Abanes's "Revised" History

Review of Richard Abanes. One Nation under Gods: A History of the Mormon
New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002. xxv + 651 pp., with appendixes,
notes, bibliography, and index. Hardback, $32.00; 2003 reprint (with some revisions)
in paperback, $22.00.

Abanes’s “Revised” History

Reviewed by Michael G. Reed

Not long after the initial publication of One Nation under Gods, critics
exposed many problems in the book.1 Abanes has since admitted that such criticisms
“proved enlightening” (paperback edition [PB], p. 438) and “raised some thought-provoking
issues” (PB, p. 440)—issues that, in fact, persuaded him not only to add a
twelve-page postscript (although in order to do so he dropped his original appendixes
on Mormon terms and notable Mormons to keep close to his original pagination),
but also to make several revisions to his original publication.

Having read both editions and having had several conversations with Abanes,
I conclude that, although his changes may seem commendable, they are actually
superficial. Furthermore, many more problems in the revised paperback edition
must be attended to before it can begin to resemble “A History of the
Mormon Church,” as the book’s subtitle proclaims. Unfortunately,
addressing all the errors in Abanes’s book is not possible in a short
essay. An earlier reviewer was right: “A topic-by-topic discussion, looking
at the evidence and evaluating it, would require a book as long as the book
being reviewed; in fact, it would require more space, because weighing evidence,
considering pros and cons, simply cannot be accomplished without a more ample
treatment of each issue.”2 I will make only a few observations that will
both supplement and support conclusions found in other published reviews.

The Fun and Games of Scapegoats

In the hardback edition, Abanes takes many quotations out of context, two of
which appear in a section of chapter 9 titled “America’s Fighting
Prophet.” There he argues that Joseph Smith was the kind of person who
would often beat up “individuals who had displeased him in some way.”
Abanes supports this claim by mentioning Joseph’s boasting “about
his violent deeds” (hardback edition [HB], p. 178). However, the
passage he cites actually refers to the popular recreational sport of stick-pulling:
“I feel as strong as a giant. . . . I pulled up with one hand the strongest
man that could be found. Then two men tried, but they could not pull me up”
(HB, p. 179).3 Abanes similarly uses a comment from Joseph Smith about
a wrestling match: “I wrestled with William Wall, the most expert wrestler
in Ramus, and threw him” (HB, p. 178).4

Even the Mormon critic J. P. Holding5 notes these misrepresentations: “Abanes
attempts to show that Joseph Smith was a temperamental and combative sort; .
. . he had used examples of Smith engaging in competitive sport and misplaced
them as evidence of a specially combative nature.”6

How did these errors happen? Abanes defends himself:

My apparent misappropriation of quotations about Joseph actually is a result
of an editorial error
wherein the quotes about Joseph and his sporting
experiences (pulling up sticks) were juxtaposed with the wrong explanatory
. This incorrect positioning of text, as well as other numerous
hard cover typos and editorial errors, will be corrected in the soon to be released
paperback edition (July/August). Please do compare that edition with the hard
bound book. You will see that the quotes remain, but the order of them is inverted
and previously deleted prefacing comments are re-inserted.7

After making these corrections, Abanes explained to me personally8 that Robert
W. Grover, his editor, was to blame for the quotations that were taken out of

This assertion seems questionable for several reasons: (1) The errors conveniently
bolster Abanes’s thesis that Joseph was a “fighting Prophet.” (2) The prepublished
“uncorrected proof” of his book does not verify that Abanes had originally
placed the quotations in their proper context.9 (3) On the very next page, Abanes
attempts to substantiate his view of the Prophet by taking out of context yet
another wrestling quotation—an error that he did not correct in his paperback
edition.10 (4) The notion that his editor is responsible for the misrepresentations
has been rejected as false: “I did not, and indeed could not, make any editorial
cuts to the book,” Grover said. A late delivery of the manuscript (less than
three months before the planned ship date, which the publisher refused to change)
and a lengthy manuscript (about three times the expected page count) meant that
he was able “to correct grammatical errors only.”11

