Biographies of a New World Man

June 21, 2007 | 31 comments
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Joseph Smith, it’s fair to say, was a rebel and a runner and a restless young man. That, plus his many religious accomplishments, makes him an attractive subject for biographers both in and out of the Church, who have responded by writing dozens of Joseph Smith biographies. In fact, I think that when it comes to history, Mormons are spoiled without generally knowing it. Pull down a denominational history or the biography of any other 19th-century religious figure from the shelf of your local library and you’re likely to get a snoozer. By comparison, early LDS history and the adventures of Joseph Smith are religious thrillers. Yet I would say that many, even most, Mormons have not yet read their first book-length biography of Joseph Smith. Why not? And if a Latter-day Saint does decide to buy and read her first biography of Joseph, which of the many available titles should she choose (or avoid)?

As to the first question, the fact that there is no “official” in-house biography of Joseph Smith probably makes it easier for some Mormons to avoid the task. Not that Mormons don’t read plenty of “won’t find it at Deseret Book” books. But for something as central to LDS belief as the events of Joseph’s life, I understand why many Mormons are uneasy making a choice from a set of biographies that includes some authors who don’t accept LDS faith claims and others who may be quite critical of those claims. There is also the mixed blessing of Joseph Smith–History, the autobiographical narrative written by Joseph Smith himself in 1838. It’s not a biography: the canonized selection found in the Pearl of Great Price only covers events through only 1829. But it tells that story so effectively and so strikingly that I think many LDS readers feel satisfied with that account alone. It answers the big questions. It’s only twelve pages, but I think most readers feel they “connect” with Joseph through that first-person narrative, and that’s enough for most readers.

But the times they are a-changin’. Between “The Mormons” and strangely doctrinal media stories on Mitt Romney and the the soon-to-be-released September Dawn, more Latter-day Saints will be wanting to read up on their history than ever before, if only to deal with questions around the water cooler or from curious friends or neighbors. The recent survey conducted by LDS staffers seems to confirm this. Which brings us to the second question: Which Joseph Smith biography would you recommend to an LDS reader who hasn’t read one before?

Richard Bushman’s recent Rough Stone Rolling is now the definitive biography, but I think there might just be too much material and too much detail for a first read. I had read other JS biographies and was eager to read RSR when I tackled it, but I still hit the doldrums about one-third of the way through the book and didn’t pick it up again for two months. Donna Hill’s Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (1977) is more manageable but is now thirty years old and a lot of scholarship has happened in the interim. And while it presents the events of Joseph’s life very cleanly, it doesn’t really come to grips with Joseph’s character or personality — at least that was my impression. I lean towards recommending Robert V. Remini’s Joseph Smith (2002), from the Penguin Lives series. It is short but informative, objective but sympathetic to Joseph’s visions and religious mission, and presents the early LDS experience in the context of other national events of that era. It misses on a few details and doesn’t use footnotes (it does list sources by chapter) but I think it succeeds well, on terms most Latter-day Saints would appreciate, as a short biography.

There are other JS biographies that I haven’t read and, obviously, I can’t say much about those. And some readers may have a different sense of whether now’s the time for the average Mormon to get a little more serious about reading LDS history. I’m open to alternative suggestions as to where they should start their reading.

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31 Responses to Biographies of a New World Man

  1. Christopher on June 21, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    I would lean towards either Remini\’s book or Bushman\’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Though it doesn\’t cover Joseph\’s entire life, it is a good starting point for those intimidated by RSR.

  2. Rusch on June 21, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    For most Latter-day Saints, I think that they should start with Truman Madsen’s lectures on the Prophet Joseph Smith. That was where I began. Madsen deals with Joseph’s personality, triumphs, shortcomings, and relationships with others in a way that most members of the Church will appreciate. While Madsen does present Joseph in a very favorable light, he does touch on things such and treasure hunting, polygamy, and the Nauvoo Expositor incidents in a way that I was able to appreciate and understand while serving a mission. Richard Bushman in a Mormon Stories Podcast recommended John Henry Evens biography. Unfortunately it is out of print, but can be purchased through Alibris and Amazon.com as used books. For me, Rough Stone Rolling, was amazing.

