Thomas F. O'Dea
The Mormons

(Univ. of Chicago Press, 1957)

  • TitlePage

  • Contents  (under const.)

  • Chapter 3  (excerpt)

  • Transcriber's Comments

  • Ray B. West's Kingdom of the Saints, 1957





    Thomas F. O'Dea




    [ 22 ]


    The Book of Mormon

    The New Scriptures and Its Manifest Meaning

    The Book of Mormon, which, according to Mormon belief, was miraculously translated from plates of gold by Joseph Smith, claims to be the record of the aboriginal inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere and covers a period of a thousand years, from 600 B.C. to A.D. 400. It is made up of fourteen books and an editorial note and fills 522 pages in the current edition of the Utah church. The first two books, I and II Nephi, cover a period from 600 to 545 B.C. and tell how Lehi, a descendant of Joseph who was sold into Egypt by his brothers, together with his wife Sariah, his four sons -- Laman, Lemuel, Sam, an Nephi -- and their families and followers, left Jerusalem shortly before the Babylonian captivity and, led by the Lord in a ship which Lehi had built at his command, arrived at a land of promise across the sea. The rebellion of Laman and Lemuel and their people is punished by their being cursed with a dark skin, and from these Lamanites the American Indians are believed to have descended.

    Next follow four short books-Jacob, Enos, Jarom, and Omni -- which bring the chronology up to 130 B.C. and tell of the land of Zarahemla, which had been settled by other Hebrews who had left Judah when Zedekiah (II Kings 25:1-7) was carried away captive to Babylon. Then follows the editorial note called the "Words of Mormon," which was supposed to have been written in A.D. 385 by the compiler.

    Next are the three main books -- Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman -- which develop the history of the Nephites, the descendants of


    23                               THE  "BOOK  OF  MORMON"                              

    Lehi's faithful son, from 145 to 2 B.C. Here are found the rule and preaching of Benjamin and Mosiah, the wars with the Lamanites, the persecution of true religion, the founding of Alma's church, his high priesthood and chief judgeship, the second Alma as high priest and chief judge, the preaching so reminiscent of revival exhortation, the conversion of Lamoni, the appearance of Korihor the Anti-Christ, the threat from secret organizations (which, it has been suggested, represent the Masons), the admonitions of Alma, the prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite, and much else. This record is continued in III and IV Nephi, which describe the coming of Christ to this continent after the Resurrection and the flourishing of the Church of Christ among both Nephites and Lamanites during a period of peace and righteousness, bringing the story up to A.D. 321. The Book of Mormon follows, recounting how sin and apostasy follow the period of virtue and relating the final struggle between the Nephites and Lamanites, in which the former are wiped out in punishment for their sins and in fulfillment of prophecy. This battle takes place at the Hill Cumorah, where Joseph Smith was later given the gold plates, which had been stored there by Moroni. At this point the narrative is interrupted by the Book of Ether, which gives the history of the Jaredites, a people whose discovery by the Nephites was reported in the Book of Omni. Jared and his people had come to the new world in saucer-like submarines at the time of the Tower of Babel and had been destroyed because they would not repent of their iniquity. It is here that the word "Deseret" is used and translated to mean "honey bee." This word was later proposed by the Mormons as the name for the state of Utah. Finally, there is the Book of Moroni, a kind of postscript in which Moroni, who later is said to have given the plates to Joseph Smith, describes ritual practices and gives doctrinal instruction. This work, which is sacred to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and which ranks with the Bible as holy scripture in its eyes, has been variously explained by non-Mormons. Some have denied the authorship of Joseph Smith and attributed it rather to his first important convert, the Campbellite preacher Sidney Rigdon, who is alleged to have reworked a romance of Solomon Spaulding. While some reputable scholars have given this theory serious attention, 1 it actually arose out of anti-Mormon animosities and was an attempt to discredit the early Mormon

