Review: Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia

It is published as a reference work, but you can read it like a book, albeit a book of essays: Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2010; publisher’s page), edited by W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall. Listing at $85 ($68 on Kindle), it might not find its way onto your bookshelf until a trade paperback version comes out in a few years, but at the very least it puts a very accessible LDS history reference on the shelves of America’s libraries and newsrooms, featuring 140 entries covering individuals, places, events, and issues. I stumbled across a library copy that was in the stacks and could actually be checked out rather than being secured behind the librarian’s firewall (that is, placed in the reference section). If you are so lucky, do the right thing and take it home for a few weeks.

At 394 pages with 12-point font (not the tiny print one sometimes finds in reference volumes) it might seem a little light for the genre, but that adds to what you might call the readability of the book. The first of four major sections presents six 10-page essays covering the entire span of the Mormon experience, essentially a short but dense course in LDS history:

  • Foundation: 1820-1830, by James B. Allen
  • Development: 1831-1844, by Stephen C. Taysom
  • Exodus and Settlement: 1845-1869, by Ardis E. Parshall
  • Conflict: 1869-1890, by W. Paul Reeve
  • Transition: 1890-1941, by Thomas G. Alexander
  • Expansion: 1941-Present, by Jessie L. Embry

As this list illustrates, the authors for essays and articles in the book include seasoned scholars, younger scholars, and independent scholars (those without a present academic affiliation). Bloggers are well represented: Julie Smith (Mormon Scripture), Nate Oman (Mormonism and Secular Government), Brad Kramer (Local Worship), J. Stapley (Mormon Missiology), Samuel Brown (Mormonism as Restoration), Blair Dee Hodges (Correlation), Bruce A. Crow (Mormon Battalion), just about everyone on the perm roster at Juvenile Instructor, and of course Ardis, who like her co-editor wrote about a dozen short entries as well as the longer historical essay listed above.

I am not so bold as to try to critique any particular entry or even the selection of topics — I’m sure there were dozens of potential entries that weren’t included simply because you can’t include everything in a single volume. A full table of contents for the book is available at the book’s Amazon page. The fourth section of the book, Issues, is really outstanding: 23 short articles of about five pages each on such topics as Mormonism and Blacks (by Margaret Blair Young and Darius Aidan Gray), Mormonism and Race (Armand Mauss), Mormonism as a World Religion (David Clark Knowlton), and Non-Mormon Views of Mormonism (Jan Shipps).

I hate to spend the whole review speaking in generalities without sharing a little bit of the content of this enlightening volume, so I will end with a second list giving one surprising fact or statement drawn from the biographical articles on each President of the LDS Church. I guess I’m hoping to show that these aren’t just Sunday School summaries — there really is a lot of information in the book that many readers, even well-read ones, will not have encountered before. For all presidents except Joseph Smith, I will note the years served as President of an organized First Presidency, along with the author of each article.

  1. Joseph Smith, 1830-1844 (Jed Woodworth) – Joseph Smith “is not known to have preached a sermon before he organized the Church of Christ, in April 1830.”
  2. Brigham Young, 1847-1877 (John G. Turner) – When Brigham moved to reorganize a First Presidency in 1847, several of the Twelve, including Orson Pratt, opposed the action.
  3. John Taylor, 1880-1887 (Ardis E. Parshall) – John Taylor’s last public address was on February 1, 1884; after than, he was “on the underground” (in hiding, at various locations) until his death in 1887.
  4. Wilford Woodruff, 1889-1898 (Thomas G. Alexander) – While serving as the president of the St. George temple, Woodruff introduced “vicarious temple ordinances for deceased men and women not related to Mormons — particularly national and international political, literary, and scientific leaders.”
  5. Lorenzo Snow, 1898-1901 (Alan L. Morrell) – The Church was almost bankrupt when Snow took over leadership in 1898; he issued Church bonds and set the expectation that every Latter-day Saint would pay a full tithing. Church finances turned around within a few short years.
  6. Joseph F. Smith, 1901-1918 (Christopher C. Jones) – The man who really ended polygamy with the Second Manifesto of 1904, part of a successful transition from the confrontational stance of the 19th-century Church to the accommodationist stance (my term) of the 20th-century Church.
  7. Heber J. Grant, 1918-1945 (W. Paul Reeve) – Grant served as President almost 27 years and oversaw the emergence of two defining features of modern Mormonism: during Prohibition, “a more stringent implementation of the Word of Wisdom”; and during the Great Depression, the Church Welfare Program.
  8. George Albert Smith, 1945-1951 (Gary James Bergera) – Married just after his 22nd birthday, he and his wife together served an LDS mission to the southern states from 1892 to 1894.
  9. David O. McKay, 1951-1970 (Gregory A. Prince) – A clean-shaven monogamist and “the first college graduate to serve as president.” Along with Ernest Wilkinson, “transform[ed] BYU from a small, bucolic college into the largest private university in the United States.”
  10. Joseph Fielding Smith, 1970-1972 (Matthew Bowman) – Church Historian from 1921 to 1970, his 1938 publication of The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith made many of Joseph’s teachings “available to the general public for the first time.”
  11. Harold B. Lee, 1972-1973 (J. B. Haws) – Mr. Correlation.
  12. Spencer W. Kimball, 1973-1985 (Jacob W. Olmstead) – Kimball successfully opposed “efforts to deploy the MX missle in the Great Basin in 1981.” And there was that revelation in 1978.
  13. Ezra Taft Benson, 1985-1994 (J. B. Haws) – To the surprise of some, “the preeminent focus of his ministry [as President of the Church] was the Book of Mormon,” not anti-Communism. See the 1988 Conference talk Flooding the Earth With the Book of Mormon.
  14. Howard W. Hunter, 1994-1995 (W. Paul Reeve) – The first LDS President born in the 20th century; also the shortest tenure (8 months, 26 days) of any LDS President.
  15. Gordon B. Hinckley, 1995-2008 (Gary James Bergera) – Called as an additional counselor to President Kimball in 1981, “Hinckley guided the Church as de facto president” during Kimball’s last years in the mid-1980s, then again acted as de facto president during President Benson’s decline in the early 1990s.
  16. Thomas S. Monson, 2010-present (Gary James Bergera) – President Monson spearheaded efforts to build an LDS temple in East Germany (completed 1985) and to secure permission for LDS missionaries to proselyte there (1988). At the time, these were stunning developments, coming several years before the Berlin Wall came down (1989) and Germany reunified (1990).

My advice: beg, borrow, or buy this book. You will enjoy it.

6 comments for “Review: Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia

  1. Dave wrote:

    until a trade paperback version comes out in a few years

    Dave, do you know for a fact that this will happen? Last I checked, ABC-Clio was a school library publisher — putting out trade paper editions for the general public isn’t part of their normal program, is it?

    As for the review, what audience is this aimed for? General public? Is it too light and too general for the history fiend?

    Oh, and what about international coverage?

  2. If ABC-Clio only wants school libraries, why is someone asking for $68 for Kindle? It seems like a lot of Kindle books would sell for $10.

  3. Kent, I’m just hoping that the volume will eventually be made more accessible to general readers. I have no information at all about whether this might actually come to pass.

    As for audience, I have it on good authority that the intended audience is non-Mormons who come to the book with very little information about the LDS Church or its history. That said, the book is very well suited for most LDS, who generally have more information about LDS history, but not much more.

    As for international, that would have made a fine short article in the Issues section, wouldn’t it? There is, however, some discussion of international issues in the sixth historical essay (Expansion: 1941-present), in the David O. McKay article, and in Mormonism as a World Religion.

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