Book is fresh introduction to Mormonism

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  • John Hajicek Independence, MO
    Feb. 7, 2012 8:50 a.m.

    I do not yet have Matt Bowmanâs book to review it, but I saw his FIRST PARAGRAPH so I decided to review that much:

    âOn a Monday morning in November 1835 a slender man in his middle forties, curiously dressed in a sea-green coat and pants and sporting a curling grey beard, picked his way into the muddy frontier town of Kirtland, Ohio, twenty miles northeast of Cleveland along the Chagrin River. He had come from New York City to visit Joseph Smith, Jr.: a national curiosity, twenty-nine years old, a self-declared prophet of God and leader of a people most often called the Mormons. Shortly after ten in the morning, Josephâs visitor found the prophet in his home in a row of cabins that lined a dirt road for perhaps a mile as it wound up a hillside from the river and toward an impressively large, if still incomplete, sandstone and lumber hall. The Mormons were building a temple, and the man, who rather evasively identified himself only as âJoshua the Jewish minister,â must have gazed on it with awe and perhaps a little bit of envy.â

    What really makes me uncomfortable is that he begins his story too similarly to the FIRST PARAGRAPH and opening of a biography of Matthias by another author:

    âEarly in November 1835 the Prophet Matthias . . . traveled the roads of Ohioâs Western Reserve, headed for the pioneer Mormon settlement at Kirtland. . . . Now he journeyed by himself to the banks of the Chagrin River, looking for his fellow prophet, Joseph Smith. Kirtland, about twenty miles northeast of what is today the city of Cleveland, turned out to be a colony of rude buildings scattered on a hill that led down to the riverâhalf-formed, like the Mormon Church itself . . . workmen were braving cold weather to plaster the outside walls of a structure that the Mormon Prophet Smith called his chapel. . . . Matthias was almost certainly unimpressed; Smithâs chapel was no match for the great gold temple that he had long contemplated, and that he still expected to build when his luck returned. Matthias sought out the Mormon Prophet and announced himself as Joshua, the Jewish Minister.â Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias (Oxford University Press, 1994).

    I do understand the concept of synthesis, but is this not the type of âcopy someone else but put it into your own wordsâ that we expect from middle school, not a recent Georgetown doctoral graduate? Allowing for this elsewhere in the book, should an author at least write his own opening paragraph freshly?

    Getting back to Bowmanâs version: Kirtland was not a âfrontier townâ at all, it was a populous âpost townshipâ, to use the nomenclature of that state. Nor was it even on the frontierâKirtland had a thousand citizens before the first one was Mormon, and Ohio statehood was older than Joseph Smith. Detroit was a frontier town in 1701 and had been incorporated 20 years before 1835. Chicago was already incorporated. Cleveland and Cincinnati were major cities west of Kirtland, and Indianapolis had been a state capital for ten years. The frontier in 1835 was anything west of Missouri and the Missouri River. Independence, the Mormon village a thousand miles to the west, was scarcely on the frontier in 1835. Why does this matter? Because it shows that Bowman does not understand America in the time and place where his story took place. If you do not âgetâ that, how can you understand if the Book of Mormon is anachronistic or discover who wrote it or why?

    We know the exact date, it was 9 November. Joseph was less than a month from 30, Matthias was about 47 (born in 1788). I would like to know if Kirtland really was distinctively muddy on 9 November, perhaps from a citation in the Cleveland Herald, Painesville Telegraph, or a diary with weather information. Maybe Bowman is visualizing the memorable 1870s stereoview depicting the hill road as muddy. Local diaries indicate cold and cloudy skies on November 9 and 10. No weather was noteworthy to Joseph Smith himself on 9 November. On 11 November, falling snow was enough to be notable to Joseph Smith; on 12 November, though, it was rain mixed with snow but it still accumulated an inch and prevented work on the temple, suggesting the ground was cold, not muddy. Kirtland had drainage ditches paralleling the road to the temple. The year 1835 was a dry summer followed by a rainy winter. But as Kirtland was a post township, we cannot suppose the post township was muddier than any other township Matthias might have âpicked his way intoâ or that there was no other way to differentiate it from any other place in America besides describing it as âmuddyâ and ârude.â I will have to look into his characterization of the Smith home as a cabin in 1835; I would have thought it to be a frame house.

    Matthiasâ beard was only 3 inches longâit curled in published woodcuts but not on 9 November 1835. Matthias was not wearing simply a green coat, it was a green frock trimmed with pink silk and gold braid, over a brown cloth coatâand even that is a simplification. Bowman loses the point of âcuriousâ costuming altogether by oversimplifying the contemporary descriptions to rename an elaborate frock as a plain coat. Yet he wastes words to tell us it all happened on a Monday.

