Hugh Nibley – No Ma’am That’s Not History – part 1 – fawn brodie review

Hugh Nibley – No Ma’am That’s Not History – part 1 – fawn brodie review

[my comments are in italics]


When the writer first read Mrs. Brodie’s book 13 years ago he was struck by the brazen inconsistencies that swarm in its pages, and so wrote this hasty review. At that time he had no means of knowing that inconsistency was the least of the author’s vices, and assumed with other reviewers that when she cited a work in her footnotes, she had actually read it, that when she quoted she was quoting correctly, and that she was familiar with the works in her bibliography. Only when other investigations led the reviewer to the same sources in ensuing years did the extent of Mrs. Brodie’s irresponsibility become apparent. While a large book could (and probably should) be devoted to this remarkable monument of biographical mendacity, more than a decade of research abetted by correspondence with Mrs. Brodie’s defenders has failed to discredit a single observation made in our 1946 review, which is printed here with only a few typographical corrections.


People are still trying to explain Joseph Smith. That is as it should be, for no man who claims as much as he did should go unchallenged. Joseph Smith’s own story is by no means the only possible explanation of his career; for everything in the universe there are as many explanations to hand as the mind is willing to devise. Only one rule must be observed; it is the old “law of parsimony,” which states that of all explanations of a thing that one must be given preference to the exclusion of all others which is the simplest, i.e., the freest from contradiction, requiring the fewest qualifications and the least elaboration of explanation. [This “law of parsimony” or Occam’s Razor, as it is usually called, should be heavily considered as Nibley suggests. The problem is that you rarely see it used in Mormon writings (including Nibley’s). When do you see Mormons looking for philosophies that are “freest from contradiction“? When do you see Mormon Church publications mentioning that the simplest explanation for something like the 19th century influence on the text of the Book of Mormon is that it is a product of that century rather than a literal history of ancient America?]

The latest explanation of Joseph Smith is Mrs. Brodie’s. It is not animated by violent hatred. That fact is reassuring but, strangely enough, irrelevant. The average man is as free from prejudice as Rhadamanthus when it comes to tensor analysis or the interpretation of Sumerian text–but that does not qualify him to speak on either subject, and if Mrs. Brodie preserved the calm of a Nestor we would still have to judge her explanation strictly on its own merits, and not assume that she must be telling the truth because she is not mad at anybody.

Brodie takes an awful beating from the law of parsimony. Far simpler and more to the point are the thumping biographies of an earlier day, that simply announced that the man Joseph Smith was a complete scamp, and there an end–simple and direct. With that same admirable simplicity and directness, these authors ran headlong into a brick wall of contraditions, and that was their undoing. Altogether too much is known about Joseph Smith to let the “total depravity” theory get by. So Mrs. Brodie will qualify it by introducing into the picture an element which she thinks solves everything: Joseph Smith was a complete impostor, the New Light teaches, but he meant well. He was just an easy-going rustic with irresponsible ways and an overactive imagination. That takes care of everything. [This is the first of many instances in which Nibley puts words into Fawn Brodie’s mouth. His approach is to make the picture Brodie painted to be far worse than it really was. Then he attacks this new picture of his rather than the one actually drawn in the biography.]

But as soon as we get down to cases, the new and humane interpretation of the prophet, far from improving things, makes everything much worse. Brodie’s Joseph Smith is a more plausible character than the consummate fiend of the earlier school in that his type is much more likely to be met with on the street any Tuesday afternoon. But he is actually much less plausible as the man who accomplished what Joseph Smith did. [What exactly does Nibley think he accomplished that Brodie didn’t include? She discusses his accomplishments and failures. The portion that Nibley appears to have a problem with is that she includes the failures–unlike the apologetic biographies.] Some kind of an inspired super-devil might have got away with some of the things he did, but no blundering, dreaming, undisciplined, shallow and opportunistic faker could have left behind what Joseph Smith did, both in men’s hearts and on paper. [Again, he is putting words into the text that just aren’t there.]

