American Zion: A Review

If I were to ever write a single-volume history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I hope that it would turn out like Benjamin E. Park’s American Zion: A New History of Mormonism (Liveright, 2024). It is a very nuanced, insightful, and well-written take on Latter-day Saint history in the United States. It takes into account viewpoints from many different groups that have been a part of the Latter-day Saint movement over the years or who have split from the Church into their own faith communities. American Zion also builds upon a lot of important research that has happened since Matthew Bowman published The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith in 2012 (the previous reigning academic history of the Church). Five stars out of five, as far as I’m concerned.

I was particularly impressed with the extent to which women’s voices were included in the history. From the very start, Emma Hale Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and others are central characters. The story of Amy Brown Lyman in the Relief Society is told in more detail than I’ve heard before as a part of the experiences of women in the Church in the first half of the twentieth century. Belle Smith Spafford’s role in leading and reshaping the Relief Society according to the ideology of J. Reuben Clark, Jr. also receives a notable amount of emphasis. The extent of women’s involvement in the Church over the years is better reflected in this history of Mormonism than in many other histories focused on the same topic (as are the experiences of Latter-day Saints who are Black, indigenous, and other persons of color).

Another key area that has received inadequate coverage in the past that is a focus in American Zion is the efforts in recent decades by leaders of the Church to ensconce the institution in the Religious Right. This has allowed us to have a group work together with and protect each other, but it has also committed the institution to specific political agendas. It’s something that I was only dimly aware of as being something that was going on, but it was helpful in understanding the actions of Church leaders during my own lifetime.

There are, of course, limitations to a single volume history of the Church. As is clear from the title (and from the introduction to the book), this volume is deeply focused on the Church’s history in and interactions with the United States of America. Hence, it isn’t a comprehensive history of the Church that deals with its growth and establishment in other countries very much. In addition, the author writes from liberal Latter-day Saint worldview. While, frankly, I do as well (and hence, what he wrote fits well with how I see things), I also recognize that it might cause some Latter-day Saints to feel like it isn’t favorable enough to the institution. For both of these reasons, I would recommend reading American Zion alongside the Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days (and vice versa). These two works of history complement each other—American Zion provides alternative perspectives on important moments in our history and focuses heavily on the ideological and historiographical debates within the Church in the 20th century that Saints tends to overlook. It also is written for an academic audience. Saints brings in more international experiences and is written from an explicitly faithful perspective, targeting a broad audience in its literary style. They work well together to deliver a more complete picture of the Church’s history.

Benjamin E. Park’s American Zion: A New History of Mormonism (New York: Liveright, 2024) is an important summary of and contribution to the field of Latter-day Saint history. I recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the Latter-day Saints and how their community has arrived at its current state today. The rich bibliography also points to a wealth of sources from which to continue learning and researching. I highly recommend picking up a copy to read or to listen to (though if you do go the audiobook route, be prepared for some interesting pronunciations of Mormonisms like ensign, Manti, Bennion, Moroni, etc.).

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