American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867–1940 

By Thomas W. Simpson

246 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 9 halftones, 1 maps, 5 tables, appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-2863-9
    Published: September 2016
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3022-9
    Published: September 2016
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-2864-6
    Published: August 2016

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Awards & distinctions

Best Book Award, Mormon History Association

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, college-age Latter-day Saints began undertaking a remarkable intellectual pilgrimage to the nation's elite universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago, and Stanford. Thomas W. Simpson chronicles the academic migration of hundreds of LDS students from the 1860s through the late 1930s, when church authority J. Reuben Clark Jr., himself a product of the Columbia University Law School, gave a reactionary speech about young Mormons' search for intellectual cultivation. Clark's leadership helped to set conservative parameters that in large part came to characterize Mormon intellectual life.

At the outset, Mormon women and men were purposefully dispatched to such universities to "gather the world's knowledge to Zion." Simpson, drawing on unpublished diaries, among other materials, shows how LDS students commonly described American universities as egalitarian spaces that fostered a personally transformative sense of freedom to explore provisional reconciliations of Mormon and American identities and religious and scientific perspectives. On campus, Simpson argues, Mormon separatism died and a new, modern Mormonism was born: a Mormonism at home in the United States but at odds with itself. Fierce battles among Mormon scholars and church leaders ensued over scientific thought, progressivism, and the historicity of Mormonism’s sacred past. The scars and controversy, Simpson concludes, linger.

About the Author

Thomas W. Simpson, a specialist in modern U.S. religious history, is instructor in religion and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy.
For more information about Thomas W. Simpson, visit the Author Page.


“Excellent scholarship on social and educational history as it pertains to religion. Highly recommended.”--Choice

“An important, well-written, and engaging volume. . . . Should now be required reading for any Mormon academic, regardless of their field.”--Association for Mormon Letters

“Simpson’s insights should be incorporated into future discussions on what is often an oversimplified historical narrative.”--Reading Religion

“An admirably nuanced narrative.”--Journal of Mormon History

"An elegant, original contribution and a must-read for anyone interested in American religion and the life of the mind. Thomas W. Simpson's scholarly heavy lifting--painstakingly tracing the Progressive Era Mormons who passed through American universities--forces a substantial reassessment of previous 'Americanization' theses. Simpson decenters polygamy (no mean feat) and places intellectual history and education at the heart of LDS navigation of both modernity and national identity."--J. Spencer Fluhman, Brigham Young University

"American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism tells an important story of the development of Mormon intellectual life. The risks experienced by young Mormons and church leaders alike as students departed the 'kingdom' for education in the early part of the twentieth century is an essential and necessary part of the history of the formation of an educated Mormon community and the creation of a true Mormon intellectual community."--Jan Shipps, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Multimedia & Links

Follow the author on Twitter @tomsimpsonphd.

Visit the author's page at

Listen: Simpson talks to Blair Hodges for the Maxwell Institute Podcast. (10/11/2016, running time 1:16:43)