Brodie’s task is to fit the recorded words and acts of one Joseph Smith to her idea of a well-meaning but not too reliable oaf. To do this the words and acts in question must be changed around a bit: there must he a good deal of critical interpretation and explaining in the light of the answer she wants to get. All this is pardonable if it does not go too far. But how far does it go? That is the all-important question which can be answered only by consulting the book itself. [We get the first taste of Nibley’s hypocrisy here. He claims that Brodie had to change Joseph Smith’s words and acts around to get her message across in a sentence immediately following one in which he changes her words around. Where does Brodie ever call Joseph Smith an “oaf”? Who is really changing the words around to get the result they want?]

After a glance at those learned pages we shall be able to point out a real and solid contribution which Mrs. B. has made to the advancement of knowledge. It is in view of that contribution that we are moved to discuss a work that might otherwise have been gravely misunderstood. We believe in giving credit where credit is due-but not elsewhere and for that reason take the pains to point out a few interesting aspects of Mrs. Brodie’s celebrated biography. [So far we have learned nothing about the problems except that they are very great indeed. Some of the faithful may stop reading here and think that Mr. N. has adequately laid Brodie to rest. Hopefully, thinking people read on to find out what all the problems really are.]


Mrs. Brodie begins her study with the observation that though there is no lack of documents for the history of Joseph Smith, these documents are “fiercely contradictory.” In that case it is necessary for a writer to pick and choose his evidence. Now by the simple process of picking and choosing one’s evidence, one may prove absolutely anything. [Nibley appears to have learned this from experience. 😉 Seriously though, this is no secret. Every biography or history written is biased based on the sources the author picked and the author’s background. The question is, when all the evidence is looked at (especially the original, non-re-written history) whose story of Joseph Smith is more accurate? Is Brodie’s “warts and all” biography closer to the truth, or is the church’s current version of Joseph Smith (which tends to exclude or almost completely ignore such significant events as polygamy, the Kirtland Bank, his Masonic connection, the non-literal translation of the Book of Abraham, the early 19th Century context in which the church obtained its doctrines, etc.?] For which reason it is important to ask what principle Mrs. B. follows in making her choice.

This is not hard to discover. Our guide first makes up her mind about Joseph Smith and then proceeds to accept any and all evidence, from whatever source, that supports her theory. The uncritical acceptance of evidence from all sources gives her work at first glance an air of great impartiality. At the same time she rejects any and all evidence, from whatever source, that refutes her settled ideas. [Nibley has hit the nail on the head! Now if only he and his friends at FARMS could follow his reasoning and not reject any and all evidence that refute their settled ideas, the world would be a better place. Given the track record of Nibley (and now FARMS), I don’t think a more hypocritical statement could be made.]

Thus (p. 18) she flatly rejects the sworn affidavit of fifty-one of Joseph’s neighbors because their testimony does not suit her idea of the prophet’s character. [She does not state this. She says that “there is no evidence that viciousness was a part of his nature”. This is one of many cases in which Nibley distorts the actual text.] We would applaud such strong-mindedness were it not that on the very next page she accepts the stories of the same witnesses regarding “seer stones, ghosts, magic incantations, and nocturnal excavations.” Now scandal stories thrive notoriously well in rural settings, while the judgment of one’s neighbors regarding one’s general character over a number of years is far less likely to run into the fantastic. Yet Brodie can reject the character witnesses as prejudiced while accepting the weirdest extravagances of their local gossip. [Nibley has left the non-reader of Brodie’s book with the idea that she has doctored the evidence. The fact is, Brodie doesn’t “accept the stories of the same witnesses” at face value as Nibley implies by his inclusion of only a selective portion of the quote. He conveniently omitted the portion before “seer stones” which says in Brodie’s words that the stories told by the neighbors were “tales”. Nowhere in the book does Brodie state that “tales” equals acceptance of the stories. Nibley also neglects to point out that Joseph Smith himself admitted in the church’s “Elder’s Journal” (later added to the official “History of the Church“) that he was a money-digger who only got $14 a month for it. He also ignores the abundant evidence of Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone.]

In the same spirit, Dogherry and Howe, Bennett, Jackson and Law, all “unreliable witnesses to say the least” become reliable sources whenever their testimony supports Brodie, and hopelessly prejudiced when it does not. [By not making reference to which portions of the book he is referring to, it is difficult to see the validity of Nibley’s claim. However, in many cases, when Brodie uses witnesses who may be “unreliable” she states why and offers additional sources. A witness who is unreliable due to bias may not be stating 100% falsehoods. In cases where biased sources are used biographers usually back up the situation in question with additional evidence from other (non-biased) sources. Brodie’s biography is not abnormal in this regard.]

