Van Wagoner, “Natural Born Seer : Joseph Smith, American prophet. 1805-1830” (reviewed by Dennis Clark)


Title: Natural Born Seer : Joseph Smith, American prophet. 1805-1830
Author: Richard S. Van Wagoner
Publisher: Salt Lake City : Smith-Pettit Foundation
Genre: Biography
Year Published: 2016
Number of pages: xx, 589
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN10: n/a
ISBN13: 978-1-56085-263-6
Price: $34.95

Reviewed by Dennis Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters

This book is a wonderful resource for studying the early life of Joseph Smith, Jr. It introduced me to many sources for the history of the Restoration, among them a series of eight letters from Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, published in *Latter Day Saints Messenger and Advocate* from October, 1834 through October, 1835 at Kirtland, Ohio. Cowdrey was editor of the *Messenger and Advocate* at the time, as stated in its pages. According to Van Wagoner’s bibliography (p. 513), four of the letters were later reprinted in *Times and Seasons* in 1840-41, in Nauvoo, Illinois. Van Wagoner introduces these letters as an alternative to Smith’s early histories, and it predates all but the first of them, the 1832 history. He doesn’t indicate an alternative source for the letters, which he often does, so I don’t know whether he knew that the letters are available in both HTML transcription and as PDF scans (links are in the Wikipedia article But he relies on many such sources previously unknown to me, and equally interesting. I cannot praise the book too highly.

It’s also a beautiful book, printed on good stock and bound in signatures for a long life in the hands of many readers. Early in 2016, Signature announced three new biographies of Joseph Smith: this one, covering 1805-1830; a second, covering 1831-1838; and the first one published, in May 2016, *Glorious in Persecution : Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1839-1844* by Martha Bradley-Evans (all from the Smith-Pettit Foundation). I can find no mention of the second volume now on the Signature website, and I don’t recall the title, but the three would be a beautiful matched set, and a valuable resource to people like me interested in the life of Smith.

I haven’t read *Glorious in Persecution,* but for *Natural Born Seer*, there is a clear statement of the author’s leanings. Van Wagoner identifies his bias as a historian in his Introduction, writing of Joseph Smith: “His crusade to reshape aspects of his life retrospectively, to refashion especially his early years, has been the focus of my inquiry as a sympathetic, though not uncritical, Mormon for more than three decades” (x). He then presents a synopsis of the book, telling us what he has written, and stating his findings. In this synopsis, he represents almost all of his findings as contradicting the LDS Church’s version of Smith’s history.

In that regard, Van Wagoner has done as Richard Bushman did in *Joseph Smith : Rough Stone Rolling* and identifies his bias early. Bushman wrote: “A believing historian like myself cannot hope to rise above these battles or pretend that nothing personal is at stake” (Preface [xix]). Clearly, for Van Wagoner, something personal is also at stake.

As it is for me. My training in historiography came in graduate-school studies in literary history, and in librarianship (which affects my own style of citation). I bring that to this review, along with my experience researching and writing a long narrative poem about Smith, *rough stone, rolling waters*. In addition to those encumbrances, I read history for the story, and Van Wagoner is writing a story here. His narrative procedure attempts to make a harmony of all his sources, much as people try to make a harmony of the gospels to tell the single story of the life of Jesus. In the “more than three decades” he mentions, he uncovered a lot of sources. This makes for very dense reading, such that through the book’s intense focus on the first 26 years of Joseph Smith’s life, I was swamped. Van Wagoner’s narrative made me question much of what I thought I knew about Smith’s life.

As an example of how Van Wagoner constructed his narrative, consider the stories of Joseph Smith Sr.’s dreams. Van Wagoner draws his narrative from Lavina Fielding Anderson’s *Lucy’s Book : a Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir*. Anderson first mentions the dreams in her foreword, in connection with Lucy’s “trying to involve her family in seeking the ‘true church'” (7). Lucy dates this in her dictated manuscript thus: “1st vision of Joseph Smith Sr received the next month after William was born” (295). Anderson, in her biographical summaries, says William was born 13 March 1811 in Royalton, Vermont (872). This is what she says about the visions:

“About this time Joseph Sr. began having visionary dreams with highly symbolic content, obviously related to his ambivalence about religious faith and sometimes presaging events to come. These dreams continued after the family’s move to Palmyra, New York, until he had had seven in all; Lucy remembers five well enough to quote in detail” (7).

The dreams strongly resemble I Nephi 8, Lehi’s dream of the tree of life in the Book of Mormon. It was with regard to Van Wagoner’s use of these dreams that I started checking his sources more closely. *Lucy’s Book* is problematic in many ways. First, it was dictated by Lucy to Martha Jane Coray, beginning in the winter of 1844-45 when Lucy was 69, in sessions that Anderson characterizes as “very labor-intensive” (88). Coray’s daughter said, in an account published in 1902, that “my dear mother went to her daily, and wrote until Mother Smith would grow weary. She then read over, several times, what she had written, making such changes and corrections as Mother Smith suggested” (86).

After the rough draft was in this fashion finished, Coray made two fair copies of the manuscript. One copy, Lucy’s, “came into possession of Orson Pratt” (68), who took it with him to England and published it in 1853, before Lucy’s death. The other, Coray took with her to Utah. It ended up in the Church History library. Anderson states “I would have preferred to present all three versions in parallel columns, since the Coray manuscript has never been published. However, permission from the LDS Church Copyright Office to publish the Coray manuscript was twice denied” (68). Anderson does present a sample three-column comparison of the original rough draft, the Coray ms., and the version published by Pratt. The sample is of chapter 16, Joseph Jr.’s leg surgery (69-77). From this it is clear that Pratt edited and “improved” Coray’s fair copy.

The problem, for me, is that in presenting each of the five extant visions, Van Wagoner uses Pratt’s published text. In introducing the third dream, Van Wagoner says “Sometime during March 1816, Joseph Sr. experienced another of his visionary dreams, so memorable in Smith family lore that his wife could recall it in detail three decades later” (62). First, Van Wagoner presents no evidence that the dreams were “memorable in Smith family lore.” That’s a conclusion. Second, he is presenting a twice gussied-up version of Lucy’s memory without notice to the reader. And third, he is ignoring some critical problems with the text. This is where my training in literary history comes in.

Of the differences between the three texts, Anderson says “These variations, though numerous, are, on the whole, not as significant as the reader might suppose. The vast majority consists of punctuation, spelling, and minor word order variants” (68-69, introducing her three-column sampling). I trust Anderson’s judgment on this; she and I were graduate students at the University of Washington at the same time; I knew her before that at BYU. But there is to my mind a much more serious problem underlying the record of these dreams, because Van Wagoner concludes his account of the seventh of them: “Joseph Sr.’s spiritual anxiety was no doubt shared by most, if not all, family members. Lucy and he recounted these dreams to their children, probably more than once; and Joseph Jr., for one, later incorporated elements of the visions into his religious writings” (86).

First, there is doubt that “Joseph Sr.’s spiritual anxiety” was “shared by most, if not all, family members.” This is a conclusion Van Wagoner has shaped his narrative towards, but one he does not support with a source. Second, “Lucy and he recounted these dreams to their children, probably more than once” is another assertion presented without evidence. And third, there is evidence to contradict the assertion that “Joseph Jr., for one, later incorporated elements of the visions into his religious writings.” This is where the critical problem with the text comes in even more strongly.

I learned in studying literary history that, if two texts appear to have influenced one another, the influence goes from the text published earlier to the one published later, in the absence of manuscript evidence to the contrary. The Book of Mormon was published in 1830; Lucy’s memoir was dictated in 1844-45 and published in 1853. And the problem I cannot reconcile occurs in the dictated text: Anderson’s footnote to the first account of one of these visions reads: “The next two and a half pages of Lucy’s rough draft are Joseph Smith Sr.’s visions. I have followed the order of Coray 1845 and Coray/Pratt 1853 in placing them” (295, fn31). From that I conclude that, during the process of dictation, these 5 reports of the visions came out from Lucy’s memory in a single account, which Coray later re-arranged in chronological order. Lucy dates them relative to the births of her children, four of whom were dead when she began this memoir.

