Joseph Smith: Only in 19th Century America

Two weeks ago some Mormon missionaries came to visit. Because I was making dinner and cleaning up the kitchen, I wasn’t really in a frame of mind to talk. So I sat each of them down at my table and told them to read the chapter on Joseph Smith in my book Saints and Scoundrels. I added that it would be up to them to decide, after reading the chapter, whether he fell into the category of saint or scoundrel.

After finishing the chapter they were mainly silent, saying they would research some things and get back to me. I hope they do, because no Mormon has yet been able to refute that chapter. One of the reasons it is so hard for them to answer my concerns is that I determined only to use LDS sources in substantiate my statements.

In addition to relying only on primary sources, another thing I wanted to do was to portray Smith as a product of 19th century New England. Despite the Herculean efforts of LDS missionaries to represent their founder as a visionary who thought outside the box, you only have to read a little of 19th-century religious history to see that he always remained tethered to the spirit of his age. I have tried to offer this type of contextualization in my book, showing Smith to be first and foremost a 19th century-style Christian.

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