Joseph Smith and "Interpretive Biography"

Review of Dan Vogel. Joseph
Smith: The Making of a Prophet.
Salt Lake City: Signature Books,
2004. xxii + 715 pp., with index. $39.95.

Joseph Smith and “Interpretive Biography”

Reviewed by Larry E. Morris

Several years ago, when I researched the translation of
the Book of Mormon for a prominent professor at Brigham Young University,
he recommended that I get Dan Vogel’s Early
Mormon Documents
—I believe two volumes were available at
the time.1 I was one step ahead of him because I
already owned those volumes and had made good use of them. But since the other
volumes had not been published yet, I searched far and wide for such documents
as statements by Joseph and Hiel Lewis (cousins of Emma Hale Smith). This
meant digging through archives (where you naturally spend half your time waiting),
fussing with microfilm, and sometimes relying on friends for second- or third-generation
photocopies. What I ended up with, of course, was a stack of papers that I
had to organize and index myself (all the while suspecting that even my list
of documents was incomplete).

As I continued this research project—and started others—I was
always tremendously relieved when a new volume of Early Mormon Documents rolled off the press.
Yes, I had managed to find poor copies of some
of the Lewis material, but Dan Vogel had found it all, had given me readable
transcriptions, and had also provided background information and biographical
details on the Lewises.2

Not to say that Vogel was always my first choice. If I were dealing with
a Joseph Smith document, for instance, I went to Dean Jessee.3 For help with Lucy Mack Smith’s history,
I went to Lavina Fielding Anderson.4
Still, as I have researched early Mormon history for the past ten years, the
Early Mormon Documents collection has been
by far my most useful resource. It is hard enough to locate the documents
and transcribe them, but Vogel really went the extra mile by providing valuable
footnotes throughout. Admittedly, transcription and factual errors can be
found here and there in the volumes, but errors can be found in virtually
any collection of such size and scope. Dan Vogel has made a significant and
lasting contribution to Mormon studies, and he deserves to be thanked for
his bibliographic work. I sincerely appreciate his prodigious research. I
have also had a positive experience with him personally. We met at a Mormon
History Association conference, and I found him cordial and respectful.5

Considering the extent of Vogel’s research and his obvious interests, it
came as no surprise that he produced Joseph
Smith: The Making of a Prophet,
a massive, heavily annotated study
of Joseph Smith’s life up to 1831. It also came as no surprise that reactions
to the book have varied widely. As I look at Vogel’s work and the controversy
surrounding it, however, I am persuaded that the discussion must center on
an assumption Vogel announces in his introduction. “I am convinced,”
he writes, “that it is impossible to write a meaningful biography of
[Joseph] Smith without addressing his claims” (p. viii). Vogel apparently
believes that the biographer must not only decide (among other things) whether
Joseph Smith was really a prophet of God and whether the Book of Mormon is
really an ancient record but must also integrate his or her conclusions into
the narrative. This is exactly what Vogel does. I believe, however, that this
crucial assumption is fundamentally flawed and, in fact, is undercut by his
previous work in Early Mormon Documents.

Criticizing the Sources

In Early Mormon Documents, Vogel
has published more than 450 documents—a truly astonishing number. This
he has done in a straightforward manner, stressing that they are important
for the information they contain about people and events. He correctly points
out that “not all historical documents are created equal,” and he
offers a solid discussion of the significance of “firsthand testimony
from unbiased eyewitnesses,” “the time-lapse between an observation
and its recollection,” and “the character or reliability of witnesses.”6 He also groups the documents into distinct
categories: official or authorized histories; diaries; memoirs and reminiscences;
personal letters; journal and newspaper reports; and civil, business, and
ecclesiastical records.7

Vogel’s attitude toward source criticism serves him well in Early Mormon Documents. Take his treatment
of Oliver Cowdery. Although some critics of the church have quoted a document
entitled “Defense in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself
from the Latter Day Saints” in an attempt to discredit Oliver—as
well as Joseph—Vogel excludes it from Early
Mormon Documents
because it is “now considered by most scholars
to have been forged by R. B. Neal in 1906.”8

I was also impressed with Vogel’s discussion of Oliver Cowdery’s reported
testimony of the Book of Mormon in a court of law during the decade (1838–48)
that he was out of the church. Vogel has carefully researched this item, and
he includes eleven different statements (none of which comes from a firsthand
source), concluding that “the claim [of Cowdery’s testimony] rests on
less than satisfactory grounds.”9 I agree entirely.

Again, Vogel proves himself to be a careful researcher when he discusses
Barnes Frisbie’s allegations that Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s fathers
were involved in a money-digging fiasco known as the “Wood Scrape.”
Siding with Richard L. Anderson10 rather than D. Michael Quinn,11 Vogel agrees that Frisbie was “speculating
beyond his data.”12

Apparently continuing this emphasis, Vogel argues in The Making of a Prophet that his “discussion
and conclusions are firmly grounded in the primary source documents”—just
as they should be. He adds, however, that he “will consider the Book
of Mormon and the texts of Smith’s revelations as primary sources containing possible clues
to his inner conflicts and state of mind” (pp. xvii, xviii, emphasis
added). This assertion reveals that, as a biographer, Vogel has radically
changed his methodology, for he has defined primary
in a completely new way. First, he did not even include
the Book of Mormon or the early revelations (such as Doctrine and Covenants
sections 6, 7, 8, and 9) in his exhaustive list of more than 450 primary documents
associated with early church history. Second, in Early Mormon Documents he took a literal approach to affidavits, interviews,
letters, census records, road lists, receipts, and a host of other records,
assuming that these documents both say what they mean and mean what they say
(while properly acknowledging that that does not necessarily make them accurate).
But now he has shifted to a figurative
stance, where statements about Lehi or King Noah, for example, might mean
something entirely different. What are we to make of all this?

Vogel’s View of the Historian’s Task

Perhaps anticipating questions about his methodology, Vogel addresses this
issue in the introduction to The Making of
a Prophet
.13 “I
believe,” he writes, “we must address what Jan Shipps, non-Mormon
historian of the LDS experience, once termed the ‘prophet puzzle’ if we ever
hope to understand Smith and the church he founded. . . . Shipps
called for a more fully integrated view of Smith, one allowing for, even encouraging,
the complex spectrum of human personality” (pp. vii–viii).14

Vogel also notes that “no biographer is completely free of bias. As
is no doubt apparent, my inclination is to interpret any claim of the paranormal—precognition,
clairvoyance, telekinesis, telepathy—as delusion or fraud. I do not
claim that the supernatural does not exist, for it is impossible to prove
a negative. I maintain only that the evidence upon which such claims rest
is unconvincing to me” (p. xii).

Vogel eventually launches into a lengthy discussion of methodology:

Taking a cue from Robert F. Berkhofer’s 1969 book, A Behavioral Approach
to Historical Analysis,
15 some writers have suggested
that historians should not attempt to evaluate Smith’s supernatural experiences
but instead “try to understand [such] experiences in the way in which
the actors themselves understood them.”16 Reflecting this approach in his 1984 biography of Smith, Richard
L. Bushman wrote: “My method has been to relate events as the participants
themselves experienced them. . . . Insofar as the revelations were
a reality to them, I have treated them as real in this narrative.”17 While there is value to such a method, I am
reluctant to dispense with critical tools and become a storyteller or narrator
of the supernatural. I, too, want to understand Smith on his own terms, but
I would like to be able to explain him.

The suggestion that historians simply “relate events as the participants
themselves experienced them” oversimplifies Berkhofer’s thesis and results
in a methodological reductionism that assumes the historical record is both
factual and accurate. Berkhofer knew well that the record of an event cannot
be taken at face value because accounts are so often tainted by a recorder’s
subjective beliefs. The historian’s task is to determine, as best he or she
can, what really happened. Berkhofer was not dealing with reports of supernatural
events but with more mundane human behavior. Even so, when Smith fails to
mention foundational visions until years after the event and gives conflicting
and anachronistic accounts of them, how certain can one be that he relates
events as he experienced them at the time?

Even if we were to accept the idea that testimony regarding supernatural
phenomena is reliable, we would still be under no obligation to uncritically
embrace the witnesses’ interpretations of those experiences. What Berkhofer
did in 1969 was to open the door to psychology and sociology, not to close
the door on the humanistic sciences. Historians do well to narrate the Salem
witch trials of 1692 “as the participants themselves experienced them”—complete
with accounts of paranormal phenomena, demonic possession, etc.—but
they are also right to make a case for mass hysteria, for example.18
Simply put, a researcher is not limited in his or her analysis by the subjective
view of the participant or even the work of past generations. Often, succeeding
generations find additional sources and better tools with which to assess
an event beyond what the participants themselves assumed.

Arguing that skeptics like me are victims of their own “naturalistic
assumptions” diverts attention from the fact that there is simply no
reliable proof for the existence of the supernatural. Naturalism is part of
our everyday experience; supernaturalism is not.19 The burden of proof rests with those making
supernatural claims, and until such claims are proven “beyond a reasonable
doubt,” one is justified in approaching such claims skeptically. (pp. xv–xvi,
brackets and ellipses in original)

“In writing this biography,” Vogel adds on the next page, “I
did not want to provide a simple chronological narrative of Smith’s early
life. Rather, I intended to consider the psychological implications of Smith’s
actions and beliefs and get as close to the man as possible. Thus, I have
written an interpretive biography of an emotional and intellectual life”
(p. xvii).

Vogel has touched on a number of key issues. The portions of his introduction
reproduced above (and I have quoted him at length in an attempt to let him
speak for himself) show what a multitude of controversial decisions are involved
in the writing of history, particularly Mormon history. I would like to deal
with several of these issues.

An “Integrated View” of Joseph Smith

Referring to Jan Shipps’s oft-quoted essay “The Prophet Puzzle,”20 Vogel,
like Shipps, calls for a more fully integrated view of Joseph Smith. And what
does Shipps mean by this? She says, for example, that the “Dogberry,
Bennett, and Hurlbut and Howe reports of the way the people of Palmyra perceived
the prophet are crucial to the development of a complete religious profile
of Joseph Smith.”21 She
also maintains that a proper chronology of Joseph Smith’s life will include
both his visions and his treasure-seeking activities and that our “perspective
must be lengthened through a consideration of the prophet in the context of
the social, political, economic, and theological milieu from which he came.”22

When Vogel says it is necessary to “address” the prophet puzzle
to understand Joseph Smith, he apparently means that one must decide whether
or not to believe Joseph’s claims. That is not exactly what Shipps says, however.
Rather, when she wrote that essay, she was interested in accounting for what
is found in the sources both friendly and hostile to Joseph Smith, arriving
at “a picture of the prophet and an account of the foundations of the
Mormon faith which will be convincing to both tough minds, which demand empirical facts,
and tender minds, comfortable in
the presence of leaps of faith.”23 I understand
Shipps’s point (although I would like to engage her in a conversation about
what “empirical facts” are). Further, I believe the book that best
offers an “integrated view” of Joseph Smith and is most convincing
to both tough and tender minds is Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,24 not The
Making of a Prophet,
which is likely to leave the tender-minded,
as well as even some tough-minded, souls aghast.

That “Noble Dream”

When Vogel says the “historian’s task is to determine, as best he or
she can, what really happened,” he seems to be saying that historians
should be objective, or that the history they write should be objective. And
what does that mean? As Peter Novick
points out, the notion of “historical objectivity” is “not
a single idea, but rather a sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes,
aspirations, and antipathies,” including

a commitment to the reality of the past, and to truth as correspondence to
that reality; a sharp separation between knower and known, between fact and
value, and, above all, between history and fiction. Historical facts are seen
as prior to and independent of interpretation: the value of an interpretation
is judged by how well it accounts for the facts; if contradicted by the facts,
it must be abandoned. Truth is one, not perspectival. Whatever patterns exist
in history are “found,” not “made.” Though successive
generations of historians might, as their perspectives shifted, attribute
different significance to events in the past, the meaning of those events
was unchanging.

