August 8, 2012

Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900, by Leonard J. Arrington (University of Illinois Press). A masterful account of the policies and practices that enabled Mormons to settle in the hostile environment of the Great Basin. Arrington, the dean of Mormon historians for many years, shows that the Mormons achieved this feat by imposing a managed economy on a frontier society.

Mormonism in Transition, 1890–1930: A History of the Latter-day Saints, by Thomas G. Alexander (University of Illinois Press). Alexander describes how the Church of Latter-day Saints transformed itself in almost every dimension in the decades after polygamy was ended and statehood was achieved. These were the years when Mormons assimilated into American society as the church sloughed off the practices that had long alienated them from the rest of the country.

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard Lyman Bushman (Knopf). A practicing Mormon attempts to understand the founding prophet of Mormonism in realistic but sympathetic terms.

By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion, by Terryl L. Givens (Oxford University Press). An account of how the Book of Mormon was received by believers and unbelievers. Givens presents the ongoing debates about the book’s historical authenticity in evenhanded fashion.

The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation, by Armand L. Mauss (University of Illinois Press). Mauss offers a sociological framework for understanding LDS Church policy and practices in the 20th century by tracing the oscillations between separation from American society (the angel) and assimilation (the beehive).

The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, by Sterling M. McMurrin (University of Utah Press). McMurrin, a cultural Mormon and a philosopher, briefly and beautifully explains the meaning of Mormon beliefs in terms of classic philosophical categories.

David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, by Gregory A. Prince and William Robert Wright (University of Utah Press). Drawing on interviews and the minutes of the governing body of the LDS Church, Prince and Wright offer an inside look at the workings of the inner councils of the church during the administration of David O. McKay, one of its most important 20th-century presidents.

Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, by Jan Shipps (University of Illinois Press). A religious studies scholar explains the meaning of Mormonism in the broad sweep of religious history.


A somewhat biased list

Surely there are some "essential books on Mormonism" that are not written by Mormon authors? Every author on this list is a member of the Mormon church, except for Jan Shipps, who is known to be very sympathetic to the church. Could the compiler of the list possibly be biased, since he too is a devout Mormon? A list compiled by a non-Mormon or former Mormon, knowledgeable about what is available, would be a very different list, and include works by Brodie, Quinn, Bagley, Metcalfe, Vogel, Marquardt, Newell/Avery, and others.