This week New York Times blogger Timothy Egan made a sophomoric attempt to connect the modern FLDS church’s practice of polygamy to that of early Mormon leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Excerpt:
[Mitt Romney’s] faith was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith Jr., an itinerant treasure-seeker from upstate New York who used a set of magic glasses to translate a lost scripture from God. His personality was infectious, the religion very approachable.
It would have been just another Christian faith had not Smith let his libido lead him into trouble. Before he died at the hands of a mob, he married at least 33 women and girls; the youngest was 14, and was told she had to become Smith’s bedmate or risk eternal damnation.
Smith was fortunate to find a religious cover for his desire. His polygamy “revelation” was put into The Doctrine and Covenants, one of three sacred texts of Mormonism. It’s still there – the word of God. And that’s why, to the people in the compound at Eldorado, [Texas,] the real heretics are in Salt Lake City.
As his biographer, Fawn Brodie, wrote, Joseph Smith “could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on marriage.”
It is hard for me to imagine more factual errors and loaded language that could be squeezed into four short paragraphs.
It’s clear that Mr. Egan has done little research to prepare himself to opine on Latter-day Saint history. His two sources of information, by his own admission, are Fawn Brodie’s 1945 psychobiography of Joseph Smith and Jon Krakauer’s 2003 examination of the religious murders committed by the Lafferty brothers. As one observant commenter noted:
Having read Brodie and Krakauer [Mr. Egan] believes he knows what there is to know about Mormonism. If he had cited Mark Twain’s line about the Book of Mormon being “chloroform in print,” the piece would have then qualified as carbon copy to 10 or 12 others that have run during the last year.
Nothing seems to indicate that Mr. Egan is aware of scholarship that questions Brodie and Krakauer’s methodology and conclusions (for example, here and here). It’s also quite clear that Egan isn’t aware of the differences between the 19th-century LDS practice of polygamy and the 21st-century FLDS practice of polygamy. (To say nothing of the differences between the FLDS practice today and just 50 years ago.)
Mr. Egan’s use of Fawn Brodie to understand Joseph Smith speaks volumes. Ms. Brodie’s book, despite its enduring popularity, is seriously dated. An enormous amount of research into Joseph Smith’s life has been done in the last 62 years, and her book has long been superseded, especially by the recent biography by Richard Bushman.
But what I believe attracts Mr. Egan to Brodie is not so much her research, but her conclusions. Brodie, the thoroughgoing naturalist, simply dismissed any statements made by contemporary believers, chalking them up to delusions or Joseph Smith’s powers of hypnotism. Having eliminated faithful witnesses, she was able to substitute her own theory for the existence of Mormonism — lust, greed, and accidental chance. It is no wonder that Brodie remains so popular among sectarian and secular critics of Mormonism, for it provides the only possible explanation for the miracle of Joseph Smith, no matter how ham-handed. (I’m still trying to understand Mosiah 3, Alma 36, and D&C 88 as the products of mind solely fixated on bedding young girls.)
Unfortunately many otherwise intelligent readers will be exposed to Joseph Smith only through the eyes of Timothy Egan, and that is a tragedy.