Recommended Readings on Modern Mormonism

There’s a lot of top 5 lists out there listing the best books on Mormonism. I thought it might be useful to provide a similar list specifically focused on “modern Mormonism.” Judging which books are the “best,” of course, is a bit subjective. I am, by training, a historian of the early American republic, and my research on Mormonism is thus largely limited to its earliest years. The books listed below, then, are those I’ve found most helpful in trying to understand modern Mormonism.

Note: Trying to put together a top 5 list proved difficult, so I’ve opted instead to provide the best books in 5 categories, with 2 books per category. Thanks also to my co-contributors Matt Bowman and Ben Park for their input and suggestions to this list. 

Surveys of Modern Mormonism

  • Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012). Fellow Peculiar People contributor and professor of religion at Hamden-Sydney College Matt Bowman has received much praise for his lively and readable volume published earlier this year, and rightfully so. It is the best one volume history of Mormonism out there, synthesizing a half century of scholarship on all aspects of the Mormon movement into a very accessible narrative. Matt’s book is especially deft in its provocative interpretation of the progressive roots of institutional Mormonism today and in its close attention to, as the title indicates, the Mormon people.
  • Claudia L. Bushman, Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2006). Neatly divided into 10 thematic chapters (with an eleventh reflecting on “the Church at one hundred and seventy-five”), Bushman’s short book is a useful reference for those wanting a short overview of the LDS Church’s ecclesiology and theology (chapter 2) or its missionary impulse and expanding international reach (chapter 3), or a summary of Mormonism and race, ethnicity, and class (chapter 6) or gender and sexuality (chapter 7).

Sociological Studies

Mormon Women

Biography and Church Leaders

  • Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005). Utilizing previously unavailable manuscript sources (especially the David O. McKay papers kept by his secretary Clare Middlemiss) as well as hundreds of oral history interviews, Prince and Wright provide an excellent biography of the LDS Church’s 9th President that doubles as a gripping history of (as the subtitle suggests) the rise of modern Mormonism. Employing a thematic approach, the authors demonstrate the importance of McKay’s contribution to significant changes in Mormon missionary work, public relations and image, education, and attitudes toward race, revelation, and prophecy.
  • Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005). Don’t let the author (Edward is Spencer’s youngest son) or the publisher (Deseret Book is the LDS Church’s in-house publisher) fool you; Lengthen Your Stride is candid, even-handed, and well-written biography. It is also, like the McKay biography, the best book-length source on an important period in recent Mormon history. Spencer Kimball’s presidency saw the church confronted with new opportunities and new challenges, and Kimball left his mark on Mormonism in several ways; perhaps none more important than the 1978 revelation lifting of the infamous “priesthood ban,” which previously denied full participation in Mormon worship and church leadership to black Latter-day Saints.

Lived Religion

  • Susan Buhler Taber, Mormon Lives: A Year in the Elkton Ward (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993). In my opinion, Taber’s study is one of the most underappreciated contributions to Mormon studies. Part ethnographic study and part (to borrow a Mormon term) ward history, Taber’s book is simultaneously revealing and moving, providing unparalleled insight into what the lives of Latter-day Saints in a largely typical Mormon congregation look like as they worship together, serve one another, and demonstrate what it means to be a Mormon in modern America.
  • On Sunday: Mormon Portraits of a Global Church (New York: Mormon Artists Group, 2010). This unique selection of essays includes eleven descriptions of a Mormon church service on the same Sunday from various locations all over the world, from the heart of Mormonism in Provo, Utah to the Arab state of Kuwait, and several locations in between. Because On Sunday includes almost no editorial commentary on the several essays it presents, it allows Latter-day Saints to speak for themselves about what their religion means to them. It is in those descriptions that the local peculiarities and personal perspectives that define LDS  worship are put on full display. Readers learn that even in a highly correlated church, lived religion manifests itself in peculiar ways.

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  • Cristine

    Ctrl + P … NOW. Thank you!

  • Edward J. Blum

    Not knowing what ‘Ctrl + P’ does and being that I’m super gullible, I clicked it (trusting Cristine). Too bad I don’t have a printer at home.

  • Jeff Schrade

    Thanks for the selection. Looks like a good list. I would also recommend Richard Bushman’s book: “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” published in 2005 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf.) Bushman is the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University and a Latter-day Saint.

  • Christopher Jones

    Thanks, folks, for the comments. I’m glad this list is useful to some people. Dave Banack has continued the conversation a bit over at Times and Seasons for those interested:

    Jeff, Bushman’s biography of JS is excellent, as you note, but probably doesn’t deserve inclusion on a list of books devoted to modern Mormonism.

  • N Packer

    You’d probably learn the most about the modern LDS church by reading the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.

  • Christopher Jones

    N Packer, I’m not sure I understand or agree with your comment. Surely you don’t think the entirety of modern Mormon thought, ecclesiastical structure, and lived religion can be understood through a simple reading of the Book of Mormon. Do you?

    • Randy

      Why not? It is the book we center our lives around. For converts like me (I was raised Baptist) The Book of Mormon is WHY we joined the LDS Church. It is read in our homes every day, taught to our children every day, studied at church in detail every Sunday. I don’t know how you or anyone else could possible claim to have any understanding of Mormons past or present without having read the Book of Mormon. Will the Book of Mormon contain as you call it, “the entirety of modern Mormon thought, ecclesiastical structure, and lived religion…”? That’s debatable, however I can say with some assurance that all modern Mormon thought, ecclesiastical structure, and lived religion draws it’s very essence from the Book of Mormon.

      • Christopher Jones

        Randy, I’m an active Latter-day Saint. I’ve read the Book of Mormon several times. I just don’t think it is the end all when it comes to understanding Mormonism or Mormons.

  • Joe

    Why would anyone do an in-depth study of Mormonism at this point in time? I thought there was a division between Romney-as-President and Romney-as-missionary. So, unless one already had a seething interest in all things Mormon, such a list is more or less irrelevant. Personally, my first wish everyday is that I don’t ever, ever again have to hear or read anything even remotely connected with Mormonism.

    • Christopher Jones

      Says the guy who is commenting on an essay about Mormonism at a column which focuses solely on Mormonism. In other words, Joe, you’re doing it wrong.

      • Randy

        Heh heh! That’s too funny!