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My ignorance of religions’ early histories

August 3, 2010

Arabic Calligraphy

Muslim history is all Arabic to me!

OK, I admit; Muslim history is all Arabic to me! My world history teacher didn’t do the best job of covering those sections in class (and for that matter, he didn’t really cover much of anything outside of the Americas and Europe very well.) When I looked a little (incredibly little) into Islam, I found out something (marginally) interesting about the Quran, which I will probably proceed to botch in summarizing. Blame Robert Wright.

People so often pick certain sura (chapters) and ayah (verses) to highlight the particular “violence” of the Quran (but don’t people do the same with all religious texts?), but apparently, people can also match those against “peaceful” ayah and sura. Why the distinction? Perhaps this is obvious to others, but the Quran was received in different places, featuring scriptures from Medina and those from Mecca. Each area had a different dynamic, and different reception to Muhammad.

The most interesting thing to me about this (but probably something that was only interesting to me, really) is how this setup of scripture is a bit different from something like the Book of Mormon, the Old or the New Testament. See, the Book of Mormon is a compilation of several different authors over a wide time span. The Old Testament, ditto. Ditto for New Testament, but with compressed time span.

Instead, the Quran seems to be a story of Islam’s founder and his (unexpected) job to be God’s prophet.

Hmm…what could that be like for Mormonism?

It seems to me that the Joseph Smith History fits more closely — the life and times of Joseph Smith, his unexpected communication with God and angels, and his equally unexpected new job as God’s prophet. But also, the Doctrine and Covenants — a series of revelations and teachings throughout Smith’s tenure as prophet. The similarities have been discussed by others, of course, with ideas that could also be introduced to the D&C from the Quran as well.

In comparing the two, I’ve come to a worse conclusion: I know so little about Mormon history (not to mention the D&C). At least with Islam, I could say, “Not my religion!” but with Mormonism, my understanding of history is so lacking as well.

I suppose I know the basics…Are you there God, it’s me, Joseph? Stalk by angel, translation process, Martin Harris Dum, foundation of church, getting exiled in various places, blah blah blah, extermination orders, mob in jail, move to Utah, blah blah blah blah, Thomas S. Monson; these are the latter-day prophets. Each area had a different dynamic, but mostly the same reception (dislike and distrust) to the Mormons.

Deseret book

Mormon history is all Deseret to me!

But beyond that, my knowledge has no substance. No meat. No context. No feel of people. And not to mention that, I have a black hole of church history that coincides with my black hole of American history from between the end of the Civil War to the start of World War I (but is, unfortunately, even larger). OK, I admit; Mormon history is all Deseret to me!

I guess there were a few things that really exposed my ignorance. One was the Mormon Stories podcast featuring anthropologist Daymon Smith. The most recent was a Dialogue article (my very first to read ever!) detailing early Mormon theologies of embodiment. From this one in particular, I began to feel that Parley P. Pratt was a real person. Additionally, just as the migration from Mecca to Medina produced different sura, different early locations in Mormonism (Kirtland vs. Nauvoo) marked different developments of doctrines.

For the longest time, I just didn’t care about the history. I’m not a history buff, and I’m not saying I’m becoming one. However, I guess I feel like I would be up to read some good, accessible books on the early figures and eras of Mormon history.

I’ll tell you a secret if you won’t consider it too pathetic. I feel it is an exciting and unique hobby to take up study of all things Mormon. One day (don’t laugh), maybe I’ll even write something for Dialogue or Sunstone or attend a conference. Sure, sure, I probably should be finding hobbies that allow me to connect more with people, rather than less, but I’m apparently a glutton for punishment.

So…got any good recommendations for books?

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8 Comments
  1. I liked Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling” biography of Joseph Smith.

    There’s also that biography of David O. McKay that I haven’t read, but everyone else in the bloggernacle seems to be gaga over.

    Does Dave over at Dave’s Mormon Inquiry still have his book list up? That would probably be a great place to start.

  2. There are so many great books about Mormon history. I find it intersting that you have so many gaps, I wouldn’t have expected that. It was my enthusiasm for Mormon history, and studying of it that first lead me to encounter many of the Churchs less savory, more ambiguous aspects. Seth’s recommendations are good, Rough Stone Rolling and David O. McKay and the Birth of Modern Mormonism are excellent sources for the periods of the 1820’s-1840’s and 1950’s-1960’s respectively. I also recommend Grant Palmers An Insiders View of Mormon Origins for a critical take on early church theological developments, Jan Ships Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition does a good job covering 19th century developments in a fairly objective way, and her Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons covers a good portion of the 20th Century. Like you I haven’t read a real good compendium for the early half of the 20th century yet, though there are good sections on it in books like Mormon America and America’s Saints. And just perusing through back issues of Sunstone and Dialogue off course can always bring up interesting bits from here and there. Oh I almost forgot, Conflict in the Quorum does a great job on the theological disputes that shaped so much of Mormonism and ragged openly during the Brigham Young years.

  3. Comment got too long, so rather than spam you here’s the post: http://mollymuses.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/mormon-history-101-take-the-plunge/

  4. Seth, you’re right! I’ll check that out.

    Nate, good call on Conflict in the Quorum particularly; that sounds interesting.

    Molly, thanks for the link…seems kinda daunting haha.

  5. Yes. Yes, indeed. The Grand Canyon is a crack in the pavement compared to the vast chasms of emptiness that typify my knowledge of Mormon history. Nature abhors a vacuum so this space needs to, and will be filled immediately. The tipping point for me was “Why Mormon history isn’t what they say” over at http://mormonmatters.org/. Yes, all of one day ago, I became a monomaniacal amateur Mormon historian. Joseph Smith, not a polygamist, are you kidding me?!? I am now more interested in, and more skeptical of, history than ever. I literally do not believe anything that anybody says, but unfortunately extreme skepticism will get me nowhere in this situation. It’s time to devour some books. Looks like Molly’s got a great reading list to get me started.

    P.S. Full disclosure time, I will also share a secret. Mormon history is crazy, loco, fascinating. I’m going to make a comic book or more likely a web comic that’ll touch on some of these elements from our past and contrast them with the church today. Wish me luck and non-excommunication.

  6. Yeah, anything that Rock Waterman writes and refers to is pretty much on my list of things. Although as far as I can tell, I don’t think Molly liked his post at MM all that much (and, it’s interesting to contrast…in a recent discussion on polygamy, Seth R really opened my eyes to how polygamy could have meaningfully positive *theological* implications [even if I’m not sold on the implementation.] Rock’s post was like…completely 180…with respect to polygamy.) I also know that BiV at MM doesn’t necessarily like Rock’s position either, because she is pretty pro-polygamy, I think.

    I’ve never heard of someone being excommunicated for a web comic, haha.

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  1. Mormon History 101: Take the Plunge « Molly Muses . . .
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