“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 1945.1 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 man.

Emma Smith hated this. She threw out a couple of wives, held her tongue in public, and even bore Joseph a final son, born some months after the Prophet’s death. But when, some years later, Emma remarried, it was not to a Mormon.

How many of these ordered-by-God wives Joseph Smith married is constantly being recalibrated. Fawn Brodie, in an appendix to No Man Knows My History, lists forty-eight wives, many of which have since been discounted. In the book’s second edition (1971) she suggests that the number may be as high as eighty-four. Professor Bushman considers that extravagant. He thinks a modest count of between twenty-eight and thirty-three is more like it. To a bachelor such as myself, that still seems like quite a lot of wives.

In 1946 Fawn Brodie was excommunicated for heresy from the Mormon Church. Richard Bushman suggests that she was on her way out of Mormonism when she published No Man Knows My History. This may be true; but both her father and her uncle held high positions in the church, so her exit was probably not all that easy. On the day she was to have faced her judges she went, instead, to a hospital and gave birth to a son.


It is given to very few men to found a successful religion. Joseph Smith was one who did. I had just unpacked Professor Bushman’s large book and was staring at it dubiously when—as if by special arrangement with the US mails—two nice Mormon missionaries knocked on my door. Was there anyone in the neighborhood who might need help? they asked. In a world thick with sinners I hardly knew where to point them.

The Mormon missionary project is global; their genealogical research center, ably described by Alex Shoumatoff in The Mountain of Names,2 is unrivaled in the world; their inter-mountain empire flourishes; and their capital, Salt Lake City, is beautifully laid out. (Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, his successor, were excellent city planners.)


There are areas of darkness in Mormonism, of course. The Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, in which Mormons were implicated in the slaughter of 120 passengers of a wagon train in southwestern Utah, and in its cover-up, is a bloody, terrible story.3 The power of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) in southwestern Utah and northwestern Arizona is horrifying, producing, among many tragedies, the plight of the “lost boys”—teenage males expelled from the community and usually just taken away and dumped in small groups on the highway, thereby making more teenage females available to the elders of the faith. The fate of the teenage females is, of course, the other half of the tragedy. There the hard-core polygamists are still in command; see Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, a recent and vivid account of life in that barren place. The Mormon Church denies all connection to the FLDS, although it was Joseph Smith, its first prophet, who made plural marriage a part of doctrine.

Once, long ago, I dined in the fine restaurant atop the Hotel Utah. Beyond the spires of the Tabernacle I saw the sun setting over the Great Salt Lake. At the table next to mine, in a wheelchair, sat an obviously dying capo, rolling his bread into little balls and dipping them in a bowl of milk, while two dark-suited goodfellas took his hoarse instruction.

The world’s great faiths all have their areas of darkness. Benedict XVI could no doubt tell us about some. But how do we get from young Joseph Smith, a poor, nearly illiterate New England farm boy, to the faith that now has some twelve million members—a faith that, improbably, his confusing teachings made?

The Smiths were Yankee farmers, trying to wrest a living out of the stony Vermont soil; when this proved to be impossible they moved to more promising acreage near Manchester, New York, in the western part of the state, where they did but little better.

In his mid-teens Joseph Smith became morbidly depressed by the evident sinfulness of mankind. The religious world of the early nineteenth century, filled as it was by nearly innumerable sects, cults, communes, schismatics, and weird preachers of every description, was clearly losing ground to sin. Fortunately, when he was about fifteen years old, Joseph Smith was given help by the best helper of all, God:

And the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness. And while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day came down from above and rested upon me, and I was filled with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me, and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying, “Joseph my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments….”

Later, Joseph remembered that Jesus Christ, too, had happened to appear with his Father. In time Joseph Smith came to believe that he was the direct mouthpiece of God. In his years as leader of the Mormon Church he often claimed to receive revelations directly from God. He sometimes described himself as the “revelator.”

