Monday, September 18, 2017

Book an overview of Joseph Smith's legal encounters

The interest in “Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith’s Legal Encounters,” edited by Gordon A. Madsen, Jeffrey N. Walker, and John W. Welch, BYU Studies, 2014, depends on the depth and breadth of your interest in Mormon history.
Some will find this volume of 18 essays — that includes a list of all legal events Smith was involved — dry and just plain boring. Others will delve into the minutia until the wee hours of the morning. I fall somewhere in the middle but give the collection a thumbs up.
The essays provide by-the-numbers appraisals of various legal matters and explore the strengths, and weaknesses, Smith possessed in cases.
The essays, most of which have been published before, are a diverse collection, which include Smith’s witness participation in a routine lawsuit over the sale of horses, to a “disorderly person” charge against Smith, the Book of Mormon copyright, the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, habeus corpus law, a charge of adultery against Smith in Nauvoo, and the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, an act that led to Smith and his brother Hyrum being murdered by a mob. Although the book is favorable to Smith’s religious beliefs (at times the essayists precede his name with “the prophet...”) the legal issues are analyzed — appropriately — from secular perspectives.
In what may be the collection’s biggest strength, the legal issues of the cases are placed in the context of the times they occurred. This is an important distinction, because it allows for legal conclusions that may surprise us today. In the essay, “Legally Suppressing the Nauvoo Expositor in 1844,” by church apostle Dallin H. Oaks and first published almost 50 years ago, he makes a detailed case that the destruction of the press was more or less legal in that time period. Oaks points out that it wasn’t until 1931 that the U.S. Supreme Court reverses a Minnesota court ruling that actions such as the suppression of media by local authorities was unconstitutional. In the 1840s, it was not uncommon for local authorities to take action against entities which were defined as “public nuisances” without judicial approval.
In fact, prior to Joseph and Hyrum Smith being taken to Carthage — with a promise of safety by the governor — and subsequently being murdered, Smith had been acquitted by a non-Mormon judge in regards to the press’ destruction. The pair were unable to be bailed in Carthage only because a charge of “treason” was added. According to Oaks, the only legal blot against Smith in the Expositor case would be the destruction of the press, which would be considered “overkill” as the printed newspaper, and not the printing machine, was the “nuisance.”
Despite the legal introspection, it’s clear that the arbitrary destruction of the press by Nauvoo authorities was a deadly mistake by Smith and other Mormon leaders. Besides the outrage generated by suppressing the press, it provided the means necessary for enemies to get the Smith brothers into a jail, with a feckless governor’s sanction, and eventually murder the pair.
Some of the more interesting essays are “Being Acquitted of a ”Disorderly Person“ charge in 1826,” by Madsen, which argues that Smith was acquitted of charges that were likely related to “glass looking” or claiming to see through a stone. While the subject can be dry, essayist Nathaniel Hinckley Wasdworth in “Securing the Book of Mormon Copyright in 1829” makes the interesting observation that Smith, although obtaining a legal victory that denied a publisher the right to serialize the Book of Mormon, probably didn’t have sufficient copyright claim to win the case. Two essays, “Kirtland Safety Society,” and “Defining Adultery” take charges associated with Smith involving accusations of banking fraud and immorality. In both essays, arguments in favor of Smith’s legal positions rely on what the law’s intentions were in that time period, rather than relying on general disapproval. Another essay by Madsen points out bench mistakes and failures in a court presided by anti-Mormon Austin King that preceded a long jail stretch for Smith and others, including Parley P. Pratt, in Missouri.
In “Defining Adultery,” discussing adultery charges brought against Smith regarding Maria Lawrence, by apostates William and Wilson Law, essayist M. Scott Bradshaw notes that “under Illinois law, enacted in 1833, only open cohabitation of a man and woman not married to each other was punishable by law.” As Bradshaw adds, “Joseph’s relationships with his plural wives did not meet this definition (open).”
Besides the chronology of cases at the end of the book, there are short biographies of judges associated with cases and a glossary of legal terms. As mentioned, the chief strength of “Sustaining the Law ...” is its dispassionate look at the legal realities of the cases examined and its reliance on secular arguments — standard to the era — to overview the cases. The essays argue the law, not doctrine.
-- Doug Gibson
This post was originally published at StandardNet.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Assassination of Joseph Smith takes narrative approach to history

