Book is fresh introduction to Mormonism

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 1 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

On one hand, Mormons have long been respected for their work ethic, integrity and family values. They have also been persecuted as polygamists and passed off as crazy religious fanatics with a strange history.

So with two Latter-day Saints running for president and the church receiving unprecedented cultural attention in a variety of arenas, Random House Publishing saw an opportunity.

The publishing house enlisted the services of religious historian Matthew Bowman to write a book intended as an introduction to the LDS faith. The result of his work is titled “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” (Random House, $26) and was released on Jan. 24.

Jon Meacham, a Random House editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, originally approached notable historian Richard L. Bushman about writing the book in late June 2011. Bushman declined and recommended Bowman, a massive honor for the young Georgetown graduate. Meacham then asked Bowman if he could finish the book in two months so it could be published in time for the 2012 Iowa Caucus.

“I don’t think I can write a book on Mormonism in two months,” Bowman said.

“OK, fair enough. What if we gave you until Sept. 15?” Meacham countered.

“I felt I had pushed him as far as I could. I could not pass up the opportunity, so I agreed,” Bowman said in a phone interview.

Although he says many could have written this book, Bowman produced the 350-page manuscript in about 80 days. He accomplished the feat by maintaining a grueling pace of about 30 pages a week.

“The greatest challenge was the pace of writing it,” Bowman said. “There are things I would have liked to have done that I could not because of the pace.”

Bowman described “The Mormon People” as a synthesis of the massive amount of writings on Mormon history compiled in the past half-century.

“There are interpretations in the book that are mine, ideas that are unique to me and arguments I am proud of that no one has made yet,” Bowman said. “But in the broader sense, it is a synthesis of other work. I could not have written it had the work not been done in the past 30 to 40 years.”

Bowman recounts the church’s origin and development, explains how Mormonism came to be one of the fastest-growing religions in the world by the turn of the 21st century (currently with a worldwide membership of about 14 million), and sets the scene for the 2012 presidential election. A breakdown of the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its terminology is included in the appendix. Bowman dedicated the book to Bushman, a mentor, friend and the author of “Rough Stone Rolling," a 2005 biography of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith.

One question Bowman wrestled with in writing the book was, “What precisely is it that makes Mormonism different?”

“Why was it so scandalous in the 19th century and why is it still so scandalous? Mormons are bemused at why exactly it is that so many other Americans find Mormons weird,” said Bowman, a practicing Mormon himself. “Mormons don’t feel weird. They watch the same TV shows, buy the same cereal and wear the same clothes from J. Crew like everybody else.

“The way (the faith) managed to so thoroughly fit a radical theological and social tradition into the mundane American life … Mormonism is one of the great stories of the 20th century,” Bowman said. “As someone who has studied non-Mormon religion and culture, this is something I hope to bring to the story. It’s only when you look at it from the outside that you begin to grasp how magnificently peculiar Mormonism can be.”

Bowman received his doctorate in American religious history from Georgetown University and teaches at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.

Click here to read an excerpt from "The Mormon People: The Making of An American Faith."

Email: ttoone@desnews.com

Twitter: tbtoone

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