Bushman beats Brodie

Perhaps second only to regular features as a reliable blog standby are lists. I know, I know, such posts usually generate endless quibbling about meaningless personal preferences. But I want to propose what I think will be a worthwhile exercise.

I want to know, what are the five essential texts in Mormon studies?

What I have in mind here are the most influential scholarly works in Mormon history, sociology, theology, or any other area of interest to Mormons. I know that when I first became interested in such things, I scoured my parents’ bookshelves looking for anything promising, then turned to my Mom’s back issues of Sunstone. I gradually figured out which texts formed the background for the current conversations among Mormon thinkers. A lot of time would have been saved if someone had given me a short list of must-reads. Perhaps we can begin to generate such a list here.

So here are my top five most essential, in no particular order:

Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism
Leonard Arrington, The Mormon Experience
Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View
Jan Shipps, Mormonism
Sterling McMurrin, Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

What important books have I missed? Which ones have I overrated?

45 comments for “Bushman beats Brodie

  1. Oh this is fun!

    As you notice, I am spending more time on the computer today than I ought. Here is my take.

    I don’t think that the Mormon Experience should be on the list. It is a good intro, but I think that is its best claim to fame. For example, unlike Bushman’s treatment of Joseph’s early life it cannot claim to be the best treatment of a critical period. In its place I would put Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom.

    Quinn’s book is a marvelous, bubbling cauldron of facts on a critical issue. His interpretive framework is pretty problematic, but I would keep the book on the list anyway.

    McMurrin is overrated in my view. The problem is that he addresses a critical issue — the relationship between Mormonism and philosophical theology — and there is not much else out there. I would probably put down B.H. Robert’s work — Mormon Doctrine of Diety, Seventies’ Course in Theology, or The Truth, The Way, The Life. McMurrin’s work is essentially parasitic on Roberts’. McMurrin has a better grasp of philosophical theology. However, all of his key insights come from the work of Roberts.

    I think that you also need to include two works by Nibley. First, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, which is basically the fountainhead of modern scholarlly discussions (critical and apologetic) of the Book of Mormon. Second, The World and the Prophets, which is the fullest (and to date most influential) statement of the Adolph Von Harnack view of the apostacy, namely that it was a process of “Hellenizing” the Gospel. This paradigm, has I think, exerted a tremendous influence on underlying Mormon attitudes toward philosophy and intellectual inquiry.

    Brodie’s work is mainly of historical interest, and I probably wouldn’t include it on the short, short list. Her research was derivitive to that of Dale Morgan, and her interpretive methodology was hopelessly flawed. On the otherhand, she is arguably the spark that set off the flame of New Mormon History. (Although I would probably give honors here to Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom.

    Runners up:

    Juanita Brooks, Moutain Meadows Massacre
    Tom Alexander, Mormonism in Transition (best treatment of the critical issue of Mormon retrenchment with American culture)

    Personal Favorites:
    Firmage & Mangrum, Zion in the Courts
    Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question

  2. I actually had Great Basin Kingdom in there, but felt guilty listing it because I never got around to reading the whole thing!

    As for Roberts vs. McMurrin, I found McMurrin much more lucid. He also makes a more extensive effort to accurately situate Mormonism within the philosophical and theological traditions. I’ll have to get out my copy of Truth, Way, and Life to see if I agree that all of McMurrin’s good insights come from Roberts.

    One book that I enjoyed, that I hear virtually nothing about, is The Angel and the Beehive, a sociological study by Armand Mauss. Why hasn’t this book had more impact? Not scholarly enough?

  3. Within the very narrow field of Mormon Legal Studies (so narrow it doesn’t exist), my favorite book is definitely:
    Firmage & Mangrum, Zion in the Courts
    It does, however, have unfortunate encouraging effects on my incipient Mormon nationalism.

    I also think that most everyone reads
    England’s essay, Why the Church is as True as the Gospel, and
    Bushman’s essay, The Colonization of the Mormon Mind

  4. The FARMS crowd are also pretty taken with

    The Great Angel, by Margaret Barker

    I confess that I haven’t yet read it. Anyone able to say whether its as good as that, or not?

