In the past two decades, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—widely known as the Mormon church—has relaxed its iron grip on its archives, allowing some historians to conduct research in its vast library. Professor of religious history Benjamin E. Park has availed himself of this new access and of the work of other contemporary historians to write an absorbing history of the church and its culture. American Zion: A New History of Mormonism argues that Mormon history is surprisingly complex, and its evolution mirrors the struggles of American society. 

Mormons were, from the outset, outsiders. They interpreted the Constitution’s protection of freedom of religion as extending to the practice of polygamy; this belief did them no favors as they sought a home. They were dispelled from state to state as zealots, sometimes through violence—their founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered by a mob in Illinois. Escaping to the Utah desert, they were beset by the federal government, which refused to let them form a “State of the Desert” unless they renounced polygamy. Wary, they zealously guarded their records, putting their own spin on their history. In this century, they allied with the religious right and the Republican Party in culture wars and more fully entered the American mainstream, even producing a formidable presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

American Zion presents an engaging account of the personalities that loom large in the religion, especially Smith and the church’s second president, Brigham Young. But Park also shows how events and attitudes outside the church have divided the faith. He traces its complicated history of racial bias; its misogyny and, fascinatingly, history of feminism among early Mormon women; its stance on LGBTQ+ rights; and how a church still governed largely by elderly white American men is faring as its membership grows internationally. 

Park, a Mormon himself, tells the story from the inside with neutrality; while he’s critical of the faith’s leaders, he has no ax to grind. If you’re looking for a more dramatic treatment, a la Jon Krakauer’s The Banner of Heaven and its ensuing television series, American Zion may not be for you. But if you’re a curious, measured reader, you’ll likely agree with the author that “Mormonism is a deep well.”

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