Three big things (and some little things) this lifelong Mormon learned from Matt Bowman’s history of the Church

How do you tell the story of a 200-year-old movement in a single volume? In the summer of 2011, Matthew Bowman received a call inviting him to write such a volume in under three months. The result — The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith — is an accessible, even-handed volume that uncommonly gives as much attention to the modern church as it does to the days of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

Here are three things that I learned from the book:
  • The power of the primary during the correlation reorganization of the 1960s: “The reorganization drained some power from the First Presidency itself and undeniably from the various departments and auxiliaries of the church. Some resisted as best they could; LaVern Parmley, president of the Primary since 1951, retained her position and through sheer force of personality a good deal of independent authority until she stepped down in 1974.” You can read more about President Parmley generally in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. You can read about how she led a movement toward the modern conception of reverence in primary in Kristine Haglund Harris’s Dialogue article.
  • Acceptance of Mormonism in American culture has not proceeded obviously in one direction: George Romney and Mitt Romney both ran for president, father in 1968 and son in 2008 and 2012. With George: “His faith was rarely mentioned in any of his political campaigns, for Mormonism by the 1960s had become unexceptional to most Americans.” With Mitt: “Mormonism weighed Mitt Romney down more than it had his father…. In 2008, even some Mormons were surprised when polls indicated that about a quarter of Americans believed that Romney’s Mormonism disqualified him for the presidency.” There are a number of factors at play here — notably, Mitt Romney made it much further in the campaign than his father had. But Bowman also points to the rise of the Moral Majority and Evangelical Christians in politics in the 1970s and 1980s, with their suspicion of Mormons (see the 1982 film and the subsequent 1984 book, The God Makers, for example).
  • Bowman adds both colorful and sobering anecdotes to the narrative of polygamy in the 1880s and 1890s, when “more than a thousand Mormon men were convicted of a crime relating to plural marriage.” On the one colorful side, “One bishop, trapped in a department store, had himself boxed into an organ crate and carried out to safety.” On the sobering side, “John Taylor [then President of the Church] himself traveled from house to house in northern Utah, staying with his followers and rarely sleeping in the same bed two night in a row. He died in 1887 in hiding in Kaysville, Utah, just north of Salt Lake City.”
Bowman brings us up to the modern day, from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Richard Dutcher’s film work, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, “shot through with Mormon themes,” and Mormons on American Idol and in college basketball. He also narrates a fascinating transition around the mid-20th century, with “a growing suspicion of theological innovation in favor of an emphasis on correct behavior.” As Armand Mauss wrote in BYU Studies, “Indeed, no earlier general histories have devoted such a large proportion of their treatments to this second half of Mormon history.”

It’s a fascinating treatment all around and — despite the Washington Post’s claim that Bowman is “starry-eyed” about Joseph Smith — I found it very fair. I was reminded of Richard Bushman’s book On the Road with Joseph Smith, in which he narrates the reception of his biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling. One of Bushman’s great frustrations is that he wanted to bring members and non-members along, and ultimately the non-members remained unconvinced, while a fair number of members found the treatment lacking in faithfulness. Such is the likely fate of any historian seeking to straddle that middle ground. But I’d feel very comfortable recommending this single-volume history to curious non-member friends, as well as those of the faith seeking a big picture view of how the Church’s place in the United States has evolved. (I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Mark Deakins. It was well done.)

Bits and pieces
  • I had the pleasure of hearing Bowman talk about his book last month; he — an active member of the Church — recalled a letter he received soon after the book’s publication, thanking him for taking an interest in our faith and seeking to correct him on a few historical points. As above, an effort to take a dispassionate view will win a historian the incredulity of members.
  • In recounting the basic Book of Mormon plot, Bowman characterizes Nephi as “a well-intentioned but frustrating young man of great faith.”
  • You can listen to an interview with Bowman about his book on the FairMormon podcast.

7 comments for “Three big things (and some little things) this lifelong Mormon learned from Matt Bowman’s history of the Church

  1. Clark
    March 23, 2017 at 10:47 am

    He also narrates a fascinating transition around the mid-20th century, with “a growing suspicion of theological innovation in favor of an emphasis on correct behavior.”

    That’s interesting. I’m not sure I buy it. There’s certainly an emphasis on behavior but to a degree that was always true. In recent years you have works by say Jim Falconer arguing that Mormonism is more like Judaism with a focus on praxis rather than theory. While there’s a truth in that I confess I’m pretty skeptical of the general thesis.