    Joseph Smith was not simply âa self-declared prophet,â any more than all prophets are self-declared. The phrase is cliche. Followers believe he was declared to be a prophet by Christ, or angels; critics believe he was declared a prophet by Sally Chase, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, or by his family. Either way, âself-declaredâ is too dismissive of a complex calling. I thought âsporting a beardâ was a little cliche, too, and a bit out-of-place for a nineteenth century narrative.

    I hope the second paragraph gets better. I might review the whole book.

  • Bill in Nebraska Maryville, MO
    Feb. 5, 2012 5:03 p.m.

    What I find interesting is that when one says one apologists book is no different from another is that their minds are just as closed minded as the minds of the membership. They say the same thing about General Conference. It is the same thing, nothing new has been revealed or said. Yet, others will cite things to them and they disregard what is being said.

    Have any of them actually read ROUGH STONE ROLLING.a biography about Joseph Smith. The fact it is written by a faithful Latter Day Saint means it holds no water. Yet, many saints counts it as controversial and should not have been written because of what it actually says about Joseph Smith. In many ways it sheds a light on Joseph Smith many critics would love to see said. Yet, those same critics discount it.

    These same critics purport to know more about Church History than many Church Historians.Yet, when given THE LIGHT as said by these historians it is false, it is a cover-up. I wonder how many of these have actual eyewitness testimony of Hauns Mill and other controversial history they purport different from the LDS Church's version.

  • Brahmabull sandy, ut
    Feb. 2, 2012 3:40 p.m.

    Another apologist version of mormonism and its history?? Uh no thanks. They all sound the same to me. Why not just reprint another apologist book from earlier?

  • scotchipman Lehi, UT
    Feb. 2, 2012 2:31 p.m.

    I doubt that this is a fresh look considering Matthew Bowman appears to be an apologist and he mentor and friend is Bushman who is a know apologist. You will likely not get a true account of Mormon history from this book but rather a smoothed over history that does not talk about some of the real problems that are always ignored.

  • BYUalum South Jordan, UT
    Feb. 1, 2012 7:40 p.m.

    Sounds great! I can hardly wait to read it.

  • Jemezblue Albuquerque, NM
    Feb. 1, 2012 4:43 p.m.

    Aside from Mitt Romney's rising popularity making this book possible, as a grad student of U.S. West History, historians are either ignoring the Mormons' trek and colony in Utah or they focus on the Mountain Meadows Massacre and polygamy. As a student who has taken a class from Sally Denton, author of "American Massacre, the Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1957," I know that some historians try to be fair to the Mormons, but books like this one from this author are unfair and very hateful, full of finger pointing at Church officials. I would like to see a fair and accurate accounting of the Mountain Meadows Massacre as well as an accurate history of the rest of the Mormons in the early Utah period. Also, I would like to see a historical account concerning Native Americans and the Mormons as well, because books are coming out about the unfair treatment that the Utes and Paiutes have been given by the Mormons as well.
    All I can say about this book is "Good Luck" and keep it as historical accurate as possible or the critics will tear it apart.

  • Commonman HENDERSON, NV
    Feb. 1, 2012 2:06 p.m.

    Dear Gemimi,

    Why is it that you believe that someone inside a religion cannot be "objective"? Why is it that anything from an inside source you consider to be "spin" or "introspection"?

    This would certainly result in an uneven way of looking at any subject. I don't know what your beliefs are, but by your definition, I am automatically qualified to be more objective about your beliefs than you are since I am not in "insider." Thanks, but if I want to know about any subject I will want to consult someone who believes in, supports or practices it.

    Feb. 1, 2012 11:17 a.m.

    I may be reading this column wrong, but it was my understanding that RANDOM HOUSE wanted this book written and approached two authors to write it. One declined and the other said he would. It has NOTHING to do with the Prophet.

    I am glad that they chose an LDS to write it, and I look forward to reading it.

  • J-TX Allen, TX
    Feb. 1, 2012 10:37 a.m.

    A "practicing Mormon" states that we watch the same TV shows as everyone else, and subtitles his book "The making of an American Faith"? maybe he needs more practice....

  • Gemimi Bakersfield, CA
    Feb. 1, 2012 9:16 a.m.

    Oh please. Not more spin and introspection. Can't you ever just employ an objective party?

    So the Vatican scrutinizes the Pope, the FBI vetts its own, and the fox oversees the henhouse. Just once, can the prophets be concerned about appearances and public impressions? It "looks" like an in-house job because it always is. And then when outsiders scrutinize, the insiders complain, squirm and spin.

    Just once, be happy with openness.