    I know that there are some members who are hesitant, and some who put it down feeling that it was negative, but in the end I found that it was by far one of the best books that I had ever read, period.

  3. Kevin Barney on June 21, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    If RSR is too much, the prior JS and the Beginnings of Mormonism may be a good compromise, as Christopher suggests.

  4. Eric Nielson on June 21, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    So is the biography of Joseph Smith a signal turning green?

    Gotta love the Rush lyrics!

  5. Ardis Parshall on June 21, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    People who are really readers could tackle any of the biographies — I don’t think there is much in any of them that would be too much of a challenge to experienced readers, even if church history is new. People who aren’t used to reading book-length works might think that a biography, even of someone as important as Joseph Smith, is more detailed and focused than they are quite willing to invest in. They couldn’t go wrong learning about Joseph Smith by reading at least the early chapters of any of the well-written general church histories — Arrington and Bitton’s Mormon Experience, Allen and Leonard’s Story of the Latter-day Saints, and Barrett’s Joseph Smith and the Restoration.

  6. Wilfried on June 21, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks for the excellent post, Dave. As usual, I’ll add a little international input. Anglophone readers already have a number of biographies to choose from, but what about other languages ? Attacks and satires abound, but are there any translations of the better books you mention? Or genuine, respectful JS biographies in other languages? That brings up the old concern that so much is available in English and so little for the “allophones”.

    For those who read French, there is the fascinating When God became American by Marc Chadourne. A unicum as far as I know. We’ve been trying to obtain permission to translate it in English, but all our efforts to have the rightful heir respond have led to nothing thus far.

  7. DKL on June 21, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    The top three full biographies of Joseph are No Man Knows My History, Rough Stone Rolling, and Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (in that order). I agree with you that Hill doesn’t do enough editorializing to communicate a good view of Joseph. Though it’s well written, this absence of editorializing makes it dry reading sometimes.

    Remeni’s is a very good introduction to Joseph’s biography, so if you had to choose just one, that’s an easy place to start. I’d recommend it to a non-Mormon friends as a quick survey. As other commenters have mentioned, Bushman’s 1984 Joseph Smith bio Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonim is also a tremendous choice, though it only covers up to Kirtland.

    If you really want to get a clear picture of who Joseph really was — a clear vision of him as a person — then Brodie is still the only game in town. But I don’t personally don’t see why people can’t read Rough Stone Rolling. With all the emphasis that our church places on literacy and education, It won’t do to shy away from recommending a such a tremendous bio on Joseph based merely on the fact that it’s long.

    I would not personally recommend Truman Madsen’s lectures unless your a missionary and can’t get your hands on a scholarly treatment.

    But my advice would be this: Do not read just one! Read several. The more the better. Start with Brodies. Read Bushman’s. Read Vogel’s. Then read Van Waggoner’s bio on Sydney. Then read Arrington’s bio of Brigham.

    An aside: I’d like to see someone write a bio of Oliver Cowdery called Oliver Cowdery: The Second Mormon as a sequel to Donna Hill’s book. This could kick off an entire series of biographies of Mormons, called, “The Ordinal Mormons.” It could go on indefinitely.

  8. Dave on June 21, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    That’s a great point, Wilfried, which makes a case for the increased importance that online availability of sources and texts will have for non-English-speaking Mormons — because just about any English text can now be “browser-translated” into any foreign language. For example, here is a link to the French text of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism essay on Joseph Smith (by Bushman and Jesse, posted in English at the About Mormons site).

  9. Brad Kramer on June 21, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    I’m inclined to agree with DKL here–except I would invert slots one and two. I think Bushman is slightly better than Brodie. It’s certainly better history even if Joseph as a person is not as compelling as NMKMH’s portrayal. I definitely think that anyone interested in understanding Joseph Smith must read Brodie. There is simply no way around it. Vogel does have some helpful insights, and I’m definitely looking forward to the forthcoming Signature trilogy. Having said all that, I suspect that Bushman’s work will remain the definitive work for at least a couple of decades and will likely be considered as relevant a half century from now as Brodie is today.

  10. John Williams on June 21, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Donna Hill died recently. Her grand-nephew is in my ward and he went to New York City to help clean out her apartment.

