The West Under Cover: Joseph Smith Can Do No Wrong in 'American Prophet'

BY MARTIN NAPARSTECK
SPECIAL TO THE TRIBUNE
    American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith
    By Heidi S. Swinton;
    Shadow Mountain/Deseret Book Co.;
    $39.95
   
    What is most notable about Heidi Swinton's American Prophet, The Story of Joseph Smith is the contrast between what is in it and what is not. There is a brief mention of "Jane James, a young convert of African descent"; there is no mention of Smith saying blacks could not hold the priesthood in the LDS Church. There's a reference to "even some of the faithful" being displeased with Smith's polygamy; there's no mention of his wife Emma's displeasure. There's the familiar story of the Book of Mormon being "translated" from golden plates; there's no mention that the first edition of the book said it was written by Smith.
    There's nothing in American Prophet to displease any devout member of the church or any high-ranking church official. The book is published by Shadow Mountain, an imprint of the Deseret Book Company, which is owned by the church.
    The book is a "companion volume" to the public-television documentary of the same name. Companion volumes are common for PBS shows, and often they are written by someone who worked on the program. Swinton wrote the script for the show.
    The Joseph Smith in Swinton's book is so heavily sugar-coated he will seem to any sophisticated reader to be more a piece of candy than a human being. Swinton's Smith wins every wrestling match he's in, speaks in poetry-embellished phrases, heals the sick, inspires the faint of heart, and does no wrong, although Swinton over and over acknowledges he continuously got a lot of people mad at him.
    Swinton has an annoying habit of saying contradictory things and covering up the contradictions. She writes of "the accounts of Joseph healing all the sick that lay in his path," but two paragraphs later writes "not everyone was healed." The statement that he cured everyone is attributed, by an endnote in the back of the book, to The History of the Church; some readers may know that book was written by Smith, but those who don't will have to search through three pages of tiny print of other endnotes to find that out (there's no bibliography).
    Anyone who wants to find out if Smith himself said he healed "all the sick that lay in his path," or if he was quoting someone else, or if those are the words of B.H. Roberts, the editor of the edition Swinton quotes, will have to go to the history itself. When Swinton says not everyone was cured, is she contradicting Smith, contradicting someone Smith quotes, or contradicting Roberts? Dozens of times in the book Swinton attributes statements that might make Smith look bad to a source not adequately made available to the reader of her book.
    When there is something positive to be said about Smith, the source is in the text, not obscured under layers of endnotes. She quotes Martin Marty: "From 1492 or 1607 until now, America has no match for Joseph Smith in the drama of forming a new religious community, a new religious tradition." At least some readers will recognize Martin Marty as one of the nation's most respected historians of American religion. Even if they don't, the fact he is cited in text makes it easier for a curious reader to search out his writings and examine his credibility.
    At some points Swinton should be embarrassed by what she writes. Consider this one: "Joseph's revelations often included prophecies. On Christmas Day, 1832, in the midst of a growing rift between President Andrew Jackson and South Carolina, Joseph predicted that the nation would eventually splinter in a bloody conflict. Thirty years later, the Civil War tore the country in half." No mention of the thousands of Americans who predicted tens of thousands of times the United States would fight a civil war because of slavery. Predict that someday it will rain and someday it does rain, and maybe Swinton will cite that as proof you can predict the future.
    She usually attributes unpleasant facts about Smith to other sources rather than acknowledging directly their historical validity. "Critics claimed that Joseph controlled the Mormon voting," she writes of Nauvoo. The historical record is overwhelming. Why not simply say Smith did control the votes in the city he created in Illinois? The deflective way of reporting unpleasant truths seems designed to lessen their impact, to make it easy for at least some readers to doubt their validity.
    Joseph Smith was a great man; he started a large religion, helped shape America, and left a legacy that still shapes the hearts and minds and lives of millions. Yet he was a real man, with strengths and weaknesses, hopes and desires, successes and failings. He is not the man we find in American Prophet; Swinton's Smith is a cartoon. Smith deserves better.

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