Christmas is just around the corner, which means you will be buying books as gifts, putting books you might enjoy on your wish list, or (this trick works quite well) buying the books you want to read and giving them to a spouse or relative. The first volume of the LDS publication Saints is an easy choice: it’s really cheap and everyone should read it. I’ll add another good choice to your list: the two-volume series on Mormon doctrine and theology by Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel (OUP, 2015) and Feeding the Flock (OUP, 2017).

First, some general observations. The series is subtitled The Foundations of Mormon Thought, a nice description that sort of straddles the line between doctrine and theology. The first volume covers broader doctrine, topics like the godhead, Christology, and the Fall. It includes chapters on Mother in Heaven and Adam-God doctrine, so Givens is not steering around controversial topics. The second volume covers church organization and practice, things like LDS priesthoods, ordinances like baptism and the sacrament, temple stuff, and disciplinary procedures and issues.

What I really like about Givens’ treatment of topics in both books is the historical approach he takes. On any given topic, he reviews both the Christian precursors and contemporary Christian doctrine and practice, as well as the historical context and development (change over time) of each LDS doctrine or practice. This historical approach, or at least historical introduction, to each topic explains a lot more about these topics than the standard summaries of LDS doctrine that have been written over the years. The Church ought to shell out for 5000 copies and send one to each seminary and institute teacher in the Church. 

Here are just a couple of quick examples from the second volume, which I am still wending my way through. In the section on baptism (p. 149-66), he reviews Christian baptism doctrine and infant baptism before getting to Mormon baptism; reviews the tension in both Christian and LDS doctrine between baptism as effecting remission of sins and baptism as simply a sign of forgiveness granted by grace or faith or the Spirit; discusses the now-discarded 19th-century Mormon practices of rebaptism and baptism for healing; and finally discusses vicarious baptism and the general Christian problem of salvation of the unbaptized that it tries to solve. In this and other chapters, you are likely to come away understanding that “restoration,” as exemplified in the actual history of the Church, involves adding things, changing things, getting rid of things, re-purposing things, renaming things, and so forth. 

Another section in the second volume discusses “the sacrament,” by which Mormons mean what other Christians call the Eucharist (p. 197-204). [And what other Christians call “sacraments” we call “ordinances.”] He reviews how Protestant reformers rejected the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence, but quickly disagreed with each other about just how much Presence remained in the reformed doctrine of the Eucharist. By the 19th century, some Protestants had rejected any trace of Presence in the emblems, essentially the LDS position. Givens also reviews how the LDS sacrament became, by the 20th century, a renewal of baptismal promises or covenants (displacing re-baptism in this regard). Which is a little odd when you think about it: we don’t have a doctrine of expiring baptismal vows that need to be renewed every few years, like your car registration or your library card. That’s an example of re-purposing at work.

I could do three or four similar examples for each chapter in both volumes. It gives me hope, in this era of Correlation and dumbed-down curriculum materials, that someone like Givens can author a serious treatment of LDS doctrine and thought like this. If you don’t own this yet, put it on your Christmas list.