    Don’t read “Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism.” It is simply the beginning of Rough Stone Rolling. Just read Rough Stone Rolling.

    I read “Joseph Smith the First Mormon” in a Church History class at BYU and I liked it.

    The Arrington biography on Brigham Young “American Moses” is dry as a bone. Arrington knew a lot of history but he didn’t know how to write in an engaging manner.

  11. Christopher on June 21, 2007 at 6:14 pm

    John Williams:

    The suggestion to read JSATBOM comes precisely because it is roughly the same as the beginning of RSR. The sheer size of RSR is too intimidating to many rank-and-file Mormons, and thus Bushman’s first book on JS (obviosuly much shorter) might be the better introduction.

  12. John Williams on June 21, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    Christopher (11)

    Then just read the first few chapters of RSR.

  13. Rusch on June 21, 2007 at 7:31 pm

    Good point John. RSR, I feel, deals with too much for someone who is embarking on a study of the life of Joseph Smith. George Q. Cannon wrote a biography about Joseph Smith that is interesting because it portrays the life of Joseph Smith through the eyes of an early Mormon who had been imprisoned for being plurarly married. It definitely presents a faith promoting perspective, which most rank and file members of the Church will feel comfortable with. I think that RSR will be considered to be “the book” when it comes to Joseph Smith for the forseeable future.

    You can get the Cannon book for free from Google books. It is called The Life of Joseph Smith: The Prophet

  14. Christopher on June 21, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    John Williams (12)

    You are missing my point. The visual sight of RSR is too intimidating to most Mormons. Even if you explain that they only need to read the first few chapters, the mere sight of a 700 page book, I think, will scare them off. Same goes for Donna Hill’s book – its gotta be at least 525 pages. That’s why I would recommend either Remini’s book (slightly over 200 small pages) or JSATBOM (a little over 250). Bushman’s might get the nod from Mormons just because they might want to read a Mormon author.

    As for GQC’s Life of Joseph Smith: The Prophet … I agree that it might be a good place to start for those looking for an up-front faith-promoting bio of JS (which it appears most LDS prefer).

    But I don’t think it’ll do much to help Mormons “deal with questions around the water cooler or from curious friends or neighbors.”

  15. John Williams on June 21, 2007 at 10:05 pm

    “the mere sight of a 700 page book, I think, will scare them off.”

    You need to give Mormons more credit than that.

  16. Bob on June 21, 2007 at 10:49 pm

    #15..”You need to give Mormons more credit than that.” A joke right?! The head of the Church gave Mormons an order & a year to read the BOM. I I wonder how many did/could that? A 700 page book would take me…I don’t know…not sure I ever read one!

  17. John Williams on June 21, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    Bob (16) Rough Stone Rolling was a big hit in my parent’s ward in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was sort of like a fad. My parents even went to an empty-nesters Family Home Evening where they discussed the book.

    Admittedly, I have not heard of a lot of Mormons my age who have read it (I’m 29).

  18. DKL on June 22, 2007 at 12:18 am

    If Jesus wrote a 700 page book, Mormons would probably read it unless it was super boring. Why then, can’t they read Bushman, who’s book is really very readable?

  19. Dave on June 22, 2007 at 12:35 am

    In response to DKL (#7) and Brad (#9) — I agree Brodie wrote an engaging narrative, one that (unlike RSR) I read cover to cover over Christmas break a few years ago. It probably spurred LDS historians to do better research on Joseph Smith. But I would not recommend the book to any LDS reader, for several reasons. [Which is not to say an interested LDS reader who has read some LDS history should sheepishly avoid NMKMH, just that I personally would never recommend it under the circumstances I sketched out in the post.]

    First, it is 60 years old. There was a revised 2d edition in 1970, advertised by the publisher as “substantially revised in 1970.” But Brodie herself wrote, in the preface to the 2d edition, that the intervening 25 years of scholarship does “not necessitate important revisions in this biography. … The text of this edition contains certain significant additions, but they are not long, and have been woven into the original in a fashion that permits the pagination to remain unchanged.” And isn’t that what’s important about a revised 2d edition, to keep the pagination unchanged? Certainly easier than, say, reconsidering one’s perspective or arguments in light of new scholarship. That might require changing large portions of the text … and altering the pagination.

