Essential Texts Again

In December Greg posted the very interesting question of what the five essential texts in Mormon studies are. The thread generated a lot of comments. A follow-up thread also got some comments.

I just went through and tallied votes thus far. The results are interesting. Besides being a potential catalog of essential texts, the results also illustrate the broad range of ideas that people consider “Mormon studies”. A total of eight (sort of) texts received more than one vote.

The eight texts to receive more than one vote so far (with the number of votes listed in parentheses) are:

R. Bushman, Joseph Smith (4)
Quinn, Magic World View (3)
Nibley, Approaching Zion (3)
Givens, By the Hand (2)
Barlow, Mormons and the Bible (2)
McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (2)
Sorenson, Ancient American Setting (2)
The Standard Works (2) (I list these here as one choice, not as separate books; both votes for them included all of the standard works).

In addition, there were a number of texts which received either one vote or “half a vote” (meaning that some said “either x or y” for a particular slot). (Note that this was counted as a “half” vote even where a single slot was split between three or four books).

These were:

1 vote each for:

Arrington, Mormon Experience
Shipps, Mormonism
McMurrin, Theological Foundations
Arrington, Great Basin
Nibley, An Approach to the BOM
Nibley, The World and the Prophets
Firmage & Mangrum, Zion in the Courts
Alexander, Mormonism in Transition
Underwood, Millenial World
LaSueur, Missouri War
Ricks & Welch, Allegory
Brodie, No Man
Quinn, Mormon Heirarchy
Compton, In Sacred Loneliness
Palmer, Insider’s View of Mormon Origins
Robinson & Blomberg, How Wide
Lectures on Faith
Teaching of the prophet Joesph Smith
Discourses of Brigham Young

Half a vote each for:

Roberts, Mormon Doctrine of Deity
Roberts, Seventies’ Course
Roberts, The Truth, The Way,The Life
Roberts, Documentary History
Roberts, Comprehensive History
C. Bushman, Mormon Sisters
Beecher & Anderson, Sisters in Spirit
Hanks, Women and Authority
Derr, Women of Covenant

That is the tally to date, reflecting the views of 43 commenters so far. But why stop there? Let’s keep the discussion going. I encourage readers to weigh in with their top five. The compilation above may be a useful reference tool for readers deciding on their choices, though voters are free to add own new choices as they vote. Let’s continue this valuable project of finding out what the essential texts in Mormon studies are (or at least, what they are perceived to be)!


1. Quick note on methodology (or lack thereof): I tallied votes where it was evident that someone was voting for a work. The threads discussing these works also contain lots of random musings by different commenters about different works. These musings were not included as votes in this tally. The dividing line between a “vote” and a “musing” was subjectively determined by me as I read the comments (though I thought that the division was generally pretty clear). Also, instances where people who had alread voted, and then began commenting on another book, were not counted as votes unless there was a clear recission of a prior choice.

2. Quick note on titles: Rather than retype lots of full titles, I generally entered authors names and full titles where short, and author and (hopefully) obviously identifying abbreviations where the titles were longer. Full titles of these books can generally be found in the previous threads on this topic.

24 comments for “Essential Texts Again

  1. January 8, 2004 at 6:30 pm

    I didn’t contribute to the earlier threads, so I’ll add my votes here.

    The five books that, looking back, I personally found most interesting and enlightening at the time that I read them would be: (1) Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism; (2) O’Dea, The Mormons; (3) Brodie, No Man Knows My History; (4) Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon; and (5) Nibley, The World and the Prophets.

    I’m surprised O’Dea wasn’t on anyone else’s list–it’s a classic that still gives insight into what makes Mormonism tick despite being published almost fifty ago. In fact, every book on my list has been out at least 20 years–either the genre has stalled or I’m not reading enough new books!

    I will also go the extra mile and give you a few disappointments from my Mormon Studies reading. (1) Sorenson, Ancient American Setting. I gave up after about 100 pages, I thought it was nothing but hypotheticals and speculation (and this was back when I was 100% faithful and 0% critical). (2) Quinn, Magic World View. I really like this book, but on the other hand I have to say it doesn’t add up to anything concrete. Or maybe I have been infected with Nate’s critique of directionlessness in Mormon historiography. (3) Nibley, Tales of Ancient Egypt (or whatever his Egyptian Endowment book was called). I think this book sent a whole generation of FARMS scholars off on a wild goose chase.

