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Ken Demas Best Book Award in Mormon History

Ken Demas

Ken Demas, a longtime supporter of the University of Utah History Department and friend of Mormon Studies, left a generous behest to fund a $2,000 annual award for the best book published in Mormon history. After serving in the Pacific theater during World War II, Ken enrolled as a student in the History Department at the University of Utah. He would have graduated except the Army reactivated him for the Korean Conflict. Ken nonetheless maintained a lifelong loyalty to the U and recalled his time there with fondness.

The History Department has partnered with the Mormon History Association (MHA) to honor Ken’s legacy and bestow the Ken Demas Best Book Award in Mormon History at MHA’s annual conference. MHA’s book awards committee determines the winner of this award.


Exceptionally Queer

2023 Ken Demas Best Book Award in Mormon History

Exceptionally Queer: Mormon Peculiarity and U.S. Nationalism
(University of Minnesota Press, 2022)

Are Mormons really so weird? Are they potentially queer? These questions occupy the heart of this powerful rethinking of Mormonism and its place in U.S. history, culture, and politics. K. Mohrman argues that Mormon peculiarity is not inherent to the Latter-day Saint faith tradition, as is often assumed, but rather a potent expression of U.S. exceptionalism. 

Exceptionally Queer scrutinizes the history of Mormonism starting with its inception in the early 1830s and continuing to the present. Drawing on a wide range of historical texts and moments—from nineteenth-century battles over Mormon plural marriage; to the LDS Church’s emphases on “individual responsibility” and “family values”; to mainstream media’s coverage of the LDS Church’s racist exclusion of Black priesthood holders, its Native assimilation programs, and vehement opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment; and to much more recent legal and cultural battles over same-sex marriage and on-screen Mormon polygamy—Exceptionally Queer evaluates how Mormonism has been used to motivate and rationalize the biased, exclusionary, and colonialist policies and practices of the U.S. nation-state.

Mohrman explains that debates over Mormonism both drew on and shaped racial discourses and, in so doing, delineated the boundaries of whiteness and national belonging, largely through the consolidation of (hetero)normative ideas of sex, marriage, family, and economy. Ultimately, the author shows how discussions of Mormonism in this country have been and continue to be central to ideas of what it means to be American. 

No Place For Saints

2022 Ken Demas Best Book Award in Mormon History

No Place for Saints: Mobs and Mormons in Jacksonian America
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022)

Mormonism exploded across America in 1830, and America exploded right back. By 1834, the new religion had been mocked, harassed, and finally expelled from its new settlements in Missouri. Why did this religion generate such anger? And what do these early conflicts say about our struggles with religious liberty today? In No Place for Saints, the first stand-alone history of the Mormon expulsion from Jackson County and the genesis of Mormonism, Adam Jortner chronicles how Latter-day Saints emerged and spread their faith—and how anti-Mormons tried to stop them.

Early on, Jortner explains, anti-Mormonism thrived on gossip, conspiracies, and outright fables about what Mormons were up to. Anti-Mormons came to believe Mormons were a threat to democracy, and anyone who claimed revelation from God was an enemy of the people with no rights to citizenship. By 1833, Jackson County's anti-Mormons demanded all Saints leave the county. When Mormons refused—citing the First Amendment—the anti-Mormons attacked their homes, held their leaders at gunpoint, and performed one of America's most egregious acts of religious cleansing.

From the beginnings of Mormonism in the 1820s to their expansion and expulsion in 1834, Jortner discusses many of the most prominent issues and events in Mormon history. He touches on the process of revelation, the relationship between magic and LDS practice, the rise of the priesthood, the questions surrounding Mormonism and African Americans, the internal struggles for leadership of the young church, and how American law shaped this American religion. Throughout, No Place for Saints shows how Mormonism—and the violent backlash against it—fundamentally reshaped the American religious and legal landscape. Ultimately, the book is a story of Jacksonian America, of how democracy can fail religious freedom, and a case study in popular politics as America entered a great age of religion and violence.

Kingdom of Nauvoo

2022 Ken Demas Best Book Award in Mormon History

Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier
(Liveright Publishing, 2020)

Compared to the Puritans, Mormons have rarely gotten their due, treated as fringe cultists at best or marginalized as polygamists unworthy of serious examination at worst. In Kingdom of Nauvoo, the historian Benjamin E. Park excavates the brief life of a lost Mormon city, and in the process demonstrates that the Mormons are, in fact, essential to understanding American history writ large.

