Many books are published, read, and live a simple life unchanged from their original publication other than superficial copy-editing changes. Others have a bit of an interesting life in publishing. Any student in college knows this as the editions of Organic Chemistry or Intro to Psychology textbooks seem to change every two years or so, despite the foundations of the fields remaining relatively stable, causing many students to suspect that the changes in editions occur merely to take advantage of the student textbook marketplace and make the older editions obsolete. While this is often my own suspicion in the student book market, the changes in editions of other books are in fact substantial.

In the case of 2012 republication of the 3rd edition of Mormonism in Transition by Kofford Books, I think an update was important. Originally published by the University of Illinois Press in 1986, Mormonism in Transition was a forerunner in Mormon history for this important watershed era of the latter-day saint tradition. Though the editor of Kofford books tells me the changes to this work were small (that is, the original structure of the book remained, but key references such as Sarah Gordon’s Mormon Question and Kathleen Flake’s Politics of American Religious Identity and even Charles Harrell’s This is My Doctrine were included in the update as well as some paragraph adjustments) it seems well reconditioned to match modern Mormon historical and doctrinal inquiry. It has made itself new again as a crucial volume for Mormon history enthusiasts, like myself.

As I find Mormonism in Transition important and valuable, I don’t love it like other histories I have read. It isn’t a narrative history with a singular topic. Each topic is a granular collection of events and shifts in attitudes and practices that Alexander observed via documentary evidence between 1890 and 1930. It is nearly exhaustive (at least it feels that way). So yes, it is a key contribution to the field and is likely to remain as the standard treatment of the era in question for some time, but it isn’t a page turner like Flake’s was. I suppose this is a good thing since simple compelling narratives cannot capture the complexity of reality. Alexander’s work in this volume reminds the student of Mormon history that most stories are not easily or quickly told with good fidelity to the truth. As I paint a less than exciting picture of this book I need to say that many sections of it were really fun and exciting to read. I’ll share two summaries of segments I found particularly interesting.

A New ‘Commandment’

Other than the wearing of garments Mormon’s adherence to Teetotalism, in addition to avoiding tea, coffee, tobacco, and recreational drugs in general (a principle known as the “Word of Wisdom,” WoW) is the behavioral marker that makes them distinct from outsiders. But it was not always this way. In the 19th century it was claims of spiritual gifts, new scripture, and the practice of plural marriage that made one ‘Mormon.’ 19th century Mormons were certainly aware of the WoW, as it was considered a revelation received in 1833, canonized as scripture, and was spoken of sporadically as a commandment, but they tended to view it as it is written, which is, good advice and specifically “not by way of commandment.”[1] With polygamy slowly being made a part of the Mormon past from 1890 through 1910 more spiritual energy was available to be spent on other doctrines, one of which was the WoW.

Shifts were small and moderate at first with, for example, George Teasdale holding that members should not be punished in any way for drinking tea, in fact in his view “eating pork was a more serious problem than drinking tea or coffee.” Even alcohol was not universally interdicted as President Snow was “visibly upset” when an end of beer selling was proposed for Saltair. Additionally, it was not until July 5, 1906 that the “First Presidency and the Twelve substituted water for wine in the sacrament in their temple meetings” (though it is unclear to me when the replacement of water for wine in the Lord’s supper became a church-wide practice).[2]

As the prohibition movement began to gain interest there were differing opinions among top church leadership as to whether Mormons should or should not support it. President Joseph F. Smith and Reed Smoot, being more sensitive to political problems, thought “the prohibition movement would hurt the church” because many would claim the church was again having too much “influence in politics.” Once Joseph F. Smith died and Heber J. Grant, who was in support of prohibition, became president more clear moves toward the modern view of the WoW took place. Starting in 1921 the WoW became a requirement to enter the temple and in 1933 was officially codified in the Church Handbook of Instructions.[3]

Other more comprehensive approaches to the WoW were also advanced. For instance, an article was written by Frederick J. Pack in the Improvement Era claiming that LDS should not drink Coca-Cola on the basis that such drinks contained the same stimulating chemicals as coffee and tea. President Grant responded to Pack’s claim ambivalently once he was made aware that the concentration of caffeine was considerably lower than that of coffee. Beyond caffeine, some such as John A. Widtsoe suggested, in a published tract called The Word of Wisdom, that members should also avoid “the use of refined flour” and “all drinks containing substances that are unnaturally stimulating.” The First Presidency did not endorse Widtsoe’s pamplet because the actual revelation could not justify the conclusions drawn. Additionally, despite Brigham Young’s 1851 push for the WoW to be considered commandment it never was made so. Even the common consent vote of 1880 to bind the membership to the Doctrine and Covenants does not make it a commandment but only what is actually written in the revelation, which is simply “a principle with promise.”[4]

Re-shaping Image

After leaving the mid-west Mormons under Brigham young’s leadership were not bashful about expressing disdain for outsiders, strongly supporting fellow Saints and defying the federal government. As you might guess, this was not a public relations success. Even as late as 1900 the value of outside approaches was not appreciated nor were outsiders greeted openly. Francis M. Lyman held that “tourists should not be shown the Salt Lake Tabernacle” and members who facilitated as much should be “reported to their priesthood leaders for possible disciplinary action.” Through the 19th century and into the first 15 years of the 20th, dime novels, political cartoons, and newspaper editorials portrayed Mormons through the lens of the Mount Meadows Massacre, the Danite violence, and polygamy, which was not the way the leadership or members wished to be portrayed.

