Essays - Summer 2014

A Prophet Without Honor

There’s no authoritative biography yet for Joseph Smith, the notorious founding figure in Mormonism

By Alex Beam | June 9, 2014
Photoillustration by David Herbick from Library of Congress photograph
Photoillustration by David Herbick from Library of Congress photograph


Joseph Smith, known to his Latter-day Saint followers as “the prophet,” more or less invented the Mormon religion during the early 19th century. Historian Robert Remini, a chronicler of the Jacksonian era, called Smith “unquestionably the most important reformer and innovator in American religious history.” One of several divines who emerged from western New York’s revival-mad burned-over district, Smith founded a religion based on bizarre claims and scandalous doctrines. He insisted his “translated” Book of Mormon, supposedly a Native American artifact, complemented the Old and New Testaments. He preached that Christians’ God the Father was once a human being and that faithful Mormons could aspire to godhood. In Nauvoo, Illinois, the town he founded on the banks of the Mississippi River, Smith encouraged members of his inner circle to take many wives.

Smith’s wild teachings would be laughable if they did not undergird one of the country’s most enduring religions—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). There are six million Mormons in the United States, and 15 million worldwide. By that measure, Smith was the most successful evangelist of his time.

He also may be the most important American who hasn’t received a universally accepted biography—albeit not for lack of biographers. Fawn Brodie, an aspiring writer who in 1943 won a writing fellowship sponsored by the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, produced an impressive account of Smith’s life, No Man Knows My History, in 1945. Brodie hailed from LDS pioneer stock, meaning her ancestors helped populate the barren Salt Lake basin in the middle of the 19th century. Her grandfather was a bishop, and her uncle David O. McKay became the “President, Prophet Seer and Revelator”—that is, the head of the LDS.

But Brodie, née McKay, was a backsliding Mormon who had left Utah to pursue a degree at the University of Chicago, where she married Bernard Brodie, a Jewish intellectual who later worked for the RAND Corporation. She wrote in the biography that Smith was an inspired, sophisticated deceiver, and she called the Book of Mormon a “highly original and imaginative fiction.” The LDS promptly excommunicated her for traducing the prophet, and her uncle David denounced her as “a bird fouling her own nest.” To this day, Mormon historians excoriate Brodie, who later became one of the first respected historians to write about the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings liaison, wrote a controversial psycho-biography of President Nixon, and died in 1981.

In 2005, Knopf published Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Columbia University professor emeritus of history Richard L. Bushman, a devout Mormon who had won the Bancroft Prize for an earlier book. Progressive Mormons and non-Mormons attacked Bushman’s “believing history”—his deference to Mormonism. In a New York Times review, Walter Kirn, who was raised Mormon, compared belief in Joseph Smith to belief in Santa Claus. “Since logic played almost no part in Joseph Smith’s life,” Kirn wrote, “it may be fitting that it’s largely absent from this respectful biography as well.”

Maybe no one could be expected to write a Smith biography that would satisfy believing Mormons and religious skeptics. In 2012, John Turner, a religious studies scholar at George Mason University, published Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, an in-depth biography of Smith’s successor as church president, whose effigy stands purposefully shoulder-to-shoulder alongside that of the prophet in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square and at other LDS shrines. Official church historians granted access to Turner during his five years of research, and Mormons have generally welcomed his thorough, even-handed treatment of their larger-than-life “Lion of the Lord.”

But Smith still awaits his perfect Boswell. Why?

Contradictions abound in the realm of Latter-day Saints. Although the Mormon religion is secretive—temples and rituals remain closed to nonbelievers—it is nonetheless a recordkeeping enterprise. Smith received a personal revelation (one of more than a hundred) from God that “there shall be a record kept among you,” and he and his secretaries did keep a scrupulous but selective diary of his activities during the last years of his life (he was gunned down by an angry mob in 1844 at the age of 39). Some business, such as his “sealings” to plural wives, or the convocations of his Council of Fifty, the secret organization that he created to rule the world, never made it to the diaries. When such matters did appear in Smith’s records, he sometimes used code. The Council of Fifty was called “the Lyceum” or the “ytfif.” In his diaries, Smith sometimes called himself “Baurak Ale.”