Drawing on newly available sources from the LDS Church―sources that had been kept unseen in Church archives for 150 years―Park recreates one of the most dramatic episodes of the 19th century frontier. Founded in Western Illinois in 1839 by the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and his followers, Nauvoo initially served as a haven from mob attacks the Mormons had endured in neighboring Missouri, where, in one incident, seventeen men, women, and children were massacred, and where the governor declared that all Mormons should be exterminated. In the relative safety of Nauvoo, situated on a hill and protected on three sides by the Mississippi River, the industrious Mormons quickly built a religious empire; at its peak, the city surpassed Chicago in population, with more than 12,000 inhabitants. The Mormons founded their own army, with Smith as its general; established their own courts; and went so far as to write their own constitution, in which they declared that there could be no separation of church and state, and that the world was to be ruled by Mormon priests.

This experiment in religious utopia, however, began to unravel when gentiles in the countryside around Nauvoo heard rumors of a new Mormon marital practice. More than any previous work, Kingdom of Nauvoo pieces together the haphazard and surprising emergence of Mormon polygamy, and reveals that most Mormons were not participants themselves, though they too heard the rumors, which said that Joseph Smith and other married Church officials had been “sealed” to multiple women. Evidence of polygamy soon became undeniable, and non-Mormons reacted with horror, as did many Mormons―including Joseph Smith’s first wife, Emma Smith, a strong-willed woman who resisted the strictures of her deeply patriarchal community and attempted to save her Church, and family, even when it meant opposing her husband and prophet.

A raucous, violent, character-driven story, Kingdom of Nauvoo raises many of the central questions of American history, and even serves as a parable for the American present. How far does religious freedom extend? Can religious and other minority groups survive in a democracy where the majority dictates the law of the land? The Mormons of Nauvoo, who initially believed in the promise of American democracy, would become its strongest critics. Throughout his absorbing chronicle, Park shows the many ways in which the Mormons were representative of their era, and in doing so elevates nineteenth century Mormon history into the American mainstream.

Tabernacles of Clay

2021 Ken Demas Best Book Award in Mormon History

Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism
(University of North Carolina Press, 2020)

Taylor G. Petrey's trenchant history takes a landmark step forward in documenting and theorizing about Latter-day Saints (LDS) teachings on gender, sexual difference, and marriage. Drawing on deep archival research, Petrey situates LDS doctrines in gender theory and American religious history since World War II. His challenging conclusion is that Mormonism is conflicted between ontologies of gender essentialism and gender fluidity, illustrating a broader tension in the history of sexuality in modernity itself.

As Petrey details, LDS leaders have embraced the idea of fixed identities representing a natural and divine order, but their teachings also acknowledge that sexual difference is persistently contingent and unstable. While queer theorists have built an ethics and politics based on celebrating such sexual fluidity, LDS leaders view it as a source of anxiety and a tool for the shaping of a heterosexual social order. Through public preaching and teaching, the deployment of psychological approaches to "cure" homosexuality, and political activism against equal rights for women and same-sex marriage, Mormon leaders hoped to manage sexuality and faith for those who have strayed from heteronormativity.


Railroading Religion

2020 Ken Demas Best Book Award in Mormon History

Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit in the West
(University of North Carolina Press, 2019)

Railroads, tourism, and government bureaucracy combined to create modern religion in the American West, argues David Walker in this innovative study of Mormonism's ascendency in the railroad era. The center of his story is Corinne, Utah—an end-of-the-track, hell-on-wheels railroad town founded by anti-Mormon businessmen. In the disputes over this town's frontier survival, Walker discovers intense efforts by a variety of theological, political, and economic interest groups to challenge or secure Mormonism's standing in the West. Though Corinne's founders hoped to leverage industrial capital to overthrow Mormon theocracy, the town became the site of a very different dream.

Economic and political victory in the West required the production of knowledge about different religious groups settling in its lands. As ordinary Americans advanced their own theories about Mormondom, they contributed to the rise of religion itself as a category of popular and scholarly imagination. At the same time, new and advantageous railroad-related alliances catalyzed LDS Church officials to build increasingly dynamic religious institutions. Through scrupulous research and wide-ranging theoretical engagement, Walker shows that western railroads did not eradicate or diminish Mormon power. To the contrary, railroad promoters helped establish Mormonism as a normative American religion.


Last Updated: 10/18/23