Rescued From the Dustbin of History

And just where is the dustbin of history these days, you ask? It’s at Amazon, where the pitiless laws of supply and demand are on full display in the “used books” queue attached to every book title. That’s where I rescued a like-new copy of Claudia and Richard Bushman’s Building the Kingdom of God: A History of Mormons in America (OUP, 2001) for the price of $0.03. [And that’s three times what the lowest-priced copies are selling for today!]

It might be my Best Purchase Ever in terms of value per penny, but how sad. Here’s a book that is a fine candidate to fill the gap I talked about last week in my post “Missing Essentials,” but I’ll bet half of you have never even heard of it. Even worse, Deseret Book doesn’t seem to stock the book! A short, up-to-date history of Mormonism written by a pair of fine LDS scholars, published by a universtiy press, directed to the general reader … and Deseret Book doesn’t even carry it? Let’s just state the obvious before moving on to weightier matters: as a bookstore, Deseret Book is a disgrace. That’s just a personal opinion. Maybe there’s an angle here I’m missing.

As an incentive to those who want or need a very short introduction to LDS history from a faithful yet balanced and scholarly perspective, I will give short one-paragraph exceprts from several of the chapters. I can’t help but think this is the sort of treatment of LDS history that ought to make it into the curriculum. Think of this not so much as a review than as a trailer for the book: Coming soon to a bookstore near you (well, not every bookstore).

Here’s from Chapter 1, “Joseph Smith’s First Visions, 1820-30”:

The 531 pages in the current edition of the Book of Mormon contain hundreds of personalities, intricate stories of wars and battles, warnings and exhortations from prophets, complicated doctrinal expositions, and passages of religious devotion. It is not what you would expect from an uneducated Yankee farmer. Though presumably about the ancestors of the American Indians, the book says nothing of the stereotypical artifacts familiar to Americans of Joseph Smith’s time, like canoes, wigwams, or peace pipes. All in all, the Book of Mormon is a remarkable production for an inexperienced young man who was just twenty-four when the book was published.

From Chapter 2, “Zion, 1831-37,” on the troubles the Mormons encountered in Missouri:

These strange Mormons also threatened the old settlers by openly declaring that God had given them the land. That may have seemed far-fetched, but as the Mormon population grew, the old settlers faced a real danger. By 1833 the Mormons comprised nearly a third of the population of Jackson County, in which Independence was located. When they achieved a majority, as they apparently soon would, they could elect county officials and control the local government. From being a few misguided neighbors, the Mormons had become a major political force. The fear of Mormon political domination was the common factor in the various persecutions from this time on.

Funny how the mix of Mormonism and politics can, in 2007, still seem threatening to some Americans. From Chapter 3, “Nauvoo, 1838-46,” on polygamy:

[Joseph Smith] may have received the revelation as early as 1831 and have made tentative efforts to comply with the principle then. But the opposition of his wife Emma stopped him from saying more. At last, in Nauvoo in 1843 he explained the doctrine to others. With great reluctance, many husbands and wives complied, after receiving spiritual confirmation of the doctrine’s validity. Smith knew that publicizing plural marriage would bring the wrath of society down on the Saints. But news of the practice could not be contained. Rumors of plural marriage were whispered about, fueling internal opposition to Joseph Smith in the final year of his life.

I’m not highlighting the difficult historical events, just showing how well known episodes and issues in LDS history are portrayed (fairly yet openly) in the text. On Mountain Meadows, from Chapter 5, “Building the Kingdom, 1847-69”:

At this time of fear, suspicion, and extreme feelings, as the Mormons prepared to defend themselves, a disastrous massacre occurred at Mountain Meadows, two hundred miles south of Salt Lake City. The Fancher company, a party of Missourians migrating to California, angered some local Native Americans, who accused them of poisoning their meat and water. The Mormon settlers, preparing for war, refused to sell supplies to the company, whereupon the migrants, enraged, simply helped themselves. For reasons that have never been fully understood, Mormon leaders in southern Utah proceeded to order the destruction of the company. The Indians and the Mormon settlers therefore killed 120 people, virtually everyone in the company except for a few young children. Brigham Young heard of the attack too late to stop it. This tragic incident, the legacy of suffering in Missouri and the grim paranoia of the time, is a dark blot on the history of the Mormons.

