First, an update on my blog plans for next year.
I do not intend to write a weekly post on the Come Follow Me section. D&C is the book I have taught the least, read the least, know the least about, and have the most limited mental bibliography. While I do American religious history, 1820-1850 is not my time period or specialty at all. Second, I am up to my eyeballs in writing projects: my dissertation, my BYU studies materials, my book, and some other things. I will continue to write posts, some about D&C and Church history, but approximately… whenever the muse strikes and I have time.
It strikes me that with many of us holding Church within the walls of our own home, 2021 is an opportunity to study broader Church history than the early period covered by D&C.
So today, as I’ve done for our other books of scripture, I’m providing a list of resources for the next year, after consulting a number of friends who know these things better than I. All of these recommendations have flaws and limitations, and a link is not endorsement of everything an author has said, etc. Nevertheless, I think reading these will help us better understand early LDS Church history, scripture, and the mindset of those early members, why they talked and acted the way they did.
I’m thrilled that I can include a section like this; it speaks to how seriously we’re taking our institutional history. These are free and very helpful.
- Revelations in Context, from the Church. Just bookmark the page where they’re listed by section. Also in the Gospel Library app.
- Saints and the accompanying podcast. Also in the Gospel Library app
- The First Vision podcast.
- For a deep dive, the Joseph Smith Papers
- The JSP has also produced the 1100 page Joseph Smith’s Revelations: A Doctrine and Covenants Study Companion
There is a lot here, and it can be overwhelming, so I’ve divided this up into sections. If you don’t want to wade through it all, here’s my shortlist of 5 books I wish everyone would read pertaining to Church history, the D&C, etc.
History is largely about understanding change and difference, something we don’t always do well as Mormons and which causes us lots of problems. We talk about line-upon-line which implies change and difference, but then assume or teach that the past wasn’t really any different or that we can safely ignore those differences. This shortlist (which I found very difficult to put together) emphasizes understanding those differences.
- A one-volume history of the entire LDS Church, either Allen/Leonard The Story of the Latter-day Saints (which is out of print and stops in 1992) or Bowman’s The Mormon People: Making of an American Faith which is more recent and aimed at a popular audience. Alternately, read Saints.
- Thomas G. Alexander Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890-1930. 3rd ed. (Kofford, 2012). The first two editions were the University of Illinois Press.
- This was originally commissioned by the Church as part of a 16-volume Church history series, which was then not brought to completion. This book covers the real transitionary years where the modern Church developed as LDS know it today. Polygamy (mostly) disappears, Mormons become stereotypical Americans instead of foreign outsiders, the Word of Wisdom is standardized and made a Temple Recommend requirement, doctrine is standardized and speculative theology tamped down, the temple ordinances and clothing are standardized, etc. If the early Church ever seems strange to you, this is where it becomes “normal.” Likewise, if you think this is how things have always been, you really need to read this.
- Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and/or Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism
- You can’t get away from Joseph Smith in the early history of Mormonism, so both these works are important. I know several people who consider his Beginnings of Mormonism (below) better than Rough Stone. Although the latter is a revision and expansion of the former, they cover different topics with different scope. Depending on your background, it can be a challenge to read a biography of Joseph Smith that doesn’t put him on a pedestal, that tries to respect both his prophethood and his humanity. Bushman is a venerable professor of American history, and was Patriarch in the Manhattan Stake before moving to Claremont.
- *Janiece Johnson and Jenny Reeder, The Witness of Women: Firsthand Experiences and Testimonies from the Restoration (Deseret Book, 2016)
- This is specifically a resource book designed to accompany the D&C lessons, with lots of insights and stories from and about LDS women. I haven’t seen it yet, but it comes highly recommended from friends who have.
- Turley and Slaughter, How We Got the Doctrine & Covenants
- Richard Turley is great (I know nothing about Slaughter, but assume he’s good too.) Turley was the head of Church Public Affairs, but has done a lot of good history work.
- Interview at bookstore with Turley shortly after publication.
In the categories below, I’ve starred some things to call attention to, for various reasons.
