of where the subject can go in order to be relevant to scholars outside of the JWHA. See also: David Howlett’s forthcoming book, which will certainly have a prominent place on this list next year.

Mormonism and Textuality

  • Elizabeth Fenton, “Open Canons: Sacred History and American History in The Book of Mormon,” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1, no. 2 (Fall 2013): 339-361.
  • Katherine Sarah Massoth, “Writing an Honorable Remembrance: Nineteenth-Century LDS Women’s Autobiography,” Journal of Mormon History 39, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 91-138.
  • Lisa Olsen Tait, “The 1890s Mormon Culture of Letters and the Post-Manifesto Marriage Crisis: A New Approach to Home Literature,” Brigham Young University Studies Quarterly 52, no. 1 (2013): 98-124.

Text criticism is so hot right now. All three of these authors use sophisticated tools to tease apart what the constructions of various texts tell us about the cultures from which they came. Fenton’s is especially remarkable in that it is a literary scholar bringing her expertise to bear on the Book of Mormon’s content in one of the field’s elite journals; it’s also very smart, and taught me new things about a book I thought I already knew. Massoth’s and Tait’s articles examine the cultural context for different genres, which both change how we understand the texts as well as the historical environments in which they were birthed. All, frankly, are models of the future of Mormon studies.

Mormonism and Education

  • Scott C. Esplin, “Joseph F. Smith and the Reshaping of Church Education,” Brigham Young University Studies Quarterly 52, no. 3 (2013): 39-62.
  • Gary James Bergera, “‘This Time of Crisis': The Race-Based Anti-BYU Athletic Protests of 1968 to 1971,” Utah Historical Quarterly 81, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 204-229.

Two mainstays in this subfield offer more careful work: Esplin continues his quest to be the go-to source for Mormonism’s shifting view of education, and Bergera offers another fascinating moment in BYU’s history as a way to engage the broader narrative of Mormon/American race relations.

Important Stand-Alone Works

This is the section where I group together works that don’t really fit into the other groups. I’ve already said how much I enjoyed the Newell/Mason compilation elsewhere (Really! Buy it! It’s the future!), so I’ll just emphasize how important the Bushman/Kline volume is in filling a much-needed niche: 20th century women’s history. Drawing from a rich oral history collection in the beautiful southern California, a number of scholars make important revisions to how we understand female participation in a patriarchal church. Alford’s collection, while uneven and a bit quixotic, contains some fascinating essays on an important topic. And Sam’s article is a thoughtful blend of scholarly rigor and devoted faith—an important balance if we want our work to echo outside the ivory tower.

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And now, if you’ll cue the drumroll, here are my awards….

Best Book Award: Haws, Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perceptions

Best First Book: Talbot, A Foreign Kingdom: Mormons and Polygamy in American Political Culture

Best Biography: Compton, A Frontier Life: Jacob Hamblin, Explorer and Indian Missionary

Best Documentary: Joseph Smith Papers Project, Documents, Vols. 1-2

Best Article Award: Tait, “The 1890s Mormon Culture of Letters and the Post-Manifesto Marriage Crisis: A New Approach to Home Literature”

Awards of Excellence: Fenton, “Open Canons: Sacred History and American History in The Book of Mormon“; Tobler, “‘Saviors on Mount Zion': Mormon Sacramentalism, Mortality, and Baptism for the Dead”

Best Article on Mormon Women’s History: Tait, “The 1890s Mormon Culture of Letters and the Post-Manifesto Marriage Crisis”

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So, what did I miss? What were your favorite books and articles from the last year? And what trends do you see in the field?



16 Comments

  1. One thing that continues to make me sad is the lack of international history. I wonder how we should count books on Hawai’i, which was not part of the US till long after Mormon missionaries began proselytizing there.

    Comment by Amanda HK — December 2, 2013 @ 10:58 am

  2. Exactly, Amanda; I had the same exact thoughts. I couldn’t come up with international scholarship. Kester’s comes closest, but most of it deals with Hawaiians in Utah, so it doesn’t really count.

    Comment by Ben P — December 2, 2013 @ 11:07 am

  3. Thanks for the list, Ben.

    Comment by Saskia — December 2, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

  4. Great summary, Ben. One new book that should be out before the end of the year (fingers crossed) is Elizabeth Anderson’s edition of the diaries of Anthony W. Ivins (Signature).

    Comment by Gary Bergera — December 2, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

  5. Looking forward to it, Gary! That should be a great contribution. The problem with doing these the first week of December is I often miss out on a book or two.

    Comment by Ben P — December 2, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

  6. Still waiting for Brother Ben to publish a book. Will have to settle for his articles in the meantime.

    Great list though!

    Comment by Guy — December 2, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

  7. Thanks, Ben. Lots of good stuff here.

    Comment by David G. — December 2, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

  8. A great list, Ben, thanks for providing it!

    Comment by J Stuart — December 2, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

  9. Thanks for doing this, Ben. An extremely useful feature.

    Comment by BHodges — December 2, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

  10. As always, this is great, Ben. Five years strong!

    Comment by Ryan T. — December 2, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

  11. Early in my post-graduate school life, I came to the sad realization that it was impossible to keep up with the pace of scholarship in U.S. History. The stacks of AHRs and JAHs simply mocked me.

    A few years later, I realized that it was impossible to keep up with all of the remarkable books and articles being published on the history of religion in the United States. At least, I figured, I could try to keep up with scholarship on evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Mormons.

    Now, reading this compilation, I realize that all is lost.

    Seriously, the list is helpful, and the quantity and quality of scholarship is challenging and inspiring!

    Comment by John Turner — December 2, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

  12. Thanks, all. I always love doing these because it keeps me up to date on the field.

    And FTR, I just checked and last year I correctly selected five prize-winning works. (Though two of the categories were wrong.) After getting four right the year before, I’m feeling pretty good about my selection process!

    Comment by Ben P — December 3, 2013 @ 6:43 am

  13. Thanks for the mention, Ben. And thanks for doing this, it’s really useful.

    John: I too am way behind. I put off reading a lot of stuff till after Jacob Hamblin was put to bed. Then I found out that I should have read all that stuff first.

    Comment by Todd Compton — December 4, 2013 @ 1:17 am

  14. Aw shucks, Ben. I just saw this. I’m honored just to be mentioned, as they say. And excited to check out some of these things I haven’t seen yet. I love that you do this. Thanks!

    Comment by LisaT — December 5, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

  15. Hey, thanks for the shout-out! I’m very glad you liked my essay. This post is great–so much to read now…

    Comment by Liz Fenton — December 8, 2013 @ 10:52 am

  16. […] Liz Fenton: 2013 in Retrospect: An […]

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