Mormonism in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought

By Grua, David W. | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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Mormonism in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought

Grua, David W., Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Mormonism in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought Daniel Walker Howe. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. In THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES series. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2007. 928 pp. Cloth: $35; ISBN 13: 978-0-19-507894-7

Reviewed by David W. Grua

Recently, six major American historians reviewed Daniel Walker Howe's Pulitzer Prize-winning What Hath GodWrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 on the H-Net discussion group for historians of the Early Republic, each examining the book from his or her respective specialties, including economics, politics, communications, women and gender, Indians, slavery and race, and religion and reform. Although some of the reviewers criticized Howe for his interpretations, all agreed that Howe had succeeded in crafting a narrative that is inclusive, pays attention to detail, and ref lects a solid understanding of the questions historians are asking in their subfields.

Mormon historians would likely agree that Howe's treatment of Mormonism fit these criteria as well.1 Unlike previous synthetic works, Howe not only features Mormonism prominently within his narrative, but he also gets the details correct and generally relies on the best of recent scholarship. Mormonism appears prominently in Chapter 8 ("Pursuing the Millennium") with other millenarian groups in the Early Republic and in Chapter 18 ("Westward the Star of Empire"), which includes Nauvoo and the trek west within the wider contexts of Manifest Destiny, California, Oregon, and the Mexican-American War. There are also a handful of other scattered references throughout the text.

Chapter 8's section on Mormonism covers the 1820s through the 1838-39 Missouri expulsion and ref lects Howe's broader assumptions concerning the place of religion within American society. Howe's previous work on American cultural, intellectual, and religious history leads him to see religion, not as the cynical product of market forces and class, but rather as a vibrant element of culture that shapes how people see the world. While Charles Sellers in The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) posited that Mormonism was a prime example of the farming and working classes' opposition to market changes in contrast to the merchant classes' embrace of evangelicalism, Howe sees the millenarianism of American religion as primary. He sets Mormonism alongside William Miller's movement, utopian experiments, Catholicism, and Nat Turner's slave uprising as exemplifying the driving urge toward improvement in American culture during the period. On this reading, millennial strains within these disparate groups are a salient and unifying feature of Chapter 8, as each group sought improved social, economic, and cultural landscapes in America.

In his bibliographical essay, Howe distinguishes between believing and non-believing historians of Mormonism, a contrast he explores further in Chapter 8. For example, Howe refers readers to the "Mormon accounts" found in Terryl Givens's By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) and Richard L. Bushman's Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), likely an implied contrast with John L. Brooke's Bancroft Prize-winning The Refiner's Fire: The Making of a Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994) "non-Mormon" account (314 note 72). Howe likewise notes that "to the Latter-day Saint, this [the Book of Mormon] is scripture, a supplement to the Old and New Testaments. To the unbeliever, it is a fantastic tale invented by the imaginative Joseph Smith" (314).

Howe's treatment of the Book of Mormon narrative reveals Bushman's impact on mainstream historical discourse on Mormonism, especially Bushman's argument that the Book of Mormon is an intricate work of American literature.

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