No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith

No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith By Fawn M. Brodie

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By Fawn M. Brodie
First Vintage Books Edition, 1995; originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1945. Click to buy this book!

In the Preface of the first edition of her book, author Fawn M. Brodie (1915–1981) sums up the challenges faced by all those who decide to undertake a serious study of the life of Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805–1844), founder of Mormonism: “It was in a funeral sermon that the Mormon prophet flung a challenge to his future biographers. To an audience of ten thousand in his bewitching city of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith said on April 7, 1844: ‘You don’t know me; you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it; I shall never understand it. I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself.’ Since that moment of candor at least three-score writers have taken up the gauntlet. Many have abused him; some have deified him; a few have tried their hands at clinical diagnosis. All have insisted, either directly or by implication, that they knew his story. But the results have been fantastically dissimilar.” Having been raised in a Mormon family, Fawn McKay Brodie departed from the faith and perhaps wrote her first historic biography as a means of coming to terms with this towering, shadowy and perplexing figure of her childhood. Later she wrote biographies of Thaddeus Stevens, Sir Richard F. Burton, Thomas Jefferson and Richard Nixon, and became the first female professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. In the Preface to the 1970 edition of No Man Knows My History she acknowledges “the continuing growth of a considerable literature on human behavior, some of which is decidedly relevant to an understanding of the more baffling aspects of the Mormon prophet’s character.” She points out in the 1970 psychoanalytical Supplement that it is not intended to be a comprehensive clinical portrait, “which would have to be the work of a professional based on much more intimate knowledge of the man than is presently possible.” However, despite these cautious remarks, as well as a statement that “the clinical definitions of 1970 cannot easily be superimposed on the social and political realities of 1840,” her lack of  comprehension of Christian esotericism, spirituality and the nature of visionary experience and clairvoyance leaves her little option other than repeating a number of psychological suppositions, such as “unconscious conflicts over his own identity,” “pseudologia fantastica,” “parapath,” “alienated from reality,” “grandiose” and “megalomania.”

From the point of view of Anthroposophy (defined as knowledge of the human being, sophy meaning wisdom and anthro referring to the human being) it would seem that the young, charismatic “Joe Smith” had genuine visionary experiences and may have been deeply connected by destiny with the pre-Christian history of settlement on the American continents by foreign peoples. This awareness could have been awakened in him by a reading of the 1823 publication by Ethan Smith: View of the Hebrews. There would be no wrong at all in the likelihood that the work of Ethan Smith was instrumental in the inspiration of The Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith was also obviously moved by his readings and studies of the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah, which spoke to him personally, and from which he drew strength for his life and his spiritual aspirations. Author Fawn Brodie casts doubt on the originality and authenticity of The Book of Mormon in citing Ethan Smith’s work in particular.

Growing up in a debt-ridden farming family who struggled against the loss of their property, yet who were able to draw comfort from the Bible and dreams of a better, heavenly world; and surviving osteomyelitis of the leg caused by typhoid fever when he was seven years old — thanks to the determination of his mother, Lucy Smith — small wonder that Joseph was tempted to give his visions a direction towards material benefit for himself, his family and his followers. While still very young he considered the prospect of an entirely new religion with its own Church that would resolve the dilemma of the competing and confusing Protestant denominations then active in the vicinity of Palmyra, New York, a religion that would also offer the possibility of the taking up of certain esoteric truths commonly ignored or feared in conventional Christianity — such as the mysterious ancient Egyptian influences manifest among certain Native American artifacts. In addition he could offer family, friends and followers assurances of the possibility of direct communication with God and the Angels during the very dark time period of the mid-nineteenth century. Set on the path of his mission he probably felt justified in certain fabrications and questionable elaborations appropriate for those less gifted than himself, as well as in making promises to his followers for good prospects in material gain and security if they would but help build the new Temple in the midst of their own Mormon community. It is not within the purpose of this review to offer any conjecture as to the truth or not of the golden plates, the magic spectacles and the Urim and Thummin stones. Materialization and de-materialization phenomena, or the manipulation of material reality by spiritual agents, has been described in other, clearly genuine accounts (e.g., Wellesley Tudor Pole’s The Silent Road), although these phenomena were also falsified in popular nineteenth-century spiritualistic séances. Contrary to Brodie’s conclusions, Joseph Smith’s adolescent visions of the pillar of light and his communications with the Angel Moroni, spiritual experiences that he struggled to grasp and accurately convey later in his life, ring true by reason of this very struggle.

