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No Man Knows My History : The Life of Joseph Smith Hardcover – February 12, 1971
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From the Inside Flap
The first paperback edition of the classic biography of the founder of the Mormon church, this book attempts to answer the questions that continue to surround Joseph Smith. Was he a genuine prophet, or a gifted fabulist who became enthralled by the products of his imagination and ended up being martyred for them? 24 pages of photos. Map.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
The sourcing is thorough and the history first-rate and the biography is actually a very readable book. Brodie is good at making the story compelling and the people real. You may ask why I did not give it a 5 stars, well...it is the same reason most readers critique this book. Brodie is just too liberal in her assumptions about what people were thinking based on the historical documents she is analyzing.
Here is an example of her projecting her ideas of people onto them, "he [Joseph] preached because he got an audience. And this was essential to Joseph as was food." This paints an interesting character for the reader, but it sure seems like hyperbole to tell her version tale. Creating a narrative of the past is the art of the historian, but she got a little too creative.
There is a reason though that many still think this book is one of the best biographies on Joseph Smith, the history. I believe there is consensus the Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling is better, it is more up to date and he is a great historian as well, but this book was pretty seminal for its time. Many an LDS apologist took pot shots at the book because its picture of the founder of the church was not clean. Much of what Brodie discussed that was troublesome to members at the time have transformed from "anti-Mormon lies" to "difficult history" in the past several decades. Biographies of Joseph Smith have tended to be direct attacks or faith promoting glorifications. No Man Knows my History is balanced with a slant toward criticism, while Rough Stone Rolling is balanced with a slant toward faith. The reason? Well, you have authors that affect the writing.
Anyway, I enjoyed this biography on Joseph Smith. Brodie formulates her perspective well with documentation to support it. It is up to the reader to decide what they believe.
One salient point in Fawn Brodie's biography of Smith (b. 1805, d. 1844) is that the years of his youth and early manhood "were the most fertile in America's history for the sprouting of prophets." William Miller, John Humphrey Noyes, Jemima Wilkinson, Joseph Dylks. Smith, then, was not an isolated phenomenon. Another salient point: before the angel Moroni directed him to the book of golden plates that he then translated and published as the Book of Mormon, Smith was a practitioner of necromancy and advertised his ability to divine buried deposits of gold and money.
Brodie seems to like Smith. She portrays him as gregarious, imbued with great personal charm, having a quick mind, and genuinely fond of people. She also writes that "embedded in [his] character was the commonplace Yankee mixture of piety and avarice," which "he developed to a special flowering." That special flowering was a religious con man, one who eventually inhabited the fabulous castles of his own devising. By the 1840s and the settlement of Nauvoo, Smith was using his position as spiritual and political head of the Mormon community for his own, secret, monetary gain. And then there was his concupiscence. In his later years, he took somewhere between twenty-seven and fifty wives; not all but many of those marriages were consummated sexually. The practice of "plural wives" of course received theological blessing (or rationalization), but even so Smith could be both sneaky and high-handed in pursuing it. For example, in April 1843 his wife Emma went to St. Louis on business with Lorin Walker, one of Smith's business aides. During their absence Smith asked Walker's seventeen-year-old sister Lucy to become his wife. According to Lucy, his proposal/seduction went like this: "I have no flattering words to offer. It is a command of God to you. I will give you until tomorrow to decide this matter. If you reject this message, the gate will be closed forever against you."
In many respects, Joseph Smith seems to have been a quintessential American. Similarly, his Mormonism seems a fittingly American religion. Along the same lines, Brodie sees the Book of Mormon as "one of the earliest examples of frontier fiction, the first long Yankee narrative that owes nothing to English literary fashions. Except for the borrowings from the King James Bible, its sources are absolutely American. * * * Its matter is drawn directly from the American frontier, from the impassioned revivalist sermons, the popular fallacies about Indian origin, and the current political crusades."
NO MAN KNOWS MY HISTORY quells my curiosity regarding Joseph Smith. It also serves as a history of the early Mormon Church and a window on the United States circa 1820 to 1845. The book's style is somewhat old-fashioned (it originally was published in 1945), and as history it is more scholarly than popular. There is a lot of detail, much more than I really wanted. (Smith would make an ideal subject for a pithy two-hundred-page biography.) Most importantly, I sense that the biography is objective. In that regard, it should be noted that before becoming an esteemed professor of history at UCLA, Fawn Brodie grew up a devout Mormon in a small hamlet outside Ogden, Utah. In 1946, she was summarily excommunicated from the Mormon Church as a heretic.
In 2012, James Reston, Jr. wrote that NO MAN KNOWS MY HISTORY "remains today the definitive work on the Mormon prophet."