    1 Although there seems very little doubt today as to Joseph Smith's authorship of the Book of Mormon , there was a time when the controversy over this subject generated some degree of heat. Those interested in such not-quite-solved historical problems will find the following titles useful: George B. Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism (Chicago, 1932); Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History (New York, 1945); Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca, N. Y., 1950); Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio, 1834), republished as History of the Mormons (1840); William Alexander Linn, The Story of the Mormons (New York, 1902); Walter F. Prince, "Authorship of the Book of Mormon, American Journal of Psychology, XXVIII, No. 3 (July, 1917), 373-89; George Reynolds, The Myth of the Manuscript Found (Salt Lake City, 1883); B. H. Roberts, "The Origin of the Book of Mormon," American History Magazine, Vols. III and IV (1908-9); Theodore Schroeder, "Origin of the Book of Mormon," American History Magazine, Vols. I and II (September, 1906-May, 1907); and "Authorship of the Book of Mormon," American Journal of Psychology, XXX (January, 1919), 66-72; C. A. Shook, The True Origin of the Book of Mormon (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1914).


                                            THE  MORMONS                                        24

    movement. The theory is supported by a tenuous arrangement of circumstantial evidence and an even more questionable analysis of internal content. Few, if any, scholars take it seriously today.

    Writers have also attempted to explain the origin of the work on the basis of abnormal psychology. This kind of theory was put forward by I. Woodbridge Riley in 1902 and was accepted by Eduard Meyer in his Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen, published in 1912. 2 Such an approach sees Joseph Smith as a visionary whose bad ancestry and epilepsy made it possible for him to see visions to be accounted for in medical terms, while their concrete religious content is explained as a reflection of the cultural setting. Such theories are, at best, learned conjectures, and, as one fashion succeeds another in psychological theorizing, they take on a very dated appearance. The real problem in the present case is the lack of factual basis for the medical explanations, for we have little or no evidence of the hereditary or other abnormalities and nervous instabilities and none at all of the epilepsy upon which such explanations are based.

    There is a simple common-sense explanation which states that Joseph Smith was a normal person living in an atmosphere of religious excitement that influenced his behavior as it had that of so many thousands of others and, through a unique concomitance of circumstances, influences, and pressures, led him from necromancy into revelation, from revelation to prophecy, and from prophecy to leadership of an important religious movement and to involvement in the bitter and fatal intergroup conflicts that his innovations and success had called forth. To the non-Mormon who does not accept the work as a divinely revealed scripture, such an explanation on the basis of the evidence at hand seems by far the most likely and safest. 3

    The manifest theme of the book is the arrival and settlement of Hebrews on this continent before the Christian Era, a theme that serves the obvious purpose of explaining the origin of the American Indian, a subject upon which there had been much speculation. The presence of Indian mounds and palisades in western New York and Ohio had increased interest in the subject. Yet the explanation offered by the Book of Mormon was not new, It was the conjecture most widely entertained at the time, and it had been the opinion of many clergymen since Cotton Mather that Hebraic origin must explain the genesis of human existence on

    2 I Woodbridge Riley, The Founder of Mormonism (New York, 1902); Eduard Meyer, Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen, (1912).

    3 Perhaps the study which best represents this more reasonable point of view is Brodie, op. cit. It has, however, been criticized from an orthodox Mormon point of view. For such a criticism see "Appraisal of the So-called Brodie Book" in Church News (Deseret News), May 11, 1946. This review was republished as a pamphlet by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


    25                               THE  "BOOK  OF  MORMON"                              

    these shores. Many books had been written on the subject, and recently there had been published another, one quite possibly known by Joseph Smith. 4 This work, written by Ethan Smith and entitled View of the Hebrews: or the Ten Tribes of Israel in America, was published in 1823. It contained "all the items of three generations of specious scholarship and piecemeal observation on this subject." 5 It also contained Caleb Awater's description of Indian mounds in Ohio and one of Central American ruins by Von Humboldt. It was a source of genuine information as well as of erroneous inference on the subject of Indian origins.

