American crucifixion The murder of Joseph Smith and the fate of the Mormon Church

Alex Beam

Sound recording - 2014

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COMPACT DISC/289.3092/Smith
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[Old Saybrook, CT] : Tantor Media, Inc 2014.
Main Author
Alex Beam (Author)
Other Authors
Michael (Michael J.) Prichard (-)
Physical Description
9 audio discs (approximately 10 hours, 30 min.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in
  • Flight
  • "In Illinois we've found a safe retreat-- ". King Joseph ; Zion, Illinois ; Everybody hates the Mormons ; Polygamy and its discontents
  • "Oh! Illinois! thy soil has drank the blood / Of prophets martyr'd for the truth of God." "The perversion of sacred things" ; "Crucify him! Crucify him!" ; Enter Pontius Pilate ; Surrender ; "The people are not that cruel" ; Joseph's homecoming ; Trial by jury
  • "Let us go to the far western shore / Where the blood-thirsty 'christians' will hunt us no more." Aftermath ; This world and the next.
Review by New York Times Review

A RELIGION WHOSE followers believe that the Earth was created somewhere in the neighborhood of the planet Kolob, and that the Garden of Eden was created somewhere in the neighborhood of Kansas City, Mo., would seem to have so fortified itself against mockery that there's no sport in scorning it. In this respect, Mormonism is an honest reflection of its founder, a man who offers such an easy target that providing even a partial list of his myriad and exotic transgressions feels too easy, like a distasteful piling on. That founder was Joseph Smith, a teenager who grew up in western New York. In the 1820s, Smith began to "translate," from tablets he kept wrapped in a tablecloth, a series of visions that became the Book of Mormon, a turgid sci-fi novel that nonetheless managed to sway a nucleus of converts. Unfurling a vision of a restored Christianity that placed America at the center of the world, and offering the possibility of a perfected soul both here on Earth and, after death, in a multitude of heavens, Smith also managed to be so provocative that he and his followers found themselves hounded, in a series of increasingly dramatic upheavals, from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois. Alex Beam's "American Crucifixion" recounts the peregrination of these pariahs. Before they finally evacuated to the Great Salt Lake Valley, which was then part of Mexico, they thought they had found a safe haven in Nauvoo, Ill., the most elaborate of Smith's foundations. Thence, from all over the United States, Canada and the British Isles, the Mormons flocked. At one point, the city's population may have surpassed Chicago's. But Smith's gift for outrageousness prevailed, and in June 1844 a mob lynched him and his brother. Smith was 38 years old. It is understandable that Mormons saw the grisly murder of their prophet as a crucifixion. But in Beam's telling, Smith emerges as a flamboyant frontier L. Ron Hubbard, which is far from being entirely Beam's fault. This was a man who was not only considered by his followers "president pro tem of the world" but also had himself crowned "King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on the Earth"; who pranced around Nauvoo in a "cerulean officer's tailcoat," as Beam puts it, "dripping with weighty gold braid and epaulets, topped off with a black cockade chapeau that was adorned with a black ostrich feather"; and who added 14 chapters to the Book of Genesis. People hated him. He was tarred and feathered; a furious mob in Ohio once ordered a focal doctor to castrate him. Some of the passions he aroused were prompted by financial chicanery. ("To take from the Gentiles," Smith said, was "no sin.") Some were prompted by politics (rumors that he was behind, for example, the attempted assassination of Missouri's governor). Some involved polygamy, which Smith publicly denied practicing, even though, as Beam points out, he had "dozens of polygamous wives." In theory, polygamy was the restoration of a tradition of the ancient Israelites. In practice, it meant that Smith could deploy his cronies to groom teenage girls. "Sister Martha," his lieutenants would ask, "are you willing to do all that the prophet requires you to do," which included learning "the mysteries of the kingdom"? Even almost two centuries on, this makes creepy reading, particularly since the women weren't always offered much of a choice: Smith slandered a woman who refused him as "a whore from Canada." But people also loved him. They were willing, when it came down to it, to die for him. Fawn Brodie's "No Man Knows My History" remains among the greatest of American biographies because it shows how the Mormons' faith in their prophet transformed Mormonism into something far grander than its founder could ever have envisioned, and how a Podunk treasure-hunter became a tragic king, destroyed, like Macbeth or Boris Godunov, by the very power he had sought. the story beam tells is full of dramatic detail: the precautions the Mormons took to prevent the Smiths' bodies from being snatched; Emma Smith's dogged, pathetic delusion that she was Joseph's only wife; the capers of the kangaroo court that acquitted the murderers; the Mormon fantasies about divine punishments meted out. (According to a colorful legend, one mob member "died from a cancer in his eye, and when his meals were brought to him, the pus from his eye would drop in his plate.") What's missing, though, is the tragedy. One understands why people hated him, but not so much why they loved him. One mourns Beam's Joseph Smith as one would mourn any human being trapped by a murderous rabble baying for his blood. But there is no sense of why Joseph's story is still worth telling; of why, out of all the wacky sects that grew out of America's Second Great Awakening, his church, and his alone, endured. After all, it may be easy to make fun of Mormon theology, but it is surely no more absurd to believe that the resurrected Christ visited America in A.D. 34 than it is to believe that Moses parted the Red Sea, or that Muhammad ascended to heaven on a winged horse, or that Jesus was born of a virgin. To see Mormonism in this broader context is to be constantly confronted with questions of belief, of how much nonsense humans will suffer for the sake of making sense of their lives. But the Mormons were not persecuted for what they believed. They were persecuted for what, in the image of their prophet, they were. That is why the comparison the Mormons have always favored - to the Jews - is not in the least absurd. We no more remember the Garamantes, the Scythians, the Ostrogoths, the Paphlagonians, the Batavians, or any of the peoples of ancient Europe than we do the Millerites, the Shakers, the followers of the Fox sisters, or any of the other sects of the Burned-Over District of western New York. But we remember the Jews. We remember the Latter-day Saints. Ignored, both would surely have long since vanished. Because they were despised and rejected, they clung to their holy books. After a certain point, they no longer had a choice. Even those who wished to melt back into the majority were unwelcome. Forced to stick together, a ragtag group of religious converts became more than simply a group of believers: They became a people. That is why the weaknesses in Joseph Smith's character became, for the purposes of preserving his doctrine, an unbreakable strength. An even slightly less outrageous personality could never have ensured that his followers would be hated and exiled - and thus, paradoxically, survive. Mormonism thrived not despite its prophet's megalomania but because of it. In a common paraphrase of Tertullian's, Credo quia absurdum est: I believe it because it is absurd. It is a formula that Joseph Smith intuitively understood. Smith had himself crowned 'King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on the Earth.' BENJAMIN MOSER, the author of "Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector" is currently writing the authorized biography of Susan Sontag.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 29, 2014]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Chased out of Missouri, founding prophet Joseph Smith and his Mormon followers settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, to lay down roots, build a temple, and deepen their hold in American life. They had quasi-independent status, operated their own businesses and courts, and maintained a paramilitary corps. Seeing himself as king of the kingdom of God, Smith sought reparations from Missouri and prepared a bid for the U.S. presidency. But by 1844, the tide had turned against the charismatic leader after a local newspaper editor and a faction that had seceded from the Mormons joined to expose its rising militarism and the practice of polygamy. When the Mormons retaliated and burned the press of another critic, nearby citizens had had enough and declared war on the Mormons. What followed were skirmishes that culminated in Smith's arrest and assassination before he could be tried. Beam offers a captivating saga of Smith's rise and fall and of a colorful cast of characters who contributed to the internal politics and rivalries that led to Smith's death and drove the Mormons forward to their destiny. Anyone interested in the formation and transformation of Mormonism as well as the intersection of religion, politics, and U.S. history will enjoy this fascinating book.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2014 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Aside from the fact that Mormonism's founder Joseph Smith was assassinated in jail by gunfire, not nailed to a cross as the title indicates, Beam's tale brings alive a cast of early 1840s characters as strange, flawed, and significant as any in American history. Beam (Gracefully Insane) presents Smith as an inventive, narcissistic visionary hounded for beliefs that ran counter to those of most Americans. If his new bible, The Book of Mormon, wasn't enough to condemn him, his belief in plural gods and practice of polygamy surely would. But in Beam's balanced telling of Smith's tumultuous final years, it was the prejudice and intolerance of others as much as Smith's strangeness that condemned him to early death and his new religion to enduring battles. Few Mormons and "Gentiles" get off lightly here, and Beam makes a strong case that they shouldn't. That may not endear the book to all readers, whatever their beliefs, but it reveals how the fight over Mormonism, one built both on its distinctive claims and its enemies' intolerance, extends into our day. Better, Beam implies in this lively telling, to try to understand its sad and violent origins than to condemn or praise it outright. Illus. Agent: Inkwell Management. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Beam (A Great Idea at the Time) has written an insightful portrait of Joseph Smith, one of America's most controversial religious leaders. Smith, who had worked as a water dowser and treasure hunter, started the Church of Latter-day Saints, the followers of which are commonly known as Mormons. Smith led his followers across the country, secretly married more than 30 women, and was running for president of the United States when his empire crumbled. Michael Pritchard does an excellent job of relaying the complexities of Beam's fine writing and Smith's pride. VERDICT This fascinating portrait of one of America's self-proclaimed prophets is well worth the time of anyone interested in religious or American history. ["Beam's page-turner will appeal to history (not just religious history) buffs, as well as find a place on specialists' shelves owing to its examination of primary sources," read the starred review of the PublicAffairs hc, LJ 3/15/14.]-Pam Kingsbury, Univ. of North Alabama, Florence (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