When Brodie began working on her biography, she approached the Church History Library for access to Smith’s papers. Specifically, she asked to see his restricted 1832 diary and source materials on polygamy. Church historian Joseph Fielding Smith, grandnephew of the prophet, rebuffed her, reportedly saying, “There are things in this library we don’t let anyone see.” Access to official records at that time didn’t mean that researchers could find what they wanted. Historian Richard S. Van Wagoner, a Mormon, discovered many “alterations” in official accounts of Brigham Young’s supposed “Transfiguration” after Smith’s death. A valuable diary that chronicled the disastrous Mormon “handcart” trek of 1856 was mysteriously “consigned to the flames.” And so on.

As it happens, the Salt Lake church did not and does not enjoy a monopoly on Joseph Smith materials. Brodie, for instance, used archives at the University of Utah and the Utah State Historical Society. The Salt Lake church does not even have a lock on Mormonism. The library of the Missouri-based Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now called the Community of Christ), founded by nonpolygamist Mormons who did not follow Brigham Young on the trek from Illinois to Utah, greeted Brodie warmly. So did two of Joseph Smith’s grandsons who did not join the Utah church.

Brodie’s book was a huge hit. Insightful and generally sympathetic to Smith and his followers, it nonetheless refused to give credence to any divine inspiration on Smith’s part. Quite the opposite: Brodie thought Smith was a mountebank who eventually came to believe in his curious delusions and fake revelations. Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn, who, like Brodie, was excommunicated from the church, remembers reluctantly recommending her book to his fellow graduate students at Yale in 1973. “People asked me for a good biography of Joseph, and it was the finest one in existence,” he recalls. “There was nothing else.”

Despite Quinn’s trials with the church—he is openly gay and an authority on the magical underpinnings of Smith’s religion—he remains faithful and dislikes Brodie’s depiction of Smith. “She presented him as not having a religious bone in his body,” Quinn says, and “saw him as a total manipulator. That is very problematic, because the sources show him to be deeply religious. It’s wonderfully written, but her biography just doesn’t hold up.”

But Brodie’s book has held up in the marketplace. More than 125,000 copies have been sold, and it remains in print, selling 1,500 to 2,000 copies a year. It is a nightmare from which Mormonism cannot awake. In 1972, the respected Mormon historian Marvin Hill noted, “There is evidence that her book has had strong negative impact on popular Mormon thought … since to this day in certain circles in Utah to acknowledge that one has ‘read Fawn Brodie’ is to create doubts as to one’s loyalty to the Church.” A couple of years ago, as I was getting my hair cut in Salt Lake City, a young Mormon barber confided to me, sotto voce, that he was thinking of reading Brodie’s biography. What could I say? “It’s beautifully written,” was my noncommittal response.

I was in Salt Lake to research my book about the traumatic last year of Smith’s life, for which I had to make choices about how to characterize the prophet. I saw no point in deriding Smith or his religious views, many of which were clearly defined before he moved his flock to Illinois in 1839. As for the doctrines he introduced in Illinois—baptism of the dead and polygamy, to name two—I presented them at face value. Baptism of the dead isn’t hard to understand; if Mormonism delivers the living to a promised state of “Exaltation” and eternal life, then of course it would want to redeem the souls of the deceased as well.

Polygamy, which Smith derived straight from the Old Testament, was more challenging for the prophet to explain. To a man and woman, all of his contemporaries found the doctrine abhorrent. “It was the first time in my life that I desired the grave,” was Brigham Young’s first reaction to polygamy. (Young eventually married more than 50 women.) Most, but not all, of Smith’s followers adopted plural wifery because the prophet assured them that God had revealed the teaching to him. Smith’s first wife, Emma, thought otherwise. When a visitor asked her where the polygamy teaching came from, she famously answered: “Straight from hell, madam.”

