Recently I've done a lot more reading in church history, thanks in part to recommendations I've gotten from other blogs (Common Consent ran a post a while back on the top five best books on church history). Since my freshman year at BYU, I've been fascinated by church history, warts and all. Over time I've carried a few of those "in the box on the shelf in the closet of my mind" questions, mostly about historical matters. And, I'm happy to say, in the intervening years, enough of those have found resolution that I don't get too excited by them anymore.
There are a few books I've read in the last few years that have been particularly meaningful to me:
1. Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball by Edward L. Kimball – my brother gave me this book as a gift, and when I opened it, I sat on the dining room floor and read for several hours. I was particularly moved by the chapter on the revelation regarding priesthood blessings. That particular chapter was meaningful to me because I was on my mission at the time, and my parents were living in West Africa (Dad was there for his work) when the first missionary couples came to preach the gospel. But I was also impressed by the insights into the personal characteristics of this man who was the prophet during many of the most formative years of my youth.
2. Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman Ok, I've had this book for some time and have read it more than once. I used it as a supplemental text when teaching about Joseph Smith in a stake institute class a number of years ago. It was refreshing to read Bushman's frank discussion of that very human prophet, Joseph Smith. I still go back to it for specific topics, and will put it back in the queue for re-reading soon. Bushman is easy for me to read: he's engaging and matter of fact in his portrayal, and he takes a specific point of view that we must assume that Joseph believed what he said he believed. He does not shy away from difficult questions (such as Joseph's experience with polygamy), nor does he sensationalize them. While others have found this book to be a stumbling block to testimony, my reaction was just the opposite.
3. David O. McKay and Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory A. Prince and Wm Robert Wright -- David. O. McKay was the prophet when I joined the church with my family in 1967. I remember asking the interviewing missionary (smart nearly-nine-year-old that I was) what the "O" stood for (he didn't know). This work, the product of a treasure trove of documentation preserved by President McKay's personal secretary (who was also Wright's aunt) provides a remarkable view into the workings of the senior counsels of the church during President McKay's tenure as an apostle and prophet. I'm not always thrilled with their characterization or attribution of motive to other players in the story (the authors make judgments about Wilkinson, Benson and McConkie that are popular in today's blogs, but could just as well have allowed the facts to speaks for themselves), but the light they shine on President McKay is delightful in its clarity and paints a wonderful picture of the development of a world-wide church. As in all the works, I had as much interest in the footnotes as in the main text, and I had a hard time following the footnote trail of attribution in the chapter on the priesthood, but that confusion did not damage the reading of the work for me. The book is as much a history of the church in the McKay years as it is a biography of the remarkable man who so looked the part in which he was cast.
4. Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard – This book appeared in 2008, and I read it as soon as I could get it. I had read Juanita Brooks' treatment of the subject as a BYU freshman in 1976 – my first exposure to "problems" in Mormon history. I found the authors' attention to detail and their sensitivity to multiple sides of the story to be impressive. I enjoyed the footnotes as much as the actual text, and appreciated the candor of the authors (and the access they were given to the available records). I look forward to more of this kind of careful, open history.
5. The Mormon Experience by Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton. I'm just reading this one now. The first edition was published near the end of my mission and I missed it completely. The second edition, which I'm reading, has been a great survey. It's a little odd reading as the "current state" of the church a 30+ year-old view, but there is an epilog in the second edition which catches up on some key matters. Even so, the general treatment of history is fairly open. I had thought about reading this one and had passed on it for some time, but then through comments on another blog Ardis Parschall (Ardis' Keepapitchinin blog is on my blog list in the side bar) turned me on to Bitton's essay which had been presented at FAIR entitled "I Don't Have A Testimony of the History of the Church", and decided I wanted to read more of Bitton. I'm glad I have.
There is remarkable value in knowing who we are. I'm grateful to these authors for their contribution to that effort. And I'd be happy for your recommendations for further reading