Christian Ethics in Joseph Smith Biography

The divinity and moral authority of Christ have been stressed by every president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The message is to know the Lord, contemplate his principles, and apply them persistently. Behind every exterior occupation is an accountable individual, and Jesus teaches harmony of individual and professional ethics. Can the Savior instruct the writer of history? Historians aspire to recover important events and judge their ultimate significance. But Christ will make the final historical assessment: “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works” (Matthew 16:27).

In the meantime, the Lord left the Sermon on the Mount, with its profound insights into motive, expression, and action, as the disciple’s major moral guide. A historian’s writing and its impact will be divinely evaluated according to the Lord’s principles. Christ’s challenge for full righteousness certainly includes intellectual values. Jesus’ intense exposure of Jewish leaders who were plotting his death (Matthew 23) certainly has current applications: they could venerate ancient prophets and obliterate those speaking to their own generation (Matthew 23:29–31). How many of these leaders seriously considered Jesus’ own story that he came with a mission from the Father, or the apostles’ testimony that they were instructed by the resurrected Lord? As Mormonism expands, there will be more writers who let the Prophet tell his story of divine visions. But there are opposite trends that will no doubt also increase. Some scholars with Mormon roots are ashamed of the prophet of the Restoration, and some outside the Mormon tradition aim to destroy the Prophet’s testimony with elaborate cultrual explanations. Jesus said the quality of a person’s religion is not measured by seating order or the width of design on his robes (Matthew 23: 5–6). Neither is a scholar’s accuracy easily apparent from the location of his training or the sheer mass of his footnotes.

Perhaps the greatest of Christian values is the will to believe. Jesus thanked the Father that what was scorned by “the wise and prudent” was revealed to those with childlike faith (Matthew 11:25). Skepticism by itself is sterile because it resists rather than reaches. In my experience, revelation adds an eternal dimension to all higher studies. I see few conflicts between the four standard works and my fields of study; tensions have been consistently resolved by patience combined with deeper inquiry. As an undergraduate in required science, I saw that the scientific method closely mirrored the process of my religious experience. The researcher frames a hypothesis consistent with known facts but beyond them, and then tests the validity of this theory. My testimony had earlier come in the same way. With reason, I had assumed that God was real and would answer prayers, and after I created the right conditions for answers, they came forcefully from time to time. My convictions of Christ’s divinity and of divine communication to modern prophets are spiritual certainties.

Jesus reproved those creating religious rules without consistency, often in the context of rejecting him because he violated some pre-conceived notion about a prophet. After decades of teaching the New Testament, I remain puzzled by scholars who accept at least a core collection of Paul’s writings (the Corinthian letters plus Romans and Galatians) and yet consider the Gospels to be formalized fables. In the view of many biblical scholars, Paul’s letters from between A.D. 50 and 68 can be trusted, but the records of Christ originating about the same time enshrine mythology. But in 1 Corinthians Paul gave the historic essentials of the Christian message of the atonement and resurrection (15:3–7), as well as the institution of the sacrament at the last supper (11:23–25), insisting in both cases that this information came from eyewitnesses.1 The entire first century of Roman history is alive and well in letter collections and in writings of quality historians and travelers, along with preserved inscriptions and coins. The Gospels and Acts fit into this world, as well as into the Jewish world of the Dead Sea scrolls in the first century and of Mishnaic traditions of the second century. Yet scholars read the first-century Jewish historian Josephus with minor corrections for bias and misinformation, while they feel that the Gospels may be largely dismissed.2

No substantial reason exists to reject traditional authorship that is supported in early manuscripts of the Gospels and by informed Christian writers of the second and third centuries. Thus I am confident that the four canonical Gospels come from apostles or those who relayed what they said or wrote about Jesus. Christ’s words within this collection may be variously reported—nearly verbatim in several preserved discourses, paraphrased sometimes with equivalent meanings, evidently closely remembered at times. In all cases, those around Jesus should be more trusted for his teachings than current revisionists.

