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.
Bushman's book is written by a believer for believers, but he makes no effort to cast Joseph Smith in an unblemished light. Rather, Bushman approaches such controversial issues as Smith's polygyny and polyandry, by attempting to contextualize and explain Smith's motives in a way that modern Mormons will find acceptable.
The sixty years between Brodie's book and Bushman's work saw some progress in Mormon historiography. During the 1960s and 1970s there arose a movement of "New Mormon History" in which Mormon and non-Mormon scholars attempted to approach their subjects through a stance of functional objectivity. By bracketing questions of ultimate concern, these scholars sought to obviate the prophet/fraud dichotomy, and all of its resulting scholarly segregation. Mormons, such as Leonard Arrington and Thomas Alexander, and non-Mormons, such as Jan Shipps and Lawrence Foster, made common cause of Mormon history and produced high-quality work that avoided the agendas of apologists and critics.
Today, the New Mormon History has come under criticism for relying too heavily on a phenomenological approach that stressed recitation rather than interpretation. Although this is certainly not true of the best work produced by these scholars, it is a viable critique of much of the less compelling work. In any case, the decline of the New Mormon History has coincided with a resurgence of strong apologetic and critical voices on either side of the Mormon/non-Mormon divide. The increasing cultural power of conservative Evangelical Christians, many of whom view Mormonism as a dangerous anti-Christian "cult," has led to a plethora of books and websites designed to expose the truth about Mormonism and win Mormons over to Christ. On the other side, vigorous Mormon apologetic organizations such as the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) have taken on the task of responding to criticisms of the Mormon Church through their own print and internet publications. In addition, FARMS, which currently exists as part of Brigham Young University, seeks to provide historical and archaeological evidence for The Book of Mormon.
Scholarly approaches to Mormonism have also been influenced by the resurgence of critical and apologetic debates, and many scholars no longer seek to employ the phenomenological models of functional objectivity popular with the New Mormon historians. John L. Brookes's award-winning 1994 history of early Mormonism entitled The Refiner's Fire accepted as fact Joseph Smith's invention of revelatory experiences and highlighted Smith's heavy borrowing of hermetic and Swedenborgian modes of thought and ritual in the construction of Mormonism. In 2000, Mormon scholar Teryl Givens published By the Hand of Mormon, a literary and historical look at The Book of Mormon that focused on its role in early Mormon thought as well as the contentious debates that the book has spurred in recent years. While Givens presents his work as an open airing of criticisms and the response offered to them by FARMS and other apologetic groups, Givens clearly favors the FARMS arguments, and offers them up without the same vigorous critique to which he subjects the work of anti-Mormon authors. Both books were published by prestigious presses (Cambridge and Oxford respectively), which suggests that a new era of sectarian warfare may be afoot in the scholarly arena.
Although it is possible that cooler heads may eventually prevail and relegate the boisterous insider/outsider debates to the scholarly margins, the success of Mormonism and the persistent presence of Mormons in prominent political, economic, cultural, and ecclesiastical roles will tend to encourage partisan wrangling in the interpretation of Mormonism's past and resist less polarized modes of historical discourse.
1. What are the three “camps” of historical commentary on Mormonism? What does each believe?
2. Explain the prophet/fraud dichotomy.
3. What did Fawn M. Brodie write that has created a controversy within the Mormon church? Why is the book still popular today?
4. How have scholars created debate about Mormonism?