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Book Review: People of Paradox

Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xxvi + 414 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. $29.95.)

In People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, Terryl L. Givens presents an exploration of Mormon cultural identity from its beginnings to the present. Givens identifies three dimensions of culture as a focus for his study, “a general habit of mind, the intellectual development of a society, and its general body of arts” (Givens, xiii). Tension is a major theme for Givens and he identifies four “especially rich and fertile tensions, or thematic pairings” prevalent in Mormon thought for examination: authoritarianism and individualism, intellectual certitude and intellectual insatiability, banal and holy, exile and integration (Givens, xiv). Givens’s analysis of the development of Mormon culture illustrates both the cohesion of Mormon development with the general spirit of religious experimentation that pervaded the era and the region and the numerous ways Mormon thought was antithetical to mainstream American values.

The thematic pairing of authoritarianism and individualism, best illustrates the tense position of Mormonism in mainstream American culture in the early years of its development. While Mormonism conformed to the established evangelical emphasis on individual experience, its hyper-radical religious doctrines and powerfully entrenched Church hierarchy marked it as oppositional to traditional Christian doctrine and American political values. Throughout the early nineteenth century, “a growing tide of hostility to anything that denigrated the independent self” gained momentum in America, in both the political and religious arenas (Givens, 6). Competition was extremely important in the American religious marketplace and Givens notes, “theologies that constrained human will, like those that limited human potential, could hardly hope to compete with the doctrines of limitlessness and a fully liberated human agency” (Givens, 6-7). Mormonism stretched the bounds of limitlessness and human agency beyond any previous theology by asserting man was coeternal with God and free like God, one of Mormonism most controversial doctrines, the other two being baptism of the dead and polygyny. On the surface, at least, Mormonism was equipped to compete with other evangelical sects. However, culturally, Mormonism fostered very different ideas of human freedom. Given the religious and cultural climate it was developed in, one might expect to find in Mormonism hostility to dogma, hierarchy, and church authority. Therefore, “it is all the more ironic that the church Joseph founded is one of the most centralized, hierarchical, authoritarian churches in America to come out of the era famous for the ‘democratization of religion” (Givens, 8). The success of Mormonism supports the argument that the borderlands supported a particularly radical brand of evangelicalism, but also suggests the existence of a subculture within North American evangelical culture that did not subscribe to ideals of individualism and deserves more attention from historians. A better understanding of the ways Mormonism fit the radical religious experimentation mold and completely shattered the same mold could aid historians understanding of popular religious belief on both sides of the border.

Rachel A. Snell

More information of the text available here.

Rachel A. Snell, “Book Review: People of Paradox,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), October 25, 2012,

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