Today’s post is a list of books and essays that I feel like are a good starting place for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have an interest in knowing more about their history and doctrine but aren’t sure where to begin. I’ve broken it up into five sections. Three are sets of six books each that I feel are important. My intent is to suggest tiers of depth, each set getting more in-depth (and often denser) as they go. I’ll address the intention of each set and each book within the set. Finally, I’ve put together a list of important essays, addresses, and writings as the fourth and fifth sections.
It should be noted that I am an active member of the Church intending to address other active members of the Church. That affects some of the selection of books (i.e., chosing ones that are more pro-Mormon over those that are not, using Church-based materials, etc.). I am also limited in that I haven’t read everything that is out there on Mormonism simply because I haven’t had time. I’m particularly short on knowledge about a lot of the books published in recent years on Mormon theology, such as those by Blake T. Ostler, Adam S. Miller, or Steven L. Peck. They look great, but I can’t vouch for them until I’ve actually read them. It is also difficult to narrow down the field when there are many, many, many great books on Mormon history available (which means that I’m very liable to miss your favorite books on the subject). My hope as well was to include books on areas of Mormon studies that tend to get overlooked in these lists, like theology/doctrine and folklore. If you have other suggestions for books, you can leave them in the comments (as long as the comments are charitable). For comparison, you can look at some other suggested lists of Mormon books by Richard Lyman Bushman, Ben Park (also here and here), Samuel Morris Brown, John Dehlin, and Christopher Jones.
Here’s my list:
This group of books is designed to introduce Church members to Mormon Studies with materials mostly published by the Church itself (which also have the advantage of being free online). Some of these do get slammed for being too pro-Mormon or not scholarly enough, but I still feel like they are a good introduction for Church members seeking to venture into Mormon studies.
- Church History in the Fulness of Times OR James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard: The Story of the Latter-day Saints OR Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton: The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints
- These three books are the three most recent major official histories published by the Church. They will be replaced soon by a multivolume series that the Church History Department is releasing starting summer 2018. The Church History in the Fulness of Times is an institute manual that is available free online and is the one most geared towards Church members, while the other two were written to be accepted in the scholarly community but accessible to Church members as well.
- True to the Faith
- This is the Church’s diminutive version of Mormon Doctrine and functions as a decent introduction to doctrine. I’m suggesting it as a quick intro into what the Church’s official doctrine is. The manual Gospel Principles also can work for another intro to the Church’s official doctrine.
- Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith
- Although many volumes of the Teachings of the Presidents series got a lot of flak for taking quotes out of context or focusing only relatively uninteresting statements from Church leaders, the Church curriculum writers went to great efforts to make this a good volume to have around. They basically compiled every quote known to be attributed to Joseph Smith and then winnowed it down to this topic-based book. Although you don’t get the full effect of reading the sermons in one place, you can get a good feel for what Joseph Smith taught on a lot of subjects by reading this book. If you want a better view of Joseph Smith’s sermons and writings, I recommend The Words of Joseph Smith.
- Richard Lyman Bushman: Mormonism, a Very Short Introduction
- This is a good little treasure that gives an overview of Mormonism in a scholarly rigorous setting. It explores conflict and directions of current and past Mormonism and gives a good view of what it’s like to be a Mormon. I like it because it helps me see how to talk about Mormonism to non-Mormons in a scholarly way.
- Truman G. Madsen: Joseph Smith, The Prophet
- This series of lectures was one of my favorite introductions to learning more about Joseph Smith. Although Truman G. Madsen was a philosopher more than a historian (which shows a bit in this book), I like this book because it’s sophisticated enough to introduce the life and teachings of Joseph Smith (including some that have been perceived as controversial), but it does so in a way that builds testimony.
- Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens: The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life
- This is a great venture into theological discussion in Mormonism. In a C.S. Lewis-esque way, the Givenses delve into five of the most unique aspects of Mormon belief: an empathic God, premortal existence, salvation for the dead, partaking of the divine nature, and the eternal nature of relationships.
This is where we get into a more scholar-based approach to Mormonism, delving into many of the best overviews of important aspects of Mormon history and thought.
- Matthew Bowman: The Mormon People
- Currently, this is probably the most well-respected and readable single-volume history of the Church. It doesn’t shirk from laying out problems or controversies when they have happened, but it is a very well-done approach to the subject as a whole.