  2. January 8, 2004 at 6:34 pm

    1. Charly — Weyland (foreword by Nibley)
    2. Anything on Mormons by noted scholar, Jack Chick
    3. Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites — Heimerdinger
    3. Ancient America Speaks — It’s a video, but I have to put it.
    4. What about Thad — see #4
    5. Dancin on the Cieling — Album by Lionel Richie, who is Mormon

  3. lyle
    January 8, 2004 at 7:00 pm

    So…what about his daughter? Is she a mormon on yet another tv reality show? lol…

  4. dp
    January 8, 2004 at 7:51 pm

    I liked Ben’s short comment on the 2nd thread, where he makes a distinction between texts *about* Mormons, and texts *for* Mormons.

    Outside of academic pursuits, the question of why one is engaging in Mormon Studies affects the choice. Looking at the different responses to the previous posts, a variety of motivations are evident. Everything from:
    1) Learning more about the official doctrines and principles of the Church and the Gospel (whether from official or quasi-official sources)
    2) Seeking an increase of faith in the Church
    3) Seeking justification for one’s current view of, and commitment to the Church and the Gospel (and yes, the former is as true as the latter – thanks EE.)

    1) Seems most served by the Standard works, Conference Reports and writings of modern-day prophets.
    2) Seems most served by the typical Deseret Book publication, and
    3) Could be best served by anyone from FARMS to Signature Books, depending on exactly what position you are trying to justify.

  5. January 8, 2004 at 8:21 pm

    I think you need to add a (4) of seeking to learn – whether that be LDS history for LDS history’s sake or doctrines of the kingdom that may not be “official” (i.e. public). I don’t mean that in some weird “study group” kind of way. Nor even necessarily anything deep. But a reading through of LDS history can really affect how you understand the gospel. Something beyond just sticking to Conference Reports. (As valuable as those are)

    I’d also add that even so called apologetics often can affect how we read the scriptures. For instance I don’t tend to read Sorenson’s _Ancient American Setting_ as apologetics (as I think Dave did). Rather I see it offering a setting for the text which then ought to inform how we read the text. Brant Gardner, a specialist in meso-American history, is writing a commentary on the text that starts off with that assumption. Having discussed things with him before, I eagerly await it. (Although its publication has been pushed back somewhat)

    Brant’s page is

  6. Aaron Brown
    January 8, 2004 at 9:05 pm

    Well, I certainly can’t resist becoming part of Kaimi’s tally…

    If I were to list the 5 LDS works that “I personally found most interesting and enlightening at the time that I read them” (borrowing Dave’s criteria), they would be (in no particular order):

    1. McMurrin, Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion
    2. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible
    3. Paul, Science, Religion and Mormon Cosmology
    4. Robinson and Blomberg, How Wide the Divide?
    5. ???

    I’m having trouble with #5. Of course, if we change the criteria to “works that I think are the most historically significant,” my list might read quite differently (Brodie, Brooks, Arrington, McMurrin, the obvious choices…). If we change the criteria to “works I often introduce to LDS friends and acquaintances,” I’d have to include (gasp)…. Paul Toscano, Music and the Broken Word. Yes, I know it offends lots of people, but I think a lot of it is really funny (even if some parts are less so), and I thought it was a brilliant idea.

    Anybody up for a “Top Ten scholarly articles” list?

    Aaron B

  7. January 8, 2004 at 9:15 pm

    Actually Toscano’s _Strangers in Paradox_ was very interesting even if wildly inappropriate. (IMO) However his attacks on Oak’s reworking of the court system of the church really bothered me. I’ve often wonder what Nate thought of that. I wonder if he’d brave the topic for an blog article here?

  8. dp
    January 8, 2004 at 10:06 pm

    I second Aaron’s call for a “Top Ten scholarly articles” list, seeing this is the 3rd thread on Mormon Studies texts, and that “Most Influential Essays” has also already been addressed.

  9. January 9, 2004 at 2:53 am

    thanks davis bell for reminding me of the wonderful comics by brother chick.

    this list isn’t necessarily the best of texts, the texts that haev impacted me the most in the last few years

    approaching zion
    early mormonism and the magic world view
    ostler’s the book of mormon as a modern expansion of an ancient source
    england’s the weeping god of mormonism
    conflict in the quorum

  10. January 9, 2004 at 3:26 am

    Conflict in the Quorum is interesting. The later part primarily consists of the quotes of the debate. Unfortunately little work was done to build up or contextualize the ideological debate. I’m rather mixed on it. On the one hand it opens up rather well incidents most don’t know about but which I feel are very important. The opening chapter, while primarily a reworking of an older Dialog (or was it Sunstone?) article is also important to contextualize Pratt’s life and the later movement in the Quorum.

    Still I admit that when I first read it I was disappointed simply because it was little more than the main sources of the debate. I suppose it’s my more philosophical background, but the debate truly interests me and I think it illustrates the two main threads of LDS thought. There really is a lot more to the debate than most realize.

  11. Aaron Brown
    January 9, 2004 at 3:51 am


    I happen to be reading Conflict in the Quorum this week (it’s been on my “to read” list for a long while), and I think I’m having a reaction similar to your own. That is, I really enjoyed Bergera’s Dialogue article when I first read it many years ago (it would make my “Top Ten Articles” list), but I’m less enthused with his book. Too many huge block quotes from primary sources, not enough analysis.

    This thread may not be the ideal place for it, but I’m wondering to what specific aspects of Young’s and Pratt’s thought you refer when you reference “two main threads of LDS thought.”

    Aaron B

  12. Nate Oman
    January 9, 2004 at 11:17 am

    For what it is worth, I blogged here a while back on the re-emergence of some elements of Pratt’s theology, particularlly in the work of David Paulsen and Blake Ostler:

  13. January 9, 2004 at 3:42 pm

    Aaron, I’ve written about both figures on my blog – although it is so mixed up with fairly technical references many may not find it that interesting. My goal is to get familiar enough with the context that I can start writing some things on it. Right now I’m studying the Scottish realism influences which Pratt quotes a lot. I’ve mainly focused in on Leibniz, although his influence on Pratt definitely isn’t direct. (That I can see) I’m about to study Schilling as well.

    I say they form the “two strands” since Young adopts an “open” pragmatic philosophy with certain elements of mysticism. Thus he represents (to me) elements of Heidegger, Derrida, Peirce, James and Emerson. Pratt adopts a “closed” or “totalizing” rationalism with certain elements of empiricism. Thus he represents to me certain elements of analytic philosophy (minus the pragmatic strains) Both have strong elements of neoPlatonism indirectly in their thought. Both have masonic tendencies as well.

    Young adopts a very anthropological view and his philosophical tendencies get manifest in Nibley. Pratt represents a very narrow hermeneutic and gets manifest in Roberts, JFS, McConkie and others.

    Probably the best place to see how they represent the two themes of Mormon hermeneutics is to see how they read Genesis. The second is to see how they view hermeneutics in general. _Conflict in the Quorum_ has all the quotes. My favorite is the quote by Young on philosophy.

  14. Ben
    January 9, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    I’m curious as to why people find Ostler’s BoM expansions such a good paper. Sure he lets people have their cake and eat it too (“I’m a good updstanding member, but BoM theology is from JS.”) I just don’t think his argument is plausible. I can understand scribal glosses e.g. adding “five” to “the books of Moses,” but not whole chapters. That seems to me driven by the assumption that a) the people of the BoM had no Christology therefore b) Joseph Smith inserted it. So, again, I’m curious as to its inclusion by several of you. Thoughts?

  15. January 9, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    As I said it has been seriously qualified by many, including Blake himself. However I think it establishes a hermeneutic principle that is very important. The main argument against it is one of verification or falsification. i.e. you can never establish what is of Joseph’s mind vs. what is in the original text. But to me that’s not exactly a big criticism. After all it seems any translation leaves our and transfigures the text it translates. The only question is how much. Further we clearly have expansions with the modifications to the meaning of God in 1835 and 1837. So how do we limit where expansions start and end? Also Moroni is heavily redacting texts, so why are we upset at the notion of Joseph expanding the text if Moroni does it?

  16. Grasshopper
    January 9, 2004 at 5:44 pm

    I think the reason people object to the idea of Joseph expanding the text, but not to Mormon’s expansions is that Mormon’s expansion (as a general method) is explicitly acknowledged within the text, while no such acknowledgment exists for expansions by Joseph Smith.

  17. Ben
    January 9, 2004 at 6:07 pm

    Exactly, Mr. Grasshopper. Mormon (or Moroni, as you have it) was editing, shaping, not innovating. (Unless you want to see as part of his editing the insertion of all the Christian theology as his, which is unproveable either way.) Joseph Smith was, on the other hand, translating- A translator’s gloss, or a couple words here and there is allowable and sometimes even necessary for a good translation. That Joseph’s understanding of the text as he received it changed between 1830 (especially concerning the nebulous idea of the nature of GOd/godhead and those changes in 1 Neph 11-12) and 1837, necessitating the insertion of two words, is one thing. What he “expanded” in that case was already on the plates. Writing and inserting ALL of Alma 34 (for example) on the atonement would be another thing entirely. That’s not a translators gloss.