The objective historian’s role is that of a neutral, or disinterested, judge;
it must never degenerate into that of advocate or, even worse, propagandist.
The historian’s conclusions are expected to display the standard judicial
qualities of balance and evenhandedness.25

This idea of objectivity—with strong roots, at least for Americans,
in the writings of the German historian Leopold von Ranke—has had enormous
influence in the writing of history. “When Ranke in the 1830s,”
writes E. H. Carr, a prominent historian of the mid-twentieth century, “in
legitimate protest against moralizing history, remarked that the task of the
historian was ‘simply to show how it really was (wie es eigentlich gewesen [war]),’ this not very profound aphorism had
an astonishing success.”26 Such
statements, for instance, as “let the facts speak for themselves”
or “follow the evidence where it leads” are simply different ways
of saying that historians ought to be objective.

Take a well-known statement by B. H. Roberts on the writing of Mormon history:

It is always a difficult task to hold the scales of justice at even balance
when weighing the deeds of men. It becomes doubly more so when dealing with
men engaged in a movement that one believes had its origin with God, and that
its leaders on occasion act under the inspiration of God. Under such conditions
to so state events as to be historically exact, and yet, on the other hand,
so treat the course of events as not to destroy faith in these men, nor in
their work, becomes a task of supreme delicacy; and one that tries the soul
and the skill of the historian. The only way such a task can be accomplished,
in the judgment of the writer, is to frankly state events as they occurred,
in full consideration of all related circumstances, allowing the line of condemnation
or of justification to fall where it may; being confident that in the sum
of things justice will follow truth; and God will be glorified in his work,
no matter what may befall individuals, or groups of individuals.27

More recently (in the same essay quoted earlier), Shipps
wrote: “The entire project must be approached with an open mind, a generous
spirit, and a determination to follow the evidence
that appeals to reason from whatever source it comes, wherever it leads.”28 Taking
the negative side, Quinn said that one of the “seven deadly sins”
of traditional Mormon history is hesitating “to follow the evidence to ‘revisionist’ interpretations
that [run] counter to ‘traditional’ assumptions.”29

This notion of “stating events as they occurred” or “following
the evidence where it leads” has strong appeal. It seems the proper way
to do history. I believe it is particularly influential because it resonates
with ideas found in other areas of life. One of the definitions of the adjective
objective is “expressing or
dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal
feelings, prejudices, or interpretations.”30 Being objective certainly seems both
sound and possible. Students, for example, want their instructors to be objective
when grading papers. Our culture has also come to place a high value on “objectivity”
in both the media and the courtroom. We expect reporters to set aside their
own feelings, get at the truth, and “tell it like it is” (well illustrated
by former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite’s “and that’s the way it is”
at the close of his evening news broadcasts). Likewise, judges are expected
to be “impartial” or “unbiased.”

But the problem is, of course, that the façade of objectivity starts to crumble
when you look at it closely. Students may want their papers graded “objectively,”
but what does that really mean? The things that are most objective—most
easily agreed upon by “impartial” observers—are also the kinds
of things likely to be least meaningful to the student, such as the basic
rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. (But get copyeditors together,
and even this so-called objectivity will evaporate.) As soon as the instructor
comments on the more important aspects of a paper, such as its coherence or
credibility, he or she has seemingly stepped into a much more “subjective”
realm, relying less on rules that can be explicitly spelled out. Does the
student really want objectivity? (If so, designing all tests and papers so
they can be graded by a computer might be the answer. Better yet, use both
computer instruction and computer grading and eliminate human elements altogether.
Then find a way to eliminate software programmers, etc.)

Similarly, “objective” hardly describes what takes place in either
the newsroom or the courtroom. Television stations and newspapers are first
of all owned by groups or individuals who ultimately decide what is broadcast
or printed. Could a reporter ever be completely objective when doing a story
concerning the personal life of the owner or publisher? Second, ratings and
sales obviously play a key role in what stories are presented and how they
are presented. Third, those involved in an incident later reported in the
news often see the coverage not as objective but rather as slanted and incomplete.
As for the courtroom, the notion that facts or conditions can be dealt with
in that setting without interpretation is laughable. Interpreting is exactly
what a judge is supposed to do (such as deciding what can and cannot be introduced
as evidence). Lawyers fully expect the judge to be “biased” by the
interpretations of previous judges, or case law, and those judges in turn
were influenced by earlier judges, making the process anything but objective.

“Objective history” runs into the same kind of problems. From the
minute I start “doing” history, I face one decision after another
and naturally make those decisions based on previous experience, aptitudes,
personal preferences, and so on (in other words, what might be called subjective
factors). If I decide to write a book on the early U.S. fur trade, I have
already chosen a book rather than an article, the U.S. rather than Canada,
the fur trade rather than the liquor trade, and early rather than late. I
have also begun to formulate some kind of story, or plot, in my mind. I continue
with an amazing array of personal decisions—deciding whether to do research
at the Missouri Historical Society, the National Archives, or both (and so
on). Next I frame certain questions rather than others, focus on certain individuals
rather than others, use certain sources rather than others, and quote certain
documents (and certain sections of those documents) rather than others, all
the while refining and reshaping my plot. If being objective means dealing
with historical facts or conditions without personal feelings, prejudices,
or interpretations, then I am not being objective. Quite the opposite—I
am making personal interpretations at every step along the way. (It is not
even clear what objective would
mean at this point.)

That is not all. Notions like “stating events as they occurred,”
“following the evidence,” or “letting the facts speak for themselves”—which
no doubt sounded fair and noble at first glance—are suddenly sounding
hollow. In the case of a violent conflict between Blackfoot Indians and trappers
in Montana in 1810, for example, what in the world is the event “as it
occurred”? Blackfoot oral tradition may see the event one way while witnesses
Thomas James (a young, hired trapper) and Pierre Menard (a seasoned fur-company
partner) see it a second and third way. I must somehow construct my own version,
using my words, my interpretations, and my plot. (And even if only one account
of a given event is available in the primary documents, I will be asking about
the date of composition, the reliability of the recorder, and any other number
of questions, and modifying my story in the process.) As for “evidence”
or even “facts,” these do not come prepackaged and labeled for me—I
am the one who decides what the facts are and which ones are significant enough
to count as evidence.

“We have, in recent years,” writes Yale University history professor
John Lewis Gaddis, “embraced postmodernist insights about the relative
character of all historical judgments—the inseparability of the observer
from that which is being observed—although some of us feel we’ve known
this all along.”31 Keith Jenkins, lecturer at the Chichester
Institute of Higher Education in England, goes even further when he says that

no matter how verifiable, how widely acceptable or checkable, history remains
inevitably a personal construct, a manifestation of the historian’s perspective
as a “narrator.” Unlike direct memory (itself suspect) history relies
on someone else’s eyes and voice; we see through an interpreter who stands
between past events and our readings of them. Of course, as Lowenthal says,
written history “in practice” cuts down the historian’s logical
freedom to write anything by allowing the reader access to his/her sources,
but the historian’s viewpoint and predilections still shape the choice of
historical materials, and our own personal constructs determine what we make
of them. . . .

So far I have argued that history is a shifting discourse constructed by
historians and that from the existence of the past no one reading is entailed;
change the gaze, shift the perspective and new readings appear. Yet although
historians know all this, most seem to studiously ignore it and strive for
objectivity and truth nevertheless.32

Telling a Story the Best You Can

So how does this discussion of objectivity relate to Vogel? First, I believe
it shows that his statement that the “historian’s task is to determine,
as best he or she can, what really happened” is ill-conceived (even though
it sounds perfectly good). The past is gone forever, and whether we have access
to “what really happened”—or whether such a phrase actually
even means anything—is questionable.

Second, history involves interpretation from start to finish. When a figure
in the past creates a so-called primary document by recording an experience,
he or she, in the act of recording it, has already interpreted the experience
(not to mention the interpretation that took place when he or she experienced
the event itself). The historian again interprets when deciding whether or
not to use a document (and, if so, how much). And the reader interprets when
reading the narrative (by imagining the scene in a certain way, emphasizing
certain details and deemphasizing others, and so on).

What then, is the historian’s task? Gaddis offers this fascinating anecdote
about the process of writing history:

Some years ago I asked the great global historian William H. McNeill to explain
his method of writing history to a group of social, physical, and biological
scientists attending a conference I’d organized. He at first resisted doing
this, claiming that he had no particular method. When pressed, though, he
described it as follows:

I get curious about a problem and start reading up on it. What I read causes
me to redefine the problem. Redefining the problem causes me to shift the
direction of what I’m reading. That in turn further reshapes the problem,
which further redirects the reading. I go back and forth like this until
it feels right, then I write it up and ship it off to the publisher.

McNeill’s presentation elicited expressions of disappointment, even derision,
from the economists, sociologists, and political scientists present. “That’s
not a method,” several of them exclaimed. “It’s not parsimonious,
it doesn’t distinguish between independent and dependent variables, it hopelessly
confuses induction and deduction.” But then there came a deep voice from
the back of the room. “Yes, it is,” it growled. “That’s exactly
how we do physics!”33

As Gaddis himself points out, however, such sentiments do not leave us anchorless:

Consider the meteorologist Lewis Richardson’s famous question: how long is
the coastline of Britain? The answer is that there is no answer—it depends.
Are you measuring in miles, meters, or microns? The result will differ in
each instance, and not just as a consequence of converting from one unit of
measurement to another. For the further down you go in the scale of measurement,
the more irregularities of coastline you’ll pick up, so that the length will
expand or contract in relation to the manner in which you’re measuring it.
. . .

At the same time, though . . . we’d be most unwise to conclude
from this, as a postmodernist might, that Britain is not actually there.34

Gaddis’s last point
can hardly be overemphasized. Some postmodernists head in the direction of
claiming Britain is not there. Although Jenkins, for example, makes good points
about history being a personal construct, he goes quite a bit further than
that, ironically describing relativism in absolute terms. “Today,”
he writes, “we know of no foundations
for Platonic absolutes. . . . Truth is a self-referencing figure
of speech, incapable of accessing
the phenomenal world. . . . I think people in the past were very
different to us in the meanings they gave to their world, and that any reading on to them of a constancy of human
nature type, of whatever kind, is without foundation.”35

As I see it, the danger
is that we can slip into nihilism: “the belief that all values are baseless
and that nothing can be known or communicated.”36 I agree
with Gaddis, however, that Britain is still there, even if we recognize that
our descriptions are indeed dependent upon both interpretation and explanation.

So what stops history from slipping into what Jenkins calls “hapless
relativism,” where one asks, “if [history] seems just interpretation
and nobody really knows, then why bother doing it? If it is all relative what
is the point?”37 I believe
my colleague Louis Midgley offered an excellent answer to this question when
he suggested to me that historians must tell a story the best they can using
the available texts. I like this simple explanation, and I think both parts
of it—the story and the texts—offer grounding for evaluating histories.
Yes, each historian tells a different story, but the lack of a single, absolute
story (even as an ideal) hardly means that one story is as good as another
(any more than the lack of an absolute map means that any map will do or that
there is no coastline at all). So how does the reader evaluate historical
accounts? By looking at how the author tells the story and how he or she uses
the texts, or primary documents.