Welcome as God’s help was, Joseph Smith still had a living to get—he was also still a teenager and might have wanted a bit of fun now and then; and it just so happened that one of the most fun things to do in his part of the country was to search for buried treasure. The Mormons very much didn’t want their first prophet to have been a mere treasure-hunter, even though, in that time and place, virtually everyone tried their hand at treasure-hunting. Here’s what the august New Encyclopedia of the American West has to say about the matter:

During the early 1820s, Joseph Smith and his father also engaged in folk-magic practices that were common among Americans of various social and educational backgrounds during that time. This included using a divining rod as a means of mystical revelation and various implements of the treasure-quest: seer stones (“peep” stones), …parchments (“lamans”) inscribed with magic incantations….4

This seems harmless enough, but young Joseph was soon to leave mere treasure-hunting behind. On September 21, 1823, an angel appeared to him; the angel wore “robes of most exquisite whiteness” and introduced himself as Moroni; he was the son of Mormon, a hero figure in the Book of Mormon. The angel informed Joseph that he had been chosen to translate a holy book written on golden plates; the book was about some of the earlier inhabitants of the continent, i.e., the Native Americans possibly?


The angel took Joseph several times to a hill now called Cumorah. (Professor Bushman says the hill Cumorah is just off the road between Palmyra and Canandaigua, New York.) In time Joseph was shown the tablets; the angel made it clear that the Lord expected Joseph to get busy and translate them.

Somehow, by about 1827, these plates, covered with diverse and curious characters, were transported to the Smith household, where they seem to have been kept either in a box or under the table or plunked on the table and covered with a cloth. Joseph Smith was very loath to let anyone, including his wife, Emma, see the plates. Nearly a dozen men, some of them Joseph’s scribes, claimed to have seen the plates, but their claims inspire no confidence. It’s not really clear that anyone except Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni really saw the plates, if there were plates—a big if.

The principal scribes who took Joseph’s dictation were Emma Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris; what occurred at the Smith table was surely one of the most peculiar acts of translation in the annals of language. Joseph Smith, let us remember, had at most two years of schooling. His wife Emma considered him something of an ignoramus; he could not, she admitted, write a coherent letter. The figures on the plates, according to a linguist named Charles Anthon, then of Columbia College, contained traces of Egyptian, Chaldean, Assyriac, Greek, and Arabic, with perhaps a figure or two from the Mayan zodiac. Anthon, of course, was not allowed to see the plates, only copies of the various characters supplied by Joseph Smith. When informed by Martin Harris that an angel had revealed the plates, Anthon tore up the description he had prepared. (More recently, Harold Bloom, too, balked at the angel, though a survey taken this very month in a Mormon charter school in Tucson, Arizona, finds that 80 percent of the high school students happily believe that angels are somewhere about.)

Joseph Smith possessed two seer stories or peep stones (crystals?), Urim and Thummin; these he placed in his hat, which sat on the table in front of him. Peering through these peep stones (and the hat) he poured out rapid dictation, welding most of the languages of the ancient world into a quasi-biblical English. By this odd method the Book of Mormon got written—not the least of its problems is that the locution “And it came to pass,” with variants, is used more than a thousand times, giving the whole text a stuttery feel. Was the young prophet channeling, à la Shirley MacLaine and Guru Ma, or was he pouring out fiction at the speed of Jack Kerouac?

The history of early Mormonism clearly has two phases, the Establishing phase and the Exodus phase. In the former, it is when we come to the rather baroque business of the golden plates and their translation that the fact that Professor Bushman is a believing Mormon becomes a shoe that begins to pinch a little. This is the second of his books to deal with early Mormonism—the first, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, was published in 1984. What is difficult to determine is where biography ends and apologetics begins. Where does this scrupulous scholar stand on the main points, which he knows must seem incredible to most readers? Does he believe in the angel? Does he think the golden plates were real? Does he read the Book of Mormon as literature or as revelation? At one point he says, “Incredible as the plates are, hunting for deception can be a distraction.”

A distraction? The golden plates? Surely their existence and Joseph Smith’s ability to translate them must be one of the central elements of Mormon belief. Either Joseph Smith was the mouthpiece of God or he was just a clever young man who babbled out a kind of trance-written novel.

Fawn Brodie does take a clear stand on this issue: she reads the Book of Mormon as a work of literature:

Scholars of American literary history have remained persistently uninterested in the Book of Mormon. Their indifference is the more surprising since the book is one of the earliest examples of frontier fiction, the first long Yankee narrative that owes nothing to English literary fashions. Except for the borrowings from the King James Bible, its sources are absolutely American.

