Category: Book Reviews

Imperial Zions

Latter-day Saints in the 19th century existed at a paradoxical intersection of American history.  When they fled to Alta California to settle the Great Basin, they were refugees fleeing from the United States.  Defiantly practicing plural marriage in the face of federal laws that opposed the principle, they came to face a heavy-handed effort by Americans to colonize their community of Deseret to match the broader American culture.  At the same time, they were colonizers in their own right, settling land claimed by other peoples for hundreds of years by dispossessing the Native Americans, while also launching a missionary effort into the Pacific Ocean.  In Imperial Zions: Religion, Race, and Family in the American West and the Pacific, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto explores these paradoxes and how the Latter-day Saints (Euro-American, Native American, and Pacific Islander) navigated them. In many ways, Imperial Zions itself sits at the intersection of several landmark studies of Latter-day Saint history, synthesizing them together while building on that foundation.  I felt like it brought together W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color (Oxford University Press, 2015), Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females (Knopf, 2017), Darren Parry’s The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History (BCC Press, 2019), and Hokulani Aikau’s A Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) together in one place to have a conversation and work out how they all fit together in a larger…

Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints

The Maxwell Institute at BYU recently published Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, and it is a fantastic journey into early Christianity geared specifically to Latter-day Saints.  Through a collection of 14 essays dealing with topics ranging from praxis and worship to scripture and theology, the key elements of Christianity during its first several centuries (and beyond) are addressed in an accessible way.  The discussions are punctuated by a large collection of artwork produced by early Christians, spread throughout the book in beautiful detail. When approaching Latter-day Saint writings about early Christianity, I’m generally concerned that it will be an effort to convince people that the ancient Church was identical to the modern one in a polemic effort to reinforce the traditional apostasy-restoration narrative.  Ancient Christians quickly dispatched that concern, with Jason R. Combs discussing this at length in the introduction.  He notes that: “rather than dismissing entire epochs as corrupt … today we work to understand ancient Christians on their own terms.”  He added that: “We cannot assume that today’s Church is a template for what the first-century Church must have been, or vice versa.  For that reason, in this book, our authors acknowledge the differences between ancient Christians and Latter-day Saints without automatically assuming such differences to be evidence of apostasy.”  In this way, Ancient Christians both compliments and expands on some of the concepts discussed in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy (Oxford University…

Mormon Women at the Crossroads

Caroline Kline’s Mormon Women at the Crossroads: Global Narratives and the Power of Connectedness (University of Illinois Press, 2022) is an important contribution to studies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 21st century. The book is based on a series of oral interviews that Kline did with women of color in Mexico, Botswana, and the United States, both presenting excerpts from those interviews as well as analysis.  The introduction begins by discussing how her initial lens of gender equality proved insufficient in understanding the stories, perspectives, and priorities of the women she interviewed.  Recognizing that overlapping identities of race, social class, sexual identity, etc. shape people in different ways, Kline strives to capture and represent the voices of these women through focusing on the stories they wanted to tell.  In her efforts to analyze the interviews through their lenses and priorities rather than strictly through her own lenses and priorities, Kline came to focus on the perspective of non-oppressive connectedness, a worldview that blends elements of female empowerment and liberation with a broader focus on fostering positive and productive relationships.  The first three chapters focus on the women interviewed in each of the three different regions (Mexico, Botswana, and the United States) while the fourth is an effort at bringing together and synthesizing theological reflections from the women who were interviewed, focused on a theology of abundance.  All told, the book is very rich with insight…

Grass Roots in Mexico

Grass Roots in Mexico: Stories of Pioneering Latter-day Saints by F. LaMond Tullis (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2021) was one of the books I was most excited to see on the lists of books coming out in 2022.  Released in early July, Grass Roots in Mexico offers an important glimpse into the Church’s history in Mexico.  The first two chapters give a brief overview of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico.  These are followed by 19 chapters of short biographies or vignettes of Latter-day Saints in Mexico.  The selection includes a range of different people—from indigenous converts to Euro-American colonists from Utah, both men and women, relatively well-known stories (i.e., Rafael Monroy and Vicente Morales), and some about people who are largely unknown.  The book is not, by any means, comprehensive, but it does provide snapshots of various experiences of Latter-day Saints in Mexico. One thing to know going in is that the book does have a devotional dimension to it.   It is a history of the Church written by and primarily for faithful members.  Within the vignettes (the 19 short biographies), the majority of them follow a pattern of focusing on conversion stories followed by brief overview of some way in which they contributed to the Church and then a note on how many descendants they have in the Church and what high-profile Church callings those descendants have held.  A few chapters…

