Why All the Brodie Love? A Little Historiographical Context

By May 29, 2010

On Chris Smith?s post, in my attempt to defend ?the bracket? or experiential agnosticism as a historiographical method, I made the remark that Fawn Bordie had said very little that was new. I no doubt was engaging in hyperbole, sometimes that happens around the blogs. This was particularly egregious on my part considering that I have never read Brodie! (First no Nibly and now no Brodie!). It?s not really on my ?to read? list either but I?m happy to be convinced otherwise. There?s a few reasons why. 1) Marvin Hill?s reviews in both Church History (43, no. [1974]) and Dialogue. Hill called NMNMH both secular and sectarian, the two big no no?s in American religious historiography from the ?90s forward. Hill may have been wrong (few have been more critical of Hill than me [I feel kind of bad about that]), but, for me, defenses of Brodie ought to start with those articles. 2) I?ve tried to approach Mormon history from an academic perspective; that is, I haven?t been trying to figure out it Mormonism is true but instead trying to read the relevant work with an eye toward the larger field of American religious history (now, Christian history) and Brodie seems dated.

Nonetheless, I do have a feel for some larger historiographical trends and thus wanted to offer a few thoughts in regard to a post on Mormon Mentality. In discussing historiography, one ought to distinguish between the Mormon field and the larger American religious one. No doubt Brodie is one of the most (perhaps the most) significant books in the field of Mormon history, but NMKMH is not quite as significant in the larger field. When I wrote my historiographical article on Mormonism, my adviser questioned why I even mentioned Brodie (crazy, I thought). Brodie was a must read in Mormon history, not in American religious history. This is not to say that NMKMH wasn?t important in the larger field but there were a handful of others between her and Bloom. Most importantly Whitney Cross, The Burned Over District. The BoD was a must read for generations of American religious historians and portrayed Mormonism rather differently than did Brodie, for instance, how they treated the Hurlbut affidavits: Cross was largely dismissive (I did read Brodie?s little essay at the end of her book on them). In a letter to John A. Widsoe, Cross called Smith ?one of the tribe of religious geniuses who appear from time to time.? JMH 19, no. 2 (1993): 60-61). In additions, Arrington?s The Mormon Experience and Bushman?s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism played very important roles in the flourishing of attention Mormonism received in the major works on American religion in the next decades.

Cross?s description of Smith brings up another problem: the Mohamed example. Religious historians do not work in this binary situation between real divine experience or false/fraud (also, didn?t Brigham Young say that God had talked to Mohammed; I have no problem with it). That?s what the bracket is all about. Another way to put it is agnosticism, not deciding either way on these experiences but instead focusing on the content and the context. Mormons did not invent this methodological trend. It was best articulated by Ninian Smart (religious studies of Sri Lankan Buddhism) in the 1960s and ?70s. Bushman isn?t being innovative in using the method.

On the point about ?explaining? not being ?explaining away? I?m reminded of a line from Ann Taves?s Fits, Trances, and Visions. Taves agues that 18th century mainstream Protestants who rejected ?enthusiasm? or the belief in personal revelation made considerable use of psychology. ?As the hand maiden of true religion [meaning mainstream Protestantism in the eyes of the practitioners], psychology?s initial task was to explain and thus discredit enthusiasm? (20.) In this context, explaining is explaining away revelation.

Now, bracketing, though common, is not without its critics. Ann Taves (my adviser) is actually rather critical of the method because she is now working on the cognitive science of religion and wants to study religious experience scientifically and apply what is learned to figures in the past. Ann is writing a new book that will have a chapter on Joseph Smith. Though I often feel a little lost in the topic (she lets me work on Christian history but does have me read cognitive science stuff from time to time), I have seen some pretty interesting stuff. She just had me read a very interesting study on witchcraft in early modern Germany that I need to write a review of here. Anyway, I think these discussions need to keep these broader historiographical trends in mind.

No one can doubt the impact of Brodie but DKL seems to be engaged in hyperbole as well. I find it hard to believe that no one else would have found Joseph Smith interesting (see Cross) and as mentioned, many had attacked the Spaulding Theory before her (Riley really took it to pieces). It?s hard to believe that it would have held up without her.

Also bear in mind that at Smith?s death, most Mormons had not met him. His personality played a role in the conversion of very few Mormons. I?m not sure that Mormonism as the cult of the personality of Joseph Smith works.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. I find Brodie rather uninteresting as history (secondary literature), but I think as primary literature (sort of a slightly risque Reader’s Digest of Smith’s biography for the 1940s), it’s a useful book if you’re interested in psychobiography. (ie unless you’re working on mid-twentieth-century niche historiography I don’t know that I’d bother to read it).
    I think that current attempts to use cognitive science or psychobiology or whatever it’s called to interpret religious experience are rather premature–I suspect that in a decade such efforts will seem like the psychobiography of the teens or an updated Kiplingonian Just So Story.

