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BookNote on Remini's Joseph Smith

Robert V. Remini's Joseph Smith (Penguin Group, 2002, 182 small pages), published as part of the Penguin Lives series, is the most recent book-length biography of Joseph Smith available.  This short, readable, and rather sympathetic treatment of the life of Joseph Smith by a well-respected non-Mormon historian should have received more attention and a wider reading from the general Mormon community than it did. 

Remini, a noted historian of the Jacksonian period of American history, avoided adopting either an apologetic or an overly critical tone in his narrative.  Instead, he opted "to present [Joseph Smith's] religious experiences just as he described them in his writings and let readers decide for themselves to what extent they would give credence to them" (Preface, p. x).  Remini consulted a variety of LDS scholars in assembling and interpreting his material, including Richard L. Bushman, Dean C. Jessee, and John W. Welch (to name three of the many he acknowledged, Preface, p. xi-xii).  This book is likely as fair and balanced a treatment of Joseph Smith as any non-Mormon scholar is capable of producing. 

Historical Context

One of the book's strengths is placing the familiar events of the life of Joseph Smith in the context of contemporaneous social and political events on the American scene.  For example, the early Church, with a lay priesthood and undertaking a variety of challenging tasks like temple-building and communitarian living, reflected the democratic revolution that swept the country on the coattails of Andrew Jackson and energetic social reform movements that sprang up everywhere in this period (p. 75-78). 

The role of women in the Church reflected a "gender revolution" that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, pushing women out of small farming tasks and home production into more maternal and domestic tasks.  "This 'cult of domesticity,' as it has been called, dramatically redefined gender relationships.  This cult was especially strong among Mormons and remains so today" (p. 82).

The Kirtland banking fiasco is placed in the context of troubles in the banking sector that followed Andrew Jackson's successful campaign to terminate the Second National Bank of the United States and the Panic of 1837 which followed shortly thereafter.  As Remini notes, "Joseph picked a particularly bad time to start a bank," and the Church paid a heavy price when it failed (p. 123).  Yet after Joseph fled Kirtland in 1838 to escape the ensuing turmoil, "something quite extraordinary happened.  Hundreds of Mormons in Kirtland suddenly realized the enormity of their loss," and "[t]hat summer [of 1838] a mile-long wagon train formed in Kirtland and headed for Missouri . . ." (p. 125-26).  Bank failures don't often generate loyalty toward the bank's officers.  Remini highlights the truly unexpected response of Kirtland Mormons to Joseph's departure.

Other developments are likewise given their proper historical context:  (1) The Word of Wisdom (see D&C 89) "was obviously influenced by the rising activities of the Temperance Union," formed in 1826 and advocating abstinence from alcohol (p. 103).  (2) Joseph Smith's "War Prophecy" of December 1832 (see D&C 87) is noted in relation to South Carolina's Nullification Ordinance and President Jackson's forceful proclamation in response, issued December 10, 1832.  South Carolina blinked, but didn't forget.  (3) The whole New Jerusalem doctrine and attempts to build a real-world Mormon City of God (variously, in Kirtland, Independence, Far West, Nauvoo, and finally Salt Lake City) is seen through the lens of other "experiments in communal living" which tried to create "new economic patterns" such as the New Harmony, Indiana, community established in 1826 by the Scottish industrialist Robert Owen (p. 97).

Trouble in Missouri

Remini gives a short but insightful analysis of the Mormon disaster in Missouri.  Under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine as a free state, preserving an increasingly tense balance in the Senate.  Having made Missouri a slave state, the Missourians were "not about to allow 'outsiders' to come in and alter this decision" (p. 114).  Immigrating Mormons, mostly New Englanders, were understandably perceived as Yankees threatening the frontier version of the status quo in Missouri.  Add brash talk about God's plan to give the land to the Mormons and a continuing stream of Mormon immigrants, and it was almost inevitable that "Mormons in Missouri, Part I" would end badly.  Violence was seemingly the primary method of dispute resolution in Missouri at the time, and this was definitely a major-league dispute.

"Mormons in Missouri, Part II" started with hopes of peaceful coexistence on both sides, but ended five years later with an even more intense series of armed confrontations.  This time Joseph Smith playing a leading role in the conflict, along with the main group of Kirtland Mormons who had followed him to Far West.  Remini notes that "Joseph encouraged but apparently did not participate in the activities of a newly formed secret society," the Danites, a charitable characterization for a non-Mormon scholar (p. 128).  When Mormon settlement moved outside Caldwell County and friction with non-Mormon communities escalated into violence, events (and the Danites) quickly spiraled out of control.  After Joseph and several senior Mormon officials were jailed, more violence was threatened, and once again the main body of the Saints left town, this time for Illinois (p. 139).

Mormon Appeal and Success

Like other historians, Remini takes a whack at one of the essential questions that faces every historian who tackles the Mormon epic: why has Mormonism proved so successful while most other contemporaneous movements failed?  He notes (1) missionary zeal, evident from day one; (2) a broadly inclusive male lay clergy; (3) a "sense of collective responsibility for the welfare of all of its members" (p. 88), perhaps summarized more succinctly as a sense of membership; and (4) the fact that Mormonism is "rooted deeply in the American experience," being worthy of the appellation "the American religion" (p. 88).

Remini also recognizes, more explicitly than other historians, the role of Joseph Smith's personality and presence as an explanatory factor in Mormonism's success.  Joseph was "a man of compelling charisma, charm, and persuasiveness, a man absolutely convinced that his religious authority came directly from God" (p. 87).  When newcomers arrived in Kirtland, "Joseph greeted as many of the new arrivals as possible, shaking hands with them and welcoming them into the fold" (p. 100).  "Of course, Joseph was an extremely attractive man.  His friendliness, his ingratiating manner, his thoughtful consideration of others, his infectious smile, his beguiling eyes, and his power and influence in the Church drew women to him constantly" (p. 121).  While noting Joseph's faults at various points in the narrative, Remini the biographer obviously developed an appreciation for the magnetic effect that Joseph had on his followers.

Conclusion

This is a book that every Mormon should read.  It is unfortunate that many Mormons know nothing more of Joseph Smith's life than what they glean from the short canonized account (Joseph Smith—History in the Pearl of Great Price), various short edutainment films produced by the Church, and whatever biographical snippets survive the filtering process that produces the Church's correlated curriculum materials.  Remini's book is a capable scholar's sympathetic but honest account and evaluation of the unparalleled life of Joseph Smith.


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Last update: 3/3/2004; 12:15:51 AM.