Method Infinite: On Masonry and Mormonism

The recently-published Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration by Cheryl L. Bruno, Joe Steve Swick III, and Nicholas S. Literski (Greg Kofford Books, 2022) is an insightful and information-packed volume about a plethora of possible points of contact between Freemasonry and the Restoration of the Church of Christ.   While many studies of Masonry and the Latter Day Saint movement focus primarily on temple rituals, Method Infinite covers the entirety of Joseph Smith’s life and follows the influence of Masonic ideas and rituals into some of the major branches of Mormonism that emerged in the aftermath of the Prophet’s death.  The book starts with a brief history of Freemasonry and its existence in the early United States of America, then discusses how Joseph Smith grew up in an environment saturated with Freemasonry.  It points to ideas that were being discussed or practiced by Freemasons and compares these with strains of Latter Day Saint thought and action, suggesting that Joseph Smith saw himself as the restorer of the pure form of Masonry from the outset and that he viewed the Freemasonry practiced at the time as an apostate or spurious form of Masonry.  Evidences for this idea that are pointed out have to do with the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, the way various organizations within or connected to the Church were organized, specific teachings of Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders, the ways that the City…

Daughter of Mormonism

Susa Young Gates was an interesting and important personality, and Romney Burke’s recently-published biography Susa Young Gates: Daughter of Mormonism (SLC: Signature Books, 2022) provides a well-researched glimpse into her life. Perhaps the best-known daughter of President Brigham Young, Susa led a life as a prominent figure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  She would go on to serve missions in Hawaii, write prolifically about the Church, serve prominently on the National Council of Women in the United States and also participate in the International Council of Women as a feminist advocate, serve in the general boards of both the Young Lady’s Mutual Improvement Association and the Relief Society and edit publications for both, teach courses at universities in Utah, and raise a family with children who would go on to make their own significant contributions in the Church.  She could also be outspoken, overbearing, and tactless in pursuing her goals, which could cause her trouble, but also showed herself to be very capable in getting things done and in rubbing shoulders with the powerful and famous. Burke’s biography follows her life chronologically at first, then shifts to addressing different aspects of her life and career topically by chapters, then returns to discussing the twilight of her lifetime at the end of the book in a more chronological fashion.  The book is meticulously researched, drawing on a treasure trove of documents that record her life, particularly from a…

Saints, Volume 3: A Review

Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 3: Boldy, Nobly, and Independent, 1893-1955 is a fantastic addition to the Church’s official histories.  Picking up after the ending of the previous volume at the dedication of the Salt Lake City Temple, this volume begins with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and wraps up with the dedication of the Bern, Switzerland Temple in 1955.  It covers a time of growth and transition for the Church and discusses shifts and decisions at Church headquarters in Utah that are significant in shaping the institution today; expansion in Europe, Central America, South America, and Asia; the development of the welfare programs of the Church during the Great Depression; and the experiences of Church members in the two world wars.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this volume and look forward to its general release tomorrow, April 22. The writing style of the book is very readable, continuing the approach of being written in the style of a novel with focus characters throughout.  In the early parts of the book, Susa Gates continues to be a central character, along with her daughter Leah Dunford and son-in-law John Widtsoe.  Along with these people, other individuals from Church History are used as the ensemble of characters for the book, such as B. H. Roberts, Heber J. Grant, Hirini Whaanga, and others.  As time passes, the narrative shifts its focus onto other individuals, including…

Loving the Book of Mormon Prophets without Accepting Their Prejudices: A Review of “The Book of Mormon for the Least of These, Volume 1”

