Narrating America’s First Saint

SetonWhen Elizabeth Bailey Seton arrived back home in New York in 1804, her life was akin to a maelstrom. She was returning from an extended trip to Italy, where she had hoped the temperate climate would heal her ailing husband. It didn’t work. William, her intellectual and spiritual companion, died shortly after their landing in Europe. His economic success had already died a couple years prior: he ran a successful trade with his father, but after his father’s death, William was unable to keep things afloat. So when he himself passed a couple days after Christmas, 1803, in a foreign land, he left his young wife without many prospects. She would have to find a way to scrape by with her five children, all under the age of ten. When she disembarked the ship after the long voyage, and was greeted with the four children she had left behind (only one made the trip to Italy), Elizabeth must have faced a number of difficult emotions.

Yet while her friends and family urged her to turn her attention to earthly matters, Elizabeth Seton could only focus on the heavenly. Her stay in Italy not only introduced her to widowhood, but also Catholicism. Always a religious seeker, and increasingly yearning for institutional stability, Seton was deeply tempted by the faith most Americans dismissed as “popish.” She was especially drawn to their doctrine of transubstantiation, a sacrament that fulfilled her wish for immediate access to the divine. The following months were a religious struggle as her Episcopalian priest fought to retain her soul. Reflecting the torn nature of her mind, she wrote passionate letters to a married Italian man to whom she held such a deep bond that she also felt guilty; to balance these conflicted effort, she simultaneously directed her soul-searching diary entries to his wife.

This accounts for just a small sliver of Seton’s engrossing life, all told in exhaustive detail by Catherine O’Donnell in Elizabeth Seton: American Saint (Three Hills, 2018). Read More


Mormonism’s Expanded Canon

Expanded CanonOne of the most famous elements concerning the Mormon faith is its belief in an expanded scriptural canon. Besides the Bible, members of the church believe that the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price are holy texts that contain the word and commands of God; more liberally, and abstractly, Mormons also believe that the words uttered by leaders today are, at least in some form, scripture, even if the official canon has been functionally closed for some time.

A new collection of essays, titled The Expanded Canon: Perspectives on Mormonism & Sacred Texts (Kofford Books, 2018), explores many of the tensions related to Mormonism’s scriptural corpus. Most of these chapters are drawn from a conference hosted by Utah Valley University’s Mormon Studies program a few years ago. Indeed, this volume is the first in a collaboration between Kofford Books and UVU, which will serve an important service for the field by reproducing some of the more provocative and smart proceedings in Mormon studies today.  Read More

William Smith’s “The Plural Marriage Revelation” and Nauvoo’s Legacy

It all started with a domestic dispute.

Okay, so it was more complex than that, and there were certainly many layers behind the origins of Joseph Smith’s polygamy revelation, but for the sake of my point let’s just say one of the most controversial documents in Mormonism’s history was meant to solve a marital spat. Because, in some ways, it absolutely was. The setting was summer 1843 in Nauvoo, Illinois. Joseph Smith’s zealous and devoted brother, Hyrum, had just embraced the doctrine of polygamy. This was no simple conversion: he had been one of the most outspoken critics of what many called the “spiritual wives” doctrine that was secretly being taught in the city, allegedly promulgated by the disgraced mayor and serial adulterer John C. Bennett. Joseph, knowing that Hyrum held such strong feelings concerning the rumors, was cautious to teach him the concomitantly controversial and secret theology of plural marriage. But once he heard and accepted the practice—a story worthy of its own post—he became one of its most ardent defenders. And now he was ready to proselytize one of his fellow colleagues in the anti-polygamy crusade: Joseph’s wife, Emma. Read More

Review: Moss and Baden, BIBLE NATION

Within a few minutes’ walk from the United States Capital in Washington DC, a visitor might stumble upon an impressive eight-story structure dedicated to “reacquaint[ing] the world with the book that helped make it.” The Museum of the Bible opened just last month after several years of anticipation. In some ways, it is similar to other recent Evangelical enterprises, like the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, which seeks to guide Americans back to their biblical roots and avoid the secular perils of modernity. Yet it is also somewhat unique: it frames itself as a non-sectarian establishment focused on merely presenting the “facts” of the Bible. But as Candida Moss and Joel Baden outline in their new and riveting book, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton UP), this is merely the latest step in one wealthy family’s attempt to help America become a “Bible Nation.”