  5. I’d agree that McMurrin is vastly overrated. However, as others have said, it is still the best because little else has been written. Actually I’d suggest that Blake’s The Attributes of God is the place to start. But it deals with a slightly smaller set of theology than McMurrin, although it deals with it far more thoroughly.

    I’d also say that Quinn’s Magic is overrated. I think that overall I find Brooke far more interesting, although it too is problematic. The problem once again though is that Quinn touches on things Brooke doesn’t. Further nothing else has really been written on the topic in a comprehensive way. It is once again the advantage of being the greatest among few. I find Quinn’s work extremely important because of the subject matter but simultaneously dangerous because of how easy it is to misread uncautiously. In a way I view the book much like some of Nibley’s work on the Book of Mormon. It is very important to have blazed the trail, but I’d not consider Nibley’s Deseret Books original publications without severe critical considerations.

    One of my favorites that has been left out is LaSueur’s The 1838 War in Missouri. (Or a title to that effect) It’s a very different perspective than most know. While some will be troubled by it I personally was relieved to hear the Mormons fought back.

  6. Hmm. Top five? How about these:
    1. Book of Mormon (easy choice for number one)
    2. Doctrine & Covenants (a bit dry in spots, but some useful ideas)
    3. New Testament (could be number one, but it is not distinctively Mormon)
    4. Pearl of Great Price (especially the Joseph Smith History; that is really well done)
    5. Old Testament (I am teaching it in Seminary this year, and I really am learning to love Isaiah … really)

  7. My choices:

    Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism
    Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition
    Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon
    Philip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible
    Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism

    Plus a few essays:

    Alexander, “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine”
    Nibley, “The Passing of the Church” and “Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free”
    England, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” and “What Covenant Will God Receive in the Desert?”

  8. Greg, since you started this, I wonder if you would mind institutionalizing it. How about a link in our sidebar to “Mormon Studies Canon” or something like that, with a list of favorites. As you said in your initial post, it could be a great guide to those who are just embarking on this path. Plus, I would like to keep track of these ideas because I now have some new options for my next book.

  9. I always have trouble making my list. I think that I’d have to put Quinn in the list despite thinking it vastly overrated and urging caution towards it. It is unfortunate that no one has really followed up although Joe Swick is supposedly finishing up a book on the connection between Mormonism and Masonry. (Which is far more extensive than most think) However I believe he really doesn’t address Hermeticism and the remnant of Renaissance philosophy much. (I’ve not seen the manuscript – that’s just what I recall from the last time he mentioned it a year or so ago)

    I’d probably say LaSueur’s Missouri war, Quinn’s Magic World View, Nibley’s Approaching Zion, Bushman, and then Sorenson. But that’s if I was listing five.

    Of course realistically most Mormons haven’t read any of them including Nibley’s.

  10. Tell me more about the Angel and the Beehive.

    Maybe we could have a contest once we make this feature permanent. The first person to read the whole list gets to be King for a day, or something.

    I’ve asked for Ostler for Christmas, but I’m not expecting anything. My wife is deeply skeptical of my water-skeeter philosophizing; she points out that it’s pretty silly of me to try to comprehend the world when I still haven’t done my hometeaching.

  11. RE: The Angel and the Beehive

    The author, Armand Mauss, is a sociologist. The subtitle is “The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation” and it is essentially about the tension during last half of the 20th century between the distinctive, prophetic, and revolutionary aspects of Mormonism (the Angel) and its more institutional, conservative aspects (the Beehive). It has interesting chapters on the supposed power struggle between JR Clark and DO McKay, and how that played on in the ensuing decades as “Clark-men” ascended in Church leadership (HB Lee, Jos. Field. Smith, BR McConkie). It also contains interesting surveys of Church members in various settings (San Francisco, Wasatch Front) in an attempt to assess cultural and religious attitutes among the Saints.

    Its fun because it is gossipy about the very recent past and tells a great human story of how the church got to where it is as an institution; but the same tone makes me a bit skeptical of its scholarly bona fides.

