Christopher Jones has a post over at the fine group blog Peculiar People listing ten books on modern Mormonism. The post deserves more discussion, so I thought I’d post my own short comments on the first four books from the list and invite readers to add comments on the others as well as reflection on the original post by Jones.
The topic of Mormonism’s second century also deserves more discussion. The action-packed first century of Mormonism generally overshadows the second century and its quieter themes of Mormon diaspora, institutional growth and retrenchment, LDS neo-orthodoxy and the rise of Correlation. Fortunately, as evident from the ten books listed at the PP post, the second century is finally attracting more scholarly attention. If you haven’t already, you should read some of these.
Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (2012). A lot of history and scholarship has happened since the last good one-volume history of Mormonism was published in 1992 (the second edition of Arrington’s book). Bowman updates the story and does it in just 250 pages. Importantly, he devotes two full chapters to the decades after World War II, titled “Correlation” and “Toward a Global Church.” If you made a list of books every Mormon should read, this one would be right at the top. We should all know our history.
Claudia Bushman’s Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America (2008). This book didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved, perhaps because it was a thematic treatment rather than a narrative history. But it covered all the right themes, the topical ones that get recycled every week on the blogs. I’ll bet an updated second edition would get more attention in this lengthy Mormon Moment. I reviewed the book for Dialogue, so I gave it two careful readings. You should give it at least one.
The Angel and the Beehive (1994) and All Abraham’s Children (2003), both by Armand Mauss. As a sociologist, Mauss makes sense of the institutional dynamics of 20th-century Mormonism in his first book, then does the same for Mormonism’s racial doctrines (which includes the whole “blood of Israel” topic) in his second book. General histories are good reading, but unless you read these two books you won’t really understand 20th-century Mormonism. I posted longer comments on these books here and here.
Have you read any of the others, particularly the biographies? Is the second century of Mormonism finally becoming as interesting as the first century? (Our third century starts in just 18 years!)
I have read the McKay biography and thought it was excellent. The vast majority of the material focuses on his time as President and what was going on in the church during that period, which of covers two decades almost immediately following WW2. McKay was really the first “modern” church president (just six years prior to his presidency, we still had a polygamist as president) and I think the book really covers well how the Church transitioned into the church that is experienced today (The foundations of that, at least).
It was not done chronologically like a typical biography but arranged into topics and covered a thread at a time.
How bout Givens’ People of Paradox? For understanding modern Mormon culture, that one ought to be on the list.
Thanks for keeping the discussion going, Dave. I admit that when I set out to write the post, I thought it would be a top 5 list, but then quickly realized narrowing it to 5 was simply too difficult. (And, as Bill W notes, there’s more books I could’ve listed but chose not to for various reasons).
I agree that Claudia Bushman’s book deserves more attention than it’s received. The topical format should actually work well for people interested in Mormonism and __________.
Scholarship on more recent Mormon history is growing, in part because historical scholarship treating recent American religious history more generally is growing and in part because many people are trying to make sense and shed light on Mormonism today and the Mormonism in Mitt Romney’s lifetime. In order to understand that, one needs to know about more than Joseph Smith, gold plates, the trek west and polygamy.
Bill W is right, “People of Paradox” should be on the list.
It is refreshing to see that so much post-1890 has been done. But, I can’t help pointing out, as I did in a comment on the Peculiar People post on Patheos, that the international aspect is still widely ignored, as is cultural issues (which is why “People of Paradox” is so important).
I hate to be the one to admit that I haven’t read any of the books you reccommend, something which I plan on remedying straight away! Thanks for the suggestions!