    Second, Brodie seems unwilling to seriously consider other scholarship (which is already evident from the pagination quote). In the Bibliography (to my 2d edition; I don’t know what it said in the 1st edition), she says: “There is a stupendous literature on Mormonism, almost all of which is valueless as source material for the study of Joseph Smith.” While it is nice she focused on source material, it’s not like using sources is a guarantee one’s interpretation is beyond revision, especially for a controversial subject like Joseph Smith. Together, the two quotes seem to indicate her unwillingness to consider more recent scholarship that might have invited reconsideration of her 1945 conclusions. Her portrait of Joseph as a charming rogue just isn’t defensible anymore.

  20. DKL on June 22, 2007 at 1:36 am

    Dave, the problem with the standard harangue against Brodie being dated and Brodie being simplistic and Brodie being closed-minded is that Hill and Bushman both tell essentially the same story — the difference is a mostly a matter of detail. Bushman himself said in his podcast with John Dehlin that after all these years, Brodie’s work still stands.

    Saying that Brodie portrays Joseph as a charming rogue is not a serious characterization.

    Lastly, for 60 years, it’s been impossible to write anything serious about Joseph Smith without siting her book (Hill and Bushman sure do). Nor has Bushman’s book changed this, and it was as true before 1970 as it is now. The consistent pagination makes her presence in older bibliographies substantially less confusing. In light of the advertised revisions, it is worth noting that the pagination hasn’t changed.

  21. Nate Oman on June 22, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    I suggest Remini. I also strongly suspect that DKL is gunning for a posthumous sealing to Brodie…

  22. DKL on June 22, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Nate, do you think they’d let me?

  23. David on June 22, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    I would hardly say that Bushman and Hill tell the same story as Brodie. This is not a question of details. Rather, it is one of interpretation and frameworks. Bushman explains his thoughts better than I can, so I’ll quote him: “My advantage as a practicing Mormon is that I believe enough to take Joseph Smith seriously. If a writer begins with the idea that Smith was a fraud who perpetrated a hoax upon the gullible public with his story of gold plates and ancient Israelites in America, nothing he did can be trusted. Every act and every thought is undercut by his presumed fraudulent beginnings. That overhanging doubt makes it difficult for a skeptical biographer to find much of interest in Smith’s writings or to explain why thousands of people believed him. What of value is to be expected from the theological meanderings of a charlatan?” (http://common-place.dreamhost.com//vol-07/no-01/author/index.shtml)
    Frameworks are largely determined by audience. Again, Bushman explains. “The reason Mormons disliked Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith was that she had no regard for Mormon readers. Mormons thought she caricatured Smith, minimizing his religious feelings and downplaying his theological ingenuity. But she did not care; she had written the book for another audience. As I set out to write Rough Stone Rolling, I tried to keep all kinds of readers with me. I vowed not to make Brodie’s mistake of writing solely for one part of the potential audience. She wrote for unbelievers; I did not want to err in the opposite direction. My historical instincts moved me to tell the whole story as truthfully as I could anyway, but I also knew that if I overly idealized Smith, I would lose credibility with non-Mormons. With a broad readership in mind, I could not conceal his flaws. Moreover, I tried to voice unbelieving readers’ likely reactions when Smith married additional wives or taught doctrines foreign to modern sensibilities. When he went beyond the pale, I acknowledged readers’ dismay” (ibid.).
    So, when Bushman says that Brodie still stands, I don’t read that as a blanket endorsement for her work. Rather, I interpret that statement is saying that for non-believers, Brodie still offers the most comprehensible explanation of the Mormon Prophet. The rules that allow Karen Armstrong to write a sympathetic yet secular biography of Mohammed still do not apply to the study of JS.

  24. Bob on June 24, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    “The reason Mormons disliked Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith was that she had no regard for Mormon readers. Mormons thought she caricatured Smith, minimizing his religious feelings and downplaying his theological ingenuity. But she did not care” I can only hope to ask Dr. Bushman some day what he meant. But I feel Brodie, because of her personal history, must have had “regard” and “care” how fellow Mormons would see her story(?) Also, sometimes in History writing, being closer to the Subject Time, is helpful in understanding it. I understand Brodie was a 100 years away, and Bushman is 76, but it can be a mistake to set aside a written History because it is old.

