American Zion: A New History of Mormonism
New Yorker — "The Best Books We’ve Read in 2024 So Far"
The first major history of Mormonism in a decade, drawing on newly available sources to reveal a profoundly divided faith that has nevertheless shaped the nation.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 in the so-called “burned-over district” of upstate New York, which was producing seers and prophets daily. Most of the new creeds flamed out; Smith’s would endure, becoming the most significant homegrown religion in American history. How Mormonism succeeded is the story told by historian Benjamin E. Park in American Zion.
Drawing on sources that have become available only in the last two decades, Park presents a fresh, sweeping account of the Latter-day Saints: from the flight to Utah Territory in 1847 to the public renunciation of polygamy in 1890; from the Mormon leadership’s forging of an alliance with the Republican Party in the wake of the New Deal to the “Mormon moment” of 2012, which saw the premiere of The Book of Mormon musical and the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney; and beyond. In the twentieth century, Park shows, Mormons began to move ever closer to the center of American life, shaping culture, politics, and law along the way.
But Park’s epic isn’t rooted in triumphalism. It turns out that the image of complete obedience to a single, earthly prophet—an image spread by Mormons and non-Mormons alike—is misleading. In fact, Mormonism has always been defined by internal conflict. Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma, inaugurated a legacy of feminist agitation over gender roles. Black believers petitioned for belonging even after a racial policy was instituted in the 1850s that barred them from priesthood ordination and temple ordinances (a restriction that remained in place until 1978). Indigenous and Hispanic saints—the latter represent a large portion of new converts today—have likewise labored to exist within a community that long called them “Lamanites,” a term that reflected White-centered theologies. Today, battles over sexuality and gender have riven the Church anew, as gay and trans saints have launched their own fight for acceptance.
A definitive, character-driven work of history, American Zion is essential to any understanding of the Mormon past, present, and future. But its lessons extend beyond the faith: as Park puts it, the Mormon story is the American story.
Praise for American Zion: A New History of Mormonism
Park delves into Mormon history and lore to produce a picture of the institution as one that is both marginalized and marginalizing.
— The New Yorker
Park… frames the church as an experiment within the American experiment, one regularly thwarted by the nation’s hithering and thithering.
— Dan Piepenbring - Harper’s
A monumental achievement.
— Association for Mormon Letters
A book about Mormonism that will stand the test of time. General readers should be riveted by a story well told; scholars will be engaged by arguments worth debating.
— David Azzolina - Library Journal
Absorbing . . . American Zion presents an engaging account of the personalities that loom large in the religion . . . But Park also shows how events and attitudes outside the church have divided the faith. He traces its complicated history of racial bias; its misogyny and, fascinatingly, history of feminism among early Mormon women; its stance on LGBTQ+ rights; and how a church still governed largely by elderly white American men is faring as its membership grows internationally.
American Zion is an engrossing read and an ambitious historical recounting of an American religion that was contested from its earliest beginnings.
Park, the author of Kingdom of Nauvoo, is respectful but not uncritical. He is particularly interested in the near-reversal of two of Mormonism’s foundational tenets, the first being an independent theocratic state, the second polygamy . . . [American Zion is] a welcome updating of earlier studies, and a readable, engaging work of religious history.
— Kirkus Reviews
With enviable ease, Benjamin Park somehow manages to pack two centuries of Mormon history into a riveting narrative that is as smart as it is engrossing. Distinguished by its colorful cast of characters, rich historical detail, and elegant analysis, American Zion promises to stand the test of time as the definitive history of Mormonism in America.
— Kristin Du Mez, New York Times bestselling author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation
As Benjamin Park makes abundantly clear in this engaging history, the Mormon faith is fundamentally an American one. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been repeatedly transformed by the cultural wars that have raged in this nation and has, in return, transformed the nation. Deeply researched and deftly written, American Zion is a must read.
— Kevin M. Kruse, New York Times bestselling co-author of Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past
Mormonism is no more a monolith than the country that gave it birth and has shaped the religion throughout its two-century history. In Benjamin Park’s spirited telling we encounter a story full of drama, irony, conflict, and the ongoing search for meaning and community. Readers will discover in American Zion a fascinating history resonant with our current era of cultural contestation.
— Patrick Mason, Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture, Utah State University
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is officially known, has long defined itself simultaneously as a product—and an opponent—of America....Mr Park, a historian at Sam Houston State University in Texas and a Mormon himself, traces the faith from its roots in New York in the 1820s to 2022, when TikTokers exposed racist and homophobic attitudes at Brigham Young University... America, and the religion it inspired, remain ever intertwined.
— The Economist