American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940

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Thomas W. Simpson
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    The University of North Carolina Press
    , September
     246 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


While Simpson is far from the first scholar to tackle the education history of the Latter-day Saint faith, his excellent monograph may be the first to forge a narrative that ties education into the larger story of Mormonism’s rebirth into American culture. Numerous studies have sought to explain Mormonism’s transition from a theocratic, isolationist, polygamous sect to a politically neutral, patriotic American, monogamous church. This narrative usually follows mounting federal interventions in Utah Territory, the Mormon Church’s disavowal of plural marriage, and Utah’s road to statehood. Simpson ignores these milestones by turning his attention to the “subtle eroding influences” of an educated class of Latter-day Saints with ties to the East. It turns out that Mormonism was never as isolated or isolationist as many have believed. Since the mid-1860s, Mormons left Utah armed with institutional support to study at the nation’s leading universities. They returned with new ideas and sympathies that benefitted, shocked, and produced conflict with their co-religionists.

American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism examines Mormonism’s growing pains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the hierarchy debated recent developments in the sciences and the humanities. We learn about progressive efforts to educate Mormon women as midwives and doctors, but we also become familiar with the leadership’s tendency to eschew the latest scientific discoveries as evident by evolution debates at Brigham Young University. Modern biblical studies rocked the church’s own theological education system. While much of this material has been probed in the past, Simpson has weaved these controversies into a coherent story. Most importantly, he has focused on how these controversies played out in Mormonism’s negotiation with modernity.  As interesting as the institutional grappling is, where Simpson’s work is its most original is when it focuses on Latter-day Saint students, following specific communities at Michigan, Harvard, or Chicago. Mirroring the hierarchy’s struggle over identity, students faced their own questions about adapting to “Gentile” society or retrenching into their sectarian identities.

American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism is a slim volume, numbering only 125 pages of actual text. In addition, it includes five appendices, each a list of Latter-day Saint students in different eras or at different universities. In short, Simpson has written an important complement to other titles on the negotiation between nineteenth century Mormonism and the American state. Perhaps a volume on polygamy or politics during Mormonism’s period of transition would make a better selection for an undergraduate course, but Simpson’s insights should be incorporated into future discussions on what is often an oversimplified historical narrative.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher James Blythe is Historian/Documentary Editor at the Joseph Smith Papers, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas W. Simpson, a specialist in modern U.S. religious history, is instructor in religion and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy.



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