    Comment by smb — May 29, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

  2. Ditto to Sam’s comment. My primary recollection is that I very much enjoyed the quality of the writing. Thought her analysis of the endowment was not so great.

    Comment by JGT — May 29, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

  3. You can read my comments. I browsed her, never could get in enough to read her seriously.


    DKL had a reaction to reading her the same as a lady I met on my mission who had read a very dismissive chapter by James Michiner on the “mormons.”

    The Spirit struck her and all she remembered was being inspired and hoping some day she would meet some “mormons.”

    It was a trans-formative moment for her. However, the actual text bore little relationship to the message she received or the change it made in her life.

    Now, had he written on that, DKL would have had something valuable to say. Instead … he just vents off, justifies himself and thus gets wrapped up in self deception, which is too bad.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — May 29, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

  4. I don’t think that I’m engaging in hyperbole at all concerning Brodie. I don’t even think it’s arguable. I sat at a table last night with 2 past presidents of the MHA, and we discussed Brodie at length — both seemed to enthusiastically agree with my hypothesis about the impact of Brodie. Even Matt B agrees with my basic assessment of Brodie’s impact on the non-Mormon image of Joseph Smith in the 1940s, even if he differs with me on other areas of my assessment.

    This, in a nutshell, is what Mormons don’t seem to get: Saying that Joseph Smith was capable of writing a work like the Book of Mormon is a huge compliment. Mormons take it to be an insult.

    Of course, you’re way off on the Spaulding theory. To the extant that it had been attacked, nobody had listened, largely because nobody constructed a plausible alternative theory, as Brodie did. Nevertheless, it’s patently false to say “many had attacked the Spaulding Theory before her.” I recommend you read Lester Bush’s ?The Spalding Theory Then and Now,” the essay that Bushman called “the most definitive discussion” of the Spaulding theory.

    Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism is an OK book. It does advance the study of Joseph Smith. But there’s more than a slight whiff of apologetics in his account of Joseph’s treasure digging, where Bushman has Joseph pushed into misusing his gift to do it to help his destitute father (the logical problem with this is that there’s no gift — they find nothing). Furthermore, his account of the Book of Mormon is superficial and poorly handled. Thankfully, he substantially revised these portions for Rough Stone Rolling.

    The only area where I think it’s arguable that I engaged in hyperbole was in stating that Bushman’s Joseph is “a craven flunky who is easily manipulated by others and generally controlled by circumstance.” Nevertheless, I stand by this. Bushman’s narrative suffocates Joseph’s. Nowhere does the book capture the rhythm of Joseph’s decisive, constantly forward-moving energy, preferring to portray him as an anguished, troubled, and reflective soul — a Hamlet-like figure that is fundamentally at odds with Joseph’s remarkable accomplishments. Moreover, I agree with Mike Quinn’s review in the JWHA Journal that Bushman vastly underestimates Joseph’s level of self-education. (I was pleased to see his review, because it gave expression many of the things I’d felt while reading Rough Stone Rolling.

    Furthermore, for all of the touting of locating Joseph within his own milieu, Bushman’s account of Joseph’s family superimposes the patriarchal emphasis of the later 19th century Utah period onto Joseph’s family dynamic, attributing far too much influence to Joseph, Sr. (Dan Vogel’s The Making of a Prophet does a much better job of exploring this.)

    Bushmen is given a good deal of credit for candidly confronting issues, but his handling of polygamy is especially weak, reminiscent of his half-baked analysis of treasure digging and The Book of Mormon in Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Furthermore, he seems to use the handling of a few controversial issues as a smoke screen for an altogether apologetic approach to other areas, most notably his handling of the Joseph’s ties to the Danites.

    Regarding the Hurlbet affidavits, some are reliable, others read like rote recitals, prepared by Hurlbet and mindlessly signed by Joseph haters. The question is whether to dispose of the whole lot. Brodie used them primarily for the treasure digging account and Joseph, Sr’s drinking problems. In both of these areas, subsequent research has vindicated her analysis.

    Regarding your sources, go along to get along and do whatever your advisor says to do. But don’t take it too seriously. When you’re done, decide these things for yourself. Ever since the sophists, many academics have frequently failed to realize that fashion is the opposite of style (Brodie herself may have been guilty of this to the extant that she later embraced Freudian biographical analysis). Fashion creates highly acclaimed pot boilers. Style creates classics, which may, sometimes, fall in and out of fashion.