False Equations

Abanes argues in both editions of his book that early leaders of the church
taught that Joseph Smith’s character was “on par with Jesus Christ’s.” He substantiates
this claim by relying on quotations that declare the Prophet to be the greatest
man who “lived upon the face of this earth”12 and that affirm that no person
in the world has had “a better character” (PB, p. 174).13 In so doing, however,
Abanes does not note that the Saints would have understood the existence of
an unmentioned qualification within these declarations. Brigham Young, for instance,
declares: “I do not think that a man lives on the earth that knew [Joseph] any
better than I did; and I am bold to say that, Jesus Christ excepted,
no better man ever lived or does live upon this earth.”14 George Q. Cannon qualifies
his proclamation that Joseph was the greatest prophet that “ever stood before
God upon the earth” by adding the phrase “excepting the Lord Jesus Christ.”15
Concurring with this distinction, Wilford Woodruff declares: “No greater prophet
than Joseph Smith ever lived on the face of the earth save Jesus Christ.”16
The Doctrine and Covenants contains John Taylor’s declaration that the Prophet
Joseph Smith did more, “save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in
this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3).

Abanes likewise turns a blind eye to the fact that Joseph himself understood
his own imperfections and that he was subordinate to Jesus:

I never told you I was perfect.17

I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they
expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would
bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise
bear with their infirmities.18

None ever were perfect but Jesus; and why was He perfect? Because He was the
Son of God, and had the fullness of the Spirit, and greater power than any man.19

Who, among all the Saints in these last days, can consider himself as good as
our Lord? Who is as perfect? Who is as pure? Who is as holy as He was? Are they
to be found? He never transgressed or broke a commandment or law of heaven—no
deceit was in His mouth, neither was guile found in His heart. . . . Where is
one like Christ? He cannot be found on earth.20

I do not, nor never have, pretended to be any other than a man “subject
to passion,” and liable, without the assisting grace of the Savior, to
deviate from that perfect path in which all men are commanded to walk!21

Although I was called of my Heavenly Father to lay the foundation of this great
work and kingdom in this dispensation, and testify of His revealed will to scattered
Israel, I am subject to like passions as other men, like the prophets of olden

The Latter-day Saints also understood that Joseph Smith had imperfections:

Now, was not Joseph Smith a mortal man? Yes. A fallible man? Yes. Had he not
weaknesses? Yes, he acknowledged them himself, and did not fail to put the revelations
on record in this book [the Book of Doctrine and Covenants] wherein God reproved
him. His weaknesses were not concealed from the people. He was willing that
people should know that he was mortal, and had failings.23

I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had those imperfections the power
and authority He placed upon him . . . for I knew that I myself had weakness,
and I thought there was a chance for me.24

[I] knew all the time that Joseph was a human being and subject to err.25

And just such phases to a degree have I witnessed in the life and character
of our great Prophet, who stood in the presence of both the Father and the Son
and personally conversed with them both, being often visited by holy angels,
while continually receiving by revelation the word of the Lord to his people.
And yet he was altogether of “like passions with his brethren and associates.”26

Latter-day Saints understand that Joseph Smith, Brigham Young,27 or any other
servant who has been called to lead Christ’s church is subordinate to
the Savior. For those who have acquired an understanding of the faith of the
Saints, this should go without saying.

In the hardback edition of One Nation under Gods, while attempting
to expose the Saints’ veneration of Joseph Smith “as a god” (HB, p. 175), Abanes
inadvertently changes the meaning of a statement made by Brigham Young. “Brigham
Young, for instance,” according to Abanes, “warned that no one would ever get
into God’s celestial kingdom ‘without the consent of Joseph Smith. . . . He
reigns there as supreme a being in his sphere, capacity, and calling, as God
does in heaven’?” (HB, p. 175).28 But Brigham Young was merely teaching that
Joseph Smith, as head of a dispensation, holds keys necessary for us to enter
into the celestial kingdom.29 Abanes uses the elision to create the false impression
that Brigham Young was equating Joseph Smith’s status in the celestial kingdom
with God’s. When Brigham Young declared that Joseph “reigns there as
supreme a being in his sphere,” the “there” spoken of was not the celestial
kingdom, but, rather, the spirit world.30 Brigham Young’s parallel, therefore,
would no more have equated Joseph’s status to God’s than the apostle Paul’s
statement would have equated the status of husbands to Jesus Christ’s: “For
the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church:
and he is the saviour of the body” (Ephesians 5:23).

