A Second Look at the RSC and Maxwell Institute Partnership
Devan Jensen is executive editor at the Religious Studies Center.
The RSC and Maxwell Institute editors forged a publishing partnership in September to consolidate the two production teams. Let’s look at what the combined team has accomplished so far.
First, the RSC welcomed managing editor Don Brugger and senior editor Shirley Ricks, who, along with executive editor Devan Jensen, report to publications director Thomas Wayment and work closely with publication coordinator Joany Pinegar and production supervisor Brent Nordgren. The combined team has completed a staggering twenty-one projects since September!
- Matthew J. Grow and R. Eric Smith, eds., The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History
- Aaron P. Schade, Brian M. Hauglid, and Kerry Muhlestein, eds., Prophets and Prophecies of the Old Testament (46th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium)
- John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham
- Roy A. Prete and Carma T. Prete, eds., Canadian Mormons: History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Canada
- RoseAnn Benson, Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith: Nineteenth-Century Restorationists (BYU Press and Abilene Christian University Press)
- Ann N. Madsen and Shon D. Hopkin, eds., Opening Isaiah: A Harmony (eBook)
- 2017 BYU Religious Education Student Symposium
- Larry E. Dahl and Charles D. Tate Jr., The Lectures on Faith in Historical Perspective (eBook)
- The Restored Gospel and Applied Christianity, 2017
- Religious Educator 18, no. 3
- BYU Religious Education Review, Fall 2017
- Studia Antiqua (2017)
- Reid L. Neilson and Wayne D. Crosby, Lengthening Our Stride: Globalization of the Church (forthcoming)
- Donald G. Godfrey, In Their Footsteps: Mormon Pioneers of Faith (forthcoming)
- Adam S. Miller, ed., Fleeing the Garden: Reading Genesis 2–3
- Adam S. Miller, ed., A Dream, a Rock, and a Pillar of Fire: Reading 1 Nephi 1
- Mormon Studies Review (2018)
- Spencer Fluhman, Kathleen Flake, and Jed Woodworth, eds., “To Be Learned Is Good”: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman (forthcoming)
- Adam S. Miller and Joseph M. Spencer, eds., Christ and Antichrist: Reading Jacob 7 (forthcoming)
- Samir Khalil Samir and Wafik Nasry, trans., The Patriarch and the Caliph: An Eighth-Century Dialogue between Timothy I and al-Mahdī (forthcoming)
- Adam S. Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon, 2nd edition (forthcoming)
Second, as with any other merger, the two publishers clarified expectations. Work has begun on four other Maxwell Institute projects yet to be announced.
Third, the RSC has approval to hire a designer to help with projects such as the Religious Educator, the BYU Religious Education Review, and our 2018 books:
- Reid L. Neilson and Wayne D. Crosby, Lengthening Our Stride: Globalization of the Church
- Donald G. Godfrey, In Their Footsteps: Mormon Pioneers of Faith
- Shon D. Hopkin, ed., Abinadi: He Came Among Them in Disguise
- Debra Theobald McClendon and Richard J. McClendon, Commitment to the Covenant: Strengthening the Me, We, and Thee of Marriage
- Richard O. Cowan, The Los Angeles Temple: Beacon on a Hill
- Richard E. Bennett, ed., The Journey West: The Pioneer Journals of Horace K. Whitney with Insights by Helen Mar Kimball Whitney
- Eric D. Huntsman, Lincoln H. Blumell, and Tyler J. Griffin, eds., Thou Art the Christ: The Person and Work of Jesus in the New Testament (47th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium)
- LaMond Tullis, Two Martyrs in Mexico: A Mormon Story of Revolution and Redemption
- Bruce A. Van Orden, “We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout”: The Life and Times and William W. Phelps
- 2018 Religious Education Student Symposium
- The Restored Gospel and Applied Christianity, 2018
We are planning to remodel the office to accommodate our new team members. All in all, we are enjoying our partnership and looking ahead to a bright and productive future.
Review of Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics
By Devan Jensen
Executive Editor, Religious Studies Center
Those who want to learn about the art and practice of defending the faith—known classically as apologetics—will enjoy reading Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, a compilation of essays edited by Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2017). The fifteen authors share a variety of perspectives, both praising and critiquing past and present approaches. My review focuses on this survey of apologetics, as well as related definitions and questions.
Apologetics in the Past and Present
In the age of Hugh Nibley, the term Mormon apologetics referred to a fairly traditional set of papers defending the claims of the Church or attacking critics. Today’s apologetic approaches are more varied, including “traditional apologetics, new positive apologetics as typified by [Terryl] Givens and [Patrick] Mason, a form of official apologetics as with the Gospel Topics essays, pastoral apologetics as outlined by Seth Payne, [and] religious studies scholarship examining and discussing the same LDS doctrines and practices that apologists often discuss.” These scholars have professional training in fields such as history, literature, Near Eastern languages and culture, and philosophy. The book applauds apologetic work created by the Church History Department, the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (21–22), and FairMormon (67). It seems an oversight not to mention the strong apologetic work published by BYU Studies, the Religious Studies Center, the Interpreter Foundation, and other sources listed at LDS.org.
Defensive versus Affirmative Apologetics
The book defines several vital terms. Van Dyke defines the term negative apologetics as “responses to criticism already levied against Mormonism” (2). Daniel C. Peterson clarifies that the term refers not to being “mean-spirited” but to “rebuttal and defense” (40). Peterson compares this act to “clearing the ground of weeds, and keeping it clear, so that the seed has a chance to take root and grow” (40). Accordingly, Michael Ash prefers the term defensive apologetics (65). Adoption of this term over the other seems important because of Mormon cultural desire to avoid negativity and contention, even to the point of avoiding uncomfortable conversations that lead to heated emotions or compromise.
Conversely, the term positive apologetics refers to “arguments that justify the faith and fortify her position ahead of disagreements and criticisms” (2). In Peterson’s analogy, this is planting the seed in the ground and nurturing it. Ash refers to this as affirmative or educational apologetics (65–67). The latter terms prevent ambiguity and potential criticism that apologists have a “positive” bent or mindset that precludes the possibility of dismissing credible evidence to the contrary of their position.