The Assassination of Joseph Smith: Innocent Blood on the Banner of Liberty,” (Cedar Fort, 2015) takes a narrative approach to the murders of Mormon church founder Smith and his brother Hyrum, in 1844. Author Ryan C. Jenkins, a  former Davis County resident, now lives with his family in Columbia, Missouri.
The book tackles roughly the final five years of Joseph Smith’s life, beginning with his imprisonment in Missouri and eventual escape to Illinois. As events draw near to his martyrdom, the action passes in days, and sometimes hours. Jenkins’ pace of the book is brisk and there is tension and emotion as Illinois mobs, enabled by a weak governor, draw closer to the Smiths in a Carthage jail. In fact, the novel-like format reminds me of the series of “Killing Lincoln, ... Kennedy, ...Jesus and ...Patton” books, co-written by commentator Bill O’Reilly, that are popular. However, Jenkins’ “Killing Joseph Smith” is far more spiritual than O’Reilly’s books.
The narrative format defines historical characters more sharply, and more easily maintains a consistent point of view. “The Assassination of Joseph Smith” is written by a staunch Latter-day Saint who presses the point that the murders at Carthage were the inevitable result of a prophet being killed by wicked enemies, sealing his testimony with their bloodshed. 
A strength of the book is its ability to effectively portray the noose of murderers that led Joseph and Hyrum Smith to a a poorly secured room in Carthage jail. The quick action of mobs, once Illinois governor Thomas Ford abandoned the Smiths in Carthage, is a quick, violent account. Like Richard Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling,” the anarchic lawlessness of frontier Illinois in 1844, and mob demagoguery— including newspaperman Thomas Sharp, arguably chiefly responsible for the murders — is conveyed.
Jenkins has made some interesting points, some I agree with, others I believe are debatable or not historically definitive. His claim that Nauvoo’s habeas corpus option preventing Smith from out-of-area arrest warrants prolonged his life for years is accurate. He implies, however, that Illinois Governor Thomas Ford was complicit in the martyrdom of the Smiths. I have little use for Ford. He was a political hack, but I don’t think murderer or even associate to murder can be tagged to his name. He was a ridiculous blowhard, loudly scolding the Saints in Nauvoo as the murders occurred, and deserved his obscure future.
Likewise, Jenkins accuses prominent Mormon apostates William and Wilson Law, and others of planning the death of Joseph Smith. His chief sources are two young Nauvoo Mormon men who claimed to hear of the plot while assigned by Smith to secretly infiltrate the group. The Law brothers and others, including Charles and Robert Foster, Chauncey and Francis Higbee, and others became severe enemies of Smith and Mormonism, and provided rhetorical ammo for men capable of murder, such as Sharp and militia members, but I think it remains inconclusive on whether these particular apostates were plotting Smith’s murder.
Jenkins portrays Smith as a man resigned to a violent death, and chiefly concerned that his brother Hyrum avoid the same fate. There is poignancy as Joseph Smith listens to brother Hyrum’s ill-fated optimism as their lives wind down in Carthage. Smith was perceptive enough to realize that apostates — those who had accepted the faith and then turned from it — were his most dangerous enemies, as actions against them were used by Sharp and others to inflame passions.
The destruction of the apostates’ press, “The Nauvoo Expositor,” was a crucial error by Smith. It allowed his enemies to whip enough emotion to force the Smiths from the safety of Nauvoo. Jenkins notes there was council opposition to this action being taken, adding that destroying a press was not unusual in that era. Nevertheless, it was as deeply unpopular then as it is today, and a fatal decision for Smith. A better way of muzzling the Expositor would have been, as suggested, to fine it into bankruptcy.
Jenkins’ book is interspersed with day-to-day activities of the Mormon prophet in Nauvoo, and his opportunity to greet various dignitaries, including scions of prominent politicians. He paints probably an accurate picture of the LDS founder, a gregarious, confident, assertive leader, of athletic build, combative at times, but with a forgiving nature after a dispute. Smith’s introduction of polygamy is covered. In what may be considered ironic, characters such as William Law are criticized as “adulterers” by the author, the same charge that Law accused Smith of.
An interesting overview of Smith’s concept of “theodemocracy” is provided. It’s a democratic government that sets as its standards those established by God. “I teach my people correct principles and they govern themselves,” is a quote from Smith in the book. A portion of the book also deals with Smith’s presidential candidacy, ended by his death, in 1844. I’m not as optimistic as Jenkins on how well Smith would have done had he lived, but I do believe his vote tally would have exceeded five figures.
The book also covers various doctrines Smith revealed, particularly as his death neared. For example, the King Follett sermon, in which the nature of God to man was explained, is covered in detail. 
“The Assassination of Joseph Smith” is a strong addition to faith-promoting accounts of the Mormon founder’s life. As mentioned, its narrative style makes for an interesting, quicker read. Although there is a bibliography and a note that author Jenkins will provide citations upon request, the book I read needs an index; perhaps another edition will include one. Author Jenkins has a website here. I interview him here.
-- Doug Gibson
This review was originally published at StandardNET.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Mormon folk tales regarding Cain, Bigfoot abound

As Abel's murderer, Cain was commanded to wander the earth in punishment, a tradition arose that this punishment was to be forever, in a similar manner to the (much later) legends of the Flying Dutchman or the Wandering Jew.
Here’s the best-known LDS folklore regarding Cain as a monstrous figure roaming the earth. In 1835, LDS apostle David Patten was riding a mule in Tennessee. “I met with a very remarkable personage who had represented himself as being Cain … I suddenly noticed a very strange personage walking beside me … for about two hours. … He wore no clothing but was covered with hair. His skin was very dark. … I rebuked him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood, and commanded him to go hence and he immediately departed out of my sight.“
Patten was killed a few years later fighting anti-Mormons. This account is secondhand, from LDS apostle Abraham O. Smoot. Nevertheless, it is accepted Mormon lore, included in the late Prophet Spencer W. Kimball’s book, “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” That lends it credibility in LDS circles. I recall hearing it often on Sundays as a child. In fact, those outside the LDS Church don’t know that Cain plays a bigger, more malevolent role in the LDS scripture “Pearl of Great Price.”
I read a fascinating essay, “A Mormon Bigfoot: David Patten’s Cain and the Conception of Evil in Mormon Folklore,” by Matthew Bowman in the Signature Books’ anthology “Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader.” Patten’s account is not the only instance of Cain appearing in Mormon folklore. Another incident, as late as 1921, E. Wesley Smith, president of the Hawaii temple, told future church Prophet, apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, “A man came through the door. He was tall enough to have to stoop to enter. His eyes were very protruding and rather wild-looking, his fingernails were thick and long. He … wore no clothing … (I) commanded the person in the name of Jesus Christ to depart. … on being commanded to leave, he backed out the door.” Fielding Smith told Wesley Smith that it was Cain who visited him.
Also, in the 1920s, missionaries in Mexico encountered a large, dark, hairy creature who said he was Cain. Later in the 20th century, missionaries in Georgia were attacked by “a huge black negro,” who chased them away. They were told by their mission president it was Cain.
As Bowman writes, “It is true that the single most frequent use of the word Cain in the legends and folk doctrine has been in association with the concept of a “curse” of dark skin, a mark of spiritual inferiority, and until 1978 the inability to hold the priesthood.” This begs the question, are the accounts of Cain apparitions an extension of the priesthood-banning prejudice against black skin? Bowman includes a poem that Mormon poet Eliza Snow wrote in 1884: “As seen by David Patten, he was dark – When pointing at his face of glossy jet – Cain said, ‘You see the curse in on me yet’ – The first of murderers, now he fills his post – And reigns as king o’er all the murd’rous host.” In the 19th century, some Mormons believed that the skin of apostates darkened when they renounced the church.
As Bowman explains, a walking “Wandering Jew” type of Cain would seem natural to 19th century Mormons, who saw evil as tangible, walking the earth and combating the Saints. An example cited by Bowman is the discourses of early LDS leader, Heber Kimball, who described his battles in England with “legions of wicked spirits,” with accounts that rival scenes in modern films, such as “The Exorcist.” Kimball added that Joseph Smith told him of Sidney Rigdon being “pulled out of bed three times in one night” by Lucifer.
This yen for the supernatural has not left the culture of the LDS Church. Talk to a dozen long-time, temple-attending members and at least half, if not more, will confidentially, or publicly recount an instance of a spiritual vision or feeling — usually positive, but still occasionally a battle with evil. (I must confess that I am not immune from claiming a positive experience).
However, as Bowman notes, in the past generation-plus there has a move away from a dark Cain and the emergence of film footage of a creature called Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, who replaced the “huge black man” as Cain in many LDS circles. It’s reasonable to assume that the end of policy-driven LDS priesthood and membership prejudice against blacks have soured the previous concept of Cain among many Mormons.
As Bowman recounts, one of the first “Bigfoot” visions occurred in the Top of Utah in 1980, when a South Weber teen and her cousin both reported seeing a large black “creature” or “figure” in the fields. Huge prints were discovered in the snow. The story was pursued by the Standard-Examiner. At that time, Cain was not associated with the sightings, but within 10 years, South Weber residents “had begun associating these local sightings of Bigfoot with Cain.” A 1997 story tells of Boy Scouts in Utah who claimed they were chased by a big hairy man they called Cain who yelped in pain when he climbed through a lit chimney. Another, 1998 story, tells of an animal-like “Cain-beast” who chased two Mormon elders to a car.
Bowman writes that besides the disappearance of being dark or a negro, “Cain’s new activities of stalking barns and running through fields seems far less satanically malicious than Elder Patten’s Cain or the gigantic demon that stalked E. Wesley Smith. … Cain, rather than a supernatural fiend, is more the stock monster of a campfire tale. He is less a damned soul and more Bigfoot.”
As racism seeped out of the Latter-day Saints’ Cain legend, so did much of the malice. Indeed, the idea that Cain wanders the earth is a 19th century one. However, the appeal of adversaries who defy us on the earth has not departed from many Latter-day Saints so long as Bigfoot remains to personify Cain.
This column was previously published as a StandardNET blog.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Freemasonry and Mormonism have had a contentious history

