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.