  12. Regarding The Angel and the Beehive: I wasn’t too impressed. It struck me as an attempt to dress up what was, in essence, a couple of small but interesting observations into a larger academic thesis. I’m in sympathy with a lot of Mauss’s claims, but I was less than impressed with how, methodologically, he chose to put them together and advance them. (But that may simply be because he’d sat on his research for decades, and was desperate to finally get it in book form. I’ve heard very good things about his latest book, All Abraham’s Children.)

    Also, it occurs to me that I put nothing about polygamy on my list. If plural marriage is your thing, essential texts include:

    Sarah Gordon, The Mormon Question
    Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant
    Sterling Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy

  13. Barker’s book, The Great Angel, is excellent–and she has several other very interesting books as well. But nothing she writes is about Mormons or Mormon thought, so I wouldn’t put it on the list of books essential to Mormon Studies.

    I agree with Nate and Clark that McMurrin’s book is over-rated. His grasp of philosophical theology is merely conventional, though perhaps that’s what is needed in a basic book.

    I’m surprised not to see more people putting Givens’s and Barlow’s books on their lists. But then I don’t have a list myself, so who am I to complain.

  14. For those interested in the Arts,
    discussion always starts with
    Pte. Kimball, “The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” Ensign, July 1977, 3.

    It’s really good stuff. I’ll probably discuss some time at length in a post.

  15. I think that the best book on Mormon Art is currently lurking in my father’s brain. The trick is to get him to put it on paper. In the mean time, there is an interesting “first draft”:

    Richard Oman, et al., Images of Faith

    I think that any list of books on polygamy probably needs to include:

    More Wives Than One

    That said, as a lawyer, I am partial to Sally Gordon’s treatment.

  16. I have read with interest your lists and comments. I do agree there is a lack of readership in the common body of the church. I believe we should encourage them to begin with Gordon’s list and then we’ll move forward from that point. I would agree that this should be a sidebar that continues. Those of us who do read are always looking for something more to add to the shelf. It is interesting to see the various topics listed and makes me wonder what direction an author should take when considering a new text. It does seem there are some obvious holes. Thanks guys!

  17. My personal opinion is that no success with secondary sources can compensate for failure to read the primary sources. (A surprising number of people read Brodie and/or Bushman without bothering to read Smith’s own writings.)

    As for secondary sources, I’ll venture the following:

    1) Mormon Doctrine, Bruce R. McConkie. Love it or hate it, but this book is on a shelf in almost every active LDS household. And McConkie and Fielding Smith did far more to shape Mormon beliefs at the “pew and pulpit” level in our lifetimes than did Roberts or McMurrin. (Also rans: McConkie’s Messiah series, and Fielding Smith’s Answers to Gospel Questions and Doctrines of Salvation.)

    2) Approaching Zion, Hugh Nibley. This is another volume on almost every Mormon shelf. Only no one’s read it. But they should. They really should.

    3) An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, John Sorenson. The vanguard of a quiet, decades-long, ongoing revolution against the hemispheric model (or presupposition), Sorenson has done more, save Nibley alone, to place the Book of Mormon on better ancient historical footing than any other academic apologist.

    4) The Allegory of the Olive Tree, ed. Stephen Ricks and John Welch. With multiple authors coming at Jacob 5 from diverse scholarly angles, this is the best collection of commentary, analysis, and exegesis of uniquely Mormon scripture I’ve seen.

    5) A tie between Documentary History of the Church, ed. B.H. Roberts, and Comprehensive History of the Church, B.H. Roberts. Both are monumental accomplishments and have influenced generations of Mormon historians (both professional and armchair).


  18. Scott’s suggestions are (as they always are, Scott) dead-on. But they are also, with the exception of Sorenson, books that I didn’t consider including in my list. (I might be able to make an excuse in regards to Nibley, since I did suggest of couple of essential essays of his, but that’s just quibbling.) Why didn’t I think to include Sorenson’s Ancient American Setting? Or The Allegory of the Olive Tree? I’m not sure, but figuring out why might give me a better handle on what “Mormon studies” genuinely are. I guess I didn’t include them because they are works of textual/scriptural, not historical/cultural, exploration. But then I have to wonder, in a church where one’s religious identity is fundamentally tied up in a particular textual claim (i.e., that the BoM really is a book of scripture, and is ancient, and true), to what extent is studying the BoM not ALSO a study of “Mormonness” (to say nothing of “Mormonism”)? The fact that I consider Givens to be so important clearly suggests that point. Interesting.