Evidentialism, Fideism, and Presuppositionalism
Evidentialism refers to attempts to anchor defense of one’s truth claims in objective evidence, such as the 1987 discovery of a steel sword near Jerusalem to justify Nephi’s claim about Laban’s sword (4–5). Conversely, fideism emphasizes subjective faith over objective evidence, suggesting that spiritual matters are deeply personal (5). Van Dyke notes that “Mormons consistently manifest strains of fideism” (6) and sometimes “anti-intellectualism” (12). Presuppositionalism identifies the assumptions all human beings make about which sources of evidence we trust and seek out for additional confirmation (15–17). As one example, after the 2013 US Supreme Court announcement in favor of same-sex marriage, the LDS Church asserted, “Regardless of the court decision, the Church remains irrevocably committed to strengthening traditional marriage between a man and a woman, which for thousands of years has proven to be the best environment for nurturing children.” Van Dyke claims, “Evidentiary proof does not bear out this claim” (19). We would be wise to evaluate the presuppositions and evidence of all parties involved in such vital arguments.
Cautions about Apologetics and Human Nature
The initial chapters offer much praise for the practice of apologetics. Neal Rappleye offers several examples of Book of Mormon defensive scholarship that pushes the boundaries of scholarship in a positive direction (52–61), tempering that praise with the need for nuanced evaluation of the contributions of King Josiah (45–46). Ash notes that we, as humans, see in terms of patterns and predictions (69–71), which necessarily lead to confirmation bias (74). Scholars sometimes harshly criticize the positions of others (including apologists), seemingly unaware of the presuppositions they themselves make (76–79). Echoing Thomas Jefferson’s call for a wall between church and state, Benjamin Park calls for a divide between Mormon studies and apologetics (90). In my opinion, Jack Welch and the BYU Studies team and Richard Bushman and the Joseph Smith Papers Project team have succeeded in both arenas through well-documented scholarship and cautious assertions. I add that the Maxwell Institute and Religious Studies Center have produced material satisfying both the academy and the church. Many other institutions might be added here.
Critiques of Current Apologetics
Ralph Hancock, David Knowlton, David Bokovoy, and Loyd Ericson critique currrent practices of Mormon apologetics, though from various places on the spectrum. For example, Hancock criticizes the newly re-created Mormon Studies Review for being too neutral in faith matters, engaging non-LDS scholars on their own terms (107–9). Knowlton tackles use of the term Lamanites by FairMormon, dismissing their lack of specificity as “a crisis of faith” (207). Ericson divides matters such as Book of Mormon studies very discretely into historical facts or “religious studies,” critiquing historical examinations of “things of the soul” (220). Bokovoy recalls his gradual acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis of biblical scholarship and then claims, “Apologetics assumes that we have the answers” (227), arguing for more critical thinking. As expected in any book that gathers diverse perspectives, these voices will variously draw praise or criticism.
Three articles focus on women’s issues. Juliann Reynolds, who helped found FairMormon, asserts that Mormon women became ardent defenders of the faith when the Church faced persecution and prosecution for the practice of plural marriage. However, although many women actively promote and defend Church doctrine in venues such as the Ensign, FairMormon, Meridian Magazine, Mormon Women Stand, and social media, they rarely identify themselves as apologists (140–48). Julie M. Smith notes that apologists have often placed more emphasis on the status quo arguments and thus neglected women’s concerns (165). Fiona Givens upholds the ideal union of men and women in the Creation and in ecclesiastical collaboration, with the general implication that men and women ideally should combine in efforts such as defending the faith (something she and her husband have indeed done).
In sum, it seems fair to assert that “every argument defending any position . . . is an apology” (27). Let’s conclude with several questions about how to do apologetics: “Will we be honest? Competent? Civil? Will we be effective, or not?” (41). To which I add several questions of my own: Who is doing the best, most exciting work in apologetics at the present? What place does evidence play in relation to matters of faith? How can scholars be most effective in evaluating evidence for their arguments? How can we evaluate evidence effectively when we are subject to confirmation bias? And how tentative should we be in making assertions and conclusions? These are a few questions raised by a reading of this important book.
Over the past decade, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute has invested considerable resources in producing high-quality scholarly and faith-promoting books, periodicals, and films. For over forty years, BYU’s Religious Studies Center (RSC) has also published excellent Latter-day Saint scholarship that both educates and inspires. In reviewing their respective roles at BYU, Maxwell Institute executive director Spencer Fluhman and the RSC’s publications director Thomas A. Wayment discovered a duplication in efforts. “We asked ourselves, ‘Why maintain two separate production teams at BYU?’” Fluhman said of their early conversations. “We realized a formal partnership potentially could enable our respective campus units to focus on its particular mission and thrive.”
We are pleased to announce a new partnership between the Maxwell Institute and the Religious Studies Center. The Institute’s top-notch production team—which includes managing editor Don Brugger and senior editor Shirley Ricks—transferred to the RSC on 1 September 2017, strengthening their outstanding staff. As the Institute invests more resources in gathering and nurturing disciple-scholars, it will look to the RSC for professional production services. Established by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland during his time as dean of Religious Education in 1975, the RSC exists to seek out, encourage, and publish faithful gospel scholarship. Both entities will continue to publish a variety of books and journals under their own imprints, with the RSC providing both units with services such as copyediting, proofreading, and typesetting—the technical things that make scholarly publishing possible. Dean of Religious Education and RSC director Brent Top agrees that this partnership strengthens both units. “We consider this a win-win for both the Maxwell Institute and the RSC,” he said. “We have complementary missions. In the end, we’ll all be in an even stronger position in providing religious scholarship to both scholars and the Church at large.”
Brugger and Ricks have provided invaluable service to the Maxwell Institute throughout its existence, and even before. Ricks has employed her keen editor’s eye for thirty years. Don Brugger has served as both senior editor and managing editor at the Institute, overseeing projects including the Mormon Studies Review, various Living Faith books, and other publications. Their kindness, competence, and professionalism will be missed at the Institute, but the campus will continue to be blessed by their gifts through their new institutional home at the RSC.
Rogers, Brent M., Elizabeth A. Kuehn, Christian K. Heimburger, Max H Parkin, Alexander L. Baugh, and Steven C. Harper, eds. Documents, Volume 5: October 1835–January 1838. Vol. 5 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Ronald K. Esplin, Matthew J. Grow, and Matthew C. Godfrey. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2017. xlvi + 656 pp., illustrations, bibliography, index, $54.95 hardback.
Review by R. Devan Jensen
Devan Jensen is executive editor at the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University. He worked previously as an editor for the Ensign magazine, the LDS Church’s Publishing Services Department, and Deseret Book Company.
Joseph Smith was a complex person. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in this volume discussing such a complicated period in US and LDS Church history.
