As I see it, history offers a more promising avenue for understanding Mormonism than doctrinal speculation (in all its varieties). History offers the advantage of talking about things that actually happened — it's more than just a clever word game. But what do you do with Mormon history? What does it mean? It seems to tell us something relevant about Mormonism and about our own religious identity, but what exactly does it or can it tell us?
Historians still grapple with those sticky little questions (see here for an LDS treatment) so don't expect me to give a one-liner that answers them in a satisfying way. I think people read history largely for identity and life context. That works both personally and institutionally. People do genealogy and personal history to find out who their ancestors were and where they came from as a way of finding out something related to themselves. People read Mormon history to find out how the Church started and how it developed into what it is today. That sense of institutional history might enrich a given individual's sense of identification with the LDS community and the LDS Church. For some individuals, of course, it makes that sense of identification problematic. But that's not a reason to avoid the history. No less an authority than Richard L. Bushman counsels us to delve right into troublesome LDS historical issues rather than sail around them, and by grappling come to grips with them. Sounds like good advice to me.
But Mormon history is not a self-contained unit (although this tends to be the orthodox approach to the subject). It really should be linked up to a larger narrative, a bigger slice of history, to get the leverage it deserves. I see three possible settings that perform this function for LDS history.
First, there is the larger narrative of the history of religion in America. Christian denominations have flourished and diversified in America like nowhere else, and Mormonism is one of those new and diverse sects. Traditional religious history, dominated by Protestants, celebrated the rise of mainline Protestant denominations, but depicted everything else, from homegrown Christian sects to Catholicism to Asian religions, as a bunch of un-Christian, un-American aberrations.
More recent scholarship has taken the full range of religious belief seriously and brought Mormonism (as well as other denominations and religious traditions) into the main current of American religious history. So one approach to an enhanced reading of Mormon history is to read a couple of modern treatments of American religious history. See, for example, the books by Jon Butler and Steven Stein on my left sidebar.
A second grand narrative that complements Mormon history is the story of the West. Mormon history and Western history were separate disciplines for many years, but that has changed in the last two decades. Jan Shipps was one of the earliest participants in this partial integration (at least it seems that way from her descriptions in Sojourner in the Promised Land, also on the left sidebar).
And the Mormon experience with the West started well before 1847. In 1820, upstate New York was really part of the West, the frontier of settlement. As settlement moved west, the frontier advanced toward the Mississippi, then across it to the Great American Desert and over the Rockies. As early as 1831, Joseph identified the distant state of Missouri as the site of the planned future city of the Saints — at the time, as far west as you could get without ending up in Indian Country. And a company of hearty, faithful Mormons obediently trekked to Missouri and tried to make a go of it during the 1830s. The later trip across the plains to Utah was the same sort of project but on a grander scale.
So reading Western history is a second way to get an enhanced understanding of Mormon history. See, for example, The American West: A New Interpretive History, still perched atop my reading list (hey, it's a long book, but I did manage to post on it once here).
A third approach for placing Mormon history in a larger narrative framework is legal history. This might sound dull, but the fact is that the Mormons have unwittingly played a central role in the development of several constitutional doctrines. For example, Reynolds v. US (1878) was the first US Supreme Court case that dealt with the Free Exercise Clause. The forty-year struggle of the US government against the LDS practice of polygamy and the three-year Congressional investigation into the LDS Church prior to seating LDS apostle Reed Smoot as a senator representing the State of Utah are also constitutional episodes that deserve more attention. Kathleen Flake's recent book The Politics of American Religious Identity and the earlier book Zion in the Courts have laid a foundation for future work in this area.