Fawn McKay Brodie and Joseph Smith

In 1945, after seven years of work, Fawn McKay Brodie published No Man Knows My Historya highly controversial biography of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church. Although she was only thirty years of age, the 400-page volume showed remarkable depth of research, significant powers of analysis, and a flowing literary style that adds to the dramatic character of her story. She continued as biographer, with books on Thaddeus Stevens (1959), Richard Burton (1967), Thomas Jefferson (1974), and Richard Nixon (1981).

According to Newell G. Bringhurst, Brodie’s book on Smith upset the Mormon establishment because it presented Smith “in some respects as a pious fraud” who was “primarily influenced by ideas and forces in his nineteenth-century American environment.” Brodie was communicated by the LDS in 1946 because of this book. (To learn more about Brodie, see Bringhurst’s book Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life.)

Her Jefferson book “caused a storm within the Jefferson historical establishment comparable to that created by her Joseph Smith biography in the Mormon community three decades earlier. This was primarily due to Brodie’s assertion that an intimate relationship existed between Jefferson and his black slave, Sally Hemings.” The book on Nixon “presented its subject in an extremely negative light, asserting that the personality of the disgraced ex-President was shaped by three major factors: the idea and fear of death, his trait as a pathological liar, and a lack of capacity to love.”

I had suspected that Brodie’s book was not viewed favorably by the Mormon Church, and my reading of it made it clear why the volume would have been so unsatisfactory. It is based on extensive research in Mormon records and writings. Her knowledge of and dependence upon the “canonical documents” is substantiated throughout the book.

Brodie was not content with those materials, however. She did extensive research into other primary materials that were pertinent to her story, including newspaper accounts and court records. By so doing, she added a considerable body of detail to approved records that sometimes were skeletal accounts.

Despite being part of a high-ranking Mormon family, Brodie presented a portrait of Joseph Smith that deviated significantly from the authorized view held by her church. Although she affirmed that the Mormon faith was a remarkable achievement, and that Joseph Smith was its primary creator, she was highly critical of Smith and showed considerable ambivalence toward the movement that he created.

Compounding these troubles was the fact that Brodie was a gifted writer. The Saturday Review was correct when it referred to the “richness and suppleness of its prose, and its narrative power.” Time after time, as I read this forceful book, I noted paragraphs where the writing style itself conveyed the author’s scorn toward Smith and his course of action.

Even so, Brodie speaks about the Mormon Church and its founders with considerable respect. Joseph Smith’s religion, she affirms, “was no mere dissenting sect. It was a real religious creation, one intended to be to Christianity as Christianity was to Judaism: that is, a reform and a consummation” (vii).

In her concluding assessment of Smith, whom she frequently calls “the prophet,” Brodie notes that most of his human qualities that endeared him to his contemporaries have been forgotten. What remains is “his story, beginning with the great vision of the Father and the Son and ending with his martyrdom, a legend without parallel in American religious history.”

“It takes more than this legend,” Brodie continues, “to explain the vigor and tenacity of the Mormon Church. Before his death Joseph had established an evangelical socialism, in which every man worked feverishly to build the Kingdom of God upon earth. This has grown into a vast pyramidal organization, in which the workers finance the church, advertise it, and do everything but govern it. The Mormon people are still bent on building the Kingdom of God, and…here as in no other church in America the people are the church and the church the people” (402).

What accounts for the antipathy of most Americans toward the Mormons during Joseph Smith’s years as leader? In her effort to explain the fierce anger among Illinois citizens during the Mormons’ Nauvoo period, the period that ended with the lynching of Joseph Smith and his bother Hyrum (1844), Brodie says that “they hated Joseph Smith because thousands followed him blindly and slavishly…Anti-Mormonism in Illinois was much more dangerous than it had been in Missouri, because it had a rock-bound moral foundation in the American fear of despotism. This, and not the repugnance for polygamy—which, unlike the glorification of theocracy, was not yet preached openly—was the primary source of the venom in the now swiftly mobilizing opposition” (381).

Mormon-related historiography has advanced significantly since the publication of Brodie’s book, even in its 1970 revision. Much of it, I understand, is as serious as Brodie’s biography in its use of primary material and interpretation of evidence but many of the writers present a more nuanced portrait of the people and events that they describe. As I read further in this literature, I plan to continue postings in the American Religion space on my blog. As I prepare for my winter bicycle events in the desert southwest, I will also post accounts of the travels and farming economy the Mormons developed in early generations.

6 Responses to Fawn McKay Brodie and Joseph Smith

  1. Seth R. says:

    While a landmark biography on Joseph Smith, a good deal of Fawn Brodie’s book is based on outdated information, and her attempts to apply Freudian psychoanalysis to Joseph Smith (and later to Thomas Jefferson) were amateurish at best. It’s a good read, but dated.

    For a more up to date biography on Joseph Smith, I would recommend “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” by Prof. Richard Bushman.

    • Thank you for your comment about the Brodie book. The fact that it was written 65 years ago is in itself reason to be cautious. The fact that she departed so fully from the church’s authorized interpretation is still another. Still a third reason is that she did her work before the significant transformation in the field of Mormon historiography. Others have also recommended the Bushman book and I intend to read it later on. I have not read critical reviews of Brodie’s books, and can understand how scholars might be critical. It would surprise me if they would describe her work as amateurish, however. There are several other aspects of Mormon history and culture that also interest me and the details of Joseph Smith’s life are only part of what I want to learn. Since I am a member of the Disciples of Christ, the church which Sidney Rigdon left when he met Smith, I want to read up on Rigdon. Do you have suggestions, in addition to Bushman’s book on Smith?

  2. Jeff Caton says:

    Hi Keith,

    reading through my set of Millennial Harbinger’s I find many references to Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Mormons, and Mormonism – from a Disciples point of view of course. I’d be glad to let you borrow them, if you’d like, for your further research.


    Nephew Jeff Caton

    • Jeff, I have seen Campbell’s long review of the book of Mormon but I do want to follow up on Sidney Rigdon and other connections between the Campbell movement and early Mormonism. Later in the spring, I’ll check in again with you on your offer to let me look at your Millennial Harbingers. Keith

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