A few years ago, Armand Mauss advised our readers that an essential texts list for Mormon studies probably included a dozen books (including Shipps, Bushman, Arrington, and Givens) as well as regular reading of four major periodicals. That remains a very good recommendation; however, for many Mormon studies newbies, that level of depth may not be an option. This post addresses the question, how should someone on a limited budget begin to explore Mormon studies?
Let’s start with our hypothetical person. She is intelligent and motivated, has very little background in Mormon studies, and wants to begin. She has access to libraries and the internet, and has some (but not unlimited) time to find sources. She has a total budget of $100 for the year. (She may be able to find an additional $100 next year; or maybe not. Don’t depend on it.) She has no Mormon studies books or other materials at present.
How can she get the most bang for her buck? Should she subscribe to Sunstone and Dialogue right away? How about BYU Studies? Should she drop by Sam Weller’s or Benchmark and spend it all on inexpensive used books — and if so, which ones exactly? Are there any immediate must-haves? (RSR? Shipps? Quinn? Angel and the Beehive? Mormonism in Transition? Prince?)
Which of these resources, if any, can she find for free online? Should she look at CD-Rom resources? Are there any that are easy (or not easy) to find through libraries? Should she go to symposia? (Which?)
Overall, how do you advise our Mormon studies newbie to spend her first (and perhaps only) $100? Please reply in one or two paragraphs. Your reply, along with others that I receive, will be posted on blog (with attribution).
I asked severl well-versed people for their thoughts, and received some very helpful responses. This is what they told me:
Ardis Parshall, independent Mormon historian and researcher extraordinaire; proprietress, Keepapitchinin:
My answer assumes that she really does want to explore Mormon Studies and not merely assemble an impressive shelf collection.
Since she has access to libraries, she should subscribe to none of the journals; she should read the journals at the library. Journals will help her keep current with ongoing discussions and very rare new discoveries — but no one year’s worth of any one journal, or all the journals together, will give her any useful depth or background in Mormon Studies. Nor should she be in any rush to buy books, as long as she does have access to a good library (presumably with good interlibrary loan access). She should start reading the books Mauss recommends, and back issues of journals, and the other materials that such a reading list leads her to depending on how her interests begin to form. When she discovers by repeated returns to the same book, or by the frustration of having to wait until Monday when the library reopens in order to check that half-remembered idea, then she’ll know where to invest her limited funds.
Rather, she should hang onto her $100, and dispense it a dollar or two at a time in photocopies and printouts of articles and chapters that she responds to in her initial reading, and that she knows she will want to return to again and again, or that seem so challenging or so essential that she can’t do without them. This way she’ll build a file of materials that are really valuable, skipping the puff and the background that fill up most books and all journals. She should also buy a good notebook and pen, and keep a reading log with complete bibliographic citations and brief notes on every Mormon studies item she reads. *That* will be more helpful and more impressive than any collection of books.
Mary Ellen Robertson, symposium coordinator, Sunstone
My forays into Mormon Studies began when I discovered a gently used copy of Claudia Bushman’s anthology, Mormon Sisters, at a used bookstore in Logan, UT. I’ve spent a lot more than $100 on my library in the years since! And I was enough of a dweeb to ask for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism for Christmas one year.
My recommendations would be:
Get a feel for which topics in Mormon Studies are of the most interest. Theology? Scriptural studies? Women’s studies? Sociology of Religion? Church history? Biography? It will help to narrow the scope of the search.
Before spending any money, browse at libraries, used bookstores, and online to see where foundational sources are available. [If you're in the Intermountain West, moving sales, garage sales, and Deseret Industries can be great sources for books].
Search the Sunstone archives at www.sunstonemagazine.com. Most of the content is free. Issues 1-147 of Sunstone magazine have been digitized and scanned into our online database, as well as thousands of audio files from past symposiums. Audio content older than 4 years is free to download. It’s a wealth of information about Mormon Studies that you can load into an iPod, mp3 player, or computer and take with you anywhere.
I’ll let the other contributors weigh in on what to purchase for one’s budding Mormon Studies library. Anthologies give a lot of bang for the buck–Mormon Sisters, Sister Saints, Contemporary Mormonism, and Women and Authority come to mind.
Fortunately, the back issues of JMH, Dialogue and BYU Studies are available for free online. I would do a selected reading of the must read back catalogue, and target the $100 elsewhere. A list of must read articles would be a fun excercise. A while back I posted a list of four books (http://bycommonconsent.com/2008/06/17/four-books-about-mormonism-redux/). Those only add up to $80 (depending on how much you pay for Alexander’s volume), so I would add RSR for a total of five:
The Democratization of American Christianity
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints
Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930
Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball
As I mentioned in that post, I think this list has a lot of weaknesses. Reading a diary of an early Mormon has a great impact on our perceptions of these people and their lived religion – perhaps the diaries of Patty Sessions, Helen Mar Kimball Whitney or Charles Ora Card would be a good place to start. It can be slow going, but it is definitely worth it. Two things that get somewhat short-shrifted are Women and Mormon cosmology. Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society, really is a great starting place for the Relief Society.