All this is not as far from Mormon history as it might seem. Today’s overload of historical studies can be assimilated only by selective reading in secondary literature while focusing on firsthand documents. Except for the possibility of full sight-sound recording, there can be no true history without witnesses of events. Whether they write at the time, recall later, or are represented responsibly secondhand, observers are at the center of reconstructing the past. Beware of scholars mainly quoting scholars. A competent historian constantly quotes original sources. Reliable history is based on comparing all available sources, and not on gravitating to the unusual. Eyewitnesses normally agree on the essentials of an event, though irregular contemporary reports can arise from misinformation and bias.

The balance of this essay will illustrate the importance of relying on broad primary or eyewitness information. I highlight recent approaches to Joseph Smith that are deficient or careless to illustrate the dangers of ignoring or discounting firsthand accounts. I make candid observations in a sincere attempt to prevent major misunderstandings of the Prophet at the crucial beginning and end of his authoritative calling. I deliberately name specific books to illustrate marginal interpretations that too easily escape accountable review. I also probe moral decisions that confront all writers who deal with the lives of others, in the conviction that general attitudes determine particular decisions. Better perspectives could result in better methods.

Is Christ really relevant to the historian? My professor-friend, Kirk Hart, brings up challenging issues in his effective work on the ethics of public life. For businessmen, lawyers, and doctors, to name obvious professions, the problems are far more subtle than open dishonesty. How does personal reward affect daily gray areas, and what principles are more than token antidotes? What are the real reasons for self-serving actions? One’s noble rationalization may be a facade. Like those in other occupations, historians may explain their vices as virtues. Here I believe deeply that the Sermon on the Mount contains remedial standards. Christ declares ideals for dealing with or even writing about others. Yet the code must be within the person, which means that real intent is everything. While I cannot cover all facets of historical ethics, I appeal to the conscience of historians, and to the conscience of the natural historian in every aware person. Ultimately, we each will answer for our responses to such appeals.

How many titles of books and articles begin with “A critical view”? Of course a critic is an evaluator, and may not primarily “criticize” in the normal sense of destructive evaluation. Yet Christ gave a severe warning here: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). The context tells what Jesus meant, for he follows with the illustration of one person’s preoccupation with a tiny speck in another’s eye. Thus, his point is not to avoid all judging, but to avoid being judgmental. The disciple is not warned against careful thinking, but he is told to avoid narrow condemnation without perspective of the whole. Thus Joseph Smith’s clarifying translation is sound: “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgment” (JST Matthew 7:1). John’s Gospel verifies such language from Christ: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

“Warts and all” historians often violate this divine counsel. Chronicles of strange events or lists of supposed mistakes of Church leaders are lopsided and therefore amount to researched sensationalism. One could write a history of World War II cowardice, but stopping there would mask the massive sacrifices that brought Allied victory. Even mixing equal parts of cowardice and courage would be malformed history. Well-expressed negativism is sophisticated, which may be a warning sign. The great building in Lehi’s vision represented the “pride of the world” (1 Nephi 11:36) and was filled with sophisticated critics—scoffing at those who fully accepted the testimony of the prophets and tasted of their experiences (1 Nephi 8:26–28; 15:24). Negativism in tone usually reflects that narrow viewpoint in selection. Using the double test of the courtroom oath, published research may tell the truth but not the whole truth. Hostile adjectives and faint praise mark the Joseph Smith biographer who lacks empathy with the subject. Ignoring Joseph’s substantial achievements signals the inadequacy of the historian of the Prophet. Honesty demands relevant facts, but broad honesty is also sensitive to the problems and patterns of another era, including the Prophet’s serious attempts to maintain civil rights in the face of unlawful aggression and midwestern programs of violence. Powerful positives are necessary to explain why Latter-day Saints expanded geometrically during the Prophet’s life, and why they wept bitterly at his death, even when they knew his human faults better than any later historian.