Michael W. Homer is the author of “Joseph’s Temples: The Dynamic Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism.” Published by University of Utah Press, it covers the contentious history of Freemasonry and Mormonism that lasted well more than 150 years. It’s been a history of twists and turns, strategies, claims and counterclaims, with the establishment Freemasonry long having the upper hand in repudiating the Mormons, who were of course unpopular for scores of years. However, as society moved closer toward the 21st century, anti-Mormon Freemasons become more scarce, and bans on Mormons being masons eventually ended.
It’s a colorful, self-serving and sometimes even tawdry history of the conflict between Mormons and Freemasons, and Homer’s scholarly book lends the subject more dignity than it probably deserves. It is certainly an interesting historical tale. Despite a century-plus of “this opinion, that opinion, denials and complicated explanations,” it’s pretty clear that Mormonism and Freemasonry have similarities, particularly in the church’s temple endowment ceremonies.
It’s worth noting that Homer explains that the Mormon ceremonies evolved toward more similarities as the church moved to Nauvoo. By the time that Mormon leader Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob, Nauvoo had a large Freemason presence, one which slowly but consistently was denied certification by non-member Freemason leadership in surrounding areas. After Smith’s death and the eventual Mormon migration to Utah, it became the standard practice of Freemasonry to bar Mormons from the group. What seems ironic at first glance to me, a novice on this subject, is that the most fierce anti-Mormon Freemason organization was its Utah chapter, which banned Mormons well into the deep 20th century. But Homer’s book also details a Freemason hierarchy in Utah that effectively was a branch of Utah’s anti-Mormon presence in the early days of the state. 
This Freemason opposition to the Mormons stemmed, of course, from the practice of polygamy, but also from the Mormon’s temple endowment ceremonies, which were regularly “exposed” — not often accurately — in the 19th century. One objection that likely had teeth was that ceremonies could be construed as hostile to the U.S. government. Another objection against Mormons by Freemasons was that the LDS temple ceremonies included women.
But, reading the book, one gets the impression that Mormonism was so unpopular 100-plus years ago that it was simply a mainstream position to damn the faith when opportunities arose. Homer’s book links the Mormonism and Freemasonry contention to events such as the federal government’s efforts to wrest control of Utah territory from Brigham Young and even the U.S. Senate hearings in the early 20th century over Reed Smoot’s effort to gain acceptance into the Senate.
As for the Mormons, Homer’s research includes an interesting history of the LDS Relief Society’s beginnings and its eventual decline in prominence under Smith’s successor, Brigham Young. It’s a valid question as to whether Smith had a larger ecclesiastical role intended for Mormon women which might have included blessings and priesthood-like authorities. He does add, though, that these questions remain speculation, and cites early Mormon leaders who seem to have agreed with Young on women’s roles in the church.
As the 20th century approached, the Mormon Church leadership, perhaps stung by the hostility from Freemasonry, began to downplay its Nauvoo-era interest in Freemasonry, arguing instead that any elements of temple ceremonies that appeared to be similar to Freemasonry was instead evidence of Freemasonry’s corruption from its original origin, which came from the days of Solomon’s temple. In other words, Mormons argued that its prophet Joseph Smith had received the proper endowments and procedures for temple ceremonies — via revelation — from heavenly visitors. Advocates of this position included Mormon intellectuals B.H. Roberts and Hugh Nibley. Mormons also taught that Freemasonry belonged to an unrighteous category of secret and oath-bound groups, and discouraged their members’ participation as masons.
However, in the last few generations or so, Mormonism has acknowledged a connection, albeit superficial, between Freemasonry and its endowment procedures. as Homer notes, Smith biographer Richard Bushman, Homer adds, concedes that Smith was influenced by freemasonry but a key difference is that Mormon temple ceremonies stress exaltation for the husband and wife, rather than “male fraternity.” Nibley later wrote that Mason “rites present unmistakable parallels to those of the temple.” Nibley did add that the similarities were due to a “common ancestry” and not related to salvation rites. Homer’s book notes that in 1989, the LDS Church, in its handbook. also lessened its emphasis against “secret and oath-bound” organizations. 
I haven’t done justice to the wealth of detail and background that Homer provides in Joseph’s Temples, and perceived temple connections to Royal Arch versus Craft Freemasonry. It’s a fascinating read. 
-- Doug Gibson
Previously published at StandardBlogs

