Joseph Smith, by Robert V. Remini
As part of his large selection of writings about Antebellum American history, this book from the Penguins Lives series serves as a thoughtful and mild biography of one of the most fascinating but also problematic American religious figures in history. Now, anyone who knows my own life story will realize that I have a deep and abiding interest in the fascinating and problematic aspects of American religious history , and this book certainly fits that bill. The author openly admits that he is not a Mormon and thus tips his hand as to how he approaches its subject, but he decides to write his history based on the largely pro-Mormon accounts he has available and lets the reader decide how skeptical they want to be. I happen to think that he was pretty skeptical himself about Smith’s claims and I happen to be as well, but those readers who are inclined to desire a pro-Mormon history will see that there is at least some genuine respect for Smith and his followers as well as considerable and extensive criticism of their views of history and their behavior and the general financial shadiness of Smith’s short life.
This short book of less than 200 pages is divided into nine chapters that give a chronological discussion of Joseph’s Smith’s background and life. Remini opens with a discussion of the context of Smith’s childhood in the Second Great Awakening (1) and in his own parents’ high degree of private religious belief as well as considerable recourse to superstition. After that the author talks about the supposed first vision (2) of Joseph Smith and his enigmatic relationship with the supposed angel Moroni (3), whose name it is difficult not to pun in relation to the credulity of those who followed Smith. A discussion of the Book of Mormon (4) follows that manages to avoid talking about the plagiarism accusations that have long dogged it and even manages to take “reformed Egyptian” script unironically. After this the author talks about the difficulties in organizing the Church of Christ (5) in New York before discussing the slow migration of Mormons westward first to Kirkland, Ohio (6) where there was some difficulty involving a failed bank and then the move to Far West, Missiouri (7), and then Nauvoo, Illinois (8), where the movement grew to a large size and eventually faced the opposition that would lead to the assassination of Joseph Smith (9) .
What makes this book most interesting from the point of view of the non-Mormon reader is that the author manages to pinpoint some of the qualities that made Smith’s beliefs most appealing to people, including the way that it provided a distinctly American answer to questions of great political importance and also combined a focus on the family with occult ideas, racism, and a high-minded communitarian ideal as well as a strong interest in genealogy. The author praises the human qualities of Joseph Smith that made him something other than a plaster saint and also comments that many of the pro-Mormon sources that one reads play up the sense of hostility that Joseph Smith inspired among others for all of his life up to his death, providing a sense of dramatic foreshadowing as well as attempting to encourage the sort of immunity to social pressure that comes from musing on one’s status as an outcast and a misfit in a dangerous and hostile world. Overall, despite the unpleasant nature of some of Smith’s behavior, including his adoption of the doctrine of plural marriage for LDS elites and the weirdness of magic underwear, the author manages to write about his subject with a surprising degree of respect and regard.
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