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.