Book Review: The Latter-day Saint Experience in America

March 16, 2005 | 27 comments
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Perhaps you can forgive me for taking one look at the supersized price tag on Terryl L. Givens’ new book The Latter-day Saint Experience in America and assuming that the intended audience was luckless university students operating at the behest of their profligate professors.

I approached the book with a simple question: Would this be a good resource for a college class on American religion? The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ But I was amazed to find even more than that: there’s quite a bit here for Church members to chew on. It is worth buying (even at $55).

Givens’ first chapter covers the history of the Church. It is a model of what Mormon history should be: no whitewashing, no feigned objectivity, great details, consideration of the big picture. Although this is basic Mormon history for nonmembers, there are enough little gems in here to warrant the attention of the Saints, even the ones already well-versed in our history. For example, we all know about Governor Boggs’ extermination order, but I think we’ve forgotten that Boggs was responding to Sidney Rigdon, who promised that “it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us.” Kind of puts a whole new spin on it, doesn’t it? Similarly, I can’t say that I remember hearing in Sunday School about the Mormon raiders who “torch[ed] grazing land, scatter[ed] their cattle, block[ed] routes, burn[ed] baggage trains, and otherwise imped[ed] the progress” of the federal army as they marched toward Utah territory. Givens also shines at providing context: it doesn’t mean much to note that there were 5,000 men in the Nauvoo Legion unless you also know that the standing federal army was under 10,000 at this time. But Givens is at his best in the analysis of history:

“Physical plates with real heft confirmed by a dozen witnesses, seerstones and oracular spectacles, temples of stone rather than flesh, a Zion that could be located on a map, and a gathering that entailed wagons and later handcarts rather than a figurative unity of belief–in these and other ways Mormonism collapsed the historical, psychological, and ontological distance that became integral to so much of the Christian tradition. As such, Mormonism invited accusations of both banality and blasphemy.”

The second chapter explores doctrine. He has several gem-like one-liners, including this important idea lost on Saints and evangelicals alike: “Theology, simply stated from the Mormon perspective, is what happens when revelation is absent.” And: “Mormonism is better understood as enacting its central doctrines rather than systematically articulating them.” And, again, while he does an eminently competent job of sketching out the basics, he also gives the lifer something to think about: in the context of human incarnation, he notes, “it is not clear what advantages a physical body offers over a spiritual body.” There are also great ideas in his discussion of the LDS take on the Fall. He includes data not commonly available (Did you know that only about one third of eligible young men serve missions, or that the PEF took in about 100M in its first two years?).

The chapter entitled “Temple, Church, and Family” provides important nuts, bolts, and organizational details for the study of Mormonism. But there are enough wink-and-a-nods to make the chapter sufferable, nay, even enjoyable, for longterm members. Without comment, he writes, “A basketball gym (called a “cultural hall”) is typically adjacent . . etc.,” notes that Sunday meetings would tax “anyone’s post-Puritan capacity for endurance,” and refers to the “marathon” of sermons comprising General Conference. We really are a peculiar people.

His chapter on controversial issues covers all of the usual suspects: abortion, birth control, homosexuality, etc. Perhaps the best praise that I can give here is to note that I think a very conservative and a very liberal Mormon could read this chapter without feeling betrayed. One odd omission: in an otherwise able discussion of the Church’s position on homosexuality, there’s no mention of same-sex marriage legislation and the Church’s efforts to thwart it. But, overall, he does a stellar job of covering the basics while engaging the jaded pew warmer (not an easy task). Even I hadn’t ever considered the Church’s teachings on a Mother in Heaven as “the most radically feminist gesture in Christian theology.” I was a little uneasy with his section on environmentalism, because while he makes an excellent case that the scriptures and modern prophets have called us to responsible stewardship of the Earth’s resources, he doesn’t mention that environmentalism is completely off the radar of talks, books, and lessons. (It shouldn’t be, but it is.)

