From the Outside Looking In

Essays on Mormon History, Theology, and Culture

Book Notice

Reid L. Neilson and Matthew J. Grow, eds., From the Outside Looking In: Essays on Mormon History, Theology, and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)

The Tanner Lecture series was established by the Mormon History Association in 1980 with the goal of elevating Mormon scholarship. Over the years, eminent scholars whose work “paralleled the Mormon history but . . . never addressed it directly” have been invited to speak and “expand a facet of their ongoing research to include a Mormon dimension” (xv–xvi). Their lectures have provided valuable outside perspectives. Although all the lectures have been published in the Journal of Mormon History, lectures from the first two decades were compiled in The Mormon History Association’s Tanner Lectures: The First Twenty Years to increase accessibility. Another fifteen Tanner lectures were given before the name of the series was changed to the Smith-Pettit Lecture in 2015. From the Outside Looking In presents the last fifteen Tanner lectures and “represents the end of an era and the beginning of a future promise of excellent scholarship” (xviii).

The volume begins with a general introduction by Richard Lyman Bushman, in which he presents different themes discussed within the book, including “the formation of identity, the place of women, and globalization” (3). The volume is divided into four parts. Part 1 is titled “The American Religious Landscape” and includes lectures from Alan Taylor, Richard H. Brodhead, Stephen J. Stein, Catherine A. Brekus, and Leigh Eric Schmidt. These essays suggest that “we can learn a great deal about various religious figures and movements in the history of the United States through creative contrasts with their Latter-day Saint counterparts” (7). The essays in this section make such comparative references to people and concepts, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nat Turner, apocalypticism, the historical agency of women, and post–Civil War freethinkers. The comparisons made in these essays shed light on Mormonism’s place in the American religious landscape of the past and where that place will be in the future.

The volume continues with part 2, “The Creation of Mormon Identities,” which includes essays from Charles L. Cohen, Elliott West, and Randall Balmer. Each of these essays deals with different aspects of identity formation, including “demonstrating how the experiences of children and teenagers in the Church’s early decades contributed to a unique identity . . . , how elite Latter-day Saints have worked to pass on the faith . . . , and how Latter-day Saints’ theology and their historical experience combined to create a powerful and persistent identity as a people who are . . . separate from the rest of the world” (129). The perspectives of these authors offer intriguing insight into the relationship between LDS faith and identity.

Part 3 is titled “The Study of Western Histories,” and it addresses LDS history within the context of the American West. Though the relationship of LDS history to the history of the American West has not been taken as seriously as it should have been in the past, the lectures in this part “[enrich] both our understanding of the religion and of the broader dynamics in the West” (207). The section includes lectures from Dell Upton, William Deverell, Walter Nugent, and George A. Miles that discuss the cultural landscape of nineteenth-century Utah, connections between religion and the Civil War, and Mormon history within the context of American imperialism.

Part 4, “The Study of Global Religions,” concludes the volume. Within this section, David B. Marshall, Philip Jenkins, and Jehu J. Hanciles discuss the challenges that Christianity in general and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in specific face in a global world. This part addresses the history of the Church in Canada, the religious landscape of Africa, and the global transformation of Christianity. This topic will only become increasingly important as the Church continues to grow throughout the world.

From the Outside Looking In is a fascinating collection of lectures that captures both the complexity of Mormonism, with its many facets, and the legacy of the Tanner Lecture series. Anyone interested in Mormon identity, Church history, and the Church’s role moving forward will enjoy reading this volume of scholarship.


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Print ISSN: 2837-0031
Online ISSN: 2837-004X