Philosophers, literary theorists, and historiographers have struggled over
the nature of history and debated whether it is an art, a science, or something
else.38 One
aspect of this discussion I find quite intriguing deals with the correlation
between fiction and history. “Against the positivist conception of the
historical fact,” writes Paul Ricoeur, “more recent epistemology
emphasizes the ‘imaginative reconstruction’ which characterizes the work of
the historian.”39 “Fiction’s
persuasive force,” adds Nancy F. Partner,

its “sense of reality,” results from an author’s ability to offer
the reader a suggestive array of fictional elements that satisfy the requirements
of possible reality in the shared world of writer and reader. The historian,
using techniques that differ only a little from those of the novelist, has
to persuade the reader not only of the possible reality of his array
of verbal elements, but that those on display in the text are “guaranteed”
by their relation (reference, logical inference) to things outside the text,
and thus the result is a real mimesis.40

The distinction between “fiction” and “nonfiction” has
traditionally implied some kind of wide gulf between the two. I suspect that
“objective historians” emphasized this distinction and tried hard
to separate themselves from novelists and align themselves at least with the
so-called “science” of social scientists. But historians and writers
of fiction have something crucial in common because they both use narratives,
while science does not seem to do so.41 The
historian and the novelist both employ plots and fashion stories. The Greek
mimesis, normally translated as “imitation,”
can also be rendered as “make-believe.” As soon as he or she moves
from analyzing sources to casting a narrative, the historian has begun to
make up a story, to create his or her own plot, just as one would if fashioning
fiction. In much the same way, the writer of a memoir has made up a story.
Ricoeur is right when he says that “the references of empirical narrative
and fictional narrative cross upon
. . . historicity or the historical condition of man.”42

I believe the links between history and fiction are so fundamental that we
should abandon the outdated fiction/nonfiction distinction (perhaps replacing
it with narrative/exposition) and that we should judge “empirical”
and “fictional” narratives largely by the same standards:

•       character (Can we relate to and
understand the characters? Do they have reasons for what they do?)

•       plot (Can we see why one thing
leads to another?)

•       conflict (Does the author create
tension and interest by dramatizing the struggle of opposing forces?)

•       description (Does the author bring
the story alive though the use of colorful and precise details?)43

All these help us decide if historians have told a story “the best they

The second half of the equation is “using the texts,” or drawing
on primary documents. Put simply, no text means no history. We tend to think
of these sources as being substantial and authoritative, even though we acknowledge
that they are incomplete. I think Jenkins is on the right track, however,
when he calls the primary documents traces, which strikes me as a sound description.
As genealogists can tell you, the record of the past is much more random,
even willy-nilly—make that helter-skelter—than systematic. The
people of the past had an infinite number of reasons for either recording
or not recording various events. Like us, they sometimes forgot or neglected
to record matters they considered important, such as the births of children,
while noting items that now seem insignificant, such as train schedules. Not
surprisingly, tax and financial records now considered rather mundane tended
to be preserved while many a family memoir that would now be considered priceless

Again, whether or not a given record survives is a matter of chance. The
fact that someone in the past thought an event important, recorded it, and
carefully preserved that record in no way guarantees its survival (a rather
disconcerting thought to those of us who assume we can ensure the life of
certain records). That person’s descendants may lose the record or throw it
in the trash heap; a new government may destroy the record for political reasons
(or a family member for personal reasons); the ink or lead may fade (or the
microfilm may turn brittle and break); the paper may disintegrate or be devoured
by insects or rats (or the hard disk may crash); water may seep into the container
holding the record (such as the cornerstone of a building) and damage it.
As any genealogist can tell you, there is no end to the ways in which records
can be lost or destroyed, including mishandling, misdating, misfiling, and
mistranscribing by clerks and scriveners. But the great bane of us genealogists
is fire. We can all tell long and detailed stories of making good headway
in our research only to be halted by the notation “courthouse records
destroyed by fire.”44

This, then, is the state of the texts—they are random and haphazard
and allow us, at best, only a glimpse
of the past. In addition, they are not static pieces of evidence containing
one and only one meaning. Rather, they have to be interpreted.45 This makes it that much more important
for historians to treat the traces of the past responsibly. So, if character,
plot, conflict, and description are standards for evaluating how well the
historian tells the story, what is the standard for evaluating the historian’s
use of the texts? For what might be called academic history (a category that
presumably includes the writings of Bushman, Givens, Vogel, and many others),
I believe the most appropriate question is whether the historian does his
or her best to deal with the texts honestly and fairly.46

Is there an objective way to answer this question? Certainly not. I don’t
believe in objectivity. But that does not mean we are left without maps (or
without a coastline). Groups of people still find principles they can agree
on, allowing for what some call intersubjectivity. Many contemporary historians,
for example, agree on such guidelines as (1) thorough research that attempts
to account for all relevant texts; (2) emphasis on texts that are firsthand
and early (as opposed to those that are secondhand or late); (3) emphasis
on primary rather than secondary sources; (4) cross-referencing of sources
to see which corroborate or contradict each other; and (5) accuracy in
transcribing and referencing textual materials.47

Further, certain practices don’t seem sound. For example, I could advance
a thesis about Joseph Smith’s involvement in treasure seeking. Then I quote
a statement from one of Joseph’s neighbors that apparently supports my thesis.
So far, so good. But let’s also suppose my quotation includes an ellipsis
and that the excluded material runs counter to my thesis. That is clearly
dishonest, just as it would be dishonest to fail to inform the reader of entire
texts containing language that runs counter to my thesis. On the other hand,
it does not seem fair if I spend all my time researching sources friendly
to Joseph Smith and ignore hostile sources. Here is another valuable standard:
Is the historian’s approach to texts consistent? This implies that the historian
describe that methodology and explain the rationale behind various choices,
such as choosing one source over another.

Therefore, although the primary sources of history are not what we assumed
them to be, and although doing and reading history involves much more “subjective”
interpretation than we imagined, we can still get our bearings and find ways
to evaluate a historian’s use of the sources.

The Question of Bias

In a response to a review of his book, Vogel seems to modify his views on
objectivity. “True,” he writes, speaking of his own book, “it
is Vogel’s Joseph Smith. But it’s also Bushman’s Joseph Smith, Brodie’s Joseph
Smith, Donna Hill’s Joseph Smith, and Robert Remini’s Joseph Smith. There
is no getting around it. A biographer can try to hide behind neutral language,
but he is always present, even when quoting his subject.”48 I agree. It is not a question of who
is biased and who is not. Everyone is biased. This is simply to say that we
all have beliefs and outlooks that influence the way we interpret and tell
stories about the past. Every historian brings a preunderstanding of Joseph
Smith to his or her work. I do not hold that Vogel’s beliefs disqualify him
from doing Mormon history.49 I do,
however, have serious reservations about Vogel’s statement that while “there
is value to such a method [of relating events as the participants themselves
experienced them], I am reluctant to dispense with critical tools and become
a storyteller or narrator of the supernatural.”

This is precisely where Vogel makes a serious mistake. First of all, narrating
events as the participants reported them in no way means that the author abandons
critical tools. Quite the opposite: a careful narration requires historians
to bring all of their critical tools to bear. Just as Vogel applies source
criticism in his selection and annotation of early Mormon documents, the biographer
of Joseph Smith must also apply similar criticism in deciding whether and
how much to rely on various documents, asking such questions as these: Was
the author of the document a first- or secondhand (or hearsay) witness? What
do we know about that person’s reliability? When was the document written?
Do other sources either corroborate or contradict this source? Second, narrating
events as the witnesses reported them does not mean the historian believes
or agrees with those accounts, thus becoming a “narrator of the supernatural.”
Vogel seems particularly concerned with this, but I don’t understand why.
After all, he knows the sources as well as anyone, and he can construct a
narrative based on the documents. As a reader, this helps me understand the
people and events being discussed. But I do not assume that Vogel (or any
other historian) agrees with the claims made in the sources.

Again, Vogel writes, “I, too, want to understand Smith on his own terms,
but I would like to be able to explain him” (p. xv). Now we are
really getting to the heart of the matter. Certainly, historians have every
right to use source criticism to explain and interpret things. In this instance,
however, Vogel does not intend to “explain” Joseph Smith by drawing
on the primary documents. Instead, he intends to explain Joseph Smith based
on a nonhistorical standard—that is, his own private belief that, in
the words of Sterling McMurrin, “you don’t get books from angels and
translate them by miracles.”50

Vogel has thus stepped outside of historical methodology (and, as far as
I’m concerned, abandoned the principles espoused in Early Mormon Documents) to take up what is
essentially a religious (or antireligious) position. He has failed to see
that understanding Joseph Smith “on his own terms” and denying that
Joseph had authentic religious experiences are mutually contradictory goals.
Since Vogel does not believe in the supernatural, he can only explain Joseph
Smith by contradicting what Joseph himself says in the primary documents (such
as his 1832 history). This results in a puzzling irony: Vogel, who took such
care in researching and compiling the primary documents, has taken an adversarial
position toward those same documents, where he has to discount them or ignore
them in order to make his case for atheism.

Preoccupied with this need to promote his own views, come what may, Vogel
enters into discussions that mystify me. He says, for example, that “there
is simply no reliable proof for the existence of the supernatural” and
“the burden of proof rests with those making supernatural claims”
(p. xvi). But why is he raising these points at all? Does he mean to
tell us that the biographer of a religious figure, whether it is Jesus, Muhammad,
or Buddha, has to first of all determine the nature of the universe so he
can editorialize on the rightness or wrongness of that figure’s theology?

Vogel quotes a number of historians in an attempt to gather support for his
“interpretive” study, but the trouble is, these historians understandably
have their hands full with “normal” historical conundrums and do
not address the specific question of how to deal with the matter of belief
when writing about a religious figure. One notable exception is Brad S. Gregory,
associate professor of history at Notre Dame University, author of Salvation
at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe,
and winner
of Harvard University Press’s Thomas J. Wilson Prize.

“What Did It Mean to Them?”51

As Gregory puts it,

The distinctiveness of religion demands methodological astuteness if we want
to understand its practitioners, lest we misconstrue them from the outset.
In seeking to explain religion, many scholars have employed cultural theories
or social science approaches in ways that preclude its being understood. Instead
of reconstructing religious beliefs and experiences, they reduce them to something
else based on their own, usually implicit, modern or postmodern beliefs.52

I believe this is an apt description of what Vogel has
done: he has precluded Joseph Smith from being understood by attempting to
reduce Joseph’s beliefs to something else.

Gregory continues:

What people believed in the past is logically distinct from our opinions
about them. Understanding others on their own terms is a completely different
intellectual endeavor than explaining them in modern or postmodern categories.
. . . I fail to follow the logic of a leading literary scholar who
recently implied, during a session at the American Historical Association
convention, that because he “cannot believe in belief,” the religion
of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century people is not to be taken seriously
on its own terms. Strictly speaking, this is an autobiographical comment that
reveals literally nothing about early modern people. One might as well say,
“I cannot believe in unbelief; therefore, alleged post-Enlightenment
atheism should not be taken seriously on its own terms.”

Could bedfellows be any stranger? Reductionist explanations of religion share
the epistemological structure of traditional confessional history. Just as
confessional historians explore and evaluate based on their religious convictions,
reductionist historians of religion explain and judge based on their unbelief.53

Taking Gregory’s approach of asking “What did it mean to them?”
hardly means the historian is reduced, in Vogel’s words, to writing a “simple
chronological narrative.” As Gregory explains, “Contextual understanding
compels us to relate religion to other aspects of life—social, political,
economic, cultural—while resisting absorption by any of them.”
Nor is the historian required to accept primary sources at face value. Gregory
does not mean to “imply that no early Christian used religion in deliberately
manipulative ways. Doubtless some did, perhaps quite a few. But this is a
matter for empirical demonstration, not methodological assumption.”54 Likewise,
I believe that Vogel (or any other historian) is free to examine the motives
of Joseph Smith and others, as long as he bases his conclusions on the documents,
not his a priori assumptions about
the existence of God and angels.

Gregory seeks to “reconstruct, not deconstruct” the experiences
of early modern Christians. He acknowledges that “‘understanding’ does
not mean ‘perfect reconstruction.'” But, he adds, “the impossibility
of the latter neither justifies a general skepticism nor warrants the adoption
of reductionist theories.”55

I believe Gregory has explored the questions surrounding the writing of religious
history with unique clarity and insight. Certainly, if I am reading a biography
of St. Francis of Assisi, for example, I want the biographer to follow Gregory’s
standard—so that I can, as much as possible, understand St. Francis’s
experiences the way he perceived
them. If St. Francis himself was inconsistent about what he said, or if others
viewed his reports skeptically, discussions of these topics are quite acceptable
because they will be based on the sources. (Moreover, if the author makes
certain historiographical points in his endnotes, I am also fine with that.)
Indeed, a look at Gregory’s book shows his methodology to be wonderfully efficient:
we gain fresh insights into the beliefs of early modern Christians and feel
that we are really beginning to understand
them (and I, for one, am delighted to see that Gregory, a Roman Catholic,
makes no judgment whatsoever about the beliefs of Protestants put to death
by Catholics). Vogel, unfortunately, has produced a work that is, in Gregory’s
words, reductionist. (Put another way, he’s doing missionary work.)

Reconstructing the Visit of Moroni

The flaws in Vogel’s approach become quite evident when we compare his book
to Bushman’s. Their respective narrations of the night of 21–22 September
1823 (when Joseph Smith said he was first visited by Moroni) are reproduced
below, following the accounts from Joseph Smith himself:

Joseph Smith’s 1832 Account

I fell into transgressions and sinned in many things which brought a wound
upon my soul and there were many things which transpired that cannot be writen
and my Fathers family have suffered many persicutions and afflictions and
it came to pass when I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the
Lord and he shewed unto me a heavenly vision for behold an angel of the Lord
came and stood before me and it was by night and he called me by name and
he said the Lord had forgiven me my sins and he revealed unto me that in the
Town of Manchester Ontario County N.Y. there was plates of gold upon which
there was engravings which was engraven by Maroni & his fathers the servants
of the living God in ancient days and deposited by the commandments of God
and kept by the power thereof and that I should go and get them and he revealed
unto me many things concerning the inhabitants of the earth which since have
been revealed in commandments & revelations and it was on the 22nd day
of Sept. AD 1822 and thus he appeared unto me three times in one night.56

Joseph Smith’s 1838 Account

In consequence of these things I often felt condemned for my weakness and
imperfections; when on the evening of the above mentioned twenty first of
september, after I had retired to my bed for the night I betook myself to
prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and
follies, and also for a manifestation to me that I might know of my state
and standing before him. For I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation
as I had previously had one. While I was thus in the act of calling upon God,
I discovered a light appearing in the room which continued to increase untill
the room was lighter than at noonday and immediately a
personage at my bedside standing in the air for his feet
did not touch the floor. He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness.
lt was a whiteness beyond any earthly I had ever seen, nor do
I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedin[g]ly
white and brilliant, His hands were naked and his arms also a little above
the wrists. So also were his feet naked as were his legs a little above the
ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no
other clothing on but this robe, as it was open so that I could see into his
bosom. Not only was his robe exceedingly white but his whole person was glorious
beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was
exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person.
When I first looked upon him I was afraid, but the fear soon left me. He called
me by name and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence
of God to me and that his name was Nephi . That God had a work
for me to do, and that my should be had for good and evil among
all nations kindreds and tongues. or that it should be both good and evil
spoken of among all people. He said there was a book deposited written upon
gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent
and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fullness of
the everlasting Gospel was contained in it as delivered by the Saviour to
the ancient inhabitants. Also that there were two stones in silver bows and
these (put into a breast plate) which
constituted what is called the Urim & Thummin deposited with the plates,
and that was what constituted
seers in ancient or former times and that God prepared them for
the purpose of translating the book. After telling me these things he commenced
quoting the prophecies of the old testament, he first quoted part of the third
chapter of Malachi and he quoted also the fourth or last chapter of the same
prophecy though with a little variation from the way it reads in our Bibles.
Instead of quoting the first verse as reads in our books he quoted it thus,
“For behold the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud
and all that do wickedly shall burn as stubble, for y
day> that cometh shall burn them saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall
leave them neither root nor branch.” And again he quoted the fifth verse
thus, “Behold I will reveal unto you the Priesthood by the hand of Elijah
the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”
He also quoted the next verse differently. “And he shall plant in the
hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of
the children shall turn to their fathers, if it were not so the whole earth
would be utterly wasted at his coming.” In addition to these quotations
he quoted the Eleventh Chapter of Isaiah saying that it was about to be fulfilled.
He quoted also the third chapter of Acts, twenty second and twenty third verses
precisely as they stand in our new testament. He said that that prophet was
Christ, but the day had not yet come when “they who would not hear his
voice should be cut off from among the people,” but soon would come.

He also quoted the second chapter of Joel from the twenty eighth to the last
verse. He also said that this was not yet fulfilled but was soon to be. And
he further stated the fulness of the gentiles was soon to come in. He quoted
many other passages of scripture and offered many explanations which cannot
be mentioned here. Again he told me that when I got those plates of which
he had spoken (for the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled)
I should not show to any person, neither the breastplate with
the Urim and Thummim only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them.
If I did I should be destroyed. While he was conversing with me about the
plates the vision was opened to my mind that I could see the place where the
plates were deposited and that so clearly and distinctly that I knew the place
again when I visited it.

After this conversation communication I saw the light in the room
begin to gather immediately around the person of him who had been speaking
to me, and it continued to do so untill the room was again left dark except
just round him, when instantly I saw as it were a conduit open right up into
heaven, and he ascended up till he entirely disappeared and the room was left
as it had been before this heavenly light had made its appearance.

I lay musing on the singularity of the scene and marvelling greatly at what
had been told me by this extraordinary messenger, when in the midst of my
meditation I suddenly discovered that my room was again beginning to get lighted,
and in an instant as it were, the same heavenly messenger was again by my
bedside. He commenced and again related the very same things which he had
done at his first visit without the least variation which having done, he
informed me of great judgements which were coming upon the earth, with great
desolations by famine, sword, and pestilence, and that these grievous judgements
would come on the earth in this generation: Having related these things he
again ascended as he had done before.

By this time so deep were the impressions made on my mind that sleep had
fled from my eyes and I lay overwhelmed in astonishment at what I had both
seen and heard:

But what was my surprise when again I beheld the same messenger at my bed
side, and heard him rehearse or repeat over again to me the same things as
before and added a caution to me, telling me that Satan would try to tempt
me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father’s family) to
get the plates for the purpose of getting rich, This he forbid me, saying
that I must have mo no other object in view in getting the plates but
to glorify God, and must not be influenced by any other motive but that of
building his kingdom, otherwise I could not get them. After this third visit
he again ascended up into heaven as before and I was again left to ponder
on the strangeness of what I had just experienced, when almost immediately
after the heavenly messenger had ascended from me the third time, the cock
crew, and I found that day was approaching so that our interviews must have
occupied the whole of that night.57

Vogel’s Version

Joseph’s involvement with Robinson’s hill began, according to Joseph’s own
account, on the night and early morning hours of 21–22 September 1823.
Earlier that evening, according to what Martin Harris later told Palmyra minister
John A. Clark, Joseph had acted as seer for a local treasure-seeking expedition.58
It had been an especially propitious night for treasure hunting. The moon
was full and the evening marked the autumnal equinox,59 but as usual, the seekers returned home empty-handed. Lucy,
who by this time was attending Palmyra’s Western Presbyterian Church and may
have begun to have misgivings about her husband’s involvement in magic, did
not mention the digging that occurred on this astrologically significant night.
Instead, she related that her family stayed up late into the evening “conversing
upon the subject of the diversity of churches that had risen up in the world
and the many thousand opinions in existence as to the truths contained in
scripture.”60 Not an
unlikely topic for a late Sunday night conversation, but Lucy probably minimized
the intensity of this discussion since young Joseph’s reaction was more pronounced
than usual.

Lucy noticed that seventeen-year-old Joseph seemed withdrawn as if in deep
contemplation. He was quiet but not unaffected. What he may have felt about
his part in the treasure hunt, it was undoubtedly his parents’ religious turmoil
that most stirred him, in the words of his mother, “to reflect more deeply
than common persons of his age upon everything of a religious nature.”61
Joseph more than any of his siblings well understood the religious quandary
in which his parents found themselves. There was much that he could say, but
in the swirl of emotional debate, who would hear him? Besides, he was just
a youth with little standing or authority in such matters. More than anything,
Joseph’s silence likely resulted from his ambivalent feelings and the high
emotional price of choosing sides. Very little was resolved when the Smiths
finally retired for the night.

As Joseph lay in his bed, likely troubled by his family’s religious conflicts,
he may have prayed for deliverance—perhaps asking God to soften his
parents’ hearts. He may have asked that God would give him the words to convert
his father, but he knew that words alone were not sufficient to persuade.
Joseph Sr.’s intellectualized approach to the Bible and Universalistic beliefs
seemed like impassible barriers to Joseph Jr. From his failed attempt to persuade
him in 1820/21, Joseph knew that his father resisted visionary experiences.
Joseph’s line of authority with his father was his gift of seeing. Perhaps
for the good of the family and his father’s future welfare, Joseph might call
upon that influence to bring his father to repentance and give his family
the religious harmony they so badly needed. These were desperate thoughts,
but in Joseph’s mind, the situation called for decisive action.

He would later claim that his mind was preoccupied only with thoughts of
his unworthiness before God and that he began to pray “to Almighty God
for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to
me that I might know of my state and standing before him.”62
Shortly an “angel” appeared at his bedside, declaring that his sins
were forgiven and that God had a special work for him to perform. This messenger
proceeded to tell Joseph about a history of the ancient inhabitants of America
written on gold plates and hidden in a nearby hill. (pp. 43–44)

At this point Vogel drops his narrative in favor of
an editorial aside. “[Joseph’s] willingness to change this and other
visions in order to meet later needs prompts one to wonder whether the visions
were invented to serve utilitarian purposes,” he writes (p. 44).

Bushman’s Version

The Smiths had spent the evening of September 21, as Lucy
recalled, “conversing upon the subject of the diversity of churches . . .
and the many thousand opinions in existence as to the truths contained in
scripture.”63 That
night after the others in the crowded little house had gone to sleep, Joseph
remained awake to pray “to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins
and follies.”64 While
praying he noticed the room growing lighter until it was brighter than broad
daylight. Suddenly, as he later reported, a person appeared in the light standing
above the floor.

He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond
anything earthly I had ever seen, nor do I believe that any earthly thing
could be made to appear so exceedin[g]ly white and brilliant, His hands were
naked and his arms also a little above the wrist. So also were his feet naked
as were his legs a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare.
I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was
open so that I could see into his bosom. Not only was his robe exceedingly
white but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance
truly like lightning.

This time all the accounts agree on the burden of the message.
If Joseph initially understood the First Vision as his conversion, similar
to thousands of other evangelical conversions, this vision wrenched Joseph
out of any ordinary track.

The being, who identified himself as Moroni, assured Joseph
that his sins were forgiven, but then said God was giving Joseph a work unlike
any envisioned in his time. He was told about a book “written upon gold
plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and
the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting
Gospel was contained in it as delivered by the Saviour to the ancient inhabitants.”
Besides that, “there were two stones in silver bows and these stones
fastened to a breast plate constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim
deposited with the plates, and the possession and use of these stones was
what constituted seers in ancient or former times and that God had prepared
them for the purpose of translating the book.”65 All this was buried in a nearby hill
that Joseph saw in his vision.