  19. Scott’s comments remind me of a conversation that I once had with a very well informed and well read student of Mormonism. He was a bit shocked that I had Dean Jesse’s compilations of Joseph Smith’s writings. “Why do you have those? he asked.

    Well…er…to read…

  20. Which just gives me the opportunity to rant about the fact that the Dean Jessee series, The Papers of Joseph Smith, which is simply the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT historical project which ANY scholar associated with the church can POSSIBLY contribute to, has been stalled at Volume 2 for over a decade. Where’s Volume 3 (“Journal, 1843-1844”)?! Where’s the rest of the projected volumes? And most importantly, why hasn’t anyone ever been able to explain what the delay is? Years ago, I used to call Benchmark books in Salt Lake every 6 months or so, just to hear if they’ve heard anything. I got lots of conspiracy theories (some of which seemed to have merit), but nothing more. Depressingly, I’ve basically given up hope on that series.

  21. I have no idea of the reasons for the delays. A couple of points to be optimistic about:

    1. Lots of previously unavailable manuscripts are now out in holographic version on the Church released DVD. Admittedly, you have to go to a library to access them, but I think you may be able to order them through your local family history libary.

    2. Jesse’s project is slowly proceeding. What is really exciting for me is that they are going to be publishing all of Joseph’s legal paper next. It turns out he was sued much more often than anyone had previously thought. Even though I suspect most of the mainline Mormon historians will ignore this stuff or mangle it, it ought to provide lots of fun stuff for Mormon studies inclined lawyers to puzzle over for many years to come…

  22. That is great news Nate. The first two volumes are invaluable. Along these lines, does anyone know how Bushman’s long-awaited biography of Joseph is coming along? Nate? I know that he’s retired from teaching now and working on it pretty much full time.
    I have to think that will jump to the top of our little list when it comes out.

  23. Russell,

    I (as you well know) share your impatience with the progress of the PJS project. The last word I heard on the project was from a post by Daniel Peterson on the ZLMB message board. (If someone has the time to sort through the archives there, it may still be found.) The gist of it, as I recall, was that Jessee had bitten off far more than he could chew and that the work was now proceeding with a team of editors (assigned to different volumes–more numerous than originally anticipated) under the direction of Richard Bushman.

    But while we’re voicing such rants (not that anyone can hear), I’ll repeat my perennial complaint about Signature Books’ failure to make available–even in a limited run and at great expense to the consumer–the nine volume collection of Wilford Woodruff’s journals they released years ago. (Yes, I’ve made the complaint directly to them. Several times. In the meantime I guess I must content myself with a recent collection of poems in tribute to the “September Six.”)


  24. Oh yes, I remember talking with you about the Signature thing. Maybe that is an even bigger deal than the PJS series–after all, the Wilford Woodruff Journals are actually DONE. The galleys are laying around (literally or in a computer file) SOMEWHERE, unless some editor at Signature has been remarkably foolish. How hard would it be for them to run a couple of special order editions? Let ’em charge in hundreds of dollars (or more) for each copy; there are collectors (and libraries) that would pay it.

  25. rather than compile the best past five, what about the five most important books that have not yet been written?

  26. A VERY intersting question. Here are some possibilities:

    A Comprehensive History of Mormon Theology.

    A Scholarly Biography of Joseph F. Smith (the chief Mormon transition figure) (Note, Scott Kenney is working on one.)

    A Legal History of the Church in the 20th Century. (there are lots of interesting international issues that have never been really examined)

    A sustained attempt to examine social, political, legal, and moral philosophy using Mormon theology.

    A comprehensive scholarlly commentary on the Mormon scriptures that takes into account all of the scholarlly literature that has been developed since Nibley. In other words, a resource the lets me look at Alma 32 and more or less know everything that anyone from Metcalfe to McConkie has said about it. Something like the New Jerome Biblical Commentary of the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Right now, LDS commentaries pay almost no attention to the text and simply collect GA quotes on whatever the editor determines the topic of the text to be. IOW, they are almost useless for studying the text itself.