Faith is the moral foundation for suspending judgment or judging only after a “righteous” investigation. The apostles’ lives were at risk when the Lord stilled the sea and asked the piercing question: “Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?” (Mark 4:40). There are also storms of skepticism, academic fashion, and peer pressure. Can the religious historian write meaningfully about men of faith without experiencing and maintaining faith? Matthew 6, the middle third of the Sermon on the Mount, is devoted to the daily potential of faith. Trust God, Jesus told his disciples, for otherwise they would disseminate darkness, not light (Matthew 6:19–23). Professions are in view in Christ’s mandate: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). Are many historians too skeptical? Bankers know how to balance faith and rational controls. While financial institutions are on guard for fraud, they are not preoccupied with it. National economies would deadlock without faith in repayment schedules of bonds and other obligations, nor could common currency exist without public trust. While tabloid history dwells on the Prophet’s weaknesses, what is proved at most is his humanity. As an investigative historian, I am personally convinced of his honesty and the honesty of those associated with him in establishing the Lord’s Church.

Joseph Smith testified of visions and lived a life of sacrifice for his beliefs, raising up a people who were not exploited by him and who testified of strong spiritual confirmations of his divine calling. He established a record of credibility well worthy of trust. Must he be perfect as a condition for us to have faith in his mission? By that unreasonable standard one could have faith in no prophet. I early had strong impressions of Joseph Smith’s sincerity in describing the First Vision and the appearances of Moroni. Deep confirmations came as I read his fervent letters and spontaneous sermons and felt his urgency of mission. His conviction that he held authority from divine messengers was sure. Like Paul, at pivotal points he was directed by clear visions of the Father and the Son. Moreover, selected companions shared crucial visions, just as there are multiple witnesses of the transfiguration and resurrection in the New Testament. Oliver Cowdery was a most impressive person, and he consistently testified of being with the Prophet at both priesthood restorations. Oliver described these events while in the Church, out of the Church, and after returning to the Church.3 Oliver is also one of the three who testified that an angel appeared in a cloud of light at midday to show the plates of the Book of Mormon. Over decades I have collected scores of detailed interviews with the Three Witnesses, who repeatedly answered questions on an experience that they would neither deny nor allow to be explained away.4 This supernatural event is in the historical field of vision, as plain as a radar screen with clear tracks of objects beyond eyesight but within reality.

One should approach Joseph Smith by reasonably assuming he remembered his heavenly visitations and gave supplementing details on many unrehearsed occasions. Some writers adopt the skeptical approach to the First Vision and restoration of the priesthoods through divine messengers. They think what is left unsaid earlier was probably invented or “realized” later, and surface contradictions are more significant than correlations. Have we become academic pharisees in judging external forms while missing Joseph’s sincere attempts to communicate overwhelming events in concise terms? Historians of deep faith have found far more correlations than conflicts in Joseph’s accounts of his visions.

I personally see First Vision contradictions as occurring more in scholarly minds than in Joseph’s accounts. Whether studying the Prophet or the Gospels, one can always make a speculative case for stories becoming bigger and better. But such explanations usually compare what Joseph Smith said later with what he failed to say earlier. This deceptive tool is the argument from silence—which takes nonmention of an event as proof that it did not happen. On the contrary, we all carry memories of vivid episodes that are not reduced to writing. Early and sustained abuse made the Prophet cautious about fully reporting his revelations (see Joseph Smith—History 1:21–22, 74–75). But as the one person most in a position to know, Joseph himself should define the compelling events of his career. When his visions are well understood, ordinary episodes of his life are interesting but secondary. When Paul faced personal attacks, he treated them as largely irrelevant. Instead, he reviewed divine visions that his detractors could not match: “Am I not an apostle? . . . have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” (1 Corinthians 9:1). In the same manner, Joseph Smith insisted that his weaknesses were insignificant in the light of his latter-day call through the visible presence of God and Christ and angels.