A while back, a friend sent me an uncomfortable text. She is not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but someone had given her daughter the old illustrated Book of Mormon Stories book, and her daughter came across the passage in Second Nephi when Nephi narrates that Laman and Lemuel’s descendants are cursed because of their wickedness and become a dark-skinned people. My friend texted, “We were wondering if there is some context missing that would make it seem less racist?” It’s a troubling passage for me and many other readers, but I finally had words to formulate a response, and for that, I can thank Fatimah Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming’s wonderful commentary The Book of Mormon for the Least of These: 1 Nephi – Words of Mormon, which the authors dedicated to “those who seek God and work for justice.” In this volume, Salleh and Hemming show a deep love and respect for the individuals in the Book of Mormon while also examining the challenges they experienced and how those may have colored some of their own perspectives, as in the passage referenced above. They invite us to not only consider the voices we hear and events we see but also those we do not: “Who is present but unheard? Who is suffering and why?” But they also invite us to question the perspectives of the narrators: “What are the assumptions this person…

Margarito Bautista – A Forgotten Revolutionary in Latter-day Saint History

Elisa Eastwood Pulido’s biography, The Spiritual Evolution of Margarito Bautista (Oxford University Press, 2020), provides a fascinating glimpse into one of the more significant but controversial figures in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico.  An important founding figure among Mexican Latter-day Saints, Bautista was a successful missionary who helped to spread the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Mexico, Arizona, and Utah; the father of family history efforts among Mexican Latter-day Saints; the most prolific indigenous author of Mormon literature to date; and a ceaseless advocate of empowering Mexican Latter-day Saints.  Yet, despite his promise as a charismatic teacher and leader in the Church, his criticism of Euro-American leaders of the Church for their paternalism born of racial prejudice and staunch loyalty to the vision of Mormonism he was taught when he converted in 1901 (including ideals of communalism and plural marriage) led to his ultimate excommunication from both the Church and from a splinter movement in Mexico known as the Third Convention.  His efforts within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Third Convention, and his own fundamentalist Mormon group mark him as a worthy candidate for a biography and Elisa Eastwood Pulido delivers beautifully in sharing his remarkable story and life. The biography is billed as a spiritual biography, following Bautista’s religious life and thought as he flirted with Methodism and then journeyed through various…

Let’s Talk about the Book of Abraham–a Review

Kerry Muhlstein’s Let’s Talk about the Book of Abraham Is the latest entry in a series that Deseret Book has been publishing to address controversial or touchy topics in the Church.  Based on my experience with Brittany Chapman Nash’s Let’s Talk About Polygamy (the previous volume in this series of books), I had expected something like the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press, with a scholarly discussion of the topic.  Muhlstein’s work does indeed follow this pattern, presenting a concise, readable, and informative in discussing the Book of Abraham.  Unlike the Very Short Introduction series, though, it is written from an overtly faithful perspective and is apologetic in its orientation.  It is a good, fast-paced introduction for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the ongoing discussion of this controversial entry in the Pearl of Great Price. The book is divided into three sections.  The first explores the history of the Book of Abraham, looking at Abraham, the papyrus scrolls that Joseph Smith would later purchase, the translation project, and eventual publication of the book.  The second section explores a series of questions about the Book of Abraham, including questions about the process of translating the Book of Abraham, the facsimiles and explanations offered in the published Book of Abraham, and historical evidences that align with the contents of the Book of Abraham.  The final section is small (less than 10 pages) and briefly…

John Sillito’s B. H. Roberts: A Life in the Public Arena (book review)

In traditional Christianity, there are significant figures known as the Early Church Fathers who are noted as influential Christian theologians and writers who established the intellectual and doctrinal foundations of Christianity as we know it today.  While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is still a form of Christianity and is indebted to these early Christian thinkers, Mormonism is its own movement and I’ve often pondered on who we would consider to be the Church Fathers (or Parents) of the Latter-day Saints.  Certainly many of the presidents of the Church fall in this category—all three Joseph Smiths, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff among them.  Beyond that, however, who would be considered a part of that category?  Certainly Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, Eliza R. Snow, James E. Talmage, and Bruce R. McConkie stand out as candidates.  Emmaline B. Wells and John A. Widtsoe come to mind as well.  It’s probably no surprise to anyone who has been reading my writing for a bit, however, that the first candidate I would suggest is B. H. Roberts. Over the course of the almost 90 years that have passed since his death, Elder Brigham Henry Roberts (1857-1933) has received the high praise of being called Mormonism’s most eminent intellectual,[1] the best officially accepted theologian that Mormonism has known,[2] one of our most important historians,[3] and the most prolific and most effective defender of the Church.[4]  Imagine my delight, then, to find…

So You Want to Talk About Polygamy?