The rest of the vision was more familiar and comprehensible.
Moroni quoted Old and New Testament prophecies relating to the final days
of the earth: the third and fourth chapters of Malachi, Acts 3:22–23,
Joel 2:28–32, and Isaiah 11. These were the texts the clergy used to
teach about the millennium. Joseph knew them well enough to note small departures
from the words in the Bible. Hearing the familiar texts from the angel confirmed
the common belief that the last days were near and Joseph was to prepare.66

Moroni warned him not to show the plates and the Urim and
Thummim to anyone, and then the light began to gather around him until the
room was dark except near his person. “Instantly I saw as it were a conduit
open right up into heaven, and he ascended till he entirely disappeared.”
Joseph lay back in astonishment, trying to understand what had happened, when
the room brightened again, and the angel reappeared. Moroni repeated every
word he had said before and then added comments about “great judgements
which were coming upon the earth with great desolations by famine, sword,
and pestilence.” Moroni again ascended but soon after appeared a third
time to repeat everything again. This time he added the warning that “Satan
would try to tempt me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my
father’s family) to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich.”
Joseph was to have no other object “but to glorify God.”67

Comparing Vogel to Bushman

These two versions reveal much about the differences between Vogel’s and
Bushman’s methodologies. But first things first. Since Joseph Smith’s 1832
history was the first document giving details on Moroni’s visit, I am quite
surprised that neither Vogel nor Bushman even mentions it. I consider it a
key source and believe both of their retellings are the weaker for not confronting

The first difference between Vogel and Bushman is quite conspicuous: Vogel
places the events of 21 and 22 September in a treasure-seeking context
while Bushman does not. Vogel does this by referring to a document written
by John A. Clark. Here is the quotation in question, which Clark wrote in
1840 (taken from—where else?—Early Mormon Documents): “According to
Martin Harris, it was after one of these [money-digging] night excursions,
that [Joseph Smith], while he lay upon his bed, had a remarkable dream. An
angel of God seemed to approach him, clad in celestial splendour. This divine
messenger assured him, that he, Joseph Smith, was chosen of the Lord to be
a prophet of the Most High God, and to bring to light hidden things, that
would prove of unspeakable benefit to the world.”68

Vogel takes it as a given that the Smiths had indeed engaged in a treasure-seeking
excursion on the evening of 21 September 1823. But here is the problem.
Clark is at least a thirdhand source. He claims his information came directly
from Martin Harris, probably in the autumn of 1827, but we do not know where
Martin Harris got his information (nor do we know if Clark reported Martin
Harris accurately or if Martin Harris reported whomever accurately). Well,
there is evidence and there is evidence. As Vogel himself said, “historians
are guided but not bound by the rules of evidence practiced in United States
courts of law,”69 and
courts and historical studies are both naturally skeptical of hearsay testimony.70 The
hearsay rule is the “basic rule that testimony or documents which quote
persons not in court are not admissible. Because the person who supposedly
knew the facts is not in court to state his/her exact words, the trier of
fact cannot judge the demeanor and credibility of the alleged first-hand witness,
and the other party’s lawyer cannot cross-examine (ask questions of) him or
her.”71 However, the law recognizes the difficulty
of always going to the source, whether because of impossibility or impracticality,
and so there are several exceptions to this rule, such as excited utterances,
present sense impressions, declarations of physical condition, and business
records (to name a few).

Historians, of course, also make exceptions to the hearsay rule. The great
majority of David Whitmer documents, for example, are secondhand because they
were recorded by someone other than David Whitmer himself. Still, these interviews
are considered valuable historical documents. However, thirdhand statements
are another matter. The claim that “it was after one of these night excursions”
that Joseph claimed to have seen an angel is a case of “he said he said
he said.” In other words, “John Clark said that Martin Harris said
that Joseph said.” (Even this is giving Vogel the benefit of the doubt
because Martin Harris did not reveal his source. It is possible that he talked
to a neighbor, who said that Joseph said he had been searching for treasure
that night—making Clark a fourthhand source.) I believe this is too
far removed to carry substantial weight. (I also assume that Clark’s claim
cannot be corroborated. If so, Vogel would have mentioned it in Early
Mormon Documents
.) The proper place for Clark’s comment is in an

Judging from the standards Vogel uses in evaluating Oliver Cowdery’s purported
courtroom declaration, I would expect him to relegate Clark’s comment to an
endnote. After all, the two cases are quite similar. Most of the Cowdery statements
come from Charles M. Nielsen, who said he heard a man by the name of Robert
Barrington relate the experience of hearing Oliver Cowdery bear his testimony.
Nielsen’s account is therefore thirdhand, and, as Vogel says, “rests
on less than satisfactory grounds.”72 The very same is true of Clark’s claim.

Not only that, but Lucy Mack Smith, a firsthand witness of events on the
night of 21 September 1823, gives this account: “One evening we
were sitting till quite late conversing upon the subject of the diversity
of churches that had risen up in the world and the many thousand opinions
in existence as to the truths contained in scripture.”73 Lucy not only fails to corroborate Clark’s
claim, she strongly implies that it is not accurate—how could the family
engage in a long religious conversation if Joseph and his fathers and brothers
were out searching for treasure the same night?

So how do Vogel and Bushman deal with Clark’s thirdhand account and Lucy’s
firsthand account? Vogel gives precedence to Clark, describing the entire
evening in terms of treasure seeking and even suggesting that Lucy did not
mention the money digging because she may have had misgivings about her husband’s
involvement in magic. This is making a firsthand source subordinate to a thirdhand
source. That is not what I call good source criticism. (And it is hard to
escape the conclusion that Vogel is manipulating the sources to fit his preconceived
notion of what happened.) Bushman, on the other hand, excludes Clark’s thirdhand
statement from his narrative (a choice I agree with, although I think he should
have mentioned Clark in an endnote).

The second half of the treasure-seeking issue has to do with Vogel’s claim
that “it had been an especially propitious night for treasure hunting.”
Vogel cites Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the
Magic World View
as a source. When we check Quinn, however, we
find no evidence (despite Quinn’s rather strenuous efforts to manufacture
it) that the Smith family themselves saw 21 September as being “astrologically
significant.” All we really have is Quinn’s speculation on that issue.
When Vogel, therefore, describes Moroni’s visit in a treasure-seeking context,
he does so by relying on uncorroborated thirdhand testimony and conjecture
from a secondary work, resulting in a strained narrative that wrests the truly
good sources.

The night of 21–22 September 1823 was undoubtedly a crucial night
in Joseph Smith’s life, perhaps more crucial than any other. It would therefore
seem like a biographer’s dream that Joseph left such extensive firsthand accounts
(totaling more than 1,500 words) of the experience. The natural temptation
would be to quote too much from Joseph, as well as quoting from such secondhand
sources as Lucy Mack, William, and Katharine Smith and Oliver Cowdery. If
the biographer were not careful, he could lose his narrative (and distract
the reader) in a long series of quotations. For the judicious author, however,
Joseph’s accounts offer a gold mine (no pun intended) of memorable details.

So how do Vogel and Bushman deal with these firsthand accounts? Vogel quotes
exactly twenty-nine words (about Joseph praying for forgiveness) and says
virtually nothing about Moroni and nothing at all about his three different
visits. The more one thinks about this, the more incredible it seems: Vogel,
a master of the sources, has written a book of over 700 pages about a man
who claimed to converse with heavenly messengers, and he essentially bypasses
that man’s firsthand and detailed account about what an angel looked like
and what he said. More than anything else, this illustrates just how much
Vogel’s “bias” (more properly, his making his own religious beliefs—actually
antireligious beliefs—the overarching and controlling bias of his “history”)
has destroyed his ability to tell the story by drawing from the sources. How
can the reader possibly understand Joseph Smith (or trust Vogel, for that
matter) when Vogel refuses to let Joseph speak for himself?74

Not surprisingly, Bushman quotes from Joseph Smith at length, just as Robert
Remini does.75

As if it is not enough to ignore Joseph Smith’s accounts, Vogel presumes
to do Joseph’s speaking for him. As Andrew and Dawson Hedges say, “Vogel
takes it upon himself to tell us what really
happened that night—indeed, what young Joseph was actually thinking over the course of that night and
the following day, whatever he or his mother might later say.”76 Vogel has once again put himself in
an adversarial relationship with the sources, trying to convince us that something else happened. But rather than reaching
these conclusions through source criticism, Vogel deduces them based on his
idea of what must have happened.

Bushman’s version once again offers a striking contrast. He sticks with the
sources, does his speculating (still related, however, to the sources themselves)
in his endnotes, and asks what the events meant to the people themselves,
offering a retelling they would probably recognize.

Echoing a common theme, Vogel writes that “an ‘angel’ appeared at [Joseph
Smith’s] bedside, declaring that his sins were forgiven” (p. 44).
Vogel puts the word angel in quotation
marks, implying that Joseph did not initially use the word. “Unlike the
‘vision’ Smith would later narrate for an audience that would be unreceptive
to folk-magic,” says Vogel, “the earliest accounts identify the
heavenly messenger as a ‘spirit’ who visited Joseph three times in a ‘dream'”
(p. 45). Other critics, including Ronald Huggins and William D. Morain,
have made similar claims.77
But let’s look at what two volumes of Early
Mormon Documents
reveal on the matter.

Vogel makes it clear that the earliest references to the Book of Mormon both
date to June 1829. The first, dated 17 June, was a letter from Jesse
Smith, Joseph Sr.’s older brother, to Hyrum. The first paragraph reads as

Once as I thot that my promising Nephew, You wrote to my Father long ago,
that after struggling thro various scenes of adversity, you and your family,
you had at last taught the very solutary lesson that the God that made the
heavens and the earth w[o]uld at onc[e] give success to your endeavours, this
if true, is very well, exactly as it should be—but alas what is man
when left to his own way, he makes his own gods, if a golden calf, he falls
down and worships before it, and says this is my god which brought me out
of the land of Vermont—if it be a gold book discovered by the necromancy
of infidelity, & dug from the mines of atheism, he [Joseph Jr.] writes
that the angel of the Lord has revealed to him the hidden treasures
of wisdom & knowledge, even divine revelation
, which has lain
in the bowels of the earth for thousands of years [and] is at last made known
to him, he says he has eyes to see things that are not, and then has the audacity
to say they are; and the angel of the Lord (Devil it should be) has put me
in possession of great wealth, gold & silver and precious stones so that
I shall have the dominion in all the land of Palmyra.78

The second reference, dated 26 June, is from a local newspaper:

Just about in this particular region, for some time past, much speculation
has existed, concerning a pretended discovery, through superhuman means,
of an ancient record, of a religious and a divine nature and origin,
in ancient characters impossible to be interpreted by any to whom the special
gift has not been imparted by inspiration. It is generally known and
spoken of as the “Golden Bible.” Most people entertain an
idea that the whole matter is the result of a gross imposition, and a grosser

Although they are both hostile, these accounts clearly set the story of the
angel and the plates in a religious rather than treasure-seeking context.
Vogel has therefore misrepresented the sources he himself went to so much
trouble to compile. And if the counterargument is given that the earliest
people to hear the story—such
as Willard Chase—told of a treasure guardian, it can easily be shown
that individuals who heard the story before Chase—such as Joseph Knight
Sr., Joseph Knight Jr., Lucy Mack Smith, and William Smith—told of an

Deus ex Machina

In ancient Greek drama, play producers sometimes lowered deities by a crane
or “machine” to rescue the hero or heroine from a tight spot. The
Greek phrase used to describe such divine intervention was theos ek mekhanes. As William Harmon explains,
“Such abrupt but timely appearance of a god, when used to extricate characters
from a situation so perplexing that the solution seemed beyond mortal powers,
was referred to in Latin as deus ex machina
(‘god from the machine’). The term now characterizes any device whereby an
author solves a difficult situation by a forced invention.”81

Dan Vogel has made up a detailed narrative about Joseph Smith and the Book
of Mormon. Like any other historian, he plots his story by showing how one
thing leads to another. But Vogel has worked himself into a corner by insisting
on “addressing” Joseph’s religious claims, something that historians
like Brad Gregory and Robert Remini do not find at all necessary. Since Vogel’s
“inclination” (hardly a strong enough word) is to “interpret
any claim of the paranormal” as “delusion or fraud,” he develops
“natural” explanations (such as the influence of the magic worldview
and the effects of a dysfunctional family) for Joseph Smith’s experiences.
This is inevitably Vogel’s only solution to the question of why one thing
leads to another. When these elements are introduced into the narrative, however,
they jar conspicuously with the causes and effects apparent in the sources.
In what is a doubly ironic twist, Vogel has attempted to solve his “plot
problems” not by drawing on early Mormon documents but by calling on
a god in a machine.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Dan Vogel has published a letter in Dialogue82 responding to a letter of mine.83 Since the topic in question—whether
Joseph Smith first described Moroni as a heavenly messenger or a treasure
guardian—is relevant to my review of Vogel’s book, I will respond to
Vogel’s letter. My letter was a response to Ronald V. Huggins’s article “From
Captain Kidd’s Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni: Changing Dramatis
in Early Mormonism,”84 in which
Huggins claims that Joseph’s account of the angel and the plates originated
as a “money-digger’s yarn” and was later transformed into “restoration
history.”85 I also
subsequently published a much more detailed review of Huggins.86 Huggins was apparently unaware that
Mark Ashurst-McGee had previously published an important paper on this same
topic, which is reprinted in this issue of the Review.87

My primary criticisms of Huggins were that he fails to provide a historical
context for treasure seeking, he neglects important documents, he obscures
the timeline, and he hides crucial details. I further argued that, if one
wants to discover what Joseph originally said about the plates and how his
account may have changed over time, it is necessary to systematically examine
all relevant sources (identifying what Joseph said and when he said it) and
to develop a method for judging the relative value of these sources. Agreeing
with Ashurst-McGee’s statements that “eyewitness testimony is the most
important standard of historical reliability” and that “sources
composed closer to the time of the event” take precedence over “sources
composed later on,”88 I proposed dividing the primary sources
into four categories: (1) those coming from individuals who talked directly
to Joseph Smith, (2) those coming from individuals who talked to a second
party who had talked to Joseph, (3) those composed before 1850, and (4) those
composed after 1850. I referred to these categories as first- and secondhand
and early and late, arguing that the best sources were those that were both
firsthand and early.