Most Americans know the David Green family for two things: their ownership of Hobby Lobby, and their Supreme Court victory over Obamacare, the latter of which allowed them to refuse contraceptive medicine to their employees. They might also be known for their devoted evangelical and philanthropic initiatives, including Steve Green’s founding of the Museum of the Bible. But many were surprised when the Greens were in the news a few months ago after federal prosecutors accused them of illegally importing 5,500 ancient artifacts. But you know who wasn’t surprised? Moss and Baden have been breaking news on the story for several years. Indeed, their Bible Nation is the result of several years of research into the Green Family’s Bible project, an endeavor that not only includes a museum but also an extensive amateur archival collection, robust scholarship initiative, and earnest curriculum proposals.

Each of the four chapters in the volume focus on one of these aspects. The first chapter dives into the world of artifact sales, an arena filled with strict laws, legal loopholes, and shady deals. When the Greens decided to enter the artifact game, they hired a series of collectors to act on their behalf. Many of the earliest purchases—they eventually came to acquire around 40,000(!) artifacts—had murky backstories and sketchy provenances. (The cuniform tablets that got the Greens in trouble were bought during this period.) Moss and Baden skillfully demonstrate how these activities affected the broader market, implications of which we are still dealing with today. The Greens, the authors explain, seem to “underestimate the degree to which provenance matters, and the real-world ramifications of the illicit antiquities trade” (44). The actions of reckless buyers and sellers jeopardizes real-world conditions, especially in the Middle East.

But what do they do with the material once they are collected? The Green Scholars Initiative (GSI) is a program in which the foundation chose academics—often at religious schools, and nearly always with little background in papyrus scholarship—to work on individual projects, along with student researchers. The theoretical goal was to produce published volumes in which ancient papyri are translated, transcribed, and introduced. While senior scholars would serve as mentors—and the list of GSI mentors became quite impressive—most of the work was done by people with little training in the field. The results were mixed. Nearly all who participated, including the students, were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, which allowed the GSI to control the information stemming from the various projects. (While a common practice in the business world, it is unheard of in academia.) Moss and Baden hypothesize that those documents or ideas that would challenge traditional evangelical narratives were sequestered. The main story the Greens wish to prove is the Bible’s consistency and supremacy, and any challenges to that story gets relegated to the background.

There was a financial aspect to the Green’s archival collection and scholarly initiatives, and Bible Nation carefully spells out a potentially materialistic explanation for the whole initiative. When the Greens’ representatives originally purchased the artifacts, they were often relatively cheap due to an artificially controlled market and the items’ sketchy provenance. Yet by putting the materials through the rigors of scholarly analysis improves their relevance and increases their monetary value. The Greens could then get the documents newly appraised and then donate them to a non-profit organization—namely, their own Museum of the Bible. Whatever value the donated document, which is often far greater than the original purchase price, can now be used as a tax deduction. Through interviews, Moss and Baden were able to trace how the Greens expected to get a particular monetary reward over the years in order to assure a financial gain.

This places scholars in a difficult predicament. Research in the Green collections risks validating their questionable purchase history, a modern-day act of colonialism that the federal government is still trying to investigate. And participating in the GSI adds value to the Greens’ overall project. Even though it is tempting to provide students with much-needed research experience—though the experience is mostly rooted in using computer transcription tools to decipher digital scans—the requirement of non-disclosure agreements precludes them from even explaining their research background in graduate applications. Through this ingenious system, the Greens can doubly profit off of scholarly participation: academics both validate their evangelical agenda and aid their financial reimbursement. As Moss and Baden put it, “the Green Family will profit from the research of those in their organization, and they are able to control the way information about their holdings is published and disseminated” (97-98). From the Green perspective, it’s a win-win.

