Recommended Reading

Monthly book reviews

Monthly book reviews by various authors.

JOSEPH SMITH, THE FIRST MORMON

Donna Hill, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New Jersey, 1977, 527 pages, $12.50.

 

For years almost the only biography of Joseph Smith read by non-Mormons has been No Man Knows My History, by Fawn Brodie, an ex-Mormon and niece of a former president of the Mormon Church. Mormons have viewed this book with as much suspicion and distaste as professional historians have exhibited in their reactions to Brodie's more recent effort, "an intimate history" of Thomas Jefferson. No Man Knows My History is basically a debunking book, busily disproving Joseph Smith's claims even as it admires him for his daring and devotion.

Brodie's book has been criticized as being at once "secular" and "sectarian" history—secular because it sees Smith more as an opportunistic impostor than a man who acted from and ministered to real religious needs, and sectarian in its concern with the truth or falsity of Smith's claims. Fair-minded Adventists reading the book, while they might have cheered Brodie's vigorous expose at some points, were also vaguely uncomfortable, aware that the same spirit and approach would not be welcome were it applied to Ellen White. Their uneasiness was all the more confirmed when Brodie attempted a review of Ron Numbers' book, Prophetess of Health, concluding that Ellen White was a "self-deluded" woman who used her revelations to seek solutions to her own "private illnesses and psychic conflicts."

Now Donna Hill, a Mormon, has written a biography of Smith that, while every bit as interesting and informative as Brodie's, is more satisfying because she seems more concerned with explaining Joseph Smith and the early Mormons from their own perspective, rather than trying to psychoanalyze them from Freud's.

Hill does not ignore the problematic. She discusses the Book of Abraham, which Smith claims to have translated from Egyptian hieroglyphics and from which modern Egyptologists get an entirely different and more prosaic message. She spends a chapter on blacks in the early Mormon Church, suggesting that it is likely that at least one early black was ordained to the priesthood and that the exclusion of blacks from that privilege until recently may not have been an unambiguous heritage from the days of Joseph Smith. She admits that the early polygamists lied deliberately to hide the practice from the public, and offers, with very little comment, their defense of this deception.

One tends to trust Hill's treatment of these sensitive subjects because, unlike Brodie, she does not seem to be either defending or prosecuting a case. The book is almost totally free of the kind of fawning praise that believers are so often tempted to bestow on the beloved leaders of their movement. Hill does not seem overly concerned with proving any of Smith's claims, nor does she belabor the reasons his early followers were persuaded to accept them, although that emerges clearly enough from her simple telling of the story.

The story of Joseph Smith's brief life is, of course, a marvelous adventure story, full of daring, danger, suffering and struggle, quite apart from one's judgment on the validity of his religious views. Adventists cannot help noticing the ironic coincidence that it was just as the Millerite movement was reaching its climax in the Midnight Cry of the summer of 1844 that Joseph Smith's career came to its tragic but seemingly inevitable end with his murder in the Carthage, Illinois, jail.

Donna Hill's biography of Joseph Smith should replace Fawn Brodie's for Adventists who are interested in an unbiased view of the Mormon prophet, while Thomas F. O'Dea's paperback, The Mormons, offers a briefer coverage of a longer period of Mormon theology, society, and intellectual life.

Ron Graybill

LEGACY

Dick Schaefer, Pacific Press Publishing Assn., Mountain View, California, 1978, 250 pages, $1.95.

Often among the first questions asked of Seventh-day Adventists are those relating to our vegetarian stance or other matters of health. One of the best responses is to offer your questioner a copy of Legacy. Its captivating style will grip him from the first sentence, and soon he will be reading of developments in the medical field that many Adventists themselves might be surprised to learn regarding the extent of the church's outreach from the days of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg to the present.

The author, director of community relations at Loma Linda University Medical School, has prepared a book especially suitable for patients of Adventist hospitals and clinics, as well as others interested in the story of the church's health emphasis.

Orley Berg

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Monthly book reviews by various authors.

April 1979

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