Monday, August 14, 2017

With Fawn McKay Brodie, there was little neutrality among Mormons

It's been more than 100 years since the birth of Fawn McKay in Weber County. It’s pretty safe to say that there is no one left who witnessed the extremely intelligent Huntsville youngster who moved through college in her mid-teens and was teaching English at Weber College by age 19.
Even today, there’s precious little neutrality among Mormons over Fawn McKay, who later, as Fawn Brodie, published “No Man Knows My History,” a biography of the Mormon church founder Joseph Smith. The biography tagged Mormon’s most-revered latter-day leader as essentially a fraud. “No Man Knows My History” was the first biography of Smith that wasn’t either a hagiography or a cumbersome anti-Mormon hatchet job. The biography angered and stung Mormon leaders, and led to a formal excommunication of Brodie from the church, although she had ceased activity in it several years earlier.
Many decades later, Brodie’s biography of Smith remains highly regarded. In fact, it took 60 years for another biography of Smith, Richard Lyman Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling,” to supplant Brodie’s book as the finest account of Smith’s life. (Even today, I’m sure my previous sentence will invite controversy.)
Thanks to my friend Cal Grondahl, I had the opportunity to read “Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life,” by Newell G. Bringhurst. Published 18 years ago, it’s a relatively short work and can be read over a weekend. It’s a sympathetic, but not sycophantic, biography that was a very interesting read, particularly if one’s only knowledge of McKay Brodie is as the “heretic” who wrote “No Man Knows My History.” She accomplished much more.
Brodie grew up in the now-iconic McKay family home in Huntsville. Her father, Thomas McKay, was a brother of the Mormon apostle and prophet David O. McKay. Her mother Fawn Brimhall McKay, was the daughter of Brigham Young University president Richard W. Brimhall. As Bringhurst notes in his biography, Brodie grew up as part of LDS royalty but also in “genteel poverty.” Her father was not an assertive man, and allowed his brother David and four sisters to control the McKay family affairs, even as Thomas was dealing with a crushing family mortgage. An example cited by Bringhurst of the domination Fawn witnessed as a child was the refusal by the five strong siblings to allow Thomas and his large family to use more than two bedrooms or even install plumbing in the home. As a child, Fawn and the other family members used an outhouse (“Mrs. Grundy“) to relieve themselves. In winter, the house was so cold the kitchen was the preferred room.
Bringhurst describes a young teenage Fawn as a pious, believing Mormon who bore her testimony in church, taught Sunday school and was engaged to a returned missionary. Nevertheless, she abandoned Mormonism soon after moving to the University of Chicago for graduate work. By the time she married Bernard Brodie, a Jewish man who would go on to a prominent career in foreign policy and military strategy, Fawn, 20, was a hostile critic of Mormonism, expressing, Bringhurst writes, “‘great bitterness’ over the deceit of her childhood.”
Ironically, the only parent to attend Fawn and Bernard’s nuptials was Fawn’s mother. The groom’s parents had long split and their family ties were weak. On the bride’s side, emissaries were sent to dissuade her without success. Fawn’s romance with Bernard is accurately described as “whirlwind.” They were married six weeks after meeting. It’s not unreasonable to analyze the hastiness of the marriage as a defiant gesture on the bride’s part against her Mormon upbringing. Nevertheless, it was a successful, loving marriage that survived one instance on infidelity on Bernard’s part.
Fawn’s research leading to her biography of Joseph Smith correlated with her father’s rise into the elite ranks of the Mormon Church. Thomas E. McKay became an assistant to the 12 Apostles. Bringhurst relates that “in a painful, acrimonious encounter, David O. McKay forbade Brodie from doing further research in the Mormon Church Library-Archives.” McKay later relented and offered her the use, but his niece declined and never used the church library again for research.
One irony of Brodie’s Smith biography is that it also encountered fierce opposition from Reorganized LDS leaders, who had not at that time reconciled themselves to Joseph Smith’s polygamy. In fact, as Bringhurst relates, Fawn received empty threats of lawsuits from RLDS leaders. Reaction from LDS church leaders was initially subtle, but eventually included rebuttal pamphlets such as Hugh Nibley’s “No Ma’am, That’s Not History.”
Reading Bringhurst’s biography, I wondered if Fawn’s Joseph Smith biography was an effort to get Mormonism out of her system. If so, it was doomed to failure. To grow up in the Mormon faith is to be tethered to it for a lifetime. The bonds, good and bad, are too strong to completely sever. For the rest of her life, Brodie remained both a commentator of Mormonism-related issues and a McKay, visiting the family, and dealing with her parents’ painful aging process. Her father languished for years as a near invalid.
Her mother, Fawn Brimhall McKay, suffered from psychological problems late in her life, eventually committing suicide by fire. It was eerily similar to Fawn’s maternal grandfather, former BYU President George H. Brimhall, who elderly and pain-ridden, committed suicide by shooting himself. Perhaps these events, including earlier suicide attempts by her mother, prompted Fawn to seek psychoanalysis. As Bringhurst relates, the therapy was moderately successful, and helped Fawn deal with problems of sexual frigidity and depression, problems which had also afflicted her mother. In fact, as Bringhurst notes, Fawn believed her mother was a “secret heretic” who did not believe in her faith and suffered from what was expected of her as the wife of a prominent Mormon.
I have neglected Fawn’s other accomplishments. She was far more than just the author of a strong biography of Joseph Smith. As Bringhurst relates, she had a mostly successful, loving relationship with her husband Bernard. Both earned esteem and success in their diverse fields, and they raised three children. They lived on both coasts, eventually settling in Southern California, where, as Bringhurst notes, Fawn recalls being described as the “fleshpots of Egypt” when she was a child in Mormon Huntsville. Both Bernard and Fawn taught at UCLA.
Brodie’s interest in psychological therapy prompted her to write several more psychological biographies after “No Man Knows My History.” They covered the lives of Civil War and Reconstruction-era politician Thaddeus Stevens, the British explorer Sir Richard Burton, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and President Richard Nixon. All were controversial and reviewed pro and con, but the most successful was the Jefferson work, one of the earliest to link him to a sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings. That book made Brodie famous.
Brodie was a plodding, conscientious researcher, taking several years to write her biographies, and willing to put her research aside if family matters, personal or extended, became pressing. If she had a flaw to her method it may have been a trend toward confirmation bias, the tendency to search for information that confirmed her initial opinion on a subject. Bringhurst relates an event in Fawn’s childhood in which she bet a sibling that cobwebs were the result of dust rather than spiders’ webs. After learning she was wrong, Fawn was so angry she refused to pay the bet.
Fawn Brodie was a confrontational liberal, who loved a good fight, whether in politics, environmentalism or religion. Much of Bringhurst’s research comes from her correspondence with two close friends, her uncle Dean Brimhall and her mentor Dale Morgan. Both were disaffected Mormons, and the accounts of their correspondence, and others,’ with Fawn’s candor, are fun to read.
Fawn loathed Ronald Reagan, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, and most things conservative. Her interest in completing a Nixon book before her death was prompted by her revulsion for what she saw as his lifetime proclivity for deceit. Ironically, her book on Nixon came out as he was enjoying a temporary season of positive re-appraisal.
Cancer was cruel to Bernard and Fawn Brodie. Bernard languished for a year before dying in 1978, contracting cancer just as he was hoping to enjoy his retirement. Fawn’s case was even crueler. In September of 1980, while nearing completion of her first book of a planned two-book series on Nixon, Fawn, a non-smoker, learned she had lung cancer. The 65-year-old was dead within four months, dying on Jan. 10, 1981. She finished her Nixon book a few days prior to Christmas, and entered the hospital.
On New Year’s Eve 1980, Fawn, in desperate pain from a cancer that had invaded her bones, asked her brother Thomas, from whom she was semi-estranged, for a priesthood blessing. He obliged. A few days later, Fawn, in her last public statement. clarified that her request was linked to a family sentiment of her father providing blessings. “Any exaggeration … that I was asking to be taken back into the [Mormon] church at that moment I strictly repudiate and would for all time.” That statement is accurate. Fawn Brodie was disgusted by organized religion, and was not a self-professed Christian. If there’s any debate as to her beliefs, they lay between agnostic or atheist. Bernard was an atheist.
The blessing request, however, underscored the strong cultural and familial pull Mormonism always had on Fawn McKay Brodie. Bringhurst writes, “But while Brodie may have hated Mormonism, she couldn’t shake it. It dogged her to the end of her life — as evident in the last meeting with her brother.”
Brodie’s influence as a biographer, except for the Joseph Smith book, has faded. Psychobiographies are fascinating to read, but they do retain a pop atmosphere to them. I recommend her books though, particularly the Smith and Burton biographies. Fawn Brodie had the ability to look at a subject’s life and find questions to ask them that other biographers’ either wouldn’t think of asking or wouldn’t dare to ask. That she provided often-controversial answers to some of her questions adds to the interest.

