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The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith Hardcover
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With Mormonism on the nation's radar as never before, religious historian Matthew Bowman has written an essential book that pulls back the curtain on more than 180 years of Mormon history and doctrine. He recounts the church's origins and explains how the Mormon vision has evolved—and with it the esteem in which Mormons have been held in the eyes of their countrymen. Admired on the one hand as hardworking paragons of family values, Mormons have also been derided as oddballs and persecuted as polygamists, heretics, and zealots. The place of Mormonism in public life continues to generate heated debate, yet the faith has never been more popular. One of the fastest-growing religions in the world, it retains an uneasy sense of its relationship with the main line of American culture. Mormons will surely play an even greater role in American civic life in the years ahead. The Mormon People comes as a vital addition to the corpus of American religious history—a frank and balanced demystification of a faith that remains a mystery for many. “Fascinating and fair-minded . . . a sweeping soup-to-nuts primer on Mormonism.”—The Boston Globe “A cogent, judicious, and important account of a faith that has been an important element in American history but remained surprisingly misunderstood.”—Michael Beschloss “A thorough, stimulating rendering of the Mormon past and present.”—Kirkus Reviews “[A] smart, lucid history.”—Tom Brokaw
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Mr. Bowman begins the story with Joseph Smith in the first part of the 19th century. He is particularly good in describing the religious milieu that inspired Joseph Smith and many of his followers. He outlines the development of the early church and how the Mormons were constantly being driven from place to place until the "exodus" to Utah, led by Brigham Young. He follows the Mormon state through its admittance as a state in the United States and is once again very strong in showing the transition from an inward looking group through correlation and growth into a powerful, missionary, active people.
Some will likely complain that Mr. Bowman doesn't spend enough time with the controversies surrounding the church. He does devote a chapter to a discussion of polygamy; however, like most of the book, it is quite bloodless. It is descriptive of the theology and the political impact of polygamy but there is very little about how it affected people's lives. The multiple wives of Joseph Smith, himself, for example, get almost no mention. And yet, it seems part and parcel to what Mr. Bowman is trying to achieve--lots of information and little judgment. A lot of doctrine gets mentioned but its meaning is never analyzed nor how it is really put into practice.
This can lead to somewhat divided feelings about the book overall. For a reader with little knowledge of Mormonism, many of the basics are here but there is little depth. I, for one, felt I learned more about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Mormon theology in other books. On the other hand, having less knowledge of 20th century Mormonism, I felt I learned more about this. Certainly, I felt I understood better why some of the best, nicest people I've ever known are Mormons even as I find the theology beyond my ability to believe.
In the end, realizing that Mr. Bowman is trying to give a readable overview of nearly 200 years of Mormon history, it is easy to forgive some of the lapses in depth. He certainly has given us an excellent bird's eye view of the creation of a religion from prophet to followers to consolidated practice. Anyone whose knowledge of Mormonism is basically hearsay will learn much from this book.