- Richard Lyman Bushman: Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling
- There are many good biographies of Joseph Smith available, with more coming all the time. This book, however, is currently the best treatment of the subject in my eyes. Reading it through the first time, I was shaken a little bit because it wasn’t the Joseph Smith I knew from growing up in the Church. Reading it through a second time after years of reading other Mormon studies books and articles, however, it actually came across as very favorable to Joseph Smith and the Church. The author is a faithful member in good standing with the Church who is currently involved in the Joseph Smith Papers project and he did his best to present Joseph Smith as he was, according to what we have available to understand him from.
- Terryl Givens: Wrestling the Angel
- Terryl Givens: Feeding the Flock
- These two Givens books are a two-volume set that was recently published through a respected university press. They are an attempt to summarize Mormon theology in a favorable light, but placed in context of the larger Christian tradition. After reading these, I feel like I have a much better grasp about Mormon theology and ecclesiastical structure over the years than I ever had before.
- Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young: Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy
- This book is a very significant look at our theological spin on Western history leading up to Mormonism. The authors’ intent was to show a more positive and historically accurate account of history relating to the Great Apostasy (B. H. Roberts and James E. Talmage’s works on the subject are out of date at this point) while affirming the importance of the Great Apostasy in Mormon thought.
- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870
- This was a good read to show early Mormon history through the lens of women’s experience. It addresses the difficult issue of polygamy, which can make it a hard read at times, but it is a worthy read.
This is where we delve into specific subjects of Mormonism in greater depth. We’ve already covered Joseph Smith’s lifetime in great detail, but what came after is important to understand where we are today. I have suggested the six books, but also make some suggestions of other good reads in related areas.
- Leonard J. Arrington: Great Basin Kingdom: Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900
- Even though it’s old and a bit dry, this book is the main book I could think of that covers the whole era between Joseph Smith’s death and the 1890s. Richard Lyman Bushman recommended it, so I feel like I can get away with doing so too. This book also has historical significance in and of itself, since it was written by the man who cultivated Mormon history as field and was his first major work. Biographies of Brigham Young are often more recent and do a good job at addressing a lot of this era. Leonard J. Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses and John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet stand out as the two that could be read, though the latter one is a rough read for faithful Church members because it shows a grittier side of President Young. For those seeking to understand polygamy during this era, B. Cameron Hardy’s Doing the Works of Abraham is the best in-depth look that I’ve read, though Kathryn Daynes’s More Wives than One is also recommended. Ronald Walker, et al.’s Massacre at Mountain Meadows is an important study in one of the most notable events of the era.
- Thomas G. Alexander: Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930
- The forty years of 1890-1930 are where the Church transitioned from its pioneer Utah roots to the basic version of the modern Church we deal with today. I find this period fascinating and this book is the classic study of that time. Other works that I recommend for this era are Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity, which focuses in on one of the most important events of the era (the Reed Smoot hearings), and Brigham D. Madsen’s The Essential B. H. Roberts to get a look at one of the great Mormon thinkers of this era.
- Gregory A. Prince: David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism
- David O. McKay carried out the modernization and globalization of the Church that previous leaders like Joseph F. Smith had initiated during the 1890-1930 era discussed above. This book gives an unprecedented view into the developments that took place during McKay’s presidency as well as how the modern Church functions. Greg Prince also recently published another volume that does the same for more recent Church history relative to the intellectual Mormon community entitled Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History. Armand Mauss’s The Angel and the Beehive is another study that is important to read when looking to understand 20th century Mormonism.
- Terryl L. Givens: By the Hand of Mormon
- I’m big a Givens fan, if you hadn’t caught on by now, but he is prolific and has tackled many of the most important subjects on Mormonism. Here is a good look into the history surrounding The Book of Mormon. I haven’t read a lot of scholarly studies on LDS scripture, but I can recommend the Tanner, Rogers, and McMurrin book Toward Understanding the New Testament as an introduction to modern historical understanding of the New Testament.
- Paul Reeve: Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness
- Race and racism are important issues in Mormon history, particularly because of the priesthood and temple ban. I’ve had a lot of interest in the subject and have read a lot on it (though again, I haven’t read everything). I felt like this was one of the best books to tackle the issue. The Signature Books compilation Neither White nor Black and Armand L. Mauss’s All Abraham’s Children also stand out in my mind.
- Austin E. Fife and Alta Stephens Fife: Saints of the Sage and Saddle: Folklore Among the Mormons
- This is the classic collection of Mormon folklore, and contains many gems. For those interested in Mormon folklore, however, I also recommend Eric A. Eliason’s The J. Golden Kimball Stories and W. Paul Reeve’s Between Pulpit and Pew as fun but well-written reads that were published more recently.
