on July 14, 2000
I echo the reviewers remarks in the dust jacket of the book, that the only objective review of Mormonism must be written by someone from outside the Church. Many Mormon reviewers struggle with this book, but I think it is essential that they remember one thing...IT WASN'T WRITTEN FOR YOU! It was written by non-mormons for the rest of the world who look in at the church and ask, "Just what the heck is going on in there, anyway?" Of COURSE the authors are not going to give the same attention to every detail that believers are going to want to see, because this is a single volume book! Latter-Day Saint theology is complex, has been written about extensively, and it takes a serious student of history and religious thought years and years to gain a complete picture of the church. This book is not a substitute for all that, since the vast majority of folks are simply not interested in that level of detail. The Ostlings have written an overview, a glimpse, at this phenomenon called "Mormonism" with a reasonably balanced treatment from those who are faithful believers, those who are neutral, and those who have an axe to grind. But that's okay, since this is not a book that explores the complexities of Latter-Day Saint doctrine, but rather a book that explores the cultural phenomenon called Mormonism. I especially appreciate their treatment of the recognition that this is a quintessential American Church, and that its appeal is broad for those elsewhere in the world who are either Americanized, or who aspire to be. A strong argument could be made for changing the nickname from the "Mormon Church" to the "American Church," (though I'm sure every other church in America would choke on that one!)
This book is highly recommended reading for non-mormons living in Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and California, and anywhere else where there are high concentrations of LDS folks. It is good reading for people who seek a general understanding of various religious movements or churches. And if you are LDS, and want to know how you look to someone from the outside, this is a good way to find out. From my personal perspective, if we find there are some things we don't like about how we are perceived by others, then that's a good place for us to begin working to bridge the gaps that still divide us from the rest of the world.
The best book about the LDS church remains Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton's 1979 "The Mormon Experience" which is still unmatched in its depth of insight. But if you are curious about Mormons and looking for a readable new book about them this is what you want. Someone has said that every reporter who visits Salt Lake for the 2002 Olympics with be carrying "Mormon America" as a handbook for local culture. That's probably accurate. The Ostlings wrote the recent cover story on the church for TIME magazine and have greatly expanded it for this effort.
Anyone who believes the sterotype of Mormons as brain-dead religious fundamentalists are in for a shock when they read this first-rate journalism. The Ostlings write with great empathy about the complexity of life for people who take religion seriously. The chapters on our intellectual culture are as balanced as anything I've read on that subject. The sections on practice are accurate, too. The Ostlings come very close to revealing what it's like on the inside--they ultimately fail to catch what it really feels like, however, because of the ultimately unbridgeable gap between description and the indescribable faith that lies at the heart of a believer's life. That's not really their fault of course--it's like trying to describe in words what the color "blue" is like. Orthodox Judaism has gotten a lot of respectful attention recently because of the nomination of Sen. Joseph Lieberman for vice-president. Many reporters have revealed a new sensitivity about how devout people live. The Ostling's book should be considered at the forefront of this new attention to the relationship of faith and American culture.
on February 19, 2000
Mormon America is a well-written, broad description of the LDS Church, its history, its doctrines, and its members. It is also the first quality work on this subject I have seen from non-Mormons that is written for a general audience (Jan Shipps is also good, but writes at a different level). I am myself an active member of the LDS Church, returned missionary, and BYU graduate. I enjoyed the accounts of the elders at work in New York, of the LDS families working to live their religion, and of the new converts embracing the Church, finding in these accounts much that matches my own experiences in the Church.
There are a number of minor errors, but overall I was pleasantly surprised at the accuracy of this work. The Ostlings have obviously dedicated countless hours to research and interviews, and constructed their book with meticulous care. I would recommend it to anyone unacquainted with the LDS faith that wishes to know more about us.