    To the popular notions of Hebraic genesis, the Book of Mormon added nothing new except the very important claim of presenting original written remains, and these on the basis of miraculous intervention. It is this aspect of the book rather than the novelty of its hypothesis that explains its appeal, limited though it was at first. Yet the manifest theme of Hebraic origins of the Indian had an important influence upon Mormon thinking and even upon Mormon destiny. From the first, the new church conceived as part of its task the reconversion of the Indians that they might once again become a "white and delightsome people" (II Nephi 30:6). A generally favorable attitude toward the Indians has marked the Mormons ever since. Moreover, since the church moved west almost immediately and sent out missionaries to the aborigines shortly after its founding, this Mormon attitude antagonized fellow whites on the frontier. The suspicions aroused by the Mormon attitudes toward the Indians were an element in the hostilities between the Saints and their gentile neighbors in Missouri in the 1830's, and in Utah in the 1850's the Mormons and the Indians felt themselves allies in a struggle against the United States.

    The "explanation" through divine revelation of the origin of human culture on these shores and the content of that explanation itself -- that the Hebrews had been led here by God -- could not but mold a reverent attitude toward this land. The Book of Mormon thereby became more than an explanation, it became a dedication. The popular beliefs in the special character of this continent reflected the utopianism of generations of immigrants, whether explicit, as in John Winthrop's establishment of Zion on Massachusetts Bay, or implicit, as in the aspirations of the thousands of indentured servants who signed up for seven years' labor

    4 Brodie, op. cit., p. 47.

    5 Ibid., p. 46.


                                        THE  MORMONS                                    26

    prefatory to achieving yeoman status in the new West. The romantic nationalism of the new republic and the optimism and expectation that characterized the third decade of the nineteenth century were full of promise to the common man. The Book of Mormon enshrines these sentiments in an American scripture. In the golden bible brought forth by Joseph Smith, a prophet of old calls this continent "a land which is choice above all other lands" (II Nephi 1:5) and declares that "there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord" (II Nephi 1:6). The ideology of immigration has been consecrated and transformed into prophecy. Moreover, "it shall be a land of liberty" (II Nephi 1:7). The Book of Mormon also consecrates the democratic sentiments that had run so deeply in revival religion and pervaded so much of political life at the time. In content as well as origin, the Book of Mormon was an American document. ...

    This book is copyright 1957 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. Because of this copyright restriction, only the short excerpt provided above is offered on this web-page.


    Ray Benedict West
    Kingdom of the Saints

    (NYC: Viking Press, 1957)

  • TitlePage  (under const.)

  • Contents  (under const.)

  • Preface  (excerpt)

  • Transcriber's Comments


    This book is copyright 1957 byRay B. West. jr. (and estate)
    All rights reserved. Only "fair use" excerpts provided below.

    [ xiii ]


    The Mormon story, insofar as it has been told with any degree of sympathy, has usually been seen as a comic episode in American history. Like so many figures of the frontier, the Mormons seemed to the more genteel East to be only a somewhat different version of that legendary world celebrated by our native humorists of the nineteenth century -- a world in which the facts of nature and the life in nature could be understood only in terms of fantasy. What were the experiences of the Mormons but the "tall tale" come to life? Claims of visions, rumors of polygamy and of "Destroying Angels," of violent conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons, plus the epic of a mass march into an unsettled wilderness, could be accommodated by the rational mind only by making them the subject of laughter. Joseph Smith could be seen as a harmless fraud, in a tradition which combined two typical figures in American humor -- the shrewd rustic, seeing through the affectations of his more elevated compatriots; and the Yankee peddler, whose harmless swindles were a small price to pay for the amusement they afforded. Brigham Young could become the mock-hero of frontier legend, whose incredible exploits rivaled those of the riverman Mike Fink, the Mountain Man Jim Bridger, or the Indian-fighter and frontier politician Davy Crockett; whose marital experiences, in particular, were of a magnitude appropriate to the Great West.


    xiv                                             PREFACE                                            

    (this page has not been transcribed)


                                                PREFACE                                             xv

    (this page has not been transcribed)


    xvi                                             PREFACE                                            

    were comic masks and presented as such. Linn and Werner were not conscious of masks, but because of their stylistic exaggerations their attitudes (of being serious research scholars) became masks as surely as the poses struck by the native American humorists.