I’ll guiltily admit that I found myself scoffing a little in anticipation of the chapter subtitled “Intellectual and Cultural Life of the Latter-day Saints,” but Givens does a fine job with theological underpinnings and everything else from MoTab to road shows. I suppose it isn’t as bad as we think . . .

I do think the final chapter was something of a misstep: the discussion of splinter groups would perhaps have fit better in the history chapter, since the major groups have 19th century origins. Appendices include brief biographies of the prophets and other notables and, once again, are useful for the nonmember but still interesting for the rest of us. I never knew that then-Elder Hunter broke three ribs tripping against a podium or that Parley P. Pratt was murdered.

I had assumed the dust jacket’s claim (with a typographical error–eek!) that the book would examine all aspects of how Mormons “live, work, and worship” would be grossly optomistic, but Givens really does cover all bases: historical, doctrinal, cultural, and organizational. His only lacuna is CES: seminary gets a few sentences in the text, institute barely a sentence in the appendix. It isn’t just Givens, however, who underestimates the effect that CES has on community building, retention of young people, and (perhaps a double-edged sword) the shaping of doctrine and pedagogy throughout the rest of the Church. But given what he set out to do, Givens has done it remarkable well. This is the best introduction to the Church (I didn’t cringe once), and there’s plenty here to keep the lifelong member engaged. I’m pleased to have something to recommend to nonmembers, new members, and everyone else.

Note: we interviewed Terryl Givens here.

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27 Responses to Book Review: The Latter-day Saint Experience in America

  1. Mark B. on March 16, 2005 at 11:30 pm

    Ironic that your “eek” about a typographical error is followed directly by your innovative spelling of “optomistic.”

  2. Minerva on March 16, 2005 at 11:50 pm

    Mark,

    That’s all you could come up with after Julie’s excellent synopsis?

    Julie,

    Excellent synopsis. I’m writing a couple of different papers on Mormonism right now, so I came across this title when I was poking around for sources. Good to know a bit more about it. Thanks!

  3. Jim F. on March 16, 2005 at 11:50 pm

    Julie, if my experience is anything like Teryl’s (even though my sales are not at all like his), not much of that $55 ends up in his pocket–and the publisher is waiting for libraries to buy the hardcopy, thereby covering their costs, before putting out a more reasonably-priced soft cover edition.

    Thanks for this review. I wanted to read the book before. Now I really want to do so.

  4. Keith on March 17, 2005 at 1:06 am

    I (and Amazon.com) would also like to thank you for your review. To be honest, I don’t think I knew this book was even in existence, and I usually like to be aware of these sort of publications.

  5. Ben Huff on March 17, 2005 at 2:30 am

    Hey, just a couple of weeks ago in Primary we had a lesson on environmentalism! I mean, it didn’t involve that word, but it was about appreciating and taking care of Heavenly Father’s creations : ) I also remember seeing a lesson on being kind to animals in the book for last year. So there is some coverage in the curriculum. It isn’t exactly prominent, though, and we Mormons tend to assimilate only those things we hear again and again (not so unlike most people, probably).

    From what I hear of Brigham Young, he was a lot more of an environmentalist than one might guess from observing the Saints today. Perhaps Givens’ picture contrasts with the current picture because he is taking a broader historical view.

  6. David Rodger on March 17, 2005 at 2:53 am

    Oh, I don’t think LDS people are anti-environment. In fact, it has been mentioned relatively frequently that we are stewards of the Lord’s creations. Not, perhaps, to the extent that Greenpeace and the Sierra Club would find sufficient. But then, they would like us to return to a supposed golden age when all was sylvan forest, and the hand of man had never yet set foot (to mix a metaphor).

    There are a lot of evils in the world that do not get mentioned frequently in Church talks: slavery, child labor, prostitution, tyrannical political power, torture, embezzlement, political corruption, armed robbery, etc. But if I belonged to the Committee to Abolish Slavery in the World, I would probably feel it wasn’t mentioned enough.

