New history of LDS Church tells the story of a ‘fractured’ nation and faith

Benjamin Park’s “American Zion” explores the rise of the nation’s most successful homegrown religion — and how it sometimes battled and embraced the country that gave it birth.

(George W. Reed via J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah) A large American flag hangs from the Salt Lake Temple commemorating Utah's statehood in 1896. Benjamin Park's new book notes this was the largest Old Glory to date, measuring 132 feet by 74 feet.

In the midst of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run — when he became the first Latter-day Saint to top a major party’s ticket — a book emerged to explain the “Mormon moment” to the nation.

“The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” a 300-page history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by scholar Matthew Bowman, captured what could only be seen as a triumphant ascent for what was once a beleaguered band of believers. It was a chance to introduce the faith’s history, practices and people to a wary public.

A little more than a decade later, Romney, now a U.S. senator from Utah, is stepping away from elected office, the country is more polarized than ever, and his church faces many of the same tensions as the country itself.

“We are in a very different time,” Latter-day Saint historian Benjamin Park says in an interview. “We’re in a fractured nation of culture wars.”

[Read more about three key players in Park’s new book: a daring theologian, a women’s reformer and a disheartened Native American.]

The Texas-based scholar says he wanted to tell “the story of how Mormonism in particular — and America in general — got to such a divided state.”

The result is his newly published and much-anticipated work, “American Zion: A New History of Mormonism.”

(Amazon) "American Zion: A New History of Mormonism" from scholar Benjamin Park.

It comes after the church has published three of four volumes in its official history, “Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days.”

Park’s one-volume history “takes advantage of a plethora of new sources that have been available for only the past 20 years or so…to demonstrate how the Mormon tradition has been repeatedly transformed over 200 years,” writes Park, author of the acclaimed “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier,” “often by internal and external battles over culture, not merely theology.”

While the historian focuses on how the modern church — arguably America’s most successful homegrown religion and currently claiming more than 17 million members worldwide — came to be, he “also emphasizes the contingent nature of its evolution, and highlights moments when the tradition might have taken a different route.”

Author will be in Utah

Historian Benjamin Park will be in Utah to discuss his new book, “American Zion: A New History of Mormonism,” at the following times and locations:

• Benchmark Books, 3269 S. Main, Suite 250, South Salt Lake, on Thursday, Jan. 18, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. He will speak at 6.

• Writ & Vision, 274 W. Center St., Provo, on Saturday, Jan. 20, 7 p.m.

Hope for an idealized Zion was at the core of much of the impetus for change, while the American society around the movement helped give it birth and shape.

Three main tensions are thread throughout Mormonism’s history from its founding in upstate New York to a giant, flourishing, wealthy organization with headquarters in Utah: between church and state, faith and intellect, and obedience and dissent.

All three, Park says, continue to this day.

A balanced approach

(Photo by Mike Hoogterp) Historian Benjamin Park.

Having been raised as a Latter-day Saint, Park writes with what he calls “epistemic sympathy.” In other words, he does not take a stand or dismiss “miraculous accounts” of hidden gold plates, ancient scripture and angelic visitations, but makes clear “where the historic record counters otherwise sacred narratives.”

There is “no such thing as a purely objective history,” he says. “What I try to do is ground everything in context — which is the great equalizer.”

And that is one of Park’s strengths, says Utah research historian Ardis Parshall.

“He no doubt annoys some readers who would prefer he endorse their personal politics, but I think he does a great job speaking for both conservative and liberal in a generally evenhanded way,” Parshall says in an email. “And for readers who are not LDS, or for LDS readers who are not American, I think he does an outstanding job in explaining the background and bringing readers up to speed without being pedantic.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Joseph Smith, left, and Brigham Young, the first two leaders of the Latter-day Saint faith.

Lindsay Chervinsky, presidential historian and author of “Making the Presidency: John Adams and the Precedents That Forged the Republic,” is neither a Latter-day Saint nor a religion expert.

Reading Park’s book, Chervinsky “learned so much about U.S. history and Mormon history,” she says. “Mormonism shows up in a few spots in general American history courses and texts, but broad sections of the story were new to me.”

In particular, she was surprised “by the prominent role of women and people of color in developing the community.”

She says she shouldn’t have been surprised “because in studies of evangelical Christianity or Catholicism, occasionally women show up as well, but these were not names that had made it into popular culture.”

Park did “an excellent job of highlighting the diversity of the community, whenever possible,” Chervinsky says, “while not downplaying the limitations imposed by traditional power structures.”

