Monday, May 31, 2010

Brodie love

I am a big fan of Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History, a historically accurate and extremely readable biography of Joseph Smith. There was an interesting discussion of this book on a Mormon-themed blog recently.

The interesting thing about this book is that the Church has spent two generations painting it as the personal vendetta of an apostate bent on destroying the Kingdom. The church's own apologist-in-chief Hugh Nibley did a particularly unscrupulous (and embarrassing) hatchet job on it and this has been continued by the FAIR and FARMS crowd. However, when Richard Bushman, a faithful LDS historian, finally got around to writing Rough Stone Rolling, the closest thing there is to an uncontested Joseph Smith biography, he borrowed so heavily from Brodie that he effectively vindicated her. The Church does not contest Bushman, but his book contains the same facts as Brodie! (In fact, I argue that it adds so little, it should not have been written.) The only difference is that Bushman changes the tone and paints Joseph Smith as more of a passive observer rather than a charismatic leader. The blog post I mentioned earlier has an interesting comparison between Brodie's Joseph Smith and Bushman's. For my money, Brodie's book is much, much better written. She has a gift for narrative that Bushman lacks. And after all those years of Brodie-hating, the Church has effectively granted all her points. I guess it's too much to expect an apology. In any case, I can't recommend NMKMH too highly.

To fill in the gaps left by Brodie, I also like Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Newell and Avery. Emma Smith's story is fascinating and puts a lot of the other material in context. Official Mormon history pretty much leaves women out. If your only exposure to LDS history is the correlated version you read in the lesson manuals, you really owe it to yourself to read these two books.

One more book I want to mention is Roots of Modern Mormonism by Mark P. Leone (Harvard Univ Press, 1979). This very readable book shows how Mormonism went from an interesting and freewheeling band of outsiders to end up as the stodgiest kind of establishment religion imaginable. Leone shows how Utah's statehood and its aftermath changed everything. It was a remarkable transformation. If you read Brodie and wonder what ever happened to that church, Leone's book tells you.

(I also want to plug the recent podcast about correlation, described here.)


C. L. Hanson said...

Re: And after all those years of Brodie-hating, the Church has effectively granted all her points. I guess it's too much to expect an apology.

lol, so true.

And I completely agree about Mormon Enigma -- a great read!

I hadn't heard of Leone's book, though. Now I'm curious to read it. I should have guessed that Daymon Smith isn't the first to have done a history of the rise of the correlated corporation -- I wonder how the two histories compare.

p.s. I just finished reading Daymon Smith's book on working at the COB, and I'll be reviewing it this week. :D

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Chanson,

Mark Leone's take is a bit different from Daymon Smith's (I haven't read Smith; I'll be interested to see your review.) Leone doesn't really talk about correlation. He just traces the transition from way-out-there Utopian movement to august institution. It's an odd story, but he makes a credible case, from economics and politics rather than theology. His charts are not to be missed. (In other words, it's mostly about power, not ideas.) Utah's statehood was definitely at the center of it all.

C. L. Hanson said...

Is there any chance you'd be interested in doing a post for MSP comparing NMKMH with RSR? If so, write me: chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com.

Anonymous said...

Sure I take Fawn Brodie very seriously. The chick who asked for and received a blessing from her Mormon brother after writing a book about Joseph Smith being a con man. Sure, I take her very seriously.