Title: Natural Born Seer : Joseph Smith, American prophet. 1805-1830
Author: Richard S. Van Wagoner
Publisher: Salt Lake City : Smith-Pettit Foundation
Year Published: 2016
Number of pages: xx, 589
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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messenger_and_Advocate). 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: http://associationmormonletters.org/blog/reviews/older-reviews/howe-vogel-ed-mormonism-unvailed-reviewed-by-greg-seppi/.
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.