I’m indebted to Joel for so well presenting what historical methodology consists of and how devotional treatments of history differ from academic treatments. Methodologically, in this book, a number of issues stand out. First, I struggled to understand what kind of book this is. Is it supposed to be a scholarly book or a devotional book, or both? As I have read through I have come to the determination that this is a devotional work which has attempted to achieve status as a scholarly treatment of the issue of Joseph Smith’s image. Some serious problems in methodology keep this from approaching the type of quality work that I might expect in an academic publication.
After the aforementioned editing issues, the next difficulty comes in the introduction. Here the author [Though I understand Tracy was substantially aided by others in writing portions of the book, Tracy’s is the name on the cover and is responsible for its contents] attempts to reconcile two rhetorical statements. One is by Joseph Smith that says “You don’t know me…” and one is by W. W. Phelps that says “Millions shall know Brother Joseph again.” “If we see that both the Prophet’s statement and Phelps’s poetic tribute were equally inspired,” says Tracy, “we see that they set up a contradiction. How can millions know “Brother Joseph” again if Joseph himself told twenty thousand people…’You don’t know me; you never knew my heart’?” Even in a devotional setting, not even to speak of an academic one, I question the sense of pitting two rhetorical statements by two different people in two different contexts against each other and attempting, through quaint adaptations of scripture and doctrinal interpretation, to solve the mystery of who Joseph Smith was. Ultimately, Tracy concludes that “the Saints of his day did not know or accept him yet as an Adam, Enoch, Noah, Moses, Elijah, or Peter”, which accounts for Joseph’s not being known. However, Tracy writes, Joseph Smith’s image has become more heroic and glorified in recent times because these “last Saints” have been able to see Joseph for who he is. Thus the “first Saints” have become the “last Saints” and so forth (p. 4). Thus the paradox is resolved. Needless to say, many of the “first Saints” would probably disagree with this assessment. I know I do. The tempo that is set in the introduction continues throughout the book.
Skipping over to the third chapter, Tracy sets out to collect and analyze the “word portraits” (written descriptions) of the Prophet. After reminding the reader that only at the last day will we be truly seen for who we are, Tracy recognizes that not all word descriptions can be taken at face value without some evaluation. What is troubling is how Tracy proposes that these word portraits be evaluated. Tracy notes that since whether one is a friend or foe of the prophet (or a neutral observer) will affect how they choose to describe him, there must be a way to evaluate how “true” the source is. He writes, “…we have applied a careful technique to judiciously separate factual truths from biased adjectives. This technique is similar to one that all of us should use as we read the scriptures…” (p. 38). He then summarizes Elder Richard G. Scott’s description of the process for seeking spiritual knowledge. “After using this technique,” Tracy declares, “a factual list of true physical characteristics has been compiled to compare a wide variety of images of Joseph Smith” (p. 38). Even in a devotional setting, it’s troubling to be told that after a careful, spiritual study, these are the accurate physical descriptions of Joseph Smith. In my view, the implication seems to be: If your results differ, pray harder. There is no mention anywhere in the book (that I can remember) about source criticism, which would entail attempting to determine which sources are more reliable based on historical data. Even in a devotional setting, it would appear that a spiritual search for knowledge has never been meant to completely disregard available, logical evidence.
What follows are 41 selected accounts of Joseph Smith’s physical appearance. The way in which these accounts are presented also creates difficulty. Tracy says that he has chosen to place the descriptions in chronological order according to how old Joseph would have been in the description. So, the first description is from a neighbor of Joseph’s who describes a 15-18 year old Joseph. The second is a description of a 24 year old Joseph, the next of a 24, then a 28 year old Joseph and so forth. Some major difficulties in this approach arise because Tracy does not attempt to differentiate between descriptions contemporary to the Prophet from reminiscent descriptions. The first description is a direct quote from John Henry Evans’ biography of Joseph Smith which first appeared in 1933. Unless this was an extremely aged neighbor, there must be something more to this account. So, in perusing Evans, it is apparent that Evans summarizes the written descriptions of Turner [likely Orsamus Turner], Tucker, [likely Pomeroy Tucker] and Hendrix [likely Daniel Hendrix]. Not only is this first description not a direct quote from a contemporary of Joseph Smith, but the underlying descriptions were not even articulated during the life of the prophet, the earliest of the likely three publications being 1851. Perhaps few casual readers would take the time to hunt down these references, and would instead rely on the author to represent the facts in a reliable way. However, by putting this description first and offering no other explanation other than that a neighbor of Joseph Smith described him when he was in his late teens, Tracy has created a situation where the reader can be easily misled as to the accuracy and reliability of the source material presented. And that’s just description number 1. At this time I have neither the time nor the inclination to try this for any of the other 40 sources listed.
Herein lies another qualm I have with the way this book was researched and written. Instead of providing careful evaluation and presentation of the source material, the reader is forced to spend perhaps hours of additional time attempting to uncover what the author should have laid out plainly for the benefit of his audience. It appears that only 7 of the 41 accounts can be classified as contemporary with Joseph Smith (having been recorded during his life–not to be confused with an account by a contemporary of Joseph, which would be an account, no matter how late, by someone who was alive when Joseph was). This count may be wrong, however, as there are a number of instances where the reference is taken from a secondary source, thus making it difficult to know at about what year the description was made. Again, at least for now, I have neither the time nor the inclination to check these secondary sources or to check whether there are more than just 7 accounts of Joseph’s physical characteristics which were made during Joseph’s life.
On a related note, there are a number of instances where precarious wording can yield misleading conclusions about a source’s reliability. Page 118 states that “In the spring of 1844, Goudy Hogan remembered sitting by the Prophet and the clothing he wore.” The wording here seems to indicate that Goudy’s account was created in the spring of 1844, however the wording of the quote makes it clear that this is a reminiscent account. Though neither the footnote nor Bitton’s Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies gives a year for its creation, Bitton indicates that the contents of the autobiography contain events up to 1881. In short, perhaps a better wording would be: Goudy Hogan remembered sitting by the prophet in the spring of 1844. Also, on page 114 we read, “On April 6, 1830, David Lewis gave this statement, ‘I cannot tell what Joseph was doing at the time of the organization of the church…He always wore a white shirt with a ruffle on the breast about 2 inches wide…'” The reality is that Lewis did not give his statement on April 6, 1830, but on September 10, 1908 as indicated in the footnote.
This compilation of written descriptions of Joseph Smith’s physical appearance represents a missed opportunity to contribute not only to our understanding of how Joseph actually looked, but to our understanding of how Joseph was remembered by those around him and what that might have meant for the Church community and collective memory. Much more useful and commendable would have been to collect all known physical descriptions of Joseph Smith (as the three-fold purpose of the book seems to say is the goal–and I assure you there are more than just 41) and to have presented these descriptions chronologically according to when they were written, evaluating whether the descriptions represented first or second hand and contemporary or non contemporary accounts. This could have served at least as the raw material from which the aforementioned studies could have been researched.
[To Be Continued]