I bought and read Matthew Bowman's The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Random House, 2012) over a year ago, but never quite got around to posting a review. Instead of a review, I will now do several posts, pulling an issue or two from each chapter and providing links to helpful articles, essays, and posts that discuss those issues in a helpful or insightful way. The simple truth is that every Mormon ought to have read a book on the history of the LDS Church, and The Mormon People is the most up-to-date and balanced one-volume treatment available.
Writing LDS history is a tricky business. It can be written from the viewpoint of a faithful insider, as with LDS curriculum materials and books published by Deseret Book. It can be written from a neutral and objective viewpoint, by either insiders or outsiders, as many historians try to do (although no writer can be fully objective). "Neutral and objective" does not mean unfaithful, just that the writer attempts to consider all sources and consciously strives to avoid bias or favoritism. Or it can be written as a critical outsider, from either a critical secular or critical religious (but not LDS) viewpoint. Given the strong feelings most readers have about religion and about the LDS Church, any viewpoint will strike some potential readers as misguided. Bowman's book adopts the middle course: the bibliographic essays at the back of the book reference books and articles across the full Mormon spectrum. Readers who prefer the faithful approach to LDS history should consider Allen and Leonard's The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Deseret Book, 1991; orig. pub. 1976), another fine one-volume treatment of LDS history.
Why bother reading LDS history? For LDS readers, it is important to know LDS history because LDS faith claims are rooted in history as much as in doctrine or theology. And, of course, a lot of criticism of LDS belief and practice is based on a certain view of historical events or episodes in LDS history, so a working knowledge of LDS history is protection against the misstatements and misrepresentations that sometimes appear in criticism of the LDS Church (this preemptive use of LDS history is often termed "inoculation"). Finally, history helps us see where Mormonism fits in relation to other Christian denominations. Bowman notes that Mormonism "has been called the most American of all religions" but, at the same time, "Mormonism remains a faith on the fringe" (p. x). We're not Catholic; we're not Protestant; we're not mainstream; we're not Evangelical. We're complicated.
Here is Bowman's quick summary of the first century of LDS history.
From 1820 to 1830, Joseph Smith, Jr., the young son of a farmer living in ... rural upstate New York, experienced a series of remarkable visionary experiences. In April of the latter year, at age twenty-five, he organized a new religion. ... Driven at sword's point from Kirtland, Ohio, in 1838, from Far West, Missouri, in 1839, and from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846, the Mormons fled angry dissenters, hostile mobs, and the stern power of state and federal governments to the Great Basin, where in 1847 they began to build their own society and hoped to practice their faith in peace. Forty years later, determined to stamp out the Mormons' de facto theocracy, their economic communalism, and their practice of polygamy, Congress sent federal marshals to Salt Lake City. After half a decade of struggle, the Mormons capitulated and Utah became a state. (p. ix.)
Two final points for this introduction. First, the trek across the plains and through the mountains left the Mormons relatively isolated from the rest of America. Isolation plus persecution (as the Mormons saw it) created of Mormonism something more than a denomination. "In response to the persecution they faced in the United States, the Mormons made of themselves a people" (p. xiv). There is more to the phrase "Mormon culture" than to any similar denominational subculture. Familiarity with LDS history is the first step in appreciating the extent to which Mormonism is more than just another Protestant denomination. Jan Shipps calls Mormonism "a new faith tradition," a useful and positive term. What is the essence of LDS faith? What is the substance of LDS tradition and practice? What is the LDS approach to religion? The answers emerge from a study of LDS history.
A second point is the doctrinal tension between the LDS Church and traditional western Christianity, whether Catholic, mainstream Protestant, or conservative Protestant branches. Bowman summarizes:
[Mormons] believe in a creator God, a supreme deity, God the Father, whom they often call Heavenly Father. They believe that his son, Jesus Christ, was born to a virgin on the earth and was crucified and resurrected to redeem the world from sin. They also believe in the Holy Spirit. But they reject the orthodox theology of the Trinity to which virtually all other Christians subscribe; Mormons teach that God the Father and Jesus Christ both possess bodies of flesh and bone and thus are separate beings bound into the Trinity by mind, will, and purpose, rather than being, as the Nicene Creed puts it, of one substance. Mormons believe in the Bible, though Joseph Smith taught that errors and mistranslations might sometimes compromise its text. (p. xvii.)
Add to that new scripture added to the LDS canon (the Book of Mormon, revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, and short texts in the Pearl of Great Price) and the traditional LDS view of "the Great Apostasy" and it is clear why there is some tension between the LDS Church and other Christian denominations. So how Christian are we? Or, a bit deeper: In what ways are Mormons Christian as opposed to ways in which Mormons are something else, such as harking back to Old Testament views and practices, importing esoteric ideas from the modern era, or creating entirely new religious ideas? Again, LDS history offers an answer, or at least the beginning of answer, to that set of questions.
Links to related DMI posts: