Palmer’s book is short but packed with tons of very interesting, well documented points that really call into question a lot of the Joseph Smith “truth” claims. Things that stood out to me the most listed below.
- Ch 1 – During the Book of Mormon translation, the word in English appeared on the seerstone; Joseph read it to the scribe. So the old argument that “horse” really meant some “equivalent” animal makes no sense. And even if it did, what about cureloms? There’s an unfamiliar animal for which Joseph didn’t pick the “equivalent”. Similar: “Raca” in 3 nephi 12:22 is an Aramaic term.
- Ch 2 – I didn’t realize how many parts of Book of Mormon are taken from the New Testament, to the point of using the same phrasing. On one hand the same God would give same message…but what are the odds the translation from different languages and at different times would result in such commonality?? Sure seems probable that it is a product of someone steeped in the New Testament such that its words became his words.
- Ch 3 – Book of Mormon prophecies are very specific up until about 1830, then very vague after. Hmm… Also, not sure why this never stood out to me as odd, but the three days of light at Jesus birth and three days darkness at death – why were these not witnessed and documented around the world? We have ancient records of eclipses and supernovas and the like; I’m sure the much more noticeable event of three day’s darkenss or light would have been noted. I guess the event could have been localized to the Americas and not dependent on planetary geometry, so the Old World wouldn’t have been effected … ?
- Ch. 4 – conversions in the Book of Mormon follow revival meeting pattern. The whole Book of Mormon is Methodist preaching and exhortation! Some very striking comparisons to Methodist preachings here, similar to comparisons to the New Testament in Chapter 2.
- Changes to the Book of Mormon — “Father” –> “Son of God” changes. The first God in the Book of Mormon was a single individual, Father and Christ. Later they got separated. Some got missed eg Mosiah 15:1-4. “From the beginning, the miracle of the Restoration has been the ability of its leaders to see things in a new light.” Funny!
- Golden Pot story – eh, ok. Kind of a stretch.
- Witnesses – they later said that they saw with “second sight” or “eyes of our understanding” … ie imagination. All very superstitious and gullible. Palmer points out that the witnesses and many others claiming religious experiences in this era are something like those claiming UFO sightings or alien abductions today – maybe just something about humanity; some people believe crazy stuff and it kind of propagates somehow. Does seem disingenuous to allow church members to believe the witnesses claimed some real, physical manifestation, though…
- Both Priesthood Restoration and First Vision seem reconstructed in later years to support Joseph’s preeminence in the church. The Palmyra revival was probably 1824; in 1838, when his official history was written, Joseph reported it was 1820. Palmer suggests this was to preempt his previous sole claim on divine authority, which came from Moroni’s visit and bestowal of the golden plates. In 1838, the Book of Mormon was being discredited, for one thing due to Martin Harris announcing in the Kirtland Temple that he had never physically seen the plates, only spiritually as discussed above.
With all this spiritual stuff being confused for physical … you can’t really trust Joseph or anyone’s speeches as literal. Although I suppose that is true for all men at all times – we can never be sure what their true feelings are vs what they want another to think. The arts of persuasion and manipulation are real. Of course that goes for historical accounts as well. Man, now I don’t know what to trust anymore…
After reading this book, I can see why LDS church leaders really got ticked off at Fawn Brodie and excommunicated her. But it was really well written, seems to be well researched, and was very interesting to read for someone familiar with other Joseph Smith accounts. Brodie assumes and makes the case that Joseph Smith was most definitely a fraud, either intentionally to make a living (and later as his standing grew among his people, to get whatever he could — mostly other men’s wives or young girls in bed) or perhaps due to being incapable of distinguishing physical reality from his Bible-influenced fantasies.
Brodie’s history of Joseph’s early days contain many discrepancies with the official church account. His first autobiographical sketch in 1834 “contained no whisper of an event that, if it had happened, would have been the most soul-shattering experience of his whole youth” — the First Vision. “If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed in Joseph’s home town, and apparently did not even fix itself in the minds of members of his own family.” Furthermore, Joseph spent the years after his remarkable vision not in preparing the way or himself somehow for his prophetic mission, but in searching out secret treasures — “money digging.”
After an arrest and acquittal on fraud for money digging activities, Brodie suggests Joseph retooled his methods and came up with his next act. There was a lot of speculation about Indian origins and artifacts around his area of New York, particularly burial mounds. Per Joseph, an angelic visitor named Moroni led him to secret buried golden plates, from which he “translated” the Book of Mormon. (Quotes around “translated” since by all accounts he didn’t actually read from the plates, but rather read the English words off a seerstone.) Alexander Campbell sarcastically noted that the Book of Mormon neatly solved all religious controversies debated in New York over the previous ten years. Also, to couple with the First Vision ambiguities, the original Book of Mormon clearly made Christ and the Father the same God … odd since Joseph had seen them as two distinct beings. (Well, at least there were two beings in a few of the First Vision accounts…) Most of these references to one God were subsequently changed, but some still remain.
Other notes of interest:
- Brodie seemed to suggest in her explanation of the witnesses, and visions shared with Cowdery that Joseph was a hypnotist?? Or maybe I misunderstood. Would be interesting…
- One of Joseph’s miracles was healing Elsa Johnson’s arm. But contrast with numerous failed healings at the first general conference in Kirkland… Maybe many of the “miracles” we hear about today were only a fraction of the attempts, a kind of survivor bias.
- Similarly, most of Joseph’s prophecies went bust. One that is still trotted out from time to time is his prediction of the Civil War, beginning in South Carolina. Well, actually he was anticipating a much shorter term realization of that prophecy, in what became known as the Nullification Crisis … of course about 30 years too early for the real war. The prophecy was apparently an embarrassment until dug up by Brigham in the 1860’s.
- Zions camp was kind of hilarious, eg. getting so mad at cousin Sylvester Smith that he threw the Ram’s horn used to call the camp to attention at him, breaking it. But the whole thing was really a strategic debacle – marching an army made the Missouri situation more desperate and forced the mobbers hand, thwarting efforts of the Governor to bring peace.
- During the defense preparations in Far West, Joseph along with Rigdon were very outspoken in calling for violence, eg. “Joseph Smith or the sword” and insinuating anyone anyone fleeing the coming fight should be killed. Joseph preached that the power of God would prevail and angels would fight with them “And for every one we lack in number to match the mob, the Lord will send an angel to fight alongside.” But later during the siege, he secretly sent emissaries secretly to “beg like a dog for peace” and surrendered the next day. “You are good and brave men, but there are 10,000 men approaching Far West, and unless you were angels themselves you could not withstand so formidable a host.” Uh, wait a minute, Joseph, what about your promise from yesterday???
- Short but revealing account during the Far West time of Rigdon saying something disapproving about Joseph’s wrestling on the Sabbath, then Joseph going over to him, ripping his coat and mocking him. Kind of seems like an arrogant person who thought himself above the law, including God’s.
- Never realized this: one reason the Saints found (temporary) peace in Nauvoo was that they were a bargaining chip in Illinois politics. Desiring to please the leader of this new, large voting bloc, politicians of both main parties felt the incentive to keep Joseph from being extradited back to Missouri, and otherwise give in to his demands (eg. Nauvoo charter).
- Lying for the Lord: Joseph made numerous public denials of polygamy, as did other leaders and even some of his wives. Apparently they rationalized this because they were against “polygamy” but for “the doctrine of plurality of wives”. Ok….
- Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde: sad stories of having wives taken…
- In the later Nauvoo years, Joseph kind of seemed to go off the rails. On attorneys – “I know more than they all”. “God is my right hand man.” Said to Josiah Quincy, in joking tone – “They think I’m a prophet!” And this is ridiculous: “He had the city council pass an ordinance providing that if any officer came to Nauvoo with a writ for his arrest based on the old Missouri difficulties, he should be arrested, tried, and if found guilty sentenced to life imprisonment in the city jail. He could be pardoned by the governor only with the consent of the Nauvoo mayor – that is, Joseph himself.”
Brodie’s picture is of an actor playing a role. Joseph was a prophet because he thought he was a prophet, and people believed him. When claiming a “revelation” he was really saying ‘I’ve thought long and hard about this and I feel that this must be the Lord’s will, since it is so obvious to me that it’s the very thing that he would want to tell his people right now.’
‘Joseph would allow no arrogance or undue liberties,’ said one friend, ‘and criticisms, even by his associates, were rarely acceptable, and contradictions would rouse in him the lion at once, for by no one of his fellows would he be superseded.’. Herein was his great strength and his most fatal weakness. For no man whose chief virtues were love of compromise, justice,and prudence could set himself up as a prophet. But neither could any man who trampled on these virtues survive as a political force in America.
Today is an auspicious day to write about “Rough Stone Rolling.” Joseph Smith, the star of the show, was killed by a mob of vigilantes one hundred and sixty-seven years ago, June 27, 1844.