What Joseph believed at the end and why he died are clear from his own words and contemporary reports of those closest to him. Though there is some historical clutter, my legal training has helped me to cut through such underbrush. The heart of law school is the “case method.” Classwork is normally based on discussing opinions of appellate courts that determine a point of law. Two aspects of this process upgraded my historical reasoning. First, before each case was discussed, professors rigidly insisted on defining the issues and the procedure that brought the action before a higher court. Though I ultimately abandoned law, I retained an intense sense of context, a habit of not looking at a historical document without defining its background or setting. Second, classwork also stressed extracting precise judicial decisions from the discursive comments of judges. What becomes law is the judge’s reasoning in deciding the case—what is said off the subject is not authoritative. This practice in separating court rulings from court philosophy has helped me separate firsthand information from mere opinions circulating without a known source. What is contemporary is not necessarily what is firsthand. The skeletal structure of history is what observers say or what is reliably reported from them. Yet many writing Mormon history are careless in applying this first principle of accurate reporting.

As a missionary, I read Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History to give inquirers an informed response, and from that experience I gained early lessons in slanted narrative. Some early reviewers noted that her product was much closer to fiction than history in its story line, imaginative drama, and easy access to the thoughts of her characters. I double-checked all of her references to discover that a great many were either atypical or quoted out of context. And these two habits in using sources also appear in several recent scholarly books that contribute to the historical traditions of misrepresenting Joseph Smith. What do sources from or near Joseph Smith say? Fortunately for an accurate picture, the full publication of the Prophet’s letters, major papers, and journals is steadily making this important archival material more available.

The Nauvoo context or setting behind Joseph Smith’s final speeches is crucial in understanding his closing confidence in his divine calling. Traditional law requires that there be witnesses to the signature of a will, to guard against fraudulent after-death claims. Soon after the martyrdom, James J. Strang produced a forged letter to prove that he was Joseph Smith’s successor. Some others gave self-interested versions of private conversations with Joseph Smith before Carthage. But valid tests are available. What words of Joseph Smith are recorded just before martyrdom? Is this evidence supported by agreement among the Prophet’s close associates, instead of by a singular voice that contradicts them? The Prophet’s late speeches regularly respond to the claim of dissenters that he was a fallen prophet. Early in 1844, Joseph’s counselor, William Law, became the center of bitter opposition to the Prophet, culminating in Law’s excommunication on April 18, followed by open meetings of his “Reformed Church.”5 In early June this group published its first and last issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, accusing Joseph of false teaching on the subjects of plurality of Gods and plural marriage. Since the latter practice violated the Illinois bigamy statute, the Prophet could say little publicly on that subject. But his insistent testimony that he was a true prophet is woven through the 1844 discourses, with the repeated themes of his authorization by revelation to institute temple ceremonies and declare the true nature of God.

This is the setting of Joseph Smith’s phrase exploited by Fawn Brodie: “No man knows my history.” To her, it suggested the Prophet had covered up his real story.6 But in context Joseph meant that Latter-day Saints did not fully appreciate his encounters with God, even though they were informed about his early visions. The above phrase comes from his well-known King Follett discourse, given to the large conference meeting of April 7, 1844, on the nature of the Father and Son and the high destiny of mankind. In his long introduction Joseph referred to his revelations as the source of his knowledge of God, asking whether “any of you [have] seen him? heard him? communed with him?”7 Joseph closed this speech with “No man knows my history,” followed by the thought: “If I had not experienced what I have, I should not have known it myself.”8 This account, from Thomas Bullock’s notes, is paralleled by that of official scribe Willard Richards: “I don’t blame you for not believing my history—had I not experienced it, [I] could not believe it myself.”9 Joseph’s point is the uniqueness of his being visited by God and his messengers. Giving the same message in the Adams funeral sermon, the Prophet said that a true knowledge of God could not come by “reading the experience of others, or the revelations given to them.”10 Thus, in the King Follett sermon, what Joseph Smith had “experienced” referred to his visual contacts with God and angels. Indeed, the Saints had been told of Joseph’s visions, since he did not blame them “for not believing my history.” Thus the “no man” comment, in context, is a reminder of known divine contacts, not an admission of untold secrets.