Having had this pointed out to him, Abanes nevertheless continues to insist
that he did not misrepresent President Brigham Young. “Where is the celestial
kingdom???” Abanes asks. “Answer: In the spirit world. . . .
[He rules] ‘in the spirit world’—i.e., celestial kingdom.”31
Abanes prides himself on being a “highly regarded authority on cults”32
but did not seem, at least originally, to understand the distinction between
the spirit world and the celestial kingdom. In his paperback edition, Abanes
makes the wise decision to give Brigham Young’s quotation in its entirety.
However, he does not clarify the difference between these two postmortal realms
by providing an explanatory footnote.

I believe that one final false equation, which is central to the book’s thesis,
should not be overlooked—this one is so pervasively laced throughout Abanes’s
publication that the book’s very title celebrates it. Abanes believes that “LDS
leadership has not yet given up on its long-held dream of taking over the U.S.
government (and the world) should the opportunity ever present itself” (PB,
p. xvii). Latter-day Saints believe “that they were divinely chosen vessels
destined to rule the earth along with Christ during his millennial
reign” (PB, p. 95) and that “in the end, the Mormons would come out as the sole
rulers over every other government” (PB, p. 266). “Mormons saw themselves as
the only legitimate rulers of the United States and the world” (PB, p. 336).
“Will The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ever. . . ascend to the
place of pre-eminence over America, and eventually the world, as Joseph Smith
prophesied? Brigham Young thought so, as did every other nineteenth century
Mormon, especially LDS leaders. Throughout the twentieth, and now into the twenty-first
century, the belief has continued to be an integral part of Mormonism” (PB,
p. 434). “What would such a scenario mean for America? Continued freedom? Greater
liberty and prosperity? Widespread pluralism? Perhaps not. . . . That question,
of course, will have to be answered in years to come” (PB, p. 436). His claims
that the Saints are convinced that they are destined to “one day enjoy global
domination” (PB, p. xviii) blurs Latter-day Saint doctrine and falsely equates
the Church of Jesus Christ with the kingdom of God.

To these gods in the making, America’s day of doom has always been just
around the proverbial corner, right along with the realization of their grandiose
vision. Celebrated Mormon historian B. H. Roberts put the Latter-day Saint vision
of America’s future in even starker terms, saying: “[T]he kingdom
of God . . . is to be a political institution that shall hold sway over all
the earth; to which all other governments will be subordinate and by which they
will be dominated.” (PB, pp. xviii-xix [pages misnumbered])33

To look at this quotation in context, Roberts explains in The Rise and
Fall of Nauvoo
that “it is proper for the reader to know that Joseph Smith[,]
when speaking strictly[,] recognized a distinction between ‘The Church of Jesus
Christ’ and the ‘Kingdom of God.’ And not only a distinction[,] but a separation
of one from the other.” Abanes quotes Roberts that “the Kingdom of God . . .
is to be a political institution that shall hold sway over all the earth; to
which all other governments will be subordinate and by which they will be dominated.”
However, Roberts further says:

While all governments are to be in subjection to the Kingdom of God, it does
not follow that all its members will be of one religious faith. The Kingdom
of God is not necessarily made up exclusively of members of the Church of Christ.
In fact the Prophet taught that men not members of The Church could be, not
only members of that Kingdom, but also officers within it. It is to grant the
widest religious toleration, though exacting homage and loyalty to its great
Head [Jesus Christ], to its institutions, and obedience to its laws.34

Why doesn’t Abanes provide this information that Roberts believed was
“proper for the reader to know”? Was he so blinded by his own agenda
that he overlooked Roberts’s distinction? Does Abanes simply not want
to tell his readers since doing so would undermine the conclusion toward which
he is leading them? Or is he unaware of the distinction because he is actually
quoting from a secondary (perhaps anti-Mormon) source? Whatever the answer,
any one of the above possibilities casts doubt upon Abanes’s ability to
draw an “objective sketch” of Mormonism (PB, p. x).35


One Nation under Gods is not a “history,” despite what the title
may claim. The publication does not meet the basic standards of scholarship.
Abanes repeats the same sensational distortions as the anti-Mormon sources and
writers who have preceded him and faithfully employs their faulty methodology.
Although Abanes has made a few corrections in his paperback edition, readers
looking for a “history of the Mormon Church” should look elsewhere.


