By August 1, 2016

Martha Bradley-Evans, Glorious in Persecution: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1839-1844 (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2016).

Glorious-in-Persecution-681x1024Martha Bradley-Evans is perhaps the most under-appreciated historian of Mormonism. Over the past few decades she has produced a number of significant books as well as mentored a number of young scholars. Several of her volumes were published with Signature Books, where she also serves on their editorial board, so it made sense for the Smith-Pettit Foundation to tab her to be one of three authors to produce an exhaustive trilogy on Joseph Smith’s life, which was originally scheduled for the year of his bicentennial in 2005. As it is with many scholarly projects, however, things took much longer. Finally, a couple months ago, Bradley-Evans’s volume, which was to be the third in the biographical series, was released. (The volume that covers Joseph Smith’s early life, authored by the late Richard S. Van Wagoner, will appear shortly.)

Even if this book is officially a solo volume, it still features the markings of its original intent, both in scope and context. First and foremost, it seeks to be an exhaustive overview of the final five years in Joseph Smith’s life, as all three “biographies” were meant to present 2000-odd pages devoted to every facet of Mormonism’s founding prophet—a must-have resource for any devoté, and a handy resource for anyone interested in the topic.[1] And secondly, Bradley-Evans’s approach and content reflect more the period in which the project was originally conceived—over a decade ago—than the period in which it was finally published. But more on that later.

Of all the biographies of Joseph Smith—most notably those by Fawn Brodie, Donna Hill, and Richard Bushman—Bradley-Evans’s is by far the most theoretically dense. The title of the book, “glorious in persecution,” comes from a sermon Smith preached shortly before his death and highlights the book’s central focus: Smith’s ability to craft a persecution narrative that made sense of his life, mission, and actions. Bradley-Evans rejects the “fraud” accusation by asserting “that Joseph genuinely believed his was the prophet’s role and that he spent his entire life trying to understand what that meant” (599). The onslaught of evil and conniving forces aimed to stymie his work was the framework he chose, which at once gave significance to his project while simultaneously provided an excuse for his problems. Smith was far from alone in this approach, of course, as Bradley-Evans demonstrates the rich theoretical literature on “narratives” that construct meaning for both leaders and followers. In Glorious in Persecution, Smith is less a frontier antebellum protestor as much as he is an embodiment of sociological experimentation.

As a result, the primary context in which Bradley-Evans situates the Mormon prophet is social theory rather than nineteenth-century America. Where Bushman offered a cultural biography, Bradley-Evans offers a theoretical case study. Readers will likely be introduced for the first time to the theories of Peter Berger, Len Oakes, and Walter Benjamin, just to mention a few. The book is at its best when dissecting the ethical dimensions of Smith’s persecution narrative, construction of sacred spaces, importance of rituals, intersections of liminal spheres, and, most especially, the justification of polygamy. I wish Bradley-Evans would have spent more time unpacking the gendered dimensions of Smith’s narratives, which “gave a meaning particular to the Mormon understanding of heaven, marriage, and family,” but it is only briefly mentioned in the epilogue (596). The questions that Glorious in Persecution raises—it indeed aims to raise more questions than answers—should open new vistas into the religion-making genius of Joseph Smith, and posit novel approaches to a much-studied man.

Last_Public_Address_of_Lieutenant_General_Joseph_SmithYet for a volume whose purpose is to be a go-to-source for the Nauvoo period, it is certainly based on some terribly troubling source material. Most egregiously, she relies heavily on the long-dismissed History of the Church, which comprise over half of her footnotes. As I mentioned on this blog last month, this was a problem with Robert Flanders’s magisterial work on Nauvoo over a half-century ago, but it is less justifiable in the twenty-first century. Ironically, Signature Books released Dan Vogel’s meticulous and deeply-researched commentary—all eight volumes!—on this history, and over the past few years the Joseph Smith Papers have been digitizing all the manuscript sources upon which that history is based. Bradley-Evans concedes “the limitations” of these sources, but maintains that still using them “achieves the purpose of presenting Joseph’s prophet-narrative and captures the socially constructed performance of Mormon history as God’s persecuted but faithful people” (xix). Fair enough, but this is not a book on how others have constructed Smith’s persecuted narrative, but rather how Smith constructed it himself. In documenting the life, thought, and times of Joseph Smith between 1839 and 1844, it is, to put it lightly, troublesome to use History of the Church as a reliable source, let alone as the source that frames, documents, and narrates nearly the entire manuscript, as HoC often does in Glorious in Persecution.[2]

