Saturday, January 2, 2021

A Convert's LDS Church History Primer

Happy New Year, all! I think we're all ready to move on to 2021. Now that 2020 is safely behind us, I thought I'd share some religious resources for my LDS readers (especially if you have a faith-related New Year's Resolution or want more context for this years Come, Follow Me lessons on Doctrine and Covenants). I decided 2020 was going to be the year I, a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, learned more about Church history. I was kind of curious about the context of so many things we talked about in Sunday meetings. (Unfortunately, most converts like me never get to enjoy seminary in our Church.) Even some of my ancestors were pioneers (I learned after baptism) and I wanted to learn more about what life and faith was like for them. So I thought I'd write up a post on what I read, heard, and learned as a recommendation list for anyone else looking to expand their Church history horizons a bit. See the list below for the materials I used in the order I came across them:

  • "A Peculiar People": Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America by J. Spencer Fluhman: Okay, so I actually read this book before this year, but it was a great introduction recommended by my non-member friend who is completing her Ph.D in History. The author is an associate professor of history at BYU and is an active member of the Church. This historical context was a critical foundation for me. This was also the first place that I learned that anti-Mormons called Joseph Smith "American Muhammad" because of the many similarities between our religion and Islam. This fact delighted me, as a convert who noted these similarities when I first encountered the Church after studying the Middle East.
  • The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 50 Objects by Joe Hawkins: I discovered this podcast as I was looking for something to listen to on runs. I thought these would be helpful for faithful members seeking non-controversial additional information on some important turning points in Church history. I didn't enjoy the over-the-top apologist tone and choice to gloss over some of the most challenging episodes with justifications, but I did learn some things and get a better sense of the chronological progression of some important developments in Church history. The most edgy this one gets is briefly acknowledging that women used to administer blessings and that a few Black people participated fully in the Church before the Priesthood ban. That being said, it's a light, easy, and faith-promoting introduction to history content.
  • Saints, Volumes 1 and 2: This is a fantastic resource and would also be a great place for anyone to start learning about Church history. (I also used a photo from Saints online for this post.) These are available in podcast or written form (I preferred reading). Critics complain that because they are official Church products that they're biased (and they are biased towards the Church, of course), but I was pleasantly surprised how much controversial but well-researched content was included. (For example, it presents some of the evidence that Joseph deceived Emma in the practice of plural marriage and that women married to "unworthy" men were pressured/forced to leave their husbands and become polygamous wives to "worthy" members. Saints is also clear that there were multiple accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision.) I hope that this important historical work, like the Gospel Topics essays, leads to more deep, necessary conversations about Church history than we get in a typical lesson.
  • Year of Polygamy by Lindsay Hansen Park: So many people I know who are still active members of the Church or who have left the Church all recommended this podcast. The series starts by going one by one through each known plural wife of Joseph Smith and telling that woman's story. It's a beautiful tribute to a frequently ignored part of our history: the experiences, hopes, dreams, fears, faith, and trials of the those too often seen as mere attachments to prominent men. As time goes on, the podcast broadens to encompass plural wives of Brigham Young and others, introduce fundamentalist Mormonism to a general audience, address polygamy's many intersections including with racism, and more. I also appreciate the author's transparency about the perspectives that she and the guests she interviews bring to the table so we can take their own biases into account. Do be aware, though, that the majority of the podcast is a few years out of date so there may be references to events or people that reflect that. I will also say these episodes are significantly longer than the other resources here, so this is a good fit for people who might already be into podcasts or audiobooks. If you prefer to read, the podcast frequently recommends the book In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd M. Compton.

I read every word and listened to every episode of the resources above, so I'm always up for engaging in the content with any friends or readers who are interested. Next on my Church history list is another book that many, many people recommended to me Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman. I think I am definitely taking a break from religious podcasts for a while after the countless hours I put in in 2020, but if you have a book or article recommendation, please drop it below!


  1. Hi N! Thanks for sharing... I'm looking forward to digging into a few of these. Have you checked out the following resource? It's one that I have really enjoyed and feel provides great context to the black experience in the the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints.

    1. Hi, Lillian! Thank you so much for commenting and highlighting this wonderful resource, as well. I have only read a few of the entries on there, but there is such a wealth of information about the too-often-ignored stories of the first Black members of the Restored Church.