  1. See, for example, the reviews posted by the Foundation for Apologetic Information
    and Research (FAIR) at www.fairlds.org/apol/onug/ (accessed 5 May 2004) and
    Zion’s Lighthouse Message Board (ZLMB) at p080.ezboard.com/bpacumenispages (accessed
    5 May 2004). I will make only a few observations that will both supplement and
    support other reviews: Kathryn M. Daynes, Journal of American History
    90/1 (2003): 228-29; D. L. Jorgensen, CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic
    40/3 (2002): 484; and Louis Midgley, “Editor’s Introduction:
    On Caliban Mischief,” FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): xi-xxxvii.
  2. “A Dancer/Journalist’s Anti-Mormon Diatribe,” FARMS Review 15/1
    (2003): 264.
  3. Abanes introduces this quotation by claiming that “Smith fought and boasted
    again of his strength” (HB, p. 179). He cites History of the Church,
  4. Citing History of the Church, 5:302. My rebuttal to these quotations,
    however, should not be perceived as a denial that Joseph Smith was involved
    in fights during his lifetime. As Marvin S. Hill observes in the foreword
    of The Essential Joseph Smith: “We know from newspaper accounts and
    court records that Smith was involved in more than one fight. Yet the evidence
    is plentiful that he had to be provoked by direct insult before he would resort
    to violence. We must remember it was customary in this period for direct confrontations
    and even duels to be fought over personal differences. Andrew Jackson, Henry
    Clay, and Senator Thomas Hart Benton, to name but three, were involved in
    duels to protect their honor or public image. Many a frontier preacher took
    to brawling when heckled from the crowd. This was a rough age by our standards.
    As for Joseph Smith, we know that he did not relish fighting, that he felt
    deep remorse over it. He told Allen Stout in Nauvoo on one occasion that he
    had been too quarrelsome at times, that ‘in his youth he had learned to fight
    much against his will,’ and ‘whenever he laid his hand in anger on a fellow
    creature, it gave him sorrow and a feeling of shame.’ Apparently Smith sought
    repentance in this area.” Hill continues, “Nonetheless, evidence of his temper
    does not offset the many examples we have of his general tendency to treat
    people with courtesy and consideration.” The Essential Joseph Smith
    (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), xxi-xxii.
  5. James P. Holding is the author of The Mormon Defenders: How Latter-day
    Saint Apologists Misinterpret the Bible
    (self-published, 2001). For a
    review of this book, see Russell C. McGregor, “The Anti-Mormon Attackers,”
    FARMS Review 14/1-2 (2002): 315-19.
  6. See J. P. Holding, “Handle with Care: A Review of Richard Abanes’
    One Nation under Gods,” available online at www.tektonics.org/abanesrvw.html
    (accessed 5 May 2004).
  7. Ibid., quoting Abanes, emphasis added.
  8. And then posted comments at p080.ezboard.com/fpacumenispagesfrm64.show
  9. Message?topicID=87.topic (accessed 5 May 2004).

