Mormon America by Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling

1603014Nonfiction — print. HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. 455 pgs. Library copy.

This nonfiction book subtitled “The Beliefs, Rituals, Business Practices, and Well-Guarded Secrets of One of the World’s Fastest Growing and Moist Influential Religions” was recommended to me by a acquaintance I know who converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when we were both seniors in high school.

We’re both sophomores in colleges now albeit at different universities since he attends Brigham Young University in Utah and I attend at a highly liberal, non-religiously affiliated university in New England. He says he read it when he was on his own spiritual journey and it’s also heavily referenced on the Recovering from Mormonism website. Interesting dichotomy, no? (It was not, though, one of the books recommended to me when I ask for recommendations here.)

Written by a non-Mormon husband and wife team, the book examines some of the more controversial aspects of the Church — the now abandoned practices of polygamy, blood atonement, and racial discrimination — as well as decisions to baptize people posthumously such as Jews who perished in the Holocaust and questions of academic freedom at BYU. It discusses some of the conflicts the world’s fastest growing religion — Mormonism is considered by some to become the first major world religion to arise since Islam — might face as it expands beyond its geographical base of Salt Lake City, Utah in America.

“Compared with other world missionary faiths, the LDS Church bears heavy nationalistic baggage. It proclaims that God commissioned a prophet in the United States uniquely to restore the scriptures and priesthood, that Jesus Christ will return to Missouri and establish the future millennial kingdom when the earth is 7,000 years old, and that the American constitutional system is uniquely the product of divine inspiration. When the Mormon folk selected their own special holy day, it was not the anniversary of their prophet’s birth, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the establishment of the priesthood or of the church, but rather Pioneer Day, celebrating Brigham Young’s 1847 arrival at the Salt Lake Basin. Moreover, Mormons believe that God has granted total control of his one and only church to fifteen men in Salt Lake City, almost all of whom have been Americans” (pg. 379).

But before you think this book is an all-bad condemnation of the Latter-day Saints, it also traces church history with the relocation of the church from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah, its impressive system of welfare, and (heterosexual-only) family-first policy that was admired across faiths particularly during the 1960s and 70s. I found the geographical migration and location of religious sites to be particularly interesting simply because so many (myself included) think of Mormonism as the religion of the American West. Wholly untrue, especially when you look at the map included at the beginning of the book of existing and planned temples around the world.

I think this book is about the most fair and balanced portrayal I’m going to find as other books I’ve looked at have either been completely negative or completely positive in their dealings of the LDS Church. The Ostlings’ don’t attempt to play into the fascination with the LDS Church’s darker chapters of its history nor does it try to ignore them either.

This is the 1999 edition of Mormon America. The book has since been revised and was re-released in 2007.


  1. David

    I haven’t read the book, but your excerpt makes it’s content seem quite suspect.

    The Mormons don’t have a special holy day unless it is Christmas, Easter or perhaps each Sunday. The holiday referenced is the 24th of July and is a Utah state holiday commemorating the arrival of the Mormon Pioneers to Salt Lake City in 1847. The date is only occasionally recognized in Mormon congregations outside of Utah.


    • The quote is slightly taken out of context as the quote that more accurately applies to what the authors were discussing was much too long for me to post in my review. The authors never intended to infer that Pioneer Day is comparable to Christmas. Rather they’re saying it’s a date most Mormons know as the date their prophet led them to the Salt Lake Basin, which places a large religious connotation on a day that is supposed to be a state holiday. The authors are saying that, for those living in other countries, it could be difficult to celebrate a day that celebrates the arrival of Mormon Pioneers to Salt Lake City, which is a very geographically heavy celebration, rather than say the discovery of the golden tablets or the publishing of the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith’s birthday or the founding of the church.


  2. Murdock

    “Mormon America” is an excellent one volume survey of Mormonism in America. It does suffer the drawback that the authors are not Mormons. As an adult convert, I know that you have to live Mormonism from the inside for a while to begin a real understanding of this largely experiential religion and this mostly self-contained culture.

    “The Latter-day Saint Experience in America”, one of several acclaimed books on Mormonism by University of Richmond Professor Terryl L. Givens, covers much the same ground as Mormon America, and with similar objectivity, but with the indispensable understanding of a believer.

    I am perfectly serious in also strongly recommending Jana Riess’ “Mormonism for Dummies” as it lays out clearly both the religious and cultural beliefs and practices of John and Jane Mormon. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, she was embarking upon a career as a Presbyterian minister when she accepted a challenge to read the Book of Mormon. She is a progressive/liberal and a feminist, but you will have to read her other work to get that.

    Absolutely do not miss the no-holds-barred passion and candor of “Latter Days”, another insider survey of Mormonism, by now university professor but previously Church PR guy Coke Newell. He was a 16 year old philosophy-reading Colorado pothead who met a runaway Mormon girl, got baptized, and wound up as an LDS missionary on the mean streets of Medellin, Columbia.

    Check out all of these authors on Wikipedia.



    • Thank you for the recommendations, Murdock. And I think you’re right; I’ll never really fully understand Mormonism since I’m not a Mormon. Same with any other religion. I can attend all the Passover Seders I want, but I’ll never truly understand what it means to be Jewish because I’m not a Jew.


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