Two additional embarrassments cropped up. The first was an expose of the temple through pictures taken of the Salt Lake Temple’s interior by Max Florence that were subsequently published in Leslie’s Weekly and as “cheap, gaudy postcards” (I haven’t looked into this further yet but I’m wondering how he got in the temple with an early 20th century camera without being noticed or stopped). The second embarrassment of the period was a challenge to the authenticity of the Book of Abraham by the Episcopal Bishop of Utah, Franklin S. Spalding. Bishop Spalding sent the three facsimiles from the Book of Abraham, which contain hieroglyphics, to eight Egyptologists in November 1912 for examination. The conclusion from the analyses of the Egyptologists were that “Joseph Smith’s translation had been wrong and that the facsimiles came in fact from an Egyptian funerary document or book of the dead dating from much later than Abraham’s time.” The church responded with great effort by calling on over 10 Mormon thinkers to write articles in response to the expert criticism. The effort, I believe, was very sincere but as one of the commissioned Mormon authors observed, “none of the Church writers could read Egyptian, while the scholars who Spalding sent the [facsimiles] to could,” and finally conceded that “the Joseph Smith translation of the facsimile plates might not be correct.”[5]

This is not the first critique/dismissal of the Book of Abraham from non-Mormons[6] but it is likely the first time the criticism from scholars on this subject was taken seriously and not rejected out of hand (which to me indicates a desire on the part of the church for serious approval, respect, and/or tolerance from scholars and non-believers in general).

In response to the overall negative view of the church by outsiders the church commissioned B. H. Roberts to write a Comprehensive History of the Church, which was serialized through the American Historical Magazine. James Talmage was asked to write Vitality of Mormonism, which responded to anti-Mormon rhetoric, and The House of the Lord which included pictures of the interior of the temple as well as explanations of the purpose of the temple. The church shifted from only speaking to members and those ready to convert (i.e. already in agreement with Mormons beliefs and practice) but to explaining the church to outsiders with the intent to facilitate understanding, rather than only aiming for agreement. This period also began to enjoy favorable views written in various publication forms about the church and the Mormon people by non-Mormons. This is a considerable shift in image enjoyed by the church starting around 1915 in contrast to the typical simplified and generally negative views observed by James B. Halsey of a national literary magazine in 1903. It seems to have taken a little while to fully implement the leadership’s early 20th conclusion that it was “better to represent ourselves than be misrepresented by our opponents.”[7]

Shifting Paradigms

These two examples highlight a broader shift that is documented here—transition. In the first chapter Alexander uses ideas from American scientist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn in describing a change in belief system or operating paradigm. Arguing that “when one paradigm or means of understanding and interpreting evidence from the physical world fails to answer questions thought most important” a group must go on to something new. In the case of the church “a completely new world view” was not constructed or discovered but the realities of assimilation into protestant America and submission to the secular government forced the church leaders to abandon polygamy, downplay the millenarianism and elevate the Word of Wisdom from good advice to God’s standard of behavior. These shifts are not minor tweaks but rather, they represent an entire re-branding and re-directing of the faith tradition. Mormonism of the 20th century could very well be considered a new and distinct religion when compared to the 19th century original.[8]

Overall the book is indispensable as a chronicle of Mormonism’s growing pains into the 20th century. some chapters are more tedious than others but all are full of historical wealth. I did not make one mark in the final chapter. I didn’t mark it because the whole thing would be underlined and highlighted, and that would be tiresome and pointless. In about thirty pages Alexander illustrates the many dramatic changes in doctrine that modern Mormons often take for granted. Seeing the changes unfold through Mormonism in Transition shows how dynamic and adaptive the Mormon church has potential to be.


[1] Doctrine and Covenants 89:2

[2] Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890-1930. Draper: Greg Kofford, 2012. pp. 274-75.

[3] Ibid. pp. 278-79.

[4] Ibid. pp. 281-82.

[5] Ibid. pp. 254-55.

[6] As far as I know the first critiques of Joseph’s translation of the Book of Abraham (at least expert analysis of the facsimiles found in and referenced by the text of the Book of Abraham produced by Joseph Smith) came from 19th century Egyptologists, Théodule Devéria and Gustavus Seyffarth. Seyfarth’s remarks are found in an 1859 catalog of the Saint Louis Museum saying that “the papyrus roll is not a record, but an invocation to the Deity Osiris . . . and a picture of the attendant spirits, introducing the dead to the Judge, Osiris” which is quoted by a Stanley Kimball article in Dialogue*. Devéria’s more thorough analysis compares Joseph’s interpretation of the facsimiles with his own, confirming the fact that the facsimiles are part of a funerary text and not a narrative relating to the biblical figure Abraham. Two 19th century anti-Mormon or exposé histories feature Devéria’s work (the first appearance is found in pages 536-546 of the second volume of A Journey to the Great-Salt-Lake City published in English in 1861, the second I am aware of was published in 1873, after Devéria’s death in 1871, and is found in pages 507-522 of The Rocky Mountain Saints: A Full and Complete History of the Mormons).

*Kimball, Stanley. “New Light on Old Egyptiana: Mormon Mummies 1848-71.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 16.4 (1983): 72-90. Winter Issue

[7]  Alexander. pp. 257,61-65

[8] Ibid. pp. 11


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