As the introduction asserts, Documents, Volume 5 covers “moments of elation and moments of upheaval” (xix), including an 1835 recounting of the First Vision, purchase of mummies and manuscripts leading to the Book of Abraham, the School of the Prophets, a physical alteration between William and Joseph Smith, attempts at reconciliation, construction of the House of the Lord in Kirtland, glorious heavenly visitations during the dedication ceremony, a national recession and failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, widespread apostasy, launch of the Elders’ Journal, and Joseph Smith’s move to Missouri.
As with other volumes in the Documents series, the editing team succeeds in providing helpful and professional discussion of the documents, historical context, and artifacts.
Part 1 focuses mainly on an 1835 recounting of the First Vision (40–47) and translation of the Book of Abraham (69–88). This section raises intriguing questions: What connection do the Egyptian alphabet and grammar have with the Book of Abraham? How much time did the Prophet and his scribes focus on producing and recording revelation, and how much were they trying to reproduce the origins of human language? Here we are left with perhaps more questions than answers, but we look forward to more discussion in future planned volumes by Brian Hauglid, Robin Scott Jensen, and others.
Part 2 begins with tension. Elder Orson Hyde offered “a litany of complaints” against the top leadership (105). Then a disciplinary council led to a deposition by Lucy Mack Smith. An argument over that deposition erupted between sons William and Joseph Smith. When the Kirtland high council planned to censure William, he insisted he “had not done wrong” and accused Joseph of determining to always support his arguments “whether right or wrong” (111). After heated argument in a debating school, William and Joseph engaged in a fight, leaving Joseph “unable to sit down, or rise up, without help” (112). The brothers sought reconciliation. This section ends with a solemn assembly, washing and anointing, and a vision of the celestial kingdom involving the Father and the Son and the faithful deceased, including Joseph’s brother Alvin (157–59). The section of the vision involving Brigham Young preaching to “men of colour” is thought-provoking in light of the later move to Utah (160).
Part 3 describes the Hebrew School, priesthood ordinations, and heavenly visitations relating to the dedication of the House of the Lord. Some of the recorded visitations are quite dramatic (190). The hymn “Ere Long the Vail” was quite impressive (192–93). On page 206, the word “retuning” would benefit from an editorial clarification to “retu[r]ning.”
Part 4 recounts the familiar and well-documented visions of heavenly messengers (224–29). Less familiar is the section describing W. W. Phelps’s editorial about abolitionism in Ohio and the resulting backlash in Missouri (234–35), the ordination of blacks to the priesthood (235–36), and Joseph Smith’s seemingly contradictory claim in the April 1836 Messenger and Advocate “that the curse is not yet taken off the sons of Canaan” (240). These documents and accompanying notes are vital as we seek to examine Joseph Smith’s notions of race, abolition, and emancipation.
Part 5 describes the banking experiment of the Kirtland Safety Society in ways that are both satisfying and challenging. The images of currency are particularly helpful. As the leadership pressed forward with a bank despite lack of state sponsorship, readers may wonder, What qualms did board members or the general members express about the way the leadership pressed forward? The editors do a fine job contextualizing how the national panic influenced the failure of the bank experiment.
Part 6 begins after the failure of the Safety Society with pressing financial and legal problems, dissension by Warren Parrish and many others, and Joseph Smith’s grave illness. As the volume introduction states, “The spiritual exuberance that attended the dediction at of the House of the Lord just eighteen months earlier seemed a distant memory” (xxxii). This section concludes with the bold and visionary calls of Wilford Woodruff and Jonathan H. Hale to preach as missionaries in “the eastern country” and of Heber C. Kimball to serve the first transatlantic mission in England.
Part 7 includes the launch of the Elders’ Journal; Wilford Woodruff’s report of missionary labors in New York, Maine, and the Fox Islands; excommunications in Kirtland; and Joseph Smith’s announcement of moving his family to Missouri. Brief mention is made of the burning of the Church printing press in Kirtland days after it was auctioned off (xxxiv, 537), a topic reserved for discussion in a later volume of the Documents series.
Overall, this volume makes an important contribution to Mormon history and is well worth the time to search for historical treasure therein.
By Angela Lee and Devan Jensen
At the Religious Studies Center, we love publishing content about Church history, gospel doctrine, ancient scripture, and more. This year the RSC decided to focus on Church history both far and near. For 2017, we take you around the world by focusing on specific regions and their stories. We take you from Italy to Hawaii, from Arizona to England, and from Taiwan to Utah’s Dixie area, and we finish our tour with Canada!
Italy: With Mormons in the Piazza, visit Italy in the 1850s up to the present day to experience what those Latter-day Saints felt amidst a backdrop of historical forces—political upheaval, world wars, social change, and internal Church dynamics—that presented both obstacles and opportunities for growth. Authors James A. Toronto, Eric R Dursteler, and Michael Homer have done a masterful job. This book, writes Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, “is certain to become the seminal work not just of the history of the Latter-day Saints in Italy but also of ‘how new religious movements arise, expand, and take root in societies around the world.’”
Hawaii: With Kalaupapa: The Mormon Experience in an Exiled Community, Fred E. Woods discusses the dread disease of leprosy (known as Hansen’s disease today). In the nineteenth century, this disease spread through the Hawaiian Islands, causing the king of Hawai‘ito sanction an act that exiled all people afflicted with this disease to Kalaupapa, a peninsula on the island of Moloka‘i. Kalaupapa was separated from the rest of the world, with sheer cliffs on one side, the ocean on the other three, and limited contact with anyone, even loved ones. The message of the Kalaupapa community reminds us of the acute need for each of us to apply the Latin maxim “in the essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
Arizona: In Pioneer Women of Arizona, walk alongside the Mormon girls, young women, mothers, and grandmothers who traversed the desert to settle the Arizona strip. Donald G. Godfrey, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University, writes that this book—written by Roberta Flake Clayton, Catherine Ellis, and David Boone—“is a phenomenal contribution to pioneer women’s history in the Arizona and Utah LDS communities. . . . I highly recommend this work to Mormon historians, to those interested in women’s contributions to history, and to those who just enjoy wonderful pioneer stories.” Released June 15, 2017.
England: Follow Wilford Woodruff and other Apostles to England to discover the story of remarkable missionary success in the Three Counties area of England. Ronald D. Dennis, editor and translator of the Zion’s Trumpet series, writes of this book, “The Field Is White takes the reader on a fascinating tour of research findings regarding a long-neglected topic—that of the missionary efforts of Wilford Woodruff and others among the truth seekers known as the United Brethren. Carol Wilkinson and Cynthia Doxey Green have been thorough and even relentless in their pursuit of information on every person, place, and reference associated with Mormon missionaries and their converts in Worcestershire, Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire—the Three Counties. Numerous color photographs, charts, and detailed maps further enhance a very fine read.” Released June 15, 2017.