I next examined thirteen different accounts of what Joseph Smith said about
the angel and the plates, listing them in the order these individuals talked
to Joseph (or to a second party who had talked to Joseph) and showing what details
they included, as summarized below. Those accounts marked by an asterisk are
what I call prime witnesses, meaning that they are both firsthand (based on
a direct conversation with Joseph) and early (composed at least by 1850). The
date after the person’s name tells when he or she talked to Joseph Smith; the
date in brackets indicates when the account was recorded.

Four specific claims by Vogel are numbered below:

1. “Historical standards are guides in
assessing evidence, not apologetic devices designed to dismiss out-of-hand
undesirable testimony.”

With this statement, Vogel begins a series of what amounts to rhetorical
tricks. He characterizes my argument in such a way that anyone accepting that
characterization is bound to agree that Vogel is right and I am wrong. After
all, who would argue that historical standards should be used as apologetic
devices? Who would claim that it is acceptable to dismiss out-of-hand undesirable
testimony? I certainly do not. Vogel thus fashions a straw man: he has described
a weak position and then falsely attributed that position to me.

Vogel also gives the impression that one can use historical standards to
do anything one wants, easily casting aside contrary evidence. But if that
were true, it seems that the so-called standard would immediately be suspect.
One could hardly employ a reasonable standard and then accept or reject evidence
on a whim. The standard itself would not allow that.

So, the question arises, is my standard flawed? In an earlier essay, I suggested
the following principles of dealing with historical documents: (1) firsthand
accounts are preferred over second- or thirdhand, (2) early statements
are preferred over late statements, (3) all relevant sources must be
accounted for, (4) corroboration (or a lack thereof) is a key criterion
in evaluating sources, and (5) each separate claim within a document
must be judged on its own merits.90

Does Vogel honestly think that this five-point standard could really be used
to quickly dismiss contrary sources? As I see it, a quick dismissal would
mean that the standard was not being followed. And, as I said in my letter,
“all accounts—both hostile and friendly to Joseph—deserve
careful study.”91

Here’s what Vogel himself said on the topic of standards:

Not all historical documents are created equal. Each must be evaluated to
determine its significance, and readers should not confuse actual historical
events with written descriptions. The informant records his or her perceptions
or interpretation of the event. . . . These documents reflect the
bias, personality, and world view(s) of the men and women who produced them—they
are never mere records of events.

When evaluating human testimony, historians are guided but not bound by the
rules of evidence practiced in United States courts of law. Ideally, one wishes
for firsthand testimony from unbiased witnesses, but this is rarely found
in either historical sources or courts of law.92 Instead we are left to sift judiciously through
various kinds of testimony, imperfectly recorded, and without the benefit
of cross examination. But where a court may be unable to convict the guilty
or exonerate the innocent, historians, with the benefit of hindsight, enjoy
greater perspective and, in some ways, more flexibility when evaluating testimony.
Historians, for example, do not automatically exclude hearsay, perjured, or
even biased (or interested) testimony.

In Mormon studies it can be especially difficult to find disinterested witnesses.
Nevertheless, despite the believer’s zeal and the antagonist’s scorn, such
testimony can yield valuable insight. An enemy, for example, may notice something
an average observer would miss, or a friend may take for granted (and fail
to mention) things outsiders would find distinctive or significant. The particular
side of an issue an informant falls on should never be reason alone for ignoring
or dismissing his or her testimony.

The time-lapse between an observation and its recollection is important.
Generally the closer to an event, the more reliable the document. But not
always. One contemporary source might report only hearsay testimony, whereas
a document written many years later might be from an eyewitness. Yet the hearsay
source may report the information more accurately, while time and faulty memory
may obscure and distort the eyewitness account. The same applies in determining
the character or reliability of witnesses. Often a reluctant or even hostile
witness is the most candid. In matters of religion, the religious are sometimes
tempted to lie, just as nonbelievers may be more inclined to discount the

Now, how would Vogel respond if someone said, “You may call that a set
of standards, but it’s really just a polemical device that you are using to
easily dismiss evidence you don’t agree with”? I would expect Vogel to
say that his set of standards allows no such thing.

Furthermore, although I did not have Vogel’s statement in front of me when
I fashioned my five points, I had read and carefully marked his statement
several years earlier. His standard influenced mine. In fact, I believe that
all five of my points are stated or implied in Vogel’s statement. Vogel and
I also agree that evaluation of sources is an intricate business and that,
as he says in his letter, “applying these standards is not . . .
mechanical and automatic. . . . Historical sources and their relationships
to one another can be complex, and often there are other complicating factors
to consider.”94
As the above table shows, I carefully considered a wide variety of sources
in attempting to determine what Joseph originally said about the plates, including
statements hostile, friendly, and seemingly neutral to Joseph; first- and
secondhand statements; and early and late statements. I took careful note
of when conversations were said to have occurred and when they were recorded,
and I closely checked for corroboration among all sources. I believe that
such a systematic approach has so many checks and balances built into it that
it would simply not be possible to summarily dismiss “undesirable testimony.”

2. “The best example of Morris’s misuse
of historical methodology is his hasty dismissal of Willard Chase’s 1833 report
of what he had learned from Joseph Smith Sr. in 1827 about Joseph Jr.’s claimed
1823 encounter with ‘Moroni.'”

I did not dismiss Chase at all; rather, I simply pointed out that his statement
is secondhand (because, purportedly, he got his information from Joseph Sr.
rather than Joseph Jr.) and that this statement is not the earliest account
concerning the plates (as Huggins claimed). Still, in retrospect, I believe
I should have given more emphasis to the Chase document in my Dialogue
letter. It is an important source, and, as Vogel points out (and as the table
above makes quite clear), “many of its details are corroborated in other
independent sources.”96 But
more on Chase later.

3. “Although [Benjamin Saunders’s 1884]
account meets Morris’s requirement for ‘firsthand’ testimony, he dismisses
the toad story as a later embellishment without acknowledging support from
Chase’s 1833 statement.”

This claim mystifies me. Here is what I actually wrote about Saunders:

“Accounts emphasizing a treasure guardian came later. Benjamin Saunders
reported in 1884 that he had heard Joseph say, ‘there was something down near
the box that looked like a toad that rose up into a man which forbid him to
take the plates.’ This conversation took place in 1827, shortly after Joseph
obtained the plates.”98 Nowhere did I use the word embellishment (this is not the only time that
Vogel implies I used a certain word when I did not). I simply pointed out
that Saunders’s statement was not recorded until 1884. Nor do I dismiss Saunders’s
statement. Along with quoting it in my letter, I include it in the above table.
(I will grant Vogel’s point that I could have mentioned Chase in this context.)

4. “Cole prefaced his statement with
‘it is well known,’ so Morris’s fabrication-for-the-sake-of-revenge thesis
is highly unlikely.”

Here again, Vogel has misrepresented my position. I never said that Cole
fabricated his story—nor do I believe it. Rather, I pointed out that
Cole took a very neutral tone when he first discussed the Book of Mormon and
that his tone changed radically after he had a confrontation with Joseph Smith
(which occurred because Cole was illegally publishing excerpts from the Book
of Mormon in violation of Joseph’s copyright). If Cole had any solid evidence
that Luman Walter(s) or anyone else was involved in the creation of the Book
or Mormon, he did not mention it in his initial articles. After the confrontation
with Joseph, however, Cole launched a parody of the Book of Mormon called
“The Book of Pukei.” That treatment (a sort of nineteenth-century
tabloid journalism) has all the earmarks of rumormongering. Even when Cole
later makes statements about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, he offers
vague accusations without supplying specific dates (making it virtually impossible
to either prove or disprove his claims). Also, Cole’s saying that something
was well known hardly shows that it was. Such a statement needs supporting
evidence, and Cole offers none. Any careful discussion of Cole must take all
of this into account.

The Willard Chase Document

One of the main things Vogel takes me to task for is my supposed “hasty
dismissal” of the Willard Chase statement. While I agree that this statement
is important, I believe that Vogel himself makes hasty conclusions that cause
him to miss crucial details related to the Chase account.

Vogel is correct that the Chase version includes several details confirmed
by other sources (indeed, the table shows that Chase mentions six of the eight
categories). Because of this, Vogel jumps to the conclusion that Chase is
“highly credible,”100
apparently assuming that the Chase affidavit is therefore a reliable guide
to what Joseph Smith Jr. said about the angel and the plates.

But Vogel (like Huggins, for that matter) has glossed over the fact that
Chase is a hearsay witness because he talked to Joseph Sr., not Joseph Jr.
And the whole point of my investigation (and of Huggins’s article) is to discover
what Joseph Jr. originally said
and how that account may have changed over time. I agree with Vogel that we
should not automatically exclude Chase’s claims because they are secondhand.
At the same time, however, we don’t automatically accept them either. What
we must do is carefully consider what Vogel calls complicating factors.

The key question is this: how do we determine what Joseph Jr. originally
said about the plates? The answer is obvious: we look at the accounts of those
who talked to Joseph about this subject. (If these accounts are found to be
unsatisfactory for some reason, we would then move to hearsay accounts.) This
is not as simple as it may seem because, as Vogel points out, the relationships
among historical sources can be quite complex. We have to consider when these
individuals talked to Joseph, when they recorded their experiences, whether
they were friendly or hostile to Joseph, and whether their claims can be corroborated
by other sources. It can be argued that even a witness who talked to Joseph
can be unreliable for one reason or another. This is true enough (and it is
also true of those who talked to his father). But the way we protect against
that contingency is by looking for corroboration among sources. And what do
we find when we compare the four prime sources (identified as such because
they were all firsthand and early)?

As the table shows, Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Knight Sr., Oliver Cowdery, and
Henry Harris are remarkably consistent.101 They all agree on the divine purpose
associated with the plates and with the appearance of an angel (although Knight
uses the term personage—the
same term Joseph uses in his 1838 account). Furthermore, not a single one
of these witnesses mentions a detail not mentioned by at least one other witness.
Finally, none of them makes any mention of black clothes or a black horse,
a treasure guardian, or a toad.

Such consistency safely allows us to use these prime sources as a standard.
There is no need to use Chase’s account to tell us what Joseph Jr. said—that
would only have been necessary if the firsthand sources had been shown to
be unreliable.102 Of
course, establishing a standard does not mean that we have discovered exactly
what Joseph originally said. Absolute proof is not possible because we are
only working with traces of the past. Nevertheless, these are the best sources
available, and the fact that they confirm rather than contradict each other
indicates a reasonable level of reliability. The best evidence thus indicates
that Joseph Smith mentioned the following when he first told of the plates:

•      There was a divine purpose associated
with the visit of an angel.