The family’s overall evangelical agenda is the focus of the final two chapters, each of which focuses on a different proselytizing initiative. First is the Greens’ semi-aborted education push in which they sought to implement a particular curriculum package across public schools. America’s education system had strayed away from biblical principles, the Greens argue, and they are anxious to reintroduce those elements into the public sphere. While their attempt to infiltrate Oklahoma City’s school district failed, they have seen success selling their materials abroad, in Israel, as well as at home, with American homeschoolers. In perhaps the most in-depth analysis in the entire book, Moss and Baden dig into the curriculum in order to display “an ongoing lack of self-awareness” within its pages. Though the Greens wish to appropriate secular—or, “sectarian”—methods, their message is still rooted in a particular evangelical reading of the Bible.

And then there’s the museum. Unfortunately, in order to capitalize on the site’s opening this Fall, Moss and Baden completed the book before the museum was actually finished. This makes sense sales-wise, but a decade down the road readers might wish the authors were less anxious and willing to wait another year. But the authors were able to dissect the Greens’ traveling Bible shows over the past few years, as well as extensive interviews with those involved putting together the project. Though the Museum of the Bible claims to present a non-biased history of the sacred text, Moss and Baden demonstrate how its very framing reaffirms, once again, a particular evangelical story: the Bible’s coherency, consistency, divinity, and importance. The very act of “letting the Bible speak for itself,” a common refrain of the Greens, is a Protestant notion—and a fundamentalist one at that. When it comes to the “impact” of the Bible, another key feature of the museum, they amplify and exaggerate its good influence, while marginalizing the bad (like slavery) as mere “misuses.” A common story, indeed.

While the Greens are the main characters in Bible Nation‘s narrative, I found their depiction somewhat inconsistent. There are parts of the book where it seems Moss and Baden are bending over themselves to present the Hobby Lobby owners in the best light. It’s a common scholarly paradox: how do treat your subjects charitably while still capturing the depth of their problems? “Part of what makes the Greens so compelling,” the authors explain, “is that they are both transparent in their essential faith commitments and at the same time often unable to see the assumptions they bring with them to this project and the impact that those commitments have on the projects they pursue” (19). This, then, is a common thread throughout the book: the Greens are “naive,” they “underestimate,” and they lack “self-awareness.” It’s not until the book’s conclusion that Moss and Baden finally spell out a full condemnation.

Despite the story’s importance and author’s skill, there are a few elements of Bible Nation that make it more journalistic than academic. This is to be expected, I guess, given it is covering a contemporary issue and grew out of a series of op-eds. But there are certainly some consequences that stem from this approach. The writing at times feels rushed, and there are several sections that are repetitive—two features that are natural in a co-authored volume. (For example, the book explains what the Greens mean by “sectarian” at least a half-dozen times, sometimes with the same quotes.) Further, the historical background for the Greens and modern Evangelicalism can be flat—mostly relying on Molly Worthen, George Marsden, and Mark Noll—and the narrative’s lessons focus on the Greens rather than their larger context. There are moments the book feels more like a 200-page essay rather than a scholarly tome.

I also could never fully grasp the ideal audience for the book. The general public will certainly be entertained with the riveting story, and the lessons of Bible Nation‘s tale are definitely crucial for our contemporary culture that is still debating whether America is a “Christian nation.” But there are portions of the text that also seem directed at the academy—and a particular sliver of the academy, at that. The chapters on the Greens’ archive and scholarly initiative, especially, seem meditative on the craft and ethics of research and publication, a chance for the field to genuinely debate how to handle the Green dilemma. And I couldn’t help but feel that Moss and Baden were, at times, quick to bundle what they call “Christian scholarship,” which is rooted in a particular devotional framework, with the Greens’ project (115). It seemed to reflect certain debates I hear in the halls of the annual meetings for American Academy for Religion and Society for Biblical Literature. Are faith claims truly antithetical to critical scholarship?