Naturally, the Ostlings do not shy away from controversial topics, the inclusion of which in this book will no doubt upset some Church members. They also seem to feel an obligation to present both the positive and negative aspects of the faith as they see them. They are, after all, both non-LDS and journalists. I am convinced that their book represents their honest attempt at a neutral assesment of the Latter-day Saint religion and its importance in the modern world. There is much here for readers to appreciate, whether or not they share the authors' attitudes toward the Church.
In any work of such broad scope, most readers will question the emphasis given some material and the omission of other pertinent information (for myself, I wonder why S-F writer Orson Scott Card's name does not appear in the chapter on LDS celebrities). Nevertheless, Mormon America is most remarkable, in my opinion, for all that it does cover. Readers from outside the LDS Church, in particular, will find many, if not most, of their basic questions about the faith answered in this volume.
A glance at the religion shelves of the local bookstore tends to show a few how-to-witness-to- the-Mormons books, a couple of specialized volumes on Mormon history, and maybe a few by LDS leaders and scholars. A general book on the Church by non-LDS authors, one that neither attempts to promote nor denigrate the faith, has been sorely wanting. Mormon America fills this niche admirably. It is considerably better than I would have expected for the first major work of this kind, and will be welcome reading for those beginning a study of the Mormon religion.
on September 26, 2010
Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is a fast-growing religion in America and throughout the world and one that is also gaining in influence. Perhaps especially now because of the prominence of Glenn Beck, it's important for Americans to be better informed about whom the Mormons are and what they believe. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that "Mormon America" appears to be a well-researched and balanced presentation of who Mormons are. If you're looking for a place to start learning more about Mormons, this is a very good place to start.
The authors, who are both professional journalists, present the origin of Mormonism and its ensuing history. They also cover topics such as polygamy, rituals, the golden tablets of Joseph Smith, Mormon families, what Mormons believe about God, and Mormon power. Throughout the book, the Ostlings do a good job of being objective and fair. I found the book very informative and useful and recommend it to others.
The book is not without its faults. In places, the authors have divided up the history, particularly concerning Joseph Smith: I felt their presentation here could have been stronger. Regarding Mormon teaching and doctrine, I was pleased that they didn't shy away from dealing with controversial topics such as Mormon beliefs about Jesus, God, and human divinity. However, I was hoping that this book would provide a more in-depth discussion of these doctrines so that I wasn't compelled to look elsewhere for this material. Also, in the chapter that deals with the historical inaccuracies of Mormon writings the Ostlings should have provided more detailed information. Mormon doctrine and history and are extremely important to understand and on these 2 points I found the book somewhat weak.
For someone who wants to understand Mormonism, this is a good but perhaps inadequate place to start. At least the reader will come away with the following clear points which should help the reader determine the truth or falsity of the Mormon religion:
1. Joseph Smith dabbled in the occult as a young man, close to the time he had his vision and was transcribing the Golden Tablets
2. God did not create out of nothing but instead matter has always existed.
3. God the Father has a body just like we do. He is also not the unchanging creator of Christian theology but is in process.
4. Humans are destined to evolve to be God in the same sense as God the Father: we're just not there yet. God and humans are the same species of being.
5. Jesus Christ is not the same as the Father but is also on his way to becoming God like other humans are.
6. Mormons don't believe in original sin.
7. Polygamy was an official teaching of Mormonism but because Mormons believe in ongoing revelation this authoritative teaching was later removed. Joseph Smith threatened some of his many would be wives with damnation if they didn't marry him.
8. Blacks could not be Mormon priests until a recent new teaching changed the official teaching of Joseph Smith and others. The Mormon teaching was that Blacks are cursed because they come from Cain.
9. The Pearl of Great Price is another authoritative Mormon text written by Joseph Smith. Part of it is based upon three Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith said presented the real history of the Bible, particularly dealing with Abraham. These papyri have conclusively been proven to be rather ordinary Egyptian documents and to have nothing to do with Abraham or the Bible.
10. "Not a single person, place, or event unique to Joseph Smith's `gold Bible' has ever been proven to exist.
11. Joseph Smith translated his own version of the Bible to make it consistent with the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price.