In 1977, author, archivist, and church member Donna Hill published a best-selling biography, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, with the help of her brother Marvin Hill and other church historians. But Hill simply could not compete with Brodie’s polished storytelling and informed skepticism. Salt Lake City–based Signature Books kept Hill’s biography in print through the 1990s, although now it is regarded as little more than a curiosity.

Signature Books, which relies heavily on the financial support of historian and philanthropist George D. Smith, has functioned as an extra-ecclesiastical truth squad for Mormon history for more than 30 years. In 1989, Signature published Smith’s diaries, a compendium of nine separate documents, copies of which were found “at various university libraries and research institutions in Utah” as well as in Community of Christ archives, according to editor Scott H. Faulring. “I was not allowed access to the originals of any of the documents” housed inside the church, he wrote in the book’s introduction. The church is now releasing authorized editions of Smith’s papers in dribs and drabs. Signature has also published two lengthy, definitive studies of Smith’s polygamy (one by George D. Smith himself) and the diary of the prophet’s close friend William Clayton. However, at the Church History Library, the lively and informative Clayton diary remains closed to researchers.

Signature is also a player in the Joseph Smith biography sweepstakes. In 2001, the publisher’s co-owner, the Smith-Pettit Foundation, commissioned the most ambitious Smith biography ever, a work spanning almost 2,000 pages in three volumes, each volume written independently by a distinguished historian. Editor Gary Bergera says he thought that the magnitude of the project would justify its ambition: “I was hoping that if page count was not a primary consideration, the biography would be able to investigate areas of Joseph Smith’s life in greater detail.” But the project took too long and is now in abeyance. Van Wagoner, the Mormon historian, died in 2010 after completing volume one. Volume three is also complete but volume two remains in the throes of editing, delaying the entire package, the publication of which was originally aimed to coincide with the bicentennial anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth, 2005.

That was the year that Knopf published Bushman’s biography of Smith, 60 years after issuing Brodie’s biography. Bushman, a former church bishop and an editor of the authorized Joseph Smith papers, fretted about his book’s reception by Mormon officialdom, according to a diary that he later published. A smooth writer and one-time student of distinguished historians Bernard Bailyn and Oscar Handlin, Bushman wrote more forthrightly about polygamy than any Mormon writer before him. However, he chose to characterize Joseph Smith as a revelator channeling messages from God. Bushman says he believes that to be true; as he explains, “To get inside the movement, we have to think of Smith … as he thought of himself—as a revelator.”

Bushman needn’t have worried about his reception among the faithful. The church-owned Deseret Book Store located across South Temple Street from Temple Square in Salt Lake City stacked his book up to the rafters. Mormons across the country mobbed his signings in such remote LDS strongholds as the tabernacle in Logan, Utah. In his published diary, On the Road with Joseph Smith, Bushman seems to revel in hints of praise from the Quorum of the Twelve, the dozen “apostles” who manage the church.

Two constituencies that Bushman hoped to win over didn’t bite. The non-Mormon (“Gentile”) intelligentsia roasted him. First, novelist and western historian Larry McMurtry ridiculed Bushman and his prophet in the pages of The New York Review of Books. McMurtry, a collector of westerniana, wrote that the Book of Mormon belonged to the rich category of 19th-century “frontier fiction.” He added that “Brodie saw the fraud at the heart of Mormonism, and she describes it. Professor Bushman pitty-pats around it.” A few months later Walter Kirn’s Times review accused Bushman of pursuing “a tricky dual agenda” without revealing “whether Smith was God’s own spokesman or the L. Ron Hubbard of his day.”

The secular academic establishment didn’t take Bushman’s biography very seriously because it doesn’t take Joseph Smith very seriously. “Many informed academics think of Joseph as a shady character,” Bushman wrote in On the Road. “I see the hand of Brodie. … Brodie has shaped the view of the Prophet for half a century. Nothing we have written has challenged her domination. I had hoped my book would displace hers, but at best it will only be a contender in the ring, whereas before she reigned unchallenged.”

The Church plans to publish “all extant Joseph Smith documents,” which should put the prospect of a definitive biography within reach. The LDS-funded Joseph Smith Papers Project says it will produce 12 volumes of his documents, three of his journals, and six additional books dedicated to revelations, translations, and business records. Eight volumes have already appeared. Recently, the project announced with considerable fanfare its intention to publish the secret records of the Council of Fifty, locked away for many years in what is called the First Presidency’s Vault of documents. They are hidden from view for good reason, by the way. If a whisper of Mormonism’s plan to create an independent, sacerdotal world government—Smith sent an ambassador to Russia in 1844, with drawings for a secret weapon, no less—had slipped out during Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, who knows what havoc might have ensued. The church has not yet specified a timetable for release of the Council of Fifty records.

Most historians, Mormon and Gentile, think the church is sincere in its intention to tell all about Smith. The general authorities, meaning the apostles and other elders, run the church, and Philip Barlow, a history professor at Utah State University, takes them at their word. “It’s implausible that they’re hiding something,” Barlow says. “The archivists are people like you and me.” Other historians would probably agree.

But there is still a crazy-quilt classification in place at the Church History Library. This surfaced recently in a public quarrel over access to records from the 1840s. In a review of John Dinger’s collection of High Council and City Council minutes from the 1840s, church historian Robin Jensen criticized Dinger for working from unofficial typescripts, rather than from the original documents. But the library had kept the original documents off-limits to researchers. Defending his author at Signature Books in the Journal of Mormon History, Gary Bergera, former Signature managing editor, wrote,

[The] manuscripts Jensen refers to were definitely not available to the general public during the seven-plus years that Dinger’s book was in preparation. First, the manuscripts were not listed in the library’s computerized on-site public register throughout the majority of this period of time. … Even when I eventually learned of the existence of such items, I was repeatedly told: (1) they have not been processed and are unavailable; (2) they have not been microfilmed/scanned and are unavailable; (3) they cannot be located or are missing; or (4) they are currently unavailable for some other unspecified reason.

But wait, the truth is stranger still. During this same period, Dan Vogel, a respected independent researcher who has written critically about Joseph Smith, requested and received all the council minutes withheld from Dinger and Bergera. “I just ordered the 11 CDs, and they came,” Vogel told me. “I didn’t know they were restricted. I thought they were available to everybody.”

And yet, during the years that Dinger’s book was in the works, Brigham Young biographer John Turner spent summers in the Church History Library winning the trust of archivists as he researched his biography of Brigham Young. I view Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet as a close-to-authoritative biography. “I think [Turner] wrote a valuable book,” Barlow says. “But I think he missed out on Brigham’s wit and rough frontier charm. Also I think that ‘definitive’ would be an odd term to apply to his treatment of the Mountain Meadows massacre.” (After considerable research, Turner declines to assign blame for the 1857 slaughter of a wagon train passing through Mormon territory.)

Barlow also thinks my hankering for an authoritative biography of Joseph Smith is quixotic at best. “The word ‘definitive’ is malleable,” he says. “It’s like ‘omnipotent’ for God. It’s like talking about the definitive rendering of Jesus; the subject doesn’t lend itself to a single take.” Historian Michael Quinn thinks that “it’s easier for a secularist to look at Brigham Young than Joseph Smith. Brigham isn’t as difficult a target as Joseph.” In what he calls an imperfect comparison, Quinn notes that it would be far easier to write a biography of the apostle Paul than of Jesus because “the claims that Paul made are so many dimensions below the claims that Jesus made.”

Vogel, who wrote Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, a biography of Smith up to age 27, concluded that his subject was a “pious deceiver” who “believed he was called of God, yet occasionally engaged in fraudulent activities to preach God’s word as effectively as possible.” He doesn’t expect to read an authoritative biography of the prophet anytime soon. “Smith was a revolutionary figure who wanted to overturn everything,” Vogel says. “He challenged the world, and he didn’t mind dividing people. That was his nature when he was alive, and that’s how he is now. It’s never the final word with Joseph. It’s never going to be over.”

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