- Eugene England: “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel”
- Eugene England is one of the towering figures of Mormonism outside of the Church leadership in the 20th He was one of the most essential figures in founding the field of Mormon Studies. This is one of his most beloved essays of all time, and has had a big impact on how I think about the Church. I also recommend exploring more of his works on the website dedicated to him, available here.
- Terryl L. Givens: “’We Have Only the Old Thing’: Rethinking Mormon Restoration”
- Terryl Givens is one of the currently-living towering figures of the Mormon studies world. Although this essay is included in the Standing Apart book mentioned above, I thought I’d list it here as a way to read the essay alone and to point out that Givens has a website with a number of excellent addresses and essays available here. At the time I’m writing this, the website is having some problems with the PDFs of addresses, but hopefully that will be resolved soon.
- Hugh Nibley: “Zeal Without Knowledge” or “The Meaning of the Atonement”
- Another notable intellectual figure in the Church, Hugh Nibley was a professor of ancient scripture at BYU who wrote prolifically, often working to place LDS scriptures in the context of ancient culture and writings. These two essays are some of my favorites from his most popular book Approach Zion. Most of his major works can be read online free here.
- Leonard J. Arrington: “Faith and Intellect as Partners in Mormon History”
- Yet another important Mormon who was both faithful and intellectual, Leonard J. Arrington was the dominant player in transforming Mormon history into a respectable scholarly pursuit, earning him the title of “The Father of Mormon History.” This address, given in Logan, Utah near the end of his life, represents his philosophy on integrating both faith and intellect in life together.
- Robert L. Millet: “What Is Our Doctrine?”
- This essay has been hugely important in shaping how I understand Church doctrine and how to weigh out statements as accurate reflections of Mormon belief.
- Gospel Topics Essays
- These eleven essays address some of the most controversial topics in Mormon history. They are a great way for members of the Church to familiarize themselves with those topics in a faithful setting. Note that not everyone agrees with the conclusions drawn within the essays, but they still represent the Church’s greater transparency on difficult topics in recent years.
General authorities addresses
- Joseph Smith: “King Follett Discourse”
- Much of what Joseph Smith said and wrote are becoming increasingly available through the Joseph Smith Papers Project, most of which has been made available online, here. The King Follett discourse was one of his final discourses, and probably the most significant one he gave. Virtually all of the most controversial and radical doctrines he taught in the Nauvoo era of the Church are presented and discussed in this address (with the notable exception of plural marriage). The version presented in the link above is a new amalgamation of the records we have of the sermon, done according to modern historical standards.
- B. H. Roberts: “The Church of the Lamb and the Church of the Devil”
- Elder Roberts is one of the most influential but little-remembered general authorities of the Church. He was a prolific writer who made important contributions to Mormon literature in both history and theology at the turn of the 20th This particular address was given in general conference and is one of the best approaches I’ve seen of discussing the role of interfaith work in a Mormon context.
- First Presidency: “Mormon View of Evolution”
- This document was released by the First Presidency during President Heber J. Grant’s tenure. It is essentially an updated version of the more famous essay “The Origin of Man,” but is important as much for what is said as much as what is not said compared to the older document.
- Reuben Clark, Jr.: “When are Church Leaders’ Words Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?”
- President Clark stands out as another extremely influential Church leader that is only dimly remembered by most Mormons. He virtually ran the Church when President Heber J. Grant’s health was failing and had an impact on the Church’s course that is still being felt today. This address was given at President David O. McKay’s request in response to literature being published by a prominent apostle that was anti-evolution in its content. It is one of the most doctrinally-significant sermons in the 20th century, since it lays out some guidelines on how to way the validity of statements made by Mormon leaders over the years.
- Bruce C. Hafen: “Beauty for Ashes”
- The Atonement of Jesus Christ is the most central doctrine of the Church, and this is one of the more significant speeches given on that subject in recent years in the Church. Other significant essays and talks given on the Atonement in recent years include Elder David A. Bednar’s talk “The Enabling Power of the Atonement”, President Dieter F. Uchdorf’s “The Gift of Grace”, Eugene England’s “That They Might Not Suffer: The Gift of Atonement”, and Boyd K. Packer’s “The Mediator.”
- Todd Christofferson: “Why the Church”
- To me, this is one of the most significant talks given in general conference in recent years, outlining the very reason for why the Church is even necessary.
- At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women