12. Smith's version of the Bible replicates the errors of the 1769 King James Bible available to him: in other words, he got his portions of the Bible in the Book of Mormon from the real Bible and not as a separate revelation.
on November 6, 2003
Non-Mormon America's conceptions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints usually are one of four things: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Osmonds, clean-living and family values. What most outside of the church don't know is that the LDS faith is the most successful religion founded on American soil and, if current growth rates remain stable, will become the first major world religion to come about since Islam. These facts alone should make thoughtful outsiders at least a little curious about what the Latter-Day Saints teach and why.
Enter Mormon America: The Power and The Promise by Joan K. and Richard Ostling which provides an excellent resource for those curious outsiders.
The book itself is written in an informative, well-documented and journalistic style (some of the chapters appeared as part of a Time magazine cover story). Instead of a skeptic's condescendtion or a fundamentalist's hysterical "hell fire and brimstone" condemnation, the Ostings provide a fair overview of the Mormon's history, doctrine, practice and future. For every instance of an odditiy, contradiction or embarrassing moment in the previously mentioned catergories, the author's provide the standard explanation given by LDS apologists in addition to the criticism given by both non-Mormons and Mormons alike.
On a personal level, I found the LDS concept of continuing revelation to be one of the most facinating parts of the book. While it seemingly could provide a way to explain uncomfortable practices from the past (i.e. polygamy, denial of the priesthood to African-Americans etc.), I would think it would undermine any attempt to form a stable basis for morality.
As a person who has grown up around Independence, Missouri and been on the fringes of Mormon culture (having several Mormon friends), I can say that this book is accurate (although not always comforting or "faith promoting" to Mormon's themselves). It deals fairly with sore spots between Mormon's and people of other faiths and should help greatly in increasing understanding between the two often antagonistic camps of Mormonism and traditional Christianity.
on June 5, 2008
Richard and Joan Ostling's _Mormon America: The Power and the Promise_ features a rather sensational cover blurb, "The True Story Behind Their Beliefs, Rituals, Business Practices, and Well Guarded Secrets." But the book itself maintains an objective, balanced viewpoint of its subject. _Mormon America_ by no means tries to portray Mormonism as a valid, revealed truth. The book also does not condemn everything Mormons believe and everything Mormons do. So basically, this is a good resource for actually learning about the Mormon religion and how they figure into America's vast religious landscape.
The book gives some history of the early Mormon Church, but refrains from extensive detail about Joseph Smith or Brigham Young's leadership of the early LDS, but it provides a good introduction nevertheless. Essentially everything that distinguishes Mormonism from other churches is covered and is given a chapter of its own. These include tithing and massive business and real estate incomes as a source of funding for the LDS church, missionary efforts, temple rituals, plural marriage (discontinued by church President Kimball's 1890 Manifesto), the former prohibition against anybody of African descent from entering the Mormon priesthood (based on the premise that Africans are blood descendents of Cain), extensive historical archives and genealogy records, and storing food and supplies in case of some kind of natural disaster.
Some particularly interesting chapters in _Mormon America_ discuss some idiosyncratic aspects of Mormon theology and doctrine vis a vis Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christianity. Some aspects of Mormon theology differ fundamentally from Christian theology. These include temple proxy-Baptisms for the dead so that souls of deceased persons from the past couple thousand years can have the option of embracing Joseph Smith's teachings in the afterlife, God as a perfected man with "flesh and bones," God has a wife in heaven whereby he produces spiritual offspring, "celestial marriage" whereby devout Mormons married in a temple ceremony can be married through eternity begetting their own offspring. Mormons consider themselves to be the only true Christian church, while other Churches are uncertain as to whether or not Mormons can be considered Christians. The LDS has fundamentally different views of God and the Bible, in addition to newer "revelations" such as the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, which are not accepted by any other Christian group.
The book spends some time discussing polygamy, which was practiced from Joseph Smith's time as leader of the Church through 1890 when it was prohibited. There very little attention paid to polygamist offshoots of the mainline LDS church that still exist today.