For the second vision, Anderson shows no counterpart in the first draft, and it is reported in the revision by Coray later printed by Pratt. Of the report of the third vision, Anderson notes:

“In Lucy’s 1844-45 rough draft, the next paragraph describes Alvin’s labor to raise money for the annual payment [for the family farm]. The Coray 1845 fair copy, which Pratt follows, rather awkwardly interpolates Joseph Smith Sr.’s third vision at this point, probably to maintain events in as chronological an order as possible” (319).

Again, the accounts of these five visions were not in chronological order, but all came from Lucy at once. This is confirmed by Anderson’s note on the account of the sixth vision (the fourth and fifth seem to be the ones Lucy could not recall): “In Lucy’s rough draft, this account is written on the same page as the conclusion of Joseph Sr.’s third vision (the images)” (324). This sixth vision centers on Joseph Sr. being late for admission to a meeting-house for the final judgment, and being stopped at the door by a porter, who asks him “if I had done all that was necessary in order to get admission at le [the preceding four letters crossed out] I said I have done all I knew[.] well said My guide Justice must have its demands and then mercy has its claims” (325). That’s as it stands in the rough draft; in the Coray/Pratt 1853 version the porter “asked me if I had done all that was necessary in order to receive admission. I replied, that I had done all that was in my power to do. ‘Then,’ observed the porter, ‘justice must be satisfied; after this, mercy hath her claims'” (324-5).

You can see the difference for yourself — but the difference is not my point. Anderson footnotes the second, later, account, at the word “claims,” with this note: “Interestingly enough, the New Testament contains no passage that juxtaposes justice and mercy in quite this way, but it appears several times in the Book of Mormon” (325), then gives the text of five examples. I take that as evidence for the influence of the Book of Mormon on Lucy’s dictation. The last few lines of this dream are written upside down on the bottom of the next page, containing the seventh dream (325).

“Okay” I hear you say, “aren’t you way out in the weeds on this?” I don’t think so. This use of sources, quoting them without much examination, and drawing conclusions from them for his narrative, is characteristic of Van Wagoner’s procedure throughout the book. It goes to the heart of the question of his intent, which was to examine Joseph’s “crusade to reshape aspects of his life retrospectively, to refashion especially his early years, [which] has been the focus of my inquiry as a sympathetic, though not uncritical, Mormon for more than three decades” (x).

I could not check the overwhelming bulk of the material he presents, Mormon, anti-Mormon or non-Mormon, but I grew to mistrust his use of sources. One of them especially, Eber D. Howe’s *Mormonism Unvailed*. Greg Seppi, in his review of Dan Vogel’s recent, annotated, edition, explains better than I could why. I refer you to his review:

Instead, I call your attention to Van Wagoner’s description of the Book of Mormon in the context of his inquiry:

“Joseph was a syncretist who freely borrowed ideas from his environment. Thus, as I read and interpret the earliest historical sources, including eye-witness testimony, Joseph did not ‘translate’ — at least not in any commonly accepted definition of the term — the text of the Book of Mormon. Rather, he ‘scryed’ or ‘envisioned’ it through a process of ‘seeing’ that drew, at a minimum, upon both his innate creative intelligence and his own experience with his intellectual, religious, political, economic, and familial worlds” (379).

In the footnote to this passage, Van Wagoner makes a statement that I wish he had made sooner (I think it would have been more honest):

“This approach obviously departs from that which sees the Book of Mormon as a ‘translation’ of a genuinely ancient history of the various peoples of the Americas. I do not argue for the superiority of my interpretation, merely that it makes the most sense to me. Nor do I suggest that Joseph was a fraud — conscious or otherwise — according to the generally accepted definition of the term. Joseph was a religious visionary who constructed a belief system composed, syncretically, from a wide variety of elements” (379, fn 16).

Had he reported this in the summary of his book, in his introduction, I would have read with greater interest, less resistance, and with more sympathy for his expressed conclusions.

But he didn’t. And, as things stand, early in the introduction, Van Wagoner employs a method of documentation that he will return to again and again throughout the book, one that seems designed to mislead. He is quoting diverse evaluations of Joseph Smith by his contemporaries, including this one by Sidney Rigdon: “[Joseph Smith] … was a high handed transgresser [sic] of a character so heaven daring that he transfe[r]red his allegiance from the Lord to the devil so as to be one of Satan’s servants instead of the Lord[‘]s” (viii-ix). Rigdon had been one of Smith’s most enthusiastic early supporters, a member of the First Presidency, and imprisoned with Smith in Liberty Jail — so this is a shocking statement to me.

The footnote to this statement — I read footnotes, and I’m grateful that the author and publisher used footnotes in this book — reads: “Sidney Rigdon to Jesse Crosby (Oct. 1872), Revelation, Section 70 in Copying Book A. Rigdon served as first counselor to Joseph Smith in the First Presidency from 1833 to 1844.” In the Bibliography, under “Rigdon, Sidney,” the source is given as “Revelation. Section 70 in Copying Book A. Stephen Post Collection, LDS Church History Library. For convenience, see Richard S. Van Wagoner, *Sidney Rigdon*, 371-72” (p. 539). I snag on three things here: the date of this communication, October 1872; the title “Revelation. Section 70 in Copying Book A”; and the repository, “Stephen Post Collection, LDS Church History Library.” Van Wagoner does not explain where Rigdon was in 1872, nor what he was doing; he does not indicate whose revelation this is; and he does not explain who Stephen Post was nor why his collection is in the LDS Church History Library. So for convenience I pulled down my copy of Van Wagoner’s *Sidney Rigdon : a Portrait of Religious Excess* which tells me that:

“[O]n 23 January 1856 … Rigdon … receive[d] a letter from Stephen Post, a one-time Latter-day Saint who until recently had been a Strangite. … Post, who had investigated and rejected other emerging Mormon splinter groups, wrote Rigdon seeking information on his ministry. Rankled over the invasion of his privacy, Rigdon brusquely responded that although he had no personal interest in Post’s letter, ‘yet common courtesy requires that I should answer it.’ He then proceeded with a verbose discussion of his ‘calling before the Lord’ to prepare the way for the coming of Elijah and the Messiah, as promised in Doctrine and Covenants 35:4. …. Rigdon and Post, two yoked visionaries, while seeing each other face-to-face only once, would correspond with each other for twenty years” (402-3).

I would argue that Van Wagoner could have explained that briefly in his footnote, instead of explaining only Rigdon’s connection to Joseph. But he still wouldn’t have explained who Jesse Crosby was. (The Post Collection was obtained by the Church from Post’s grandson in 1971, according to a chapter note in Van Wagoner’s *Sidney Rigdon*.)

I don’t know whether most readers of this book will have the other books Van Wagoner uses. I have many of them, and some of the periodical articles he refers to, and can find a lot of the resources on line. But will most readers do as I did, or just think “Rigdon — Revelation — LDS Church History Library” (assuming they check the bibliography)? Van Wagoner uses citations like that a lot. I think they are intended to deflect, not draw, attention.

And many of them are wrong. There are three kinds of errors that mar this book: errors in transcription from sources; errors in citation; and typographical errors. I’ve discussed the first two above. To me, these are the author’s responsibility, and Van Wagoner was inconsistent. When I told AML review editor Jeffrey Needle I was ready to write my review (at long last — it is late), I mentioned that the book was marred by these kinds of errors. In his reply, he said “And please don’t dwell on the typos. It’s just a reality of modern publishing.” I ask you, dear reader: is that true? (You can answer in the comments section below.)

