Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon

“The challenge [presented to us as we were training for our missions] was, simply, to find an alternate explanation to the supernatural origin of the Book of Mormon. As a sincere and earnest young missionary, I was sure that such an explanation could not be found. I now feel differently and have, in fact, tried to articulate such an alternate explanation in the pages that follow.” (Preface, first paragraph)

“In this book, I will argue that Joseph Smith, both knowingly and unknowingly, injected his own personality, conflicts, and solutions into the book he was dictating. Thus I hypothesize that the Book of Mormon can be understood as Smith’s autobiography, that we can discern repeated psychological patterns in Smith’s transformation of his childhood and youth before 1829 into Book of Mormon stories, and that these observations can contribute to a psychological understanding of Smith.” (Introduction, xxvii)

“In these Book of Mormon stories, the heroes are Joseph Smith’s alter egos; other people from his real life are diminished or presented as evil. I hypothesize that Smith’s motive is to gain power over people and reverse his childhood helplessness, particularly during his surgery.” (p. 65)

When I first heard about this book, shortly before it was published, I thought “way too speculative for me.” After all, the portions from Brodie’s biography which delve into why Joseph Smith did certain things or what he was thinking at some given point in time tainted the rest of the facts for me on a certain level. I generally like just the facts. Leave the speculations for the theologians and apologists–two groups usually not worth the time or energy to listen to. But the subject of this book kept coming up in conversations and people who I generally trust kept recommending it so I decided to take a stab at it anyway.

While Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith is certainly far, far more speculative than works I usually enjoy, and certainly more speculative than No Man Knows My History even, the author is at least honest enough to frequently mention this point. I don’t buy all of the speculations and there are some errors in the book, but I think the numerous and repetitive “coincidences” between the stories in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith Jr.’s life (not to mention the facts not presented in this book which point to Joseph Smith as the Book of Mormon’s author) are beyond the possibility of chance alone for an explanation.

Like others who have become religious leaders, Dr. Anderson diagnoses Joseph Smith (based on Joseph’s own writings and what those who knew him best said about him) as a narcissist. Unlike some previous diagnoses which have been done on Smith (such as manic depressive, epileptic, dissociation, demential Praecox, schizophrenic, paranoid, and bi-polar which both Anderson and I don’t believe he exhibited), the narcissistic conclusion is spot on in my opinion. If narcissism wasn’t already in his genes, the traumas that he suffered (three excruciatingly painful surgeries) while very young brought it on or caused the trait to be manifested. The surgeon’s scalpels forever leave their imprint on young Joseph’s mind. They turn up in the Book of Mormon narrative over and over again as (steel) swords–at times and places in Joseph Smith’s fictionalized history when and where such items simply didn’t exist.

I am not as optimistic as Anderson with regard to what his work will do to and for Mormonism. On p. xiii of the Preface he states

I would like to assist in the continued evolution of the Mormon church… If this work nudges the Mormon church toward its potential as a world caregiver in a nondoctrinal sense, then I will consider the undertaking worthwhile.

However, I think this work will be ignored by his intended audience, rather than be embraced and used as a positive force for welcome change and progression in the church. The vast majority of believing Mormons don’t and won’t read naturalistic works on the founder of their religion. Three pages prior to the above quote we read

No one has ever successfully differentiated spiritual experiences from psychological ones, and the existence of a Christian civilization in the pre-Columbian New World, as described in the Book of Mormon, enjoys no support from non-Mormon anthropologists and archaeologists.

The faithful don’t like to read or hear about such things. The book will likely be closed at this point and the believing Mormon will never get to find out about Anderson’s goals of improving the church, let alone Joseph Smith’s life making it into a book he is supposed to be “translating.”

Folks like those at FARMS will certainly discount the “unfriendly” sources (neighbors, D. Michael Quinn, the doubting B.H. Roberts, the unedited Lucy Mack Smith, and others) and the naturalistic assumptions. No amount of friendly sources would convince them anyway. Joseph Smith could have called all of his characters in the Book of Mormon Joseph Smith Jr. (instead of Alma the Younger (Jr.), Nephi (from 3 Nephi–Jr.), and Mormon II (Jr.)), and they still wouldn’t believe those characters were really representations of Joseph Smith Jr. created by Joseph Smith Jr.’s mind and not a literal person from America’s past. FARMS and believers also have no need for naturalistic causes as their beliefs are based on the “rock” of testimony and faith and not an objective look at the evidence.

As stated on page xxvi of the Introduction

Belief in the Book of Mormon relies on personal, internal, spiritual experiences, supported by wishes, cohesive group pressure, and family/authoritarian demands. In contrast, there is no “hard” evidence from archaeology to support the book, and the vacuum has grown so large that Mormon archaeologists [/apologists] have rewritten Mormon history in a way that would have probably surprised Joseph Smith and his friends.