Armand Mauss, Sociologist and author of All Abraham’s Children
You don’t say whether or not your hypothetical newbie has a college education or LDS upbringing. Assuming that she has both, here would be my recommendation for spending $100 :
1) Get a copy of the latest (1992) edition of Allen & Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints(maybe still $10, but at least it should be available in a decent library). Read that first — twice.
2) Get personal copies of the DVDs for the back-issues of Dialogue and the Journal of Mormon History. Read first the book reviews from all the back-issues starting with perhaps 1980. Make a list of the books that seem the most comprehensive in their coverage of (a) the period from 1880 on and (b) the seemingly most important issues in LDS history and culture (polygamy, women’s roles, race relations, historicity of LDS scriptures, doctrinal development, etc.). Use that list to build a personal bibliography.
3) Get a library card (or college library privileges) at a large institutional library and start reading the books on one’s personal bibliography in whatever order most keeps the appetite whetted. During the reading of any book, check the indexes on the two DVDs to see what articles have been written on related subjects, and read those. Also, select the Search function on the current Sunstone website to look for other articles related to the book currently being read.
All of that can be done for $100 or less, assuming one has a decent computer. Spend at least 20 hours a week in this enterprise, and in a year you will be more knowledgeable about LDS history and culture than 90% of the Saints and their leaders. After that, go back to LDS apologetic literature, including selected works produced under the auspices of the Maxwell Institute, plus BYU Studies. At that point, our hypothetical newbie will be in a better position to recognize which apologetic works will stand scrutiny and which ones won’t.
Anyway, that’s what I would suggest, given the limitations you placed on our hypothetical situation and newbie.
David King Landrith, President, Fawn Brodie Appreciation Society (New England Chapter), founder, Mormon Mentality:
Saints without Halos, by Leonard Arrington & Davis Bitton
Neither Black nor White, by Lester Bush and Armand Mauss
Dialogues with Myself, by Eugene England
Faithful History, ed. George Smith
Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon, by Dan Vogel
“The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844” by D. Michael Quinn
“The King Follet Sermon: A Newly Amalgamated Text” by Stan Larson
$13.57 The Mountain Meadows Massacre, by Juanita Brooks
Morris Thurston, Orange County Miller-Eccles Study Group
The person you describe needs to read some general histories to get started. To understand Mormonism you have to try to understand its founding prophet and the place to start is Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. This is one to be purchased and highlighted as you read—the current Amazon price is only $12.89. Next you need to get a general understanding of the pioneer Utah period, and here it is more difficult to find the perfect book. My favorite remains Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom. Even though it is dated and focuses on economic history, it still will give you a good understanding of the pioneer era.
Where to go from there depends on the interest of the student, and many of the good reads can be borrowed from a library. I tend to favor history. Mike Quinn’s Orgins of Power and Extensions of Power are fascinating reads and cover huge swaths of ground. Prince and Wright’s David O. McKay is a page-turning look at the functioning of the Church during the mid-20th Century; one that is unlikely to be duplicated for other recent periods because of a lack of primary source data.
Having read some of these general books, you might then want to turn to more focused books and articles. For example, If polygamy interests you, there’s George Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamyand Richard Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy. If you want to understand Emma Smith (which surprisingly most LDS do not) you need to read Newell and Avery’s Mormon Enigma. If the Mormon conflicts with Native Americans interests you, there’s Peterson’s Utah’s Black Hawk War. I would pick something that interests you and get into it in more depth.
There are lots of good anthologies of articles out there. I enjoy reading about some of those folks who we often dismiss as having “falling along the wayside.” Two good anthologies are Sillito and Staker’s Mormon Mavericks and Launius and Thatcher’s Differing Visions. An interesting anthology on Joseph Smith is Waterman’s The Prophet Puzzle.
I like to browse past articles from The Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue and BYU Studies. The first two have CDs containing the articles – if budget is really a constraint I imagine they are available in some libraries. I’d browse the table of contents and download ten or so articles of interest from each of them to your computer hard drive to be read at leisure.
I also like to download presentations made at Sunstone and Mormon History Association conferences to my MP3 player. I can then listen to them while I’m working out or in the car. It is amazing how many of these you can get through if you just make a habit of doing it on a daily basis. It’s much cheaper than attending the conferences, particularly if you don’t live where the conferences are held. Be sure to get an MP3 player that has a bookmark function. The iPods didn’t have it when I got mine, so I have a Creative Zen.
It is fun to attend conferences because it allows you to see the scholars who are writing about Mormonism and rub shoulders with other students of similar interests. I love the MHA conferences, but they are too expensive for the person with the budget you describe. Utah Valley University has an excellent annual conference on Mormon Studies that is absolutely free. Some areas may have study groups that you can join. In Southern California we have the Miller Eccles Study Group that meets once a month in Orange County and LA County on successive nights. We bring in speakers from all over, most of whom have recently published cutting edge books. It is a good way to meet and hear from the authors. The cost is a voluntary $10, but the amount is flexible if you can’t afford it. Also, Southern California now has the Claremont Mormon Studies Program and they provide regular free conferences on various aspects of Mormonism.