I won’t dwell on them in this already too-long review. I wouldn’t bring them up at all, in keeping with Needle’s instruction, except that the publisher, in the note “About the Author and His Work” states that, when he died, “Van Wagoner had completed work on the biography…. He had twice revised the finished manuscript, reviewed and approved two rounds of copy editing…. Thus … five years later… A final round of proofing silently corrected some remaining minor errors” (following p. 589). Some typos survived this round, or were introduced during it. Now it may be true that this is “just a reality of modern publishing.” As a librarian, I can testify that it’s always been a reality of publishing. It certainly has plagued the publication of the Joseph Smith Papers. But the Church Historian’s Press issues excruciatingly detailed errata for those volumes. I think the Smith-Pettit Foundation should do the same.

Actually, no I don’t. I think the book should be completely re-edited, checking the three areas I mentioned above, and re-issued in a second edition. These blemishes shouldn’t interfere with any reader’s pleasure. Many of them might go unnoticed by most readers. I can’t help noticing them — it’s a perceptual, not a cognitive, thing. This book is a welcome addition to the puzzle that is the prophet Joseph Smith, and further proof, were it needed, that ‘No man knows my history.’ But it should not put off the reader.

This is, as I said, a book full of wonders. It deserves to be read. But it does not deserve to be swallowed uncritically, and that is how Van Wagoner asks you to read it.

As an active Mormon, this book made me wonder about many things. After reading it, you may wonder if you know Brother Joseph at all.

Van Wagoner, “Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith American Prophet 1805-1830” (reviewed by Andrew Hamilton)

Natural Born SeerReview

Title: Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith American Prophet 1805-1830
Author: Richard S. Van Wagoner
Publisher: Smith Pettit Foundation
Genre: Biography
Year Published: 2016
Number of Pages: 589
Binding: Cloth
ISBN: 978-1-56085-263-6
Price: $34.95

Reviewed by Andrew Hamilton for the Association for Mormon Letters

In the opening paragraph of the introduction to Natural Born Seer, author Richard S. Van Wagoner recalls how, thanks to his time in “Mormon ‘Junior’ Sunday School”[1], Joseph Smith “occupies [his] earliest memories.” He then writes that as an adolescent he received his “patriarchal blessing” and was told to “be ever mindful of Joseph Smith’s life and mission.” He adds that this was “a charge I have never taken lightly” (p vii). Over the years as he attempted to be “ever mindful of Joseph Smith,” Van Wagoner came to believe that the official portrayals of Joseph Smith that he had been taught in his childhood and teen years were incorrect. In his introduction he states:

“Much of the homespun image of the young farm boy’s metamorphosis from village scryer or glass looker to God’s mouthpiece has been embellished to the point of distortion by a heavy overcoat of hyperbole, mythologizing, and wishful thinking” (p. viii).

Van Wagoner contends that some of this “misdirection and secrecy” was done by Smith himself during his lifetime (p. x), and some of it was done by his successors and the Church after his death in an attempt to modernize and polish Joseph Smith’s image and distance him from his involvement in folk magic, scrying, and treasure seeking (p xi). At the conclusion of the introduction Van Wagoner mentions that he had ancestors who were associates from the Restoration’s very beginning and that as an “investigative biographer,” he felt compelled to write a biography that would “peel back the layers of veneer that have obscured Joseph’s essential self” — not to spite or challenge his ancestors’ faith and commitment, but because of it (see p. ix and p. xvii).

Natural Born Seer, then, is Van Wagoner’s attempt to “be ever mindful of Joseph Smith’s life and mission,” portray as unvarnished a picture of the young seer as possible, and honor the commitment of his ancestors and other early followers of Joseph Smith. I believe that he succeeds on all of these points.

A quick note on what Natural Born Seer is or was meant to be. The subtitle is “Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830.” My understanding is that the original concept for this book was for it to be part one of a three part trilogy that was to have been released together in 2005 by the Smith Pettit Foundation in connection with the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth. Each book would be very focused on one period of Smith’s life, thus providing what was hoped would be the most detailed writing of his life’s story to date. This book would more or less encompass the first 25 years of Joseph Smith life. The second book would cover from 1831-1839, and the last book would cover the Nauvoo period and the martyrdom.

As you can tell by the fact that this book was released in 2016 all by itself, the project got behind schedule and to get the volumes that had been finished out, parts one and three were given separate but close release dates in 2016. The book that was to have been part three was released about a month before Natural born Seer. It is titled Glorious in Persecution and was written by Martha Bradley-Evans. The middle part of the trilogy has yet to be completed. At a book release event for Natural Born Seer it was mentioned that historian Dan Vogel has been asked to take over the project and that there is hope that it will be published in about four years.

At just short of 600 pages in length (500 pages of text and almost 100 of notes, bibliography, and index), and covering just the first 25 years of Joseph Smith’s life, “Natural Born Seer” goes into a lot more detail in the life and world of Joseph Smith than most readers will be used to and this is a very good thing. The text is broken up into 18 chapters. The first, “Goodly Parents,” introduces Joseph’s parents and family; the last, “To the Ohio,” takes the young “Church of Christ” from New York to “Kirtland Mills” Ohio. The rest of the chapters give you the most detailed single volume version of Smith’s journey from boy to freshly minted prophet that has been published.

At the conclusion of the main text are two appendixes. Number one, “Accounts of Claimed Supernatural Visons,” provides approximately quarter page long summaries of 30 other individuals from Abraham (circa 2000 BCE) to Rose Fairs (1988 CE), to allow the reader to compare Joseph’s claimed visions to the stories of those who claim similar visions. Appendix 2 is called “Meanings of Lamanite in Mormon Culture.” This appendix starts with a two and a half page explanation, based on modern DNA research, that shows that Native American and Polynesian peoples are of Asiatic descent and have no Israelite DNA in them, a difficulty LDS apologists try and address with the Book of Mormon by stating that the Book of Mormon peoples must have lived in a very geographically isolated area and that their descendants intermarried and can no longer be identified. This is then followed by about 13 pages of quotes by LDS general authorities from Joseph Smith in 1828 to Neil L. Anderson in 2016 directly contradicting those apologists and identifying all North and South Native Americans and Polynesians as “Lamanites.”

There were several things about Natural Born Seer that I absolutely loved. One of those things, as I have just hinted at, is the great detail that Van Wagoner includes in this book. Growing up, as I learned about Joseph Smith, he almost seemed to live in a vacuum. Rarely do I ever remember learning or reading about the conditions and context behind Joseph’s life, actions, and lived experiences. This book fills the vacuum. For “Natural Born Seer” Van Wagoner did his homework and we are all the beneficiaries of his prodigious research and well woven narrative in which he paints the milieu of Joseph Smith’s life in greater detail than I have before experienced. Let me share just a few examples where he does this. On pages 35-46, Van Wagoner tells the very familiar story of how at seven years of age Joseph became very sick and nearly lost his leg. But in “Natural Born Seer” the reader gets far more than the traditional narration of Joseph’s infected leg, the doctors wanting to amputate, Lucy convincing them to just remove a piece of the bone, and of Joseph’s bravery and refusal to be tied down or drink any alcohol to help as they performed the operation. As he fleshes the story and circumstances out, Van Wagoner explains all about typhus and typhoid fever and how doctors really couldn’t tell the difference until 1837. He explains symptoms of the two diseases and gives statistics relating to disease and survival rates as well as explaining the medical practices of the time when Joseph’s operation occurred. He writes of the experiences of the other family members with the disease and gives background information on the various physicians involved in treating the Smith family at the time. He also includes a full page on what it was like to experience a leg amputation in the early 1800’s. And all of this before spending four pages on the operation itself and its immediate aftermath/recovery period. Then in the following chapter he continues the story as he gives details of the longer term effects of the operation on young Joseph including the likely psychological impact of the operation and the potential mixed emotions that he would have experienced after having been sent away from his parents to recover in the home of an uncle. In “Natural Born Seer” I experienced and understood this story better than I’d ever understood it before.

