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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…..

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Early LDS Priesthood: Similar to Ancient Christianity?

Greg Prince wrote a book[1] on the evolution of LDS Priesthood.  In our next conversation, I’ll talk to Greg and I’ll ask him more about this evolution.  He even touches on the variations in the First Vision accounts.

Greg:  Yes, I think you need to start by backing up to the time when there wasn’t even a church and look at phases that Joseph Smith went through.  The earliest phase was there wasn’t even talk of the church.  There wasn’t even talk of authority.  When he had his First Vision, if you looked at the earliest version of that as likely being the most authentic historically, it had nothing to do with churches.

He said in his account of it in 1832, [he] already knew from studying the bible that all the churches were wrong, which is diametrically opposed to what the canonized version says.  So he went to the grove for personal forgiveness, and that’s what that account said.  The Lord appeared and said Joseph had been forgiven; end of story, bye, bye.  [There was] no hint that there would be a church in his future.

When you start to get into the Moroni narratives, then you have implicit authority, meaning that people around Joseph believed that something extraordinary was going on, and when he got the plates, they saw that something extraordinary was going on, and nobody challenged his authority to do it.  Towards the end of the translation process, they become concerned about having authority to perform ordinances, baptism being the primary one.

Did you know that in the early Mormon Church, Bishops and Deacons weren’t even a part of the organizational structure?

The Nephite Christian Church described in the latter chapters of the Book of Mormon had only three offices:  teachers, priests, and elders, and there’s minimal description in there, but there was a differentiation between the teachers and priests on the one hand, and elders on the other hand.  The word “priesthood” was not used.  In fact “priesthood” was more likely to be interpreted as “priestcraft” in the Book of Mormon, the evil priests.

If you look at the Far West record, which is basically the minute book of the early church general conferences, in the first conference that is recorded in June 1830, there are only three offices to which people are ordained:  teachers, priests, and elders.  You have two others appended in 1831:  those were deacons and bishops.

There are lots of other surprising insights.

You can make the claim that this is a restoration of the primitive church structure, but you can’t make that stick.  Yes those offices are recognized both in the New Testament.  It’s about as far as you can take it.  The concept of a dual-tiered priesthood existing within an early Christian church isn’t there.  It’s taking parts of Old Testament theology, parts of New Testament theology, doing some cherry-picking, and eventually settling in pretty much on where we have it now.

He also talks about some of the circular reasoning we have regarding priesthood.  Check out our conversation!  (Check out our previous episodes on leadership vacuums and ailing leaders too!)

[1] Greg’s book is called Priesthood from on High and is found at

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Was Joseph Smith Irish?

How do you figure out Joseph Smith’s DNA profile?  It turns out that Dr. Ugo Perego was actually doing a  lot of genealogy work in before doing these paternity tests.  He has tied these two complex sciences together.  Almost everyone has run into a dead end in their genealogy, and it turns out that the Joseph family is stuck in the United States as well!  Is Joseph Smith Irish, not English?

Ugo:  I was actually looking for his ancestry.  We don’t know where the Smith line came from in Europe, in England.  The furthest back that the Smith line has been traced is in New England.  Around 1620-1630, that’s when the first ancestor of Joseph Smith shows up, and he is 12 years old, and he’s by himself, no mom, no dad, and he comes and he shows up in Boston.  He’s an indentured servant.  His name is Robert Smith, and where does this kid come from?

Then we have all the Smiths.  We have Robert Smith, we have Samuel Smith, Samuel Smith, Asael Smith, Asael Smith (two Samuels, two Asaels), then we have two Josephs.

GT:  Joseph Sr.

Ugo nods:  Joseph Sr. and Joseph Jr, right.  That’s the line, the Smith line.  Genealogists have been looking left and right in England to find a connection with Robert Smith and where he came from.  No one has been able to do that, so I was reconstructing Joseph Smith’s Y-chromosome with the goal to compare that with a Smith in England and see if I could find a connection.

there was a genealogist [who] suspected that the Joseph Smith line to Robert Smith came from a particular town in northern England in Lancashire County.  The town was Turton, so I looked online in the white pages, how many Smiths live in Turton?  There were 1,100.

GT:  Oh my.

Ugo:  So I wrote to all of them.

GT:  No way!

Ugo:  I wrote a letter to all of them.  I sent 1,100 letters to Smiths in Turton… {chuckles}

GT:  That’s unbelievable.

Ugo:  …with a swab inside, asking for their DNA, and I had actually a good number, about 5% replying and sending their DNA back.  That’s a good sample size of a population, 5%.  I found nothing, absolutely no matches whatsoever.

Then I started using some databases and it became very clear as I was exploring this possibility that I was looking in the wrong place.  Robert Smith that first showed up in New England was not from England.

Was Joseph Smith Irish or English?  Check out our conversation…..