book review, saints without halos: the human side of mormon history, by Leonard Arrington & Davis Bitton

My wife gave me this interesting volume of history for our anniversary in 2006, and I’ve read it bit by bit over the last several months.  My thoughts:

worthwhile peek into the lives of ordinary saints

The best known characters of Mormon history are the presidents of the Church* (from Joseph Smith to Thomas Monson), Joseph Smith’s immediate relatives (such as Emma or Joseph Smith, Sr.), and a handful of other people included in the canonized works (such as the three witnesses of The Book of Mormon). Of course, the Church’s current membership of 13 million has been built by a much broader group of people. Arrington and Bitton draw on diaries, oral histories, and other sources to construct character sketches (most of them under ten pages) of 17 people who for the most part don’t fit into those categories; I’d only heard of a few of them. The subjects range from the founding of the Church in the mid-19th century to the people who grew up in the early 20th century (the book was published in 1981, after all).

Arrington and Bitton haven’t managed to write a page-turner (Don’t expect The Da Vinci Code or even Prince and Wright’s David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism), but the accounts contain enough choice experiences and insights into the evolving Church to make this volume well worth the reading.

I wish the book had included more women (only five of the 17), but to the authors’ credit, the subjects are diverse in other ways: one isn’t a member of the Church (Kane), one left the Church (Wight), one held firmly heterodox doctrinal beliefs (Ericksen), one grew up among Hopi traditionalists (Sekaquaptewa). The authors try not to pass judgment but rather to present the stories as the individuals or their families recorded them. The examples of these hardworking rank-and-file members inspired me in their imperfections as much as their diligence and faithfulness.

[I even encountered an ancestor of mine by surprise: Oscar Kirkham makes an appearance in the life of Edna Ericksen (p132).]

Here is a list of the book’s chapters, with the (sometimes approximate) vital dates as available in the book, to give a sense of the time spanned:

1. Joseph Knight: Friend to the Prophet (1773-1847)
2. Jonathan Hale: Preaching the Restored Gospel (1800-1846)
3. Lyman Wight: Wild Ram of the Mountains (?-1858)
4. Colonel Thomas L. Kane: A Friend in Need (?-1883)
5. Jean Baker: Gathering to Zion (?-1880)
6. Edwin Woolley: Bishop of the Thirteenth Ward (1807-1881)
7. Charles L. Walker: Sage of Saint George (?-1904)
8. Lucy White Flake: Pioneering Utah and Arizona (1842-?)
9. Edward Bunker: Living the United Order (1822-1901)
10. Lemuel H. Redd: Down the Chute to San Juan (1836-?)
11. Chauncey West: Nineteenth Century Teenager (1877-?)
12. George F. Richards: A Link in the Chain (1861-1950)
13. Helen Sekaquaptewa: Traditions of the Fathers (1898-?)
14. Ephraim and Edna Ericksen: The Philosopher and the Trail Builder (1882-1967, ?-?)
15. Margrit Feh Lohner: Swiss Immigrant (1914-?)
16. T. Edgar Lyon: Missionary, Educator, Historian (1903-1978)

* The Church refers to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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