Review of Stephen Taysom, The Patheos Guide to Mormonism

June 20, 2012

Stephen Taysom, The Patheos Guide to Mormonism (Series Editor Kathleen Mulhern), available in e-book formats for $2.99. For details, see this website.
Reviewed by Kevin Barney
Remember when you were in high school, and you were assigned a five-page paper? Oh, how you struggled to reach that goal of five pages! If you got desperate enough, perhaps you played with fonts, margins and line spacing in an effort to cross the finish line with some hopefully-not-too-obvious space padding techniques made possible by the computer age. What a relief it was when you finally achieved the assigned length. Maybe you would even add an extra paragraph, so it wouldn’t look too obvious how much you were straining to get to five pages of text.
Those were the days, weren’t they? Stephen Taysom, an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Cleveland State University (and a blogger at the Juvenile Instructor), was recently faced with a grown up’s inverse of this problem: He had to try to give a coherent introduction to Mormonism, a very complicated topic, in what has amounted to a mere 77 pages. I would venture a guess that there were times during his work on this project that he sincerely wished for 500 pages to play with, rather than 77. But the brevity of the text is a large part of its appeal (and I freely acknowledge I was much more willing to undertake a review of a 77-pager than I would have been the 500-pager), so what must have been a very challenging exercise in pruning had to be undertaken.
Does it work? I decided before reading it that my standard would be whether I thought I could have done a better job. It is conceivable that I might have done a better job if I had 500 pages to play with, but it is highly doubtful that I could have improved upon this effort if I were limited to less than 100 pages. So yes, as a very concise summary of and introduction to Mormonism, especially for those with limited prior exposure to the religion, it does indeed work, and I highly recommend it.
All Patheos Guides follow the same basic structure of five chapters, each with five standardized subsections. This is done purposefully to allow easy comparison of different religions using the respective Guides for those faiths. Below is the Table of Contents to the Mormon Guide:

Beginnings: First Vision
Influences: Awakening and Restoration
Founders: Smith and Young
Sacred Texts: The Standard Works and an Open Canon
Historical Perspectives: Apologists and Critics
Early Developments: Mobs, Murder, and Moving West
Schisms and Sects: Challenges to Polygamy
Missions and Expansion: From New York to the World
Exploration and Conquest: Migration, Deseret, and Utah
The Modern Age: A Manifesto and Statehood
Sacred Narratives: From Michael to Lehi
Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings: From Man to God
Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence: A Training Ground
Suffering and the Problem of Evil: War in Heaven, Choice on Earth
Afterlife and Salvation: A Hierarchy of Kingdoms
Sacred Time: From the Second Coming to Eternity
Sacred Space: Chapels and Temples
Rites and Ceremonies: Fathers and Priests
Worship and Devotion in Daily Life: Sacrament, Family, and Temple
Symbolism: Signs of Hope and Promise
Community Organization: Wards and Common Care
Leadership: Presidency, Quorums, and Bishops
Principles of Moral Thought and Action: Avoiding Sin and Practicing Charity
Vision for Society: Politics, Protests, and the Apocalypse
Gender and Sexuality: Patriarchy and Heterosexuality

One consequence of this standardized format is a fair amount of duplication, since each chapter needs to stand on its own for comparative purposes with other Guides. I read the book straight through, like a novel, so the duplicated explanations of things like the First Vision or visits of Moroni stuck out to me. But that is simply an unavoidable consequence of the desired series structure, and once one gets beyond the early chapters the duplicative material quickly becomes much less common. (One duplication that was probably unintentional was the repetition of the precise sentence “In addition, Mormons set aside Monday evenings as a period of family togetherness” a mere two paragraphs from each other in the first section of Chapter Four.)
A couple of illustrations will show Taysom’s skill at conveying complex information in a succinct and understandable way. First is this explanation of the First Vision from the first section of Chapter One:

In 1820, at age 14, his prayer for guidance led to an experience that became the founding event of Mormonism and gave rise to his career as a prophet. In his accounts of this event, recorded many years later, Joseph wrote of being nearly overwhelmed by darkness and then seeing a pillar of light encircling two beings, God the Father and Jesus. He was told that he was forgiven of his sins and that he was not to join any church, since none embodied the true faith; all had gone astray.

Second, from the first section of Chapter Three, is this explanation of the Mormon concept of Jesus Christ as Jehovah:

Mormons take a slightly different approach to some of these stories than many other traditions, however. For example, in the Mormon version of the sacred creation narrative, Jesus Christ, who before his birth was the Jehovah of the Hebrew Bible, created the earth and all things in it at the direction of God the Father. Jehovah was assisted in this by other “noble and great” spirits, most notably the angel Michael. Michael, according to the Mormon narrative, was born on earth as Adam, the first mortal man.

