Monday, December 19, 2016

"American Crucifixion" by Alex Beam: A Review

The dining room resounded with weeping and moaning. Joseph was the Saints' living, breathing, wrestling, drinking, sermonizing, truth-revealing champion. No one in Nauvoo didn't know him. Almost every resident had bought something - a pinch of tobacco, a plot of land - at his redbrick store. Joseph had greeted thousands of Saints at the riverside landing slips, may of the believers at the end of harrowing trans-Atlantic or transcontinental journeys. Every Mormon man, woman, and child had stood or sat on a bench or tree stump for hours at a time in the grove, listening to Joseph's speeches and sermons. Every Nauvoo resident had uprooted himself or herself, and their families, either because of Joseph Smith's preaching or because they had read the sacred Book of Mormon he composed as a young man. As he instructed they gathered to Zion to worship int he city of their Prophet. and now, inexplicably, int he prime of his vigorous life, at thirty-nine years old, he was dead. (195)

One of the most influential and yet enigmatic figures from American history is Joseph Smith - the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all of its off-shoots. Smith came to prominence in the early to mid-nineteenth century and was a product of the burn-out district which produced a number of revivalist and eschatological movements and cults. Mormonism is by far the most successful of them all.

The story of Smith typically centers on his supposed discovery of the golden plates, his translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, and his establishment of the Mormon Church. Yet what is often overlooked from Smith's biography is his death which came at a tragic end at the Carthage jail in Nauvoo, IL - a city larger in population than Chicago. Alex Beam in his book American Crucifixion: the Murder of Joseph Smith and the ate of the Mormon Church tells that story.

From the perspective of a good history narrative, I thoroughly enjoyed Beam's work. He is a gifted writer of history - a feat that not many have. The murder of Smith is an intriguing tale that requires a talented storyteller who has done his research. Beam has produced such a work.

Yet this volume is more than just about the story of Smith's death, but about the events leading up to his arrest and murder and the fallout from it. In fact, most of the book regards the latter. This approach allows the author to explore Smith's more controversial aspects of his biography and theology from a narrative perspective as opposed from a theological one.

For me, central to this exploration regards Smith's supposed revelation regarding plural marriage. Though the church has largely rejected plural marriage, it is no doubt part of its past. Beam tells the origin of this story and how it was first received by Mormon adherents. Long before the sexual revolution and the confusion over the definition of marriage, Beam provides documented evidence regarding this shocking "revelation" and how it was received.
One humorous antidote regarding plural marriage regards Smith's wife who was, rightfully, offended by her husbands assertion. When Smith shared this new teaching to his brother Hyrum, who also died at the Carthage jail, Hyrum agreed to explain it to Emma, Smith's wife.
"If you will write the revelation, I will take and read it to Emma," Hyrum assured his brother. "I believe I can convince her of this truth, and you will hereafter have peace."

Hyrum's mission failed utterly. Returning from his audience with Emmas at the Mansion, he announced that "I have never received a more severe talking to in my life. Emma is very bitter and full of resentment and anger."

Emma "did not believe a word" of the revelation, Clayton wrote in his diary, noting that she destroyed the text Hyrum had handed her. (88)
Who can blame her? On the next page, Beam shares the legend(?) of Emma grabbing a woman by the hair who was with her husband and throwing her out onto the street. The young woman, named Eliza Snow, supposedly had a miscarriage as a result. Snow would later marry Brigham Young after Smith's death. Later, when asked by a visitor where Joseph received the doctrine of "spiritual wives," her answer was dead on: "Straight from hell, madam." (89)

In many ways, this doctrine began Smith's downfall. Though he was extremely egotistical believing to be prophet, priest, and king and borderline dictatorial as mayor of Nauvooo, it appears that plural wives called into question his judgment and theology. During this time, Smith was running for the Presidency and was largely unpopular throughout the country but within Nauvoo he was beloved by most, at least among his fellow Mormons. As this new doctrine began to spread, his hold on them began, it seems, to unravel.

The real unraveling, however, began once one of the key leaders within the church refused to share his wife with Smith. This led him to the establishment of a rival paper which, after just one edition, was shut down by Smith. This action ultimately led to Smith having to flea Nauvoo only to return and be arrested. The governor of Illinois, a grossly incompetent man in this episode, became involved. In the end, a mob attacked the jail holding Smith killing him. Before falling to his death, Joseph, armed with a smuggled gun, shot at least three people in the mob.

I will let Beam tell the rest of the story for he is better than I, but I would highly recommend anyone interested in the history of Mormonism to invest in this work. One cannot understand Mormonism without engaging Joseph Smith. If Smith is a fraud, the faith he founded is as well. One of the benefits of this work is that through the unfolding of the historical narrative, Beam presents a picture of the Mormon founder as a man of questionable character. This is their prophet and he is, frankly, not one I would want to be the founder of my faith.
Post a Comment