Mormonism is often viewed as the quintessential American faith. Indeed, 'they teach the American religion' was how Tolstoy once responded to a question about the Mormons. Mormonism was the first and most successful new religion to appear in the New World where, despite the biblical language of its narrative, it created a novel and dynamic theology that was vitally different from the Protestant Christianity from which it originated. Today the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is one of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the USA. Its clean-cut, youthful missionaries appear as representative of American values as the executives of Citibank and comparable US institutions. Yet at the heart of the Mormon story is a remarkable paradox. Despite their present-day image as 'archetypal Yankees', Mormons were long perceived as 'un-American' in their utopian socialism and in the hard battle they fought - and eventually lost - to preserve the sacred principle of polygamy, or 'plural marriage'.
In his lively and timely reappraisal of its apparent contradictions, Malise Ruthven discusses the emergence of Mormonism as a world religion; its theology, structure and rituals; the career of the Saints' charismatic founder, Joseph Smith, culminating in his assassination in 1844; the theocratic rule of Smith's successor, Brigham Young; the 1890 'Manifesto', when polygamy was abandoned in exchange for Utah statehood; the emergence of a Mormon Diaspora after World War 1; and the impressive growth of Mormonism outside the old American West after World War 2.