And, again,

The book can best be explained, not by Joseph’s ignorance nor by his delusions, but by his responsiveness to the provincial opinions of his time.

She then quotes from a smart contemporary review by Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ:

This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his Book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years. He decided all the great controversies:—infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement,…and even the question of free masonry, republican government and the rights of man…. But he is better skilled in the controversies in New York than in the geography or history of Judea. He makes John baptize in the village of Bethabara and says Jesus was born in Jerusalem.

There is in fact a distinct genre very popular in the nineteenth century into which the Book of Mormon fits perfectly, and this is the Utopian or lost race novel. The lost races described in these weird books may be under the sea (Atlantis) or in the Arctic or anywhere. A bookseller I know spent some decades researching and locating these books. The collection, now for sale, numbers some 1,650 books, as dotty an array of fiction as could be imagined. Many of them are written in the same quasi-biblical language of the Book of Mormon, the lost race in this case being, most authorities think, the Native American peoples.

Not all mysteries concerning the Book of Mormon have been solved. The first 116 pages of the translation were hard going for the scribes, but were finally done. Martin Harris took the precious manuscript home, only to have it disappear, a huge calamity. Very probably his wife Lucy, who despised Joseph Smith and was openly scornful of the whole enterprise, simply destroyed them. To what extent these lost pages were reconstituted is hard to say, but the beginning of the Book of Mormon, as it now stands, reads effectively.

But when it came to the golden tablets Joseph Smith proved quick on his feet. Once the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, he merely told the many supplicants who showed up hoping to see the wondrous tablets that the angel came back and took the plates to heaven—which explains why there are no golden tablets in the great vault in Salt Lake City.

Soon after the publication of the Book of Mormon, the church itself was organized, though harmony among the elders was not always achieved. Oliver Cowdery and one or two others saw no reason why they shouldn’t receive small revelations themselves. The Prophet quickly scotched this errant notion: that was just not how Mormonism worked. He was the revelator—all commandments from God came through him, the Prophet and the Prophet only.


It’s possible that, at first, Joseph Smith didn’t take his own prattle about an angel all that seriously; but, hey! people not only believed it, they lapped it up. The ability to be convinced by one’s own statements is probably essential to prophets, and Joseph Smith had this ability. Very soon he had a congregation to think about—an expanding congregation to boot—but the awkward fact was that the people of western New York didn’t like these Mormons. Once suspicions of plural marriage began to leak out they liked them even less.

Joseph moved to Kirtland, Ohio, where he built his first temple, though he already had his sights set on Missouri; but the unfortunate fact was that Missourians absolutely hated the Mormons who began to show up in their midst. They beat them, whipped them, shot them, and burned them out of whatever settlements they tried to develop. They were seen, in Fawn Brodie’s words, as “land-hungry communistic millenarians….” Many pioneer settlers were just as land-hungry—the problem was that, in many cases, the locals and the Mormons were hungry for the same land.

Joseph Smith moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, and started building a second temple, which he did not live to see completed. It had by then become quite evident that the Mississippi Valley was not going to become the Zion he had hoped it would be. Violent anti-Mormon raids occurred up and down the river, culminating in the one in Nauvoo that cost the Prophet his life.

Fortunately for Mormonism, Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, was a strong and energetic leader—he fathered fifty-seven children on twenty wives—who saw that there was no future for the Mormons in the Midwest as it then was. In 1846 he began to take his people across the prairies to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, which became, under his energetic leadership, the kingdom of Deseret, or the Promised Land. Deseret was to be the name of a vast intermountain Mormon-controlled state, but the US government wasn’t buying this notion and it did not come to pass.

Professor Bushman deals ably and fully with the approach to the Exodus. Scholarship has added much detail to what Fawn Brodie had available, and Bushman gives the story a fair and smooth telling. Nonetheless, the establishing part of the story is the stronger. Many wars of religion have been fought, some not dissimilar to what the Mormons experienced in their westward travels.

But the story of Joseph Smith, the angel Moroni, and the golden tablets, through the conversions of Time itself, mutated out of religion into folklore. It was certainly not Joseph Smith’s intention to become a folk hero, and yet he has done so. How many twenty-three-year-olds with no education can peer through two rocks and a hat and pour out a tale that founds a faith?

This Issue

November 17, 2005