As opposition intensified, so did the Prophet’s public replies, given with awareness that he could be assassinated at any time. On May 12, he again closed a sermon with personal testimony that God had spoken to him: “When did I ever teach anything wrong from this stand? . . . I never told you I was perfect, but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.”11 And ten days before martyrdom he preached once more on the nature of the Father and Son, ending this last doctrinal discourse by insisting again that his knowledge of God came by direct divine encounters: “Did I build on another man’s foundation but my own? I have got all the truth and an independent revelation in the bargain.”12 At the end, Joseph Smith insisted that there was no compromise on the reality of his visions.

These April and May sermons contain Joseph’s own “last will and testament.” His bravery in the face of strong forebodings of death is documented by the men who stayed with him in prison, as well as by the letter he wrote to Emma the morning of the martyrdom: “I am very much resigned to my lot, knowing I am justified and have done the best that could be done.”13 His clerk, William Clayton, pictured Joseph’s “solemn and thoughtful” mood as he “rode down home to bid his family farewell,” adding: “He expects nothing but to be massacred . . . but there appearing no alternative but he must either give himself up or the city be massacred by a lawless mob under the sanction of the governor.”14 As in Missouri, the Prophet saw himself as a hostage, endangering his own life rather than risking the safety of his people. So it is jarring to read in two indirect accounts that he gambled on massive bloodshed by sending for the Nauvoo Legion in his last hours.

But secondary sources may be quite wrong, and their continued use shows how prominent authors can be tempted by inferior data. Fawn Brodie created her melodrama of Joseph sending for the legion on his day of death, adding that commander Jonathan Dunham “pocketed the order and neglected to act upon it.”15 Her footnote explained: “This story is told by Allen J. Stout in his manuscript journal. . . . It is confirmed by T. B. H. Stenhouse in his Rocky Mountain Saints (New York, 1873).”16 But these reports are simply quoted without evaluation. Stout tells that he was activated as a company commander when the Prophet’s life was in danger, and he writes with intense frustration that the superior legion could not protect its leader: “And while they were in jail Brother Joseph wrote an official order to Jonathan Dunham to bring the legion and rescue him from being killed, but Dunham did not let a single man or mortal know that he had received such orders.”17 All late Nauvoo diaries and recollections lament the circumstances of Joseph’s death, but only Stout is known to give the version of the aborted rescue order. Yet Stout was on duty in Nauvoo and had no personal knowledge of Joseph’s actions at the jail. Did some demand a scapegoat in rage at the murder? Since Dunham died a year later on special assignment in Missouri, he is an unavailable witness. As for the Stenhouse version, he was converted in England after the martyrdom; later losing faith in Mormonism, he related the supposed command from Carthage in order to ridicule Joseph’s martyrdom prophecies. Like Stout, he tells a story without a known pedigree, prefaced only by “it is understood.”18 But merely repeating a rumor does not confirm it.

Those with Joseph at Carthage are the only identifiable witnesses in this situation. A spirited and candid John Taylor tells how discussion on martyrdom day was “rather desultory” because there was no plan except to wait for a court hearing in two days. He adds that Joseph had already decided the question of using the legion. Taylor promised the Prophet freedom within five hours “if you will permit it, and say the word.” Taylor added that he had planned to “go to Nauvoo, and collect a force sufficient,” but “Brother Joseph refused.”19 In Taylor’s more detailed version of the same conversation, Joseph ruled out a legion rescue, had considered repeating the Missouri escape, but was firm in waiting for legal release. Answering Taylor’s offer of an armed force, Joseph said:

That will not be the best way. It would be much better, if we contemplated escape, to call for a change of venue, and while passing from one place to another, to escape from the custody of the constable, and then claim our legal rights and protect ourselves until we obtain them.20

Enter Mark Hofmann. Interviewed according to his plea bargain, he told prosecuting attorneys that he created a Joseph command from Carthage after reading the above Brodie sources: “First let me say this is a very poor forgery and it was quickly done.”21 Forensic specialists examined this Dunham letter under microscope and ultraviolet light and found the same ink cracks and light shifts that marked other Hofmann forgeries.22 Before all this was known, the counterfeit order was included in The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, on the basis of normal handwriting identification, though later editions listed Joseph’s fictitious letter on an errata sheet as one of the fraudulent items mistakenly included in the collection.