Things not to bother reading
- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Why? In short, it’s not accurate nor what it appears to be. First compiled in 1934, TPJS is presented as direct1st person teachings of Joseph Smith, as if written by Joseph himself. This is largely not the case, and it has been superseded.
- *The Words of Joseph Smith (Amazon or online here)
- These present the original accounts, with analysis, which were used as the basis for Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Much better to work from.
- Or, the Joseph Smith Papers.
- *Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism
- *Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Change and the Continuing Restoration
Joseph Smith’s day was different than ours. Different worldview different issues, different day-to-day problems. Development and change. Nature of revelation. Joseph knew things in 1844 that he didn’t know in 1830.
- *BYU history professor Craig Harline “What Happened to my Bellbottoms? How Things That Were Never Going to Change Have Sometimes Changed Anyway, and How Studying History Can Help Us Make Sense of It All,”
- Allen, James B. “Line Upon Line.” Ensign July (1979): 32-39.
- Allen provides several historical examples of the principal of line-upon-line, showing how church doctrine and policy grow, change and adapt to circumstance through revelation. For example, before 1880, LDS did not understand that children should be sealed to parents, and so on back. Instead, the father of a family would be sealed (“adopted”) to a Church leader. Then came revelation to Wilfred Woodruff that this wasn’t the right way to do things, and so genealogy began in the LDS Church. (See also here and here on “adoption.”) If that kind of thing interests you, the next book is right up your alley.
- *Phillip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible (Oxford Press)
- Barlow shows how Mormons from Joseph Smith to today have interpreted the Bible in very different ways.
- Underwood, Millenarian World of Early Mormonism and Blythe, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse
- Latter-day Saints in the 19th century shared the view of many Americans that Jesus was returning very soon.
- Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890-1930. 3rd ed. ( Kofford Press, 2012) The first two editions were the University of Illinois Press.
- Charles Harrell, This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology.
- This is not a read-through book, but almost a short encyclopedic resource. Therein lies its strength and its weakness. It’s both really useful and also problematic. Harrell is a BYU engineering professor. See comments at Deseret Book, and reviews at reputable LDS blogs by Matt Bowman, Kevin Barney, and David T.
- Terryl Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity
- Like Harrell above, this is a history of LDS doctrinal thought, but organized very differently and from a very different angle. The second volume is now available for preorder, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Practice: Church and Praxis.
- Jonathan Stapley’s book (which won the Best Book prize from the Mormon History Association) details how many concepts around fundamental things like priesthood and ordinances have shifted since the early days of the Church. It’s a semi-technical book, but check out the podcasts where he talks about it.
- Latter-day Saint Missioncast, “Basic Doctrines Part 6- Priesthood and Priesthood Keys with Jonathan Stapley” Dec 4, 2019
- LDS Perspectives “The Power of Godliness” Episode 109
- “The Development of LDS Liturgy and Cosmology” Maxwell Institute Podcast Episode #78
- I also recommend checking out Stapley’s two posts on D&C this year. Post 1 on studying D&C in general, post 2 about some resources.
Approaching History, Church History, and its Potential Issues–
- *My post on Church history and the Ensign
- This discusses an older Ensign article and a newer one, which explain the nature of history and history-writing. Very useful for non-historians.
- Oxford Press’s History: A Very Short Introduction,
- Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series is fantastic, with volumes on history, religion, literature, science, philosophy, etc. This is a cheap slim paperback about what history is and isn’t.
- American History: A Very Short Introduction
- Oxford’s VSI about American history, instead of history and history-writing in general.
- Davis Bitton, “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church”
- Laura Harris Hales, ed. A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History.
- A collection of essays by venerable authors on difficult topics.
- Teryl and Fiona Givens The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith
- A thoughtful and useful reflection on history, faith, difficulty, scripture, and prophets.
- Also, The God who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life
- The Givens make a proactive argument of how Mormonism’s doctrines provide unique support in making sense of life and hardship.
- Patrick Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt,
- Another general approach to reconciling difficulties in LDS doctrine, history, and practice by an LDS historian and academic.
