Wednesday’s Book Review: “Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History”

9780842528252Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History. Brandon S. Plewe, Editor-in-Chief. Associate Editors: S. Kent Brown, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard H. Jackson. Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2012. Foreword by Richard Lyman Bushman. Introduction, glossary, notes, color illustrations, bibliography, index. 272 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8245-2825-2. Hardcover with dust jacket, $39.95 USD.

Historical atlases offer a unique perspective on the past, one that gives primacy to a geospatial angle of vision on historical events and people. When well done, these works are worthy additions to the scholarly literature, not necessarily because of the textual analysis included in them but because of the maps and illustrations that they offer. Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History is a useful and sometimes insightful addition to the historical literature of Mormonism, albeit with some shortcomings. Regardless, Editor-in-chief Brandon S. Plewe and his team of historians, geographers, and other social scientists are to be commended for their efforts to create new historical perspectives through the use of maps and other illustrations. While some of the text is essentially the Mormon master narrative of its own history, some of it is illuminating. But more importantly, the fundamental contribution of this work is the visual experience of seeing the routes of travels, depictions of the human-built world, and the time sequence of growth and development.

Where were the founders and leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from, what were their missionary and migration patterns, and what was the physical landscape of the theological expressions (temples, plural marriages, and the like)? Moreover, how has the church grown, expanded, and evolved over time? These are good questions; an inkling of answers to them emerges in this atlas. The maps are uniformly well drawn, and the data generally presented in a manner that is readily understandable. Even so, I would have liked to have seen scales on every illustration—some are inexplicably missing—and sometimes the population data is hard to interpret because of the small size of some of the reproduced maps.

The work is best when it seeks to show routes of missionaries, marches of pilgrims, journeys to the Great Salt Lake, and other travels relating to church activities. Much of this is quite useful. Some of this, however, proved frustrating, but not necessarily because of cartography. For instance, I was heartened to see such maps of the marches as Zion’s Camp, an expedition of more than 200 armed Mormons from Kirtland, Ohio, to Liberty, Missouri, in 1834 to confront those engaged in a violent expulsion of fellow church members from their homes in Jackson County (it failed to resolve the issue) (pp. 38-39) and the march of the Mormon Battalion in 1846-1847 (pp. 78-79) from Iowa to California during the Mexican-American War (which also failed to serve a military purpose).

I was less than satisfied with explanations of these two events by the historians writing about them in the text. Zion’s Camp was erroneously interpreted as an expedition conducted in accordance with a promise from Missouri Governor Daniel Dunklin that he would use this force as state militia to resettle Mormons on their Jackson County lands; there was no such promise. The Mormon Battalion section contains an anticlimactic ending from Susan Easton Black offering an advertisement for Mormon historic sites rather than an assessment of the significance of the expedition.

Additionally, a subject of interest to readers of this journal is discussed in some depth: Mormonism in Illinois (pp. 52-69). There is a major section on western Illinois and the platted but largely unoccupied city of Commerce than became the core of the Mormon stronghold at Nauvoo. There is another on Mormon land purchases in Nauvoo and the surrounding area, as well as sections on Nauvoo commercial development, the evolution of ecclesiastical buildings, Mormon settlements in other parts of Hancock County, and relations of the church in Nauvoo with members elsewhere.

The sections devoted to Mormon/non-Mormon conflict, the assassinations of Mormon leaders Joseph and Hyrum Smith in 1844, the church leadership succession crisis, and renewed conflict that eventually led to the majority of the Mormons departing Illinois in the 1846-1850 time frame are predictable pro-Mormon interpretations. In the characterization here the Saints were persecuted innocents and their departure was “The Triumph of Mobocracy,” as historian Annette P. Hampshire termed it and as it was repeated here (p. 62). Never mind that the story is infinitely more complex than the simplistic Mormon morality play offered here.

Finally, there is quite a lot relative to church growth and divergence in the twentieth century as it moved from being a North American church to one with worldwide reach and an international and multicultural membership. Since detailed membership breakdowns are hard to come by, this is a truly welcome attempt to understand more about the nature of the modern Mormon Church. There are many questions left unanswered with this analysis—age, class, and ethno-cultural backgrounds are only some of them—but the demographic data here shows some really interesting trends.

Since the 1960s membership in Latin America has exploded. In 2010 LDS membership was 44 percent U.S.-based, with nearly 40 percent from Latin America. Asia, Europe, Pacific, Africa, and Canada made up only about 17 percent of the church’s membership (pp. 174-75). Projections in the atlas suggest that these trends will continue into the future and by 2030 the atlas projects that the U.S. church will number only about 38 percent of the total, with about 20 percent from Asia, Europe, Pacific, Africa, and Canada, while the remainder will be Latino/Latina. What might this portend for a uniquely U.S.-centric religious body? How will such changes prompt leadership transformations? As it surely must in terms of representations of nationalities in the church’s ruling quorums. What might this mean for church polity, norms, and practices? Would it even prompt reconsiderations of worship, perhaps even theology? These are fascinating questions which no one knows the answers to as yet.

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History”

  1. For my time period, up to and including the death of Joseph Smith, Jr, this atlas has been an incredible resource. I find some of the visual reconstructions (e.g. the Smith farm) a tad optimistic, eg about tree placement and the like), but the rest is solidly helpful. Brandon S. Plewe, the editor, is also a very personable guy, and has been responding to emails about the city plats, and similar. I understand that this is more a coffee table book in some ways than a research tool, but giving the funding structure these days, that is unavoidable.


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