    A Critical Edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. There is a BYU disseration from the 1970s that sort of does this, but it is hard to find, horribly organized, and badly out of date. There should be a book that allows you to trace out the date and source of every variant text of the Doctrine and Covenants.

    A Guide to Mormon Studies. I have in mind something like the various Blackwell Companions to aspecsts of philosophy that allow you to easily get into the literatures and issues involved in various discussions.

    A thorough treatment of the history of Mormon art and a discussion of Mormon aesthetics.

    Just some thoughts. First you have think of the books you would like to see, and then figure out what should be in the top five.

    Good question lyle.

  27. Someone actually was writing a encyclopedia of Mormon ideas (or something to that effect). I was contacted to do the section on epistemology. (I’m not sure I was the best choice, mind you, made more difficult by the paucity of good sources on the topic) However the project fell through. I contacted Signature about it and they didn’t know anything about it but thought it was a good idea.

    Something like the Blackwell serious would be excellent. I wonder if perhaps that isn’t a bit premature in that I think many of the ideas are only being now examined with any rigour. Further many areas still tend to have one sides approaches. (i.e., unlike the topics Blackwell addresses, there are not a variety of perspectives on the topics within Mormonism)

  28. Ahem. Anybody notice yet that no books about Mormon women are on this list? Claudia Bushman’s Mormon Sisters is of historical interest, having been the opening salvo in Mormon women’s studies, and many of the papers included there have held up pretty well for three decades. Sisters in Spirit, edited by Maureen U. Beecher and Lavina Anderson has lots of good stuff in it. Maxine Hanks’ book reprinted some of it, along with important stuff like Quinn’s “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood…”, but I’d say the quality of the things included there is uneven. And there’s the cautious, but excellent _Women of Covenant_, edited by Jill Derr et al. There’s plenty more, but at least one of those four ought to be on any list of essentials.

    (Climbing down from my feminist soapbox…)

  29. I thought that _Sister Saints_ had some good biographies. Zina Huntington is a hero of mine. But the book overall is definitely a mixed bag.

  30. Of course, though I think Mormon Enigma may turn out to be valuable for the role the book’s publication played in the history of Mormon studies than necessarily for its accuracy or analysis.
    btw, Nate, I just recently read the history of Primary that your mom did with Carol Madsen, and it’s really a good little book. They manage to hint just enough at elements of conflict to give clues for anyone who wants to look, while still being “faith-promoting” enough to be published by Deseret Book. That kind of balance is difficult and laudable, I think.

  31. my five:

    1. brodie, no man knows my history
    2. krakauer, under the banner of heaven
    3. quinn, the mormon hierarchy
    4. compton, in sacred loneliness: the plural wives of joseph smith
    5. palmer, insider’s view of mormon origins

  32. Sorry whatever, but this list doesn’t cut it. I can understand putting brodie and Quinn on the list, and even crompton. But Krakauer and Palmer? Krakauer is at best journalism. Palmer simply summarizes the research and positions of a bunch of other folks. Neither of these books makes an original contribution.

  33. I’d like to see a book on the possibilities of Mormon communalism in the modern age (whether Church-wide, certain segments, or private attempts) drawing on the experience of other groups for the practical aspects and on our own experience to discuss what the objective really is. Steve Marsh knows more about this than I, of course.

    I’d like something about Mormonism and warfare, though not primarily a history.

    This is a little odd, but I’d like a book that tries to come up with a model of apostasy and revelation, and then uses it and extensive research into the sources to try and understand the level of divine direction involved in various religious movements through world history (e.g., Mohammed and the Taiping Emperor–Korihors, Martin Luthers, or Moses?). I have to admit that the first part would be a lot more useful than the second as far as advancing our understanding, but the second could do great things in advancing proselyting and Church identity in certain areas.

    Most of all, I’m looking forward to the sealed portions of the Book of Mormon.