The great background information in the story of Joseph’s leg operation is just one example of Van Wagoner’s intricate detail, painstaking research, and engaging writing. Here briefly are just a handful of other examples of the interesting details in this book. When young Joseph is sent to live with relatives in Salem, Massachusetts, the reader is treated to details about how stories of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd were circulating in the area at the time and how people reacted to these stories. There are also details about the economy, life, and politics of Salem and the ways that these would have influenced a young boy of Joseph’s age and experience (see pages 47-55). Once he begins to write about the Smith Family farm, Van Wagoner helps us moderns by giving great details on farm and family life in the early 1800’s. He narrates in some detail the importance of various kinds of apples. He describes farm chores and when children were expected to become involved in them. He writes of family meal times and what a typical family meal in a poor family like the Smith’s would have consisted of. He writes of the sparse use of “store-bought” items and the importance of generating the food and drink that they would have survived on.

In telling these details, Van Wagoner quotes contemporaries of Joseph Smith to describe what family devotional and prayer time were like in a typical New England household when Joseph Smith was a boy (see pages 57-60). Since the Smiths were a poor family who lost homes and were forced to move due to their poverty, Van Wagoner gives details on what living in poverty was like in the early 1800’s and explains about things such as “poor laws,” “the ‘Era of Good Feelings’,” and what it meant to be “warned out” of a community (see pages 64-65). This is just the beginning. Such details go on throughout the entire book.

Related to Van Wagoner’s great use and inclusion of many fine details is his pulling together of many varied and disparate sources. “Natural Born Seer’s” bibliography is 56 pages worth of small print that contain the most contemporary resources on Joseph Smith that I think that I have ever seen in one volume as well as numerous listings of books and articles by modern scholars. From looking at this immense bibliography I would say that it was likely very difficult for Van Wagoner to limit himself to just 500 pages of narrative and that he has likely forgotten more details about young Joseph’s life than most of us will ever even learn.

While I am not uninformed on the early life of Joseph Smith and the literature available on the subject, I am not a historian by trade, and I have never specifically focused my personal reading or studies on the time period. It may be that Van Wagoner has new information in this book and sources that have never been used before. But from my limited research and discussions with others, I don’t believe that this is so. Nevertheless , new information or not, this book does something extremely important in my opinion: synthesis. All of these sources are used and woven together in such a way as to provide a new and more complete picture than has ever been provided before of the life of the boy and young man Joseph Smith.

I completely understand that some of the sources that are used will bother some people, especially those who have only been exposed to the traditional, polished, correlated, LDS version of Joseph Smith that has been presented in Sunday school and in LDS produced films and magazines for so many years. I have already seen people question Van Wagoner’s sources on social media and say that he should have been more critical of them. I imagine that LDS apologetic sources will take this book to task. I will leave those fights to the historians.

There were a few places where I felt that Van Wagoner could have explained his sources better, and where I think that he should have explained to the reader the “unfriendly” nature of the source that he was using. This was especially true of his dependence early in the book on a letter called “The Green Mountain Boys to Thomas C. Sharp” (see pages 3 and 4). But overall I think that the strength of “Natural Born Seer” is the great job of synthesis that Van Wagoner performed with his sources.

For years when I was growing up attending seminary, institute, and Sunday school, when I was on my mission, at BYU and in my personal studies about Joseph Smith etcetera, whenever a source critical of the young Joseph Smith came up, or when an accusation came up about his time as a “glass looker” or “money digger,” I was told that this source could be dismissed because it was obviously “anti-Mormon” and must have been a lie created by early neighbors of Joseph Smith under the inspiration of the devil because they were jealous or some such thing. But in “Natural Born Seer,” Van Wagoner pulls and synthesizes so many varied and independent sources that provide information about Joseph’s early behaviors and activities, that together they strengthen one another and tell a story that cannot easily be dismissed, and that I think will force many people to rethink the way that the life of the young Joseph is told.

The title of this book, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is “Natural born Seer.” Because of this, one of the main questions that I am sure people are going to have is just what does the book have to say about Joseph’s seering, “scrying,” and use of seer stones. The answer: a lot! The first five chapters, 120 pages of text, are about the Smiths, life in the early 1800’s, and Joseph’s boyhood. Chapter seven is called “Money Digging” and chapter eight is called “”Village Scryer.” When I finished reading these two chapters for the first time I was a little disappointed: while they provided a lot of background on money digging and scrying and the culture that surrounded and went along with them, they didn’t seem to provide much information on Joseph Smith’s particular activities as a scryer and a money digger. My thought was “Oh, well, that was a bit of a letdown.” But then I kept reading and realized that these two chapters were just the set up.

The rest of the book demonstrates how Joseph extensively used seer stones from his teen years into the early Restored Church period. In these chapters the reader will find out about how Joseph used seer stones in attempts to make money to support his family. They will learn how seer stones were a part of the “First Vision” and “Vision of Moroni” experiences. They will get details on how the seer stones played a part in Joseph’s yearly visits to the “Hill Cumorah” Book of Mormon site where the golden plates were said to be buried, the part they played in Joseph’s attempts to obtain the plates, and in decisions of who should accompany him on some of those visits to the plates.

And that is just a small portion of what the rest of the book contains. Van Wagoner outlines just how the seer stones and scrying was involved in Joseph Smith’s relationship to Martin Harris. There two chapters, “Scrying the Book of Mormon” and “Envisioning the Golden Plates,” offer in great detail the story of how the seer stones were used by Smith in the translation process when he dictated the Book of Mormon to his scribes and how visions and seeing with “spiritual eyes” were involved in the “Three Witness” experience.

The “Envisioning” chapter also includes quotes from Brigham Young and others on the teaching and importance of seeing with “spiritual eyes” in the early Restoration period[2].

As the book concludes, readers learn all about how the seer stones were also involved in the early guidance of, and revelations for, the young “Church of Christ.”

I realize that this is a lengthy review, but as long as it is it only scratches the surface of the 300 pages of information that Van Wagoner provides on Joseph Smith’s activities as a scryer and a seer.

So that I can’t be accused of providing a review that is little more than a glowing “fanboy book report,” I had better outline a few of the things in this book that concerned me. With all of the details that Van Wagoner provides, I noticed at least one story in which Van Wagoner did not provide all of the details. After acquiring the gold plates there came a point where Joseph felt that he could no longer remain in his old neighborhood in New York due to the efforts of his former money digging companions who were ransacking his family farm and using various means to try and take the plates from him. Emma’s parents Isaac and Elizabeth Hale said that Joseph and Emma could come and live with them in Harmony, Pennsylvania. Joseph and Emma decided to take them up on the offer. After several pages describing Joseph’s fund raising efforts and preparations for the move, Van Wagoner writes the following:

“…the plates were…stored in a…box. To prepare the box for transportation, it was placed in a large cask or barrel. The Smiths then filled it with concealing beans, nailed it shut, and hoisted it aboard Alva [Hale’s] wagon…[Martin] Harris advised the two men [Joseph and Alva Hale, Emma’s brother who was driving the wagon] to protect themselves with clubs, which they did. They slipped out of tow under cover of darkness and made an *uneventful trip* to Harmony, arriving in late December 1827.” (p. 294)

For all I know, Van Wagoner may be one hundred percent correct, it may have been an “uneventful trip.” At least one traditional account in Restoration history, however, says otherwise. According to Orson Pratt, Joseph Smith related to him that he, Emma, and Alva were accosted at least twice on the journey. As Pratt relates it:

“He had not gone far, before he was overtaken by an officer with a search-warrant, who flattered himself with the idea, that he should surely obtain the plates; after searching very diligently, he was sadly disappointed at not finding them. Mr. Smith then drove on, but before he got to his journey’s end, he was again overtaken by an officer on the same business, and after ransacking the waggon very carefully, he went his way, as much chagrined as the first, at not being able to discover the object of his research. Without any further molestation, he pursued his journey until he came to the northern part of Pennsylvania, near the Susquehanna river, in which part his father-in-law resided.”[3]

The account by Pratt is so well known that it has made it into traditional LDS Church histories[4], LDS Church magazine articles[5], LDS Church lesson manuals[6], and even the LDS produced film “A Marvelous Work Begins”[7]. I am not enough of a historian to know if Pratt is correct, or if Van Wagoner is correct. I do not know if Van Wagoner is disputing Pratt’s account, ignoring Pratt’s account, or unaware of Pratt’s account (given the level of his research and scholarship, that seems unlikely). As well-known as the Pratt account of Joseph being accosted on his journey to Harmony is, it is hard for me to believe that Van Wagoner was not aware of it. In my mind, “Natural Born Seer” would have been a stronger book if Van Wagoner had mentioned it, even if in a footnote, and then given his reasons for why he believed it to be incorrect.