-- Doug Gibson

This review was originally published at StandardBlogs.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

More than 100 years ago, Smoot Senate hearings titillated the public

Utah Sen. Reed Smoot, R-Utah, was an apostle and U.S. senator. Too bad that too few of us recall the fierce, almost four-year U.S. Senate battle that resulted before Smoot was fully accepted as a senator. He served until 1933.
The Monica Lewinsky testimony had nothing on the Smoot hearings. The Mormon Church, with its alleged rampant secret polygamy, anti-government rhetoric, “lecherous” old leaders in white beards, captured the attention of a gossipy nation and crusading publicity-seeking pols. As Mormon historian Michael Harold Paulos points out in several essays, hundreds of political cartoons were published — most on the front page — during the tenure of the Smoot hearings. The then-anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune published more than 300 Smoot-related cartoons. Church President Joseph F. Smith, future president Heber J. Grant, and pols of that era, including U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, found themselves caricatured as part of the hearings’ commentary — most often with savage wit.
No topics were off limits. Secret LDS temple ceremonies were discussed on Capitol Hill. The Washington Times, on Dec. 14, 1904, published on its front page a photo of a man wearing Mormon garments and temple garb. 
To provide an example of the barbed hearings, here’s an excerpt of testimony between LDS Prophet Joseph F. Smith, who admitted to fathering children with his wives after the first LDS Manifesto on polygamy, from Paulos’ The Journal of Mormon History article, “Under the Gun at the Smoot Hearings: Joseph F. Smith’s Testimony”:
(Senate questioner) “Do you consider it an abandonment of your family to maintain relations with your wives except that of occupying their beds?
(President Smith) “I do not wish to be impertinent, but I should like the gentleman to ask any woman, who is a wife, that question.”
The prophet had some wit, as that rejoinder shows. He also drew praise for candor, although it was a selective candor. As Paulos points out, Smith frequently obfuscated and avoided issues. He was a turn-of-the-century Alan Greenspan, often confusing senators. Smith shocked many Utahns when he stated under oath: “I have never pretended to nor do I profess to have received revelations.” That untrue statement may be a result of Smith’s long tenure in the LDS Church, fraught with longstanding distrust of federal authority.
Cartoons included references to Sisyphus pushing Mormonism up a hill, a tattooed Smoot covered with LDS liabilities on his body, and a Tribune cartoon that mocked Smith for his lack of candor on revelation. As Paulos explains, the era was a golden time of political cartooning, with most cartoons on page 1A, rather than the editorial pages. Readers can see several of the cartoons in the December 2006 Sunstone magazine, “Political Cartooning and the Reed Smoot Hearings,” authored by Paulos.
It seemed unlikely for a long while that Smoot would be accepted as a senator, but history records that after the long hearings, he passed Senate muster fairly easily. He owed that win primarily to President Roosevelt, who bucked popular sentiment and backed Smoot, whom the president genuinely liked. 
Another factor helping Smoot was that the original charges against him being a senator were lodged by anti-Mormons in Utah, who added one significant false charge — that Smoot was a polygamist. He was not; nor was he a strict LDS theologian. In fact, Smoot was chosen as an apostle and future senator due to his lack of interest in theology compared to politics and public service. In his speech to the U.S. Senate, which Paulos includes in an essay, Smoot is persuasive in both defending Mormonism and promising to separate his politics from his religion. Paulos suggests that current LDS politicians who seek political office should emulate Smoot’s frankness. That seems to be a critique of Mitt Romney’s “religion in the public arena” speech in 2008, one that failed to sway many voters wary of Mormonism.
In 1904, LDS President Smith issued a second Manifesto against polygamy. It eventually led to the excommunications of apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley, who flaunted their polygamous lifestyles. Paulos opines that the Smoot hearings and the Second Manifesto were beginning steps toward the modernization and eventual secular power of today’s LDS Church.
The Smoot hearings cartoons are priceless, provocative mementos of LDS history. Paulos, and colleague Ken Cannon, have privately published a professionally bound, 90-page book on the Smoot hearings. One hundred copies were printed and the small publication was presented at a past Mormon History Association gathering. Many libraries have copies of the publication.
-- Doug Gibson
This article was previously published at StandardBlogs.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Backslider reminds us that enjoying sex is part of the Gospel

It’s a pleasure to read Levi S. Peterson’s novel, “The Backslider” every year or two. It’s the tale of Frank Windham, a rural Utah young man in the mid-20th century who is a bit of a hell-raiser but heavily influenced by his Mormon religion. Frank is 20 and “one of those fellows who got bogged down making another man rich,” as Peterson writes on page 4 of the novel.
Out of spite, and soon after he is dumped by the college-gone girlfriend he loved, Frank seduces Marianne, the college-age daughter of his Lutheran employers, Wesley and his wife, Clara. When Marianne gets pregnant, she and Frank decide to get married, give the baby a name, and then eventually part. No one else really takes that pledge seriously except Frank, who has some real issues with enjoying sexual pleasure with a young woman, even if it is within the bounds of marriage.
“The Backslider” is a love story between Frank and Marianne, but it’s also a primer on how to love. Old-fashioned Mormon codes of sex, such as having relations with temple garments on, serve to bridge the old versus the new mores that Frank encounters growing up.
As the late Paul Swenson, writing in Utah Holiday notes, “Guilt, depravity and grace —, Cowboy  themes that Peterson finds fruitful to explore in The Backslider — are not exactly commonplace in fiction peopled primarily by Mormons.” 
“The Backslider” is a frank, sometimes comic novel with incredible depth, that gets into the guilts, resentments, pities, excitement, lust and exaltations that make up high and low points of our lives. Frank’s battles pit his desire to be pious versus his gut-wrenching need to hell-raise makes for wonderful reading, as does his struggle to accept adulthood and take responsibility of himself and his unexpected wife. 
Although Frank’s mother, Margaret, is a faithful Latter-day Saint, both Frank and his brother Jeremy have impressions of the church that are distorted, thanks in part to her, as well as the general culture of the novel’s setting, mid-20th century rural Utah. This leads to tragic consequences for Jeremy. One well-written, amusing passage involves Margaret’s uncomfortable observation that Frank and Marianne’s bed frame needs to be oiled to stop the loud squeaking at night.
Frank, badly affected by his brother Jeremy’s insanity and self-mutilation, finds it almost impossible to reconcile sex with his wife as anything other than a sin. Even her impending baptism doesn’t drive that obsession away until Frank receives a visit from a “Cowboy Jesus,” who tells Frank to stop worrying about these issues, that His atonement has paid the bill up in full. The Cowboy Jesus advises Frank to enjoy his wife and their carnal pleasures and comfort his mother-in-law, who is shook up about her daughter becoming a Mormon.
The whimsy of the final scenes underscore a serious message: pleasure is usually not a sin, although it frequently is assumed to be.
The Backslider can be purchased at many locations. The Signature Books website has it here.
-- Doug Gibson
Portions of this column were previously published in StandardBlogs.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Brigham Young biography portrays a great leader and an unpleasant man