I’ve long had an interest in understanding how and why my ancestors chose to practice polygamy.  During my time at Utah State University, I spent most of my spare time reading Mormon Studies materials and went on a polygamy binge at one point.  While reading Kathryn Daynes’s More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1890 during some downtime in the laboratory, a visiting biologist from Pakistan saw what I was reading and asked if I was preparing to take a second wife.  I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, so explained that I was not and tried to steer him away from his joking about picking up a second wife himself while in Utah. While it’s perhaps understandable that someone who was from the opposite side of the world and a culture that does nominally accept polygamy would have some misunderstandings, it seems like many Latter-day Saints also have little grasp of polygamy beyond that it happened in the Church in the past and struggle with what they do know (myself included for most of my life).  For example, I had a mission companions who swore up and down that it was only practiced to support widows and the poor, but the husbands never had children with the plural wives (as a descendant of a couple second wives, I’m living proof that he was wrong).  Another mission companion was visibly shaken for days after an investigator talked…

Hear the words of the Church’s first lady — a review of Jennifer Reeder’s *First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith*

“I have many more things I could like to write but have not time.” Thus wrote Emma Smith in a letter to her husband, Joseph Smith. I wish she did have the time! Jennifer Reeder’s biography of Emma Smith — First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith — left me wanting even more of Emma’s words. Emma Smith was a remarkable woman, and Reeder clearly feels a deep affection for her subject, despite their chronological separation of roughly one and a half centuries. Reeder isn’t blind to Emma’s flaws, but neither does she judge. Despite the fact that Emma left much less of a written record than her spouse (“Emma did not leave a journal or even much correspondence”), Reeder plumbs the depths of what record there is to paint a rich portrait — in Emma’s own words wherever possible — of a woman who was the “first” in many roles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the title of the book implies. Rather than a traditional, origins-to-legacy biography, Reeder opts for a thematic approach, taking the reader through each of  Emma’s major roles in her life and in the early Church: her marriage to Joseph Smith, her mothering both of her own children and serving as a mother figure to many other children in the community, her business experience and political activism, her roles as the first “presidentess” of the Church’s women’s organization (the…

Review: 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction

I think one of the most repeated refrains I see in comment threads in the bloggernacle is that our Church meetings generally lack the vibrancy and ability to deeply engage with the scriptures and ideas in ways that can stimulate interest and growth.  As Terryl L. Givens put it in a recent interview, “one of the main reasons we’re losing people is that we’re boring them to death.”[1]  The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship is one organization that is working to provide resources that provide thought-provoking discussions, deep thought, and spiritual growth to members of the Church.  One of their most ambitious projects this year has been the production of a series of short books discussing the Book of Mormon—the Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon series.  I recently finished Terryl Givens’s 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, and really enjoyed the experience of reading it. I suspect that the purpose of the series is partly two-fold—to excite people about the richness of our scriptural cannon and to introduce the work of some of the great minds at the Institute’s disposal to a broader audience. (Though certainly not all of those great minds—I was disappointed to realize that Philip Barlow would not, in fact, be giving us a 467 page discussion of Amaleki’s 18 verses, for example.)[2]  Terryl Givens is certainly a heavy-weight hitter in that category, having published significant volumes about both the Book of…

Review: Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time

Michael Austin’s book, Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time is a quick, insightful and though-provoking read about the Book of Mormon.  The book began its life as a series of blog posts at By Common Consent, documenting some of Austin’s thoughts as he read the Book of Mormon in-depth for the first time in decades (after spending a significant amount of time during those decades focused on literary criticism and Biblical studies).  The book, published by the By Common Consent Press earlier this year, takes the form of a collection of short essays that, as put by the author, are “not scholarly articles, or even well-thought-out personal essays; rather, they are the record of a deeply personal experiment upon the word.”[1] A bit of background on the author: Michael Austin is a former English professor who currently serves as an academic administrator in Evansville, Indiana.  He has published several books and articles, with the subjects of political discourse in the United States of America and literary criticism of the Bible and Mormon Literature being some of the notable topics.  A few of his published books include Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford Books, Inc., 2014), That’s Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing (Prometheus, 2012), and Reading the World: Ideas that Matter (W. W. Norton & Company).  He also has written for the By Common…

