American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church

Alex Beam: Noted Author

My husband and I have attended events in the home of Greg Prince for the past several years. It’s been interesting, and I feel an affection for Greg.

This Sunday Greg will be hosting a Study Group at his home featuring Alex Beam, author of American Crucifixion, a book recounting many events associated with the life, death, and legacy of Joseph Smith. In preparation for Sunday, we have purchased the book.

Coincidentally, someone forwarded a link to an except from Alex Beam’s book posted on Salon. I suppose they thought that I would rise up from my leisurely repose and contradict Mr. Beam.

As I read the excerpt, which jams polygamy-related stories in a manner admitting only one interpretation, I found nothing that isn’t common knowledge. There is nothing in that excerpt that asserts anything new.

I decided I should scan the entire book, to be prepared for Sunday. I did find a few irritating things:

1) Like many of the texts that portray Joseph as a sexual opportunist, Beam’s book skips around chronologically. This is something journalists do. The Ostlings did it in Mormon America, and Newell and Avery did it in Mormon Enigma. As I write this, I suspect one reason for the temporal skipping is that everyone has been doing it, making it very difficult to assemble a chronological narrative. Much easier to simply re-mix the disjointed stories others have told before. And Alex Beam puts his re-mix together powerfully.

2) I adore footnotes. Alex Beam does have end notes, but he flings many quotes, and the end note portion of the book ought to be about four times as thick as it is. Further, when he does cite a source, he often cites the book where he found the information, not the original source from which that book might have obtained the information.

3) Alex does not appear to discriminate between sources. He uses quotes from Brodie as well as the occasional original source.

4) He has some facts wrong. However only someone extremely familiar with the data would ever know those facts were wrong. I was surprised to hear the Juvenile Instructor termed a children’s periodical, and Beam claimed Joseph married Elvira when she was “a girl living in the Smith household.” Punchier than the true version, that Elvira was a spinster in her late twenties who Joseph had publicly married to one of his bodyguards six months before sealing the spinster to himself.

5) Obviously, Beam did not include anything significant about Bennett and what spiritual wifery had actually done to Joseph’s Nauvoo. How could he? It’s not as though that theme has been put forward by other writers.

There were some good things.

1) The book is highly readable. True, it paints a picture of Joseph as a sex-crazed megalomaniac, but my goodness, as a reader I am entertained.

2) The book covers not only Joseph’s polygamy, but provides a survey of his entire life, with particular attention to polygamy, the last months of Joseph’s life, the martyrdom, the trial, and the aftermath. So in this one relatively slender book (277 pages of content, excluding notes, etc.), it is easy to find quotes regarding a vast expanse of Joseph’s life, suitable for plugging into google if you want to find the original source of the facts.

3) There are numerous colorful facts that I haven’t found in other books. For example, Beam mentions the heavy rains of 1844, which had caused flooding throughout the Mississippi River Basin. I knew about that from ancestor diaries, but it was nice to read his anecdotes about the flooding and starvation–no doubt contributor to public unrest around the time Joseph Smith was killed. Beam also notes that it was legal to marry someone 14 years old in Nauvoo, mitigating the natural concern about the marriage to Helen Mar Kimball. Though Beam goes on to craft the quotes so artfully that you almost see Joseph force himself upon a surprised and far-too youthful Helen Mar.

4) Beam does point out similarities between the events surrounding Joseph’s death and the events surrounding the death of Christ. However I’m not sure that does anything to recommend Joseph. More likely, it would tend to make a doubter even more dubious about Christ.

But What of A Faithful Joseph?

Beam’s book does not contain any new information that changes my view of events. Beam doesn’t have time in his fast-paced narrative to point out that DNA investigations have failed to demonstrate Joseph fathered children on women other than Emma. Most the children alleged to have been born to Smith are proven to be the get of their legal fathers. In one case the data was found to be inconclusive (Josephine Lyon Fisher). The lack of provable children would have been a useful factoid, perhaps nestled next to the mention that Joseph married dozens of women (33 to 48, depending on who was counting).

