Biography of Joseph Smith by Fawn Brodie

Discussion in 'The Literary Forum' started by alexandermsmith, Jun 19, 2019.

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  1. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Has anyone read Fawn Brodie's biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History? Is it considered a good and accurate history of him?
  2. Don Kistler

    Don Kistler Puritan Board Sophomore

    I read it many years ago. I don't know how accurate it is, but I remember this statement about the Smith family: "They never attended church anywhere and they never learned to fear God." I imagine that's pretty accurate!
  3. psycheives

    psycheives Puritan Board Freshman

  4. Reformed Covenanter

    Reformed Covenanter Puritanboard Commissioner

    If you have access to JSTOR, do a search of the reviews that were published in academic journals. These should give you a fair idea of the accuracy of the work.
  5. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

  6. Reformed Covenanter

    Reformed Covenanter Puritanboard Commissioner

    The publisher seems fairly reliable. It is the same firm that published Eugene Genovese's classic work, Roll, Jordan, Roll. It is, however, likely to be a bit dated now and you may wish to consider whether or not you wish to read a book that long about a single person?
  7. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Oh I didn't realise how long it is lol. Oh well I've ordered it now and it's meant to be a good read regardless. Interested in reading a biography on Smith but obviously one doesn't want a Mormon-approved one, nor one that is just a hatchet job. From what I understand Brodie managed to get access to a lot of LDS documents.
  8. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    I have this book on my list this year. I read Krakauer's book "Under the Banner of Heaven" last year and he's a well-respected journalist and seemed to think highly of Brodie's work.

    When you see Amazon reviews where the star distribution looks like this:
    5 ******************
    4 ***
    3 **
    2 *
    1 ******

    and has more 1-stars than the 2, 3, and's quite likely there is some motivation behind those 1-stars...
  9. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Also, Brodie was raised in a LDS family in Utah and was later a UCLA professor so I imagine her perspective is valuable at the very least. She was excommunicated for it.
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  10. Bill The Baptist

    Bill The Baptist Puritan Board Graduate

    It is generally a very well thought of biography, with the exception of Mormons of course. Some of her speculation about the origins of Mormonism lack any solid evidence, but overall an interesting and informative work.
  11. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    I've got a few books on my list ahead of this one but when you start it, I wouldn't mind starting it with you. Not sure if there will be much to discuss but I always enjoy sharing a book.
  12. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Planning to start it within the next week, dv. I'm also reading James White's books on Mormonism. Got quite interested in the subject after watching his debate with Kwaku El on Apologia Studios and his more recent interaction with him over the Trinity. Didn't know half of what Mormonism actually teaches. It's crazy but fascinating stuff. Joseph Smith certainly knew the value of a "good story".
  13. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Very good. For what it's worth, I also found the afore-mentioned Krakauer book very interesting, since he covers the historical background as well as the more fundamental groups (which arguably are far closer to Joseph Smith than the mainline LDS is).
  14. Reformed Covenanter

    Reformed Covenanter Puritanboard Commissioner

    Please let us know how the book goes as you make progress, but only if you have the time, of course.
  15. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    I've read up to Chapter 3 this morning and while there hasn't been anything particularly new from what I've read before, she has a delightfully flowing style that makes for engaging reading.

    I found many critiques (mostly Mormon) that say she uses unreliable sources and that she is prone to speculation. As to documentation, at least in these early chapters, she is pretty candid about the conflicting sources---not the least of which is Smith himself, who, while on trial before he was really famous, gave a very different biography of himself than what seems to be an incredibly embellished and fanciful one which he later gave. Regardless, documentation in the early 1800s (1820 or so) is extremely hard to come by, particularly from rural areas, so summarizing dozens affidavits of eye-witnesses and court testimony and building a case around them doesn't seem imprudent to me.

    Not to mention that rather than accuse Smith of being a charlatan and manipulator, she rather generously gives him the benefit of the doubt by assuming he actually believed the things he told others.

    I'm enjoying it so far.
  16. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    I hope to start this week. I'm wanting to finish another book I'm in the middle of before I start. So don't rush on too far ahead!
  17. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Sounds good. I've got plenty of other books I'm in the middle of to keep me busy, but didn't want to slow you down!
  18. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Been lazy this week with my reading but have read the first seven chapters. I'm really enjoying it. Agreed about her style: very readable and engaging. It's a fascinating story: all the formative events and development of the mythos. She does a good job of highlighting the religious context from which Mormonism emerged and I appreciate her approach to Smith himself.

    There is a good deal of speculation as to Smith's psychology and motivation but her research of the actual events seems, to me, very thorough that her more speculative notions are at least a legitimate inference to make.

    The story is a very solemn warning of the danger of being swept away by false teaching. We should be often at the throne of grace pleading that God would keep us from such a fate and not to fall into a carnal security.

