Reviews – The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past

New Mormon HistoryThe Salt Lake Tribune, Paul Swenson
When founding Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation in 1831 (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-29) declaring men and women “agents unto themselves,” the genius of Mormon creativity and a source of future tension were born.

Far from considering themselves mere obedient extensions of their authoritarian leaders, early Mormons took seriously the revelation’s admonition to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will.” Some modern Mormons, historian Leonard J. Arrington points out in the lead essay in this book, have seemed to think that their primary task is to sit down and wait for instructions from 47 E. South Temple [previously church headquarters, now at 50 E. North Temple].”

“This was clearly not the attitude of earlier generations, who were told by personal revelation that they were personally invested with the responsibility. . .and did not wait on anybody to tell them when to start.”

In the 163 years since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded, control over members has been increasingly consolidated at the top, while the liberating “can do” philosophy of D&C Section 56 continues to jump-start individual Mormons—most pertinently historians, journalists, and other truth-seekers—to examine their faith.

As editor Michael Quinn observes in The New Mormon History‘s introduction, serious Mormon research has proliferated since the publication of Juanita Brooks’ Mountain Meadows Massacre in the 1950s, concurrent with a quest for “functional objectivity.” (Quinn surveyed more than 200 selections before choosing the 15 essays in this book.)

Creative thought and action at the periphery of the church once routinely moved toward adoption at the center (the women’s Relief Society began as a voluntary aid society in Nauvoo, Ill.; the church’s welfare plan—introduced in 1936—grew out of local experiences in St. George and Salt Lake City LDS stakes). And as Thomas G. Alexander (To Maintain Harmony: Adjusting to External and Internal Stress, 1890-1930) and Ronald W. Walker (Sheaves, Bucklers and the State: Mormon Leaders Respond to the Dilemmas of War) note in their essays, wide difference of opinion, even among leaders, were once tolerated on such subjects as evolution, politics, Prohibition, pacifism. and even polygamy.

Ironically, the very historians who helped raise modern Mormon consciousness of early church members’ admirable willingness to test their faith in a marketplace of diverse ideas have become under increasing suspicion from the hierarchy. Editor Quinn was recently informed by his stake president that his historical research (the accuracy of which was not challenged) had placed him under investigation of apostasy. And as recently as last week, a prominent LDS researcher was pressured by her stake president for cataloging instances of spiritual abuse in the church.

Books of the Southwest
An array of scholars of Mormon history, most of them evidently of the faith, are represented in this anthology. As Quinn states, the new history holds all the ingredients of that movement in the profession, plus an “effort to avoid using history as a religious battering ram.” To this Gentile, the effort seems to have succeeded, and the result is worthwhile reading.