While many can recount the basic steps in the formation of the Mormon religion, oftentimes the characters are much more interesting and diverse. From faith struggles to complex belief systems, biographies allow us to view the “why” behind the person.
2012 – Inaugural Class
Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery (1984)
Newell and Avery’s monumental biography was a breath of fresh air during the New Mormon History era of the 70′s and 80′s. After the assassination of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young took his faction of Latter-day Saints west to colonize Utah, while Emma Smith stayed back in Nauvoo. Brigham and Emma had a tumultuous relationship, mostly based around Joseph’s introduction of the New and Everlasting Covenant, most commonly known as polygamy. Young publicly called out Emma from the pulpit in Utah, which lead to a general mistrust of Emma Smith through most of the Brighamites history. However, Newell and Avery decided to re-examine Emma Smith, and found a complex character who deeply loved her husband, but was also very distressed at some of the things revolving around him. Newell and Avery’s book took the world by storm, winning multiple awards and being placed on the College Dean’s Summer Reading List. This success, however, would be short lived as the women’s Stake Presidents informed them that they received word that the authors were not to speak at church, were not to give prayers, and were essentially blacklisted for writing an open and honest book about Emma Smith. After many inquiries with Salt Lake City, the ban was lifted, but for Newell and Avery, both faithful members, the hurt was deep. Devery Anderson has a wonderful writeup about this time period in Dialogue Summer 2002.
In Sacred Lonliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton (1997)
Probably one of the most confusing, controversial, and misunderstood aspects of Mormonism revolves around the marriage practices of the early church. While polygamy was mainstream and out-in-the-open during the Utah Brigham Young period, the Joseph Smith period in Nauvoo was a mystery. Winner of both the Mormon History Association Award for Best Book and the John Whitmer Historical Association for best book, “In Sacred Loneliness” attempts to unravel the confusion and misunderstandings of the plural wives of Joseph Smith. Referenced as one of the best books on Smith’s polygamy, Compton identified 33 women who could be considered wives of Joseph Smith, and attempts to give a background into who they were, as many of them kept their marriage to Smith a secret for most of their lives. In Sacred Loneliness does a wonderful job of giving the public the forgotten tales of the secret wives of Joseph Smith.
Brigham Young: American Moses by Leonard J. Arrington (1985)
While many look to the assassination of Joseph Smith as one of the defining and unifying moments of the early Mormon church, the establishment of Utah should be considered just as important. Brigham Young, the newly designated president/prophet of the then-fledgling LDS Church, became the impetus for the 70,000 pioneer trek from Nauvoo and the Eastern States out to Utah. Once there, Young became a city-builder, establishing a university, directing the building of the Salt Lake Temple and the Tabernacle, as well as water system to irrigate the arid desert. Arrington’s biography won the 1985 Mormon History Association’s Best Book award, the prestigious “David Evans and Beatrice Cannon Biography Award, and was nominated as a “distinguished work of biography” by the National Book Critics Circle.
David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince and Robert Wright (2005)
Aside from the Utah period, the next largest growth period of the Mormon church occurred in the 1950s, especially during the David O. McKay presidency. Membership tripled under the McKay regime, the priesthood restrictions on African-American males was softened, and the foundations of church auxiliary correlation were formed. McKay brought the LDS Church from an isolated Utah-based group to a worldwide religion, and based on the amount of time he spent in the capacity of a general authority (64 years), served as a link to Utah and Mormonism’s past, and a step into it’s future. Prince and Wright conducted over 200 interviews, drew on the David O. McKay papers at the University of Utah library, and relied heavily on the records of McKay’s longtime secretary, Claire Middlemiss, for their source material. Prince and Wright’s book focuses on McKay and his views and interactions dealing with Communism, the American Civil Rights Movement, and ecumenism as well as a host of other issues in a forthright and honest way, bridging the gap between the Utah period and the modern era of the Mormon church.
An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton ed. by George D. Smith (1991)
True, honest “insider” stories of Mormonism are hard to come by. They either fall under faithful retellings reaffirming the validity of the LDS Church, or antagonistic in proving it’s falsehood. However, recently, more biographies are coming out examining the men and women themselves, including the struggles they went through. William Clayton converted in England, sailed to American, and almost instantly became a close confidant to Joseph Smith and an insider to the Nauvoo circle. His journals detail the difficulties in the voyage from England to America, the early introduction of polygamy, as well as many of the insider leadership struggles occurring at the time period, including information on the Council of Fifty. This book is highly recommended to anyone looking for an insider’s peek into the Nauvoo period of the LDS Church.