But I imagine those questions are just what Moss and Baden hoped to raise with this fascinating volume. I came away from reading it not only with a stronger knowledge of the Green evangelical empire, but also questions concerning both the practice and research of religion in modern America. Bible Nation is so captivating you’ll want to finish it within a few sittings, but so provocative that its argument will stick with you for much longer.


The American Revolution was founded upon elite gentlemen willing to stake their reputation on a political gamble. That’s what Tom Cutterham argues in his new book, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic (Princeton UP, 2017), anyway. The British Empire featured countless men who were eager to climb the ranks of nobility–class options that simply were not available to those who lived in her colonies. But political independence offered a way out. “This book argues that,” Cutterham explains in his introduction, “in the wake of the Revolutionary War, a new national elite created it self through a process of debate and struggle over these gentlemanly ideals” (3). Rather than the logical culmination of the “critical period”—a murky chronological era that many historians prefer to skip over rather than engage—the Constitution was actually “a desperate gambit by which gentleman hoped to turn the tables and restore their own authority” (8). This book is the story of how elite men came to that conclusion and enacted their initiatives.

Cutterham begins he book by looking at soldiers and the Order of Cincinnati. When veterans created an organization that highlighted their service and capitalized on their networking—the first of several attempts to create an unofficial noble class—it drew a backlash from those who distrusted its power and privilege. These were examples of people seeking to build an artificial elite that highlighted both hierarchy and equality to different people. Another point of paradox in the early republic was public access to education, the focus of the second chapter. While, in general, public schooling possessed democratic principles, it also worked to curtail democracy’s excesses. Many elites saw it as a way to mold the minds of young citizens and rid their community of democratic threats. Indeed, both religion and education were used to contain disobedience in the young republic, especially in New England. Cutterham then turns his attention to questions concerning property, power, and justice, particularly in South Carolina, and demonstrates how debates over confiscation revealed a deep gentlemanly animosity toward democratic equality. The attempts to calm animosity toward loyalists was indicative of the desire to maintain an elite form of commercial justice.

The final two chapters are perhaps the most intricate and sophisticated of the book. In a nation filled with speculators who yearned to expand westward, an evolution of monied interests soon dominated the country’s political discourse. The creation of quasi-private, quasi-public banks was one way elites could maintain some form of economic control even before a strong federal government was installed. Cutterham is to be commended for tracing through this complex web of financiers and provide an understandable account of republican credit. And finally, Cutterham concludes the book with the reaction to Shays’ Rebellion, when elite gentlemen were finally willing to act on the “licentiousness” they felt was prevalent in their nation. All their private forms of nobility-building had failed. The Constitutional Convention, then, was the last-ditch effort after several years of attempts to remove power from common people. “America’s gentlemen would tear down the union rather than submit to popular rule” (150), Cutterham concludes.

But the elite’s victory came with a price—or at least a rhetorical compromise. The discourse that carried the day during the ratification debates was not the hierarchical structure the gentlemen used before 1785, but rather a new one that emphasized equality and popular sovereignty. Even if they shuddered to consider the merits of a true democracy, which they believed invited chaos and anarchy, these gentlemen politicians at least appropriated its language. From that point on, systems on inequality, land ownership, and wealth accumulation would be masked through a republican framework. In many ways, the ironies remain with us today.

In some ways, the book is a call-back to classic works on Revolutionary America: it is focused on elites, state-building, and republicanism. But is also reflects the post-social history turn, as it casts the “gentlemen” as responding to a powerful and growing populous clamoring for a more democratic future. In an era where American historians are combatting resurgent founders’ chic with a focus on the marginalized, Cutterham’s response is to reconsider the power of their influence. Further, he urges readers to recognize the pitfalls of elite governance. This is a dark narrative for our sardonic culture. If Bernie Sanders were to read a book that validated his prophetic voice decrying a capitalistic empire of self-interest and wealth inequality, this very well might be one of them.