•      The plates disappeared and a “shock”
prevented Joseph from retrieving them.

•      The angel instructed Joseph to bring
someone with him to obtain the plates.

As for Chase and Lapham, consider this: they both talked to Joseph Sr., and
they both mention the need for Joseph Jr. to wear black clothes or bring a
black horse and the presence of a treasure-guardian spirit, while none of
the four prime sources mentions these details. Furthermore, the four prime
sources all include religious elements of Joseph Jr.’s experience in a way
that Chase and Lapham do not (with Chase conspicuously making no mention of
the angel or a divine purpose while the great majority of the other sources

A conspicuous pattern emerges: those who talked directly to Joseph Jr. emphasize
the religious aspects of the story and deemphasize the “Captain Kidd”
aspects, while those who talked to Joseph Sr. do the exact opposite. It therefore
seems quite reasonable to conclude that this is merely a reflection of the
different ways that Joseph Sr. and Joseph Jr. viewed or reported the experiences
of the Prophet. This is hardly surprising. Who has not had the experience
of hearing of an event directly from the person involved only to later hear
a secondhand report with quite different nuances and shades of meaning?103

Vogel and Huggins have failed to examine systematically which details of
the Chase statement are confirmed by which witnesses. It is quite striking,
for instance, that not a single prime source mentions the black clothes or
horse, the treasure guardian, or the toad. In addition, the sources (other
than Chase and Lapham) who do mention these details all recorded them quite
late (the Lewis brothers in 1879 and the Saunders brothers in 1884), greatly
increasing the possibility that they unintentionally conflated statements
they had heard from various sources in the past.

In this light, it is quite revealing to reread the statement of Henry Harris.
He had quite a negative view of Joseph Smith and had every reason to mention
details likely to embarrass or discredit the Prophet. Rather than offering
a “Captain Kidd” tale, however, Harris reports that Joseph “said
he had a revelation from God that told him [the plates] were hid in a certain
hill and he looked in his stone and saw them in the place of deposit; that
an angel appeared, and told him he could not get the plates until he was married,
and that when he saw the woman that was to be his wife, he should know her,
and she would know him.”104 Harris says nothing at all about a
toad, a spirit guardian, or the need for black clothes or a black horse. Interestingly,
this account sounds remarkably like that of Joseph Knight Sr., a friendly
source who also talked with Joseph Smith.

The dating of Harris’s conversation with Joseph (another factor not carefully
analyzed by Huggins or Vogel) is also important. As Vogel says, the conversation
“evidently occurred sometime after Martin Harris’s trip to New York City
in February 1828 and before the Book of Mormon’s publication in March 1830.
It possibly occurred during Smith’s visits to Palmyra/Manchester in early
June and late June to late September 1829 in preparation for printing the
Book of Mormon.”105 This information allows us to establish
a timetable of sorts for the prime witnesses. Lucy Mack Smith heard of the
plates and the angel in 1823, Joseph Knight Sr. in 1826, Henry Harris between
1828 and 1830, and Oliver Cowdery between 1829 and 1835. Given the consistency
of these sources, it is clear that Joseph Smith was giving the same kind of
account at the end of the 1820s as he did in 1823. Far from beginning with
a “Captain Kidd” version and later altering it, Joseph related a
religious experience from the start, a point confirmed by hostile and friendly
witnesses alike.

Table 1. Reminiscences of Joseph’s Account



Treasure guardian

Black clothes/horse

Plates disappear


Bring someone

Divine purpose


*Lucy Smith 1823 [1844–45]







William Smith 1823 [1883, 1884]







Lorenzo Saunders 1823 [1884]


black horse





*Knight Sr. 1826 [circa 1835–47]







Knight Jr. 1826 [1862]




Willard Chase 1827 [1833]



black clothes and horse





Benjamin Saunders 1827 [1884]




Orlando Saunders 1827 [1881]



John A. Clark 1827–28 [1840]







Lewis brothers 1828 [1879]


bleeding Spaniard





*Oliver Cowdery 1829 [1835]






Henry Harris 1829 [circa 1833]





Fayette Lapham 1830 [1870]


murder victim

black clothes







Thanks to Louis Midgley, Shirley Ricks, and my son Isaac for their
help with this review.

1.     See Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake
City: Signature Books, 1996–2003).

See Early Mormon Documents, 4:299–321.

Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith,
2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989); and Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, rev.
ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002).

Lavina Fielding Anderson, ed., Lucy’s Book:
A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir
(Salt Lake
City: Signature Books, 2001).

As I see it, some have been reluctant to acknowledge Vogel’s contribution
because he is a nonbeliever.

Early Mormon Documents, 1:xiv–xv.

Early Mormon Documents, 1:xv–xvi.

Early Mormon Documents, 1:xiv.

Early Mormon Documents, 2:468.

Richard L. Anderson, “The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Seeking,”
BYU Studies 24/4 (1984): 521–24.

D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic
World View,
rev. and enlarged (Salt Lake City: Signature Books,
1998), 34–36, 122–33.

Early Mormon Documents, 1:599.

Throughout the rest of this review, I frequently include the text of endnotes
with quoted material, allowing the authors to more fully speak for themselves
and also allowing readers to see which works are being quoted. The actual
text of these quoted notes is enclosed by curly brackets, { }.

{Jan Shipps, “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading toward a More Comprehensive
Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” in The
Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith,
ed. Bryan
Waterman (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 44. As early as 1943, Dale
Morgan recognized that Smith could not be explained in simple black or white
terms and called for a more integrated view of his motives and personality
(see John Philip Walker, ed., Dale Morgan on
Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History
[Salt Lake City:
Signature Books, 1986], 44).}

{Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., A Behavioral Approach
to Historical Analysis
(New York: Free Press, 1969).}

{See, e.g., Thomas Alexander, “The Place of Joseph Smith in the Development
of American Religion: A Historiographical Inquiry,” Journal
of Mormon History
5 (1978): 17; Klaus Hansen, “Jan Shipps
and the Mormon Tradition,” Journal of
Mormon History
11 (1984): 136; and George D. Smith, editor’s introduction,
Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History
(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), ix.}

{Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings
of Mormonism
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 3.}

{Chadwick Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem (New
York: Braziller, 1969).}

{At heart, I am a rationalist and naturalist. I believe that the physical
universe follows natural law, that it does not behave in supernatural or contradictory
ways, that it functions without supernatural forces, and that it is unnecessary
to go outside nature to explain what takes place within it. In an attempt
to replace a rational conception of the universe with one that includes magic,
miracles, etc., some writers appeal to quantum mechanics and the seemingly
inexplicable behavior of subatomic particles. However, to my mind, such appeals
are unconvincing. As a possible corrective, see Martin Gardner, “Parapsychology
and Quantum Mechanics,” in Paul Kurtz, A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology (Buffalo,
NY: Prometheus Books, 1985), 585–98.}

Shipps, “Prophet Puzzle,” 25–47.

Shipps, “Prophet Puzzle,” 36.

Shipps, “Prophet Puzzle,” 28.

Shipps, “Prophet Puzzle,” 28–29, emphasis in original.

Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone
(New York: Knopf, 2005).

Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity
Question” and the American Historical Profession
Cambridge University Press, 1988), 1–2. Reviewer Ann Wilson calls That Noble Dream an “elegantly written,
wide-ranging study” in which “Peter Novick explores the ways that
American historians have constructed, modified, defended, and challenged the
idea of objectivity since the establishment of professional historical practice
over one hundred years ago.” Review of That
Noble Dream
at (accessed
15 March 2006). For a discussion of Novick’s book in the context of Mormon
history, see Louis Midgley, “The Myth of Objectivity: Some Lessons for
Latter-day Saints,” Sunstone
14/4 (1990): 54–56.

E. H. Carr, What Is History? The George Macaulay
Trevelyan Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, January–March
(Houndmills, Engl.: Macmillan, 1961), 3.

Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:vi–vii,
emphasis added.

Shipps, “Prophet Puzzle,” 28, emphasis added.

D. Michael Quinn, ed., The New Mormon History
(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), viii, emphasis added.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th
ed., emphasis added.

John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History:
How Historians Map the Past
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002),

Keith Jenkins, Re-Thinking History
(London: Routledge, 1991), 12, 13–14. As if to illustrate Jenkins’s
point, Robert Remini, whom one must assume is well aware of postmodernist
trends, introduces his biography of Joseph Smith as follows: “As a historian
I have tried to be as objective as possible in narrating [Joseph Smith’s]
life and work.” Remini, Joseph Smith (New
York: Viking, 2002), x. Writing twenty years ago, Thomas G. Alexander,
a vocal proponent of “New Mormon History,” claimed that he knew
“of no historicist who believes that objectivity is anything more than
a sympathetic attempt to understand objects outside his or her own mind, including
the ideas of others.” Alexander, “Historiography and the New Mormon
History: A Historian’s Perspective,” Dialogue
19/3 (1986): 38–39. I believe, however, that some “historicists”
mean something more than that by objectivity. I would also ask if these objects
“outside our own minds” are static and somehow capable of being
understood without personal interpretation.

Gaddis, Landscape of History, 48.

Gaddis, Landscape of History, 27–28,

Jenkins, Re-Thinking History, 29,
29–30, 46, emphasis added.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
(accessed 25 April 2006). I believe that many of the so-called postmodern
arguments are quite enlightening. But one must ask: Do deconstructions apply
to the postmodern arguments themselves? If so, what is the meaning of such
arguments? Some of these authors, for example, seem to be experts at deconstructing
language itself and showing how relative meaning is. But if that is so, why
are they publishing books? One can easily get caught in the endless cycle
of deconstructing a text, only to deconstruct the deconstruction, ad infinitum,
so that nothing ever means anything, kind of like the person who asks what
a word means, then asks what the definition means, and then what the definition
of the definition means.

Jenkins, Re-Thinking History, 25.

To really get a handle on the question “What is history?” it seems
one would have to read philosophers like Heidegger, Husserl, Gadamer, and
Habermas; literary theorists like Ricoeur, Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard;
and historiographers like Carr, Collingwood, Elton, White, Jenkins, and Novick.
If that is true, I do not think many people have a handle on the question,
although Alan Goff might be one of them; see Goff’s “Uncritical Theory
and Thin Description: The Resistance to History,” Review
of Books on the Book of Mormon
7/1 (1995): 170–207; and Goff,
“Dan Vogel’s Family Romance and the Book of Mormon as Smith Family Allegory,”
FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 321–400.

Paul Ricoeur, “The Narrative Function,” in Hermeneutics
and the Human Sciences,
ed. and trans. John B. Thompson (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1981), 289, cited in Goff, “Uncritical Theory,”

Nancy F. Partner, “Making Up Lost Time: Writing on the Writing of History,”
Spectrum 61 (1986): 97, emphasis
in original, cited in Goff, “Uncritical Theory,” 186.

Social scientists sometimes tell stories (such as case studies), but these
are peripheral and supplementary to studies that presumably are distinctly

Ricoeur, “Narrative Function,” 289, cited in Goff, “Uncritical
Theory,” 183, emphasis in original.

These similarities have not escaped publishers, who will often promote a history
by proclaiming that “it reads like a novel.”

Virtually all of the 1890 U.S. census, a crucial record because of the great
numbers of immigrants who entered the country during the previous decade,
was lost through two different fires twenty-five years apart and by government

I would not claim with prominent British historian Geoffrey Rudolph Elton
that the primary documents speak for themselves. At the same time, however,
I disagree with Jenkins, who describes the documents as “absolutely mute,”
which strikes me as an absurd claim. It makes more sense to say that texts
speak but require interpretation or “translation” by the historian.
The reader in turn must interpret the historian. As with every other question
involving history, questions related to the sources are complex; they are
answered quite differently by different people.