It is not just the primary source that Bradley-Evans relies upon, however, that is a big issue; it is also the sources she doesn’t. Beyond the scholarship that the Joseph Smith Papers have produced over the past decade, which Glorious in Persecution cite only a handful of times,[3] there are batches of primary sources from the Nauvoo period readily available for the historian.[4] Yet this manuscript often relies on famous and well-trodden reminiscences that are late in documentation and questionable in validity.[5] More, Glorious in Persecution reflects the period in which it was written—again, likely about a decade ago—in terms of the scholarship it engages: it mostly overlooks the many books and articles published on Nauvoo over the past dozen years. Issues like habeas corpus, temple rituals, masonry, Nauvoo’s economics, and other significant elements crucial to Joseph Smith’s final years have received significant and much-needed revision within this last generation of academic engagement. Yet Bradley-Evans is mostly satisfied merely following the narrative of Flanders’s Kingdom on the Mississippi, and as a result the exhaustiveness of this particular biography is limited. Of all the secondary sources listed in the nearly fifty-page bibliography, for example, only nine were published since 2005.[6]

This hints at what I saw as the overall issue with the book: it is at its best when it acts as a monograph examining the theoretical dimensions of Joseph Smith’s sacralizing mission, and at at its worst when it tries to be an exhaustive biography. Bradley-Evans’s analysis truly shines when exploring how Smith could captivate thousands, create liminal spiritual space, and narrate persecuted legacies, but at other times she seems bored when she has to then take a step down from these theoretical clouds and immerse herself back in the everyday narrative to bring the reader up to date on economic, social, and political developments. The book is original and exciting when theorizing Smith’s prophetic call, but redundant and dated when narrating his biographical details. Inside this useful 800-page biography is a foundational 200-page monograph.

But I don’t want to leave the impression that this book is overly flawed. It is not. It will be an immensely helpful resource for those digging into the exciting Nauvoo period, and a very exciting reminder of the potential for using theoretical tools. And so this review ends on a high note, allow me to conclude by specifying what I thought were one of the book’s strongest features: its treatment of polygamy.

Nauvoo_Temple_daguerreotypeRichard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, though it will remain the definitive biography of Smith, has long been critiqued for lacking serious coverage on gendered issues, specifically Smith’s practice of plural marriage. (This was a common theme during the JI summer reading club last year.) Luckily, Bradley-Evans shows a way forward, as her engagement with plural marriage in this biography is exhaustive, sophisticated, and intertwined throughout the entire narrative. Not only is the reader exposed to smart theoretical reasonings for why polygamy was both introduced and accepted, but they catch a glimpse of how central the ritual was for the small cadre of elites during Joseph Smith’s final years. I mused during my contribution to the Mormon Enigma series this summer that perhaps it takes a female author to really plumb the depths of this troubling issue, and Bradley-Evans has not proven me wrong. One fifty-page chapter, “Interlude: Plurality and the Experience of Religious Ecstasy,” is perhaps some of the best analysis of the long-debated topic. The book earns it’s price tag with that section alone.

The Joseph Smith, American Prophet books may not ever appear as a full three-volume biographical series, and the trilogy’s purpose and scope may already be dated in a new decade of scholarship, but the project’s vision and purpose embodies the excitement that still persists surrounding Mormonism’s first prophet. An attempt to answer every question, examine every issue, and uncover every rock—this is the life blood of the Mormon history community, but it is also the impression that creates mountains of over-studied topics. Martha Bradley-Evans’s In Glorious Persecution is both a part of that impulse in its attempt to be exhaustive in nature, but also transcends it by asking sophisticated questions of theory and interpretation; it is related to the New Mormon History tradition of naturalizing and contextualizing historical subjects, but tips a hat to Mormon studies by hinting at a new approach; it mirrors the Mormon focus on a white elite male—adding another 800 pages to a man who has already received millions—but does so in a way that destabilizes the familiar narrative. Just like her subject, Bradley-Evans’s work is paradoxical. But if Joseph Smith could earn a “prophet puzzle,” then I guess so could his biographers.