“The press accounts” (there is only one such “account”) of the charlatan Walters “stated significantly that when he left the neighborhood his mantle fell upon young Joseph Smith.” (19). What is “significant” about it? What is meant by the vague figure of speech more than that one scamp was succeeded by another? [Perhaps the significance is that both Joseph and Walters claimed to find an ancient Indian record, both were treasure seekers, both lived in Palmyra, and the only one such contemporary town newspaper, the “Palmyra Reflector” noted it. “Accounts” is referring to the six articles published by the “Reflector” on Joseph Smith even though Nibley tries to make it look as if Brodie is exaggerating.] Even Dogherry does not do more than insinuate that Joseph was one of Walter’s audience of yokels. Why should his bitter enemies not come out and say he was Walter’s disciple if he was–why nothing but an extremely non-committal hint and a veiled figure of speech if they had anything at all to go by? Yet this is the whole evidence for one of Brodie’s proudest discoveries. For her it is an absolute certainty (31) upon which she repeatedly insists, that Walters was Joseph’s most particular teacher. [She only mentions Walters once more in the entire book. Walters isn’t the crux, or even a crux, of the biography, and I didn’t find an insistence in the book that “Walters was Joseph’s most particular teacher” as Nibley implies.]

“No two of Joseph’s neighbors had the same version of the story” of the plates, we are told (37) What does one do in that case? One simply accepts or rejects the stories according to one’s own fancy. This is fun until one runs up against flatly contradictory evidence that cannot be sidestepped or ignored. Regarding the claims that no one ever saw anything but an empty box, Brodie sagely observes (80): “It is difficult to reconcile this explanation with the fact that these witnesses, and later Emma and William Smith, emphasized the size, weight and metallic texture of the plates.” Yes, how do you reconcile them? Here is Brodie’s method:

“Exactly how Joseph Smith persuaded so many of the reality of the gold plates is neither so important nor so baffling as the effect of this success on Joseph himself.” Whereupon she drops the question for good. There may be ten thousand things more important and more baffling than the problem of disproving the plates, but that fact has no bearing on the problem and can hardly pass for a solution in a book “where honesty and integrity presumably should count for something.” She is simply side-stepping the issue, and the law of parsimony screams bloody murder: it must have an explanation of those plates, but such is not forthcoming from our oracle. [Is an explanation of the plates forthcoming from the oracle of the church? Perhaps Nibley could explain to us all why they had to disappear? It’s not possible to “disprove” the plates. Anyone attempting the disproving of an object at a previous time is attempting the impossible. The people making the claim that they existed are the ones who bear the burden of proof. Why weren’t the plates necessary for translation? Why did Martin Harris say he only say them with his spiritual eyes? B. H. Roberts became convinced that the plates were subjective rather than objective. Why not allow Brodie the same opinion? The law of parsimony seeks the simplest explanation. Which explanation is simpler? A supernatural being gave Joseph Smith plates that were later taken back or Joseph Smith’s gold plates were subjective?]

The Hebraic origin of the Indian is an idea which seems to have come chiefly from Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (46). Though this possibility quickly becomes a dead certainty for Brodie “it may never be proved that Joseph saw View of the Hebrews before writing the Book of Mormon.” Since there is nothing in his own words to give him away, that for Brodie is the proof that he was careful to cover up his traces. What proves the stealing of the Book of Mormon from Ethan Smith is the presence of “striking parallels” between the two. [Nibley appears to be putting more words into Brodie’s mouth. She never says that “this proves it” as Nibley implies. Her correct argument is that “mere coincidence” isn’t a very sturdy case for dismissing Ethan Smith given the time and place of publication of “View of the Hebrews”. Nibley’s case for the parallels is still based on “mere coincidence” and his unique science of ignoring the obvious parallels and choosing to only point out the “unparallels”.]

This brings up a very important aspect of the Brodie method, namely the use of parallels as an argument. It has become the favorite device of non-Mormon writers. [This is truly an incredible statement for Nibley to make given his countless volumes of parallel speculation in order to try and “prove” such things as the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and the temple endowment. Nibley’s parallels are based on cultures and time periods far removed from each other–yet he doesn’t want “View of the Hebrews” to be looked at even though it was produced by the same culture and just prior to the Book of Mormon.