    It is interesting to note here that the aim of the serious researcher is often very similar to that suggested by Bergson for the comic: to create types in order to define a species; but the scientific scholar, according to the ideal, should remain neutral before the facts; his hypothetical types should conform to them. If he does not, then the type becomes a distortion and results in comedy. This seems to be what happened in the case of Linn and Werner, but particularly with Linn. Note almost the final picture we get of Brigham Young in The Story of the Mormons. It is of "an openly jolly old hypocrite," for whom "one can scarcely resist the feeling that he would like to pass around the hat." This is an amusing summary, but it more nearly resembles Mark Twain's minor comic characters, such as the Duke in Huckleberry Finn, than it does the facts of Brigham Young's career, even the highly colored facts as Linn reports them.

    Somewhat the same is true, but to a lesser degree and in a more subtle manner, in a more recent work of historical scholarship, Fawn Brodie's biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, published in 1945. Here, where research is even more penetratingly pursued than in Linn and Werner, a new difficulty arises. It is reflected in the apparent embarrassment of much modern scholarship in dealing with a religious subject. Despite the limitations of Mrs. Brodie's book, which can deal with Mormonism only up to the year 1844, it represents the most thorough treatment of early Mormon history. Her scholarship is praiseworthy, and she lays for once and all the ghosts of those two bugaboos of Mormon scholarship -- the origins of polygamy and the Spaulding theory of the authorship of the Book of Mormon. She even comes nearest of anyone who has yet written of Joseph Smith to presenting him as recognizable human being. Yet by utilizing an ironic style in her presentation, Mrs. Brodie shoots beyond the mark. It is Joseph Smith's very humanity -- an excess of human characteristics -- which distorts the image of her subject, the founder of a modern religion,


                                                PREFACE                                             xvii

    and converts him into a comic figure. Perhaps the following description of his struggle with his conscience over the matter of polygamy will clarify what I mean.

    Joseph could with a certain honesty inveigh against adultery in the same week that he slept with another man's wife, or indeed several men's wives, because he interposed a very special marriage ceremony. And who was to say him nay, since in the gentile world the simple pronouncement of a few time-worn phrases by any justice of the peace was all that was necessary to transform fornication into blessed matrimony: The spoken word stood between him and his own guilt. And with Joseph the word was God.

    The implications here, betrayed by the lightness of the style, are not too different in their final intent from those of Linn. Instead of a jolly humbug, we have a kind of jolly fornicator, justifying polygamy in theological terms much as a Restoration comic might justify it in terms of social manners. What Mrs. Brodie leaves out of account in this passage is the important fact that Joseph Smith's "deception" became a religious principle of Mormonism and that in order to apply her interpretation to Mormon society, we should then have to account for many thousands of such deceptions -- a tall tale indeed. One might say that Fawn Brodie's regard for irony -- or her subjective lack of sympathy which it discloses -- has betrayed her into an reinterpretation unwarranted by her facts,

    (the remainder of "Preface" has not been transcribed)


    [ 3 ]





    The village of Kirtland, Ohio, lay at the crossroads of two main immigrant highways into the Western Reserve. The east-west road paralleled a busier thoroughfare which ran along the coast of Lake Erie a few miles north. The north-south highway carried the traffic southward from Fairport Harbor, through Mentor and Kirtland, toward Cincinnati. Kirtland was situated on the banks of the north branch of the Chagrin River at a point where it flowed from the west and made a sweeping turn toward the south. Its houses lay mostly at the bottom of the green valley, near the river and west of the bridge over which the highway entered the village. Before the Mormons came, the few houses had been dominated by the Gilbert and Whitney store, located at the crossroads.

    Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet who had founded the church less than a year before, arrived in Kirtland suddenly, by sleigh, early in January 1831. He had stopped his team before the store, got out from beneath the heavy buffalo robe, and strode into the little establishment. He was then twenty-five years old, more than six feet tall, a handsome and striking young man. He confronted the clerk behind the counter.

    "Newell K. Whitney, thou art the man," he said.

    "I am sorry, sir," Whitney is reported to have replied. "I don't seem able to place you, although you appear to know me."


    4                             KINGDOM  OF  THE  SAINTS                              

    "I am Joseph the Prophet," Joseph said. "You've prayed me here. Now what do you want of me?"

    Newell Whitney and his partner, Sidney Gilbert, had been members of Sidney Rigdon's Campbellite congregation, which early in the fall had been converted in a body to Mormonism by Joseph Smith's missionaries. Rigdon's Campbellites had been practicing a limited form of communism in which their community was known as "the Family," but the system had broken down, and Rigdon seemed powerless to do anything about it.

    Sidney Rigdon, formerly a Baptist minister in Pittsburgh, had left the Baptists in 1 824 and, with Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott, had been prominent in founding the Disciples of Christ, who soon became known in the West as Campbellites. Still later Rigdon had fallen out with Campbell over community ownership of property, which Rigdon believed to have been the economic order of early Christianity, and the reliance to be placed upon individual miracles and what Rigdon considered to be manifestations of the Spirit of God displayed by his followers. In the fall of 1830, following his conversion to Joseph Smith's infant church, Sidney Rigdon traveled east to central New York, where he met Joseph and convinced him that he should come with his small band of followers to Ohio.

    When Joseph Smith arrived in Kirtland, he found that the two aspects of Rigdon's belief that had caused his quarrel with Campbell were to be his first problem. Under Rigdon's plan of "common stock" all members of the community owned everything in common, including the clothes they wore and the houses they lived in; but resentment had arisen over the manner in which the system was administered. Also, Rigdon's congregation engaged in forms of worship which appeared to Joseph unseemly, such as the uncontrollable twitches and jerks of the extreme evangelical sects. After their conversion to Mormonism their practices had become even more extreme. Encouraged by Joseph's claim to visionary power, some of them began to receive their own revelations from heaven and to announce them boldly as the Word of God.


                          THE  PROPHET  AND  THE  SAINTS                         5

    (this page has not been transcribed)


    6                             KINGDOM  OF  THE  SAINTS                              

    (this page has not been transcribed)


                          THE  PROPHET  AND  THE  SAINTS                         7

    (this page has not been transcribed)


    8                             KINGDOM  OF  THE  SAINTS                              

    (this page has not been transcribed)


                          THE  PROPHET  AND  THE  SAINTS                         9

    (this page has not been transcribed)


    10                             KINGDOM  OF  THE  SAINTS                              

    (this page has not been transcribed)


                          THE  PROPHET  AND  THE  SAINTS                         11

    of new converts from the states in the East. What had seemed at times earlier to resemble chaos appeared now as prosperity and order. Local inhabitants who did not join the Mormons watched events, first with interest, then with wonder and trepidation. Conversions they had seen before, but this rapid gathering of the converted to a single spot confounded them. Mormons on their way to the new settlements in Missouri paused in Kirtland for a sight of their prophet. Claims of miracles all had heard, too, but seldom had they been given the chance to see and speak with the person upon whom a miracle had been performed. Was the phenomenon, as the prophet said, the gathering to Zion in the latter days? The little city was, at times, almost as crowded with the curious as it was with its own citizens.

    Joseph was almost always cautious in claiming to have the power to work miracles beyond the claims of his original visions that an angel had appeared to him and revealed to him the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, that the apostles had appeared and conferred the rights of the apostolic priesthood, and that a power of translating had been granted him; but he himself had been astonished by the effects which his voice had occasionally had on some afflicted person. After a few words of solemn blessing, a new convert might stand up and walk without the aid of crutches for the first time; another might arise from a sickbed and announce that he was wholly well. When confronted by unbelievers who challenged him to swear that he had this power, Joseph would reply merely that he refused to swear, or he would say softly, "The gift has returned back again, as in former times, to illiterate fishermen."