Closing the book after reading, "Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet," the biography by George Mason University religious studies professor John G. Turner, published by Belknap Press of Harvard University, causes some swirling emotions for this Latter-day Saint reader.

From reading Turner’s fantastic — and it is by far the best that has been written of Young’s life — biography, it’s easy for a faithful Mormon to agree that God called Young to the task of moving 20,000-plus Mormons across the plains to Utah territory and over a generation-plus, to set up hundreds of Mormon settlements. No man in U.S. history was ever that successful in those endeavors.

On the other hand, while admiring Young’s organizational skills, I don’t much care for Brigham Young the man. Turner’s biography portrays an often unpleasant man, with a foul mouth — his preferred cuss word was "shit" — and a spiteful, vengeful nature. He had a caustic sense of humor, which perhaps mitigates some of his casual comments that seemed to support violence. He ruled the Salt Lake Valley as an absolute dictator, and harbored longtime grudges against apostles who dared to criticize his particular beliefs, such as blood atonement, the Adam-God doctrine, and the United Order.

While no evidence exists that Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre, his messages to Native Americans that they could steal from non-Mormon settlers, the atmosphere of settler-animus that pervaded 1857 Utah, and Young’s successful efforts to stymie an initial investigation into the massacre, harm the image of the LDS Church’s second modern-day prophet. Indeed, Young’s caustic tongue also inflamed a Mormon bishop to castrate a petty criminal, a Logan member. Rather than feel sympathy for the man or his mother, Young protected the ecclesiastical leader who had ordered it. And, reading accounts of murders of non-Mormons by LDS thugs Porter Rockwell and William Hickman, it seems plausible to theorize that Young ordered those deaths.

 However, Turner’s book overall is not a negative portrayal of Young. It is another example of grizzly bear truth, where a great man’s life is revealed, with strengths and weaknesses, talents and faults included. The book is on the shelves at Deseret Book, and that’s appropriate because it does justice in recounting the life of the West’s most prominent 19th century colonizer. Turner describes Young’s hardscrabble existence in early 18th century New England, his strained relationship with his father, and his early religious skepticism that was finally counteracted by Joseph Smith’s new religion, Mormonism.

 Before the mid-1840s, Brigham Young was known for his compassion and openness as a Mormon apostle. Turner recounts his tender, love-filled letters to his wife, Mary Angell, and the biography includes accounts of his compassionate tenure as a leader to the Mormons in England. But the murder of the Joseph Smith, the continued harassment of Nauvoo Mormons afterward, and, as important, the internal dissent that swirled within the LDS Church prior to Smith’s murder, all that changed Young. He appears to have turned into a man, a leader, determined to never let that happen again.

Young mercilessly abused the LDS apostles both privately and publicly. Young’s CEO-type behavior, though, achieved its goals. No disagreeing members of the LDS hierarchy were able to achieve the success of the Law brothers, in Nauvoo. Young’s hammering of the Saints in Utah, his public denunciations and calls for repentance, kept the Utah Mormons united in their distrust of outside influences and retained their faith in unity.

His strong opposition to mining, for example, kept Utah free of non-Mormon influences for as long as Young could manage it. Young never forgave what he perceived as disrespect, and late in his life arranged the apostles’ hierarchy so that Orson Pratt could not become church president. It was motivated by retained anger over Pratt’s efforts at independence.

Young never admitted that he made mistakes. The handcart fiasco was the fault of Franklin Richards and John Taylor; the failure to enact a United Order was the fault of Erastus Snow. Private gestures of compassion and charity to apostles, severely chastened by Young, served to partially mitigate this routine abuse. Young also provided himself a great deal of wealth and luxury, while relegating many of his followers to relative poverty. He tolerated no criticism of this perceived inequality. Young demands respect despite his human weaknesses.

More than even Joseph Smith, he is responsible for the survival of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. His shrewd leadership, along with help from the canny, non-Mormon lobbyist, Thomas Kane, managed to keep him as the main source of power in the Utah territory for much longer than anyone would have anticipated.

Young was able to manipulate political events, wars, the seasons, weak-willed political appointees, Native American unrest, and petitions for statehood to consistently survive virtually every imbroglio with the federal government or U.S. Army. Turner recounts many incidents of Young surviving as Utah’s leader while "gentile" nemesis after nemesis left Utah as grumbling failures.

 When the railroad connected Utah with the nation, Young’s power slowly decreased the last decade of his life. Perhaps to cheat the spectre of death, Young took a few young wives. He tried to re-energize support for two doctrines he had long espoused, the Adam-God doctrine and the United Order. Those efforts though were lackluster.

Still revered by members, Young seemed a calmer, or perhaps just exhausted, lion. One of his final acts was to dedicate the St. George Temple. Characteristically, he criticized an apostle while doing so.
Brigham Young was a great man. I revere him as a prophet. He was also a man of his times, who carried the savagery and bigotry of that era. Many of his most egregious acts can be explained, and even perhaps excused, by the understanding that he felt himself to be in a war. He believed that his existence, and that of his Gospel, was in danger. That he died as leader of the Utah Mormons was his final victory, and final sacrifice for Joseph Smith.