  7. Keith on March 17, 2005 at 3:02 am

    Just a quick citation on environmentalism. In a (largely unknown) 1979 Devotional Speech at BYU (“What is Your Mission?”) Elder John Groberg said the following:

    “I am convinced in my own mind that we have not really fulfilled our mission in life as individuals or as a Church until we have demonstrated and shown as much advancement in other areas as we have in theology. We know how government ought to be, we know how society ought to be, we know what cleanliness ought to be, we know what the environment really should be; we should lead out in these areas. For instance, we recognize that we have environmental problems. I am not sure what the answer is, but I do not think the answer is what some “environmentalists” think it is–that is, to stop whatever we are doing–because we as a race must produce. I am not sure how to do it, but I am sure that there is a right way; we just need to discover it. I do not believe that the Lord is pleased with the constant corruption and pollution we so willingly endure–not just spiritually, but physically–to achieve some of our goals. I personally cannot help but believe that there is a better way. I cannot help but feel that God knows how to transform all of these base materials into useful tools without all the choking clouds of dust and the stench of pollution in our rivers and streams. He put our resources here, he put us here, and he knows what we need. He knows what is here and how to get things done. I do not think that he is against energy. I think that he is for all of these things, and wants us to use them in the proper way to get around, do his work, and build up his kingdom. But my faith is that there is a better way than we now know. He wants us to use the elements–to mold them for our use–but in a different way.”

    “Now should that not be something that you students here at BYU could figure out–with the Lord’s help? (And who should be closer to him than you?) We have talked about missions for individuals, and we are all aware of the Church mission. In my mind, BYU, as part of the Church, should become the pollution-control center of the world–not only spiritually, but physically. I feel that this is important. We take the gospel to all the world in a spiritual way; we ought to do it in other ways, also.”

  8. annegb on March 17, 2005 at 9:19 am

    What’s wrong with her spelling of optomistic? Looks okay to me. :)

    Jim F. what books have you written?

    Julie, I ordered your book. I’ll let you know. From an objective point of view.

    This book looks really interesting to me, but I’ll have to wait till there is a used one.

  9. Laura O on March 17, 2005 at 10:04 am

    Thanks for this review, Julie!

    “[Givens] also gives the lifer something to think about: in the context of human incarnation, he notes, “it is not clear what advantages a physical body offers over a spiritual body.” ”

    This is something I’ve been thinking about–why do we need permanent physical bodies, anyway? Why was the Resurrection so important? Bodies must serve some purpose beyond eternal procreation, because 2 Ne 9:8 says, “For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to . . . the devil,” and this seems to apply to ALL spirits, not just the exalted ones (who are the only candidates for eternal increase).

    Any takers?

  10. Jed on March 17, 2005 at 10:39 am

    Note that the Givens book is part of the American Religious Experience (ARE) series published by Greenwood.

    ARE appears to be one step up from the ongoing Religion in American Life (RAL) series published by Oxford. RAL targets the high school and early college students, while Julie’s review seems to indicate that ARE targets older college students, graduate students, and the college educated generally.

    I wonder if we Mormons realize what a coup it is to have our own people be invited to write these books. The book on Mormons in the RAL, “Mormons in America,” was written by Claudia and Richard Bushman. We could hardly do better than Givens the Bushmans.

    We seem to be in a window of opportunity where Mormons are allowed to speak and outsiders trust what they have to say. But as the culture divide between Mormons and Americans widens, as I suspect it will, I wonder how long this state of affairs can continue. In the mean time I wonder what we can do to ride the wave of good publicity.

  11. MDS on March 17, 2005 at 11:44 am

    While growing up, I heard all about the raiders that frustrated the Federal armies on their march to Utah, but that may be attributable to the fact that some of the horses for these raiders had been supplied by my ancestors, which fact is included in a few of the family histories in my Book of Remembrance.

  12. john fowles on March 17, 2005 at 11:49 am

    I can’t say that I remember hearing in Sunday School about the Mormon raiders who “torch[ed] grazing land, scatter[ed] their cattle, block[ed] routes, burn[ed] baggage trains, and otherwise imped[ed] the progress” of the federal army as they marched toward Utah territory.