As Ed Ashment accurately stated in The Word of God,

“By the study of parallels Nibley can refer to documents which are temporarily and/or culturally disparate in the extreme. Here is an illustration of this commonly used ‘parallelomania’ methodology in Nibley’s writings. To show how ‘typically Egyptian’ the first several verses of the Book of Abraham are, Nibley juxtaposes them against several quotations which range from the Egyptian Old Kingdom (2575 B.C.) through the Christian Period, including quotations from Plutarch and Plato. In this manner, he asserts that the Book of Abraham and Egyptian inscriptions ‘confirm and support each other.’ Unfortunately, this methodology does violence to the historical integrity of the documents used in the manner described.”

Nibley, in his Abraham in Egypt, dismissed using parallels within proper context (i.e., the parallels related to the same location and text from a previous time period) as “pointless preoccupation with method and intrigue to avoid head-on confrontation with the text”.]

Oriental literature bristles with parallels to the Book of Mormon that are far more full and striking than anything that can be found in the West. [This is a nice attempt at diverting the reader, but it has nothing to do with refuting the influence “View of the Hebrews” may have had on the Book of Mormon. Why does Nibley even bother comparing Oriental literature with the Book of Mormon?]

There are “outside” parallels for every event in the Old and New Testaments, yet that does not prove anything. [Did Brodie say it does?] Of recent years literary studies have shown parallels not to be the exception but the rule in the world of creative writing, and it is well known that great inventions and scientific discoveries have a way of appearing at about the same time in separate places. A scholar by the name of Karl Joel has recently amassed a huge amount of material on the subject, and though we need not accept his conclusion that the same sort of thing that is happening in one place at a given time will be found to be happening all over the world at that moment (!), still his vast volumes present a great wealth of undeniable parallels. The fact that two theories or books present parallelism, no matter how striking, may imply a common source, but it certainly does not in itself prove that the one is derived from the other. We know (thanks to Brodie) that there was a great and widespread interest in the Indian problem in Joseph’s day, and we also know that these people of that day had a way of referring everything to the Bible; in that case it is hard to see how anyone could have avoided the Indian-Hebrew tie-up. [Nibley here is completely missing Brodie’s point. What is “hard to see” is why a book with an “Indian-Hebrew tie-up” would just so happen to be translated from supposedly ancient records just after the moment in time (and place on the planet) when (and where) others are postulating the same “tie-up”. No scientists since then, outside of Mormonism, have postulated the same tie-up. In fact Ethan Smith’s “View of the Hebrews” theory and the other widespread early 19th century Indian-Hebrew theories have been proven false through archaeological and other kinds of evidence.]

Mrs. Brodie sees parallels everywhere. [And Mr. Nibley doesn’t? If the parallel speculation in Nibley’s works were pulled out, we’d be left reading a booklet instead of dozens of volumes.] To cite a few of her howlers, there is the case of a herdsman who kills a number of rustlers with a sword (not a sling). Now herdsman have been fighting with rustlers since the dawn of time, but for Brodie this is simply a direct steal from the story of David and Goliath. Again, the barges of the Jaredites “contained everything which the settlers might need on the new Continent,” (71), like any Chinese Junk, Viking ship, or the Mayflower itself; in fact ships have a way of carrying with them whatever the personnel will need. Brodie, however, knows that the whole thing is a dishonest adaption of Noah’s ark. Certain fortifications of earth and timbers mentioned in the Book of Mormon resemble those in western New York. Also, we add, in Russia, England, Africa, France, China and everywhere else. Such structures are universally common to a certain type of war-like culture. [Again, he is missing the point. Joseph Smith was describing 19th century North America in a book that was supposed to be of ancient origin. Other countries have nothing to do with it.] At one place in the Book of Mormon, atheism is denounced; since there were atheists on the frontier, Brodie knows that the whole idea is simply an adaption of the local scene. The fact that atheism has been an issue in sundry civilizations since the world began, means nothing to our author she chooses her parallels as she chooses her evidence, where it suits her. [Perhaps Hugh could be so kind as to show us when and where the Ancient Americans denounced atheism like that found in the Book of Mormon or practiced a theism similar to the 19th Century Christianity described in the Book of Mormon? The scientific evidence of the religion practiced by the ancient inhabitants is abundant, and there is no sign of the Book of Mormon’s brand of atheism or Christianity. On the other hand, the atheism described in the Book of Mormon had the exact same rationale and characteristics of the atheism that existed in the early 19th Century. If Joseph Smith was writing the Book of Mormon in the 20th Century, we wouldn’t be surprised to read about a denunciation of Darwin’s theory of evolution.]