I’m jumping ahead a bit by mentioning the Joseph Smith characters in the Book of Mormon in the above paragraph. But that is what the bulk of the book is about (as the subtitle suggests). In addition to exploring the pre-1830 Joseph Smith, Anderson goes through much, but not all, of the Book of Mormon for the reader and points out where Joseph may have been drawing the stories from. Many of the stories are merely repeats of other stories in the Book of Mormon with some twists to disguise their true source (Joseph Smith’s experience and imagination coupled with a familiarity of the KJV of the Bible). On page 127, Anderson writes

Familiar motifs [in the Book of Mormon which correspond to Joseph’s own life] will continue to be groups of four or five men, often brothers; the mention of wine with swords; travel following an armed conflict with robbers; and revivals following the death of a good man, often occurring at the same time that an angel appears. Other characters from his life reappear in disguise as Smith becomes one alter-ego hero after another within the plots of the Book of Mormon.

An example of one of these many Smith-as-hero stories is related a little later on page 151. While believers who haven’t read Joseph Smith’s unedited words will dismiss such parallels as Anderson’s, rather than Smith’s, fantasies, those who have read things like Joseph Smith’s journals and the 7 volume History of the Church in total will see the ring of truth in Anderson’s thoughts.

Ammon’s story reveals coercion and manipulation, characteristics of the narcissistic personality. Ammon catches the terrified king “with guile,” by asking him if he would “believe” and “hearken to” whatever he said–the equivalent of frightening someone into signing a contract before reading it. Ammon describes himself as “wise yet harmless.” From a psychological perspective, the fact that Smith, speaking through an alter ego, finds deceit and manipulation “harmless” is one of the most troubling admissions of the Book of Mormon.

On page 16-7 Anderson hypothesizes that Joseph’s grandfather’s (Solomon Mack) published autobiography is represented in the Book of Mormon as the brass plates that Nephi/Joseph had to go back and retrieve before they could leave Jerusalem for the promised land. Anderson points out that the autobiography discusses wars and Solomon’s religious conversion. It would be interesting to see what else is included in the autobiographical chapbook. Has the chapbook been republished recently and/or do copies remain in existence?

While I found the book worthwhile, especially for readers who are interested in where the Book of Mormon came from, as I mention above it is not without its faults. Although I will point out several here, I hope the reader doesn’t come away with the conclusion that the amount of space I’ve devoted to the problems as a percentage of the review is representative of the percentage of the book that is probably flawed.

Anderson should take the writings of Joseph Smith’s own account, his mother’s autobiography, and other “friendly” sources that weren’t written down for decades with a larger grain of salt. Autobiographies more clearly represent views at the time of writing than convey what actually happened in the distant past. Likewise, he may rely too heavily on both friendly and unfriendly dated quotes telling what Joseph did or was like in his youth. These views have all been colored, to some extent at least, by what Joseph Smith later became.

Psychobiography, itself, can not help but be criticized. It isn’t exactly a hard science. The characters involved can no longer be interviewed. We can never have enough contemporaneous documentation. The conclusions always remain tentative and speculative.

One of Anderson’s hypotheses is that Joseph Smith Sr. was a weak father who had a problem with alcohol. I believe he is correct in this, but he misses an additional (although not of utmost importantance) evidence of it. It wasn’t rootbeer in the modern sense that the Smiths were brewing. It was either regular beer or pre-carbonation alcoholic rootbeer.

I believe Anderson misconstructs the historical course of the terminology for what was used to “translate” the Book of Mormon in footnote 87 on pages 120-1. The “Urim and Thummin” was a term not applied to Joseph Smith’s seerstones or interpreters or magic rocks or whatever you wish to call them until after 1833.

While many of the parallels between Joseph’s life and stories in the Book of Mormon are striking, I had a hard time buying those pointed out which were supposed to involve Joseph’s stillborn child. 3 Nephi 17, for example, sounds to me much more like a glorified and more intense American version (something Joseph Smith did frequently in the creation of Book of Mormon stories) of the King James Version of Matthew 18 than it sounds like he is projecting his stillborn son into the numerous children encircled in fire and angels. With regard to this same incident in Joseph’s life Anderson feels it is also included in Alma 28. He claims on page 155 that “the narrative follows this pattern [meaning the same time sequence as Joseph’s life] exactly: carnage…, …mourning, …overwrought euphoria.” However, it isn’t exact. Most of the euphoria is back in Alma 26. And the parallels seem rather vague and disjointed in this instance, like something Hugh Nibley or a champion of chiasmus would come up with.