Overall, _Mormon America_ is a great book if one wants to understand Mormonism and its history. Probably the most interesting chapter was on the sects of Mormonism that began while Joseph Smith was still alive, and continued among his followers after his death. Some of Smith's relatives and early associates went on to get involved in Mormon offshoot churches that broke away from the mainstream LDS Church headed by Brigham Young, such as the RLDS or Community of Christ and the Temple Lot Church. I was very surprised to learn that Joseph Smith's early LDS Church spawned more branches than any other church or religious movement originating on American soil.
on December 10, 1999
Mormon America is a comprehensive overview of Mormon history,culture, religion, economics and politics. It is well written and easy to read. It is for the general reader, but the more serious reader will also appreciate it. Since moving to Salt Lake City, I have invested a lot in reading some of the scholarly source materials upon which this book was based. I wish I'd had this book to begin with. I wish I'd been able to write it.
If you are curious about Mormonism, this is the place to start. I felt it was like the Cliff notes (in the best sense of that analogy) of Mormonism, a very fine condensation of a mountain of information and detail.
The book is neither "faith promoting" nor "hysterical anti-Mormon". While it is not a heavy scholarly tome, it gives plenty of references for those who want to dig deeper. It also gives one of the most important Mormon theological documents, the King Follet Discourse, in an appendix. This was Joseph Smiths last public sermon, and lays out some of the key beliefs upon which the LDS Church is based.
on January 30, 2000
From Richard and Joan Ostling, co-authors of "Mormon America": We welcome vigorous reaction and criticism since we recognize that our book opens up sensitive and highly controversial matters. But we must object when "Oscar Z" implies we fabricated interviews. We assure readers that every direct and indirect quote in our book comes either from our interviewing or documented published sources. The LDS Church recommended lawyer Sheffield as a prize convert from Protestantism and he was interviewed by Richard Ostling for the 1997 "Time" cover story. The published article did not quote him but this and some other interviews were retained for use in the book. As our book points out, David Wright acknowledged that "his views departed from the LDS belief system" and this was why he was eventually excommunicated. Oscar Z is misinformed: Wright has not sought to regain active Mormon membership and confirmed Jan. 27 '00 he has no plans to do so. (Note: we had to post a 5-star rating simply because we had to list a number in order to post this response.)
Richard and Joan Ostling's "Mormon America" is a valuable addition to the growing shelf of books about the Chruch of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I recommend it enthusiastically to those who want a single-volume survey that is both balanced and perceptive in its analysis of the LDS church and its members. The main focus of the book is on the status of the church at the end of the millennium: its organization, leadership, finances, theology, worldwide growth, as well as its controversies. Nevertheless the Ostlings include sufficient historical background, based on the latest research, to provide context for their portrait of the church as it is today.
That portrait began as a 1997 TIME magazine cover story written by Richard Ostling and Sam Gwynne. They were permitted unprecedented access to top church officials. The fruit of good interviewing and Gwynne's extensive research into church finances are two of the strengths of the book. It is rich in quotes from LDS President George Hinckley and other church officials, but also contains enlightening comments by ordinary church members, missionaries in the Bronx, excommunicated dissidents, and officials of the splinter Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Ostling is a journalist who specializes in reporting on religion. This shows in the book's broad perspective when, for example, it compares the LDS missionary program with those of Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic church.
The Ostlings have done an excellent job of melding a concise history of the origins of the LDS religion and it 19th century travails into their depiction of it at the end of the 20th century. As when they describe an intersection in Independence, Missouri where three competing branches of Mormonism have put up buildings on opposite corners to commemorate the site where Joseph Smith prophesied the second temple of Zion would be constructed in the last days. This leads into a survey of the numerous claimants to Joseph Smith's role as prophet and the splinter organizations they founded. Historical details illuminate the controversies that have swirled around the church from its inception to the present day, i.e. the sources of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, polygamy, the question of multiple gods in LDS theology, the Hoffman manuscript fraud, and the status of blacks, women and dissenters in the church.