    I have never had the impression that this was any kind of secret. At least in my experience, I have heard this discussed in many different areas of regular (as opposed to intellectual) Church life. And it isn’t really all that scandalous either, given the objectives of the federal army as it marched toward Utah territory.

    Sidney Rigdon’s rhetorical and challenging comment regarding extermination does not in any way justify Governor Boggs’s Extermination Order. Ethnic cleansing is wrong no matter what the opposing party has said.

  13. john fowles on March 17, 2005 at 11:53 am

    Julie wrote He has several gem-like one-liners, including this important idea lost on Saints and evangelicals alike: “Theology, simply stated from the Mormon perspective, is what happens when revelation is absent.”

    This is a very nice observation, but from my experience, this is not an idea that is lost on Latter-day Saints. If it is lost on anyone, it is lost on Evangelicals who can’t see the point, and the truth behind it. It might be lost on intellectual Latter-day Saints, though.

  14. Ana on March 17, 2005 at 12:10 pm

    Julie, you consistently give me wonderful ideas about what book to surprise my dad with for his next birthday, Father’s Day or Christmas. That’s no small feat! Thank you!

  15. Julie in Austin on March 17, 2005 at 12:32 pm

    Mark B.–

    (blushing furiously) Mea culpa. That said, might we not have a higher standard for the back of a book than a blog?

    Jim F.–

    I hope it didn’t sound as if I held Terryl responsible for the cost; I know he had nothing to do with it and won’t profit much from it. But that doesn’t change the fact that you have to shell out the cost of two hardbacks for this book. Waiting for the paperback is always risky business; you never know if it will happen. (That said, you can almost always find a discount. Public service announcement: try http://www.campusi.com.)

    Ben Huff-

    Yeah, but how many children (even adults) make the link from ‘respect creation’ to ‘stop driving an SUV’? Considering how full of practical suggestions we are about things like food storage, scripture study, etc., we certainly don’t do much to help people apply concepts related to stewardship over the earth.

    Keith–

    Very interesting quote. Thanks.

    john fowles-

    I hope it was clear that I didn’t think that Rigdon made Boggs’ statement justified, but rather that Boggs’ wasn’t pulling the rhetoric of extermination out of thin air, but responding in kind. (Notice that the plain reading of Rigdon’s words is advocacy of the genocide of Missourians.)

    john fowles-

    I wish that were true, but there is a definite trend of Saints wanting systemized teachings (think Mormon Doctrine and its (mis)use) that makes me think the Saints want religion.

  16. Clark on March 17, 2005 at 1:07 pm

    Ben, do you think Brigham Young is really as environmentalist as Hugh Nibley portrays him? He’s certainly not the “everything is for my use” kind of mindset that often plagues Utah. But I think Nibley tends to be using or mentioning Young rather than really trying to fairly represent Young. Further Nibley’s own views were partially shaped by his family history – especially logging in the redwoods. That’s not to downplay the important things Young did, especially in terms of planting foliage and bringing in animals.

    On the other hand I wonder how many environmentalists would share Brigham Young’s notion of what stewardship of the environment? To Young, from what I can see, the basic metaphor is a garden where we plant, harvest, and beautify for our needs. Most environmentalists worship at the altar of “nature untainted by man.” Thus doing things like planting trees in desert environments or bringing in foreign birds would be anathema to them.

    Having said all that I think a figure much more in line with more modern environmentalism would be Spencer W. Kimball. (Which also belies Julie’s comments about pulpit environmentalism) Yes Kimball was more the rarity than the rule. And, sad to say, he was largely ignored by the Saints. But he has many talks that discuss such issues – including some of his most famous talks.

  17. Julie in Austin on March 17, 2005 at 1:08 pm

    Clark-

    Givens makes reference to those Kimball talks. But, as I said above, I just don’t see the evidence of Saints *doing* anything about it.