There were a few decisions that Van Wagoner made in this book in regards to historical individual and place names that I found strange which would not have bothered me if he had just explained his reasoning for his decisions better. The next child in the Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Smith family after Joseph Jr. was Samuel Harrison Smith, born in 1808. He is known today in the Church for being involved in several historical events: for being one of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, for being the “first” missionary of the Church, for providing the copy of the Book of Mormon that eventually brought Brigham Young into the Church, and for attempting to rush to his brother’s aid in Carthage only to be chased away by the militia and then dying a month after Joseph and Hyrum. Every book, article or source that I have ever read either refers to him as “Samuel” or “Samuel Harrison.” But when introducing him in “Natural Born Seer” Van Wagoner states:

“Joseph Jr. was two when Samuel Harrison (who often went simply by Harrison) was born on March, 13, 1808” (p. 21).

After this, with the exception of one reference on page 333 where he calls him “Samuel Harrison Smith,” Van Wagoner always refers to him simply as “Harrison.” Again, I am no historian. Van Wagoner spent years researching this book. I am not saying that he is wrong and that nobody ever called the young man “Harrison.” What I am saying is that since no author, book, or source that most of us have ever seen before just called him “Harrison,” it would have been nice if, even in a footnote, Van Wagoner would have provided the source or information that caused him to come to this conclusion.

Van Wagoner did the same thing with Lucy Harris, the wife of Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris. When he introduced Lucy to the reader in the chapter called “Martin Harris, Money Man,” Van Wagoner explained that Lucy was “nicknamed Dolly” (page 286). He then uses “Dolly” as the exclusive way to refer to her throughout the rest of the book. Now in a way this was somewhat helpful and eased confusion. Martin and Lucy/Dolly had a daughter named Lucy and Joseph Jr.’s mother was named Lucy. All of these women interacted several times, so having one less “Lucy” in the mix helped to alleviate mistaken identity issues. But again, in pretty much every available book or story that I have seen up to this point, she has always been called “Lucy” Harris. In a casual Google search I only found one other author who mentioned that she was sometimes called “Dolly” but then he continued to call her “Lucy”[8]. As with “Harrison,” I’m not saying that I think that Van Wagoner is wrong to call her “Dolly,” I wouldn’t dare challenge him on that, but since it is so unusual and unexpected to most potential readers, I think that it would have strengthened the book if he had provided the source for why he calls her “Dolly.”

Van Wagoner does this two other times, but on a much smaller scale. In the chapter called “Courting Emma Hale Smith” he writes:

“Standing five feet nine inches to Joseph’s six feet, Em, as she was known to her family members, had ‘very black and piercing eyes’…” (page 260). As with the aforementioned “Harrison” and “Dolly,” nothing in the book’s footnotes indicates where Van Wagoner got his information about Emma’s nickname. However, unlike the other two individuals, he uses the conventional “Emma” to refer to her throughout the rest of the book. Van Wagoner does this in one more instance, this time about a place. When describing the young Church of Christ’s move from New York to Ohio he writes:

“Not the least among the enticements for immigrating to Kirtland Mills, as the place was then called, were the financial considerations” (p. 461).

Having never heard that name before (and I am sure that I am not the only one), I wanted to know more about this slightly different name for a traditional LDS Church history site. But Van Wagoner just dropped the name in like that with no notes or further information. A quick Google search got me the information that I wanted courtesy of the Joseph Smith papers website[9], but again, since this is information that many readers will not be used to, a brief note explaining the different than normally expected name would have strengthened the book, in my opinion.

There were only two things that Van Wagoner did in this book that really bothered me. One was the way that he chose to emphasize/explain the relationship between Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Oliver is introduced in the book in chapter 14, “Converting Cousin Cowdery.” Near the beginning of the chapter, Van Wagoner writes:

“Evidently, the Smiths had earlier met David Whitmer, a young man Joseph’s age, while he was in Palmyra on business and visiting a friend, Oliver Cowdery, a second cousin to Lucy Smith” (p. 329).

This statement is given a footnote which states:

“Cowdery’s mother, Rebecca Fuller Cowdery, was the great-granddaughter of John Fuller and Mehitable Rowley, who were also the second great-grandparents of Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Smith’s mother. In addition, Mary Gates, a cousin of Joseph’s maternal grandmother, Lydia Gates Mack, was married to Nathaniel Cowdery Jr., the brother of William Cowdery, Oliver’s grandfather” (fn 10, p 329).

So their common ancestor is four generations back on Oliver’s side and five on Joseph’s side. That makes Joseph and Hyrum second cousins twice removed. That might make for a fun game of “Seven Degrees of Separation,” but it doesn’t exactly make them close family. Yet, along with the chapter title, frequently when Oliver pops up in the text, Van Wagoner emphasizes this “relationship.” For example, in relation to Oliver’s opportunity to become a teacher in the area where the Smith’s lived he wrote, “He may have heard of the vacancy from *cousin* Hyrum Smith” (p. 329). A little later he writes, “Joseph and Lucy’s trip to Pennsylvania whetted Oliver’s desire to participate in his distant cousin’s marvelous work” (p. 330). Then, when getting to Oliver and Joseph’s meeting the text brings up the cousin thing and adds some speculation:

“That first night, the two cousins, who probably knew of each other but had never met, stayed up while Joseph told Oliver his ‘entire history as far as it was necessary’… No doubt Cowdery offered up his own life story as well. Born in Vermont like Joseph, Cowdery…was ten months younger than his cousin” (p. 335).

At one point when Joseph and Oliver needed some supplies but didn’t get them, Van Wagoner explains “the cousins returned empty handed to Harmony” (p. 336). Here is one more. “In 1835, his cousin and confidant, Oliver Cowdery, described Smith’s 1823 thinking” (p. 378). Nowhere in my reading of the book could I figure out why Van Wagoner insisted on pushing the “cousins” relationship so much with Joseph and Oliver. There is nothing to indicate elsewhere that they ever knew each other before meeting during the Book of Mormon translation process or that (despite Van Wagoner’s bit of speculation) they even knew of each other any time before Cowdery became employed as a teacher in the area where the Smiths lived.

Other than this bit of weirdness, the rest of the information in the chapter on Cowdery is very good. There are four things in particular that stand out to me as excellent points in the Oliver Cowdery chapter. In relation to the Smith family’s financial setbacks, Van Wagoner points out that Lucy Mack Smith had a habit of saying that the family’s problems had come because they had “turned their backs ‘upon the world and set out in the service of God’,” yet she conveniently would forget to tell people or mention in her writings about “her family’s failed attempts at money-digging, her husband’s drinking, and [their] sheer bad luck” (p. 334). At the same time, Van Wagoner also points out that when the Smiths were in a dark hour and about to lose their home, they were rescued by one Lemuel Durfee who purchased the land that their home was on from those who were going to drive the Smiths off and graciously agreed to let them stay for three years, even though he did not have to do so. Yet, when Durfee reached the point where he wanted the property for his own family’s use, despite his having been nice to the Smiths, Lucy said that the Durfee family were “wicked men who fear not God” and stated that they were being driven off “their” land because of religious differences (p, 334). I appreciated the extra information on Durfee and the candor in dealing with Lucy Mack Smith.

The other three points I liked in this chapter also relate to historical information, some of which is available in other books, but which most readers will not likely have heard of or thought about. This includes the information that, before they met, Joseph used the seer stone to see David Whitmer coming to visit him and Oliver Cowdery (p. 344). A detailed explanation (based in part on Greg Prince’s book “Power from on High”) explains how there is no mention of Joseph and Oliver getting the priesthood from John the Baptist in any contemporary or early records. Rather, the early versions of the story just tell of them baptizing each other; the addition of John the Baptist to the story came several years later (see pp 340-341).

