Kerns, Travis. The Saints of Zion: An Introduction to Mormon Theology. Nashville, Tenn: B&H Academic, 2018.
Dr. Travis Kerns has studied Mormon theology for more than half his life. And by ‘study,’ I mean he earned a Masters and Ph.D. focused on the topic and taught undergrads, master students, and doctoral students at Boyce College and Southern Seminary. I've personally observed his study beyond the academy. Kerns, my friend, moved to Utah, the heart of Mormonism. He's made friends with Mormons, to include professors at BYU and public relations folks within the LDS religion (Latter-Day Saints). I've toured the Riverton Temple with him and some LDS leadership prior to the temple's rededication. And Kerns keeps up with the news and events of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He's not so much an apologist, standing on the streets arguing as he is an academic expert. When it comes to Mormon theology, I suspect he has a more robust knowledge of the topic than the greater majority of Mormons.
In his book, The Saints of Zion: An Introduction to Mormon Theology, Kerns set out to provide a fair look at the theology of Mormons through the lens of Mormon source material. However, while many apologetic authors will quote one or two obscure sources, Kerns loaded his book with large block quotes from a wide range of commonly accepted Mormon sources spanning from the religion's early beginnings right up to a handful of months ago. His approach is far more academic than apologetic which explains his statement: "[I]n accessing official Church doctrine, the works attributed as officially binding and declarative, as the Church, its leaders, and scholars defend them, will be used" (22). While recording a podcast with Kerns, he told me that it's his hope that while LDS members might not agree with his conclusions, they will say the treatment of the theology is fair and the information is correct.
Published by an academic publisher (B&H Academic), it's important to remember that this is indeed an academic book. It could serve as a textbook for an undergraduate or master's comparative religion course. Therefore, the book looks a little different than the popular-level reading Mormonism 101-type books. The Saints of Zion is not one of those books. If you have no knowledge of Mormonism what-so-ever, this is the book you read after one of those books Mormon basics book, or you read Chapter 5 first and then come back to the beginning of the work. This is a book specifically about Mormon theology, not just the basics of the Mormon religion. The Saints of Zion gets much deeper below the surface level discussion, getting at the root of belief, practice, and doctrine. Above all, this book is not about reading what Kerns thinks and knows--it's a book full of large amounts of Mormon source material intelligently curated by an expert.
While the first chapter is called an introduction, it's not the introduction a reader might expect. Instead of the 30,000-foot overview, it's a compelling argument why non-Mormons should seek to understand what informs Mormon belief and practice. Chapters 2-4 are theological discussions on God, sacred writings and how those are to be understood, and salvation. As is abundantly clear in the pages, these are the larger matters that need to be addressed before anything about the minutia of the religion can be understood. Chapter 5 is a helpful and extensive discussion of the history of the Mormon Church and how it is organized. And finally, Kerns addresses the question, "Are Mormons Christians?". This is the most apologetic chapter of the book, yet is still remains academic in nature and relies heavily upon simply presenting the Mormon source materials.
What might be the most impressive aspect of The Saints of Zion is the 26 pages of single-spaced works cited. It's an overwhelmingly large bibliography of publications, mostly from Mormon sources. Based on counting a couple pages, I estimate there are over 625 cited sources used in the 236 pages of the book. Almost every page of the book includes a block quote to be sure the context is properly conveyed.
The book is well written and the structure of thought flows great. The material is presented in what appears honest and fair, allowing the reader to draw conclusions from the source material.
Kern's book is not free from challenges, however. At times, I found myself hoping for more of a summary or explanation statement for clarity. I appreciate that he allows the reader to draw conclusions from the source materials, but at times I felt buried in so much source material and overwhelmed by what the material demonstrated about Mormon theology. I could have benefited from a few more signposts that I was concluding the same things the expert had concluded. At other times, the material revealed so much about why the Mormons I know might think and act as they do that I'd want to camp out in that thought for a moment, but Kerns just kept marching forward without a rest to catch my breath or collect my thoughts. It's a lot of material to cover. Now, I could have paused, slowed down, and reread, so this is not all on Kerns.
Also, I think I understand why the book is structured as it is, but I believe Chapter 5 might have been helpful as Chapter 1, or a true overview introduction could have been offered. The introduction could have been a basic section on the organization of the Mormon church with a statement that the section could be skipped if the reader didn't need it. I have many friends and family who are Mormon and I live in Salt Lake City, but at times I had to pause and remember the organizational structure to make better sense of some of the quotes. A refresher would have been helpful before getting to Chapter 5. For one with limited knowledge of Mormonism, an introduction like this could be helpful. (If you think you might need this kind of overview, I recommend reading Chapter 5 first.)
That being said, these challenges are minor. I found The Saints of Zion extremely informative and I learned a lot (and I've read many books on the topic!). I will return to this book often and I will regularly recommend it to those interested in Mormonism, history, or even how a large number of people in the world think. Travis Kerns did an outstanding job with this one. (He and I both know I'm not just saying this because we're friends. He wouldn't respect my review if I did that.)
I highly recommend The Saints of Zion: An Introduction to Mormon Theology by Dr. Travis Kerns.
Note: I did not receive any benefit for reviewing this book; however, using the link to purchase the book from Amazon.com does help financially support the maintenance and hosting of this website.
Also: Travis Kerns is donating any personal proceeds from this book to the North American Mission Board’s Annie Armstrong Offering to help further the work of church-planting in unreached and under-reached places in North America, like Utah.