    "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." 1 Corinthians 10:12
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  19. nickipicki123

    nickipicki123 Puritan Board Freshman

    I liked Krakauer's book too, as well as the one written by his friend Sam Brower, Prophet's Prey. I didn't like that J.K. castigated all religion, but otherwise I thought it was a well written and interested book. He's got a talent for writing.
  20. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Sorry, I didn't realize you'd started it and this week has been unusually busy so no time for reading.

    But I did find Chapter 3 extremely enlightening.

    Brodie sets an excellent historical context by talking about the large Indian burial mounds (where do these bones come from and it must have been a war that caused so many) and all the speculation that people had in the day as to their origin. Most interesting was the documentation regarding the artifacts being rather intricate and beautiful, and the racism of the day looking at the Indians as uncivilized and inferior leading many to suppose that these were from some ancient and more sophisticated civilization that had come over from Europe, including the exact speculation that it could have been from the lost ten tribes of Israel.

    Add to this that people theorized and talked about them regularly, and that some (including none other than Jonathan Edwards) believed some of the Indian languages to be derived from Hebrew, and ALSO the reported discovery of some brass plates detailing the history of this ancient civilization...and it sets the stage perfectly for Joseph Smith to create the backstory for it all in a context where he just might be believed. I thought this chapter was extremely enlightening.
  21. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    In Chapter 4 a story I'm familiar with is related in greater detail. How the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon were stolen by Martin Harris' wife and then challenged to reproduce them from the originals.

    And how he eventually came up with the solution that he was forbidden to re-translate it because the devil would see to it that the stolen version was published in altered form (that's logic for ya!) but...a way had been provided! Turns out the exact same history was covered in different wording in another book and he would be allowed to translate that. What a coincidence!

    To anyone, not just a skeptic, this just doesn't quite pass the sniff test.

    Also interesting was how when Smith couldn't "translate" (i.e., writer's block), he would "go out to pray" and then come back for a while sufficiently humble and ready to translate again. Or maybe he just needed more time to think...
  22. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Chapter 6
    Brodie makes a fair case that Joseph Smith may have started out to make money by creating a history of the Indians, but that as his following grew and people started to see visions that he may very well have started to believe that he really was a prophet in a new movement. Maybe what he thought was his own inventiveness really was revelation. And as persecution began, it only solidified that belief. Not an excuse by any means but it's clearly hard to pin him strictly as a charlatan and this more nuanced view might be closer to how he perceived it himself.

    He also appears, by some accounts, to be electrified and ecstatic when a "miracle" occurred (such as a man in convulsions of the "devil" ceasing to convulse at his exorcism), yet other times being greatly disturbed when miracles wouldn't come, as the account of his frantically trying to bring a child back from the dead would indicate.

    Chapter 7
    In an age of Quakers and Shakers and some very bizarrem sexualized sects of charismatics, it is striking how Smith tried to control his followers' behavior to be more orderly and restrict the fanaticism many were prone to. To many, the appeal was in its intellectualism (relatively), where people were invited to look at the evidence (the history and various testimonies as to the hieroglyphics). That became less a strong point as more historical evidence was uncovered.

    Part of what may have bound early Mormons together was the necessity for survival, particularly on the frontier.

    Chapter 8
    I guess it is a testimony to the difficulty of the times that when people heard news of a "prophet" who had arisen, then often came to see for themselves. And Smith must certainly have had some remarkable charisma to be able to keep them all together as it's almost sole leader.
  23. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Chapter 9
    Most interesting to me is that the book "Doctrine and Covenants" was preceded by the "Book of Commandments", of which most copies had been destroyed by a mob. Curiously, some of the purported revelations from the Lord were discreetly revised in the later edition. I wonder how this is reconciled by its adherants.

    Well...this answers that question. These guys can explain away anything.

    I apologize for the lack of progress, normally I'd be done by now, but things have been quite busy these past two weeks.
  24. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Chapter 10
    It's stunning just how many revelations given to Joseph Smith regarded mundane things, like who was to own this piece of property and how much so-and-so needed to pay, how the food was to be stored and distributed, etc. There was no shortage of convenient and tailored revelations for any matter he needed authority on.

    Chapter 11
    Smith repeatedly has trouble within his flock, from one person or another challenging his authority (including his brother who seemed a surly sort). How he managed to hold his band together, partially through offering positions of authority as one of the 12 apostles or as one of the council of 70 or other methods, is a minor miracle in itself and speaks to his organizational skills and insight into people's incentives.

    Chapter 12
    Brodie makes a convincing case that much of Smith's theology of the cosmos and the conception of God came from various "scientific" books he read. There is enough similarity to far-out theories and references to authors to make this almost certain. Interesting that he managed to get hold of a papyri from an Egyptian tomb and declared it to be a book of Abraham, even translating it by divine revlation. Unfortunately for him, people have learned to read Egyptian hieroglyphics and his translations ended up being a fraud. Of course, the Mormons deny this, claiming that there must have been other portions of the scroll which formed the translation and are now lost.

