Joseph Smith and Brigham Young tend to be the stars of stories about Mormonism’s founding, but Mackley’s debut focuses instead on one of their lesser-known contemporaries: Wilford Woodruff, an early and influential leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Drawing heavily from Woodruff’s journals as well as an extensive selection of other archival materials, Mackley paints a detailed picture of the first several decades of Mormonism. In particular, she focuses on the construction and uses of Mormon temples, describing the practices instituted there and how they changed over time. Some aspects of the story are of general interest; especially rich are Woodruff’s accounts of the Saints’ frequent clashes with the federal government over polygamy and their settling in Salt Lake City. History buffs will also appreciate the wealth of primary sources, including archival black-and-white photographs and documents often interspersed with the text as well as more than 100 pages of citations and appendices in the backmatter. Much of the book, however, requires some previous knowledge of—and preferably deep interest in—Mormonism, as the author herself cautions at the outset. In painstaking detail, Mackley relates the evolution of rites such as baptism and sealing ceremonies, and while interested parties may relish pondering the nuances, readers who aren’t familiar with the context will likely find the narrative impenetrable. What’s more, the accounts of Woodruff and his contemporaries refer to divine revelation as a simple fact of life, and Mackley makes no attempt to convert those readers who might raise an eyebrow at God’s communication. Of Joseph Smith, Mackley writes: “His understanding of God’s plan made clear that together with their descendants and ancestors, the Saints could be exalted and blessed with eternal increase, and eternal lives.” Such proclamations are common throughout the book, a perspective that could alienate nonbelievers. Still, as a feat of sheer research and historical synthesis, Mackley’s work is remarkable, providing deep insight into an obscure corner of the past.
Too specialized for the mainstream but with much to offer a niche readership.