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.