Taiwan: We are finalizing a volume by Felipe and Petra Chou titled Voice of the Saints in Taiwan, which covers the history of the Church there. Elder Liang Shih-an (Kent), first Chinese Area Seventy from Taiwan, wrote that “this book explores how the restored gospel was received by the Chinese people despite difficult circumstances. It further discusses the growth of the Church in Taiwan over the last sixty years. Today’s success is the result of Heavenly Father’s blessings and the dedication of the missionaries, members, and church leaders. It is a fulfillment of the promises in Taiwan’s dedicatory prayer. The publication of this book will especially inspire and contribute to the future faith of the Chinese people.” Released July 31, 2017.
Utah’s Dixie area: Of course, we recognize the importance of exploring not only distant places but also regions closer to home. Dixie Saints: Laborers in the Field is the story of the common folk—the farmers and ranchers, the fruit peddlers, the road builders, the timber cutters and lumber makers, the freighters, the midwives, the mothering women and child nurturers, the quilters and gardeners, the teachers, the choir singers and band players—those whose names are on genealogy charts but are seldom in the history books. It is about agriculture before machines and hard muscle labor in gardens, farms, and ranches. “These interviews,” writes Brian Q. Cannon, professor of history at Brigham Young University, “are a unique, unparalleled source for the social history of Mormon life in the Mojave Desert region following the pioneer era.” W. Paul Reeve, director of graduate studies in the University of Utah History Department, wrote, “Dixie Saints vividly illustrates . . . their story told in their own words. It is a compelling slice of social history expertly organized and edited by Douglas Alder, one of Southern Utah’s treasured historians. In his hands, these forgotten voices from the past speak again. . . . From the mundane to the miraculous, they share absorbing tales of lives well lived but otherwise forgotten.” Released July 31, 2017.
Canada: Finally, Canadian Mormons, Roy and Carma Prete’s edited compilation, gives a panoramic view of the rise and progress of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Canada. It has all the elements of a great saga. It includes stories of converts who joined in Canada; moved to Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois; and then trekked across the Great Plains to Utah in the Rocky Mountains. It tells of Mormon pioneers from Utah arriving in southern Alberta after 1887, having made a second grand trek to escape their persecutors, and details the settlement of Mormons in Alberta. It is the story of an ongoing missionary effort from the late nineteenth century, throughout the twentieth, and into the twenty-first, with a vast number of missionaries and the sustained effort of thousands of lay leaders and members laboring relentlessly to build up the Church in that region, which now consists of nearly 200,000 members, making the Church an essential part of the Canadian religious landscape. Released October 30, 2017.
As you embark on this global tour of Church history, we wish you all “bon voyage”!
Review of Reeder, Jennifer, and Kate Holbrook, editors. At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women. Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2017. 452 pp. Photographs, notes, appendix, index. ISBN 978-1-62972-282-5. $29.99
Review by R. Devan Jensen
R. Devan Jensen is executive editor at the Religious Studies Center.
At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women is well conceived, compiled, and edited by Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook and a team of researchers who embody the high standards of the Church Historian’s Press. The volume is also timely, being released for the 175th anniversary of the Relief Society. But this is more than a book about the Relief Society or the Young Women organizations. It is a collection of wise, witty, and spiritual insights to inspire and enrich readers’ understanding of American religious history and Sunday School lessons. “In addition to being a scholarly history,” the editors write, “this book provides a resource for contemporary church members as they study, speak, teach, and lead” (xv).
How did this project come to be? In a recent interview, Holbrook said she envisioned a “journal of discourses” for women. Many collections traditionally emphasize the writings of male church leaders, whose writings were more likely to be recorded in church minutes. A stated goal of this volume is to “powerfully demonstrate that women have contributed to Latter-day Saint devotion through sermons, speeches, prayers, songs, and stories” (xv). She and Reeder pitched the concept to the Church Historian’s Press and found a willing reception.
To create this vital project, Reeder, Holbrook, and a team of researchers and editors scoured eclectic sources such as “old minute books and obscure newspapers.” Reeder emphasized nineteenth-century discourses, while Holbrook focused on twentieth- and twenty-first-century speeches. The editors then created introductions and notes that “provide insight into the biographical, historical, theological, and cultural context of each talk” (xv). The result is a compilation of fifty-four speeches or, in a few cases, notes of speeches. The latter do strain the definition of “discourses” and are sometimes shorter than their accompanying introductions, but the overall compilation is well done.
Auxiliary leaders such as Linda K. Burton, Julie B. Beck, and Sheri L. Dew are well represented, but this book includes other lesser-known women who spoke at BYU Women’s conference. To represent the global nature of the church, the editors quote women from North and South America, Europe, and Asia. These talks include warm and witty speeches by Jutta B. Busche, Chieko N. Okazaki, Irina Kratzer, and Gladys N. Sitati (who is both wise and hilarious).
In my honest opinion, Francine R. Bennion’s BYU Women’s Conference address of March 28, 1986, “A Latter-day Saint Theology of Suffering,” is, by itself, worth the price of the book. Bennion begins with paradoxical couplets such as Proverbs 3:13 (“Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding”) and “Ecclesiastes 1:18 (“In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”). How do we reconcile these paradoxes? “Theology,” she writes, “provides a framework that binds diversity and complexity into a more simple net with which we can make some sense even of things we don’t fully understand” (215).
Citing incidents of suffering worldwide, Bennion writes, “Good theology makes sense of what is possible but also of what is presently real and probable. . . . It is not enough that theology be either rational or faith promoting. It must be both. It is not enough that satisfying theology be mastered by a few expert scholars, teachers, and leaders. It must be comfortable carried out by ordinary people. It is not enough that theology help me to understand God. It must also help me to understand myself and the world” (216–17). Quoting the story of Jephthah’s vow and consequent sacrifice of his daughter, Bennion asks, “What do you think about Jephthah, his vow, and his God? Your answer will depend in part upon your own version of theology” (219). Complex, intriguing, and open ended!
Bennion then quotes a BYU Honors student’s conception of the celestial kingdom in the context of Voltaire’s “best of all possible worlds.” What is the celestial kingdom like? she asks. “Well, there won’t be any problems,” he replies, saying that “everyone will be–happy. There won’t be any unkindness. No one there will be rejected or abused, or laughed at, or ignored.”
