The Basics

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John Charles Duffy , David J. Howlett
  • Abing: 
    , November
     202 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This is an extraordinarily well-thought-through book. Befitting their religious studies training, co-authors Duffy and Howlett have produced a volume that, belying its subtitle (“The Basics”), offers a sophisticated analysis both of Mormonism (in several of its streams) and of the American religious landscape more generally, along several lines of analysis. This strategy is the book’s greatest strength and also the source of its few, though present, weaknesses. 

Rather than a historical narrative, Mormonism: The Basics offers a cross-disciplinary analysis of three different branches of the Mormon tradition: the largest and most visible LDS tradition, headquartered in Utah; the smaller Reorganized tradition, largely descended from those followers of Joseph Smith who declined to follow Brigham Young when he relocated to Salt Lake City; and the fundamentalist tradition, whose founders severed loyalty with the LDS tradition after its leaders renounced the practice of polygamy at the turn of the 20th century. This is welcome—often surveys of this sort give short shrift to those traditions other than the LDS.

While considering each of these groups worthy of study in its own right the authors also use them as a means for examining the variety of Mormon responses to American culture, which they believe illuminates something about the ways religion in America works. Chapters consider a variety of expressions of religious life and practice; they deal with questions like the relationship between religion and politics, the making and uses of sacred space, religious rites and practices, gender and sexuality, and so on. The book might work well in the undergraduate religious studies classroom; indeed, the authors have designed their chapters with discussion questions and comparative examples, intending readers to see through Mormonism to broader questions.

This is a lofty goal for a work which purports to offer “the basics.” And yet the book works well for that purpose too. It opens with a brief discussion of Mormon history that illustrates the origins and course of each of the three strands of Mormonism it examines, and in that chapter sets up the comparative framework they will use as they engage with the variety of themes which will follow. The Reorganized church is “liberal,” in that it has sought the least tension with conventional, and largely Protestant-shaped, American culture, minimizing its Mormon distinctiveness. The LDS church leans right, acceptable enough to the American mainstream to be broadly accepted as respectable, but maintaining some dissonance with American culture and holding to distinctiveness on issues of sexuality and religious practices. The fundamentalist movement has emphasized tensions with American culture the most of these three Mormonisms, holding itself exclusive in matters of both doctrine and practice. As the authors explore the ways each tradition has structured its worship services or developed a philosophy of church and state, they both provide the essentials of each tradition’s history and positions at the same time as they develop an extended comparative analysis. 

Frequently this scheme is extremely worthwhile. The comparative method throws not only each tradition into sharp relief, but also illuminates the broader contours and boundaries of American religious history. It has often been observed—and disputed—that Mormonism is the quintessential American religion. This volume prompts the observation that it perhaps more legitimately might be called the quintessential tradition for the study of American religion. The very questions about what it means to be an “American religion” that the initial claim generates are dissected here: is an American religion particularly given to democracy? Does it partake of broader American preoccupations with sexuality and capitalism? Does it fixate on individualism, individual invention, and the self? Among them, the various Mormon traditions have grappled with all these questions, and this volume traces out their disputes.

The volume also occasionally suffers from some of the same complaints that historians (like this author) often level at religious studies as a discipline. Its schematic and comparative approach can flatten the lumps and quirks that make any tradition’s history distinctive, and it can lead to an overemphasis on distinctiveness in order to maximize the value of the comparison in the first place. For instance, though the authors often go to pains to emphasize that each of these traditions has within itself its own disputes and hence lack of uniformity, except when they are explicitly comparing internal dissent across all three traditions they tend to flatten them. Thus, though the authors identify the various strands of the Mormon fundamentalist movement, they often treat the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as representative of the entire movement in discussions of dress, hairstyles, and so on, even though many self-identified Mormons who practice polygamy today don’t hold to distinctive FLDS standards. In their discussion of Mormonism’s development in Nauvoo, Illinois, they summarize quickly and attribute to Joseph Smith a body of theological ideas, some of which he did not enunciate and some of which emerged over a long series of LDS debates and remain disputed among Mormon leaders and intellectuals today. They treat Brigham Young’s controversial ideas the same way, as clearer and better delineated than they were. Some of these issues seem related to their desire to indulge the comparative impulse—for instance, implying that the LDS use of the word “ward” emerged in the settlement of Utah and linking it to distinctive LDS thinking on the relation between church and state, when it was in fact used before the LDS-Reorganized divergence. 

All of these critiques, of course, remind us that the title of the book is, in fact, “the basics.” Many are simply the result of the sort of sketch that any introductory book must necessarily proffer, and the fact that the authors pull off the sort of sophisticated analysis that they do in such a compressed space for such a general audience means they are to be roundly commended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Bowman is Associate Professor of History at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.

Date of Review: 
April 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David J. Howlett is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

John-Charles Duffy is a lecturer in comparative religion at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.



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