The recent trend has been to judge all forms of history by academic standards,
but that won’t do. I do not believe, for example, that I am obligated to apply
the same standards in compiling a family history as I am in preparing an article
on the fur trade for an academic journal. If I discover that my grandfather
made a serious mistake as a young man but later rectified it and went on to
live an honorable life, I am not obligated to mention that mistake. True,
I may decide to do so, but that all depends on the purpose and methodology
I establish for the family history. If I write an autobiography, am I obligated
to confess to and describe in detail every foolish mistake or harmful thing
I ever did? I don’t think so. (And again, I will no doubt record things differently
depending on whether I am writing a memoir for my children or a bestseller
for Random House [not that they have offered me a contract recently].) In
Sunday School manuals intended to strengthen the faith of members, is the
church obligated to include affidavits hostile to Joseph Smith from the likes
of Willard Chase and Peter Ingersoll merely for the sake of doing thorough
research? No, because that is expressly not
the church’s purpose. Does that give the church carte blanche to do history
any old way it pleases? Of course not. Rather, the individual, group, or institution
writing a history is obligated to establish careful and thoughtful principles
for their history and consistently follow those principles. Even within the
confines of my family history, there are ways that I can be fair or unfair,
honest or dishonest. For a good examination of various traditions in religious
historiography, see David B. Honey and Daniel C. Peterson, “Advocacy
and Inquiry in the Writing of Latter-day Saint History,” BYU Studies 31/2 (1991): 139–79.

Applying these standards is easier said than done. How does the reader (or
the historian, for that matter), for instance, know when a reasonable effort
has been made to account for all relevant texts? Which is better—a late
firsthand or early secondhand source? Also, these standards involve assumptions
that can certainly be argued. Why is early necessarily better than late? Doesn’t
it depend entirely on particular circumstances?

Dan Vogel, “Seeing through the Hedges: A Response to Andrew H. and Dawson
W. Hedges,” at (accessed
30 March 2006). Vogel himself does not try to hide behind neutral language.

Just as I believe that Vogel’s beliefs neither qualify nor disqualify him
as a historian, I also believe that his academic credentials (or lack thereof)
are not relevant. I am therefore not comfortable with Andrew and Dawson Hedges’
apparent attempt to discredit Vogel because he does not have a graduate degree
in history. They write, “Just as one must train in formal programs for
several years in a formal setting to be a good lawyer or doctor, so one must
train for several years in a formal setting to be a good historian.”
Andrew H. Hedges and Dawson W. Hedges, “No, Dan, That’s Still Not History,”
FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 208 n.
2. I find this claim problematic for several reasons. First, it is not clear
what “several years” means, nor is it clear if a degree in history
is required or if a degree in another field will do. Second, the comparison
to law and medicine strikes me as a false analogy. Law and medical students
are not legally allowed to practice their crafts in the United States until
they receive an advanced degree and pass certain tests. Therefore, we have
no way of knowing whether a nongraduate could be a good doctor or lawyer (I
suspect it is entirely possible). Those interested in history, on the other
hand, are quite free to “do” history by writing articles and books.
We therefore have perfect opportunity to judge their ability by their writings.
Also, I believe one can raise counterexamples to the Hedges’ claim by pointing
out a number of good historians (at BYU and elsewhere) who do not have graduate
degrees in history. A good example of a top-notch historian who completed
no graduate training in history is Dale Morgan,
who studied commercial art at the University of Utah. Trained “on the
job,” Morgan worked initially for the Utah Historical Records Survey.
He eventually edited the Utah Historical Quarterly
and was later appointed senior historian at the University of California
Bancroft Library. Two of Morgan’s works on the early fur trade, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West
(San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1954; repr., Lincoln: University
of Nebraska, 1967), and The West of William
H. Ashley
(Denver: Old West, 1964), are among the best books produced
on the subject. (Dan Vogel, by the way, has more formal training in history
than I do.)

Blake T. Ostler, “An Interview with Sterling M. McMurrin,” Dialogue 17/1 (1984): 25. In his Internet
article, Dan Vogel mentions how biographer Alan Taylor used James Fenimore
Cooper’s novel The Pioneers “to
illuminate Cooper’s troubled relationship with his father” (“Seeing
through the Hedges,” p. 30). I think this is legitimate, just as a biographer
of Hemingway might use A Farewell to Arms
to illuminate Hemingway’s experiences as an ambulance driver in World War
I. But there is a crucial difference between Cooper and Hemingway on one hand
and Joseph Smith on the other. Both novelists claimed authorship of their
novels, but Joseph claimed to be the translator
of the Book of Mormon. Vogel must therefore directly contradict Joseph Smith
in any attempt to use the Book of Mormon to illuminate Joseph’s personal life,
which is not true at all of Cooper’s or Hemingway’s biographers.

Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian
Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1999), 15.

Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 9.

Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 10–11.

Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 13,

Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 11,

“A History of the Life of Joseph Smith,” in Joseph Smith Letterbook
1, in Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 12–13.
The section prior to this, which describes the first vision, is in Joseph
Smith’s handwriting; this section is in the hand of Frederick G. Williams.
The year is incorrectly given as 1822—it was actually 1823, which is
consistent with Joseph saying he was seventeen years old.

Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 233–36.

{John A. Clark to Dear Brethren, 24 August 1840, Episcopal
(Philadelphia) 18 (5 September 1840): 94 (Early Mormon Documents, 2:264).}

{See D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and
the Magic World View,
2nd ed., rev. (Salt Lake City: Signature
Books, 1998), 141–44.}

{Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary Manuscript, 40 (Early
Mormon Documents,

{L. M. Smith, Preliminary Manuscript, 40 (Early
Mormon Documents,

{Joseph Smith, Manuscript History, Book A-1, 5, LDS Church Archives (Early Mormon Documents, 1:63).}

{This memory may not be entirely trustworthy because Lucy thought Moroni was
the one to tell Joseph the churches were wrong. Her lack of knowledge of the
First Vision confused her sense of the sequence of events. L. M. Smith, Preliminary
Manuscript, 335.}

{Manuscript History of the Church A-1, in, Papers
of Joseph Smith,
1:276. The frame house remained unfinished in
1823, and unless some family members slept there to relieve congestion, Joseph
received Moroni in the cabin. Larry C. Porter, “Study of the Origins
of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the States of New York
and Pennsylvania, 1816–1831″ (PhD diss. Brigham Young University,
1971), 25–26. In 1835 Oliver Cowdery commented that Joseph prayed when
“slumber had spread her refreshing hand over others beside him.”
Messenger and Advocate, February 1835, 79.}

{Manuscript History of the Church A-1, in Papers
of Joseph Smith,
1:276–78. Joseph said nothing about forgiveness
of sins in his 1838 account, but Oliver Cowdery mentioned this personal message
twice in his 1835 letters. Messenger and Advocate,
February 1835, 78–79; and July 1835, 155–56. In his 1838 account,
Joseph said the angel called himself “Nephi,” a puzzling mistake.
For discussion of possible reasons why, see Anderson, ed., Lucy’s
336–37; Papers of Joseph
1:277; Quinn, Early Mormonism,

{Manuscript History of the Church A-1, in Papers
of Joseph Smith,

Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 43–45.
In what appears to be an editing mistake, Bushman provides no note here for
the internal quotations from Joseph Smith, but these quotations are from his
1838 history.

Clark to Dear Brethren, 24 August 1840, 94 (Early
Mormon Documents,

Early Mormon Documents, 1:xiv–xv.

Historians, of course, are considerably more liberal in their attitude toward
hearsay evidence. If no firsthand accounts are available, a historian may
make a plausible case by quoting independent secondhand witnesses (something
not likely to be allowed in a courtroom). Still, historians and jurists agree
that the farther removed from the source, the more suspect a witness is.

Definition of “hearsay rule” from dictionary, at
(accessed 17 March 2006).

Early Mormon Documents, 2:468.

Anderson, ed., Lucy’s Book, 335.

Drawing on a multitude of primary sources, Matthew B. Brown creates the kind
of detailed and fascinating narrative that I had hoped for from Vogel. See
Plates of Gold: The Book of Mormon Comes Forth
(American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2003), 3–12.

Remini, Joseph Smith, 43–45.

Hedges and Hedges, “That’s Still Not History,” 210–11.

See Ronald V. Huggins, “From Captain Kidd’s Treasure Ghost to the Angel
Moroni: Changing Dramatis Personae
in Early Mormonism,” Dialogue
36/4 (2003): 17–42; and William D. Morain, review of The Making of a Prophet, by Dan Vogel, Journal of Mormon History 31/1 (2005): 212.

Jesse Smith to Hyrum Smith, 17 June 1829, in Early
Mormon Documents,
1:551–52, emphasis added.

Palmyra (NY) Wayne Sentinel, 26 June
1829, in Early Mormon Documents,
2:218–19, emphasis added.

I cover all this in detail in my review “‘I Should Have an Eye Single
to the Glory of God': Joseph Smith’s Account of the Angel and the Plates,”
FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 11–81. See
also Mark Ashurst McGee, “Moroni as Angel and as Treasure Guardian,”
in this number of the FARMS Review, pages

William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook
to Literature,
7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall,
1996), 147–48.

Dan Vogel, “Treasure Lore Revisited,” Dialogue
39/2 (2006): vii–xi.

Larry E. Morris, “Folklore Returned,” Dialogue
38/3 (2005): vi–x.

Huggins, “Changing Dramatis Personae,

Huggins, “Changing Dramatis Personae,

Morris, “Joseph Smith’s Account,” 11–81.

See Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Moroni: Angel or Treasure Guardian?” Mormon Historical Studies 2/2 (2001): 39–75;
reprinted with some changes and additions as “Moroni as Angel and as
Treasure Guardian,” in this number of the FARMS Review, pages 35–100.

Ashurst-McGee, “Moroni as Angel and as Treasure Guardian,” 53 above.

Vogel, “Treasure Lore Revisited,” vii.

Morris, “Joseph Smith’s Account,” 12.

Morris, “Folklore Returned,” ix–x.

I believe there is no such thing as an unbiased witness and therefore feel
this part of Vogel’s discussion is misdirected.

Early Mormon Documents, 1:xiv–xv. (I have not included Vogel’s parenthetical
references to various works.)

Vogel, “Treasure Lore Revisited,” vii.

Vogel, “Treasure Lore Revisited,” vii.

Vogel, “Treasure Lore Revisited,” viii.

Vogel, “Treasure Lore Revisited,” viii.

Morris, “Folklore Returned,” vii–viii.

Vogel, “Treasure Lore Revisited,” x.

Vogel, “Treasure Lore Revisited,” viii.

Ideally we would have two friendly sources and two unfriendly, balancing the
human tendency to naturally emphasize details consistent with one’s personal
beliefs. Nevertheless, the Henry Harris statement offers a reasonable degree
of “balance” because Harris was quite hostile and because he recorded
his statement earlier than Lucy Smith, Oliver Cowdery, or Joseph Knight Sr.
In terms of being early and firsthand, Harris’s statement is the prime source. (In addition, the candid
tone of Joseph Knight Sr.’s statement makes it doubtful that he excluded any
details for the sake of making Joseph look good.)

At best, Chase’s account is a guide to what Joseph Sr. said about the plates.
But even this is problematic because Chase is the only person who talked to
Joseph Sr. and recorded his experience early. Also, there are no accounts
from believers who talked to Joseph Sr., leaving us with a lack of balance.
Finally, Fayette Lapham, who recorded his statement in 1870, corroborates
several of Chase’s details, but he was a frequent visitor to Palmyra who could
have talked to Chase. He also could have seen Chase’s published statement
in Mormonism Unvailed, which was published in

I have personally seen several examples of how hearsay statements can differ
from firsthand statements. My grandfather was a well-known patriarch in Rexburg,
Idaho, and left dictated accounts of several spiritual experiences. I later
heard retellings of some of those experiences from people who talked to my
grandfather. Their accounts have invariably differed in major ways from my
grandfather’s firsthand accounts.

Early Mormon Documents, 2:76.

Early Mormon Documents, 2:76–77 n. 7.