New Book Is Addictive for Those Who Like Theology and History

Stephen C. TaysomIs there anything new under the sun? No, says the preacher in Ecclesiastes. Yes, says Signature Books. We have a new book out, and it’s a good one—the type you can’t put down! Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader is 458 pages of the most interesting discussion of current LDS topics you could find. It represents the work of a new generation of scholars whose ground-breaking analysis is fresh and readable.

What is new? These young scholars, many just out of graduate school, have studied and know as much about general Christian theology and history as they do about Mormon studies and are, therefore, able to compare the two. For instance, in looking at Mormon healing blessings, Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright know that only Mormons, of all the major Christian denominations, use anointing oil. Where did this practice come from and how did it become entrenched in Mormon religious culture?

Rebecca de Schweinitz analyzes the striking new portrayals of sex and romance in Church publications that were directed toward young women at the turn of the twentieth-century. Stephen C. Taysom considers the legacy of polygamy in the context of collective religious memory and forgetfulness in both Mormon and non-Mormon contexts. Brian Q. Cannon and Jacob W. Olmstead study the portrayal of polygamy, exactly a century ago, in motion pictures and how the public reacted to it.

Matthew Bowman tells about an early Mormon belief in the biblical Cain, who was allegedly cursed so that he would roam the earth in a state of unrest and never die. This contributed to a modern belief in Bigfoot even though young Mormons do not know their ancestors similarly believed that a hairy beast would emerge out of the woods at dusk.

Reinhold R. Hill argues that Mormons have been unable to imagine and convey in fiction what it is like to be Jewish, especially during the Holocaust, and praises Eugene England’s acknowledgment of this fact. Samuel Brown reveals new evidence to show that many of Joseph Smith’s lesser writings were actually ghostwritten by a scribe, William W. Phelps.

The book’s editor, Stephen Taysom, is a professor of Religious Studies at Cleveland State University. He believes the audience for his book includes college-age Mormons, and he gives them good advice in the introduction. “Take up a pen and analyze the authors’ positions. Interrogate them,” he recommends. “Express in the margins your agreement and perplexity and contempt and frustration or, on the other hand, your agreement and surprise and joy at what you learn. I would recommend seizing the arguments and ideas and wringing out their implications. To me, reading is not a passive activity. It is a contact sport.”

This is also true of research and writing. However, while the scholars represented in this collection look critically at the evidence, they are not dismissive but are, rather, sympathetic and supportive of LDS beliefs. They want to fully understand those beliefs and see if they can sustain scrutiny. They think Mormon positions are defensible but with interesting twists.

There are some veteran scholars among the eighteen in this anthology, but as Taysom expresses it, this collection represents the most important essays that have appeared within the past decade or so, many of them coming from young scholars. The material is an impressive body of work and gives a hint of the breadth of current Mormon scholarship. The contributors include professors of religion and history, a professor of literature, a couple of scientists (chemistry, medicine), a college dean, and a university vice president. Graduate students also make appearances.

The contributors draw from ritual studies, architecture, literary studies, and other disciplines. They cover the chronological span of Mormonism from its origins to the present: from Wilford Woodruff’s vision of the Founding Fathers to the late nineteenth-century Mormon writer Edward Tullidge who had reservations about parts of Mormon history; from David O. McKay’s natural eloquence and persuasiveness to the uses of sacred space in fundamentalist groups.

In short, here is something new for the reader who thinks he’s heard it all. This anthology provides curious minds with a dip into the deep end of the pool, so to speak, and shows off how vibrant and interesting Mormon studies are today. Readers are guaranteed to learn something new and to have their beliefs challenged and affirmed. Hopefully, their religious views will expand to attain new dimensions.