- Doug Gibson

- This review was originally published at StandardBlogs.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Pratt an early contributor to Mormon media efforts

The rise of Mormonism in its first decades was largely due to the eagerness that early Mormon leaders embraced innovations within media, with press advances that allowed pamphlets, books and newspapers to be published much cheaper than previously, and thereby affordable to the poor.
While missionary work was always a priority, the Book of Mormon, pamphlets, and other works were read by thousands, and shared with others. Perhaps the most prolific user of the printed-press media was Parley P. Pratt, one of Mormonism’s first apostles. An impetuous, emotional, argumentative church leader, he wrote several books, including “Voice of Warning,” the second-most influential Mormon book for almost a century, as well as other books and hymns. A talented propagandist, Pratt is best known for a widely circulated pamphlet that detailed persecutions on Mormons in Missouri. He was also editor of the church newspaper in London.
Authors Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow add that Pratt’s media acumen and enthusiasm still impacts the Mormon faith. “As an essayist and theologian, Pratt shaped the content and language of early Mormon self-understanding. Few Latter-day Saints today read Pratt’s treatises, though his imprint pervades the theological spectrum they have inherited,” the pair note in their biography, “Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism” ($31.46, Oxford University Press).
That is an accurate reflection of Pratt’s legacy. During the 1830s and into the early 1840s, Pratt had many opportunities for personal discussions with the Mormon founder and prophet, Joseph Smith. He undoubtedly had opportunity to be at the genesis of some of Smith’s unorthodox teachings regarding the pre-existence, the divinity and eternal state of matter, the similarities between man and God, and the relationship between exaltation and marriage and families. As a result, much of Pratt’s early writings take these concepts -- at least to the reading public -- further than they had been publicized previously. He both defined and refined these doctrines.
These include the concepts of matter being eternal, marriage being a contract that lasted for eternity, the multiplicity of worlds, the concept of heavenly parents and spirit children, and a repudiation of the doctrine of original sin, the idea that man entered the world impure. Mormonism, as Pratt maintained, teaches that man is responsible for his own sins, but Christ’s atonement covers Adam’s transgression. Also, Pratt was an early advocate of the idea of an eternal unchanging celestial law that enhances righteous individuals after earthly life and leads them on a path to be heirs of what God possesses. Pratt also wrote that the relationship of a husband and wife would become even more perfect through eternity.
These beliefs are matter of fact to active Mormons today, and some are still fiercely disputed by persons of other faiths, but they were far more radical long ago when Pratt unleashed them into the public debate via the press.
One of the advantages of the Internet is that virtually everything Pratt published is available online. As mentioned, he was an effective propagandist. At, there is Pratt’s first major literary effort as a Mormon leader. It’s titled “A Short Account of a Shameful Outrage Committed by a Part of the Inhabitants of the Town of Mentor, Upon the Person of Elder Parley P. Pratt, While Delivering a Public Discourse Upon the Subject of the Gospel.”
The flowery but combative essay is an account of Pratt’s efforts in 1835 to preach on the steps of a church in Mentor, Ohio, a neighboring town of the early Mormon settlement of Kirtland, Ohio. Mentor was dominated by the Campbellites, a progressive anti-sectarian movement Mormon leader Sidney Rigdon had once ministered to. Campbellites rejected modern-day authority, a dispute that put them often in conflict with the new Mormon religion. The bombastic Pratt no doubt enjoyed preaching repentance to the Campbellites.
As Pratt relates, while he preached on the steps: “I saw a band of men collected about 20 rods from me. Two Bugles, a Base Drum, and several smaller ones, with their Fife, were put in lively motion, and the men in regular file came marching towards that place where I stood speaking. ... The music or noise for a moment drowned my voice.”
The band continued through Pratt’s discourse, making it impossible for him to be heard. He soldiered on, but as he closed the band, he added, “discharged a full volley of eggs at me, some of which struck me in the face and others besmirching me from head to foot.” After Pratt left, he claims in the essay he was followed by the band and threatened. (Pratt’s account, which includes an “eyewitness’ account,” (probably Pratt himself using literary license) is fun reading. It’s here
Besides the public relations points the pamphlet earned, Pratt also scored in a court of law. He filed a complaint against Grandison Newell, a prominent anti-Mormon, in Kirtland before a justice of the peace. According to, Pratt was awarded $47 in damages that Newell was ordered to pay. The jury came to the conclusion that the band that harassed Pratt was a militia, and that Newell, as a commandeer, was responsible for their actions.
-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The last son of Joseph Smith understood the power of doubt

The following was written in the late 19th century by a young man familiar with the two Mormon churches: The Utah LDS Church and the Midwest Reorganized LDS Church founded by Joseph Smith III. “’Except you believe, ye shall be damned’ is the first proposition of the church.’ ... In art, in science, in every department of life, intelligence is never required to give credence to or act upon any proposition unless it is capable of demonstration, actual demonstration, or it is based up apparrent (sic) fact, apparent even though their causes and mode be hidden. But in religion another basis is acted upon and we are expected to believe and stake our salvation upon this belief. ... The seeker for salvation must first believe and the vital object, salvation or damnation, hangs thereon. This is absurd.
The author was David Hyrum Smith, the youngest son of the slain LDS prophet, Joseph Smith. Born after his father had been murdered, David was cossetted by his family and lived the life of a writer, artist and missionary. The young father — in his 20s — had returned to a mission in Utah after several requests. Joseph Smith III, whom the letter was addressed to, must have regretted extending the call, writes Valerie Tippetts Avery, author of “From Mission to Madness: Last Son of the Mormon Prophet,” a fascinating biography of David Smith. To young David, already prone to instability, the mission call served to convince himself of something that tormented, that he had spent years angrily refuting — that his father had preached and practiced polygamy. 

The knowledge, confirmed to David by former plural wives of his father, led to other doubts, expressed by David in these letters to his brother. In the following excerpt, David reasonably objects to the longstanding Christian doctrine that a loving father willfully leaves his children abandoned on earth. David was reflecting on his new fatherhood and the love for his son as he wrote: “I have a child. I keep myself obstinately hidden from him; I make no revelation to him but in an obscure and very doubtful way the requirement of love and obedience comes to him. And death or life hangs in its acceptance. How very unjust if he be ignorant, prejudice guide him, if wise, then reason tells him if I have a father he must come near me first, love me, and teach me to love him. ..; I do not argue the benefit of Faith and trust in God as a general application of moral principle but the attaching of salvation upon such ambiguous grounds is unjust.”
Writes Tippetts Avery, “Fatherhood had taught David to distrust the seemingly deliberate obscurity of God.”
Yet David Hyrum Smith took his newfound skepticism a step further, arguing against the dogma that man can only seek important further knowledge from a selected prophet. This doubt struck at a key doctrine — at that time — of both churches. He wrote: “If faith unto salvation was an eternal principle and true, it could be discovered and demonstrated so as to be of general benefit as the law of gravitation of the rules of mathematics. But as it comes to us it makes us subservient to our falable (sic) fellow Man for eternal life, a most absurd proposition. But you again might speak God has revealed himself. But here again is an absurdity our fellow man brings us a revelation, and we are only guided by our faith in him. We do not know he has had this revelation and eternal salvation depends upon our faith in our fellow man and his revelation. Unjust and absurd.”
In his writings, David Smith further pointed out the inconsistency of ascribing belief based on one man’s claim of divine prophecy. For every Joseph Smith, he told his brother, there were Brigham Young, “Spiritualists,” and “Strangites” ... an offshoot of Mormonism.
Young Smith’s ideas could be dismissed as heresy or apostasy by some believers. The proper term is doubt, though, which is a healthy expression, and a prerequisite toward a mature belief and hope. Any follower of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or any Christian religion, should acknowledge the inconsistencies demanded by Christian theology, which are:
• That belief is required without presentable evidence.
• That our father in heaven has deliberately abandoned us from palpable presence.
• And that for every claim of a Joseph Smith or a Thomas S. Monson, there are thousands of similar claims from prophets with hundreds of millions of adherents.
We cannot prove theology, and we should not try. Beliefs we hold dear may not affect others in the same manner. History exists which alleges those we worship as servants of God as sinners of lust and power.
The mystery of belief, if it can be defined, is that to doubt is to believe. Doubt turns sand into a rock. To not doubt is to omit an ingredient for faith and hope.
More will be written about David Hyrum Smith. There is an irony to his letters. Mental illness overcame him and he spent the last half of his life institutionalized. A melodramatic person might see his fate as God’s punishment. Such supercilious jeering may exist. But we should investigate the questions he shared with his brother. Failure to do so results in churches having a low activity rate.
-- Doug Gibson
This article was previously published at StandardBlogs.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The last years of William B. Smith a mix of persistent hope and pity