  18. Aaron Brown on March 17, 2005 at 2:02 pm

    Great review, Julie.

    Threadjack: It occurs to me that I am less “in the know” about important LDS academic works than I used to be. The result of my no longer living in Utah, and having less time to devote to reading Mormon texts, no doubt. Someone at T&S should start a thread that deals with any and all up-and-coming LDS works that we should all be anticipating. Comments regarding certain works have been made here and there, but it would be great to see someone here enumerate what we should expect to see in print within the next 12 months. I’m sure there are a few bloggers here who would have valuable information to share in this regard.

    For example, Grant Underwood is involved in the Joseph Smith Papers project, and a definitive work on the Mountain Meadows Massacre by a BYU history prof (his name escapes me at the moment) is also in the works. What else can we expect in the world of Mormon Studies in the near future?

    Aaron B

  19. Gerald Jones on March 17, 2005 at 2:03 pm

    Just a plug for those of you interested in environmentalism/animal rights – my father, Gerald E. Jones published a book last year called ANIMALS AND THE CHURCH. You can read about it at the desertbook website.

    http://deseretbook.com/store/product?product_id=100065332

  20. Jed on March 17, 2005 at 2:23 pm

    Aaron (#18). The annual meetings of the Mormon History Association are a great place to learn about new projects.

    Ron Walker is the professor whose name escapes you. He is working on Mountain Meadows with Richard Turley, the managing director of the Family and Church History Department, and Glen Leonard of the Museum of Church History and Art.

    Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith is scheduled for publication with Knopf this coming October.

    Givens himself is working on a history of Mormon cultural arts. You can learn more about it at his webpage.

  21. Jed on March 17, 2005 at 2:30 pm

    Oh, Aaron, one more upcoming project.

    Signature is planning on publishing a three-volume history of Joseph Smith likely some time this year. Richard Van Wagoner is writing the first volume (NY period), Scott Kenney the second (Ohio), and Marti Bradley the third (Nauvoo). I haven’t heard how the authors are coming along. Maybe some one else knows.

  22. The Mirth on March 17, 2005 at 2:39 pm

    I thought the advantage of having a body was being able to have sex and children–physical children here on earth and somehow with our permanently fused spirit-flesh bodies to have spiritual children. Certainly that’s not a novel idea…is there somebody who refuted this idea and i’m unaware of it?

  23. Shawn Bailey on March 17, 2005 at 3:49 pm

    Julie: perhaps you should post your review under the listing at Amazon. It would undoubtedly help people that stumble onto the book there. Just a thought.

  24. Jared Jensen on March 24, 2005 at 7:18 am

    Umm . . .

    Did my comment violate a policy? I don’t recall questioning anyone’s righteousness or being overly offensive.

  25. Kaimi on March 24, 2005 at 8:27 am

    Jared,

    If you posted a comment over the weekend, it probably got eaten by our server meltdown on Monday. We went back to a database version from late Thursday. We’re working on recovering the material posted over the weekend.

  26. Adam Greenwood on July 2, 2006 at 3:35 pm

    Similarly, I can’t say that I remember hearing in Sunday School about the Mormon raiders who “torch[ed] grazing land, scatter[ed] their cattle, block[ed] routes, burn[ed] baggage trains, and otherwise imped[ed] the progress� of the federal army as they marched toward Utah territory.

    > Julie S., that may be because of the sociology of
    > the
    > wards you’ve been in. In the rural fringes of
    > Deseret
    > where I’ve spent most of my life, folks are proud
    > that
    > we made Uncle Sam blink without killing folks

    >I also note that the implied parallel
    > Rigdon’s speech:the Extermination order and
    >Mormon guerilla tactics:the US invasion of Utah
    >is false,
    > since the guerilla tactics were a response to the
    > invasion and not a cause of it.

  27. William Morris on July 7, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    Aaron B:

    The best resource, imo, is the list of recent and forthcoming books found at Mormon Wasp, a blog that I heartily endorse and consider to be a spiritual sister of A Motley Vision. ;-)