Nature of the D&C text
Scripture is the “word of God” but only rarely the dictated “words of God.” We need to recognize the humanity that is always entangled with revelation and scripture, that revelation is composite. As it pertains to D&C, we should understand that the text has been fluid and changeable, gets “updated” with new revelation, etc.
- Woodford, Robert J. “How the Revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants Were Received and Compiled.” Ensign (January 1985).
- Woodford, Robert J. “The Story of the Doctrine and Covenants.” Ensign (December 1984)
- Peterson, Melvin. “Preparing Early Revelations for Publication.” Ensign (February 1985)
- *Turley and Slaughter, How We Got the Doctrine & Covenants
- Richard Turley is great (I know nothing about Slaughter, but assume he’s good too.) He was the head of Church Public Affairs, and has done a lot of good history work.
- *Grant Underwood lecture at BYU-H, “Relishing the Revisions: Joseph Smith and the Revelatory Process.”
- In this lecture, Underwood addresses the nature of revelation and scripture, as evidenced by the D&C. He wrote the important book, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism, which looks at how much early LDS lived in and shared a religious worldview anticipating the imminent second coming of Jesus.
- C.f. Steven Harper “Revelation as Process”
D&C itself and Commentaries
- Steven Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour Through Modern Revelations
- I like this one.
- Robinson and Garret, Commentary on the D&C.
- This is Stephen Robinson, of “Parable of the Bicycle” fame
- Mark Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations
- *The section at LDS.org called Revelations in Context (also arranged by section number) functions as a quasi-commentary. This is the newest, most official, “commentary” and has now been printed as a separate book you can order from Church Distribution for $3.45.
- *Joseph Smith Papers– A better page if you’re looking specifically for text and context of particular D&C sections is this index.
- *Faulconer, The Doctrine&Covenants Made Harder
- This is a great series. Some background and history, but mostly great thought questions and discussion prompts.
There is no shortage of good material about particular events, sections, etc. from lds-focused journals. I suspect the three that might be most accessible are
- BYU Studies
- Journal of Mormon History
- This is more specialized than BYU Studies, obviously, but that has advantages. Their archives are searchable.
- Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
- Originally started in 1966 by a number of thoughtful LDS like Eugene England and Dallin H. Oaks (who joined the editorial board in 1968), Dialogue recently had its 50th anniversary. If BYU Studies is sometimes constrained by its BYU affiliation, Dialogue has sometimes been too unconstrained in the opposite direction, depending on the editor. There is a lot of good stuff in it about history, and its worth being aware of. Archives are searchable.
- Interpreter (essentially a FARMS/MI offshoot)
- Also provides essays and articles on LDS history, D&C sections etc. See here for D&C articles in no particular order.
Last but not Least!
One important category in which both American culture and Mormon policy/doctrine have changed dramatically since the 1830s involves how we conceptualize people, relationships, and the categories we consciously and unconsciously put them into.
- Kathryn Daynes, More Wives than One: The Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).
- This is an introduction to polygamy. It’s one volume, focused on data and analysis, not personal stories. That said, it’s very readable. If you really want to dive in more, try this and the multi-volume series from the Hales.
- Armand Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).
- Mauss is an LDS sociologist who does fantastic work. He shows some surprising things, e.g. that by some measures and in spite of the priesthood ban, in the 1950s LDS were less racists than non-LDS.
- *Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. (Oxford Press, 2015)
- A hugely important book, Reeve looks at how non-LDS Americans portrayed Mormons in non-white racial categories to increase bias against them, and how Mormons ironically struggled for “whiteness.” This played into issues like the priesthood ban and other uncomfortable things. Here’s Reeve’s bio on the Mormon Scholars Testify page, his Fair Conference presentation on the same topic, and the related Gospel Topics essay drawing implicitly on his book.
- And secondly along these lines, Russell Stevenson’s book For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013
As I said at the beginning, this is a far from a complete list. Others have offered more academic lists of articles and books, and I’ll occasionally offer more lesson-specific suggestions, like here and here (Official Declaration 2). As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through purchasing the books I link through Amazon. *I am an Amazon Affiliate, and receive a small percentage of purchases made through these links. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box below). You can also follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook.