Tuesday, December 04, 2012

No Man Knows My History

"We do not believe that God ever raised up a Prophet to christianize a world by political schemes and intrigue. It is not the way God captivates the heart of the unbeliever; but on the contrary, by preaching truth in its own native simplicity."
Nauvoo Expositor, June 7, 1844
(The words of the opposition newspaper whose printing press Joseph Smith had destroyed, leading directly to his arrest and murder by a mob three weeks later.)

My having read Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet (and the glowing review to follow) may upset Mormon friends or family, but I sincerely hope not. Although I think that the large majority of the book is likely very near to the truth, I think the really fascinating part is just being exposed to the nuances of a completely different take on events. Having grown up Mormon, I was quite familiar with most of the characters and basic events surrounding the origins of the Mormon church (mostly from an early morning study class before school every day of my senior year of high school taught by a really engaging teacher), but I had never been exposed to a different take on things. Now for the glowing part: I think it was one of the most enjoyable reading experiences in the past several years. It was basically a 400-page long epiphany. 

When I decided I didn't believe in God six years ago, I was happy to write off Joseph Smith and all of early church history with a fell swoop of "meh, he made it all up." Meaning that before reading this, I had never bothered to think about the details of these many interesting events from any perspective other than that of a faithful Mormon. "How did he make it all up?" turns out to be a pretty interesting question. And again, it's pretty obvious that I'm predisposed to believe nearly all of Brodie's book, and practicing Mormons are likely to look for errors or disagree. But regardless of agreement, I think it's valuable to know how 99.86% of the world's population would interpret the events surrounding the formation of the church. (Assuming 7 billion people and 10 million believers.)

It repeatedly reminded me of my experience with the All About Mormons episode (S07E10) of South Park (Seriously, watch it if you haven't already.) Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, and got Martin Harris to work for him transcribing his dictations. Harris' wife didn't believe him, so she stole the 116 pages. Then either (A) Joseph had made it all up, and knew he couldn't make up the exact same story again, so he claimed that God had known this would happen beforehand, and had included two slightly different versions of the 116 pages in the book to begin with, or (B) Joseph had translated the word of God through divine inspiration, but was worried that Martin Harris' wife would alter the version she had stolen, but God had known this would happen beforehand, and had included two slightly different versions of the 116 pages in the book to begin with. Before seeing that episode for the first time in 2003, it had honestly never occurred to me that the convoluted circuitousness of (B) is evidence against it. It had never even occurred to me that (A) was a possibility or that people might think the circuitousness of (B) was anything but evidence in favor of its validity.

Still following? I'm just trying to say it's fascinating to be exposed to totally different takeaways from the same accounts, ones that you didn't even know existed, or didn't know could exist. And Brodie's book was full of them:
  • Joseph Smith got in trouble with the law as a kid for telling people he could magically see where to dig for hidden treasure.
  • Joseph Smith gave several contradictory accounts of his first religious experiences (most importantly, in early accounts he never mentioned seeing God and Jesus, but in later accounts he said he saw them, and also said he immediately told everyone as much.)
  • Several of the witnesses to the gold plates may have admitted that they never saw the plates with their physical eyes, but only saw them in a vision when worked up into prayer-induced trance state. (Same goes for angelic visitations by Moses, Elijah, and others.) 
  • Native Americans aren't from Jerusalem, and there were no horses in the Americas prior to European discovery. The "reformed Egyptian" language and a lot of the Book of Mormon make sense if you know the scholarly book Joseph might have had access to: Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews.
  • Joseph Smith claimed that papyri found with some Egyptian mummies was written by Abraham. He translated it. The papyri still exist and have absolutely nothing to do with Abraham.
  • Basically all but one second-in-command in the church's early history (save Brigham Young) had a falling out with Joseph. As a kid I never questioned why this happened all the time, but Brodie's explanation is that one after another every one of these guys either lent Joseph thousands of dollars that was then lost on a seriously bad investment, or Joseph stole their wife while he sent them off to do missionary work, and often misled them about it. 
  • The bank the church set up in Ohio was as wildcat a bank as ever there was, and its failure led to Joseph fleeing Ohio.
  • Joseph's bodyguard Porter Rockwell may have been sent by Joseph to kill former Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs in revenge for Boggs' having expelled the Saints from Missouri a few years prior. (That said, nothing even in this critical view of Mormon history does anything to justify the horrible treatment of the Mormons by earlier Missouri settlers. It may have largely been a question of the slaveholding settlers versus northern Mormon converts.)
  • Polygamy. Seriously. Polygamy. Soooooo sketchy. Joseph and the inner circle who practiced it lied about it, denying its existence, to so many people, including their first wives, that it's ridiculous. Eventually Joseph tried to take William Law, Hiram Kimball, and Robert Forster's wives, and they could afford to buy ink by the barrel. There's also the story of Joseph's first wife, Emma, who caught Joseph and her previously trusted friend Eliza Snow in an early morning embrace. Emma flew into a rage, beating Eliza with a broom handle and running her out of the house. Sadly this resulted in a miscarriage, but still, I'm with Emma on this one. 
 I doubt that people not familiar with Mormon church history will get nearly as much out of the book as I did, but I think it's objectively true that the literary style of Brodie's writing is quite impressive. She apparently had a background in literature before beginning to write biographies. And even non-Mormon readers may gain something from understanding this "uniquely American" religion. I've heard that phrase several times over the years, and Brodie does an excellent job explaining it. As she explains the books that had been published in America in those years, the politicians elected, the banks failing, the frontier expanding, and the run-up to the Civil War, the religion Joseph Smith created fits very nicely into place.

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