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Religion Library: Mormonism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Stephen Taysom

Mormonism has been the subject of intense interest to a wide range of writers from the organization of the Church in 1830 until the present. The vast majority of historical and contemporary commentary on Mormonism may be divided into two main camps, apologists and critics, with a third, much smaller contingent of more objective individuals in the middle. As early as the 1830s, for example, Alexander Campbell, a major figure in antebellum American religious life, published an analysis of The Book of Mormon. Campbell argued that The Book of Mormon represented a transparent attempt on the part of Joseph Smith to resolve all of the contentious issues circulating in the American Christian community in the early 19th century by an appeal to a fictitious ancient scripture that Smith fabricated. At the same time, Mormon thinkers attempted to offer as evidence for the antiquity of the book the narrative's sophistication and Smith's apparent inability to have conceived of and produced such a work.

The themes that informed these writings in the 1830s persist into the present. Much of the historical material on Mormonism is colored by the so-called "prophet/fraud" dichotomy. Joseph Smith's claims to divine revelation and prophetic gifts were seen as either genuine religious experiences or as conscious frauds invented by Smith and foisted on his naïve followers. The side of this dichotomy taken by a given writer would necessarily shape that person's interpretation of the whole of Mormon history.

Although this remains the dominant template for the writing of Mormon history even today, some notable efforts to move beyond the dichotomy have been made. While most Mormons consider Fawn M. Brodie's biography of Joseph Smith to be a vicious attack on the Mormon prophet, her work actually displays a relatively sophisticated approach. Published in 1945, Brodie's No Man Knows My History was the work of a disaffected Mormon, the daughter of a general authority and the niece of Church President David O. McKay. Joseph Smith, she argued, was a Huckleberry Finn-like character, who began to claim prophetic gifts as a lark but who eventually came to believe in his own gifts. Brodie, while not the first biographer to take a psychological measure of Smith, popularized the notion that The Book of Mormon may best be understood as a veiled map of Smith's own deepest desires and fears, played out allegorically in an adventure story set in the New World and couched in the Jacobean English that Smith recognized as scriptural language.

Brodie's book was immensely popular, and remains in print today. Believers naturally take issue with the book's premise and Brodie's clear disdain for Smith leaves Mormons cold. Nevertheless, the book appealed to non-Mormons who rejected Smith's prophetic claims, but who, like Brodie, recognized the remarkable achievements that he was able to reach in his short lifetime. She was excommunicated from the Church for "apostasy" but her work remained the premier biography of Joseph Smith until the 2005 publication of Richard L. Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling.


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