Even before it hit bookstores last summer, Jonathan Krakauer's book about the infamous Lafferty murders drew public criticism from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the way it ties early LDS leaders and doctrine to modern religious fanatics.
The book was again the subject of one LDS historian's ire, and another's guarded defense on Thursday during the first day of the Mormon History Association's annual meeting, which runs through Saturday at the Provo Marriott Hotel. The conference, now in its 39th year, drew hundreds of history enthusiasts from across the country.
Craig Foster, with the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, delved into Krakauer's family background as the setting for his paper, which pointed up historical flaws in the much-touted book. Raised in an "atheist household," Foster said the author has openly admitted his "skepticism and cynicism" regarding organized religion, and he has "demonstrated animosity toward those of faith."
Citing numerous "historical and factual errors," he said Krakauer's work should "send up red flags to any reader" because the author demonstrated a "profound ignorance of general American history."
He chided the author's characterization that LDS Church founder Joseph Smith had married "several 14-year-old girls," saying Smith had instead married one 14-year-old, one 15-year-old, two 16-year-olds, three 17-year-olds and three 19-year-olds. Using 19th- century marriage statistics from several foreign countries, he said it was routine in Smith's day for girls as young as 11 and 12 to marry and bear children.
He ended by calling Krakauer's work an "anti-Mormon book in a fancy cover," and a "hypersensationalistic work which will soon be forgotten."
Newell Bringhurst, a long-time LDS historian, agreed that there are many factual and historical errors in Krakauer's book, particularly with regard to mainstream LDS doctrine. "But I think (Foster) goes a bit too far in exonerating Joseph Smith for taking teenage plural wives while excoriating Krakauer for delving into a highly sensitive topic." He said the fact that Smith married 33 wives 10 of them teenagers 19 or under was more relevant than the actual ages of the girls.
He wondered why Foster chose to point up teenage marriage statistics from other countries without focusing on American practices in Smith's day, and disputed the assertion that Krakauer is "overtly anti-Mormon."
The fact that Foster cites Krakauer's appearances at various book signings in Protestant churches and that his book has been recommended on anti-Mormon Web sites doesn't make him "anti-Mormon," Bringhurst said.
He noted the interviews the author did with Dan Lafferty, who said God told him to kill a sister-in-law and her baby, were engaging reading. Krakauer also offered some "enlightenment" on "Mormon fundamentalism," Bringhurst said.
The two disparate points of view on Krakauer's book are illustrative of the range of opinion and world view represented by conference participants, many of whom are scholars while others are historical hobbyists.
Cecil Samuelson, president of Brigham Young University, addressed the conference during a luncheon Thursday, saying people and nations become polarized when "critical lovers and unloving critics" dominate public discussion.He urged the historians to be "loving in (their) criticism and critical in (their) loving."