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date: 27 November 2021


Abstract and Keywords

History and record keeping have been integral to Mormonism from its founding. Initial efforts were by Mormons themselves, emphasizing persecution and heroic resilience. Scholars had little interest, aside from the Mormon role in Western colonization. By the mid-twentieth century, Mormon historiography had begun to mature. Scholarly treatments began to question the traditional narratives of Mormon origins and look at darker episodes of its past. By the 1960s, a “new Mormon history” had emerged, bringing critical scholarship to bear on Mormon history writing. The LDS church responded by professionalizing its own work in the field, but a short-lived golden age was followed by retrenchment. A generation later, a new field of Mormon Studies emerged in the academy. The institutional church’s history department entered a new era of professionalism and transparency. The present collection is a reflection of the interdisciplinarity and depth of this new field of study.

Keywords: historiography, John Whitmer, persecution, Fawn Brodie, Juanita Brooks, Leonard Arrington, Rodney Stark, New Mormon History, Mormon Studies, LDS, Latter-day Saints, Mormon, Mormons

The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism concerns more than history. Yet the study of the Mormon past has always been an imperative for the Mormon people themselves. On the day the church was formed, a revelation directed that a record be kept (Doctrine and Covenants [D&C] 21:1). Smith’s scribe Oliver Cowdery at first assumed responsibility, then in March 1831 John Whitmer was officially designated historian and recorder of the church. Mormons have been assiduous at record keeping ever since. As a consequence of their tumultuous nineteenth-century conflicts with their neighbors, and their sense of being a persecuted minority in a supposedly tolerant and pluralistic democracy, Mormon record keeping often emphasized their sufferings at the hands of hostile outsiders. In fact, they considered themselves under divine command in 1839 to “gather … up a knowledge of all the facts, and sufferings, and abuse put upon them by the people of [Missouri]” (D&C 121:1). As a consequence, the story of the Mormon people, their beliefs, practices, and history, was for most of the past narrated by the Saints themselves. The story of their religion’s founding, their repeated expulsions from their homes, and their epic trek to the Great Basin of Utah were the stuff of faith-promoting Sunday sermons and official history as well. To other Americans who knew of the movement, Mormons served—if notice was taken—as a foil for American self-fashioning: unrepublican, polygamous, theocratic, secretive, and perhaps dangerous. A whole array of famous visitors ventured into their mountain fastness to regale the wider public with impressions that ranged from admiration to bemusement to outrage.

In the early twentieth century, little changed, though much was changing within the religion itself as it adjusted to statehood for Utah and accommodation to American social and political ways. The country’s academics by and large omitted Mormonism from accounts of the American religious experience, even if historians took note of their role in colonizing the intermountain West. So for the first half of the century, Mormon historians occupied with Mormon history typically told their story to an audience of religious peers or a few curious outsiders, as an act of devotion and even defense. But in the years after the Second World War, Mormonism became a subject of interest to far more people than the Saints and their record keepers. Growing scrutiny (p. 2) from outside, and intellectual pressures from within, combined to challenge the narratives of the past.

In 1945, Fawn Brodie published No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. It was not the first biography of Joseph Smith by a skeptic or dissenter from the faith—but it had the greatest impact. Brodie was a gifted writer and historian, and unlike past exposés and critiques of the Prophet, Brodie’s account acknowledged a high level of intellectual and creative capacity on the part of Smith. Her extremely popular treatment was thus taken seriously by historians and general readers, and added a new dimension—a credible, book-length, scholarly dimension—to attacks on the truthfulness and legitimacy of Mormonism’s orthodox rendering of its own history. Such a widely read and plausible challenge was something the church had never confronted to any significant degree.

Then in 1950, Juanita Brooks published an account of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, which blew the lid off the darkest chapter in Mormonism’s history, assigning unambiguous blame to Mormons for the tragedy, while offering context for the traumatized and exiled people’s paranoid action. This same decade, Mormonism received one of its first serious treatments from a nonhistorian. Thomas O’Dea, a sociologist, produced a balanced and insightful study in 1957 (The Mormons) and the next year, LDS historian Leonard Arrington published his Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900. O’Dea and Arrington were important figures for expanding the study of Mormonism to fields and disciplines beyond history. But they were also important harbingers of a new middle ground in writing about Mormonism. O’Dea as a Catholic and Arrington as a Mormon were part of a growing wave of academics to rise above hostility and apologetics alike, and expose the richness of Mormon history, culture, and theology to a public largely nurtured on caricature and stereotype—not to say a narrowly circumscribed range of topics that usually started and ended with polygamy.

Still, the study of Mormonism remained largely a Mormon enterprise. In 1965, Arrington and other progressive scholars in the church formed the Mormon History Association (MHA), with the explicit goal of rendering the faithful study of Mormon history more professionalized.1 What might have been a cause for unalloyed celebration was complicated in Mormon eyes by the group’s decision to execute Mormon history in more “human or naturalistic terms.”2 Given the organization’s concurrent goal “to include Reorganized LDS members, non-Mormons, [and] lapsed Mormons” as well as believers,3 the forum for uninhibited discussion and exploration of Mormonism outside the bounds of orthodox control would clearly be a potentially explosive experiment.