  18. January 9, 2004 at 6:26 pm

    The problem with that is that it shows a bias towards a modern notion of what constitutes a translation. Yet there is no evidence that Joseph followed such a view and considerable evidence against it. Consider at a minimum the JST for instance which seems to have more in common with Jewish midrash than modern translations.

    Further to suggest that Mormon and Moroni were not innovating is clearly incorrect. All those “and thus we see” are innovation. Further to say that it is clear where and when the expansions take place isn’t at all clear. Can you say when Mormon is quoting and when he is authoring? More significantly look at how Nephi and Jacob quote texts. They have no qualms about quoting in a midrashic fashion, such as with their Isaiah use.

    The other argument for some level of expansion is that Joseph quotes from the KJV (with variations) instead of providing a more literal translation of texts. Further he appears to borrow KJV phrases to translate the underlying text. I don’t think we can say Joseph adopts a tight or loose translation, but rather a combination of the two.

    The final point is that most translation clearly have separate footnotes and translator’s commentary. Yet that tradition is fairly late. It is also not clear, given the mechanism of the translation, how such matters could be kept separate.

    Consider for instance translating the idiom “shake your hand” to a culture that doesn’t do that and doesn’t have that phrase. How do you translate it? The typical modern way is to translate it as literally as possible that keeps to the poetics of the work and then include an explanation in a footnote. Now with words appearing in the U&T or seer stone, how does that occur?

    Also note that the expansionist theory doesn’t necessarily tie the expansions to Joseph. (Although I think it requires that they be there to make sense of the text to Joseph’s milieu) They could just as easy be expansions done by whomever is facilitating the translation process. (Either God directly or some intermediary)

    Regarding whole chapters, I don’t think anyone is arguing for that. However the introduction to Alma 11 is a great example. Would that explanation make sense to someone who belongs to that culture? Would Mormon have thought to include it? Why this aside on weights and measures? It certainly makes sense if one is translating an ancient document to make sense of terms. But it doesn’t if one is part of a culture writing from within that culture in ones own language.

  19. Ben
    January 9, 2004 at 8:08 pm

    I wrote several thoughts in counterpoint to Clark, and my connection died, erasing the whole thing. So, instead of rehashing, let me get back to my original question. What makes Ostler’s article so significant?

  20. Aaron Brown
    January 9, 2004 at 8:45 pm


    There’s probably more than one way to answer your question, but for now, let me suggest just one answer. If you had told me sometime between 1987 (when Ostler’s article first appeared in Dialogue) and 1992 that one day the Church would produce a comprehensive _Encyclopedia of Mormonism_ in which the entry on the “Book of Mormon” (no less) would discuss, approvingly, a theory anything like Ostler’s, I would’ve said you were nuts. But in 1992, that’s exactly what happened.

    I realize this doesn’t address the merits (or lack thereof) of the substance of Ostler’s thesis, and I’m not claiming there was any “official” endorsement of any particular tenet of the article, but I do think this fact does answer your query regarding the piece’s “significance.”

    Aaron B

  21. Ben
    January 9, 2004 at 10:51 pm

    Which Book of Mormon entry are you referring to? (I just reread the intro article “Book of Mormon.) Ostler’s not mentioned anywhere in EM by my electronic search.

  22. January 9, 2004 at 11:07 pm

    As I said, I think Ostler’s paper is important because of the hermeneutic principle it brings out for any attempted exegesis of the Book of Mormon.

  23. Aaron Brown
    January 12, 2004 at 5:13 am


    How embarrassing! After typing this post, I spent a few minutes trying to locate the Book of Mormon entry I had in mind, but I couldn’t find it. I could have sworn it was in there — when I have a bit of free time, I’ll look harder, but if you say you’ve done a thorough search and found nothing, perhaps I am mistaken.

    I am often harsh on those who misattribute arguments to incorrect sources, so I suppose I deserve my comeuppance. I will now go to my room and flail myself for several hours …

    Aaron B

  24. lyle
    June 28, 2004 at 10:06 am

    Here are this years MHA award winners. Anyone feel that any of them will join the “essential” list?

    Best Book: Armand Mauss, “All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race & Lineage”

    Smith-Pettit Best First Book: Ethan Yorgason, “Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region”

    Ella Turner-Ella Bergera Best Biography: Allan K. Parrish, “John A. Widtsoe: A Biography”

    Steven F. Christensen Best Documentary: Charles Hatch and Todd Compton (editors), “A Widow’s Tale: The 1884-1896 Diary of Helen Mar Kimball Whitney”

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