The most interesting thing to me in this chapter was when Van Wagoner pointed out an inconsistency in a traditional story and scripture related to the translation of the Book of Mormon. I would assume that most Mormons and others who have studied Restoration history are familiar with the story of how Oliver asked Joseph Smith if he could have a turn at translating the gold plates. Joseph told him that he could and gave Oliver the chance. However, Oliver failed in his attempt when he looked at the seer stone and saw nothing. This led to a revelation that was originally published as “Book of Commandments” chapter 8, and is now LDS Doctrine and Covenants section Nine. After retelling this story, Van Wagoner quotes this section which says in part:

“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.” (BC VIII/LDS D&C 9:7-9, as quoted on p. 339)

I have heard the “Oliver failed to translate because he did not study it out” story and explanation so many times in my 44 years that I can practically tell it in my sleep. It is a very popular story in the Mormon tradition and is often used to teach LDS Church members the importance of “studying out” their important life decisions (school, career, marriage, etc) *before* asking God for His input on the rightness or wrongness of the decision. Yet immediately after quoting the familiar revelation, Van Wagoner makes this very important point that changes the whole story:

“Joseph’s own dictation process seems not to have shown any such sequence of study, hypothesis, and prayer. As G. St. Stott notes, ‘Had Smith *studied out* each line of his translation Cowdery would surely have noted and attempted to follow suit, and for that matter, others who had watched Smith at work would have mentioned his habit of working line by line…and testing his translation with prayer’” (p. 339).

Rather than “study it out” Van Wagoner points out that, at various times, Smith said that the Book of Mormon translation was given to him by means of the “Spirit of Revelation and Prophecy,” “was communicated to him, direct from heaven,” that it was “dictated by God” and that this revelation came as “pure Intelligence” and “sudden strokes of ideas” (p. 339). This information had been in front of me my whole life, but I had never connected this information this way before. Van Wagoner puts the pieces together and makes me think of this old story in a whole new way. This is just one example of many of how “Natural Born Seer” helps the reader to understand the life and stories of Joseph Smith in a whole new way.

One last criticism that I alluded to above, occasionally Van Wagoner threw in lines and even paragraphs of pure speculation that seemed unfair and very out of place in an otherwise well documented and scholarly work. For instance, the chapter “Martin Harris, Money Man” tells about how Martin Harris became involved with Joseph Smith, his giving of money to Joseph, his work on and loss of the “116 pages,” and the disintegration of his marriage to Lucy/Dolly. After noting the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript, the very last paragraph of the chapter states:

“Devastated, Joseph briefly considered abandoning the project. Had he done so, there very probably would have been no Mormonism, and the millions today who affirm their faith in the Book of Mormon would have to look elsewhere for their fulfillment. As for the Smith family, would this latest catastrophe have destroyed their family dream, driven Joseph Sr. permanently to alcoholism, and assured their financial destruction? Or would Joseph Jr. have settled in Harmony to work the fields, settle into the extended Hale family, raise his children as good Methodists, and give form to his imagination in colorful tales to entertain neighbors?” (p. 307)

My first objection to this paragraph in particular was that there is no footnote documentation provided to back up the idea that Joseph considered abandoning the Book of Mormon translation. As I have stated before, I am no historian and Van Wagoner spent a lot of time researching this book. He may be right, I can’t say. But I think that a statement that controversial deserves to be backed up with evidence. Show me the journal entry or letter or source where Joseph wrote or told someone that he was seriously considering dropping the Book of Mormon altogether after the loss of the 116 pages. But *even if he was* the rest of that paragraph is completely out of place in a scholarly biography. Such speculation might be interesting and even fun in some other forum where it is made clear that the intent is to discuss speculative ideas, but in biography that is meant to inform on history and for the most part is very well documented and factual, I felt that this was out of place and could bias readers against the subject. This doesn’t happen very often, but there were several places where such undocumented speculation was thrown in.

When I received my review copy of “Natural Born Seer,” one of the first questions that I asked to myself was: “Does the world really need another biography of Joseph Smith?” I knew that, over the years, a great number of biographies had been written about “Brother Joseph.” Out of curiosity I did a very basic search of the LDS Church History Library catalog. I entered “Joseph Smith” into a search window and selected “Subject” and “Published Materials.” When the results came up, the column that allowed for further breakdown of the results listed 144 books classified as “Biographies.” I honestly did not spend much time breaking it down further to see if some titles were listed multiple times or to see if some were books about other individuals who happened to mention Joseph Smith in their works. Even if either or both of these things are so, there are still a lot of Joseph Smith biographies that have been written. Van Wagoner actually acknowledges, in the second paragraph of the introduction to “Natural Born Seer,” that a great many writers have preceded him in writing biographies on Joseph Smith, but then states:

“Despite dozens of biographies intent on portraying the real original, however, I believe that much is left to be revealed of the complex, controversial Mormon prophet.” (p. vii)

After reading “Natural Born Seer,” my question was answered. I agree with Van Wagoner’s assessment “that much is left to be revealed” about Joseph Smith, and in “Natural Born Seer” he has made a significant contribution to that effort. While I had some issues with this book as outlined above, I believe that overall, Van Wagoner succeeds in his goal to remove some of the layers of “veneer” and “embellishment” that have obscured the story of the young farm boy scryer who became the first “prophet and seer” of the Restorationist movement. For many years Mormons sang a hymn that is no longer in their hymn book that includes these lines:

“The Seer, the Seer, Joseph the Seer!
I’ll sing of the prophet ever dear…
The earthly seer! The heavenly seer!
I love to dwell on his memory dear” [10]

While it was normal in the LDS Church for many years to speak of Joseph Smith as a “Seer” for much of the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, for the most part that talk went away with the few references to it being largely in name only with Smith and modern LDS apostles and First Presidency members being called “Prophets, *SEERS*, and Revelators” without Church members in general really thinking or talking about what that “Seers” part meant. With the release in 2015 by the Joseph Smith Papers Project of the “Revelations and Translations, Volume 3: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon” that included pictures and descriptions of Joseph’s chocolate colored seer stone, that began to change. That book from the Joseph Smith Papers Project began anew the conversation in LDS circles on Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones and activities as a “Seer”[11].

“Natural Born Seer,” though it has its flaws, has taken that discussion to the next level. It will make a great addition to any library and contributes to our understanding of who Joseph Smith was and just what he did as a “Natural Born Seer.”

[1] Before about 1980, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints switched to its current format of a “3 hour block” of meetings on Sunday, the children’s meeting known as “Primary” was held on weekday afternoons and on Sundays while the adults and teens were in Sunday School. The children had their own meeting called “Junior Sunday School.”
[2] Van Wagoner missed an opportunity in this chapter. To prove his point that early Latter-day Saints believed that visions happened with “spiritual eyes” and not the physical senses, he quotes extensively from Philo Dibble’s account of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon receiving the “Vision of the Three Degrees of Glory” (see pages 355-356). However, he left out this statement of Philo Dibble that would have fit into his chapter and thesis very well. Quoting Joseph Smith and speaking of how the Spirit enhanced his senses during the “Vision” Dibble is quoted as having related that Smith said, “My whole body was full of light and I could see even out at the ends of my fingers and toes”. See “The Vision” by N.B. Lundwall, Bookcraft, 1948, p. 11
[3]An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, The Late Discovery Of Ancient American Records. By Orson. PRATT, p 15 available at or
[4] See “A Comprehensive History of the Church” by B. H. Roberts, pp. 95-96
[5] See for example, “‘Take Heed Continually’: Protecting the Gold Plates” by Andrew H. Hedges, Ensign, Jan. 2001
[6] See for example, “Joseph Smith Receives the Gold Plates” Primary 5: Doctrine and Covenants and Church History, (1997), 20–25
[7]1982, video available at Youtube, starting at the 8:26 mark
[8] See “VOLUME II THE CREATION OF MORMONISM: JOSEPH SMITH JR. IN THE 1820S:The Quest for the New Jerusalem: A Mormon Generational Saga” by John J Hammond, p. 116, digital image available at
[9] Kirtland Mills was the name of the post office in the early days of the town due to the concentration of mills in the area — see
[10] “The Seer, Joseph the Seer” by John Taylor, for more information see
[11] For examples of the discussion see “Joseph the Seer” By Richard E. Turley Jr., Robin S. Jensen, and Mark Ashurst-McGee, published in “The Ensign”, October 2015, available here and the book “Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones” by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick, Published by the Deseret Book Company, 2016