Sidney Rigdon once in an article “openly quoted” from Thomas Dick’s “Philosophy of a Future State.” That to Brodie proves that Joseph Smith “had recently been reading the book” (171). [Considering that at the time Rigdon and Smith were best friends who did practically everything together, Joseph Smith’s reading or hearing about the contents of this book is well within the bounds of reason. Those who know the history of Sidney Rigdon would probably even go so far as to suggest that he had a larger impact on the doctrines found in 1831-1839 Mormonism than Joseph Smith.] Dick mentions the old familiar doctrine that the stars may be inhabited by intelligent progressive beings. So Brodie knows that all the prophet’s “later teachings” on the subject “came directly from Dick.” [She never states that *all* his later teachings came from Dick’s book. Again we find Nibley trying to re-write Brodie’s biography to make it appear to say what it does not.] He could not very well have got his earlier teachings from Dick, though his later teachings are simply a continuation of them. Yet as soon as a work appears that resembles what he is doing, Brodie immediately pounces upon it as the prophet’s only source. [She never says that it is his “only source”. Perhaps Nibley should write a revised edition of Brodie’s book for her with his interpretation of what he thinks she is saying even if the text does not.] If she would show how the doctrine of progress was stolen from Dick, the lady [the lady? He wrote this over 30 years ago but still. . .] should not have been at such pains to show that progressivism had been a basic part of its background from the first. [Nibley omits several features of Dick’s teachings. Dick stated such things as God having organized the heavens and earth out of matter existing. Dick held that “the systems of the universe revolve around a common centre . . . the throne of God“. These items too made it into the Book of Abraham which included some of Dick’s other teachings. We are basically left with three options–all but the first shedding negative light on Nibley’s conclusions: mere coincidence, popular theory of the day, or borrowing from an author his best friend, counselor, spokesman, and translating assistant Sidney Rigdon read and quoted.]

A useful form of parallel is the “identical anecdote.” To prove Joseph Smith’s dishonesty in operating the bank “several apostates at different times related an identical ancedote” about money-boxes (196). Now identical anecdotes can be assumed to indicate a common source, but no more: they say nothing as to the nature of that source or its reliability. For Mrs. Brodie the fact that they are identical proves not that they are commonly derived, but that they are actually true! What kind of history is that? [She doesn’t say that identical anecdotes prove the stories are true. She discounts the stories honestly by stating that the reports were from apostates. Nibley has taken some admittedly flimsy evidence that Brodie used and attempted to make it look as if the bank was legitimate. The fact remains that the bank was illegal from the start, the people running it (Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon) did not know what they were doing, and it was never a viable operation based on the way it was set up and ran from day one. It was supposed to be a means for the leaders to make money, and it ended up being a detriment to everybody involved–despite the prophecies Joseph Smith made to the contrary.] The greatest possible wealth of “identical anecdotes” attests the orgies in the temple, and yet Brodie does not hesitate to scout the lot as absolutely worthless, identical or not. How infinitely weaker is the “whispered talk” (214) which attests the activities of the Danites? [The evidence is overwhelming, although Brodie didn’t have access to much of it at the time, of the Danites existence and activities. One need not even look past orthodox Mormon sources (mostly journals and letters from the true-to-Utah-Mormonism Danites themselves) to see that Brodie was accurate (although far from complete) with regard to the Danites. See “My Best for the Kingdom” and “Mormon Hierarchy” for a couple of the many sources. See also: “Brigham Young University Studies”, Winter 1988, page 14 for Joseph Smith’s admission of the Danites and their purpose, “We have a company of Danites in these times, to put right physically that which is not right, and to cleanse the church of very great evils which hitherto existed among us inasmuch as they cannot be put to right by teachings & persuasions.”] Yet Mrs. B. accepts it, forsooth, because it is “fragmentary (to say the least) but consistent.” The stories once current about the nocturnal orgies of the early Christians and the child-eating rites of the Jews were not too fragmentary and were remarkably consistent–only they weren’t true. [Then Mr. N. must be insinuating that a great number of faithful Mormons (who discussed Danite activities like John Lowe Butler and Joseph Smith) are liars with this anecdote.]