A recent history, The Mormon Hierarchy, shows no knowledge of the above facts, a symptom of its preoccupation with sources claiming violence in the Mormon past. Yet ignorance of the fraudulent Joseph Smith order “in his own handwriting” is not my main point here.23 In rigorous history, proving opportunity to know is not the same thing as proving knowledge. After quoting the forged rescue order, Mormon Hierarchy tells how Dunham disobeyed it, using the sentence quoted from the Allen Stout journal. “And while they were in jail Brother Joseph wrote an official order to Jonathan Dunham to bring the legion and rescue him from being killed, but Dunham did not let a single man or mortal know that he had received such orders.” The one central issue is whether or not Stout spoke from personal knowledge, and he gives no clue that he did. Recreating the mob mentality at Carthage, Dan Jones tells how he was given a letter from Joseph at noontime on the day of martyrdom, an urgent request to attorney Orville H. Browning at Quiny to represent the Prophet in two days at a treason hearing. Just before Jones rode away, “News of the letter went throughout the mob like the wings of the breeze, and some claimed that it was orders for the Nauvoo Legion to come there to save the prisoners, and others claimed some other things.”24 It is irresponsible to quote Stout without showing that he had no better source than excited rumors. As discussed, John Taylor settles the issue by his firsthand report from the jail that Jospeh Smith would not authorize use of force.

But Mormon Hierarchy‘s skewed evaluation of Joseph is followed by another of Jonathan Dunham. In a Brodie-like disclosure, we are told that word of Dunham’s disobedience spread, and “Nauvoo Mormons” seem to be divided into two groups: “Some called him a ‘coward and traitor.’ Others dismissed him as a ‘fool and idiot.’ “25 Although these categories carry the weight of a total opinion poll, the sentence is copied from the 1873 comments of Stenhouse, a disaffected Mormon who never saw Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo. The distortion is evident, since Nauvoo sources continue to show that Dunham was highly trusted after the martyrdom. The most obvious place to begin is a computer search of the History of the Church and Nauvoo periodicals, which indicate Dunham’s involvement in significant events after Joseph’s martyrdom: September 13, 1844, Dunham elected by the officers on the drill field as brigadier general of the second cohort of the legion, Brigham Young present; September 16, 1844, participated with the First Presidency and head legion officers in dedication the arsenal site; January 15, 1845, his name published with about four dozen priesthood leaders authorized to collect tithing and donations for the Church, with approval of Bishops Whitney and Miller.26

Further evidence of Dunham’s respect in the eyes of leading Mormons comes in his admission to the Council of Fifty, the body under the Twelve involved in managing Church secular interests, including the coming exodus. On March 1, 1845, William Clayton noted Dunham’s initiation and appointment as assistant in a confidential mission to build Indian relationships, proceeding “from tribe to tribe to unite the Lamanites and find a home for the Saints.” Designations were made “by unanimous vote of the Council.” The mission had highest priority because it would help “fill Joseph’s measures” for a western location from which a worldwide message could proceed. Assignments were modified on April 11, when “President Young appointed J. Dunham, C. Shumway, Lorenzo Young to go with Brother Dana on the Western Mission.” This was Lewis Dana, whom Clayton called “a Lamanite of the Oneida nation.” Four days later Phineas Young was substituted for Lorenzo, with an open-ended commission to go “to the Indian Council at Council Bluffs and thence if they think best to the Pacific Ocean.”27 Apparently general goodwill came from this diplomatic expedition, and Presidents Kimball and Young considered it important enough to record the setting apart and departure of the group, as well as intelligence that Dunham died on July 29, 1845.28

Dunham’s record in the last year of his life does more than redeem his reputation. Had he disobeyed a Carthage order from Joseph, Brigham Young never would have trusted him to be third in command of the legion or to take tithes from the Saints or to accomplish a sensitive and dangerous mission. Dunham’s post-martyrdom career proves that he was far from intellectually or morally bankrupt in the eyes of the Saints. Adopting these 1873 labels of Stenhouse is not responsible history.

