Critical Issues in American Religious History: A Reader

In eight hundred pages filled with sixteen generally chronological chapters, each including several historical documents and various essays written by recognized authorities, this volume ambitiously attempts to comprehensively cover critical issues in American religious history from its colonization to 1980. But even such coverage is necessarily selective. From my LDS perspective, I noticed right away that chapter 5, on American religion in the early republic, is silent on the subject of early Mormonism. The essays in chapter 5 cover millennialism, Charles Finney, and Adventism. Each of these rich topics is deserving of its place, and each could be profitably compared with Joseph Smith and early Mormonism.

I hoped Mathisen would have let Joseph Smith speak for himself by featuring his brief 1832 history. Instead, Mormonism first appears in chapter 6, where Brigham Young’s 1845 statement announcing the exodus from Illinois is featured. Is not the Brigham Young document insignificant by comparison? Mormonism disappears again until the final chapter, where a slice of Sonia Johnson’s 1979 autobiography is featured. This feature of an obviously divisive personality reminds me of a graduate school seminar in which one of my fellow students, a non-Mormon, compared Johnson’s autobiography to her papers and found considerable dissonance between the two. The autobiography is a much sexier, embellished story. Why does Johnson’s document get privileged?

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 46:3
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