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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