The bulk of Gentlemen Revolutionaries covers four years, between 1783 and 1787. On the one hand, this close examination really digs into the “critical period” for its own sake, rather than as a postlude to the Revolution of prelude for the Constitution. But it also makes it difficult to pick up on long trajectories. Events, tensions, and even people overlap. (South Carolina politician Aedanus Burke pops up in several locations, for instance, and often distinct from previous occurrences.) And the narrative at times falls into the traditional pattern of focusing on individual white men while losing the focus, found abundantly elsewhere, on how they were pushed by the very people they despised. Cutterham’s framing of elites responding to the populace sometimes focuses a bit too much on the former while forgetting the plight of the latter. (Which, ironically, is what many of the early American elites did as well.)

But even if there are debates over specifics, I found the general argument of Cutterham’s book both refreshing and compelling. His analysis is deep and his prose smooth. More, I found his message exceptionally (if tragically) relevant: America’s struggle to define justice and power within a system built by elites is still an unsolved dilemma. What Gentlemen Revolutionaries proves is how deep, systematic, and original the fears over populist democracy are within US history, and how embedded they are within the nation’s governing document. In 2017, though, the stakes seem even more complex: on the one hand, a powerful and wealthy oligarchy continues to control our economy and political discourse—these are the elites Cutterham warns us about. But we also live in an age of unfettered and demotic demagoguery, nearly to the point that we might sympathize with the gentlemanly fear of democracy’s excesses. Paradoxes, indeed.

It is the battle between these tensions, after all, that shape America’s democratic traditions. And thanks to Cutterham, we can see that they were in place even during the half-decade that preceded Philadelphia’s famed convention.

Review: Lincoln Mullen, THE CHANCE OF SALVATION

In a Land of Liberty, it makes sense that the national religion is centered on choice. That’s the thrust of Lincoln Mullen’s argument in his new and ambitious book, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Harvard UP, 2017). Throughout the nineteenth century, Mullen argues, Americans shifted from seeing religion as something one would inherit to something they would freely choose. This had broader implications. Conceiving how one converted to a faith shaped proselytization efforts, ecclesiastical authority, and ritualistic experience. It also framed one’s theology. Mullen is focused on conversion not just to understand what Americans believed, but what options they created for belief. What was the world of possibilities available to a nineteenth-century seeker?

In some ways, The Chance of Salvation is a throwback to classic traditions within American religious historiography. It is framed around theological development, denominational competition, and, most importantly, seeks to provide a synthetic framework for understanding American religions over an entire century. In a scholarly age of fracture, Mullen offers an attempt at coherence. But the book is also reflective of today’s academia: it consciously moves away from an Anglo-Protestant focus—only one of six chapters if focused on white Protestants—and devotes substantial time to those previously found on the demographic and denominational margins. Can there be a work of synthesis that accounts for the diversity of America’s past? As I outline below, Mullen’s answer to this contemporary problem is actually to hearken back to previous historiographical structures.

Mullen is a gifted writer with a nose for a good story. Anecdotes fill many of the pages—though at times, like in the Mormon chapter, perhaps overshadowing the argument—and readers will encounter lots of colorful characters. They will also learn about a broad range of movements. Chapters are broken up into different case studies scattered across the nineteenth century. The overall thesis revolves around how different groups came to place choice at the forefront of their religious experience. This was not a radical change that happened in the wake of disestablishment, but rather a long process with many moments of gradual evolution. Nowhere was this shift from religious “inheritance” to “choice” more prominent than in the Protestant world. Infant baptisms, representing the former model, were largely replaced by adult conversions, symbolizing the new. Conversion was no longer seen as switching from one denomination to another, but rather from personal infidelity to deep commitment. It was a change of heart. The prominence of the Sinner’s Prayer, a routinized though dynamic ritual, embodied the culmination of this slow development. Through the preaching of Charles Finney and publications by the American Tract Society, the format of an instantaneous conversion took shape.