Anderson seems to have forgotten what he said about magic early in the book by the time he gets to page 202 when he says

[Mormon 1:7-19] calls up echoes of anti-Masonry and Smith’s experience with magic and money-digging. The narrative returns later to this same theme [in Mormon 2:1-10]. These complaints against magic are curious: Smith, a magician and the son of a magician, condemns magic and sorcery as evidence of extreme evil in a story dictated by means of his magic seer stone and with the help of Oliver Cowdery, a diving rod magician and son of another magician rodsman. Yet the text reveals no observable discomfort with the moral contradiction…

Magic/miracles are similar in a way to the difference between cults/religious sects. Mine is a miracle and a religious sect. Yours is magic and a cult. Joseph Smith’s seerstone, money digging, and revelations are miracles to him. Anyone else’s are magic/wrong/of the devil. (See D&C 28 for an excellent example of this.) So it isn’t a moral contradiction to Smith. Anderson begins to recognize this back on page 95 (with the inclusion of “spiritual?”) when he states

From a psychoanalytic perspective, a genuine acknowledgement that one comes from a dysfunctional, inferior family is a beginning step toward health. With such an admission, one can begin working toward authentic accomplishment. But to replace an honest awareness of dysfunction with the delusion that a man’s dreams are divine visions and that he can do magical (“spiritual?”) acts diverts energies from potential progress and mires him more deeply in fantasy.

The Smith’s encouraged Joseph in his treasure digging, stone looking, and supernatural, visionary pursuits not because they thought it was some sort of “evil” witchcraft, magic, or sorcery. Far from it. They were behind him because they thought it was a spiritual and righteous effort. (Plus they were looking for any way possible to get out of their ongoing poverty.)

I believe Anderson misreads Ether 2:5 when he claims that “they set forth on a journey that will take them to the Americas ‘where there never had man been’.” Where no man had been seems to be the wilderness in the verse rather than the Americas (even though Joseph Smith (and his Moroni) believed that the Book of Mormon peoples were the ancestors of the American natives and not merely a small group which has gone extinct and left no genetic traces as modern Mormon apologists spin the tale to fit the scientific facts).

A last point that I thought was very interesting; indeed, it is something I had spotted previously on my own but had no idea that it was a prime characteristic of a narcissistic personality is Joseph Smith’s role reversals/split self. They not only play out in the Book of Mormon narrative but in his later life as well. These include his public denial of polygamy while practicing it in private, his anti-Masonic narrative in the Book of Mormon while incorporating Masonry into Mormonism later, the anti-Universalist rhetoric in the Book of Mormon which was later included to some extent in Mormon doctrine (partially through D&C 76), and his narcissistic response to the Nauvoo Expositor which resulted in his subsequent death. His narcissism didn’t die with him though. It continued on as part of his church (at least among the orthodox) and has had a recent flare up in modern neo-orthodoxy resulting in correlation, ultra-black/white thinking, and increased veneration of prophets. When one is suckled on the Book of Mormon stories created by a narcissist they can’t help but develop some of the narcissistic tendencies themselves (unless of course they come to reject the Book of Mormon as history and/or “the most correct of any book on earth“).

One thing is for sure. After reading Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon, you’ll never read the Book of Mormon the way you used to again.

“It was emotionally impossible for the Saints to challenge the integrity of their prophet, in the matter of his early life or anything he chose to tell them. If deceived in anything, it might be they were deceived in everything. The whole power and discipline of their faith conditioned them to belief. Yet their own responsibility in the make of their prophet, in the proliferation of his legend, is not to be dismissed. Their hunger for miracle, their thirst for the marvelous, their lust for assurance that they were God’s chosen people, to be preserved on the great and terrible day, made them hardly less than Joseph, the authors of his history. His questionable responsibility is the faithful image of their own.” (Dale Morgan)

“[A]ll leaders–especially charismatic leaders–are at heart the creation of their followers.” (Jerrold M. Post in “Narcissism and the Charismatic Leader-Follower Relationship”)

(both of the above quotes are taken from page 236)

Orin Ryssman, a friend, writes:
I am racing through [this book] right now and I think this is one of the most incredible Mormon Studies books I have ever read. I think it deserves your attention.

I took one, maybe two courses in psychology (both introductory ones at that), so I can’t say whether Anderson is right on the money or way off base. What would be nifty is to get a non-LDS psychiatrist, or other mental health professional to review the book with a view towards evaluating the diagnosis. This is what I recommended to FARMS; I have not heard back yet, though to be fair, it is still a little early. I would be interested in what you think of it as well. It is just that with every page I read I find what I read both disturbing and (dare I say <g>) revelatory.

To which I responded:
So you’d consider it more solid than speculatory from a non-psychologist’s perspective?

