Monday, October 10, 2011

Mormon History

I’ve been thinking about doing this blog post for a long time.

I’ve read a lot of books about LDS church history, both controversial and non-controversial. Books about the church seem to be pretty polarized, and determining which sources are credible can be a daunting task. Although a lot reviews are already available on the internet, I decided to write this post because I thought maybe some friends or acquaintances might trust me and want my input on the matter.

The first myth to dispel is that books are split into pro-Mormon and anti-Mormon camps. Just because a book gives the best available secular explanation of the history of the church does not make it anti-Mormon. There are anti-Mormon books too, but then there are just good history books giving a reasonable secular explanation. And yes, Hugh Nibley, that IS history. I’ll go in order of most highly recommended to less recommended.

No Man Knows My History, by Fawn Brodie.

This book was first published in 1945, and was one of the first books by a professional history to document the early history of the church with a secular explanation of events. Of course it was controversial because Mormons didn’t like the possibility that there was a reasonable secular explanation, but it’s really a pretty good book. It’s primarily a history book, not an attack on the church, so I don’t consider it to be anti-Mormon at all. If you’re primarily interested in the real history, and not specifically controversial subjects, this is a great book to read.

An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, by Grant Palmer.

This is a great one for questioning Mormons. It’s not primarily a history book, but it’s a pretty fair overview of the controversial parts of early Mormon history without being anti-Mormon. If you know the basic history taught in seminary, and want to read an unbiased (if that’s possible) review of some of the historical evidence ignored by the standard narrative, read this. It’s written by an active LDS member who was an institute president. He’s honest, and there’s no bitterness or anger in his book like in anti-Mormon books, but he concludes that the Book of Mormon may not be true. He hopes that members anchor their faith in Jesus Christ, regardless of whether the Book of Mormon is true history or not.

Church History in the Fulness of Times

It’s a textbook, but it actually makes for enjoyable reading. I read it cover-to-cover during the first parts of my mission. It does mention some controversial things very briefly, but doesn’t really delve into evidence. It’s not just early history, either. There’s a lot of very interesting things that happened after 1844 that I didn’t know about before I read them here. It’s amazing how quickly things are never mentioned in the church. I wasn’t even aware that the First Quorum of the Seventy was reconstituted in 1975, or that there were Assistants to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles before then, until I read this book. It amazed me that I was totally unaware of something that significant that happened that recently. If you want the basic, church-approved history, this book is well-written and interesting.

The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, by D. Michael Quinn

D. Michael Quinn is a very interesting guy. He is a believing Mormon, and one of the best scholars the church has ever had, but was excommunicated for publishing the truth about when polygamy really ended (at least I think that’s why). The Mormon Hierarchy throws down a lot of interesting facts, but sometimes it feels like it’s just a long list of facts. It can get difficult to remember all the details and sometimes you miss the big picture because it’s so focused on fact after fact. It does have a lot of interesting tidbits here and there though.

Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard Bushman

It’s not irked Mormons that Fawn Brodie’s book is still considered to be the best history of the church by mainstream scholars, so Richard Bushman tried to write a fair and balanced history that would be accepted by the world. To do this, he just ignored any discussion of evidence for or against the church. He also (for some reason unknown to me) spent a lot of time comparing the church to other religious movements of the time period. The result is that this is some of the most dry, boring text I’ve ever read. I had to take a break for a year about halfway through because I couldn’t take it any longer, but I did eventually finish the book. That’s more of an accomplishment than you realize. It’s almost as bad as the Old Testament. But if you can handle the unbelievably dry text, and aren’t interested in controversial things, then it does give you a lot more detail than Church History in the Fulness of Times.

The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, by D. Michael Quinn

This follow-up volume has a great chapter about Ezra Taft Benson. It’s really eye-opening to realize how much is going on behind the scenes that normal members are totally unaware of. It’s great history.

The Changing World of Mormonism, by Jerald and Sandra Tanner

This one is definitely anti-Mormon. If you want to hear someone throw everything and the kitchen sink against Mormonism, then you can read it. But be warned: it’ll leave a bad taste in your mouth. Their facts are generally correct, and they know their stuff, but it’s not enjoyable to read. I still think they deserve some respect as good historians, good enough to recognize the Salamander Letter as a fraud, but they’re not the best writers. I decided not to finish this one after enduring about half of it.

The God Makers, by Ed Decker

It’s definitely anti-Mormon. I haven’t read this one, but I mention it because it attracted a lot of attention back in the day. It’s a crappy book, by all accounts. Don’t waste your time.

So there you have it, some of the best (and worst) books on Mormon history, and my opinion of them. If you want an online source for the controversial parts of Mormon history, I’ve heard if pretty good, and what I’ve read on it has been very good. Just remember: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of google, which giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given to him. Good luck in your search for truth.


Unknown said...

Just out of curiosity, have you read "No, Ma'am, That's Not History"? I haven't read it, nor have I read "No Man Knows My History", but I'd be interested in how they compare to one another, from a subjective standpoint.

Bennion said...

I have read it, though it's been a while. From what I remember, he basically accuses her of reading more into things than is really justified. In my opinion, her book was better because it created a narrative from the data that was available. It should be up to the reader to discern between the evidence and her interpretation. A history book that just listed a bunch of events and comments from people wouldn't be very interesting, and the author would be accused of selective use of sources anyway. Readers should always be aware that a book represents the author's perspective, and that isn't entirely objective truth. It is good to read books having differing perspectives.

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