No Man Knows My History – the life of Joseph Smith, provides a detailed, interesting and yes, entertaining picture of the life of the founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith. I don’t fully understand why I am fascinated by the story of the origins of the Mormon Church. Perhaps it is my love of conspiracies, esoteric knowledge and independent thinking. Reading John Krakauer’sUnder the Banner of Heaven got me started. Like most Americans, I had heard of the the Mormon church, I knew about the polygamy of the old days of the church, and knew it was vaguely connected with Christianity. I did not know initially about the tight connection to Freemasonry. Like everything we learn in our adult years, the truth is much more complicated and interesting. Fawn Brodie provides a wondrous explanation of what happened at the very beginning. No Man…also sends the reader back to these days as if one were in a time warp.
The details of Smith’s early life in the Burnt Over District in New York State sets up both a base for who Smith became and a detailed portrait of that era. The difficult life presented explains clearly how it was easy to be hungry, tired, cold and impoverished. Smith’s insatiable desire to avoid hard work, to get wealthy by sticking rods into the ground to locate buried treasure via a peep-stone, fortune telling, and mooching off of others is well documented. Brodie took a lot of criticism from the Mormon church (she was excommunicated) for her depiction of Smith as what he document-ably was. A feather in her cap and one of the reasons I felt compelled to buy the book.
Part of me, throughout my reading, kept asking ‘why did people believe this guy?’ There are instances that are beyond credulity once Joseph Smith became the leader of somewhat sizable organization. The discovery of the ‘golden plates’ and the following creation of The Book of Mormon seem impossibly ridiculous today. (Don’t go looking for the plates, the same angel that showed them to Smith spirited them back to Heaven). Much of the book explains what Smith said and how it was received by his flock and his detractors. Smith routinely had ‘revelations’, dictates from God that told him what to do and how others should behave. Brodie explains: “In January 1841 he presented to the church a revelation from God ordering the Saints to build a hotel. The extraordinarily mundane details of of this commandment seem not to have troubled his people” “…and they shall not receive less than fifty dollars for a share of stock in that house, and they shall be permitted to receive fifteen thousand dollars from any one man for for stock in that house. But they shall not be permitted to receive over fifteen thousand dollars from any one man…” No Man… is filled with this kind of thing. That God would lay out the financial details of building a church is strange, if not blasphemous. Was God worried about inflation – did He take into account the Jacksonian attacks on the Central Bank? The subtly adjusted Gold Standard? Throughout much of the book I started to see a common thread: people, even intelligent free thinking people who have gone through real struggle, will believe anything.
I had heard of the connection between Mormonism and Masonry via my readings within the Conspiracy Community. I was curious if Brodie would comment on the topic. Perhaps when she wrote this book mentioning Masonry didn’t get you branded a conspiracy theorist! and therefore a fringe kook, because Brodie goes into great detail the Smith’s close connection to the Freemasons (he was one) and the Mormon practices and initiations that mirror the Mason’s. The Mormons believe that with enough prayer, practice and patience they can become like God (hence the Latter Day Saints), and the Book of Mormon has close parallels to the stories within Freemasonry. Joseph Smith, out of bullets and about to jump out of the Carthage jail window and be killed, reportedly flashed a Masonic symbol and pleaded for help from his ‘brothers’ in the crowd.
It is easy to bash the Mormon Church, and I feel I have to be careful that this review not become a polemic against the LDS Church. Firstly, America is supposed to be a place where people can worship whatever and whomever they choose. Shamefully, many of Smith’s peers seemed to have forgotten that part and persecuted him and his followers because of their nonstandard beliefs. Secondly, Smith, in an entrepreneurial fashion stuck with what worked and discarded what didn’t in his creation and evolution of the Church. He moved to different areas of the country and overcame seriously violent opposition. (He was killed while he was the prisoner of a rogue prosecutor). Lastly, Smith’s life was fascinating. His story reads like the incredible thing it was, and Brodie combines exhaustive research, multiple appendices and a free flowing writing style in order to depict it appropriately. Despite my incredulity and disbelief, I highly recommend this book.