New book on Mormon history focuses on church’s continual changes
Book review: ‘American Zion: A New History of Mormonism’ by Benjamin E. Park, ★★★★★
A major rupture split American Protestantism during the 1920s and early ’30s in what has become known as fundamentalist-modernist controversy. The dispute pitted fundamentalists, those who stressed what they saw as fundamentals of the Christian religion, which they saw as unchanging and depending on a Bible literally understood, with the modernists, who were open to less rigid interpretations of the scriptures as well as adaptations that might follow changing secular thinking. By the time World War II started, the modernists had largely won (although a milder form of fundamentalism would emerge half a century later with the rise of evangelicalism).
But the fundamentalist-modern controversy wasn’t limited to Protestantism. It also made its way into Mormonism, whose largest branch by far was (and is) the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Biblical interpretation and even the nature of the Book of Mormon were up for debate. But in the LDS church, fundamentalism1 won out, a inflection point of Mormon history that set the stage for what the LDS church is today.
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The details of that decade or so are among the most fascinating portions of historian Benjamin E. Park’s newest book, American Zion: A New History of Mormonism. Beginning with the birth of Joseph Smith’s mother, née Lucky Mack, in 1775 and ending with the LGBTQ culture wars, Park describes how Mormonism has shaped and been shaped by the culture around it. Most of his attention is given to the controversies in and surrounding the LDS church, although he briefly also discusses several much smaller denominations that arose from the church launched in upstate New York by Joseph Smith in 1830.
Within the culture of the LDS church, arguably the most hierarchical of major American denominations, there is a common belief that the church’s top leaders are divinely inspired in a way that is somehow separate from whatever cultural influences they face. While it may not have been Park’s intent, his book repeatedly demolishes that notion: The LDS church of this book has always been intimately tied American culture, sometimes in the way it was persecuted, particularly because of polygamy in the second half the 19th century, and sometimes in the way the church became a model for American life, such as in its emphasis on the nuclear family in the 1950s.
So in some ways, American Zion is a history of America itself. Always looming in the background are American struggles with, among other things, slavery, Native American rights, war, racial injustice, the women’s movement and, now, LGBTQ issues. What may surprise members of the LDS church is that the divisions that have been part of American political life have also been found within the highest levels of the church hierarchy. And the ways differences have been resolved (when they are) haven’t always been pretty.
Also likely to be surprising for many readers is the prominent place that women had during the first half the church’s existence; in some ways, women used to be more esteemed in the LDS church than they are today. The church women’s organization known as the Relief Society was at one time fairly independent of the church’s all-male priesthood and even had its own buildings and publications. Although polygamy was a mixed bag for women — some found it oppressing while others found it liberating — benefits for some women included the ability to gain an higher education or political office, showing Mormonism’s potentially radical nature at its best.
Book is neither hagiographic nor apologetic
Park grew up in the LDS church and completed his undergraduate studies at the LDS church’s Brigham Young University before his graduate work in history at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge. Despite his background, his writing gives no indication of being agenda-driven; Park neither avoids the most challenging aspects of Mormon history, such as its treatment of Native Americans, nor acts as an apologist. If there’s one major fault with the book, it’s that its 512 pages aren’t enough; readers already familiar with church history may end up wishing for more details about the best-known events such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the official change in the status of black members. Where American Zion excels is in its examination of the sweeping changes that made the church what it is today, such the the end of polygamy over the course of several decades, the adoption of fundamentalism in the 1930s, the family emphasis of the ’50s and the corporatization of the church in the ’60s and ’70s.
If there’s a theme to the book, it’s that the LDS church is always changing, and not always in ways that could have been predicted. American Zion is a monumental work that belongs on the shelf of not only those interested in Mormon history but also those who care about the sociological aspects of religion in American life.
I’m using “fundamentalism” here the way it is used in describing a religions in general, a type of thinking that tends to have clear boundaries and is focused on traditional belief. I’m not speaking of the modern “fundamentalist Mormon” movement that still practices polygamy and whose connection with the LDS church is historical only.