But this was far from a merely White Protestant phenomenon. The next two chapters are focused on Cherokee Indians and African Americans. Both groups took Christianity, made it their own, and remodeled it to their own purposes. In the latter case, black ministers and congregants alike framed conversion around eschatological concerns—a “jubilee” that brought hope to practitioners. I appreciated these two chapters in helping break down the artificial categorizations of religion and attempting to cover divergent groups within a synthetic structure. Yet they were also somewhat forced. Both chapters mostly focused on the years leading up to momentous events—the forced removal of the Cherokee to the West on the one hand, and the abolition of slavery on the other—and failed to trace the developments long-term. (Chapter 2 had one paragraph on post-Removal, and Chapter 3 had five pages on post-emancipation.) Indeed, although the book argues that historians must understand the extended trajectories of these religious evolutions, the first three chapters are chronologically limited.

The final three chapters take a much longer view. These sections focus on Mormonism, Judaism, and Catholicism. Indeed, I thought the latter two chapters were the strongest of the bunch and the most enlightening in the volume. They trace how Catholics and Jews interacted with their Protestant neighbors in constructing a religious marketplace—or at least, adapting to a religious marketplace forced upon them. Though these marginalized faiths, often ostracized as ethnic others, originally tried to reject the new libertarian marketplace, they eventually came to embrace it. Mullen expertly outlines the different waves of transformation that took place across the long-nineteenth century.

But here is what brings me to my overall and—blessedly–final point. Mullen deserves praise for attempting a synthetic framework for understanding America’s diverse religious traditions. But in doing so, he mostly casts them within the Protestant model. Indeed, as Philip Hamburger noted in his foundational Separation of Church and State, it was the Anglo-Protestants who created the “Christian libertarianism” that shaped the religious marketplace. So when I mentioned above that The Chance of Salvation seeks to solve a contemporary concern with a classic answer, I’m meaning that he’s following the “democratization” path championed by the Nathan Hatch school of historiography. That’s perfectly fine, and Mullen is certainly adding important nuances and revisions, but I think it’s also worth noting its implications. Most especially, by centering the narrative around religious “choice,” one can easily overlook the role of religious coercion. A number of groups, most prominently within but not exclusive to the Catholics and Mormons, were not happy with the very model of a purely democratic marketplace, and they in turn created more hierarchical systems. Mullen persuasively showed that they indeed still picked up some of the Protestant traits, but I wonder if there are also non-Protestant principles that similarly shaped the overall religious arena. Did the adaptation only flow in one direction?.

But these types of quibbles are inherent to the very task of synthesis, which Mullen readily acknowledges. This is a strong work with important insights. When most scholars are dedicated to destabilizing traditional frameworks, it’s refreshing to find someone dedicated to searching for a coherent whole. I look forward to the conversations that it prompts.


A hard confession from someone who specializes in the early republic and antebellum periods: the 1850s is my favorite decade to teach in the American survey. It always feels like my lectures are a sprint throughout he semester, given the nature of the course, but it still seems to pick up speed once we hit the Compromise of 1850, and we don’t get another breather until The corrupt bargain of 1877. (I can never skimp on Reconstruction, especially given today’s circumstances.) I say this is a hard confession because my own research ends in the 1840s, so you’d think I’d prefer the weeks that precede these lectures. But there’s something about the 1850s that really captures me.

Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), Brent Rogers’s new book, helped me finally put my finger on what it is about the decade that grabs my attention: the sheer audacity of imperial desires, the violent results of local implementation, and the juxtaposition of sophisticated political theories and parochial hypocrisies dominated the American landscape. These tensions had been around since the beginning, of course, but they were brought to the foreground as soon as the nation finally possessed a continent-wide empire. It is ironically tragic, of course, that the fulfillment of that long-held dream was what cemented the Union’s (temporary) dissolution.