  10. The context in which these quotations are found in the uncorrected proof
    (galley) is identical: “Smith would boast about his violent deeds. In the
    History of the Church, for example, under the date March 13, 1843,
    we find this entry: ‘I wrestled with William Wall, the most expert wrestler
    in Ramus, and threw him.’. . . On June 30, 1843, Smith fought and boasted
    again of his strength, saying: ‘I feel as strong as a giant. . . . I pulled
    up with one hand the strongest man that could be found. Then two men tried,
    but they could not pull me up'” (pp. 164-65).
  11. According to Abanes, Joseph “used his physical might in ways that had little
    to do with fun and games. . . . Jedediah M. Grant, a high-ranking LDS leader
    under Brigham Young, recalled that on one occasion Joseph accosted a Baptist
    minister for simply doubting that Smith had seen Jesus Christ. According to
    Grant, Smith hit the preacher and threw him to the ground so violently that
    the minister ‘whirled round a few times, like a duck shot in the head'” (PB,
    pp. 178, 179). He hit the minister? Nowhere in the source
    that Abanes cites did Jedediah Grant claim this. Rather, Grant reports an
    entirely different scenario: “The Baptist priest who came to see Joseph Smith
    . . . stood before him, and folding his arms said, ‘Is it possible that I
    now flash my optics upon a Prophet, upon a man who has conversed with my Savior?’
    ‘Yes,’ says the Prophet, ‘I don’t know but you do; would not you like to wrestle
    with me?’ That, you see, brought the priest right on to the thrashing floor,
    and he turned a summerset right straight. After he had whirled round a few
    times, like a duck shot in the head . . .” (Journal of Discourses,
    3:66, 67). It seems that Wandle Mace may be referring to this occasion when
    he says: “I have been with him [Joseph Smith] at times when approached by
    a long faced religious stranger who seemed to think it almost a sin to smile,
    and the prophet should be as cheerless and sedate as himself—challenge some
    one for a wrestle—to the utter astonishment of the religious stranger, who
    would be almost shocked at the mention of a wrestle, but would extol Jacob
    who seemed to be an accomplished wrestler, and also a great favorite with
    God.” Autobiography of Wandle Mace, 70, MS 921, L. Tom Perry Special
    Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
  12. Robert W. Grover, e-mail to Michael G. Reed, 28 April 2004.
  13. Citing Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 1:41.
  14. Citing Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 14:203.
  15. Journal of Discourses, 9:332, emphasis added.
  16. Journal of Discourses, 11:31, emphasis added.
  17. Journal of Discourses, 21:317, emphasis added.
  18. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith
    (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 368.
  19. History of the Church, 5:181.
  20. History of the Church, 4:358.
  21. History of the Church, 2:23.
  22. Messenger and Advocate 1 (December 1834): 40.
  23. History of the Church, 5:516.
  24. George Q. Cannon, in Journal of Discourses, 24:274. See Doctrine
    and Covenants 3:3-9 for an example of the Prophet being reproved.
  25. Lorenzo Snow, quoted in Neal A. Maxwell, “Out of Obscurity,” Ensign,
    November 1984, 10.
  26. Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 4:297.
  27. Benjamin F. Johnson, “Patriarch Benjamin F. Johnson’s Letter to Elder George
    F. Gibbs: Johnson Tells of His Close Association with the Prophet Joseph Smith,”
    Doctrine of the Priesthood 7/5 (1990): 4.
  28. Abanes continues: “Eventually Young came to be viewed as practically
    a god on earth to the Saints” (PB, p. 222).
  29. Citing Journal of Discourses, 7:289.
  30. “Joseph Smith holds the keys of this last dispensation, and is now engaged
    behind the vail in the great work of the last days.” Brigham Young, in Journal
    of Discourses
    , 7:289. “I bear this testimony this day, that Joseph Smith
    was and is a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator—an Apostle holding the keys of
    this last dispensation and of the kingdom of God, under Peter, James, and
    John. And not only that he was a Prophet and Apostle of Jesus Christ, and
    lived and died one, but that he now lives in the spirit world, and holds those
    same keys to usward and to this whole generation. Also that he will hold those
    keys to all eternity; and no power in heaven or on the earth will ever take
    them from him; for he will continue holding those keys through all eternity,
    and will stand—yes, again in the flesh upon this earth, as the head of the
    Latter-day Saints under Jesus Christ, and under Peter, James, and John. He
    will hold the keys to judge the generation to whom he was sent, and will judge
    my brethren that preside over me; and will judge me, together with the Apostles
    ordained by the word of the Lord through him and under his administration.”
    Parley P. Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 5:195-96.
  31. Within the text replaced with ellipses, Brigham Young indicates where Joseph
    Smith reigns: “He holds the keys of that kingdom for the last dispensation—the
    keys to rule in the spirit-world; and he rules there triumphantly.” Journal
    of Discourses
    , 7:289.
  32. See pub26.ezboard.com/fpacumenispagesfrm58.showMessage?topicID=97.topic
    (accessed 5 May 2004).
  33. See front cover flap of hardback edition.
  34. Quoting B. H. Roberts, The Rise and Fall of Nauvoo (Salt Lake City:
    Deseret News, 1900), 180.
  35. Ibid.
  36. See also Allen L. Wyatt, “Chapter 10, A New Beginning: Brigham and
    the Kingdom of God,” available online at www.fairlds.org/apol/onug/pg222b.html
    (accessed 5 May 2004).