    Comment by DKL — May 30, 2010 @ 1:25 am

  5. Can you fix my HTML error in the preceding comment so that the link to Dialogue gets closed (then feel free to delete this comment if you like)?
    [Admin: Fixed]

    Comment by DKL — May 30, 2010 @ 1:26 am

  6. smb, you’re a smart guy, so you should know that Brodie didn’t embrace psychobiography until later. And even those works which were informed by Freudian analysis were not dominated by it.

    Since Nibley’s feeble response to Brodie, it’s been customary to fault Brodie for going inside of Joseph’s head. Aside from the obvious fact that Nibley had to put bury his own head in the sand to ignore the many outstanding that go inside the head of their subjects, this line of criticism is no longer open to anyone who wishes to acclaim Bushman’s biography, since it spends more time theorizing about what goes on in Joseph’s head than Brodie’s.

    Comment by DKL — May 30, 2010 @ 2:25 am

  7. Regarding the difference between “explaining” and “explaining away,” I believe that you’re poorly informed. The decision to equate “explaining” with “explaining away” is a semantic one. The phrase “explaining away” implies a desire to nullify something that was a candidate for belief, whereas “explaining” merely provides descriptive details to fill epistemic gaps. I find this distinction valuable. If you wish to throw it away, that’s you’re choice, but you’re (a) ceasing to say anything interesting about the text, and (b) equivocating if you don’t spell out your semantic preference.

    To the non-Mormon reader, Joseph’s claims are seldom actually candidates for belief. To Mormon readers, they are articles of faith. You can reject Brodie’s explanations for a variety of reasons, but in neither case is Brodie “explaining away.”

    Furthermore, there’s a fallacy involved in the notion that positivist explanations of the supernatural eliminates divine intervention. A story is frequently told of Aeschylus, that he died because an eagle dropped a turtle on his head. Some saw this as divine retribution for his innovations in the Dionysian religious festival that created Greek Drama. According to the story, Aristotle discovered that eagles regularly picked up turtles, ascended into the sky, and dropped them on a rock to bust them open and eat the meat. Aristotle hypothesized that the eagle mistook Aeschylus’s bald head for a rock, and Greek’s everywhere said, “Ah-ha! so it wasn’t divine intervention!” This, of course, doesn’t follow.

    Since Joseph never used the plates to translate any extant portion of the Book of Mormon, positivistic explanations of their origins don’t impact the question of whether Joseph was translating an ancient record. The positivist explanation of the plates may introduce difficulties into the divine origin narrative of The Book of Mormon, but these difficulties pale compared to the difficulties introduced by (for example) Joseph’s claims to converse with angels.

    I occasionally joke with skeptical friends that I don’t believe Christ actually fed 5,000 people with just a few loaves. 2,300 maybe. 2,450 tops. But 5,000? No way! The point is that once you inject the supernatural into the story, there’s no rational basis for arguing implausibility due to it’s scope.

    Comment by DKL — May 30, 2010 @ 3:39 am

  8. I occasionally joke with skeptical friends that I don?t believe Christ actually fed 5,000 people with just a few loaves. 2,300 maybe. 2,450 tops. But 5,000? No way! The point is that once you inject the supernatural into the story, there?s no rational basis for arguing implausibility due to it?s scope.


    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — May 30, 2010 @ 8:56 am

  9. the relevance of you question

    Brodie’s errors, to the extent that I’ve read collections of source material vis a vis what she was saying, are systematic and continuous. My questions relate to her overarching approach, which appears to be highly disingenuous.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — May 30, 2010 @ 9:07 am

  10. Which was my response to:

    Stephen M (Ethesis), any book of reasonable length will contains errors, and non-fiction authors of all stripes frequently revise their books. I fail to see the relevance of you question. If, in 10 more years, Bushman revises his biography, will you ask the same question regarding the inconsistencies introduced by his revision?

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — May 30, 2010 @ 9:10 am

  11. Hmm. Again, why all the Brodie love. This may be around and around in circles but let me summarize again. Brodie’s impact gets exaggerated because of her huge impact on Mormon historiography. Cross’s was bigger on the larger field. I mention the difference with Brodie just to point out that Cross wasn’t really influenced by her much. The merits of either book is not my point. I was just bringing up historiographical influence. Same with Bushman.