“Oh,” Bennion said, “Are you suggesting that God experiences none of these things now?” Silence. Bennion then wrote, “In wanting to get to the celestial kingdom, these students had more awareness of traditional struggle-free utopias than of our own God and our own world” (221). Thus, our theology embraces the world as it is and our struggle to make sense of it.
This is just one of the many treasures to be discovered in At the Pulpit. The book is well worth efforts to mine it for other historical and doctrinal gems.
At the Pulpit certainly complements a related project titled The Witness of Women, by Janiece Johnson and Jennifer Reeder.
Review by Spencer W. McBride
Spencer W. McBride is the author of Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (University of Virginia Press, 2017) and a historian and documentary editor with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Salt Lake City, Utah.
At the core, Conversations with Mormon Historians, is a book that features historians speaking to historians about being historians. While books featuring discussions of historiography and the personal histories of historians are rarely found atop bestseller lists, for those pursuing a career researching and writing about the Mormon past, this book is an important resource for understanding how the field became what it is today.
Conversations with Mormon Historians spotlights sixteen scholars who have spent decades working in the academic field of Mormon history, including Thomas Alexander, Claudia Bushman, Richard Bushman, Kenneth Godfrey, Dean Jessee, Carol Cornwall Madsen, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Each of the interviews is conducted by an early- or mid-career scholar. After each historian answers questions about his or her personal history, the recorded interactions delve into fascinating discussions of the field’s development, its highs and lows, its boons and obstacles, and its triumphs and defeats.
Consider, for instance, the interview of Richard Bushman in which he discusses with Jed Woodworth the popular reaction to Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling. It was welcomed by many as a humanized portrait of a complex man but critics—often Latter-day Saints—claimed that Bushman “sold out to the world by not coming down stronger on the Mormon side” and bearing testimony of Joseph Smith as a prophet (191). Similarly, Claudia Bushman reflects in her interview with Kristine Wardle Frederickson on the challenge of being a Latter-day Saint in academia. Bushman states, “People will always know you are a Mormon. It goes before you; it precedes you. People are suspicious of you and doubt that you can be trusted, . . . so you just have to rise above the suspicion” (176). Historians concerned with the ecclesiastical perceptions and ramifications of total transparency in writing about the Mormon past will be interested in Kenneth Godfrey’s reminiscence in his interview with Matthew C. Godfrey. The former recalls that when he was invited to join the original board of editors for Dialogue, two of his church leaders were uncomfortable with the idea, believing he would experience difficulties if the articles published in that journal were not “just right” (252). Add to this the bewilderment Laurel Thatcher Ulrich expresses in her interview with Nathan H. Williams over the mysterious circumstances that led to her inclusion on a list of scholars prohibited from speaking at BYU—a ban that has since been lifted (555–56). Readers are presented with multiple first-person accounts of the professional telling of its past and the past of its members.
Beyond the challenges of writing about the Mormon past as professional historians, several of the interviews in this volume illuminate the origins of now-prominent initiatives, projects, and organizations. For instance, Carol Cornwall Madsen recalls in her interview with Sheree Maxwell Bench the start and subsequent progress of the Mormon Women’s History Initiative (372–76). Similarly, Dean C. Jessee, in his discussion with Robin Scott Jensen, recounts how his work on the personal writings of Joseph Smith led to the creation of the Joseph Smith Papers Project (298–301). In addition, Thomas Alexander describes in his conversation with Dave Hall the formation of the Mormon History Association and the professional recognition and rigor Alexander and others hoped the organization would lend to the burgeoning field of Mormon history (13–17).
It would be easy for the casual reader to dismiss this book as historian navel-gazing, but it would be a mistake for professional historians to do the same. The history of our field, and the men and women who built it, is essential knowledge if we are to chart a course that moves the study of the Mormon past forward into new territory and present it to a more expansive audience than previously. Toward such an effort, Conversations with Mormon Historians makes a valuable contribution.
Review by Daniel H. Olsen
Daniel H. Olsen is an associate professor, Department of Geography, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
When I was asked to read and review Michael MacKay’s Sacred Space: Exploring the Birthplace of Mormonism, I was expecting to read a straightforward history of Fayette, New York, the story of founding of Mormonism in Fayette, and the efforts of the LDS Church to purchase and restore the Peter Whitmer Sr. home where, church members have been told, was the location of the organization of the church on April 6, 1830. However, I was quite surprised, as I would imagine most church members would be, to read that the location of the establishment of Mormonism is highly contested within some Mormon history circles. Some historians, following the work of Michael Marquardt and Wesley Walters in their book Inventing Mormonism, believe that the church was organized in Manchester, New York, at Hyrum Smith’s log home. Other historians, as well as LDS General Authorities, claim that Fayette is the correct location of the founding of the church. The purpose of MacKay’s book then, is to “address historical claims that the church was not established in Fayette by taking a close look at what the existing documents tell us” (18) by “revisit[ing] and reinterpret[ing] the source material” (17) used in this Manchester-Fayette historical debate in light of new documentation from the ongoing Joseph Smith Papers Project. In other words, MacKay attempts to defend the argument for Fayette being the location of the formal organization of the LDS Church.
In the introductory section of the book, MacKay in essence asks the question, “Why does this debate about the location of the founding of the Church matter?” To answer this question, MacKay looks at the importance of sacred places in Latter-day Saint thought and practice. In addition to temples, the LDS Church has purchased many historical sites related to the founding of the church, as has the Community of Christ. These sites play an important role in the church’s cultural memory and in the development of individual and collective religious identities. Indeed, thousands of members of the LDS Church and the Community of Christ undertake informal pilgrimages to these “theologically significant spaces” (1) to learn more about the establishment of the Mormon movement and to be in the places where the events of the Restoration took place. In the context of this book, the LDS Church, through its Historic Sites Division, has been very particular in terms of historical and archaeological accuracy when it comes to identifying, restoring, maintaining, and interpreting its historical sites. Sacred places that serve as the primal origin of a religion are an important part of a religion’s identity and helps to validate faith (12), and as Douglas Davies has observed, “there are many Mormons for whom the primal story of the Restoration does constitute the truth: a basic epistemology that furnishes a template for history and for the stories of family life.”1 As such, the Manchester-Fayette debate is an important one to consider, for if the official position of the church is that the Restoration took place in Fayette, but the actual meeting took place in Manchester, this fact can potentially “undermine the Church’s claim to truth and disrupt its divinely guided origin” (17).