An account of the Illinois Mormon settlement Nauvoo and the events that precipitated the church's flight to Utah. When Boston Globe and International Herald Tribune columnist Beam (A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, 2008, etc.) introduces Joseph Smith (18051844), founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smith is on the run again. The author examines the reasons for his desperate Mississippi River crossing and what led to previous, similar episodes. The founder of a brand of Christianity that still fascinates and polarizes the world today, Smith was no less divisive a figure in his own time. The author notes that the very idea of a new religion was disturbing enough to Smith's contemporaries, but he also focuses on the doctrine of polygamy as the truly alienating issue that led to the downfall of the Mormons' Illinois "Zion" and Smith's own death. The rift in the church following Smith's revelations about taking more than one wife legitimized the long-standing hostility of their neighbors. Beam is the consummate journalist, precise about his research and offering judgment only where there is ample proof of wrongdoing. He treats Smith with journalistic objectivity but doesn't hesitate to point out that "Joseph received so many revelations that they inevitably conflicted." With so much history to tackle, from the roots of Mormonism to the economic, political and moral climates in which hatred of the new religion developed, it is impressive that Beam maintains narrative tension and excitement while injecting personality. The author's use of antiquated languageeven outside historical documentsadds color to his writing but may also be a source of confusion for some readerse.g., when he calls the governor of Illinois Thomas Ford "Pecksniffian." A fascinating history that, while particularly appealing to those interested in religion, is sure to inform a far wider audience.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.