Saints, Volume 2: A Review

The second volume of the Church’s official history, Saints: No Unhallowed Hand, 1846-1893 was released this Wednesday.  I just finished blitzing through the book and wanted to share my thoughts on the volume.  These official histories walk a tightrope, balancing a lot of goals at one time.  This volume, for example, covers approximately 50 years of well-documented history in less than 700 pages in ways that are open, accurate, and truthful while remaining faith promoting and doing so in an engaging and readable manner.  That’s a tall order to achieve all those requirements at one time.  Having finished reading it, however, I can say that I am pleased overall with the end results and enjoyed reading the book. Volume 2 of the series covers the years 1846-1893.  This is the time period when Latter-day Saints left the Midwestern United States en masse and settled the arid region of the Great Basin.  Missionaries went abroad throughout the world and converts worked to immigrate to Utah to join their fellow Saints, make the desert blossom as a rose, and build temples.  Along the way, the difficult issue of plural marriage challenged the faithful, both because it was difficult to embrace the principle and because of stringent opposition from the federal government of the United States of America.  The book explores these narratives through the eyes of individuals who lived at those times, with individuals like Louisa Barnes Pratt, George Q. Cannon, Jane…

Pagans and Christians in the City (1/2)

Steven Smith (who has occasionally favored us with comments here at T&S) is not the first to describe our current cultural moment as a new conflict between pagans and Christians. As Smith describes at length in Pagans and Christians in the City, others, on both sides of the divide, have done so using the same language. Smith does argue quite convincingly, however, that this new conflict of pagan vs. Christian is not merely an apt metaphor, but a sober description of the American religious landscape.

Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith, a Review

Cover of Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith

Back in June, Clark Goble mentioned that he was going to write a review of Thomas G. Alexander’s new biography Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith. It’s one of many misfortunes among the great losses of Clark passing away that we never had the opportunity to read the review he was planning on writing about the book. As a direct result of Clark’s discussion of the biography, I read the book and thought I might share some thoughts. Thomas G. Alexander was the Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor of Western American History at Brigham Young University. Along with an illustrious career in teaching, he has published several works that are important to Latter-day Saint history, including the groundbreaking Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints 1890-1830 as well as Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff and Utah, the Right Place: The Official Centennial History. Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith was written by Alexander as a part of the Oklahoma Western Biographies series—a collection of short biographies written from published sources. The biography is a fast-paced overview of Brigham Young’s life, covering key events from his childhood, his conversion to the early Latter Day Saint movement, and onward through his time as the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The heaviest emphasis is on his time in Utah Territory, both during his tenure as territorial governor and…

Ethics and Mormon missionary work: what memoirs tell us

They are still teenagers, 18 or 19, and are sent out to change the lives of adults. The boys dress up like CIA-agents, the girls like old-school women. They typically have no clue about the national, regional, social, cultural, religious, or familial identities of the people they try to interest in their alien sect. They pretend they are only adding to the truth people already have but have no idea which truths these people have. They work within a compelling frame of rules, goals, figures, and reports. Therefore they would do anything to drag a non-member to church on Sunday, even a drunk on the bus or a weirdo met on the way to church. If need be, they break up families to reach their goal, flippantly calling it getting wet, getting white, dunking, plunging, splashing, or putting on the Elvis suit—even if they know in their heart the candidate is not ready. They call their targets “investigators”—often loners or messed up people who let the missionaries in and who loosely acquiesce to lessons they vaguely understand. These targets are precious souls, ailing, but no patients for inexperienced teenagers. When genuine seekers or religious enquirers are eager to chat with the missionaries, the dissonance is awkward. The teenagers use testimony to dodge reasonable questions and objections. They repel the more thoughtful investigators by prematurely requiring commitments to baptism. They see Satan in the critic. It’s “us versus them.” They have…