  34. I’d agree with Nate’s comments. I think there is a big difference between journalism and history – not the least of which is how facts are dealt with. Journalists almost always utilize one or two “secondary sources” (typically uncritically). I think Krakauer is a great example of that as it that one book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre that came out after Bagley’s. (Forget the title) There is a much, much lower standard of rigor for journalism.

    On the other hand, related to Nate’s discussion of history, journalists typically do try and find the relevance of the story. I think Krakauer, whether you think him fair or not, does this quite well. So too do many of the other journalists writing on Mormon history. It is just unfortunate that their history elements in the writings are so often very weak.

    I’d also agree with Nate’s comments on Palmer. I only read a couple of chapters in Barnes and Noble, so some might think it inappropriate to comment. But I found very little “new” there. To me it was old wine in new bottles. Even the take of “be a believing Mormon while thinking it all fiction” isn’t that new. Way back in the Signature/FARMS wars of the early 90’s people were promoting that view.

    We had a rather “heated” discussion of Palmer’s book on Eyring-l. I’d asked what was new and a few people brought up the Golden Pot story. I’m reasonably sure I’d heard that one before, in the context of similar stories within the hermetic culture. (Many of which offer far more parallels that Palmer’s choices) I think it at best a weak parallel, but it is something not heavily discussed in the apologetic realm.

    Here’s the link for those interested:


    Once again I think that Palmer at least tries to systemize something out of the data. So while I thoroughly disagree with him, he does attempt to do what Nate says isn’t done enough.

  35. I don’t know if anyone comes here any more, but I had a question for all you Mormon studies types, and this seemed like the place for it.

    My dad has decided to undertake a study of Isaiah, so we’re all doing that with him in our family. He went to Deseret Book and looked around until he decided that a book called _Understanding_Isaiah_, by Donald W. Parry, Jay A. Parry, and Tina M. Peterson was the one. Does anyone know if these authors are supposed to be any good? Are there any other books that people would recommend for studying Isaiah?

    My impression so far is that Parry seems to know his Hebrew history pretty well, but I feel like he doesn’t always show his reasoning or how he gets to his conclusion the way I’d like.

  36. I have no idea who Tina Peterson is, but Jay Parry is Don’s brother, and did work for the Church correlation committee, if memory serves. Don is a Hebrew prof. at BYU, and recognized outside the church as a Hebrew scholar. He’s on the international Dead Sea Scroll translation group (along with a couple others from BYU). He’s edited and contributed several books at FARMS and Deseret Book, but also with Mellen Press and E.J. Brill (“A New Edition of the Great Isaiah Scroll: Transcriptions and Photographs,” with Elisha Qimron.) I had him for a couple of classes at the Y. He’s good, but his LDS stuff isn’t always as rigorous as his non-lds stuff, which drives me nuts. You can find several brief bio’s of him if you google Donald W. Parry. He’s done several LDS Isaiah books.

  37. I’ve not read Parry’s, but I rather liked Ludlow’s [i]Isaiah: Prophet, Seer and Poet[/i]. It isn’t that original, mainly adopting most of the standard readings. But it does make use of typological senses a fair bit, as influenced by the use in the Book of Mormon.

  38. Thanks for the insight. It sounds like Parry is pretty qualified and scholarly, although I agree that this work (targetted toward an LDS audience) seems to be filtered and interpretted more than I’d sometimes prefer (as opposed to letting me draw my own conclusions).

    And thanks for the recommendation, Clark. I’ll probably check it out.

  39. Adam wrote:

    “I’d like to see a book on the possibilities of Mormon communalism in the modern age.”

    Have you read or heard of “Working Toward Zion: Principles of the United Order for the Modern World” by James W. Lucas and Warner P. Woodworth?

    My wife introduced me to the book and it was quite interesting. The first half talked about economic history from a high level and how everything man has done falls short of God’s ideal. It then talks more nuts and bolts about modern day projects influenced by united order principles. I lost interest eventually because I am not at all business-minded, but someone who is may find it useful. Somewhere in my mind I seem to recall that Woodworth started a program with education in the Philipines that became the catalyst for the church’s perpetual education fund.

    While I don’t have the book with me, I’d expect it’s bibliography to be worthwhile too.

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