In chapter 1 MacKay gives a quick overview of the establishment of the Church, outlining the events leading up to the April 6, 1830, organizational meeting and the ordination of Joseph Smith to be “a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, and elder of the church through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ” (Doctrine and Covenants 21:1). While the heading of Doctrine and Covenants section 20 states that this revelation was received “at or near Fayette,” the crux of MacKay’s arguments, as he articulates in later chapters, is that Joseph Smith’s call to be a seer, translator, prophet, apostle, and elder was given on April 6, 1830, at the Whitmer farm in Manchester, and his official ordination on that day, as outlined in other historical documents, by Oliver Cowdery, “was a founding event even within itself” (35). MacKay delves into this in more detail in chapter 2 where he reviews the historical documentation related to the church’s establishment. While the when of the church’s inauguration is well documented, MacKay notes that “confirming where Smith organized the Church of Christ” is not a simple task (40), in part because there is a lack of legal documentation showing the formal incorporation of the church and also because there are no minutes of the organizational meeting and no existing contemporary accounts of the meeting in existing journals or letter (41). Even trying to track Joseph Smith’s movements in the days preceding and following the April 6 meeting, as MacKay does in this chapter, still adds ambiguity as to where this meeting was held.
In chapter 3 MacKay reviews three documents attributed to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey where Fayette is listed as the location of the organizational meeting: a copy of conference minutes that Smith presided over on May 3, 1834, printed in The Evening and Morning Star, two deeds Crowdery signed for Smith in 1834, and drafts of Smith’s history (58). According to MacKay, “these three sources demonstrate firsthand what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery taught and recorded privately about where the Church was established” (59–60). As well, in chapter 4 MacKay looks at Revelation Book 1, where Oliver Cowdery seemed to change dates and locations of section 21 as Fayette. So why did official Church materials state that the organizational meeting of the church was in Manchester? MacKay traces this to potential editorial errors by W.W. Phelps, who may have listed all the revelations received around April 6 as having been received in the Manchester region of New York. This error was the perpetuated into other church materials.
Michael Marquardt, who recently reviewed MacKay’s book, suggests that this “little book is a propaganda piece based upon emotion rather than history. The author is more interested in his sacred space than in what the historical record brings to the story of the Restoration. . . . Most readers will not be taken in by this short book built upon emotion.”2 I apparently am not “most readers,” as I found this book to be rigorous in its scholarship and, in agreeance with Richard Bushman (quoted on the back cover, found MacKay’s findings and arguments plausible and persuasive. As well, MacKay writes in a clear and succinct manner that makes it easy for a general reader to navigate the tedium of historiography and document analysis. This “little book” is an important read for church members who not only want to learn more about the establishment of the Mormon movement but who also ground their faith in the Restoration and its attendant sacred places in “rigorous research and [a] careful examination of historical records” (18).
- Douglas, The Mormon Culture of Salvation (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2000), 12–13.
- Michael Marquardt, “Review of Sacred Space: Exploring the Birthplace of Mormonism,” https://user.xmission.com-research/mormonpdf/revsacredspace.pdf.
An Epic Year at the RSC
By Devan Jensen
Here is a brief video introduction to the Religious Studies Center (RSC). Established by Jeffrey R. Holland in 1975, the RSC is a vital research and publications arm of Religious Education. It exists to seek out, encourage, and publish faithful gospel scholarship through sponsoring symposia and seminars; awarding research grants; and producing and disseminating high quality, peer-reviewed works. These include monographs, journals, compilations, and other publications in print and electronic formats pertaining to the content and context of Latter-day Saint scripture, the doctrines and history of the Restoration, and the restored Church including its relationship to other cultures, religions, and the behavioral sciences. The RSC also seeks to further improve gospel instruction by publishing pedagogically related books and articles.
Over the years, each publications director from the faculty has added his stamp of excellence to the RSC. In 2001 Richard D. Draper, the faculty publications director, recruited Richard Neitzel Holzapfel as editor of the Religious Educator and then Devan Jensen as executive editor. Our team increased annual production from two books to eight, and we have kept the pace going strong ever since, including posting over 3,000 articles or chapters on our website, rsc.byu.edu. We hired Joany O. Pinegar as an administrative assistant/publications coordinator and Brent R. Nordgren as a production supervisor. Thomas A. Wayment, our current publications director, has been working carefully with authors to produce quality manuscript submissions. For more about the RSC and our award-winning books, click here.
We had a particularly epic year in 2016. We hired or mentored six student editors (Leah Welker, Kimball Gardner, Tyler Balli, Jessica Neilson, Allyson Jones, and Shannon Taylor) and two publicity interns (Felix Lara and Angela Lee). Training them and helping them succeed in their chosen careers is a vital part of our mission. BYU immortalized our team in this fun video (see my Forrest Gump bench scene), which was created in connection with the President’s Appreciation Award. Last year two interns (Leah Welker and Angela Lee) were appointed to board positions with LDS Publishing Professionals, and they worked with a professional board to plan and publicize a major conference with speakers such as Brandon Mull and Brad Wilcox (see summary). Five of our students (Felix Lara, Alison Brimley, Shanna D’Avila, Hadley Griggs, and Leah Welker) scored competitive internships with Church publications, and they are preparing for promising careers.
As a team, we made big strides in building the RSC brand and community. We learned publicity techniques from leading social media expert Fauzia Burke. We worked with our media specialist, Deseret News, Maxwell Institute, the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and LDS Perspectives Podcast to cross-promote RSC products. We helped increase our outreach and sales through Facebook and Twitter. The team achieved two Deseret Book best sellers in 2016.
Our small team juggled complex projects, including the BYU Religious Education Review (two issues), Religious Educator (three issues of a peer-reviewed journal), our e-Newsletter (12), Studia Antiqua (a peer-reviewed journal), and twenty-five books: The Worldwide Church: Mormonism as a Global Religion; Sacred Space: Exploring the Birthplace of Mormonism; A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History; A Historian in Zion: The Autobiography of Andrew Jenson (800 pages; three-month publishing schedule); Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones; Foundations of the Restoration; A Bible Reader’s History of the Ancient World (many maps); BYU Religious Education Student Symposium, 2017; LDPPA Conference Program (with ads); Mormons in the Piazza (600 pages); Kalaupapa: The Mormon Experience in an Exiled Community; Zion’s Trumpet: 1856 & 1857 Welsh Mormon Periodical (1,000 pages); His Majesty and Mission (three-month schedule); Pioneer Women of Arizona; No Other Success: The Parenting Practices of David O. McKay; Religious Freedom: Building Faith, Family, and Society; The Field Is White: Harvest in the Three Counties of England; The Voice of the Saints in Taiwan; An Introduction to the Book of Abraham; Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith: Two Nineteenth-Century Restorationists; Dixie Saints: Laborers in the Field; In Their Footsteps: Pioneers of Faith; Lectures on Faith in Historical Perspective (ebook); The Keystone Scripture (ebook); and Sacred and Historical Places: Hawai‘i (I moonlighted for this one).
