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Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-Day Saint History ed. by Brandon S. Plewe (review)
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This impressive atlas, published by the most important Mormon institution of higher learning (Brigham Young University), depicts almost two centuries of church history. As the book’s title suggests, the focus is largely geographical, but chronology works hand in hand with a wealth of maps. In a sense, this atlas reflects the Mormon Church’s enduring interest in the past; after all, its first prophet, Joseph Smith, proclaimed that the church should keep its history. And when one considers the Mormon Church’s phenomenal interest in geographies both ancient and modern, the atlas format proved the perfect solution to the Latter-day Saints’ enduring obsession with places in time. Seen in that light, this atlas is the most modern version of a long process by which Latter-Day Saints use maps to tell stories and disperse their beliefs. My forthcoming book, The Mapmakers of New Zion: A Cartographic History of Mormonism, will tell that story using original historical maps found in the Church Archives and elsewhere; this new atlas, on the other hand, uses specially prepared modern maps to portray the energetic and sometimes tragic history of the church. In contrast to the many Mormon explorers, settlers, surveyors, and missionaries who drafted maps in the past, these modern Mormon map-makers are educators. Education is one of the cornerstones of Mormon faith, and this atlas can be seen as yet another of the many graphic techniques that the church has long used to educate Mormons and non-Mormons alike about the faith. This is not the first atlas to depict Mormon history; in 1994, for example, the Historical Atlas of Mormonism (Brown, Cannon, and Jackson 1994) broke new ground, although it was limited to a fairly modest set of simple two-colour maps, and more recently Mormons were covered in numerous informative pages in The New Historical Atlas of Religion in America (Gaustad and Barlow 2001). Mapping Mormonism, though, eclipses all earlier works in its thoroughness and depth.

This atlas will, I hope, find a wide readership, as Mormonism is often misunderstood. According to a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2012), Mormons are educated about and tolerant of the religious views of others, but non-Mormons tend to know very little about Mormonism. Like Islam, Mormonism is a newcomer relative to other Abrahamic religions (Judaism and mainstream Christianity); moreover, the Mormon Church is not only very young but also unabashedly American. Mormons place the Americas, and especially the United States, centrally in their theology. According to Mormon scripture (notably the Book of Mormon), ancient tribes from the Middle East populated the Americas more than 2000 years ago, and their descendants can be found among the Native Americans. This idea, needless to say, does not square with Native American creation narratives. Nor does Mormonism square with other Judeo-Christian religions in several respects. For example, in the 1830s Joseph Smith claimed that the Garden of Eden was actually located in Missouri; according to Mormon scripture, Jesus visited the Americas after his resurrection. Mormons are not only revisionists, historically and geographically speaking, but remarkably tenacious. Unlike many religions that sprouted on the fertile American frontier, Mormonism thrived despite – some say because of – intense opposition. In short, Mormonism is an American success story that has spread across much of the world through a well-orchestrated missionary program. If readers want to see Mormon history depicted on a geographic stage between the 1820s and 2010, they need look no further than this beautiful and informative atlas.

To BYU’s credit, Mapping Mormonism does not shy away from placing the Mormons in controversial locales – such as the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre – or in controversial institutions such as polygamy. This atlas also illustrates controversial theories on exactly where the ancient peoples may have located in the Americas. Although the Mormon Church itself discourages the determination of locales described in the Book of Mormon, this has not stopped the faithful from identifying them anyway. That such locales are shown in an atlas prepared by Mormon scholars and published by a Mormon institution says much about the increasing transparency of the church itself. For their part, the scholars who prepared this atlas are less interested...



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