    My skepticism comes largely because I think the period of greatest theological innovation since the Nauvoo period was precisely the late 20th century particularly with the rise of apologetics. While many of the elements apologetics took hold of could be found in history (particular the era in the very early 20th century when Roberts, Widstoe and Talmage were pushing a scientifically informed approach to theology) it’s the era of the 1990’s that you really see a huge shift towards a scientifically sophisticated theology. We have the rise of the limited mesoAmerican geographic model and a shift away from naive hemispheric views of Nephites. Closely associated with this were much closer readings of the Book of Mormon from a theological perspective tying the text to various ancient theologies (often somewhat anachronistic to the text despite being ancient)

    Where you see theological innovation being problematic tends to be where it is closely associated with political aims. Thus the Toscano’s theology can’t be separated from their attempts to reform church courts. Likewise their writings on deity along with many other figures from that time were wrapped up in debates about praying to Mother in Heaven along with giving women the priesthood offices. Again theology where the primary problem wasn’t the abstract theories so much as praxis and more importantly a grass roots push for change in practice independent of the Apostles.

    Just curious if he addresses that set of criticisms.

  2. Dave B.
    March 23, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    Nice post on a fine book. It sure would be nice if there was some up-to-date competition in the one-volume history of the LDS Church segment — Story of the Latter-day Saints is somewhat dated at this point and Arrington’s The Mormon Experience wasn’t really directed to general readers. Bowman’s book fills the void left by the Church’s unwillingness to sponsor a semi-official volume to replace Essentials in Church History.

    Fortunately, it is a fair and readable book. But I have to think that if he had not been working with a very small window for writing and publishing the book, there would have been some improvements. Maybe a second edition in a few years will make that happen.

  3. Clark
    March 23, 2017 at 5:32 pm

    That’s a good point Dave. I was going to mention Givens but then realized he never really did a one volume historical situating of Mormons.

  4. David Evans
    March 24, 2017 at 7:04 am

    Thanks, Clark. He does narrate the early 20th century shift that you describe, but (as I recall) less of the shift you characterize from the 1990+ of “scientifically sophisticated theology.” That said, I’d respectful propose that the shift toward a meso-American geographic model isn’t theology per se. (What does it tell us about the nature of God?) Your example of Book of Mormon readings fit my working, mental definition, although I’m not so familiar with that work.

  5. Clark
    March 24, 2017 at 10:45 am

    I suppose that depends upon what one means by theology. I think that as a practical matter those who buy into the apologetic rethinking of scriptural events also end up with different theology. That is if you look at it most also are doing a lot of theological thinking. Blake Ostler is the obvious example but there’s a whole group involved in process theology. I’m not sure I buy that whole movement, and of course there were elements of it in the early 20th century during the Widstoe era with the first generation of Mormons trained as philosophers.

    What I’d tend to say characterizes this later theological period which is so interesting is the focus on the possibilities of Mormon theology and scripture rather than dogma. Second is a fairly sophisticated engagement with science, history and philosophy. While process theology and phenomenology/hermeneutics have tended to drive a lot of it there are interesting theological proper proposals. I’m here thinking of the adoption of Levinas’ work on ethics and the Other as a way to understand intelligence in Mormon philosophy, the emphasis on God as finite and open drawing out the implications, the strong emphasis on a Christology that emphasizes the shared ‘humanity’ of both God and mortals, the emphasis on a formalized theory of praxis that Faulconer and others have done, a thinking through the details of revelation, work on time and space required to reconcile Mormon notions of eternity with physics, and so forth. The most significant engaged with theological notion of the past 30 years is of course grace which has been dealt with in sustained ways from very different approaches. (It’s hard to imagine more difference than between say Adam Miller and Stephen Robinson for instance)

    Beyond those works which line up more with traditional approaches to theology there’s the more hermeneutic approach to theology that I think you see in many works the Maxwell Institute has done. While I enjoy such works I’d tend to agree with you that they don’t always deal with broader issues. But I’m not sure they’re any less theological but perhaps are a rather unique transformation of theology into hermeneutic engagement with particular texts. Obviously Alma 32 is the most popular text of this sort but we’ve seen works dealing with Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, and even the idea of theological engagement as a kind of play.

    What really characterizes this contemporary period is precisely the variety of approaches taken, often arising by engaging with broader disciplines from the academy and close readings of text making us of such theoretic apparatus.

  6. Wally
    March 24, 2017 at 10:55 am

    I enjoyed Matt’s book immensely. Yes, there are always quibbles, but for one volume to tackle the whole history of Mormonism in such an objective, up-to-date, and readable way is quite an accomplishment. This is one of the couple of books I always recommend to people who want to know where to start in their introduction to Mormon studies. I consider it an essential starting point.

  7. David Evans
    March 27, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Clark, you’ve convinced me on the broader definition of theology. And nice points on recent innovations. It would be interesting to see Matt’s take on those.

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