The beginning of modern Mormonism

(Utah State Historical Society | Tribune negative collection) President Heber J. Grant of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, walks past the Tabernacle at Temple Square with the other members of the First Presidency, J. Reuben Clark, left, and David O. McKay, right.

Park traces the beginning of modern Mormonism to the 1930s, particularly with the outsized influence of apostle J. Reuben Clark, counselor to church Presidents Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith and David O. McKay.

“The era,” Park says, “was both the most fascinating and most frustrating for me to write.”

In the 1930s, cultural debates over modernism and fundamentalism, belief and secularism, tradition and innovation, and progressive politics against libertarian ideas, boiled over across the country during the Progressive Era — and Clark played a crucial role in upholding the traditional side in the church.

“Clark commenced a conservative push,” Park writes, “that eventually transformed the entire church.”

It was hard for the historian, as a detached scholar, “not to make moral judgments about what’s going on during that decade, but there were some decisions made then that still shape how the church operates today,” he says. “Trying to make a clear argument about that without falling into a sermonizing or moralizing strain, was pretty tough.”

It was also difficult to capture more recent times.

“It’s so new,” Park says. “I’d like to have some detachment from the periods so that we can have a better understanding of the lasting legacies.”

Park finds himself “a bit more out on a cliff” and “terrified,” he says, when writing about people who are still alive.

Yet his treatment of 20th-century Mormonism is one of the great strengths of “American Zion,” says Christopher Jones, assistant professor of history at church-owned Brigham Young University and editor of the Journal of Mormon History.

“Given Ben’s training and prior publications as a historian of 18th- and 19th-century American religion and politics, I expected the early chapters to be the strongest,” Jones says. “And his coverage of [church founder] Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, plural marriage and the Saints’ move west all receive their due treatment, told with dramatic flair.”

But the book’s chapters on Mormonism’s more recent past really stand out, the BYU professor says. “Framed around the sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting themes of progress, reform, retrenchment and assimilation, Park emphasizes the ways in which Latter-day Saints have navigated political conflicts and culture wars over the past 100-plus years.”

New research, new voices

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Historical photos of Eliza R. Snow, left, and Emmeline B. Wells.

Early in his research, Park grew determined not just to discuss how institutional policies affected those on the margins but also to get reactions of those on the margins themselves.

He wanted to know, for example, “what entering the Salt Lake Valley would have looked like to an enslaved individual, or how conceptions of the ‘Lamanites’ were interpreted by Indigenous Mormons, or how LGBTQ policies were experienced, and how they prompted reactions from queer members.”

That means including the words of women, who have often been largely missing from church histories.

Park used newly published diaries and records of Latter-day female leaders like Emmeline Wells, Eliza Snow and Amy Brown Lyman to flesh out the narrative.

“Ben does not treat women as “add-ins” or “mix-and-stir” components of the historical narrative,” says Sara Patterson, professor of theological studies and gender studies at Indiana’s Hanover College, but shows how women contributed in complicated and important ways to the history of the church.”

Indeed, Patterson says, “they built the church along with other believers and leaders.”

As a historian of the West who is interested in its many complex communities, Megan Kate Nelson appreciates the way Park highlights the internal diversity of Mormonism over time.

“Quite often, American and Western histories depict Mormonism as outside of national and regional narratives,” Nelson says. “Through his attention to Indigenous, Black and Latino Mormons, and to the important role that women have played in this community, Ben shows how Mormonism is very much a part of the larger histories of the United States and the American West.”

Finding a national audience

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A Latter-day Saint baptism in Africa.

Because Park “roots his history in the stories of individuals,” Nelson believes his book “will appeal to Mormon and non-Mormon readers alike.”

It seems clear that both the author and his publisher intend for this to find “a much, much wider audience,” she says. “Inasmuch as he succeeds in demonstrating that Mormonism is crucial to understanding American history, he’s likely to reach that audience.”

Will it capture the essence of Mormonism as it moves into the future?

“Whether the book holds up as the go-to volume on Mormon history probably depends in part on global Latter-day Saint growth moving forward,” posits Jones, the BYU scholar. “If church growth continues to stagnate in the United States and continues to increase internationally, future one-volume histories will necessarily need to pay more attention to those global trends.”

But the church might be able to embrace its American origins while spreading abroad.

It has proved “to be so resilient and successful,” Park concludes, by providing a “narrative of continuity while constantly adapting to new circumstances.”

It has transformed over time, he says, while convincing believers it never changes.

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