“Bald parallels with Masonic rites” (65) the lady finds particularly crude. [the lady?] How did he dare it? Why didn’t he disguise it? (279ff). The answer is that to those who know both, the resemblance is not striking at all; it is not nearly so striking as the resemblance between the church Joseph Smith founded and the other churches, and yet even though the Mormon Church and these institutions present one parallel after another, they are really totally different in form and meaning. [Not according to those who are both Mormons and Masons. The resemblances are striking. They are an impossible coincidence for the orthodox. Is that why Nibley doesn’t bother to explain the parallels away?]

Speaking of parallels, however, one cannot pass by one of the most remarkable studies in religious parallel ever written. The name of the most learned man who ever made a study of the Mormons, and one of the best-informed men who ever lived, does not appear in Mrs. Brodie’s pages. At the end of the last century the great tradition of European scholarship in the grand style culminated in the person of Eduard Meyer. If he did not have the stature of some earlier scholars, it is certain that he was in a position to survey and assimilate more of the learning of the past than any human being before or since his day. To his famous rotunda at the University of Berlin flowed, as it has never flowed since, all the learning of the ages for his examination and exploitation. No other man ever combined the learning both of the East and the Classical world in a work of such high and lasting authority as Meyer’s “Geschichte des Altertums”–the ultimate and, in fact, the last general history of antiquity to be the work of a single mind.

Now this man had a particular interest in ancient religions, and it occurred to him that in Mormonism he might study at first hand how a real religion gets started. So impressed was he by the possibilities of such a study that he packed up and went to Utah in 1904, to devote a year of his priceless time to studying the Mormons. Few churches have had the good fortune to be examined at first hand by a man of such vast learning and complete impartiality. For in keeping with the high “Wissenschaft” of his day, Meyer himself professed no religion. He was neither partial nor hostile to the Mormons, who as far as his feelings were concerned might have been beings on another planet or a heap of ants.

Meyer’s entire Ursprung und Ceschichte der Mormonen is a study in parallels, comparing the new religion with revealed religions of the past. While grandly contemptuous of Joseph Smith’s low coefficient of “Kultur,” the great savant illustrates at length the “exact identity” of his church both in “atmosphere” and sundry particulars with that of the Early Christians. A “striking and irrefutable” parallelism supports Mormon claims to revelation, “with perfect right” they identify themselves with the apostolic church of old. The similarity extends to the faults as well as the virtues of the prophet and his followers–they may be matched “at every point” by the faults and virtues of the ancient prophets and the ancient church. We shall have occasion to refer to Eduard Meyer a number of times below, not because he was favorably disposed (he is in fact far less sympathetic than Brodie), but because with his infinitely greater knowledge he reaches such totally different conclusions. He is a necessary “control” in testing our author.

Incidentally, the faithful need not be too utterly crushed by Brodie’s erudite announcement (256) that the word “Nauvoo” is purely a figment of Smith’s imagination, [This has been changed in the second edition. Nibley had a valid point with the word “Nauvoo”, but in any case, it is no secret that Joseph Smith studied Hebrew. The problem is that the Hebrew influence shows up in his post-Hebrew-studies’ writings–including those that weren’t supposed to have been translated from Hebrew like the Book of Abraham which was claimed to have been translated from Egyptian.] since no less an Orientalist than Meyer himself is naive enough to be taken in by the prophet’s ruse. He observes (Urspr. U. Gesch. p 142, n.2) that the word is a plain transliteration of the Hebrew nava, which is feminine (the proper gender for place-names) and happens to mean “the beautiful.” Mrs. Brodie can put her stuffed mourning dove back into its box now: her philology is of the same brand as her history. [Ouch! Is it really necessary to result to cheap insults like this in a book review?]

venture on to part 2 in which Nibley turns into the out-of-context quoting king