    I. Woodbridge Riley, who had a major influence on Brodie had dismissed the Spaulding theory in his book 1903.

    Sam, I do tend to get lost in the cognitive science stuff, but I think you’ll be interested in the review I’ll write on the book I mentioned. So stay tuned.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 30, 2010 @ 10:28 am

  12. I went over the Spaulding theory in detail in my original post. Fairchild dismissed the Spaulding theory in 1884 — 20 years before the Riley biography. The statement I make in my original post is, “Brodie torpedoed the Spalding theory in a manner that non-Mormon?s finally took seriously.” Nothing you’ve said lays a finger on this, because the question is not one of priority, but of influence.

    Comparing Brodie to The Burnt Over District is a category mistake. I find that it odd that an historian in training would so reflexively impose contemporary biases onto the past. The record is clear. Before Brodie, both academic and popular accounts of early Mormonism are dominated by narratives that make Joseph a bit player and a whack job. This is part of the “legacy of shame” that that Alexander Hale Smith described as being bequeathed to Mormonism by Joseph. Brodie’s presentation of a plausible theory that Joseph could write the Book of Mormon (e.g., locating books with similar themes in libraries close to Palmyra, demonstrating that they formed part of Joseph’s community knowledge) placed Joseph front and center.

    Regardless of your personal feelings about the book, it must be admitted that this is not a terribly controversial thesis.

    Why all the Brodie love? Because I root for the underdog, and because I observe that Brodie is frequently the victim of the Mormon aversion to the statement of historical thesis in ways that don’t carefully cater to specific prejudices within Mormonism (this is even common to many Mormon historians today).

    Comment by DKL — May 30, 2010 @ 11:51 am

  13. Again, Cross, who largely rejected Brodie made Joseph preeminent. And he was much more influential.

    What I said in the OP is that Spaulding clearly would have fallen apart without Brodie since the evidence was against it and other scholars had done the work. Again, Cross was more influential.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 30, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

  14. As I said before, I think that your emphasis on Cross is a category mistake. You really should stop worrying about whether it’s in vogue to be secular and sectarian and just read Brodie.

    Cross’s work places Mormonism within the context of a group of failed religions — The Oneida Society and The Shakers are frequently referred to as successful religious movements on the basis that they lasted more than 33 years (as opposed to fewer 20 years), and though the Millerites did indirectly give rise to the 7th Day Adventists, Miller’s clearly not in the same league as Smith.

    I’ll grant that Cross is historically interesting, but if you or your advisor are supposing that this work (that basically puts Joseph Smith in the same ballpark as John Humphrey Noyes or Nathan Miller or Ann Lee) is what has led to a general elevation of Smith’s status as a religious reformer in his own right, then you and your advisor are woefully uninformed. Brodie’s 1st chapter talks about the legacy of New England religions that are either dead now or no longer flourishing, including those of Ann Lee. She notes that Joseph is in a different league from these, because his legacy persists and has grown tremendously. Joseph, of all these characters, is the one who justifies a book like Brodie’s. That’s the 1st chapter, and that’s the general thesis of her biography. It is a bold, if self-congratulatory, thesis.

    Regarding Spaulding, your claim that someone would have eventually succeeded in torpedoing the Spaulding is not the sort of thing that you should be claiming if you are serious about scholarship. If the theory still dominated 60 years after it was decisively shown to be faulty, then there’s really no reason to suppose it would not have held sway among a significant fraction of popular and academic works indefinitely. To claim otherwise is take the obviousness that our own hindsight grants us, and impose that upon the understanding of those who lived in the past — a bigger no-no than being secular and sectarian.

    Comment by DKL — May 30, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  15. DKL, why don’t you read my article on the topic. It was something I wrote a few years ago and has nothing to do with my current adviser. Cross was/is huge in the historiography of American religion. He talked about a lot more than just the groups you mentioned (anti-slavery, women’s suffrage).

    Other scholars were perfectly capable of of rejecting Spaulding without Brodie’s help (like Riley, the first dissertation written on Mormonism).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 30, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  16. Again, the point I wanted to make in that article (and reiterate here) is the difference between Mormon and American religious historiography.

    This reminds me of my experience at CSU Stanislaus (where I wrote the article). I went there to work with Bret Carroll, an expert in ante-bellum religion who studied at Cornell under Lawrence Moore, one of the preeminent scholars in the field. First, however, I went to meet with the grad adviser, Nancy Taniguchi, whose book David just did a review of. Nancy got her Ph.D. from the U and taught at CEU (or some southern Utah college) before going to CSU S. When I told her about me research on Mormonism in New Jersey, she exclaimed, “there’s a problem with Mormon historians. They draw boundaries around their topics and don’t look at the bigger picture. If that’s the kind of thing you want to do you should have gone to BYU.” Yikes, I thought, what did I do? I tried to assure her that I wanted to look a bigger contexts.

