Bowman's book encompasses the history of Mormonism with an admirable ability to encapsulate its nearly 200-year existence, but lacks the scope of inquiry that would make for a balanced account. Bowman doesn't shy away from the unsavory aspects of the Mormon faith, including a now-discredited belief in polygamy (as revealed in a revelation to Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion), as well as institutionalized racism. However, the ongoing controversies of the church and the stream of recent media describing Mormonism as a cult—from Jon Krakauer's scathing non-fiction work Under the Banner of Heaven to HBO's Big Love—is left entirely unaddressed in this work, which instead pays occasional attention to the inherently American aspects of the religion. To leave the valid and well-known questions raised frequently in American culture unmentioned seems at odds with Bowman's credentials as a historian; his overwhelmingly positive take on Mormonism is suspect, too. The veracity of Joseph Smith's visions and revelations are never questioned or disputed; instead, "he remains a terrifically romantic figure, a seducer of biographers, a man of colossal imagination, will, and vision." Bowman's view may reflect his own heritage and current role as associate editor of Dialogue, a journal of Mormon thought, but does not address non-Mormon's doubts. Although promoted by the publisher as a topical tie-in, the author's discussion ofMitt Romney, the probable Republican presidential candidate, and Romney's Mormon faith is brief. Though relatively in-depth and readable, Bowman's history is not very probing. (Jan.)
Advance praise for The Mormon People
“The Mormon church has never been more important in American politics. In this smart, lucid history of the faith, Matthew Bowman explains a religion that many Americans don’t understand but should. With Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman in the race, this is essential reading for anyone interested in 2012 and beyond.”—Tom Brokaw, author of The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation About America
“Matthew Bowman has brought us a cogent, judicious, and important account of a faith that has been an important element in American history but remained surprisingly misunderstood.”—Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789–1989
“What do Mormons stand for? Are they quintessential good citizens or troubling religious deviants? Why are Mormons running for president? Matthew Bowman offers a quick, lively, and informative trip into the heart of Mormonism. All who are concerned or just curious will learn a lot about the making of modern Mormons from this book.”—Richard Lyman Bushman, author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
With two Mormons among recent GOP presidential hopefuls, interest in Mormonism is at a new high. For readers looking for a historical introduction, there is no better book than this. Bowman (religion, Hampden-Sydney Coll.) manages the nearly impossible—he is both fair and objective. He clarifies that his book is a work of considered synthesis of other scholarship. He doesn't overlook the heroic or the tawdry. He covers the famous trek west and such controversial topics as the origin of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith's polygamous relationships, and Mormon ideas on race, all with appropriate detachment. He also covers contemporary topics of the modern Mormon church with riveting prose. Appendixes explain the structure of the church and offer brief biographies of the cast of characters. The bibliographic essay is a great starting place for further pursuing the topic and could serve as a syllabus for a Mormon history course. VERDICT Because Bowman writes so well, the general adult reader will find this as appealing as the scholar. Both believers and nonbelievers will be satisfied. Highly recommended.—David Azzolina, Univ. of Pennsylvania Libs., Philadelphia
A comprehensive history of the popular religion bearing distinctly American roots. Timed for release just as the cogs in the 2012 presidential election start turning, Bowman's (Religion/Hampden-Sydney Coll.) study of Mormonism shows how this brand of Christianity has always sported a strong relationship with American politics and values, whether in sync or at odds with them. Founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith Jr., the "mercurial" upstate New Yorker and "seducer of biographers" who received visions and translated the "golden plates" on which were written the religious tenets revealed to him, the Mormon faith, according to Bowman, combines a "sacramentalism and priesthood reminiscent of Catholicism with a decidedly Protestant devotion to scripture and suspicion of trained clergy." Writing to educate a readership unfamiliar with Mormon beliefs, the author claims that "Americans have admired Mormons for their diligence, their rectitude, their faith, and their honesty; they have feared them for their zealotry, their polygamy, and their heresy." While many--including Mark Twain, who famously dubbed Smith's Book of Mormon "‘chloroform in print' "--were skeptical of its apocalyptic dogmatism and determinism in building a new Zion, others quickly took to the values that somewhat mirrored the expansionist society and followed Smith west. Some of Smith's ideas, such as abstinence from tobacco and "strong drink," were right in keeping with those of the 1830s American temperance movement; others, such as the notions that God had a corporeal body and sanctioned polygamy, proved less acceptable to society at large. Bowman paints a multidimensional portrait of a separatist movement riddled with fascinating dichotomies: a patriarchal religion at once embracing community and committed to worldwide missionary service yet sanctioning at various times in its history gross discrimination against women, those of African descent and homosexuals. The author also includes informative appendices of the church hierarchy, lists of Mormon scripture, past presidents of the church and other significant figures, and a bibliographic essay. A thorough, stimulating rendering of the Mormon past and present.