Initially, the surge of scholarly interest in the Mormon past ushered in a vibrant era of intellectual inquiry and productive work that received official praise and support. In fact, staunch conservative Joseph Fielding Smith, who in the 1960s was Church Historian as well as a senior apostle, was a prime mover in efforts to professionalize the office.4 Membership in professional associations was urged on employees, trained archivists and librarians were hired, and upgraded facilities were planned. By 1969, the changes in approach to the Mormon past taken by LDS scholars were marked enough that professor of history Moses Rischin, not himself a Latter-day Saint, concluded that (p. 3) developments constituted a “new Mormon history.”5 The era of Camelot, as Arrington’s associate Davis Bitton later called the next years, would mark unprecedented access to church archives, and surging scholarly production of high quality and volume. Outside official channels, developments were just as dramatic. By 1974, the Mormon History Association would have almost a thousand members, with enough scholars, interested public, and resources to launch the Journal of Mormon History. But it was a painfully short-lived Camelot. Within a decade, Arrington had been released and he and his colleagues reassigned to disparate programs and locations. Access to church archives was no longer as open, and signals from the church leadership suggested concern over the new trends.

These setbacks, however, were temporary, and insufficient to stem the currents that have become a tidal wave of new scholarship on Mormonism. A number of events, within and outside the academy, coalesced to give impetus to a field now commonly referred to as Mormon Studies. In 1984, sociologist Rodney Stark controversially predicted that Mormonism stands on the threshold “of becoming the first major faith to appear on earth since the Prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert.”6 In 2001, the LDS Historical Department began a multivolume, multimillion dollar project to publish the Joseph Smith Papers, a series with nationally prominent non-Mormon advisors that aspires to put into print all documents created by or under the direction of Joseph Smith. Chairs and programs in Mormon Studies were established at the University of Durham, in the UK (originally in Nottingham), Utah State University, Claremont Graduate School, and the University of Virginia. Monographs on Mormon topics that were in the past the province of the University of Illinois Press or a few Utah presses are now regularly published by Oxford, the University of North Carolina, Harvard, Columbia, and other prestigious presses. Journals and blogs devoted to Mormon Studies have proliferated (including the Mormon Studies Review, launched in 2013), and venues like the American Academy of Religion and the American Historical Association hold regular sessions on Mormon themes. The media have continued, meanwhile, to provide a steady diet—of uneven quality—of Mormon images: from the serious to the comic to the absurd, from PBS documentaries (The Mormons, 2007) to exploitative series about polygamy (Big Love, Sister Wives) to Broadway musicals (The Book of Mormon). Finally, in 2012, a Mormon almost won the race to the White House, forcing many Americans to consider as never before the relevance of Mormonism in American public life.

In the present collection, no attempt is made to provide comprehensive coverage of this field coming to be called Mormon Studies. The Handbook is not an encyclopedia. Geographic coverage, for example, is selective and illustrative rather than global. What the editors have attempted to do is provide a number of chapters by leading scholars in their fields, to convey the range of disciplines and subjects where Mormonism might enrich and recontextualize any number of academic conversations. Seeking to go beyond the traditional coverage that is largely concerned with history and sociology, we have included essays on various aspects of theology, lived religion, cultural studies, communication studies, philosophy, the arts, the law, and other fields. Together, they (p. 4) suggest not just the present status, but the future possibilities of an exciting new field still in process of definition.


Arrington, Leonard J. Adventures of a Church Historian. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Arrington, Leonard J. “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism in the Twentieth Century.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1, no. 1 (Spring 1966): 15–28.Find this resource:

Rischin, Moses. “The New Mormon History.” American West 6 (March 1969): 49.Find this resource:

Stark, Rodney. “The Rise of a New World Faith.” Review of Religious Research 26, no. 1 (September 1984): 18–27.Find this resource:

Stark, Rodney. “Extracting Social Scientific Models from Mormon History.” Journal of Mormon History 25, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 174–94.Find this resource:

Walker, Ronald W., David J. Whittaker, and James B. Allen, eds. Mormon History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.Find this resource:


(1.) Arrington gives his account of the founding and early years of the MHA in Adventures of a Church Historian, 58–61.

(4.) In the 1960s, Smith directed his assistant’s involvement in professional organizations and oversaw the hiring of employees with professional credentials, the implementation of more professional cataloguing practices, and the planning of new facilities. See Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian, 69.

(5.) Rischin, “New Mormon History,” 49, cited in Walker, Whittaker, and Allen, Mormon History, 60. This chapter is the best overview of the New Mormon History; chap. 2 provides an authoritative account of LDS historiography from 1900 to 1950.

(6.) According to sociologist Rodney Stark, some now living may see it grow from its eleven million in the year 2000 to the neighborhood of 267 million by the year 2080. See his “Rise of a New World Faith,” 19, 22–23. Though criticized as extravagant by some sociologists, Stark argues more recently that his estimate may have been too conservative. As of 1999, “membership is substantially higher than my most optimistic projection.” “Extracting Social Scientific Models from Mormon History,” Journal of Mormon History 25, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 176.