  25. DKL on June 24, 2007 at 8:42 pm

    David: The reason Mormons disliked Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith was that she had no regard for Mormon readers.

    That’s exactly right! And that’s exactly the problem with the Mormon audience. Anything that doesn’t cater carefully to their prejudice poses a stumbling block. So often, they can’t see the forest for the trees. Bushman’s own account testifies of this. When you read On the Road with Joseph Smith, this fear of the Mormon audience savagely turning on him as they read a book that tells truths they don’t want to hear.

    This is related to the point I’ve tried to make elsewhere (repeatedly) in reference to Helen Whitney’s documentary; viz., that Mormons are among the least gracious people I know. Fawn Brodie put Joseph Smith on the American Historical map, and she’s still among the most reviled authors in Mormondom.

    And it won’t do at this point to object to Brodie’s framework. The problem so many Mormons had with it to begin with and over the years is that it’s historically inaccurate and that it’s bad history. Saying you don’t like the framework concedes defeat. It’s is just another version of the sophomoric retort in a lost argument, “Well, I guess what you said is fine, I just don’t like how you said it.” Surely you can do better than that, Dave.

  26. Bob on June 24, 2007 at 9:16 pm

    DKL..if you are saying Brodie wrote with “Let the chips fall where they may..”, I agree. But I think she was swinging an ax, not grinding one. I think Brodie did what she felt needed doing, I fell the same for Bushman, and others.

  27. Dave on June 24, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    DKL: David (comment #23) is not the same as Dave (me, author of this post). My own comments on Brodie are at comment #19.

  28. DKL on June 25, 2007 at 10:00 am

    Thanks for the clarification, Dave. I had mistakenly equated Dave with David.

  29. David on June 25, 2007 at 10:39 am

    DKL: I agree with you that one cannot seriously argue that Brodie is dated. What I disagreed with was the evidence you produced to support your assertion. You argued that one cannot say that Brodie is dated because Brodie tells the same story as Bushman, which simply is not the case. Bushman explains clearly in the quotes I provided and his Dehlin podcast that because of his (Bushman’s) frameworks, he paints a very different portrait of JS than Brodie did.

    The fact that Brodie is still relevant today in a post-Bushman world is evidence that they tell different stories. Bushman did not succeed in replacing her interpretation of the Mormon prophet for a non-Mormon audience. This is something that Bushman is painfully cognizant of. This tells us a lot about the interpretive divides that continue to exist between believers and non-believers, divisions that do not seem to exist in academic conversations about how to interpret Mohammed and other major figures (hence my statement about the reception of Karen Amstrong’s book).

  30. Christopher on June 26, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    I agree with David on this one. Brodie and Bushman tell different stories because each sets up different frameworks. I think the primary framework that divides the two interpretations of Smith is not just how Brodie treats Mormonism, but rather how she treats religion and spirituality as a whole.

    The interpretive divide surrounding Smith isn’t solely between Mormons and non-Mormons, but also between secular and religious historians. Charles Cohen for example, in his MHA address last year, critiqued Brodie for “misconstruing … Mormon devotional temperament” and “neglecting [Smith's] religious passion” (a big enough issue that it convinced him that “despite [NMKMH's] manifest virtues, it may be time to lay [Brodie's] tome aside”). Colleen McDaniel, in a similar vein, praised RSR because “it examines so thoroughly the spiritual experience of Joseph Smith and early Mormons”–something she felt of especial significance “to those in religious studies.”

    Brodie’s work still stands today because of its initial significance as the first scholarly biography of Joseph Smith, and because it still appeals to those (both academic and not) who refuse to take religion and spirituality seriously.

  31. David on June 26, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    Christopher: Thanks for the corrective. I agree that the believer/nonbeliever or Mormon/non-Mormon divide is a bit too simplistic. If I could re-write my post, I would have written sympathetic/nonsympathetic to religious experience. Brodie (technically, still a Mormon when the book was written) isn’t very simpathetic to JS’s religious experience, whereas Jan Shipps has always employed a sympathetic approach to JS and Mormon religious experience.