    As I studied Mormon historiography I found that she was largely correct. I did find it telling that Bret didn’t see Brodie as being at all significant, I had to justify putting her in the paper, of which the article was on outgrowth. I discovered that there was a bigger world out there and that broader community was where I wanted to locate myself.

    A quote from Roger Launius’s article on Brodie (“From Old to New Mormon History: Fawn Brodie and the Legacy of Scholarly Analysis of Mormonism”) I think is telling.

    “Since first appearing in 1945, No Man Knows My History has exerted a tremendous influence on the Mormon historical community, for both good and ill.” After praising the book for pushing the boundaries of inquiry, Launius says ” At the same time, and Brodie is just as responsible for this as anyone else, the historical inquiry has wrapped historians into a tightly wound set of considerations about Smith. It has contributed to the insular nature of the field, and that helped ensure that it did not thrive as it might have, had new and different and challenging questions been asked that had application and interest beyond the narrow Mormon community.”

    Anyway, I know here at JI, we do try to look more broadly. Sorry for brining this up, guys.

    DKL, if you have any critiques of Hill’s articles to offer, let me know.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 30, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

  17. I can certainly appreciate your effort here to focus on Cross and change the mileau of this argument to the question of Mormo-centricity within historiography. Given that you’ve lost all of the argumenative points that you set out to make in your original post, this is a shrewed move; it focusses on your strongest suit (Cross’s book) and changes the terrain of the argument. The only problem with this strategy is that this latest revision of your thesis is altogether orthogonal to my original post, so that it no longer disagrees with my original post, which credits Brodie with drastically changing contemporary opinions about Joseph.

    Furthermore, for all of your focus on historiography, you overlook my one original insight; viz., the one concerning the nature of religious biography as written by positivists vs religious biography as written by believers.

    I entertain no illusions of the importance of Mormonism on the historical landscape — I likely hold it lower than most religious historiographers hold the importance of American religions in general. I emphatically agree with the view expressed by Bertrand Russell:

    I cannot… deny that [religion] has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others.

    In the scheme of things, Joseph will never be more important than (say) the Pope. And religion in general will never be more historially important than (say) baseball. And that ain’t much, but if you heard me talk about the Red Sox with a Yankees fan, you might come away thinking that I believed they were the only two teams in baseball, and that nothing else in the world mattered so much. This approach has an outstanding intellectual pedigree, going back to David Hume (who was, himself, no slouch when it came to history).

    In any case, I’m not usually put in a position where I must defend Mormon Historians, but I laughed out loud when I read your rather unflattering quote from Nancy Taniguchi, which makes her sound like her hangups are at least as severe as those she’s trying to pidgeonhole.

    Comment by DKL — May 30, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

  18. I put the Taniguchi quote in because David had reviewed her book and I thought it was a good lead in to the Launius quote and because we like stories around here.

    But since the conversation doesn’t seem to be interested my bloggermates, I’ve moved onto another post.

    Strange though, that when I refer to my research into the topic that did not support the claims you made you simply declare all such to be invalid. That’s quite an institution you just chucked, one that we are all engaged in here. Again, if you read my article you’d see that such ideas went out in the 40s and 50s in American historiography and have not been revisited since.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 31, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

  19. DKL, here’s the link to Steve’s article. It’s worth your time.

    Steve, it’s not that we’re not interested, it’s just that some of us have sparred with DKL over Brodie at one time or another in the past, and I think we’re just tired. Matt tried to make some of your points over at the MM thread, but DKL dismissed them there as well. When it comes down to it, he’s probably right about Brodie’s role in shaping JS biography. Before Brodie, biographers preferred BY. Brodie showed that JS was a worthy subject for biographers, and Hill and Bushman should be interpreted within that framework. But DKL just doesn’t have the background to really assess how American religious historians prior to and after Brodie interpreted Mormonism. As you show in your article, historians prior to Brodie were interested in Smith, and Brodie ultimately had little impact on how religious historians interpreted Mormonism.

    Oh, and thanks for the story about Taniguchi. I was hoping you’d leave a comment on the other threat about your experience with her at Stanislaus.

    Comment by David G. — May 31, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

  20. Thanks David, I guess I’ve shown by blogernaccle naivete.

    Taniguchi got nicer after that first encounter.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 31, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

  21. […] qualities. This image of Smith began to change around mid-century, with the appearance of more favorable works by Brodie and Cross, and by the 1960s and 1970s Smith increasingly was seen as a viable topic of study. Richard Bushman […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Multiple Brighams Redux: In the Midst of a Brigham Young Revival — July 17, 2010 @ 12:56 am


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