    Also quite unfortunate for Smith was his revelations on racial issues, which (at least while he was in pro-slavery Missouri) indicated that the fallen races deserved to be enslaved.
  25. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    It's interesting that the Reorganised LDS Church has a lot of stuff in their library which shows quite clearly the changes and adaptations of his writings and also accounts of embarrassing and unseemly behaviours of Joseph and other Mormons. They seem to be the liberal wing (PCUSA) of Mormonism. Until the Internet a lot of this information must have been unknown to most Mormons in the main branch?
  26. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    I don't know much about the Reformed LDS but given the ways they brush off or manage to explain any criticism, no matter how silly the explanation, I don't doubt that the documents don't mean much.

    Chapter 13
    Smith's vision was very earthly, concerned with matters of physical wives and money, including not really being able to avoid continuing his search for treasure, which the another revelation had promised to lead him to (yet failed).

    Chapter 14
    The banking scheme that according to several testimonies, sounds suspiciously like the proof for the golden plates: to prove they had lots of silver and were able to print bank notes, Smith made boxed filled with sand and other material, covered with a layer of silver coins to give the impression that there was a large amount of capital in his bank. This enabled him to print notes and pay off his debts. As people lost faith in it, he quickly shut down the bank.

    I find it quite telling that all three of his "three witnesses" to the Book of Mormon eventually left the "church" at some point, even though their testimony is still printed today.

    Chapter 15
    More turmoil for the Mormons. Smith fleeing from his own converts for his life, the Mormons trying to expand the kingdom by violence. Smith really must have been quite the leader to again control this mob the group had become and bring them back to peacefulness, more or less.

    Chapter 16
    It's easy to see why people were antagonistic toward the Mormons, and while much of the violence against them was unjustified and atrocious, they were far from the poor martyrs they thought themselves to be.

    Smith even (according to witnesses) compared himself at one point to Mohammed "If the people will let us alone, we will preach the gospel in peace. But if they come on us to molest us, we will establish our religion by the sword. We will trample down our enemies and make it one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. I will be to this generation a second Mohammed, whose moddo in treating for peace was 'the Alcoran or the Sword.' So shall it eventually be with us---'Joseph Smith or the Sword!'"
  27. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    I'm inclined to view the Mormons as the "innocent" party in the violence on the Missouri border. The animosity towards them was almost immediate and it wasn't because they were heretics but because they were viewed as economically subversive. They were clearly treated unjustly and the authorities looked the other way (or were involved). If they had intervened at the outset of the trouble the later atrocities would never have occurred. And then, as is always the case, the government covered it up.
  28. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    D&C 52 "Wherefore, verily I say unto you, let my servants Joseph Smith, Jun., and Sidney Rigdon take their journey as soon as preparations can be made to leave their homes, and journey to the land of Missouri...And thus, even as I have said, if ye are faithful ye shall assemble yourselves together to rejoice upon the land of Missouri, which is the land of your inheritance, which is now the land of your enemies."

    I'd probably be a little suspicious of a group moving into my area that said I was their enemy and they would inherit my property. They were also a significant (and uniform) voting bloc that followed the dictum of their leader and changed local economy to best suit their interests. Not justifying the violence, but it does provide a bit of context.
  29. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Indeed. I'm not saying they were innocent, objectively, but clearly the older settlers were not righteous people and their fear of the Mormons was motivated more by jealousy of their own privileged position. And there was far greater violence meted out to the Mormons than vice versa. Most of the violence could have been avoided if the authorities had upheld the law as they were charged to do. They didn't and much tragedy followed (which only served to fortify the Mormons' sense of being persecuted for their righteousness).
  30. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Chapters 17, 18
    More troubles for the Mormons.

    Chapters 19, 20
    Some interesting rituals that seem to borrow heavily from Masonry. Perhaps Smith convinced his followers that his were the true ones and the Masons (who reputedly followed rituals since the time of Solomon) had become corrupted but still maintained some truth. Also recounted some instances of hoaxes being played on the Mormons, which they fell to and Smith interpreting them as ancient artifacts and translating them. When the hoax was revealed, the excuse was that when he is speaking as a prophet, he is a prophet, but when as a man, he is just a man. And clearly it was just as a man at that point...

    Chapters 21, 22
    The rise of polygamy, or perhaps spiritual marriage. It's hard to see the motive behind some of the marriages, particularly to older women. Perhaps it was something of a control thing, to have so many women pin their hopes on being tied to Smith in the hereafter.

    Chapter 23
    Mention of the "Destroying Angels". I have read about these executors of vengeance before and it is a very dark blot on Mormon history. It wasn't proven the Rockwell tried to cause Smith's prophecy of Boggs' violent death to come to pass, but it certainly seems suspicious.

    Chapter 24
    Brodie is fair toward Smith and his plurality of wives, saying that for so many wives it is remarkable that so few children were born, and that it is not certain that any of those were his own, even with speculation. Apparently recent DNA testing has ruled out almost all of these children of his wives as fathered by Smith, but it is hard to imagine that so many (particularly young women) didn't have relations with him, especially given the testimony of many, including his own bodyguards. However, I do concede that the Mormons seem to have evidence on their side against it.
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