Finally, from Chapter 8, “The Church Since 1945”:

Mormon women do not preside over congregations or become general authorities. Mormons consider men and women equal in status but to have different roles. Ideally, men support their families. While women are encouraged to earn college degrees, develop their talents, and contribute to their communities, they also devote themselves to family, motherhood, home, and church work. Historian and author Juanita Brooks, an excellent housekeeper and mother of many, kept her ironing board set up in the living room with a couple of shirts out that needed to be ironed. She typed on her current project until someone came to visit. Then she covered the typewriter, plugged in the iron, opened the door, and ironed shirts while visiting. When the visitor left, she went back to the typewriter.

There’s a striking image to remember: Juanita Brooks chatting with her visiting teachers, while the unfinished manuscript of Mountain Meadows Massacre lay hidden under a sheet on a nearby table.

19 comments for “Rescued From the Dustbin of History

  1. Far be it from me to defend Deseret Book, but how can you fault a company for not stocking a book with a market value of one penny?

    (I was musing on the book market today as I wandered the aisles of Half Price Books–a place that was a mecca to me a decade ago. And all I could think was: dang, this place is overpriced! How can they charge 50% of the cover price for a yellowed paperback when brand new books can be had from Amazon for 60% of the cover price–the day they are released? The plummeting price of books has been a blessing to me personally, but I wonder how book sellers and authors will survive.)

    /end threadjack

    I find it interesting that Levi Peterson, in his bio of Brooks, presents the ironing story in an entirely different light: the always-at-the-ready iron was used as an excuse to shoo visitors away so she could get back to work and, IIRC, the typewriter was not hidden.

  2. I love the new & used queue at Amazon!

    Don’t forget the shipping cost, though: when the price is pennies, the few dollars for shipping really counts.

  3. “the book says nothing of the stereotypical artifacts familiar to Americans of Joseph Smith’s time, like canoes, wigwams, or peace pipes.”

    But the book does mention warpaint, loincloths, shaved heads, and bows and arrows.

    4 And the Amlicites were distinguished from the Nephites, for they had marked themselves with red in their foreheads after the manner of the Lamanites; nevertheless they had not shorn their heads like unto the Lamanites.
    5 Now the heads of the Lamanites were shorn; and they were naked, save it were skin which was girded about their loins, and also their armor, which was girded about them, and their bows, and their arrows, and their stones, and their slings, and so forth.
    6 And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men.

  4. ed, not to threadjack again, but doesn’t the fact that loin cloths and _armor_ are mentioned in the same sentence, at least remove the loincloth from consideration as a “prototypical american indian” association for 1800s Americans?

  5. Not to threadjack your threadjack, Ed, but the point I’m making about the book is that it is willing to gently engage your view of authorship (and, in the other excerpts, persecution and polygamy and Mountain Meadows and gender issues) while writing from a faithful perspective. Do those who write about Joseph Smith or Mormonism from a critical perspective actually engage (as opposed to dismiss out of hand) opposing views on these issues? It really is harder than it looks. No one gives the faithful historians who manage to pull it off enough credit for their effort. To my mind, it is one of the features of the “faithful historians” that gives them credibility compared to, for example, Christian critics or secular cynics who write on the topic of Mormonism.

  6. Julie,

    The description of the penny version reads:

    “Front written on. +20 pages of highlighting, notes, and careful annotating. Cover and back worn on the corners . . .”

    It is cheap, but it’s not exactly the same market item as a new copy at DB.

  7. Dave: I agree that Building the Kingdom is a valuable yet under-used gem. In terms of offering a brief and reliable telling of Mormon history, I can’t think of another work that comes close. I have to admit that I haven’t read Mormonism for Dummies, which seems to be the intro-of-choice at the moment. Perhaps someone who has read both can shed light on the question.

    Bushman just finished up his A Very Short Introduction to Mormonism. I suspect that that will challenge Mormonism for Dummies for primacy.

  8. I object to reading Mormonism for Dummies because I don’t think I’m the target audience. :P

  9. Sometimes I will paid $0.32 over one I could have gotten for $0.18 just to show some respect!

  10. The used Mormon Studies book market is fickle. Unfortunately, it just so happens that the used books I typically want are many times more than their cover price.

  11. John F., I think I’m expressing my appreciation to the authors by posting on the book and encouraging others to buy and read it.

  12. # I respect the Bushmans. It’s the guy selling the book for $0.03 who doesn’t. As the Ad on TV says: “Am I less a Caveman because I bought GEICO Insurance?”

  13. Kaimi, they have brand new copies for 1.01, so I think my point is justified.

  14. Thanks for the info. I just went on a shopping spree on Amazon. By the way, their s&p costs are kinda high.

  15. Thanks! I just went and bought me a book. I figure these sellers are making a buck or two on shipping and handling, but $4-5 is still an extremely reasonable price for this book.

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