Reading Brodie

Over the years I’ve read snippets of Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, but until now I’ve never had a chance to read it all the way through. I bought it twice in Texas, but both times the book mysteriously vanished from the nightstand and the house.

Having read Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, it’s tempting to do a comparison, but maybe I’ll do that later. For now, I thought I’d share my impressions (I’m about one-third of the way through the book).

First, despite the hatred Ms. Brodie has attracted from church members (my mom calls the book a “hatchet job”), the book is remarkably sympathetic to Joseph Smith. He emerges as a complex individual with both good and bad motivations, both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time.

Brodie carefully provides the context for the emergence of Joseph the Prophet. From an environment of folk magic (peepstones and treasure seeking), religious zealotry (revivals and the “burnt-over district”), and Indian mythology (Mound Builders and View of the Hebrews) arises a charismatic young man who combines all of this in a millenarian religion that answers all of the day’s pressing questions.

Brodie’s style is understated to great effect. In discussing Joseph’s claims to a First Vision, she simply notes that, despite his assertions that he was “persecuted” for recounting his vision, no one, not even his family, seems to remember anything about such a vision.

Her discussion of the Book of Mormon witnesses is fascinating. Despite their written testimony, Martin Harris says in an interview that he never saw the plates, except by his “spiritual eyes,” and even then they were covered by a cloth.

The Joseph she paints is someone who finds validation as a prophet from his successes, such as the unexpected healing of John Johnson’s wife’s withered hand. But such successes lead to failures, such as the out-of-control 1831 general conference that involved members shouting and rolling and the infirm lining up to be healed (though none were).

The turning point for Joseph seems to have come when the destitute Mormons were expelled from Independence, Missouri, in 1833. At first Joseph was indecisive and put off making any decisions by saying he had heard conflicting reports of the situation. A revelation was thus noncommittal as to what the members should do, other than be patient and hope for legal redress. When the situation became clearer, he blamed the members’ lack of faith for their expulsion. Finally, in response to the members’ predictable dismay at his response, he organized Zion’s Camp.

Anyway, those are some first impressions. I’m sure many of you have read this book. If nothing else, Brodie’s prose is lively and crisp and puts Bushman’s monotony to shame. And she has the advantage over Bushman that she feels no need to make any excuses for Brother Joseph.


5 Responses to Reading Brodie

  1. Ray Agostini says:

    No Man was one of the first “anti-Mormon” books I ever read, in the late 1970s. At the time I was way too unsophisticated and “TBM” to grasp it all, so I put it back on the library shelves until the mid-1980s, when I bought the paperback copy I still own. From what has been said about it by defenders one would think it was a second rate work of “psychobiography”, and there is a lot of speculation and “mind-reading” in the book, but as you note Runtu, on my second reading I was surprised at how sympathetic to Joseph Smith Brodie was. I have a friend who was converted to Mormonism through a first-encounter with No Man, and decided to look into Mormonism more.

    It’s been a number of years now since I last read it, but the fact that it’s still on my whittled down and last remaining bookshelf is an indication that it’s one of the books I felt worth keeping. To be sure, we’ve come a long way since Brodie in terms of analysing Joseph Smith, but Brodie marks a significant turning point in critical Joseph Smith studies. The niece of David O. Mc Kay paid a huge price for writing this, excommunication. A good companion to a better understanding the development of Brodie’s views comes from her dear friend and mentor Dale Morgan, in Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism:

    See the letters to Fawn Brodie.

  2. Todd Wood says:

    Good book.

    No Man got me also interested in reading some of her other books.

    Being a Republican, I had to purchase her book on Nixon. (chuckling)

  3. C. L. Hanson says:

    I read this book years ago — after leaving the faith and moving on, but before discovering discussions of Mormonism on the Internet. Like you, I felt like the author was sympathetic to Joseph Smith, and I was kind of surprised to discover how much the faithful hate the book. But I think the reaction is mostly because this on was the trail blazer that opened the door to a more complete picture of Joseph Smith — so it bears the brunt of the negative reaction while later pieces have an easier time.

    I’d be very curious to hear the comparison with Rough Stone Rolling!

  4. Bull says:

    What’s really interesting is that No Man doesn’t differ substantially from Bushman’s book on the facts. It is all in the interpretation of the facts. I could do my own interpretation with little help and it was telling that Bushman couldn’t and didn’t even attempt to refute the less that sympathetic info.

  5. rebecca says:

    I read it a couple of years ago (the same year I left the church, I think) and really enjoyed it. I was also surprised at how sympathetic Brodie’s take on JS is – not what I’d expected. I got the impression that she downright admired the man. If I’m remembering correctly (and I may not be), Brodie talks about JS creating the first, or one of the first, truly American religions (with American frontier values, folklore and mysticism, etc), which I thought was really kind of awesome. Honestly, it makes me feel better about my heritage that I come from this interesting, adventurous frontier religion, rather than the squeaky-clean, buttoned-up religion I always thought of it as.

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