When I started really studying Mormonism in college there were few “objective” resources available – not much beyond the first issues of Dialogue. Now there are so many resources that it is difficult to know where to begin. A good dilemma.
Robin Jensen, Mormon historian:
Mormon studies encompasses a vast array of fields, expertise, and scholarly works. I don’t know of anyone who claims proficiency in all facets of Mormon studies. I only claim a bit of experience in manuscript sources created during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Thus the question of how to start is a good one. Unfortunately I can only address the historical bent of Mormon studies. In order to answer the question, I could give a list of 10 books or so, but instead I would recommend steering this individual toward resources that could help her find works herself. With easy access to libraries, I would advise our hypothetical person check out two books from her closest library: Mormon History by Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whittaker, and James B. Allen <<http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/87rwf5kk9780252026195.html>> and Excavating Mormon Pasts: “The New Historiography of the Last Half Century” by Newell G. Bringhurst and Lavina Fielding Anderson <<http://www.koffordbooks.com/mormon_pasts.shtml>>. Not billed as the most riveting works produced by scholars of Mormon studies, these resources provide the critical Mormon studies historiography. With this background, our hypothetical “newbie” can make her own book decisions based on her interests, aptitude, or monetary ability (checking Abebooks, ebay, half.com, amazon, etc.). I should also mention the Studies in Mormon History resource that lists books and articles according to subject and author available here. <<http://mormonhistory.byu.edu/>> This tool has the added benefit of searching by author, subject, etc. Too often people recommend Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling to an individual interested in early Mormon history, when that person would have actually appreciated Emma Smith’s viewpoint of the early history, necessitating a recommendation of Newell and Avery’s Mormon Enigma.
There is an online growth of interested individuals in Mormon Studies. The Bloggernacle brings together many individuals interested in Mormon history. I don’t know that I would recommend immediately subscribing to scholarly journals; the financial commitment might be too much on the limited budget (I’m cheap that way). Any of the major research libraries in Utah should have the journals on their shelves, and many of the larger university libraries throughout the country carry subscriptions to these journals. A good place to start is with back issues of historical journals available online. The Journal of Mormon Studies is available at the University of Utah’s website <<http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/browse.php?CISOROOT=/jmh>>, BYU Studies is available at the BYU library website <<http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm4/browse.php?CISOROOT=%2Fbyustudies>>, Sunstone is available at their website <<https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/magazine/index.php>>, and Dialogue is available at University of Utah website <<http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/browse.php?CISOROOT=/dialogue>> (and all back issues are available for sale on a dvd for 40 dollars from Dialogue’s website). Several important publishing houses dealing with Mormon studies are available online. Books published by the University of Illinois Press are searchable (with limited view) from Google Books <<http://books.google.com>> Signature Books offers a wonderful subset of their books online <<http://www.signaturebookslibrary.org/>> Mike Hunter at BYU has done wonderful work in compiling a database of Mormon related websites << http://lib.byu.edu/sites/mormonstudies/>>. And one of the best places to network and let the enthusiasm spread for Mormon studies is at conferences. If our hypothetical individual is lucky she will find herself close to a university that sponsors conferences with no fee. The larger conferences, such as MHA<<http://mhahome.org/>>, Sunstone<<https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/symposium.html>>, FAIR <<http://fairlds.org>> (which has a tremendous online presence), and JWHA<<http://jwha.info/>>, require a fee for registration and travel funds to get to the conference (MHA and JWHA normally choose a city of significant Mormon history connection for their annual conferences). These larger conferences—while akin to Christmas morning for a six-year old—are difficult to attend due to the financial limitations. More and more conferences are posting audio recordings of their sessions online (such as Sunstone). I can only assume that more conferences will do this.
Despite the length of the above paragraphs, I have only scratched the surface. It’s an exciting time in Mormon studies. Online resources are growing exponentially and an enthusiastic individual can glean much from the internet. A caution must be stated, however. While many things are a google-click away, it should not be assumed that all resources are available online (or the obvious statement that not all things on the internet are reliable or accurate). Archivists are doing the best they can to scan original documents to post online, but a minuscule amount of documents are actually available in this format. Nothing can compare or compete to primary research in a repository. Too often “interested” individuals are scared to do primary research thinking that is the role of scholars. I would highly recommend anyone interested in Mormon history to visit the LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City if possible or any other major repository of Mormon documents (they’re more common than you think. See this book for a launching point: <<http://www.amazon.com/Mormon-Americana-Sources-Collections-Monographs/dp/0842523154/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1245715386&sr=8-3>>). Having done primary research provides a depth and level of understanding achieved by few. Knowing the difficulties of research makes for the reading of research’s results that much more enjoyable.