In 1878, William B. Smith, brother to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, apostle to the LDS Church in his early 20s, and briefly LDS Church patriarch in his mid-30s, was essentially forgotten. The most volatile member of the Smith family had not only been kicked out of the Utah Mormon church, he had been tossed from several other offshoots of post-Nauvoo Mormonism. He had even failed as a Baptist preacher. As 1878 began, there was one option left for Smith, now 66. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headed by his nephew, Joseph Smith III, was preparing a conference in Plano, Ill.
As Paul M. Edwards relates in the Dialogue magazine article “William B. Smith: The Persistent “Pretender,” (here) Smith III, who recognized his uncle’s value as a link to his father’s early church history, visited William. The pair discussed William’s proposed acceptance into the RLDS Church. At first, William demanded that he be inserted in the RLDS Quorum of the 12 Apostles. He also wanted to “be received into the Reorganization on the basis of his former membership.”
Smith III never seriously considered having his uncle be an apostle, but he was OK with William’s previous LDS affiliation qualifying him for membership into the RLDS church. As it was, William B. Smith was accepted into the church as a high priest. William’s official position with the RLDS was as a missionary in Hamilton, Mo. As mentioned, his value was reminiscing of his time with his more-famous late brother. However, the old “lost apostle” hadn’t yet lost his ambition. If he couldn’t be an apostle, William hoped he could become the RLDS Church patriarch. His rationale was that he had been the final “legitimate” patriarch with the Mormon church before its move to Utah.
Edwards includes this letter William wrote to the Saints Herald, an RLDS publication, saying: “that this office of Patriarch is an office that belongs in the Church of Christ; and that whosoever is appointed to fill the place left by the death of Hyrum Smith will hold the right to the same presiding authority. ... Joseph, inherited the patriarchate by lineal descent from Jacob who was the father of the twelve patriarchs; and from father Joseph Smith, the patriarchal office was given, as the revelation of 1841 declares, by blessing and by right, for such is the order of this evangelical priesthood handed down from father to son. ... It is the duty of the First Presidency to select and ordain the Patriarch, that is to fill the space left vacant by the death of Hyrum Smith.” (1881, 82)
A key problem with William’s effort is that the RLDS Church, at that time, had little use for the office of church patriarch. Edwards includes the comment of then-RLDS apostle Jason Briggs, who called the office of patriarch “a ‘wart upon the ecclesiastical tree, unknown in the Bible, or Book of Mormon.’” In fact, as Edwards adds, Briggs wanted to eradicate the office. Joseph Smith III put off William’s request to be church patriarch. Later, he learned that his uncle was considering writing a biography of Joseph Smith. At that time, the RLDS Church, and Smith III, were actively trying to preserve the fiction that Joseph Smith had not practiced polygamy, and that it was an invention of the Utah Mormons.
In Edwards’ article is this excerpt from an 1882 letter to William Smith from his nephew: “I have long been engaged in removing from father’s memory and from the early church, the stigma and blame thrown upon him because of polygamy, and have at last lived to see the cloud rapidly lifting. And would not consent to see further blame attached, by blunder now. Therefore uncle, bear in mind our standing today before the world as defenders of Mormonism from Polygamy, and go ahead with your personal recollections of Joseph and Hyrum.”
In the letter, Joseph Smith III instructed his elderly uncle to only remember admirable things about Joseph and Hyrum Smith, meaning again, no mention of polygamy. Also, he mentions the possibility of William making money on the book “if the right sort of enterprising men got hold of it.”
As William Smith entered the final years of his life, money became his main goal. In 1891, at the age of 80, living in Osterdock, Iowa, with his wife, on a military pension of $84 a year, he began a correspondence with RLDS bishop, and apostle, William Kelly. Smith, too feeble to maintain ambitions of high ecclesiastical office, merely wanted to make ends meet. Again, these pleas from William were put off, although occasionally stipends of money would be sent to him.
The letters from William Smith include resentment that his requests for additional funds are largely ignored. In late 1891, asking for $8 a month remittance, Edwards notes some of the arguments he used: “William ... asked: Who helped remove the tar from Joseph Smith? Who stood guard for long hours to protect Joseph Smith’s life? Who was driven from his home and forced to move from place to place in the name of the church, sleeping on the ground and in tents, to do the work of the Lord in Iowa and Illinois? He closed the letter by telling Bishop Kelly that ‘I think it due me that you place a salary on my family of eight dollars per month.’”
Writing to Kelly in late 1892, William again criticized the RLDS Church for not having a patriarch: “Then there is the patriarchal office the seed of which was sown in the church among all the prophets, a seed that was planted ... in the church of 1830. ... My nephew is lame on some of these points, the Church under him is not yet perfect in organization ...”
A month before William Smith died on Nov. 18, 1893, Joseph Smith III asked his uncle for more “evidence” that polygamy was a creation of the Utah Mormons. William dutifully obliged, saying that the polygamy taught in Nauvoo was of “the Brigham party,” comprised of apostates.
The last years of William B. Smith were those of an old man who had sown his oats and was in pasture. A man who had more than once behaved like a rake and a thug was toothless. His unrealized desire to become RLDS patriarch was a compromise from earlier higher desires. The condescending deference paid William by his nephew probably met his needs, if not his wants. It is a pitiful, but not unhappy end for the brother of the prophet. After William’s death, the RLDS ordained a patriarch.
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published at StandardBlogs