Bushman, “Joseph Smith : Rough Stone Rolling” (legacy review by Dennis Clark)


Title: Joseph Smith : Rough Stone Rolling
Author: Bushman, Richard Lyman ; with the assistance of Jed Woodworth
Publisher: New York : Knopf
Genre: Biography
Year Published: 2005
Number of pages: xxiv, 740
Binding: Paperback
ISBN10: n/a
ISBN13: 978-1-4000-7753-3
Price: $19.95

Reviewed by Dennis Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters

Because I am a librarian, trained as a cataloger, I transcribed the above title and subtitle of this biography from the title page. Because they are publishers, the editors or designers at Knopf added a second subtitle to the cover, but not the title page, of the book: “A cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder.” This is an important characterization of the book. Cultural history is Richard Bushman’s strong suit as an historian, and he explains in the preface how that guides his writing. “A rhetorical problem vexes anyone who writes about the thought of Joseph Smith. …there are reasons for not inserting a disclaimer every time a revelation is mentioned, no matter how the reader or writer feels about the ultimate source. The most important is that Joseph Smith did not think that way. The signal feature of his life was his sense of being guided by revelation” (xxi).

Joseph Smith’s life was no more radical than his thought, not even more dramatic. Bushman wrote the words in the preceding paragraph no later than 2005. Twelve years on, one might be pardoned for asking if this biography might have been supplanted by the publication of the Joseph Smith papers, or superseded by the on-going publication by the Smith-Pettit Foundation of a three-volume biography by three different authors, each focused on a different period of Smith’’s life. The answer is no, not for me — and the reason is the great care that Bushman takes to stick to that “cultural biography” as a guiding principle.

Bushman comments, again in his “Preface,” on The Joseph Smith Papers, noting that “This study has been helped immensely by the project to collect and publish Joseph Smith’s papers in a scholarly edition.” This acknowledgement is typical of Bushman’s gracious spirit. He goes on: “Many of the papers have long been available but sometimes in doctored form and not carefully annotated.” Here Bushman’’s integrity as an historian shines through, followed by a slight note of despair: “A comprehensive sweep of the nation’s archives has produced many more…. Although I have not had the benefit of all the annotation and cannot cite the new edition now going to press, I have been given access to the materials as they have been assembled. For this I am grateful” (xxii).

In reviewing Richard Van Wagoner’s Natural Born Seer, I noticed that, although it was finished in 2010 and published in 2016, it did not cite the Joseph Smith Papers all that often, and did not acknowledge the 2002 revised edition of Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Dean Jessee’s masterful compilation. So I cannot conclude that Joseph Smith : Rough Stone Rolling has been superseded, or is out-of-date. It is still a comprehensive survey of the life and thought of a remarkable man.

The emphasis on the thought of Joseph Smith accounts for differing responses to this biography by me and by Valerie, my wife. When I received the review copy of the book, a paperback which is not quite the same edition as the hardcover — because some errors in the text have been silently corrected — I challenged Valerie to read that copy, while I re-read my hardcover first edition. She had been unable to finish reading it when I first got it.

So we began. With this kind of biography, I’m a slow reader; with this biography, a very slow reader. That’s because I read the footnotes, or in this case endnotes, as I come to them, and write my own notes on the notes on post-it notes, and stick them to the notes pages. Sometimes I read the source notes to see whose work was being cited; occasionally I read the index, to find my way back to a note I neglected to notate. And at all times, I miss footnotes.

So this review is overdue. Valerie gave up reading Bushman for a time, switching to Sherri Dew’’s Go Forward with Faith : the Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley. The difference between an analytical biography of a man born over 200 years ago, and a narrative telling stories of a contemporary, many of which she could relate to, if not recall — the difference was telling to her. The analytical biography, placing the subject in the cultural context of his time, seeking to explain his thought for a general audience, was slow going for her. But after finishing Dew’s book, she picked up Bushman’s again. Valerie knew Joseph Smith from Donna Hill’s Joseph Smith : the First Mormon, which focuses on the stories of Joseph’s life, but had not known much about Gordon Hinckley.

I’’ve urged her to persevere in reading Bushman, because to me the understanding he brings to Joseph Smith’s life and thought provides a framework for my own research into his life, which resulted in my writing a long poem — over 80 pages in manuscript, written in Anglo-Saxon verse, the meter of Beowulf. I consider Joseph a hero, and a hero in the mold of Beowulf, a warrior against ignorance, a protector of his people, one willing to face the dragon and die in his struggle. So I have a personal reason for enjoying Joseph Smith : Rough Stone Rolling. And I have enjoyed reading it. But I still read the endnotes, because I am still interested in Bushman’s sources.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention Jed Woodworth’s contribution to the book. He is not listed on the jacket of the book, but on the title page his contribution is identified as “with the assistance of Jed Woodworth.” In his preface, Bushman elaborates. He met Woodworth through a series of summer seminars held in Provo, Utah to sponsor “two months of research into the cultural context of Joseph Smith’s life and thought,” bringing “a half dozen students” together, “graduate students and advanced undergraduates.” Woodworth was one of those. Bushman says “Jed began as an editor and research assistant running down secondary work, checking facts and quotes, and improving style. As time passed. … [h]e … tested my claims, elaborated ideas, and enriched the scholarship. Probably only scholars will appreciate the depth of the research reflected in the notes. … Jed earned his place on the title page many times over” (xxiii).

It is this combination of the big picture and the telling brushstroke that makes the book so compelling to me. To cite but one example, I was intrigued by how Bushman and Woodworth handled the question of the relationship between Masonic rites and the temple endowment. First, they address “The concept of the temple” which “had steadily expanded since it was first mentioned in a revelation in late 1830. In Independence, the temple was understood as a place for the Lord to return — a place to lay His head when He came” (448). [That temple was never built, although the Church of Christ Temple Lot maintains a visitors’ center on the site.] “In Kirtland, Joseph added administrative offices, a meetinghouse and school, and, more significantly, performed the rituals of washing and anointing in the House of the Lord” (448). [Joseph lost control of that temple for a time after he moved to Far West. There he planned to build 12 temples, in the plat for the City of Zion. Cornerstones were laid for one]. “In Nauvoo, the ceremonies were further elaborated to include baptism for the dead, endowments, and priesthood marriages” (448). [I added those explanatory notes to emphasize Joseph’’s sense of almost despair at the frustration of his efforts.]

After explaining the temple rituals instituted in Nauvoo, Woodworth and Bushman note that “Portions of the temple ritual resembled Masonic rites that Joseph had observed when a Nauvoo lodge was organized in March 1842 and that he may have heard about from Hyrum, a Mason from New York days. The Nauvoo endowment was first bestowed just six weeks after Joseph’s induction” in the Nauvoo lodge (449). After a brief history of Masonry in Illinois, Bushman and Woodworth go on to describe Joseph’s response to his induction:

“Intrigued by the Masonic rites, Joseph turned the materials to his own use. The Masonic elements that appeared in the temple endowment were embedded in a distinctive context — the Creation instead of the Temple of Solomon, exaltation rather than fraternity, God and Christ, not the Worshipful Master. Temple covenants bound people to God rather than to each other. At the end, the participants entered symbolically into the presence of God” (450).

