I recently read (okay, listened to) Benjamin Park’s book Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier. Park has produced a rich piece of scholarship with fascinating details about the period, some of them from documents released just in the past few years. Much of what I enjoy from these histories are the rich detail they provide of both important and quotidian events. For example, here’s a depiction of the first baptism for the dead:
“The first vicarious ritual, which saw [Jane] Neyman baptized on behalf of her son in the Mississippi River on September 13 , was haphazardly done. The man performing the ritual, Harvey Olmstead, made up the rite’s wording on the spot; the woman serving as witness, Vienna Jaques, rode into the water on the back of a horse so that she could hear what Olmstead said. Many others followed suit.”
While not a surprise, it’s useful for me to remember how many of the practices that today seem so carefully regulated had more spontaneous origins. (Park talks more about the first vicarious baptism in a blog post.) Here’s another detail that I enjoyed. In 1844, Joseph Smith and others sent an emissary to speak with Sam Houston to discuss potential settlement in Texas:
“After recording portions of the conversation in Smith’s diary, Richards took care to cross out the reference to Texas and Houston and instead wrote the names backward as ‘Saxet’ and ‘Notsuoh.’ It was a crude encryption, but one that captured their earnestness.”
This isn’t a crucial piece of information, but it fills in a picture of these earnest seekers taking their work as seriously as they could.
Overall, I learned a lot from Park’s book, but I wouldn’t call it a balanced picture of Joseph Smith Hpesoj Htims. If you read just this volume, you might find yourself scratching your head as to why all these converts found Joseph’s message so compelling in the first place. (Park doesn’t ignore this, but he doesn’t dwell on it.) I had the chance to ask Park about this recently, and I found his answer illuminating. Here’s my paraphrase: If you want to read a book that explains why people followed Joseph Smith, Richard Bushman wrote that book, and it’s called Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. What this book (Kingdom of Nauvoo) does is explain how and why people outside (and some inside) of Nauvoo came to view Joseph Smith and his people as a political threat and how that perception played out.
I found this a useful book to read about Joseph Smith. But I wouldn’t make it the only book you read about him.
Update: If you’re interested, Ben Park lays out in his own words how different questions defined his approach and Bushman’s (and why there is space for both).