Mormon History: A Review

This survey of Mormon history by three Brigham Young University historians helped by a Washington State University sociologist, traces writing about the Mormons from 1830 until the twenty-first century. It grows out of their own long work in Mormon history and historiographic studies. It is organized chronologically, topically, institutionally, and by author. With four writers working a restricted field there is some repetition.

Historians Walker, Whittaker, and Allen lead off with three expansively annotated chronological chapters. These deal first with the mismatched bipolarism of nineteenth century writing; second, with the diminished partisanship of the early twentieth century as Mormon separatism slackened; and, third, with the late twentieth century drama of a “New Mormon History” in which a handful of non-Mormon scholars presented some of the most insightful work while a host of Mormons struggled to get the record in print yet keep clear of the church’s reluctance to reexamine its past. A chapter follows on biography in which a mix of survey and advice reflects the hope that future work can become more interpretive. A final chapter by sociologist Armond Mauss traces the flowering of Mormon studies by social scientists after 1930, concluding that the field is not apt to be equally productive in the new century. Completing the book are appendixes on imprints, reference works, and bibliographies.

Mormon History is a sound and carefully wrought work that reflects many of Mormon history’s problems as well as its vitality and its productivity. Among other things, it puts much data at the fingers of workers in Mormon history, social sciences, and archival fields. Already students of library science at some of the nation’s great universities (particularly those with no special pretense to Mormon research) are turning to it as an organizational tool.

Occasional limitations seem related to the careful couching of this book. For example in describing antiquarians the authors note that early Mormon writers tended to memorialize, to neglect women, to emphasize “administrative considerations” more than “human life” and to stress “career over character” (pp. 14—6). Had they added a preference for chronological summary over interpretive analysis they would have come near describing the spirit of much of the New Mormon History as well.

Another limitation is apparent in the authors’ sense that the western regionalists who vitalized Mormon history during the second to fourth decades of the twentieth century not only belonged to a “lost generation,” but were in something of a historical doldrums as well (pp. 47—50). While they give Juanita Brooks (The Mountain Meadows Massacre, Norman, OK, 1962), and Dale Morgan and Fawn Brodie (biographers of Joseph Smith) considerable attention, and mention Bernard DeVoto, Nels Anderson, and Vardis Fisher, they ignore many other reform regionalists and show scant appreciation for their relationship to earlier developments and to the New Mormon History.