[1] For examples of attempts at exhaustiveness, especially on controversial matters, see the treatment of Emma Smith’s original reaction to polygamy (390-392), the alleged stairs incident between Emma and Eliza R. Snow (401-407), as well as the Kinderhook plates (420-424), all of which take lots of time walking through various (and competing) sources.

[2] For one example, Chapter 26, “Last Days,” which documents Smith’s death, contains 152 footnotes. Seventy-six of them cite History of the Church, and another twenty cite reminiscences that are at least a decade after the event. The trouble with this is that the martyrdom is an especially problematic narrative in the HoC, as demonstrated in Dean C. Jessee, “Return to Carthage: Writing the History of Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom,” Journal of Mormon History 8 (1981): 3-19. (Bradley-Evans does not cite this article, though she quotes several of the 1854 essays covered by Jessee in the article itself.)

[3] Most of the JSP volumes published thus far deal with a period earlier than Nauvoo, though both volumes of the Nauvoo journals appeared before this year, and each of those contain significant correctives and important new insights that would have been useful in this biography. (She cites the third volume of the Journals series twice in the last few chapters (408, fn111; 501, fn36).)

[4] In preparation for my current project on Nauvoo, I counted nearly three hundred letters, diaries, or other contemporary sources from the Nauvoo period housed at the LDS Church History Library alone, all open for researchers. Many of these deal directly with Joseph Smith, and at least seventy of them were digitized as of June of this year.

[5] See, for instance, the book’s treatment of Emma’s reaction to polygamy, which primarily relies on reminiscences written in Utah after Emma became a vilified figure (476-477). When giving the non-Mormon perspective of Nauvoo, the book often draws from those that appeared in pro-Mormon publications, which have their own issues (365-366).

[6] Among those whose work is required for understanding Nauvoo, yet aren’t cited even once in this biography, are Samuel Brown’s book on Joseph Smith’s theology, Michael Homer’s book on masonry (though she cites his earlier article), Merina Smith’s book on polygamy, Morris Thurston’s article on extradition, Jeffrey Walker on habeas corpus, Patrick Mason’s article on theodemocracy (crucial for JS’s political thought), as well as a host of articles by John Dinger, Alex Smith, and Joseph Johnston, just to name a few. Kathleen Flake’s recent article on early Mormon marriage rites is crucial, but it just came out last summer so an excusable omission. More puzzling is Bradley-Evans’s general avoidance of Glen Leonard’s 2002 book on Nauvoo as well as Richard Bushman’s 2005 JS biography.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins


  1. Thanks, Ben.

    Comment by David G. — August 1, 2016 @ 7:01 am

  2. Many thanks, Ben! Absolutely agreed on Marti’s treatment of polygamy, which I thought was masterful.

    Comment by John Hatch — August 1, 2016 @ 7:12 am

  3. Thanks for reviewing. Lots of theory but IMO it’s hard to tell how the various (kinda dated) theories Bradley-Evans cited actually build on each other and/or build toward new insights. I thought she sort of just lined up big chunks of Peter Berger and Victor Turner with her history and left it there. Or gave one-sentence nods to scholars like Paul Riceour without unpacking them. Or uncritically adopted R. Laurence Moore’s take on Mormon persecution-mongering. Or dropped really basic Geertz–i.e. culture is “meaning embodied in symbols”–into the middle of a discussion of secrecy, plural marriage, and authority and then moved on. I might just not be following her, and I second all the praise you offered in your review, but I was disappointed with her use of theory and didn’t see the payoff.

