Mormon apologists review Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History

Mormon apologists review Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History

Seymour Bloom writes:

These are my comments on Louis Midgley’s review of No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie.   I have a copy of the 1971 edition of No Man Knows My History, while Midgley comments on both the 1945 and 1971 editions.  Consequently, I did not try to comment on Midgley’s critique of the 1945 edition.

Although this review is 56 pages in length, it does not go into depth on any of the issues Brodie raised in the book.  Instead, it mostly concerns itself with many side issues.  These side issues are:

  • Criticizing Brodie for humanizing Thomas Jefferson in her biography; even though this biography was published 29 years after No Man Knows My History and has nothing to do with Mormonism.   Brodie is called to task for saying that Jefferson had an affair with his slave, Sally Hemings.  Ironically, recent DNA evidence indicates that Thomas Jefferson may indeed be the father of some of Hemings’ children.   According to a reply I got from FARMS, the father could be Thomas Jefferson or his brother. Additional DNA investigation could resolve this.  FARMS is apparently hoping it is Jefferson’s brother.  In the meantime, they are letting the current review remain unaltered.
  • Nit picking about errors.  Much is made of the fact that the 1945 edition of this book contained errors.  From Midgley’s description, they appear to have been minor and he states they were corrected in later printings and in the 1971 edition.  Besides the corrections, the 1971 edition has added material that was previously unknown to Brodie in 1945. Why not concentrate on the 1971 edition rather than going into a history of the evolution of the book to the current edition?
  • Printing the comments of other reviewers.  Nothing wrong with this if one also discusses the points raised by the book.  However, the emphasis has been shifted to an analysis of the reviewers.   
  • Criticizing her motives for writing the book.  Midgley claims that Brodie intended, from the beginning, to show that the Book of Mormon is what she calls “frontier fiction.” and therefore fraudulent.  This is completely irrelevant to most readers.  What is or should be relevant is:
  • Are the facts correct?
  • Does the author tell you when and why she is making an educated guess?
  • Is it well written and interesting to read? 

Midgley quotes a very serious allegation by Hugh Nibley in which Nibley accuses Brodie of being “extremely free not only in misinterpreting but in deliberately misquoting her sources.”   However, no example is given.  All we have is a footnote (141) that references a preface that Nibley has written.   I have not, as yet, read the referenced preface, so I cannot judge its accuracy.

Midgley covers Brodie’s explanation of the First Vision in two parts as follows:

1.  At the beginning, under the heading “Tidying up Some Embarrassing ‘Historical Slips'”, Midgley writes, that in her 1971 edition,  “Brodie had to adjust her explanation to fit solid textual evidence that flatly refuted her earlier assertions about the First Vision.”   This implies that, for some reason, Brodie had some egregious error in the original 1945 edition of her book.  That was not the case at all.  In 1945, there was only knowledge of one version of the First Vision, the one dictated by Joseph Smith in 1839.   Later historical investigation uncovered two more versions of the First Vision.  All versions differ in important details.  Because of this, it was appropriate for Brodie to expand and modify her description and explanation of this event.  After all, that is what one expects a historian to do when new information is uncovered.    

2. Near the end, under the heading “Some Strange Signs of Squeamishness about Brodie”, there is a paragraph about Brodie’s 1971 explanation of the various accounts of the First Vision.  Midgley writes “As I have demonstrated, Brodie was subsequently forced to qualify her assertion.  In 1971 she shifted to claiming that the very early accounts provided by Joseph Smith seemed to her to be contradictory (pp. 408-410), which was clearly not her position in 1945.”  Why would Midgley not expect her to change her position?   In 1945, she knew of only one account, because the others were being suppressed or were simply unknown by the Mormon Church.  By 1971, two more versions were found in the restricted LDS archives; so she wrote about all three.

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