    As one of his leading elders later reported, "I recollect a Campbellite preacher who came to Joseph Smith, I think his name was Hayden. He came in and made himself known to Joseph, and said that he had come a considerable distance to be convinced of the truth. 'Why,' said he, 'Mr. Smith, I want to know the truth, and when I am convinced, I will spend all my talents and time in defending and spreading the doctrine of your religion, and I will give you to understand to convince me is equivalent to convincing all my society, amounting to several hundreds.' Well, Joseph commenced


    12                             KINGDOM  OF  THE  SAINTS                              

    (this page has not been transcribed)


                          THE  PROPHET  AND  THE  SAINTS                         13

    (this page has not been transcribed)


    14                             KINGDOM  OF  THE  SAINTS                              

    (this page has not been transcribed)


                          THE  PROPHET  AND  THE  SAINTS                         15

    (this page has not been transcribed)


    16                             KINGDOM  OF  THE  SAINTS                              

    (this page has not been transcribed)


                          THE  PROPHET  AND  THE  SAINTS                         17

    (this page has not been transcribed)


    18                             KINGDOM  OF  THE  SAINTS                              

    (this page has not been transcribed)


                          THE  PROPHET  AND  THE  SAINTS                         19

    the appearance of Christ, the extinction of the good faction by the evil one, and the cursing of the Lamanites with a dark skin. The final record claims to be an abridgment made by the last survivor of the devout Nephites, Mormon, who concludes with the exhortation of the prophet Moroni, the angel who revealed the plates to Joseph:

    And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

    The Book of Mormon, according to an early review of it by Alexander Campbell, the founder of the Disciples of Christ, dealt with "every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years." It took a definite stand on all the controversies, enumerated by Campbell as: "infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of free masonry, republican government, and the rights of man."

    During the period of composition, Joseph dictated his words from behind a screen, at first to his wife, Emma, whom he had married in 1825; then to a neighbor, Martin Harris, whom he had convinced of the value of the plates and who helped finance his labors; and finally to a local schoolteacher, Oliver Cowdery, whose better than average education must have been of great assistance in preparing the final manuscript. During this time, too, Joseph claimed to have experienced other instances of divine revelation, the first in May 1829, when a puzzling reference in the text of what they were writing led him and Cowdery into the woods to pray for enlightenment. An angel appeared to them, they said, and announced himself as John the Baptist, conferring upon them the keys to the Aaronic Priesthood. A month later the two men were visited by the apostles Peter, James, and John, who conferred upon them the higher, or Melkizidek, priesthood, which provided them with the


    20                             KINGDOM  OF  THE  SAINTS                              

    (this page has not been transcribed)


                          THE  PROPHET  AND  THE  SAINTS                         21

    (this page has not been transcribed)


    22                             KINGDOM  OF  THE  SAINTS                              

    who recalled Joseph's early reputation for having occult powers. In achieving this reputation, they maintained, Joseph was encouraged by his entire family, and with this simple beginning he had conceived a grandiose plan of founding a religion. The golden plates were of a piece with the buried treasure he had earlier dreamed of uncovering, except that now he had introduced angels in place of the mysterious powers which formerly were supposed to have answered the call of his peepstone.

    Such an explanation might conceivably account for the visions; it did not explain the existence of the Book of Mormon. Could a young man twenty-two years old, with no formal education, produce such a work? At first it was suggested that Oliver Cowdery might have supplied the skill and knowledge, but to those who knew Cowdery, particularly when it was learned how short a time he had collaborated on the book, such a thought became untenable.

