Fawn Brodie – No Man Knows My History – book review, critiques, related links
This is perhaps the most famous Joseph Smith biography. This was one of the first books I read in my “search for truth”. I couldn’t put the thing down–even skipped part of church to read it. 😉 When I finished the book, I thought that if 10% of it was accurate, the Mormon church certainly wasn’t what it claimed to be. After reading Hugh Nibley‘s rebuttal, I realized that much more than 10% of it was true.
The book is far from perfect, but don’t take a Mormon’s word for it when they claim that, “She tends to ignore information and resources that don’t support her preconceived ideas”. Although this statement may be partially true, the reality is that the conclusions of those who objectively study Joseph Smith are very different from those of true believing Mormons who “tend to ignore information and resources that don’t support their preconceived ideas”.
Many people–especially active members–may be better off starting with a more up-to-date and less speculative biography like Joseph Smith: The First Mormon by Donna Hill. Marvin Hill has written a good review of Brodie’s book which acknowledges several of Brodie’s main themes and factual evidences while at the same time poking holes in some others. Unlike Nibley and FARMS, he doesn’t completely ignore, belittle, and otherwise dance around Brodie’s valid points. I don’t completely agree with Hill, but his critique is largely valid and worth reading.
The following is from a site visitor:
Although her history is well documented there are a couple of things that bothered me when I read it (a few years ago). First, she pretends to know through her study of Joseph Smith’s life exactly what he was thinking. She did the same thing in her biography of Thomas Jefferson [although she was later backed up via DNA analysis to be likely correct on some of her Jefferson assumptions]. While this makes for a fascinating and readable history, this casts doubt on some of the conclusions she draws. Secondly, the crux of her view of Joseph Smith’s life seems to rely on Joseph’s ability to make other people see visions. She asserts that the reason the three witnesses were able to see a vision is because he had some unexplained ability to make other people see things. She seems to gloss over this crucial point. Her history would have been better if she backed up this assertion with reference to studies of others who have shown the same ability.
In response to the above and the FARMS link below I entered into an email discussion with an individual. My response to him was as follows:
It seems to me that the problem isn’t whether Brodie is correct or not with regard to Jefferson. That is beside the point. If we find out that a member of FARMS once made a mistake or improper speculation should we then throw out all of that person’s work as false? Absolutely not, but FARMS doesn’t seem to realize this.
Criticism of an author does not, by itself, constitute a negation of any part of the author’s work. Criticism of part of an author’s facts or opinions does not gainsay the whole.
What FARMS needs to do if they want to ‘overturn’ Brodie’s work on Joseph Smith is disprove her major points (i.e. Joseph Smith was a polygamist, money seeker, power seeker, author of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, etc.). Since FARMS can’t disprove any of these points they then obscure the issues to try to make it look to those who don’t think critically that FARMS has provided an effective rebuttal.
A critique of this book can be found in No Ma’am, That’s Not History by Hugh Nibley. Additional commentary can be found in Reconsidering No Man Knows My History: Fawn M. Brodie and Joseph Smith in Retrospect.
FARMS also has a fairly recent review of Brodie (link removed as it no longer works) which, in part, critiques Brodie’s preconceived skepticism of Joseph Smith while ironically ignoring the fact that the FARMS folks have presuppositions of their own which are only skeptical of claims that don’t conform to their religion.
For a brief commentary on the above FARMS review from a site visitor click here.