On a personal note, last year I pursued my writing passion, making several presentations: “Decolonizing Micronesia after the Pacific War” (Pacific History Association in Guam); “Magazines and Journals: Seven Steps in the Thousand-Mile Journey” (Independent Book Publishers Association national conference in Salt Lake City); “Line upon Line: Joseph Smith’s Growing Understanding of Families and Heaven” (MHA Conference, mentioned in Church News); “Cynthia Jane Stowell: Wife of a Utah War POW” (Utah State Historical Society); and “‘We Rang the Bell’: Olonzo D. Merrill & the Introduction of Nineteenth-Century Mormon Missionary Work in Tonga” (Mormon Pacific Historical Society, mentioned in Church News). I published four papers in peer-reviewed journals or magazines: “Micronesia’s Coming of Age,” Pacific Asia Inquiry (University of Guam), December 2016; “Mormons Who Guided Micronesia’s Return to Self-Rule,” Mormon Historical Studies, Fall 2016; “Keeping Faith Afloat,” New Era, December 2016; and “The RSC as a Training Ground,” BYU Religious Education Review, Fall 2016, 26–27.
This year at the RSC promises to be just as challenging and productive, as we have completed about half our books already! To keep with our progress, sign up for our e-Newsletter at rsc.byu.edu (bottom of that page).
Review of Toronto, James A., Eric R Dursteler, and Michael W. Homer. Mormons in the Piazza: History of the Latter-day Saints in Italy. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017. 599 pp. Photographs, maps, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. ISBN 978-1-9443-9410-3. $34.99
Review by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel
Richard Neitzel Holzapfel is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
Mormons in the Piazza: History of the Latter-day Saints in Italy is a tour de force and has immediately become a model for future histories written about Latter-day Saints living, working, serving, and struggling to find a place in nations outside the United States.
Toronto, Dursteler, and Homer have given an invaluable gift to those who served LDS missions in Italy; LDS men and women who worked for private companies, US military, and various governmental agencies in Italy; immigrants who encountered and joined the Church in Italy; and most importantly, the Italian Latter-day Saint converts and their descendants. Additionally, the authors have provided a compelling and well-crafted narrative for non-Latter-day Saint Italians, especially religious studies scholars and academics who are interested in “Italy’s transition from a monolithically Catholic country to a condition of modern religious pluralism” (back jacket blurb).
The nearly six-hundred-page book covers the period from when Mormon missionaries first turned their attention to the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1849–51 (Italian unification did not occur until 1861) until the “Mormon Moment” in the twenty-first century. One expects a book written by three different authors to be somewhat uneven, but the authors and the editorial staff at BYU’s Religious Studies Center have done a remarkable job to even out the differences in tone, writing style, and depth of analysis by each author.
The book is a superb example of the historian’s craft even though only one of the authors is a university historian (Eric R Dursteler, PhD in history from Brown University). The other two authors are independent historians with impressive publication on a number of historical topics (James A. Toronto, PhD in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard and Michael W. Homer, JD from University of Nebraska at Lincoln).
Using a wide array of sources, including non-LDS sources in Italy, the authors have written a compelling and nuanced story of the Mormon experience in Italy. That story actually began in the United States when the Second Great Awakening, a period of intense religious excitement and activity, was waning in the 1850s. At this same moment, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints witnessed a greatly expanded missionary effort beyond the United States, Canada, and the British Isles, which had been its focus from 1830 until 1849.
In a bold move, Brigham Young and other Church leaders announced a major missionary effort in 1849 that included non-English-language missions. They hoped to establish the Church around the world, primarily in continental Europe. Specifically, Church leaders hoped to establish a base of operations in the Apennine or Italian Peninsula that would allow them to expand their missionary effort to the Middle East and as far away as the Indian subcontinent.
This proselytizing effort was based on the “Great Commission,” as it is known by New Testament scholars. The “Great Commission” is found at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:19–20). From the very beginning, Mormons had taken the “Great Commission” very seriously. LDS Apostle Lorenzo Snow and his missionary companions believed they were fulfilling this commission when they “opened the Italian Mission in the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1850” (1).
The authors outline those efforts, which included spreading the restored gospel among the people of the Italian peninsula and eventually to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, through well-organized, written, and brilliantly argued chapters. Of course, Mormons in the Piazza is not the first effort to tell the story of LDS missionary efforts beyond North America. However, it is the best book-length treatment, building upon significant articles, chapters, and books that cover similar themes. Generally, such histories have usually been told from the perspective of the LDS missionary and LDS mission leaders. In this case, the authors make sure those important voices are heard, but they have also included the voices of others, including some of those who “dropped out” (see chapter 13, “Why Some Dropped Out: Challenges to Church Growth,” 453–87).
Although every chapter adds to our understanding, Mormons in the Piazza makes several critical and important contributions to our understanding of the emergence of Mormonism in Italy. First, the book places Mormonism in a larger scholarly conversation about the “emerging portents of a ‘new religious tradition’” (ix). Although the Restoration is considered unique in its message, authority, and history, it is also one among many new religious movements to emerge in the recent past. As Rodney Stark suggests, therefore, Mormonism provides historians and sociologists an opportunity to examine why some new religious movements succeed and why others fail (see Rodney Stark, “Preface,” and “The Basis of Mormon Success,” in The Rise of Mormonism, ed. Reid L. Neilson [New York: Columbia University Press, 2005], ix, 114–38).
Second, the book considers LDS missionary work at the macro and micro levels. The authors go well beyond sources readily available at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, sources that often focus on the perspective of the missionaries, generally North Americans, to “examine the personal experiences of the converts themselves” (xi).
Third, the authors also survey carefully the “strategies, methods, and challenges of missions since the mid-twentieth century” (xi). This brilliant study is one of the few that examines issues such as “organization, policies, immigration, and conversion/retention over an extensive time period” (xi).
