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

Natural Born SeerReview
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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 https://ia600300.us.archive.org/10/items/interestingaccou00orso/interestingaccou00orso.pdf or http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/appendix-orson-pratt-an-interesting-account-of-several-remarkable-visions-1840/1
[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 https://www.lds.org/ensign/2001/01/take-heed-continually-protecting-the-gold-plates?lang=eng
[6] See for example, “Joseph Smith Receives the Gold Plates” Primary 5: Doctrine and Covenants and Church History, (1997), 20–25 https://www.lds.org/manual/primary-5-doctrine-and-covenants-and-church-history/lesson-5-joseph-smith-receives-the-gold-plates?lang=eng
[7]1982, video available at Youtube, starting at the 8:26 mark https://youtu.be/HFdme0iX-e8?list=PLv9-SB5LZY8AZAOgp1S49muMhiL83D0TJ&t=506
[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
https://books.google.com/books?id=cnoeMcEQPzsC&pg=PA116&lpg=PA116&dq=lucy+harris+called+dolly+harris+john+hammond+joseph+smith&source=bl&ots=ZpNK-NR-_b&sig=zSp0bmvONsUy-gYSU8TGNwo49kk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjmtfCb1b7RAhVMz1QKHZaeDUYQ6AEIIDAB#v=onepage&q=lucy%20harris%20called%20dolly%20harris%20john%20hammond%20joseph%20smith&f=false
[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 http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/place/kirtland-mills-post-office-kirtland-township-ohio
[10] “The Seer, Joseph the Seer” by John Taylor, for more information see https://www.hymnary.org/text/the_seer_the_seer_joseph_the_seer
[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 https://www.lds.org/ensign/2015/10/joseph-the-seer?lang=eng and the book “Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones” by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick, Published by the Deseret Book Company, 2016

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

  1. Dennis Clark on January 26, 2017 at 12:31 am said:

    Somehow, these comments seem oddly appropriate.

    [Mod: Sadly, spam comments now deleted…]

    • Dennis Clark on January 31, 2017 at 11:59 am said:

      Dang. Spam comments are, of course, phony and fake, like some contemporary politicians — I was obviously misled, blinded by the onrush of events. I think *Natural Born Seer* is a work of obsession and genius, but as my own review shows, one that gathers in far too much material, and undercuts itself.