Dozens of eyewitnesses report Joseph’s farewells in leaving Nauvoo, as well as his discussions in the jail. They agree with Taylor that the Prophet was resigned to a probable martyrdom and was committed to leaving events in the hands of God. Several of Joseph’s statements in his final four days show in fact that he retained the spirit of prophecy. John Taylor rode with Joseph to Carthage and soon published the Prophet’s remarks on leaving Nauvoo—that he went innocent to the slaughter and would be murdered (D&C 135:4). In ancient history one might take a general report as indicative of public knowledge, but in Mormon history many correlating participants usually make historical hearsay unnecessary. Stout’s untraceable claim of a rescue order sharply deviates from the norm established by direct observers. The resources for understanding the Prophet include official minutes, letter books, discourse reports, private journals, contemporary newspapers, and responsible recollections. These furnish a control on Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo life, and a test and corrective for eccentric documents.

Revisionism, a major pattern in historical writing, may bring progress or plague. I once read an interview in which Robert Frost said he would like to teach a course in slow reading, and my ideal history department would offer a seminar in deliberate publication. Joseph Smith history has more affinity with regional history than with the broad generalizations that are part of courses in world civilization and national history. Local historians and genealogists deal with highly specific data and careful standards of proof. On the other hand, Mormon periodicals and publishers heavily value reader interest and writing skills. But if quality evidence is not carefully considered, today’s avalanche of writing in the Latter-day Saint cultural community will mix new ages of information and misinformation.

The answer is to have more awareness of what makes firsthand sources, more determination to gather all major ones, and more care in judging sources fairly on the basis of their broad agreements. The answer is also more author awareness of challenging Christian ethics. In my own private and professional life, I find these among Christ’s most sobering words:

But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. (Matthew 12:36–37)


1. See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Paul’s Witness to the Early History of Jesus’ Ministry,” in The Apostle Paul, Twenty-third Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 9, 31 n. 20.

2. See ibid., 4–8, for a survey of current theory that the Gospels were written by anonymous editors selecting stories about Christ that had already grown in the telling. As is known from current publicity, the Jesus Seminar group estimates a majority of information in the Gospels is not historically reliable. More conservative scholars throw considerable doubt on Christ’s life and teachings in the Gospels. For instance, see Joseph A. Fitzmyer, A Christological Catechism: New Testament Answers, rev. ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 25: “The evangelists picked up traditional material and fashioned it into their accounts as they saw fit, and not necessarily with factual accuracy.”

3. See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Second Witness of Priesthood Restoration,” Improvement Era, September 1968, 15–24, with corrections that the priesthood restoration part of the Prophet’s official history was written in 1838 or 1839 (15), and Oliver’s patriarchal blessing book descriptions were written in 1835 instead of 1833 (20).

4. See Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, corrected reprint (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989).

5. Law’s dissent and actions are recorded in his Nauvoo record, reprinted in Lyndon W. Cook, William Law (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Company, 1994), 37–38, 54–55. For the group’s Nauvoo label as the “Reformed Church,” see Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Final Self-Appraisal,” in The Prophet Joseph Smith: Essays on the Life and Mission of Joseph Smith, ed. Larry C. Porter and Susan Easton Black (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 322, n. 9.

6. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 2d. ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 197), vii.

7. Afternoon discourse, April 7, 1844, William Clayton report, in The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), 356. Quotations of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries in this article are conservatively edited to standardize spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.

8. Afternoon discourse, April 7, 1844, Thomas Bullock report, in Ehat and Cook, 355.

9. Afternoon discourse, April 7, 1844, Joseph Smith diary entry by Willard Richards, in Ehat and Cook, 343.

10. Afternoon discourse, October 9, 1843, Times and Seasons, ed. John Taylor (Nauvoo, 1843), 4:331; also in Ehat and Cook, 253. Cf. Ehat and Cook, 254, for the equivalent thought in the official Richards diary.