Growing up as a Mormon, I’ve been hearing about Joseph Smith since before I can remember. As such, the general outline of his life is pretty familiar. Even still, Bushman’s biography did fill in an awful lot of details – a lot of things about Joseph that aren’t generally known throughout the church. They’re not specifically suppressed by any means, but they just aren’t simple or applicable enough to a Sunday School lesson. Kind of like in Joseph’s own time –missionaries frequently did not feel the need to mention Joseph at all – their message was primarily the restoration of spiritual gifts from the ancient Christian church. Today the Church is similar – the message Joseph preached is more important than the man himself.
Joseph did an incredible work in his relatively short life, even if you completely disbelieve his claims of prophecy and revelation. I think Bushman did a good job giving unbiased treatment of his life. He presents the revelations, visions, and other supernatural claims just as Joseph and his contemporaries recounted them without interjecting his own opinions or beliefs.
Joseph wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. There’s the “money-digging” of course; kind of silly and ludicrous to us in our time, but not so much in the supernatural mixture of magic and religion that permeated New England culture in the early nineteenth century. He tried out many different business schemes throughout his life and exactly none of them succeeded. Although not entirely his fault, the failure of the bank Joseph helped to set up in Kirtland was the main impetus for dissent among church members there and forced him from the city. He sometimes had a short temper. During Zion’s Camp he had a series of squabbles with his cousin Sylvester Smith. One that stuck in my mind: Sylvester threatened to kill one of the camp dogs, Joseph threatened to whip Sylvester if he did. They were both pretty nasty to each other.
The Missourians and other mobbers persecuted the Mormons out of fear of fanaticism. They were wary of the ever-growing numbers of converts streaming in from other states and even foreign countries, all claiming allegiance to a man who claimed to speak for God. Who could predict what he may preach and what atrocities his “blind followers” might commit in the name of God? Fear bred suspicion, then hatred and violence. It’s ironic that the Missourians were right in one regard – in the kingdom of God, the laws of God are higher than the laws of man. Many of the Saints would have followed Joseph’s revelations to the death, if required. Later on in Utah, many men practiced plural marriage, were arrested and thrown in jail. They would rather be disobedient to the law of the land than disobedient to the will of God.
Speaking of plural marriage, that’s probably THE most interesting, not-really-taught-in-Sunday-School item about Joseph Smith that Bushman’s biography sheds some light on. Perhaps because of Emma’s efforts at white-washing history after Joseph’s death, or due to the church’s reluctance to associate itself with the renounced practice, the historical record gets a bit murky. But Joseph did marry several women, the vast majority in just a few years in Nauvoo, and generally in secrecy. Joseph had twenty or thirty or so plural wives. Some of them were already married to other men! (That one was news to me.) Many of these marriages were in name only, but there’s evidence of at least a few being fully consummated. Some wives actually lived in the Smith household at different times, but Emma always ended up kicking them out. It seems like she tried to understand and accept the practice, but never could. Joseph ended up marrying many of his wives without informing Emma at all.
Why did Joseph practice polygamy? A weighty question that I truly don’t know the answer to. (Well, I take that back, I do know why – because he felt God commanded him to do it. And whatever God commands to do is right.) On the face of it, looking back from our day and age, it looks like nothing more than adultery, bigamy, and lecherous behavior. (I was going to write “lecherousity” but I’m not sure that’s a word.) Indeed, this was almost invariably the first reaction of those early Mormons who were introduced to the doctrine by Joseph. All had to take time out, pray, and gain a personal assurance that it was from God. Joseph himself described an angel with drawn sword standing above his head, threatening him with his life if he did not practice and teach the doctrine.
I’ve heard and give some credence to the idea that polygamy was necessary to quickly “raise up a righteous posterity” and create, in just a few generations, a solid, cohesive society of members committed to each other, their families, and the church. Whatever the reasons though, I wonder if the main reason Joseph practiced polygamy as he did was more to set the example for other church leaders than for anything else. It was a struggle for the Apostles and others to accept the doctrine when taught by Joseph himself; imagine Brigham Young trying to sell it in the midst of the confusing succession crisis that followed Joseph’s death….
Through it all I get the impression of Joseph as a man trying to do what he thinks is right. He was convinced of the veracity of his revelations — although “convinced” is the wrong word since it may imply a period of uncertainty; Joseph never doubted that his revelations were from God. They were real to him and it was not even possible for him to question. All he could do was choose to obey or not. He chose obedience and placed his trust in God, and tried as best as he could to carry out His will.