Utah Territory in 1850 was part of a large swath of land theoretically governed by the federal government. In reality, though, the area west of the organized states was an arena for racial, political, and provincial squabbles. This was no small region under the careful thumb of Uncle Sam: the square mileage of the territories outnumbered that of states. America was finally an empire, but one that was spread razer-thin. Determining how to colonize, organize, and integrate this region was of national significance. Historians of early Utah have often emphasized the tense relations between LDS leaders and national politicians, but few have adequately contextualized the episode within this much broader question of federal governance in an era of over-expansion. Rogers’s book exhaustively overviews the political interplay between the Mormon people, with their theocratic ideas and people spread across the Rocky Mountain region, and the Washington DC leaders, who tried to corral their renegade zealots even as they simultaneously attempted to hold their nation together.

Central to these 1850s debates was the idea of popular sovereignty. Most know the concept from its most prominent proponent, the “little giant” Stephen A Douglas. Basically, it was the belief that these western territories should be able to determine their own fate rather than rely on federal intervention. The issue most relevant to this concept, of course, was slavery. How should the nation decide which new states carved from the expansive western area would be slave or free? Douglas proclaimed that the federal government had no business solving this question at all. He worked to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which overturned previous congressional ruling regarding the fate of slavery in those territories. Students in my survey courses become well aware of Douglas’s popular sovereignty philosophy when we dissect his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln. I’m sure this is quite common in classrooms throughout the nation.

So what does Mormonism have to do with popular sovereignty? Rogers argues that, like Kansas, Utah “emerged as a key battleground and hotbed of antebellum debate over popular sovereignty” (3). If western territories should be granted the autonomy to govern themselves, what about the Mormons? Federal dealings with Utah proved that popular sovereignty was not a monolithic one-size-fits-all philosophy. The strength of Unpopular Sovereignty is found in Rogers’s exhaustive overview of competing ideas concerning democratic governance in the West. The federal government was surprisingly adaptive. At the heart of the issue was a question of civilization: Who could be trusted to govern themselves? Southern slaveholders? Mormon polygamists? Native tribes? These three groups, along with others, were found on a spectrum of political philosophies that were never full comprehensive nor coherent.

I wish Rogers would have spent a bit more time on the racialization of popular sovereignty and democratic governance. He does have a chapter on the relationship between the Mormons and their Indian neighbors, both the real connections as those imagined in Washington, but he mostly dealt with them as political bodies. Popular sovereignty, I’d argue, was built upon ethnic conceptions of belonging and nationhood. Paul Reeve’s recent book highlights this, but the political dimensions of this angle should still be unpacked. The place of racial minorities was a crucial topic for the American nation at the time, especially with the newly-acquired land from Mexico, and Mormons played into that debate as well. Whiteness and American westward imperialism still needs more work. That’s likely too much to ask for an already hefty tome that has dug so deeply into other topics, however.

Rogers makes several key historiographic interventions, both in political and Mormon spheres. His work on the plurality of popular sovereignty adds to a lively discussion on what was previously a staid topic. His comparative work on Kansas and Utah also demonstrates the fraught nature of democratic experiments in the 1850, proving that popular sovereignty was contested even within the Democratic Party. And his argument that the Utah War in 1857-58 set the stage for nation schism (Southerners saw it as a challenge to local sovereignty, and Republicans used it as evidence for the Democrats’ hypocrisy) contributes an intriguing nuance to a crowded narrative. Historians of American politics will learn a lot about the vagaries of democratic discourse, and teachers should have new material to share in the classroom.

And what about the Mormon historiographic sphere? For starters, Rogers demonstrates one way to overcome the “donut hole” problem of western history. (That traditional narratives of the American West circle around Utah but never really integrate the state and its Mormon residents.) The Mormon clashes with federal government in the 1850s was not completely unique, but rather part of a much larger moment of imperial expansion and related to questions concerning federal governance. And Rogers’s focus on the multiplicity of opinions on either side of the divide—neither the Mormons or their opponents were ever notably consistent—breaks down the tired bifurcated narrative of saints vs. gentiles. His is a model of integration and nuance.

The book became quite long and meticulous at times—perhaps like this review?—but overall I found it quite compelling. It interweaves published and private writing, not to mention useful maps, into a grand story of federal conflict. I hope it is a sign of more scholarship that better situates Mormonsim into America’s quixotic history of democracy.