Fourth, although this book cannot be a “comprehensive account and thorough analysis of the people, events, and issues, related to” the history of the LDS Church in Italy, the authors “fill [a] gap in [LDS] literature by presenting historical information and analysis concerning the growth of Mormonism in Italy, issues surround the internationalization of the church, the emergence of new religious movements in Europe’s evolving religious marketplace, and conversation and retention of faith communities that aggressively purpose missionary outreach” (x).
Chapter 1, “From the Great Basin Kingdom to the Kingdom Sardinia, 1849–51” (1–44); chapter 2, “Expansion and Opposition, 1851–52” (45–80); chapter 3, “Strife, Despair, and a Spirit of Emigration, 1852–55” (81–104); chapter 4, “Outreach to Catholics and Dwindling Mormon Presence, 1855–67” (105–36); and chapter 5, “Emigrating to the ‘Land of Ephraim’” (137–76)
cover the early beginnings and end of the very first missionary push in Italy. Much of these chapters draw heavily upon Michael Homer’s and James Toronto’s earlier work (see “Bibliography,” 564–65 and 574–75). Nevertheless, these chapters provide new insights, mature thinking about specific topics that can only occur after dozens of years researching, writing, and publishing on a specific topic. These chapters are fresh, crisp, and nuanced.
The authors argue that the timing of the arrival of Latter-day Saints missionaries was perfect to win numerous converts because “three positive factors converged: political reforms in the Kingdom of Sardinia, socioreligious ferment and spiritual seeking in the Waldensian communities [in the Cottian Alps] and renewed evangelical enthusiasm within the Mormon community [in the Great Basin, USA] following the migration westward” (530).
Chapter 6, “Retreat or Return: Mormons and Italy, 1867–1945” (177–212), is a bridge to help connect the first successful missionary effort in the 1850s with the next successful missionary effort beginning in the late 1960s. Based on Dursteler’s important essay “One Hundred Years of Solitude: Mormonism in Italy, 1867–1964,” published in the International Journal of Mormon Studies in 2011, this chapter carefully outlines the various factors that prevented the Church in making Italy a focus of its missionary effort during a long period.
Some of those factors originated in Utah with the Church and others in Italy itself. As the authors opine about the last phase of the retreat, “From 1929 on [because of Italian Fascism’s suspicion of protestant groups and its alliance with Catholicism], the door for the Mormons to return to Italy was effectively closed, and it would not reopen unto the years following World War II” (211).
Chapter 7, “Prelude to a Second Mission: The Postwar Period in Italy, 1945–65”; chapter 8, “Reopening the Italian Mission, 1965–71” (259–314); chapter 9, “Struggling to Take Root: Organizational, Media, and Social Challenges” (315–50); chapter 10, “The Golden Age of Church Expansion, 1971–85” (351–82); and chapter 11, “Increasing Maturation and Acceptance in Public Life, 1985–2012” (383–422) cover the second successful missionary effort during the second half of the twentieth century until the present day.
The authors argue again that timing for the second missionary effort was perfect to win numerous converts because post–Second World War “social dislocation, economic upheaval, and political” changes provided an opportunity for minority religions to prosper. However, the authors argue the Church “missed a golden opportunity . . . that could have provided deeper and stronger roots to nurture growth during the second mission” by delaying direct missionary efforts in Italy after the war by twenty years.
Richard Lyman Bushman noted, “The art of the historian is to extract useful information from original sources where negative or positive” (“Foreword,” in Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon [Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; and Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015], vi).
Toronto, Dursteler, and Homer have not shied away from doing that kind of historical spade work among the sources, and as a result, they have produced two insightful chapters about conversion and deconversion among Italian Latter-day Saint converts: chapter 12, “Why They Joined” (423–52) and chapter 13, “Why Some Dropped Out: Challenges to Church Growth” (453–88).
These chapters are informative, candid, careful, and cautious. The questions raised and the observations made in these two important chapters seem particularly relevant today as many Latter-day Saints deal with conversion and deconversion of family, friends, and associates—people they deeply care for and love.
It is not surprising for any Italian returned missionary—all three authors served as young missionaries in Italy—to discover that “moral drift and lack of clear values in [Italian] society” and “disaffection with the Catholic Church” explain why some early converts joined the Church. Like in any country, “personal crisis and the search for existential meaning” and “seeking alternative paths to spiritual fulfillment” opened the door for many missionaries in Italy. The authors also identify the importance of LDS doctrine, worship, community and practice, including spiritual experiences, as important factors in why people joined the Church.
In discussing why some dropped out, the authors identify challenges that any faith community will experience in an increasing secular world. Toronto recently served as a mission president in Italy and certainly thought about “real growth,” an important discussion and contribution of the book (455–59). While many would attribute inactivity to a lack of testimony, the authors correctly observe that this idea “oversimplifies and distorts the complex reality surrounding religious change” (486). Thoughtfully, the authors note, “A constellation of personal motives, social forces, and internal church dynamics are at play as spiritual seeker weigh options in the religious marketplace, and most converts make a multifaceted decision based on innate human needs for meaning in life, group affiliation, and physical and economic well-being” (486–87).
In the penultimate chapter, chapter 14, “The ‘Mormon Moment’ in Italy: An Intesa and a Temple” (489–528), the authors argue the hard-won Intesa (full religious status and rights to religious communities given by the Italian government) and the building of a LDS temple on the outskirts of Rome have been significant benchmarks in the history of the Church in Italy—part of the “Mormon Moment.” From an individual perspective, these two events provided many Italian Latter-day Saints a sense of vindication—validation for their individual sacrifices in joining the Church. Nevertheless, the authors observe, the Latter-day Saint story “reminds us that, in Italy as elsewhere, a declaration of civil rights is a far cry from the realization of civil rights” (527).
Toronto, Dursteler, and Homer provide an important analysis and synthesis of their study of the rise of Mormonism in Italy as the final chapter of the book, chapter 15, “Reflection on the Rise of Mormonism in Italy” (529–42). Most importantly, the authors point to their contribution to “understand the nature, challenges, and outcomes of Mormon expansion in Italy” (529) as a mean of understanding the nature, challenges, and outcomes of Mormon expansion into other international areas. Such insights make this book more valuable than a country history of the Church, but a lens by which one could look at any land where Mormonism has and is attempting to make a permanent community of believers.
Mormons in the Piazza is certain to become the seminal work, not just of the history of the Latter-day Saints in Italy but also of “how new religious movements arise, expand, and take root in societies around the world” (530).
For more about the book, click here.