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Kimball, "Sports in Zion" (reviewed by Marshall Hamilton) Options · View
jeffneedle
Posted: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 8:27:48 PM

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Review
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Title: Sports in Zion: Mormon Recreation, 1890-1940
Author: Richard Ian Kimball
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Genre: Nonfiction, Sociology
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 217 pp.
Binding: Trade paperback
ISBN: 9780252076367
Price: $25.00

Reviewed by Marshall Hamilton

This book is a paperback reissue of the 2003 work by BYU History
Professor Richard Kimball. There is no indication that any updates or
changes have been made for the current paperback edition, so your
opinion of the paperback will not be much different from any opinion you
might have already formed of the hardcover edition.

I was not familiar with the original publication, so I’m considering the
book as if it were new.

We all know that we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover.

It’s more than usually important that no one judge this book by its
cover or by its title, because both are misleading.

Here we have a cover photo showing five missionary-age basketball
players in white singlets and shorts, with the title “Sports in Zion.”

The problem? This is not really a book about sports in the LDS church.
Sports are a segment of the subject matter, but not the entirety of it.
To call this book Sports in Zion is as misleading as it would be to call
Moby Dick a novel about ships. It seems likely that someone at the
publishing house decided that a book about basketball or sports would
sell better than a book about the non-religious activities of a church.

I say that because Richard Ian Kimball’s work is not about team or
individual sports, not about the lamented All-Church Basketball program,
not even about physical fitness.

Virtually all non-religious activities are part of Kimball’s analysis:
dancing, debating, camping, picnicking, music and drama all share the
stage with basketball, softball, and other sports.

The turn of the twentieth century was a time of great changes for the
Mormon community. The huge in-migration to the Great Basin was winding
down. The principle of the gathering, so critical to the faith of the
first three generations of Mormons, had succeeded in developing the
Saints into a relatively urban society. Far more than their parents and
grandparents, LDS youth were growing up without farm chores, and with no
risk of having to pack up and walk across a continent.

At the same time, the church was in the process of abandoning the
principle of plural marriage, making Mormons inherently less separated
from their non-member countrymen. Advances in transportation and
communications were further linking the Saints with their nonmember
brethren.

So church leaders began to develop an appreciation for a “melange of
early ideas.” (p. 33) Commentators worried that leisure time–largely
unknown among the non-rich up to that time–would lead to physical and
spiritual decay. Here, and throughout his analysis, Kimball performs a
unique service: cataloging the ideas that were discussed in the
Improvement Era and other church publications at the time, to recall the
give-and-take that led to the adoption of recreation-friendly church
policies. Those policies were far-reaching, and, in many ways, created
the church as it exists today, complete with scout troops, “cultural
halls,” youth dances, and girls’ camps.

This work is a sociological study examining a half-century of
integration of Mormon life into the U.S. culture.

It’s valuable, indeed, but the cover presentation is misleading.

Kimball brings to light dozens of articles which mirror the apparently
robust debate among church leaders on the usefulness and correctness of
using extra-ecclesiastical techniques to involve members more fully in
the church. It’s hard indeed to imagine such publication of opposing
arguments in the age of the Correlation and Strengthening Church Members
committees.

For example, Kimball describes the debate over affiliation with the Boy
Scouts of America during the second and third decades of the 20th
Century. In 1911, B.H. Roberts chaired a committee to explore adopting a
scouting program. In an article headed “The Boy Scout Movement in Utah,”
Roberts wrote “to create new scout units...would likely result in
dividing the interests of the junior members.” He went on to say “there
would be and could be no compensating returns” from a closer
relationship with scouting. Six months later, BYU physical education
director Eugene L. Roberts wrote that the scouting program “was squarely
within the confines of LDS thought.” Eugene Roberts’s arguments were so
convincing that even B.H. Roberts, nine months later in the Era,
accepted his arguments and began to advocate a Boy Pioneers (and later a
Boy Scouts) program for the church. (pp. 135-7)

Over time, providing recreation and other leisure-time activities became
uncontroversial aspects of the church program.

This study offers fascinating glimpses of century-old church practices:
the construction of primitive basketball courts, with iron rims or “an
old hay rake tooth” for the goals (p. 61); the movement to limit
“juvenile delinquency,” which led to the 1929 publication of “Boys and
Girls in Salt Lake City” by YMMIA board member Arthur Beeley (p. 166);
and the experiences of LDS Olympic athlete Creed Haymond who refused his
coach’s distribution of sherry wine as a tonic before a big meet at
Harvard Stadium in 1919 (p. 117-20).

If you’re looking for emotion-laden accounts of tight basketball games,
you’ll be disappointed in this book. If you want to explore how the LDS
church tried to solve the problems associated with emerging from an
agrarian, isolated community to an urbanized group connected with the
rest of the world by adopting recreational and other non-liturgical
techniques, this is the book for you.


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