    What seemed to be an answer to this question was discovered accidentally in 1833 by a disillusioned follower of Joseph, who heard rumors of a manuscript by a certain Solomon Spaulding, dealing with similar materials. Spaulding's manuscript, it was maintained, had been deposited with a printer in Pittsburgh in the hope of obtaining publication. Sidney Rigdon was known to have frequented Pittsburgh, and it was supposed that he had done business with this particular shop. Seeing the manuscript and recognizing its possibilities, Rigdon carried it off, corrected and revised it, and eventually arranged for Joseph Smith, of whose reputation as a medium he had heard, to release it as the translation from plates of gold revealed by an angel. At the opportune moment, after Joseph (whose relationship with Rigdon had been kept secret) had released the printed text, Rigdon stepped forward, bringing his entire Mentor and Kirtland congregations with him as members of the new church.

    According to this theory, it had been Rigdon's plan to step into Joseph's place as titular head of the church, but Joseph, having tasted a moment of glory, refused to relinquish his position. Thus the hundreds, and soon thousands, of honest but simple souls who had accepted Mormonism were seen as dupes of one of the most complicated and improbable conspiracies of all time.


                          THE  PROPHET  AND  THE  SAINTS                         21

    The so-called "Spaulding theory" was greatly discredited when, years later, the lost manuscript came to light and was found to have no significant resemblance to Joseph's book. Discovery of the manuscript did not wholly dispose of the theory, because its proponents then came forward with an ingenious second explanation. The manuscript found was not the one which Sidney Rigdon had stolen. A second manuscript had existed, a revision of the first, and this had been used by Smith and then, undoubtedly, destroyed. It remained finally for historians to dispose of the Spaulding theory by pointing out the improbabilities of the intrigue. In the first place, it would have been virtually impossible for Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith to have met in New York or elsewhere before the autumn of 1830, when they did meet; secondly, actions upon which the theory rested were contrary to the known characters of both Rigdon and Smith.

    With the gradual disappearance of the Spaulding theory, succeeding explanations have been based, for the most part, upon pseudo-scientific postulates, less with the idea of proving Joseph Smith a fraud than in an attempt to explain his self-delusion. In the mid-nineteenth century, during the wave of interest aroused by experiments in mesmerism, an apostate Mormon, who left the church after years of service in some of its highest offices, convinced himself that Joseph had indeed had communication with supernatural beings, but that they were evil spirits who misled him. In the twentieth century a historian proposed the possibility that Joseph had suffered from epilepsy, and that his visions had occurred during the period of the mysterious aura which accompanied that disease. Still later, as was inevitable, a Freudian interpretation was added: "The Book of Mormon is a product of an adolescent mind and a mind characterized by the symptoms of the most prevalent of mental diseases of adolescence -- dementia praecox."

    Such explanations are unsatisfactory if for no other reason than that they could, with equal justification, be applied to claims of all religious mystics -- from the Hebrew prophets through St. Paul and Mohammed, and including the whole canon of Christian saints. They assume that any strong religious interest reflects a pathological state. The theory that Joseph suffered from schizophrenia is preposterous


    24                             KINGDOM  OF  THE  SAINTS                              

    (the remainder of this text has not been transcribed)


    Transcriber's Comments

    Thomas F. O'Dea's book presents a good sociological view of Mormonism as it existed in mid-twentieth century America. O'Dea was a Sociologist and not a Historian, however. Although some portions of the material in his book are arranged in chronological order he does not so much present a history of early Mormonism as he does an explanation for how it came to be what it was when he conducted his study and wrote his book. Since the author was not a historian and not particularly interested in doing any new historical research on his topic of "the Mormons," O'Dea relies mostly upon a few previously published histories and biographies for his background material.

    It is not difficult to see where O'Dea turned for information on the origins of Mormonism and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. In the first pages of his Chapter Two (reproduced above) four of his five initial footnotes lead directly to the excommunicated Mormon biographer, Mrs. Fawn M. Brodie. The content of her 1945 book was obviously the standard by which O'Dea judged the viability of various explanations for the character of Joseph Smith, Jr. and his role in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. The author baldly states: "there seems very little doubt today as to Joseph Smith's authorship of the Book of Mormon..." and, "There is a simple common-sense explanation which states that Joseph Smith was a normal person living in an atmosphere of religious excitement that ... led him from necromancy into revelation, from revelation to prophecy, and from prophecy to leadership of an important religious movement." While such simplistic explanations may have suited O'Dea's purposes in getting quickly past the problem of Mormon origins, they are also simply unacceptable as competent interpretations of the earliest Mormon history.

