book review – Mormonism in Early Victorian Britain
Edited by Richard L. Jensen and Malcolm R. Thorp. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989. (Contributors, introduction, illustrations, tables, figures, footnotes, index) 282 pp. Volume 4 in Publications in Mormon Studies Series. – Mormonism in Early Victorian Britain
Anniversaries typically spark the reconsideration of historic events in all kinds of ways, from reinactments to ceremonies to historical publications. The 150th anniversary of the Mormon opening of the British mission in 1987 was no exception. For example, the Mormon History sponsored an annual meeting at Oxford University which focused on the Mormon experience in Great Britain.
It is largely from this conference that the articles published in this collection were derived. While a subject of significance, until the sesquicentennial most historians did not investigate this subject very extensively. Mormonism in Early Victorian Britain, a gleaning of some of the best short work on the subject, places emphases on the topic and serves as a partial corrective of past neglect. As a result, it is a most welcome publication.
Richard L. Jensen, Research Historian of the Joseph Fielding Smith Center for Church History, and Malcolm R. Thorp, a member of the History Department, both at Brigham Young University, have assembled a set of diverse essays on various aspects of the Mormon experience in Great Britain. Taken altogether and arranged roughly chronologically, the 16 chapters, each written by a different specialist, represents a particular aspect of Mormon culture in Britain during the nineteenth century.
Some narrow and others broadly interpretive, the articles in this book contain a heavy emphasis on social history. This is probably as it should be, with the current state of historical inquiry emphasizing social science methodology and themes. Essays on the backgrounds and lifestyles of Mormon converts, regional and local studies of Mormon life, and the overall cultural setting in Britain which allowed Mormonism to flourish abound. There is also something included here which has been largely ignored in recent Mormon historical writing: administrative history. One of the potentially productive avenues that can be explored in seeking to understand the place Mormons occupy today, administrative history in this book takes the form of detailed studies of regional conference organization and functioning, church courts and governing, and the unique organization in Britain of Mormon pastors and pastorates. These essays represent an added appreciation of the potential of administrative history and a fine beginning toward greater understanding of the church’s development. Finally, there are several essays which deal with Mormon/non-Mormon interrelation- ships and difficulties which serve as additives and in some instances correctives for similar studies in other nations.
Any collected work’s quality is uneven and this book is no exception. Some of the essays are more challenging than others; I found particularly rewarding Grant Underwood’s analysis of “The Religious Milieu of English Mormonism” and Susan L. Fales’ demographic portrait of Mormons in Leeds. There are, however, two built-in difficulties with collections of this type. First, although Mormons in Early Victorian Britain is an important attempt to present detailed contributions on aspects of the topic, it views the Mormon experience in Britain only through the lens of selected events, institutions, personalities, or whatever. There are huge gaps in the story of the British mission that a reader can only guess at from this publication. There remains, unfortunately, no synthesis of the overall field of study. Each essay stands essentially alone.
Second, themes and events are unevenly represented. The obvious omission for readers of the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal is the complete lack of discussion of the history of the Reorganized Church in Britain. While a much less important part of the overall history of Mormonism, the Reorganized Church experience deserves some mention in a book such as this and could have provided a useful counterpoint for analyzing church member backgrounds, relations with larger society, organizational structures, and the like. Were the people who joined the Reorganized Church like those that joined the larger Mormon organization? Were there commonalities of background and economic, social, and political status between the two groups. How did the institutional frameworks of the two church’s adapt to the surroundings and problems of Victorian Britain? These and a host of other questions could have been asked in essays on this subject. Although several papers relating to the Reorganization’s experience in Great Britain were presented at the Oxford conference, none were included in this collection and this omission is a glaring example of a lack of concern among many new Mormon historians about issues and themes outside the mainstream of Mormon historical interests. Not even David J. Whittaker’s otherwise excellent bibliographical essay on Mormonism in Victorian Britain mentions any of the literature on the Reorganization’s history there, although there are a half-dozen or so useful publications on the subject.
These criticisms aside, this collection of essays is a fine beginning in exploring the Mormon experience in Great Britain. It, along with other studies published as a result of interest sparked by the sesquicentennial, have rescued the subject from obscurity. This book will be of interest to scholars and general readers alike as a fine introduction to a complex and fascinating subject.
reviewed by Roger D. Launius (used with reviewers permission)
(Published in John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 10 (1990): 101-102.)