Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bashing Joseph Smith

(I don't usually post the exact same review on Amazon and my blog, but in this case I've already wasted enough time on this book and am making an exception. If interested, my Amazon review can be found by clicking here, and if you want to vote that it's helpful – to offset the "No" votes I'm sure to get – I won't stop you.)

With two Mormon candidates for US president in this election (now only one) the Mormon Church has received an unusual amount of news coverage, much of it negative. The Mormon or LDS Church is one of the fastest growing religions with over 14 million members worldwide (about half in the United States) and there are influential and successful Mormons in American politics, business, sports, entertainment, and many other areas which makes Stephen Mansfield very nervous. He wonders how a church that was so persecuted in its early days could have become such a potent symbol of American values and ideals. And, more importantly, he wonders what it might mean if a Mormon were elected president.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which has been known historically as the Mormon Church) has long made a point of saying that its truthfulness hinges on the story of Joseph Smith. As a 14 year old boy Smith claimed to have a vision where he saw God and Jesus Christ, and that through him the gospel of Jesus Christ was "restored." This also involved the translation of The Book of Mormon, which Mormons claim as holy scripture in addition to the Bible. It follows that if Joseph Smith was a fraud, the church would be as well. But if Joseph Smith was a true prophet, then the church he established is true. As evidence they offer The Book of Mormon, and missionaries invite people all over the world to read it and pray about it.

This oft-repeated claim does not go unnoticed by the perceptive Mansfield in his book The Mormonizing of America: How the Mormon Religion Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture, and he uses it as the backbone of his attack. While he can be complimentary toward current members, his "history" of Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon is a rehash of every anti-Mormon accusation regardless of merit or source. He repeatedly uses words like "fraud" and "charlatan" when describing Smith, and dismisses The Book of Mormon as boring and unsupported by evidence. (He also conveniently glosses over the fact that Joseph Smith gave his life for his cause and died as a martyr.) Instead, he lamely asserts that the incredible success of the church is due simply to its sense of community, focus on family and education, and its organization.

I tried to give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume his intentions were noble, but sadly this is a very poorly-researched book that was rushed to print before the election is over and the issue fades away. Like other anti-Mormon literature, Mansfield uses second-hand quotes and takes quotes out of context to make Mormon leaders seem extra strange, and anything factual is presented in a way to support his own bias. He uses lots of short vignettes that are supposedly real conversations happening every day in "Mormon America" that mostly play on irrational fears or cast Mormons in extreme ways. He continually gets his facts about the priesthood wrong and insinuates that polygamy is still practiced by church members. He even quotes a fictional novel to suggest Mormons claim to have planted all the sunflowers in the American west. And as a long-time member of the church I've never heard some of the "common Mormon sayings" he quotes.

I might agree with Mansfield when he says too many Mormons aren't familiar enough with doctrines (pg 56-57), but this ignores the fact that surveys show Mormons are generally more familiar with their own doctrines than non-Mormons are with theirs. He also says the church discourages its members from studying doctrine and favors "experience over doctrines" and emphasizes a "mystical inner knowing" instead, which mostly demonstrates his own lack of familiarity with his subject. He says The Book of Mormon has been "ignored as serious literature," but he's ignoring that it was recently named among the most influential books in America.

His explanation of how Mormons "became a dominant force" is weak (again, he says it's because of an emphasis on community, family, education, etc., and urges other churches to adopt such attitudes) and he questions the continuing loyalty and patriotism of members (even though he praises such attributes). He suggests a higher level of scrutiny is necessary and that the integrity of such previously honest people isn't good enough, which is really just a shameless political jab.

I do not resent or begrudge Mansfield for not sharing my religious beliefs – that's his prerogative – but there is little that is fair or unbiased in his book. He admits "Smith has come in for quite a bashing in these pages..." (pg 210), and laughably makes pretense at scholarly writing (pg xxii) even though the notes and sources at the end of the book occupy only a few short pages. (While I was reading it someone saw the unusually large font the book is printed with and asked if I was reading a children's book.) To use Mansfield's words, this book "need not have been written." (I received this book from the publisher.)


  1. I am becoming more and more aware of people who claim to be experts on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints. As you have's the "hopping on the band=wagon syndrome." If those that are really interested in finding out "True Mormonism" would just inquire from the source, so many misconception would be eliminated. President Hinkley was genius when it came to public media and addressing questions about the Mormon Church. There are a few interviews that I have watched of President Hinkley and I wish that he could be here during this election year. Short of President Hinkley I have a novel idea. Let's have Brian Williams interview President Monson. He for sure will know "common Mormon sayings" and he will explain the Priesthood brilliantly. everyone to frightened to know the "true" Mormonizing Of America"

    1. Thanks Christie. I'll post a book review tomorrow for another book about the church - which will kind of explain why I was so dumb as to agree to review this one in the first place. Several early reviews said Mansfield's book was "fair" and "unbiased" but I doubt those people would say they have a positive impression of Joseph Smith or the B of M after reading it. Oh well, I probably should have known better and just said 'no thanks' to the request.