    In explaining how Joseph Smith, Jr. supposedly originated the central message of the Book of Mormon O'Dea says: "Ethan Smith and entitled View of the Hebrews: or the Ten Tribes of Israel in America, was published in 1823. It contained all the items of three generations of specious scholarship and piecemeal observation on this subject [origin of the American Indians]... To the popular notions of Hebraic genesis, the Book of Mormon added nothing new except the very important claim of presenting original written remains, and these on the basis of miraculous intervention." Here O'Dea misunderstands a key element of early Mormonism: the firm promise of the Mormon leaders that their followers would be among the saved "righteous" amidst the imminent divine wrath which would procede the coming millennial reign of Christ on earth. The cornerstone of that firm promise was their religious teaching that "scattered Israel" would be gathered together in an American Zion just before the commencement of the millennium. That was why the Book of Mormon was so important -- because it revealed this purported truth and set out the prophetic pattern whereby the American Indians (along with other supposed scattered and dispersed Israelites) would be gathered as God's people. In the process of their conversion and gathering to "Zion" the American Indians would again become white-skinned Israelites and would provide a vast army, by whose mercenary assistance the Mormon leaders would defeat "the wicked" [i. e. the unconverted "Gentiles" of the United States of America}.

    Because O'Dea misunderstood the millenarian motivation central to the Book of Mormon's message and central to the earliest attempted implementation of the Mormon religion, he could assert that "the Book of Mormon added nothing new" to the teachings of people like Ethan Smith. Although Ethan Smith considered the Indians to be Israelites who must be gathered prior to the beginning of the millennium, he was happy to imagine a small remnant of their tribes being transported to Jerusalem in the "last days." Ethan Smith would have been horrified at the notion of a militant Israelite gathering in Independence, Missouri, under the control of men like Joseph Smith, Jr. and Sidney Rigdon. Ethan Smith would have also been horrified by the heavy strain of radical Campbellite theology and religious practice evident throughout the pages of the Book of Mormon. Clearly there is much in the book and much in the Mormon teachings regarding the Hebrew origins of the American Indians which added much that was "new" to frontier American religion -- perhaps not too many elements that were entirely Mormon innovations, but combinations of teachings, practices, and expectations which created an entirely new religion, based only in part upon the "very important claim of presenting original written remains" and "the basis of miraculous intervention." In fact, those Mormon claims for "written remains" and "miraculous intervention" were also claims for religious and temporal authority in what was to become the most fanatical, pretentious, and dangerous theocracy the world had seen since the medieval crusades.

    O'Dea's remark regarding the Spalding authorship claim for the Book of Mormon -- that "Few, if any, scholars take it seriously today" -- quickly became for him and others a self-fulfilling prophecy. A later generation of writers could even add O'Dea himself to that growing conglomeration of "scholars" who were taking the questionable theses of I. Woodbridge Riley, Fawn Brodie and Whitney R. Cross "seriously." On the other hand, the timing of O'Dea's book publication was important and generally marked the turning point in contemporary historians having to choose between the competing versions of the Mormon past set forth by "University of Chicagoites" Fawn M. Brodie and George B. Arbaugh. By 1957, when fellow "University of Chicagoite" O'Dea published his work, the mainstream was clearing flowing within the new levees constructed by Riley and Brodie. From that time forward O'Dea's assessment of the Spalding authorship claim for the Book of Mormon was fully a correct one: "Few, if any, scholars take it seriously today."

    (under construction)

    Back to top of this page

    History Vault   |   Bookshelf   |   Spalding Library   |   Mormon Classics   |   Newspapers

    last updated: Mar. 11, 2003