The endnote to that paragraph states that “Michael Quinn emphasizes the temple endowment’s ascent into heaven as a distinguishing feature,” citing his study Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, published in 1987. The reference is to pp. 184-90, wherein Quinn draws “only on authorized descriptions of the endowment by LDS leaders” to show “how the Mormon endowment reflected the ancient and occult mysteries far closer than Freemasonry” (Quinn, 186). His account is comprehensive and exemplary.

That is an example of how deeply Woodworth and Bushman go into every aspect of the culture of Joseph’’s place and time. It also demonstrates the care with which they present the work of other scholars, and acknowledge their scholarly debts.

It is also an example of why I read this book with one finger in the pages of notes, even the second time. I commend it to you, for the story it tells of this “rough stone rolling” across the landscape of 19th-century America, and out into the wider world in the 20th. You couldn’t have a clearer cultural biography, and no better has been published since.

This Month in Mormon Literature, Late August 2017

This month we mourn the passing of author Rulon T. Burton, anticipate a new Stephen Peck novel, and look forward to a new Mahonri Stewart play. There is also a slew of new nationally published novels, and a well-reviewed movie, We Love You, Sally Carmichael!, made largely by Mormons, which gently satirizes Utah culture and the Twilight phenomenon. And a Mormon filmmaker gets jail time. Please send news and announcements to mormonlit AT gmail DOT com. Also, we are looking for more people to write for the blog, including essays and book reviews. Please send your writing or ideas to that address.

In Memoriam

We note with sadness the passing of Rulon T. Burton, on Monday, July 24, 2017, at age 91, in Draper, Utah. Burton, a lawyer, authored six novels and nine non-fiction works. Most were self-published, usually at Tabernacle Books, an imprint run by his son Gideon Burton. The books include:

We Believe: Doctrines and Principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tabernacle Books, 1994. Continue Reading →

This Month in Mormon Literature, October 2016 (Part 1: books)

It is nearly two months since my last “Month in Review”, and there is a huge backlog of material, so I am splitting this review into two parts. This post will cover newly published books, book reviews, and bestseller lists. Part two will cover literary news, short stories, movies, and plays.

abbottinvisible-mena-taste-for-monstersorphan-keepersouthern-charmedunfinished-figures Continue Reading →

This Month in Mormon Literature, April 2016

Several very strongly reviewed young adult novels were published this last month. Debut author Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King is getting starred reviews and raves for its brutally honest portrayal of teen life, its serious and heartfelt takes on both pop culture and traditional Christian faith, and its loving portrayal of the south. Ally Condie’s Summerlost moves her outside of speculative fiction for a heartfelt, poetic contemporary middle grade novel about a friendship forged in the wake of tragedy. Kathryn Purdie’s alternative Tzarist Russian fantasy Burning Glass, Robison Wells’s alien visitors science fiction Dark Energy, and Emily Wing Smith’s childhood illness memoir All Better Now also received generally strong reviews. Emily Bleeker and Jane Redd (Heather Moore) are part of a trend of more books being published directly by Amazon. A new Saturday’s Warrior film opens to fairly strong reviews, and I am Noat a Serial Killer, a film based on Dan Wells’ novel, premiered at SxSW. Mahonri Stewart has two new collections of playscripts published. Jennifer Nii’s new musical Kingdom of Heaven features a Mormon woman who decides to perform in drag, Michael Collings is the Grand Master Award Recipient at the 2016 World Horror Convention. To give me information or corrections, please write to mormonlit AT gmail DOT com.


Awards, news, and blog posts

Continue Reading →

This Month in Mormon Literature, January 2016

More end-of-year award lists are announced, including honors for novels for middle grade and young adult authors Chris Crowe, Martine Leavitt, Valynne Maetani, and Jennifer A. Nielson. Melissa Leilani Larson and Garrett Batty won the Ghana Movie Award for Best Screenplay for Freetown, and Single Wide, by Jordan Kamalu and George D. Nelson, was named one of “The 10 Best Broadway Shows of 2015”. There were Salt Lake Tribune feature articles about Rick Walton and Tim Slover. There will be a reading of Slover’s Shakespearean March Tale on January 22-23. Several authors are using the Kindle Scout program to get their books published. The AML Award finalists will be announced around February 2, and the Whitney Award finalists will be announced on February 9. The Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy will be held Feb. 11-13. Please send any news or corrections to mormonlit AT gmail DOT com.



The AML Awards, finalists, including awards for comics, creative non-fiction, criticism, drama, film, middle grade novel, music lyrics, novel, picture book, poetry, religious non-fiction, short fiction, and young adult novel, will be announced on this blog around Feb. 2. The award winners will be announced at the AML Conference at BYU-Hawaii on March 5. Continue Reading →

This Month in Mormon Literature, September 2015

9781631529856_Perfect_358.inddTwo new Mormon memoirs have garnered strong reviews, as well as being appealingly diverse: Swedish author Lene Fogelberg’s medical memoir Beautiful Affliction and Ignacio Garcia’s Chicano While Mormon. Books were honored by the American Library Association and the RONE Awards for independent books. Several Mormon authors were honored for their notable essays in Best American Essays. Christine Hayes’ debut middle grade novel Mothman’s Curse got a starred51R4+veduyL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_ review from Kirkus. Frank L. Cole, Richard Paul Evans, Charlie Holmberg, and Carol Lynch Williams also have new nationally published middle grade or young adult novels. Best-selling Mormon market author Jennifer Moore saw her latest Regency novel published. Once I Was A Beehive continues to do well, and is expanding outside of Utah, and The Scorch Trials, the second film based on James Dashner’s The Maze Runner series, opens as the top box office earner in the country. The documentaries Peace Officer and Most Likely to Succeed are on screening tours. Water Sings Blue, a play based on poetry from a children’s picture book by Kate Coombs, debuts at BYU. Please send news and corrections to mormonlit AT gmail DOT com.

News and blog posts

The American Library Association‘s review journal Booklist announced its Top 10 lists of the year. They included: Continue Reading →

in verse #38 : Greek to me

Alexander Pope, born in 1688, dead in his 56th year, commonly viewed as the last great neo-classicist, could also be viewed as the first of the Romantics — because of his sincerity.  As Aubrey Williams has it:  “Pope’s poetry can move us deeply because it so often stirs us to a sense of the innate precariousness of all things.  The uncertainty of riches, the decay of beauty, and the crash of worlds, these are the prevailing themes and subjects of his poems.”[i]  It is as if the boisterous discourse of Dryden, Butler, Rochester, Defoe, Swift, Johnson, Boswell et al. has passed him by.  Sure, he can write sarcasm, as in “The rape of the lock,” but his heart is in large-scale works like An essay on man, which opens its “Epistle I” with this:

Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of Kings.
Let us (since Life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o’er all this scene of Man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A Wild, where weeds and flow’rs promiscuous shoot,
Or Garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights explore
Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
Eye Nature’s walks, shoot Folly as it flies,
And catch the Manners living as they rise;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
But vindicate the ways of God to Man.

Those 8 balanced couplets sound very reserved and sedate, but Pope is not afraid in them to take on John Milton and Paradise lost, the scourge of his Catholic family.  He is, like Milton, a religious exile, Continue Reading →

This Week in Mormon Literature, November 9, 2013

The release of the film adaption of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is the big news of the week. Reviews are mixed, generally people think parts feel rushed, but rate it at least a competent adaption. Some of the reviewers do little to hide their personal animus towards Card as a person. In any case, it is an opportunity for several personal essays about connections with Card’s work, and media interviews with Card. Meanwhile, The Saratov Approach continues to garner strong reviews and do well at the box office, and a family Christmas movie based on a Gale Sears book, Christmas for a Dollar, is being released this week. The New York Times has an article about Mormon authors’ success in genre literature and lack of much in terms of “adult literary fiction”. It is a discussion we have had before, the author is oddly dismissive of genre fiction, and misidentifies Terry Tempest Williams, but it is interesting to see these issues discussed in The Grey Lady. Please send any news or corrections to mormonlit AT gmail DOT com. Continue Reading →

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