    Comment by Bradley K — August 1, 2016 @ 7:37 am

  4. Thanks, Ben, for a considered, provocative review. As I worked on Dr. Bradley-Evans’s manuscript, her use of the “History of the Church” wasn’t as problematic for me. I’m definitely a champion of the publication of original documents. In the case of “Glorious in Persecution,” however, I realized that the author’s use reflected a personal decision and could only be counted as a problem, for me, at least, if using the “History” introduced a factual error that the original sources would have corrected. Otherwise, I wonder if insisting in all cases on the original sources risks fetishizing the originals at the cost of an author’s own vision.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 1, 2016 @ 9:47 am

  5. Thanks, Ben: This is a thoughtful and helpful review. I admire anyone with the chops and desire to even wade into the morass of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo. I think you have fairly and sympathetically captured Marti’s fine effort in doing so, even if that effort came with some challenges, as any project of this scope and difficulty would. Someone with bravery, nuance, and craft needed to tackle the polygamy stuff, and do it well, so that it would become the/”a” definitive word on the matter. I’m happy you feel that she achieved interpretive success on the matter, and I look forward to reading it for exactly that.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — August 1, 2016 @ 3:35 pm

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Ben. I appreciate footnote #6 and have downloaded most of the articles. I think anyone who takes on Joseph Smith as a subject deserves applause. The question I have as a reader is whether or not it is worth my time and money to read yet another work on Mr. Smith. I do wish there were more biographies on the lesser-known historical characters in early Mormonism.

    Comment by Susan W H — August 1, 2016 @ 8:10 pm

  7. Thank you Ben for your very thoughtful review of my book, “Glorious in Persecution: Joseph Smith American Prophet, 1839-1844.” I thought I might comment on a few of the points that you made. As authors we sometimes feel misunderstood and even a little hurt when our readers don’t see what we were hoping they would see. When you take on a subject like Joseph Smith you inherit a historiography—the ways an endless series of authors have written about this important subject. His basic chronology is well established and has been retold in a variety of different ways, most recently by our most revered historian, Richard Bushman. I was hyper conscious of this fact but was most interested in the question, how can theory open up the subject of Joseph Smith and help us understand his life in new and interesting ways? How can theory be the lens we use to see through the layers of historical accounts to ask new questions? I am thrilled that you saw the value of this type of work in my analysis of plural marriage which plays out primarily in chapters 8, 10, 12, and 19. I spent more than a year on these chapters, thought about them endlessly. It was my central preoccupation during a year when I had three major eye surgeries and spent months recovering in my bed. To say I obsessed about this is an understatement, but most importantly, I wanted to help others who really struggle with understanding on any level why Joseph introduced plural marriage to think about it in more complex and nuanced ways.

    If I had written a history of Joseph that included 800 pages of such dense theoretical analysis I suspect my book would have been described as a tome, certainly beyond the interest of even the most die-hard lovers of history, so instead I contrast my use of theory with the narrative that is provided in part by the “History of the Church” which builds on my central theoretical questions about how the story of Joseph was told, how did those who learned from him or worshiped with him build meaning, and how was the theme of persecution developed in their central historical narrative? For me the “History of the Church” became the embodiment of the ordinariness of Joseph and the church’s daily lives, it became a sort of metronome for me, a constant ticking like that of a clock in the back of my mind that pulled the story forward regardless of the grandeur of the vision—of Zion, of Celestial life, of becoming Gods—the Saints kept dealing with the complications of building Nauvoo, of converting new members, of eking out a living, of building families and homes. The hundreds of diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, sermons, and so forth that I use in this book construct a consistent story that Joseph led a group of people who believed he was a prophet and would build Zion as he showed them in this new place. Leonard’s work on Nauvoo as well as that of the Millers and Flanders helped me shape an imaginary version of that world. My homage to Bushman runs even deeper than that. Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, the definitive book on Joseph Smith’s life, made my book possible. For it is his questions, his probing of the most challenging areas of Joseph’s life that made it easier for me and those who will come next to ask the most difficult questions, interrogate them with theory, dig deep through them in the imaginative narrative space of Joseph’s prophethood for refined answers, and as you say, new questions.

    You are wrong, I was never bored here. I was always engrossed by this fascinating character. But in doing what I proposed which was to use theory to make a fresh interpretation of his life I could not neglect the basic movement of his days through time and space. I think the contrast between the two and even the tension between the two is at the end quite important to the volume that resulted.

    Comment by Martha Bradley-Evans — August 2, 2016 @ 11:42 am

  8. Many thanks for your thoughtful response, Martha–and sorry it was caught in the spam filter for so long. As I said in the post, I loved the book and adored your theoretical approaches and treatment of polygamy. Thanks for all your contributions to the field!

    Comment by Ben P — August 2, 2016 @ 11:54 am


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