Well…no, even Anderson admits that his findings are speculatory given the fact that Joseph Smith has been dead for 150 years. And even if Joseph Smith were alive, Anderson indicates that he would consider him an uncooperative patient (really not a very difficult thing to believe given what is known about Joseph Smith). But, as I read the book, now that I no longer believe the unique truth claims of the LDS Church, the explanations that Anderson offers make so much more sense than anything I’ve ever read by FARMS. Needless to say, any LDS member reading this would either: one, experience incredible cognitive dissonance, or two, would throw this book in the garbage, dismissing it as little more than yet another work by a modern day Korihor.

I would like to see this book get wider exposure as I believe it offers a possible answer [to the] puzzle that so many historians say Joseph Smith is.

Seymour Bloom writes:
This book is worthwhile even if you don’t agree with the author’s conclusions (I found the author’s arguments convincing). It contains much interesting and informative information about psychology, Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.

I started to read this book to find out more about Mormonism and Joseph Smith. However, as I read it, I became more interested in the methodology of psychoanalysis. Before reading this, I had erroneously believed that psychoanalysis dealt only with the treatment of patients who interact with the therapist. Not so, as the author points out, there is a division of psychoanalysis that “focuses on culture, art, history, politics, and literature”.

This book was not easy for me because of gaps in my knowledge of both psychology and the Book of Mormon. However, that was not a showstopper as the book has good explanations of basic psychological principals and summarizes many sections of the Book of Mormon (I have never read the Book of Mormon, because I find it torture to read).

After detailed examination of all the evidence, Dr. Anderson theorizes that Joseph Smith’s actions and writings are those of a narcissistic personality. He says “Despite narcissists’ superficial appearance of mental health, their emotional life is shallow; they live for the admiration of others or for their own ego-massaging fantasies.” Anderson speculates that Joseph Smith would have had a much more fulfilling life if he lived an ordinary life rather than masquerading as a prophet. Even though Joseph Smith was revered as a prophet, he probably was not happy because he knew he was living a lie and had to constantly make the unnatural effort of appearing to have prophetic powers.

Another friend writes:
I read Anderson’s book a number of months ago. I took it to work a few times. A friend expressed the opinion to me that he wouldn’t waste time reading such a speculative work. I did find it to be highly speculative. However, I would recommend reading at least the first few chapters. The overview this book offers of the nontraditional interpretation of early Mormon history is very informative and well written. I would especially recommend reading many of the articles cited in the footnotes to the first chapter if one wanted more information on the topic of early Mormon history. I really wish one could append the first few chapters of Anderson’s book to Richard Bushman’s generally well written Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, as a sort of “the other side of the story” section. The first few chapters of Anderson’s book clearly explain many of the controversies in early Mormon history. I think if one were to rely solely on Bushman’s book one would need to have a determination to read between the lines to pick up on many of the issues Anderson discusses.

from the publisher:
A troubled childhood. A difficult adolescence. How might these have affected the adult character of church founder Joseph Smith? Psychiatrist Robert D. Anderson explores the impact on young Joseph of his family’s ten moves in sixteen years, their dire poverty, especially after his father’s Chinese export venture failed, and his father’s drinking.

It is equally significant, writes Anderson, that Joseph’s mother suffered bouts of depression. For instance, “for months” she “did not feel as though life was worth seeking” after two sisters died of tuberculosis and later when she buried two sons, Ephraim and Alvin. A typhoid epidemic nearly claimed her daughter Sophronia, and the same affliction left Joseph with a crippled leg, after which he was sent to live on the coast with an uncle. Such factors and others produced emotional wounds that emerged later in the prophet’s life and writings, in particular, according to Anderson, in the Book of Mormon.

Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith, writes W. W. Meissner (Professor of Psychoanalysis, Boston College; author, Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint): “is a superb study, approached with the dual advantage of an insider and an experienced psychiatrist. Anderson presents a convincing psychobiographic analysis of a great religious figure, unveiling for us a profound and perplexing question surrounding religious movements�how such important figures can translate psychic disturbances into messages of conviction and inspiration. The story itself is powerful, and the questions it raises are thought provoking.”

Brigham D. Madsen (professor emeritus of history, former vice president, University of Utah; editor, Studies of the Book of Mormon by B. H. Roberts) agrees that “Anderson has an excellent grasp of early Mormon history and writes with dispassion and good balance, impressive scholarship, and readable prose. His naturalistic explanation provides a unique and penetrating analysis of factors which motivated and fashioned Joseph Smith’s dictation of the Book of Mormon. We have been waiting a long time for this book.” Robert D. Anderson, M.D., is a semi-retired psychiatrist in private practice whose studies at the Psychoanalytic Institute stimulated his interest in applied psychoanalysis. He is a contributor to The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith and has published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and in the American Journal of Psychiatry. He and his wife live in Bellevue, Washington.