Posted on

Bringhurst’s Approach to Controversy

We’re continuing our discussions with Dr. Newell Bringhurst.  We’ve talked about the controversial topics of blacks and the priesthood, as well as Fawn Brodie, and we’re going to continue to talk about controversial topics with Dr. Bringhurst.  What is Bringhurst’s Approach to Controversy?  We’ll ask him in this episode?

GT:  Apparently you enjoy controversy.  You’ve talked about blacks and the priesthood and then you talk about polygamy.  What are your latest polygamy books that you’ve put together?

Newell:  I’ve been involved with Craig Foster, a co-author, co-editor.  The two of us together did a series of volumes.  They are anthologies, collections of essays by various contributors as kind of a trilogy.  Volume 1 is the Persistence of Polygamy:  Joseph Smith and the Origins or Mormon Polygamy.  That was initially published in 2009 and we focus on the controversial aspects of Joseph Smith and his involvement and practice of polygamy.[1]

How does Newell deal with controversial topics?  Mentions his books have many perspectives from many different authors.  For example,

Newell:  Don Bradley did an essay on Fanny Alger, arguing that Joseph’s marriage to Fanny was actually a marriage and not an affair, not a “nasty, filthy affair” as Oliver Cowdery said.  I tend to take issue with him.  I allowed him to make his case and he gave a good argument for his position.  I felt like it should be out there for people to consider.  I’ve always considered myself to be fair-minded when I look at controversial issues.  I want to make sure that people are aware of all sides of an issue.

What does he like most about the study of Mormon history?

Newell:  I think that’s one of the healthy things about the field of Mormon studies.  You can disagree and not be disagreeable and still remain friends and enjoy camaraderie with people you disagree with.  I think that’s one of the great things about the whole field of Mormon studies.

Check out our conversation…..

Dr Newell Bringhurst talk about how he deals with controversy

[1] Volume 2 was published in 2013: The Persistence of Polygamy: From Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom to the First Manifesto, 1844-1890.  See .  Volume 3 was published in 2015:  The Persistence of Polygamy, Vol. 3: Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy from 1890 to the Present.  See

Posted on

Bringhurst on Bushman-Brodie

Who has written the best biography of Joseph Smith?  The two most prominent authors are Fawn Brodie and Richard Bushman.  Dr. Newell Bringhurst weighs in on the Bushman-Brodie issue and talks strengths and weaknesses of both approaches.

Newell: Well, I tell people if they really want to know Joseph Smith, I recommend those two in tandem for this reason.  Number one is that Brodie really was a path-breaking study in trying to attribute reasons or motives to Joseph Smith and his practice of polygamy.  It was controversial because she starts it out by her major premise is Joseph Smith was a conscious fraud.  When you make that statement at the beginning of the book, that’s immediately going to send up red flags all over the place, but when you get into the book itself, she actually is quite empathetic to a lot of Joseph Smith’s behavior and actions.

She was able, I think, to create a more human figure.  In previous biographies, they have either pictured him as a scoundrel, anti-Mormon books that had been written by Smith, or in the case of books written by faithful Latter-day Saints by Joseph Smith, had been made almost as a hagiographic, almost a demigod.  I think even though she didn’t believe that he was really a prophet of God, she tried to give you a sense of the whole man.

The sources she used, the critics that had problems with Brodie, not only had she started with the premise that Joseph is a conscious fraud but she uses a lot of/a disproportionate number of anti-Mormon sources, so that does make it a little bit of a skewed as far as she doesn’t give Joseph Smith enough credit as the religious leader that he was or that he purported to be.  That was one of my major criticisms that I saw from the book when I read it.

But when you compare Bushman’s arguments with Brodie’s, his is based a lot more on contemporary documents.  He had access to a lot more materials and documents that Brodie didn’t have access to, so his is a much more thoroughly researched and documented history, but I don’t think it is as engagingly written.

Fawn Brodie was trained in English literature and received her degree in English so she brought that expertise and is able to write in a very engaging way.  To me it’s a much more readable biography, but Bushman’s is more carefully documented and gives you all sides of the argument.  He’s arguing also from the vantage point of a faithful practicing Latter-day Saint.  He believes what he said he was a prophet of God and pretty much goes along with the divine origin and various doctrines and practices.  It’s far from being a hagiography because Bushman does acknowledge his faults and his shortcomings and the mistakes that he made and so on, so it’s good in that regard.

Don’t forget to check our previous episodes about Newell’s perspectives on race and the LDS Church.  Check out our conversation…..

Posted on

How Lester Bush Debunked the Missouri Thesis

We’re continuing our conversation with Dr. Newell Bringhurst.  We will continue where we left off and explain in more detail the Missouri Thesis.

Newell:  The Missouri Thesis is the argument that the origins of black priesthood denial go back to the Mormon problems in Missouri.  Missouri is a slave state and the Latter-day Saints go into Jackson County in the early 1830s, 1831-1832.  Most of them are from the north, they are northerners.  They are basically Yankees, people from the northern states so immediately there is a system of tension of tension between the Mormons/Latter-day Saints with the people that are there, have come there from the south and settled Missouri.  A lot of people have brought their slaves and so on.  There aren’t a huge number of slaves in Missouri.  During the Civil War it was a border state, but there was enough slavery that it was a legal institution in Missouri.

The argument of the Missouri Thesis is the Mormons coming in tended to be anti-slavery because they were coming from the northern part of the country.  Those that were there that had migrated from the south were pro-slavery.  So the Mormons could see that this was a difficult situation.  To try to strengthen their position in Missouri, they saw Independence, [Missouri] as a center place for Zion.  That was where they were going to gather in the last days in the early revelations [in the Doctrine & Covenants.]  They saw Zion and Independence where that was going to be the final gathering place before the coming of the Millennium and the end times.  It was very important for the Mormons from that point of view.

So the argument is that Joseph Smith felt it necessary to accommodate the pro-slavery position and the anti-black position.  In order to accommodate that they were willing to—especially as it became more difficult during the course of the 1830s, they decided that they would deny blacks the priesthood.

Lester Bush’s groundbreaking article discounted the Missouri Thesis and connected the priesthood and temple ban to Brigham Young rather than Joseph Smith.

Then Lester Bush comes along.  He’s doing a lot more intense research than Taggart did.  Taggart’s research is not thorough. In the meantime Lester Bush has been working assiduously on his study of blacks in the church, and he has been asked to write a review of Taggart’s.  It turns out that it is a review essay published in Dialogue in 1970.  His review essay is longer and more thorough than Taggart’s original book.  That’s the upstart.  I’m sure you’re familiar with it.  You’ve probably read both side by side.  There’s no comparison with regards to the thoroughness and the rigor of the sources utilized and the way that it was written.

Then of course Bush comes along three years, four years later with his definitive Dialogue article, Mormonism’s Negro Policy[1] that is the classic—the first real legitimately scholarly examination of the issue, the path-breaking article that we all, those of us that came after him, owe him a lot for:  myself, Armand Mauss, and all those who came after me.

Bush’s article was cited by President Kimball as being highly influential as Kimball studied the roots of the ban.  We also discuss some prominent slaveholding LDS Church leaders.  Check out our conversation…..

[1] The article is titled Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine:  An Historical Overview, and found at

Bush's Dialogue article refuting Missouri Thesis