11. Discourse, May 12, 1844, Thomas Bullock report, in Ehat and Cook, 369.

12. Morning discourse, June 16, 1844, Thomas Bullock report, in Ehat and Cook, 382. For the significance of the sermon, see Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Final Self-Appraisal,” in Porter and Black.

13. Joseph Smith to Emma Smith between 8:20 and 9:40 A.M., June 27, 1844, Carthage Jail, in The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, comp. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 611.

14. William Clayton journal, June 24, 1844, in Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Prophecies of Martyrdom,” in A Sesquicentennial Look at Church History, Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, January 26, 1980 (Provo, Utah: Religious Instruction, Brigham Young University, 1980), 10.

15. Brodie, 392.

16. Ibid.

17. Allen J. Stout autobiography, text following the original held by LDS Church Archives.

18. T. B. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1873), 164 n.

19. John Taylor, “The Martyrdom of Joseph Smith,” in Richard F. Burton, The City of the Saints, ed. Fawn M. Brodie (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), 614. Burton tells of visiting John Taylor in 1860 and “receiving from the apostle a manuscript account” of the martyrdom, which was printed “in its integrity.” Quotations from Brodie’s reprint agree with Burton’s original 1861 edition and with Taylor’s shorter recollection, found in History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 7:99–100.

20. John Taylor, Carthage Jail Memoirs, August 23, 1856, 45–46, LDS Church Archives ms.

21. Office of Salt Lake County Attorney, Mark Hofmann Interviews (North Salt Lake City: A.I.S.I. Publishers, 1987), 2:393. See also 2:390, where Hofmann remembered consulting Donna Hill’s book, Joseph Smith, the First Mormon (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977). However, Hill, 412 and 491 n. 16, cites only Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 392 n., where the Stenhouse story that Hofmann remembered seeing in a Joseph Smith biography appears.

22. George J. Throckmorton, “A Forensic Analysis of Twenty-one Hofmann Documents,” in Linda Sillitoe and Allen D. Roberts, Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), 547–48.

23. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 141.

24. Dan Jones, “The Martyrdom of Joseph Smith and His Brother Hyrum,” a component of Jones’s 1847 Welsh compilation, History of the Latter-day Saints, translated by Ronald Dennis, in BYU Studies 24 (Winter 1984): 91, with Jones’s 1855 recollection (103) that Joseph’s letter was addressed to attorney Browning at Quincy. For the letter, which asked for “your professional services” for the coming treason hearing, see Jessee, 612.

25. Quinn, 179.

26. History of the Church, 7:270–71, with corresponding entries in the Brigham Young journal; Times and Seasons 6 (Jan. 15, 1845): 780–81.

27. Clayton entries are transcribed in Andrew F. Ehat, ” ‘It Seems Like Heaven Began on Earth’: Joseph Smith and the Constitution of the Kingdom of God,” BYU Studies 20 (Spring 1980): 269, 271.

28. See the Kimball entries in Stan Kimball, On the Potter’s Wheel: The Diaries of Heber C. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 164, for setting apart on April 20 and departure April 23, 1845, the latter date postponed a day in History of the Church 7:401. The entry in History of the Church 7:437 about Dunham’s death is based on the Brigham Young journal for Sept. 1, 1845, which reports “a letter announcing the death of Bro. Jonathan Dunham, which to[ok] place the 28th of July a little before daylight at the house of Joseph Rogers, Newton Co., Mo.” According to Clayton’s journal of Sept. 1 and 9, 1845, Daniel Spencer was the one who brought the letter—he had found Dana and reported that Dunham “died of a fever.” These contemporary reports to Church authorities contradict a later story that Quinn quotes and prefers, citing the Seymour B. Young diary for May 23, 1903, which reported Oliver B. Huntington’s version—that Dunham was despondent over the martyrdom and ” ‘persuaded a friendly Indian’ (Dana) ‘to kill and bury him’ ” (Quinn, 180, 404, n. 188). Dunham’s early death no doubt contributed to curiosity and mythology about him.