“I, Nephi…,” the first words of the Book of Mormon—to some twelve million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, a holy book—reminds me of a similarly brisk summons to attention: “Call me Ishmael,” the famous first words of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. In the Book of Mormon, the biblical Ishmael, son of Abraham, soon appears and helps the questing Nephi out of a spot of trouble with the locals—just the kind of trouble, with just the same kind of locals, that real Mormons, in the 1830s and 1840s, constantly found themselves in.
Joseph Smith, who, at age twenty-three, dictated (or, if you prefer, translated) the Book of Mormon to his wife, Emma, and other willing scribes, went on to make many famous utterances, of which the following is perhaps the best known:
You don’t know me; you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it; I shall never undertake it. I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself.
Those famous words are from a funeral sermon delivered by Joseph Smith—who had by then become the Mormon Prophet—to an audience of ten thousand people in the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, on April 7, 1844. The historian Fawn M. Brodie quotes them in the first paragraph of No Man Knows My History, her controversial biography of Joseph Smith, first published in 1945. Richard Lyman Bushman, a believing Mormon and an assured historian, quotes a shorter version of the same claim to unknowability from an entry in Joseph Smith’s journal, made on the same day, April 7, 1844.
About three weeks later (April 27, 1844), Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were gunned down by vigilantes in their jail cells in Carthage, Illinois, where they were held mainly for being Mormons. Joseph had intended to flee across the nearby Mississippi River into the west, but Hyrum thought they might be able to work things out with the local militia in Illinois. The Prophet, who seldom welcomed advice from anyone, took some from his brother, although he knew it probably meant death, producing yet another enigma in a life that was rich in enigma.
Perhaps in 1844 no man did know Joseph Smith’s history, but since then at least eighteen biographers and commentators of various weights in their hundreds have probed that history.
Whether anyone ever knew his heart is harder to judge. Certainly Emma, his devoted and intelligent wife, believed she did until, after sticking by him through much hardship, the Prophet hurt her terribly by proclaiming and practicing plural marriage. He insisted (what prophet wouldn’t?) that his plural marriages were neither adulterous nor bigamous. He, the Prophet Joseph Smith, was directly ordered by God to take to wife certain women, even though (as was often the case) the woman was already married to another …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
‘Angel in America’ March 23, 2006