Taysom has skillfully conveyed the gist of these ideas, which normally would require pages of explanation, in but a single paragraph each.
I liked the way Taysom put the origins of Mormonism into the broader religious context of the Second Great Awakening, and the specific revivalism of the burned over district. I also appreciated how he easily and straightforwardly broached topics that some might consider controversial, such as treasure searching. For instance, see how he discloses post-Manifesto polygamy in a very just-the-facts-ma’am, matter of fact way: “After years of attempting to establish their constitutional right to practice polygamy, the Mormons finally disavowed the practice in 1890, although it would continue to be practiced in some quarters until the second decade of the 20th century.” Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
I personally have an interest in Joseph Smith’s use of Hebrew, and twice Taysom seems to reflect a certain doubt as to whether Joseph’s explanation of the origin of the place name Nauvoo as a Hebrew word was really correct. (The applicable quotations are as follows: “named Nauvoo [after the Hebrew word for beautiful, he claimed]” and “Joseph Smith re-christened the town Nauvoo, which Smith suggested was a Hebrew name denoting a place of rest or refreshing.”) This was not merely a claim or suggestion of the Prophet, but a demonstrable fact. It is true that the word nauvoo is obscure, and if you ask your Hebrew-speaking friend what the Hebrew word for “beautiful” is, he surely will not say nauvoo. But although the word is rare, it is also quite real. In the beginning of Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings,” the Hebrew word rendered “beautiful” is (in modern transliteration) na’wu, the pilel form of the verb na’ah. Joseph gives the word as nauvoo, using the Sephardic transliteration method he learned at the Kirtland Hebrew School, where au represents the vowel qamets, the v is the letter waw, and the oo represents the vowel shureq. Indeed, the word nauvoo actually appears on p. 28 of the Joshua Seixas grammar that was used at the Kirtland Hebrew School, as one can see at this page.
Near the end of Chapter Two we read “In 2008, Mitt Romney became the first Mormon contender for the presidential nomination for a major political party,” but as written that cannot be correct, since Mitt’s own father, George, preceded him as a one-time contender for the Republican nomination.
The very tight space requirements do not allow much space for a discussion of nuance or development of Mormon ideas over time. In the section on Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings: From Man to God, Taysom simply assumes the B.H. Roberts tripartite theory of the nature of man (intelligence, soul, body). Now, if I were in his shoes I would have done the same thing, as to my eye that is the most common understanding today, but it is not something that has been universally held throughout the history of the Church. I think it is proper to use things like this that historically have been majority views, but I do lament the lack of space for putting these ideas into a little bit more context in terms of their development over time.
Taysom is very careful not to overwhelm the reader with in-house vocabulary that a non-Mormon would not understand, which is I think absolutely essential in a project such as this. One small lapse in this area was in his discussion of tithing: “Mormons also pay 10 percent of their annual ‘increase’ as tithing to the Church.” He put the word increase in quotation marks, but gives the reader no clue what it means. Something like a bracketed “i.e., income” would have been helpful here. But in the context of the book as a whole, these things are mere trifles.
Believe it or not, I actually had a dream about the first section of Chapter Four, in which Mormon worship services are described. (How is that for my commitment as a book reviewer!) In the dream, I was serving a mission to the Philippines (doubtless because my former bishop’s son just received his own call to that area). I realized that we were asking people to come to Church, but we weren’t explaining to them carefully what they could expect to happen there, and no one wants to go into a strange situation without a sense of what to expect. As they say, “If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.” So my companion and I put together a pamphlet that we had printed, that included our pictures, something about us such as where we’re from, and how to contact us. We also put in there a picture of the local ward building, both external and internal maps, times of the different services, and then we actually explained what they could expect to happen in, say, sacrament meeting, much along the lines of Taysom’s own explanation. (For instance, we should explain that there is no offertory; one simply cannot assume that people will know about something like that.) I think we also threw some of our basic beliefs in there, maybe a copy of the Articles of Faith. And of course we had great missionary success based on our little pamphlet (I did say it was a dream, didn’t I?).
In this current Mormon Moment, when college students are taking classes in Mormonism, journalists are struggling to wrap their arms around the faith, ordinary voters are trying to figure out what it all means for their voting decision, and on and on, this book is just what the doctor ordered to give people a much needed overview of what Mormonism is all about. I congratulate Professor Taysom on a job well done, and hope the book receives a wide audience.
(Cross-posted at By Common Consent.)