In a nutshell, here is the deal with Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, how her groundbreaking biography of Joseph Smith raised him out of obscurity, why all Mormons owe Fawn Brodie a huge debt of gratitude, and why few Mormon’s understand any of it:


Brodie’s Contribution to Mormon History

First, Brodie invented the Joseph Smith biography. Before No Man Knows My History, narratives about Joseph were either defamatory polemics or Sunday School hagiography. Brodie’s narrative forms the backbone of every serious Joseph Smith biography that has been written since, including Donna Hill’s and Richard Bushman’s.

Second, Brodie changed the orientation of the Mormon approach to Mormon history, focusing attention on it’s pre-Utah roots. In the 1940s, scholarly Mormon history was just beginning to take off. But since the serious Mormon historians were all historians of the West, none of them were doing any work at all on Joseph, and nobody was doing any in-depth work on pre-1844 Mormon history.

Third, Brodie convinced non-Mormons that Joseph was the real genius behind Mormonism. Before Brodie, non-Mormons viewed the Utah LDS church as very much Brigham’s church. The western focus of LDS historians re-enforced this view. It also reenforced the standard pre-Brodie view that Sydney Rigdon was the real genius behind early (pre-1844) Mormonism, and that Joseph was just Sydney’s charismatic front-man. As far as scholars of American religious history were concerned, Joseph Smith was a nobody. Brodie’s portrayal of Joseph as an ingenious and energetic religious innovator changed that. Her work plausibly credits Joseph with both the development of early Mormonism as well as the later forms of post-Nauvoo Mormonism that arose after his death. Thus did Brodie demonstrate to scholars that Joseph was an important historical figure in his own right and made Joseph part of a respectable American religious and intellectual pedigree.

Fourth, Brodie torpedoed the Spalding theory of Book of Mormon authorship. Before Brodie, non-Mormon accounts of Joseph Smith uniformly relied on the Spalding theory of Book of Mormon authorship, in which Rigdon provided Joseph with a text that Joseph plagiarized to produce The Book of Mormon.

Though the Spalding theory had been refuted in 1884, nobody paid any real attention until Brodie thoroughly repudiated it. What had happened was this: L.L. Rice discovered the actual Spalding manuscript among the papers that he bought from Eber D. Howe earlier in the century (1839). Rice sent the manuscript to James Fairchild, who published an analysis of the manuscript, concluding, “the Spalding theory will have to relinquished.” (“Solomon Spalding and the Book of Mormon,” Bibliotheca Sacra 60:173-174). Only Woodbridge Riley, Eduard Myer, and Walter F. Prince took Fairchild’s conclusion into account, citing it as a possible problem to the otherwise credible Spalding theory.

In spite of Fairchild’s article, popular and academic literature remained dominated by works that recited the Spalding theory as incontrovertable fact, including Gregg’s The Prophet of Palmyra (1890), William Linn’s The Story of the Mormons, Schroeder’s The Origin of the Book of Mormon tract (1906) (upon which the modern Spalding theory is based), Charles Shook’s The True Origin of the Book of Mormon, Martins’ The Mystery of Mormonism (1920), Harry Beardsley’s Joseph Smith and his Mormon Empire (1931), Arbaugh’s Revelation in Mormonism: It’s Changing Form (1932), and Tyler’s Freedom’s Ferment (1944). Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (1947) ended all of that. Since Brodie, no credible biography of Joseph Smith has advanced the Spalding theory, and several don’t even so much as mention it. Brodie’s treatment of the Spalding theory remains the definitive refutation of the Spalding theory to this day.

To recapitulate:

  1. Brodie invented the narrative that forms the backbone of our discussions of Joseph Smith’s biography.
  2. At a time when Mormons themselves were still doing Utah-centric history, Brodie put the spotlight firmly on the pre-1844 era.
  3. Brodie torpedoed the Spalding theory in a manner that non-Mormon’s finally took seriously.
  4. Brodie convinced the non-Mormon public that Joseph Smith (not Sydney Rigdon and Brigham Young) was the brains behind Mormonism.

In short, it was Brodie who first began convincing people that Joseph was an American religious leader of historical importance. Without Brodie, Mormonism would still be a very intellectually marginalized religious tradition — you wouldn’t have people like Harold Bloom writing essays about Joseph’s genius or the editor of Christianity Today giving Joseph credit for reducing the distance between God and man.

The Distorted Mormon View of Brodie

It’s interesting to note that most Mormon critiques of Brodie’s No Man Knows My History preoccupy themselves with the question of whether Brodie adequately explains Joseph’s miraculous powers in naturalistic terms. This is an odd emphasis, given how little space Brodie’s 500-page book actually devotes to “explaining away” the founding miracles of Mormonism. Indeed, this emphasis represents small-minded, provincial Mormonism at its worst.

Non-Mormons reading No Man Knows My History approach Joseph Smith the same way that I approach (say) Mohammed. When I read about Mohammed, I don’t entertain the slightest possibility that he worked the miracles that are attributed to him. This doesn’t make me anti-Muslim; it makes me non-Muslim. And since I’m always already pre-disposed to disbelieve in Mohammed’s divine mission, explanations of his miracles don’t explain anything away. They simply explain.

Furthermore, Mormons set themselves up to lose when they attempt to transform discussions of Joseph’s biography into debates over his credibility as a prophet. I’m willing to grant that scholars still have some work to do to explain the founding miracles of early Mormonism. Even so, Mormon apologists have even more work to do if they wish to lift their current explanations of alleged early Mormon frauds to a level of reasonable credibility; e.g., the Kinderhook Plates, Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, the Book of Abraham, Zelph, and Joseph’s propositioning of other men’s wives. The “plausible explanation” approach to Joseph is a losing proposition for Mormons, and it’s counter-productive to try to answer Brodie by arguing that you don’t find her explanations persuasive when so many of our own explanations are in complete shambles.

Lastly, it’s important to note that only an atheist or a non-believer could have written the narrative that Brodie wrote. Bushman’s Joseph is a craven flunky who is easily manipulated by others and generally controlled by circumstance. It’s fair to wonder whether Bushman’s Joseph could have ever inspired his followers to write hymns like “We Thank Thee Oh God for a Prophet” and “Praise to the Man.” This fact is lost on most Mormons, because Mormons reflexively run Joseph down. For example, Mormons frequently and uncritically cite Emma’s (demonstrably false) assertion that Joseph was basically illiterate at the time that he translated the Book of Mormon, because that makes it seem impossible that Joseph wrote the Book of Mormon himself.

There’s this dynamic that ensures that really flattering biographies of religious figures can only be written by atheists or non-believers. Specifically, to the extent that the religious figure accomplished amazing things, the atheist will attribute them to the figure. The believer will attribute them to God, and will posit weaknesses in the figure to make the accomplishments even more miraculous. The irony here is that believing readers will actually be offended by the complimentary view of the atheist, because the believing reader sees only the unwillingness to connect the figure’s accomplishments with the divine. The believing reader will frequently prefer the account that runs down the religious figure, because insulting the religious figure emphasizes the role of the divine. We see this dynamic at work with Brodie and Bushman. Brodie’s Joseph is a great man. Bushman’s Joseph is basically neutered. Yet most Mormons prefer Bushman’s Joseph, still taking offense at Brodie’s highly complimentary portrayal.

Conclusion

Whatever merits or demerits one attributes to Brodie and her work, it is a terrible mistake to classify her groundbreaking and history-making biography of Joseph Smith as “anti-Mormon,” when no other single historical work has had such a profound positive impact on the way that non-Mormons view Mormonism and its founder.