The crux of the problem with Brodie’s biography is that the system of higher education that became her profession offered no courses in spirituality or in the reality and recognition of the spirit and the evolution of consciousness. Thus in every area where such understanding is required in order to portray a fair picture of Joseph Smith, she describes and then dismisses psychic or spiritual phenomena as the “abracadabra of magic,” that is, she throws out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. One example: after describing similar visions to Joseph’s that several of his followers joyfully experienced in his presence, she attributes this to Joseph’s deliberate use of hypnosis (which after all requires telepathy).

In summation, regardless of whether the reader agrees or not with Fawn Brodie’s assessment of Joseph Smith, without knowledge of the spirit that may be acquired on the path of Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science, as well as through other religious and spiritual disciplines appropriate for our time, Brodie is simply not qualified to make her assessment, be it negative or positive. In her belief system, human failings such as arrogance, mental aberrations and pathologies are part of reality, and with this kind of emphasis she acquired the approval of colleagues in psychology and psychoanalysis, but spirit — without which there can be no true understanding of Joseph Smith — has no part in her reality, nor in the educational systems in which she participated.

So the inquiring reader cannot rely solely on Fawn Brodie’s biography for knowledge about Joseph Smith, but should also read the biographies written by those within the Mormon faith, for example, the 1984 biography by Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, and his 2007 book titled Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. The title of the 2007 book refers to a self-description by Smith: “I [am] a rough stone rolling. The sound of the hammer and chisel was never heard on me nor never will be. I desire the learning and wisdom of heaven alone.” And in this description can be discovered, from Brodie’s book, one of the essential problems and the cause in large measure of many tragedies in the life of Joseph Smith: he did not have both feet on the ground, he did not have a sufficient measure of common sense. Brodie painstakingly researched and accurately described his unfortunate propensity for continuously making very serious errors in judgment, triply disastrous in light of his role as charismatic leader, self-proclaimed Prophet and military commander (“Lieutenant-General Joseph Smith”). His many serious mistakes in judgment that resulted in the unending calumnies and cruelties directed against him, in addition to the renegade actions and relentless religious persecutions inflicted on the hardworking Mormons, eventually led to his imprisonment in Carthage, Illinois on very serious charges: wrecking the press of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper that had exposed his “spiritual wife-system,” and being the cause of public riots. To these charges was added a special writ against Joseph and Hyrum for treason. In Carthage, he and his devoted brother, who had refused to leave his side, were both killed by vigilantes who broke into the jail. Hyrum was shot in the jail, and Joseph was shot while trying to escape out the window. He was only 38 years old.

He had published The Book of Mormon and initiated the new Church at the age of 24. The portrait of Joseph pictured on the book cover is accurate when compared with his death mask, shown in a photograph across from page 395. He is portrayed as an individual with natural magnetism and aggression, with a prominent nose and a willful chin. He was a tall, large man whose voice during vehement speeches was described as booming.

There had been an exceptional period of peace and prosperity in the Illinois community that Joseph named Nauvoo (a Hebrew word meaning “to be beautiful”), situated in an idyllic location by the Mississippi river (although flood dangers had not been anticipated), but this peace gradually deteriorated after Joseph and his brethren, including the formidable Brigham Young (1801–1877), began the practice of polygamy. Fawn Brodie informs readers that The Book of Mormon repudiates polygamy. Plural marriage was officially abandoned by the Church in 1890, with Utah becoming a state in 1896. Mormonism has survived by virtue of the fact that, in the words of Brodie, “As a social organization the Church is a dynamo of inexhaustible energy,” but also because there is truth in its beliefs, such as only one of the thirteen articles of faith, the first, “which became the functional basis of Mormon doctrine: We believe in God the eternal Father, and in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” And the Angel Moroni had affirmed the Trinity for the young Joseph Smith. – Review by Martha Keltz

The following lectures by Rudolf Steiner will be helpful in part toward the beginnings of a better understanding of Joseph Smith and the history of Mormonism:

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