It was not a planned, coordinated effort (I think), and the books were released out of order, but along with fires, plagues, and murder hornets, the last year has given the world of Mormon Studies a near perfect trilogy for understanding the why’s and the history of radical Mormon politics.
Last out, first in the series is, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier by Ben Park (2020, Liveright Books). Drawing on the previously unavailable Council of Fifty Minutes, Park explains Joseph Smith’s radical Nauvoo era religious and political experiments better and more thoroughly than any previous author has. Park has revolutionized our understanding of Nauvoo and what Joseph Smith tried to implement politically and religiously there. In explaining the what and the WHY of what Joseph Smith attempted to do when he created the Council of Fifty, Kingdom of Nauvoo has laid a new foundation for understanding Mormon political action and thought from that time to now.
Book two – Finally Statehood! Utah’s Struggles, 1849-1896 by Edward Leo Lyman, was released by Signature Books in December of 2019. Finally Statehood! picks up shortly after Kingdom of Nauvoo ends with the Mormons first attempt to gain statehood for Utah in 1849.
Lyman is a master historian, author, and editor with at least a dozen books to his credit (many of them award winning!) Finally Statehood! represents the culmination of Lyman’s forty plus years of studying and writing about the Mormon’s efforts to attain statehood for Utah. Just as Park has given us what has become “the” book for understanding Joseph Smith and Mormons in Nauvoo, Lyman has given us “the” book for understanding Brigham Young and the Mormon’s attempts to turn their theocratic kingdom in the desert into a theocratic state in the American West
Utah’s forty-seven year journey to statehood is a fascinating, messy trip that could make any Soap Opera proud. Once Utah found itself a part of the USA instead of Mexico, the Mormons wanted to become a state, but they also wanted to maintain their radical theocracy and polygamy that Joseph Smith started in Nauvoo. Lyman documents and describes in detail all of the plans, machinations, manipulations, political wheeling and dealing, bribes, and you name it that the Mormons attempted to have their political and wedding cake and eat it too. In Finally Statehood! Lyman has turned forty plus years of research and writing expertise into groundbreaking history. If I were teaching a college course on 19th century Utah I would requite my students to read Lyman’s book
First released, last in the series was Utah Politics: The Elephant in the Room by Rod Decker (Signature Books, 2019). Rod Decker was Utah’s best known investigative reporter for 40 plus years. On the first page of Utah Politics Decker states this thesis for his book:
I argue that the key to understanding Utah politics is resistance by the Latter-day Saint Church and its members to American social change (ix).
This is practically the same thesis that Park was working with when he wrote in the prologue to Kingdom of Nauvoo:
(The Council of Fifty in Nauvoo) were part of one of the most radical religious and political endeavors of the American nineteenth century. They rejected America’s democratic system as a failed experiment and sought to replace it with a theocratic kingdom (p. 3)
Over Utah Politics’ 17 chapters, Decker guides the reader through the stories, facts, and figures of Utah’s political history and the Mormon’s involvement in and attempts to control that history in a way that deftly proves his thesis to be true and brings the story of radical Mormon politics started by Park and continued by Lyman to the present. (See my full review of Utah Politics here).
If you want to understand the full history of Mormons radical politics. If you want to understand the history of why Mormons think the way they do, vote the way they do, support the candidates and political actions that they do, and if you want to better understand and have a fuller picture of Mormon attempts to create and control a theocratic empire in the American West than read: Kingdom of Nauvoo, Finally Statehood, and Utah Politics.