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Book Review: One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church

By Richard Abanes

Reviewed by Eric Johnson 

To order this book directly from Amazon, click here: One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon ChurchOne Nation Under Gods

There are several ways one could describe One Nation Under Gods (hereafter ONUG). Some who disdain the subject of history might say it’s long. At 651 pages, they would be right. Others might say it’s detailed, which is another accurate description since approximately one-third of the book is made up of endnotes. (The only problem is the dizziness you might encounter by having to flip back and forth to keep up with these notes. However, they add many details and should therefore not be ignored.) Although Mormons might claim that Abanes gives a tainted history, I submit, to the contrary, that he has masterfully and historically compiled the basics of Mormonism’s history and doctrines into one volume.

The book chronologically covers Mormonism from an evangelical Christian perspective. Many Latter-day Saints wrongly claim that Mormonism can and should only be explained by Mormons. For instance, consider the following complaint registered on June 27, 2002 on the review site: “Why on earth are people reading a book about Mormons when it wasn’t written by a Mormon? This guy has taken small detail[s] and blown it [them] completely out of proportion. He warps every so-called ‘fact’ that he has found, while completely disregarding any proof that what he is saying is false. Often, truths differ from a person’s point of view, and I can assure you that nothing evil has ever come from the Mormon church. I doubt he ever intended to give an accurate account, but just felt like he ought to demonize a society which has been persecuted enough. It was people like him that drove the LDS people on the Mormon trail looking for a place free from religious persecution, in which many died.”

If this writer’s idea is correct, then I suppose that: only David Koresh’s surviving followers are able to accurately explain the Branch Davidian movement; only Republicans can objectively write about the current president; and only former football players are in a position to comment on O.J. Simpson and his trial. This is ridiculous! Why do Mormons think that any history written by someone who doesn’t belong to their religion is not trustworthy? The fact is that Abanes is very objective throughout most of his book. In fact, he is even sympathetic at times with the Mormon cause. For instance, on pages 114-115 he defends the Mormons against unjust persecution the Latter-day Saints received in Missouri in 1833, saying they suffered from “brutal acts” at the hands of the Missourians. While it is true that Abanes ultimately is in disagreement with the Mormon religion, this does not mean his rose-colored glasses necessarily cloud his vision so that he cannot accurately portray Mormonism’s history. It’s a shame that such a logically fallacious tactic (ad hominem) is used to discredit the messenger. If the author is wrong, then the detractor needs to provide evidence. It is poor logic, however, to poison the well by saying his personal views taint his objectivity.

Truly Abanes is more of a journalistic writer than a historian, but I was impressed with the breadth that he was able to deliver. The book is broken into four major sections (1. Mormonism: The Early Years of 1805-1930; 2. Establish God’s Kingdom from 1831-1844; 3. Utah: Land of the Prophets from 1845-1901; 4. Going Mainstream from 1902-2002). It gives a bird’s-eye look at the development of the most fascinating American religion that I have ever studied. Borrowing heavily from the archives written by Jerald and Sandra Tanner of Utah Lighthouse Ministry, plenty of facts with primary and secondary sources are provided.

Some of the book’s stronger and more interesting sections include the comparison of the different accounts on the First Vision story (with excellent charts on pages 16-17); the account of the Mountain Meadows fiasco; a refutation of Smith’s so-called “Civil War Prophecy”; an extensive overview of polygamy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly found in chapters 13 and 14; and reasons why Mormonism cannot be considered the same as Christianity. I also thought that it was beneficial to have several lists located in the back of the book, including a glossary of Mormon terms and a chart giving numerous failed prophecies from the mouth of Joseph Smith.

One theme that seems to run throughout the book is how many Mormons (especially LDS leaders) have lied throughout church history in order to protect the religion of Joseph Smith. Special emphasis to this theme is given in chapter 18. The attitude many LDS leaders seems to have is, “We know we’re right, so whatever we say to get our way is therefore justified.” Brigham Young said in 1852, “I live above the law, and so do this people.” Apostle Matthias F. Cowley said the following in 1911: “I have always been taught that when the brethren were in a tight place that it would not be amiss to lie to help them out.”

An excellent illustration of this attitude is given in chapter 14 as the so-called 1890 Manifesto that abolished polygamy is described. The Manifesto says in part, “We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice…” As Abanes shows, this is an incredible lie. In fact, polygamy unofficially continued among the leadership for 14 additional years, including in the life of President Wilford Woodruff, the original writer of the Manifesto. Sixth LDS President Joseph F. Smith lied about post-Manifesto polygamous marriages in 1904 when he wrote the Second Manifesto. It said in part, “I…do hereby affirm and declare that no such marriages have been solemnized with the sanction, consent, or knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

With so much history available, especially with the Internet, I am amazed that more Mormons do not lose their faith when then the deceit coming from the very core of Mormon leadership is considered. The LDS Church’s true colors are certainly shown in the excommunication of Michael Barrett, who is an attorney for the CIA. His numerous letters to the Salt Lake Tribune detailing honest LDS history resulted in warnings for three years to cease with this information. Before he was excommunicated in 1994, two LDS General Authorities explained to his Stake President why the leaders were unhappy: “F. Burton Howard and F. Enzio Busche came out on separate occasions and told me we have an obligation to conceal our doctrines; that we are trying to be a mainstream Christian Church.” (p. 386) Apostle Boyd Packer had earlier gone on record to say that truth, when it conflicts with faith, ought to be suppressed!

While I have plenty of praise for ONUG, I do have two complaints. First, there were a number of writing errors (including wrong words or spelling mistakes) that were somehow missed by the editors. This sloppiness needs to be cleaned up in future editions. I was also left scratching my head as I tried to sort out several badly worded sections. Second, although most of Abanes’ references are primary sources, he utilizes many Internet resources. Because of the volatility of the Internet and the sudden disappearance of numerous sites, I am guessing that these references will be practically worthless five years from now. I suppose scholars who write books will need to discuss the efficacy and efficiency of the fluctuating Internet citations that can be useful today but are untrustworthy six months from now. Unlike old books, it can be next to impossible to track down old Internet sites.

Overall I recommend ONUG for Mormons and Christians alike who desire to have an overview of the history of the LDS Church. Although I have studied this religion for almost two decades, I was pleasantly surprised to discover new information. Truly Abanes has done his homework, making ONUG a project well worth sifting through to garner valuable and coherent information. I must say that this is one of the two best overviews of the Mormon religion. (The other? Richard and Joan Ostlings’ Mormon America: The Power and the Promise). I therefore give ONUG my highest recommendation.

I conclude with the words of one Mormon who wrote this review on on April 10, 2002: “I received this book through a friend. I am a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yes, a Mormon. I was raised in the church and believe it is the Restored Truth of the Gospel. I read this One Nation Under Gods and it does tell accurately what we believe. But as I read through it, it seemed like I was reading these beliefs for the first time. In context of history, I started understanding why we believe the way we do. That was good. But I also am now faced with some things about my church that I confess, I do not understand how it can be true. But I looked up some of the things Mr. Abanes talks about, and I found his references to be completely accurate. Again, I don’t understand how this could be. Everything is changing and Mr. Abanes’ book has opened my eyes to, I suppose, truth. However, this is not pleasant. His explanation on polygamy, Utah life in the 19th century, and how our prophets have been leading us is disturbing. But the documents and quotes are there, which show what has been going on. This book has changed me, my thoughts, and I think, it might change my life. I need to read more. For now, this book seems like a good history, although not a pleasing one to have to read.”

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