In discussing historical events the Ostlings quote 19th century diaries and memoirs of church members, church records, and contemporary newspaper accounts -- drawn from the works of both Mormon and non-Mormon historians. The current church interpretation of those events is also presented, when relevant. Endnotes rather than footnotes are used to identify the sources used for each chapter. There are appendices and a substantial bibliography for those seeking more information. The book refers frequently to recently published work by the historians and researchers who had access to long-restricted church archives while working for Leonard J Arrington, official church historian 1972-82. Several, like D Michael Quinn later published their controversial findings at great personal cost (excommunication and/or loss of teaching position).
on July 17, 2000
Some years ago, I was fortunate to have an extended conversation with the late Bill Whisner, a beloved philosophy teacher at the University of Utah. One point we agreed upon was the need for a book that detailed the the interworkings of the Mormon Church and the rest of Salt Lake City. "Whiz" passed away last winter, and I am uncertain whether his health in those last days permitted him to read this book. I do feel safe in speculating that he would agree with me Mormon America comes close to filling this void. I suppose it's ironic the book's precept includes all of America, an indication of the growth of the power and numbers of the LDS Church. As a lifelong Salt Lake resident and non-Mormon descendant of Mormon pioneers (and polygamists), I'll vouch for the accuracy and sensitivity of the authors' presentation of my hometown's microcosm which is extending outward into the rest of the country. I recommend this book for those seeking an introduction to and understanding of Mormon issues and the Mormon people. In reading other reviews, I'm not surprised there are a number of accusations of bias coming from those who doubtless count themselves most faithful among the faithful. The issues involving Mormonism are often polarizing, much as disputes between fundamentalists and moderates are elsewhere in the world. Too, there are those among the anti-Mormon constituency who consider themselves gravely injured by their encounters with the religion. From my perspective they sometimes resemble junkyard dogs, which is a tragedy. I have some compassion for these sorts; I've probably spent my share of time among the weeds and automobile bones. What has been lost on both sides, however, is an appreciation of the virtues of the other. I consider myself fortunate to have lived and worked among Mormons long enough to set aside much of my frustration and anger. Nevertheless, I'm still troubled by freedom of thought issues and the church's actions in suppressing historical inquiry. The excommunication of individuals such as D. Michael Quinn appear to me to be areas where history will hold it accountable. Mormon America nicely details this conflict, and if there appears to be an over-reliance on Quinn's writings, it ought to be taken as a tribute to the thoroughness of his work. As a result, this volume should take its place among the bulwarks against attempts to suppress and rewrite history, something for which the modern LDS Church has demonstrated a marked propensity. The recent PBS documentary, An American Prophet, is the most pronounced and frightening effort. Funded in large part by the Marriot Corp., whose founder was a Mormon as is its current leadership, the Joseph Smith portrayed is hardly human. Also, the conflict that gave rise to his murder, the Smith-ordered destruction of a rival Nauvoo newspaper and printing press operated under the aegis of then First Presidency member William Law, is hidden beneath the guise of religious persecution. This last statement will certainly convince the faithful I am firmly in Satan's grasp, something my neighbors have known for years. I'm doubtful any of my prose could convince them otherwise, and I prefer to avoid pretense. I'll close with a couple of minor complaints which I offer with hopes they will be corrected in a revised edition. The first error occurs in the introduction describing the Salt Lake temple as though it were fashioned of marble; everyone here knows the temple is made of granite, a fact Mormons can point to as evidence of the depth of their forefathers' faith. Granite is much harder and far more difficult to work with than marble. The second occurs in the name of a Nauvoo policeman and Smith bodyguard who is identified as Daniel Carn. Samuel W. Taylor's outstanding Nightfall at Nauvoo (if there are any in the publishing business reading this, why was this book allowed to go out of print! ) gives his name as Daniel Garn, and I'll wager this is correct. Garn is a more common surname in these parts. These are small matters, of course, but the book is so good these matters deserve correction.