As long as Beam was casting the Expositor as the cry of the people, “Crucify him, Crucify him!” and Governor Ford as Pontius Pilate, it would have been nice if Beam could have cast Bennett as Judas, the insider who betrayed the Christ. It would have improved the literary resonance Beam was attempting to create between Joseph and Christ.

Anyway, I look forward to the opportunity to chat with Alex Beam this Sunday. I will post a follow-up, which I may allow to displace my next planned post in the Faithful Joseph series.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the LDS church for over four decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation, and is working on a midrashic treatment of the events in Nauvoo associated with early polygamy.

15 thoughts on “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church

  1. Thanks for the review. I hope you will post this at amazon.com too, so those interested in reading the book will know there is some disagreement as to the writer’s slant.

  2. Do you know if it’s been verified that Bennett fathered children from other women? I know it’s recorded he had ways of preventing that, but from a crick tics perspective the lack of Joseph’s offspring could be rebutted by pointing to the lack of Bennett’s offspring.

  3. Hi Aaron,

    One challenge is identifying children Bennett is known to have fathered who have descendants in our day. Bennett’s first two children remained with their mother, Mary, and I’m not certain their fate is known, much less who their modern-day descendants might be.

    Another problem is the fact that many of the children born to the women died.

    However as more people do autosomal DNA to identify recent ancestors, we may find an instance or two where a child is found to have been born to biological parents other than the parents of record. There is a fascinating tale I heard about a boy who’d been abducted by indians during the French and Indian War era. He apparently fathered a child when he lived as part of the tribe. Then he was “rescued” from the Indians and eventually married a white woman. So we have this amazing story based on the autosomal DNA.

    However there is more than enough documented evidence that Bennett and his Strikers (using the Expositor term) were having their way with women. Really cogent, clear, descriptions of the illicit sex and rationale, along with sometimes extensive lists of the men involved. Bennett corroborates these facts in his History of the Saints, though he puts a spin on how those facts ought to be interpreted.

  4. Not so much hoping to contradict as just being sure it was seen. I probably shouldn’t have worried, as it seems most of the researchers know each other somehow.

    I think the article/excerpt really bothered me because of its narrative style. It doesn’t seem to be trying to inform about history so much as trying to inform people that this “cult” was started by a sex maniac who insisted on taking everyone’s wives and how much his legal wife was so abused by it.

  5. I think the useful thing is to realize that the image cobbled together so artfully by Alex Beam is the way Joseph Smith is viewed by the world. There is no nuanced interpretation where Joseph was legitimately attempting to restore something a loving God might have actually required.

  6. I absolutely believe that open minded scholarship should take place. A lot of what gets passed as scholarship is simply folks starting with a preconceived notion and filling in the gaps with facts. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.

    This is extraordinarily personal, but I think I need to put this out there:

    Years ago, I actually received what could only be described as an absolute revelation from God with respect to Joseph Smith. To this day it remains the most vivid and strongest spiritual experience/outpouring I’ve ever felt. It was clear and explicit enough so that there couldn’t be any misunderstanding or nuance: Joseph Smith, Junior, was a true prophet of the true and living God, and not only that, but the mainstream LDS narrative of him being specifically a “restorer” is absolutely heaven’s truth.

    Because of this witness from heaven, nothing about his life that gets drudged up bothers me in the least. Naturally I love to learn, am an inveterate reader, and have an extensive library at home regarding these and many other topics. But as Joseph Smith himself said, “if you gazed into heaven for five minutes you would know more than has ever been written on the subject”.

    Joseph Smith will continue to be known for good and evil throughout the earth. Yet there will come a day, perhaps a Millennial day, when everything will be revealed on the housetops, and we will be able to know Brother Joseph again. We are not going to be disappointed.

  7. Michael, thank you for that. To go along with your quote of Joseph (“if you gazed into heaven for five minutes you would know more than has ever been written on the subject”) I add another.

    A person with experience is never at the mercy of a person with an argument.

  8. Yeah. When you receive a personal revelation about this stuff, it’s not as if you usually get an outpouring of detailed factoids to counter the detractors, but you know it’s somehow OK.

    If you’re like me, you then use this data point to inform your hypotheses. As more data comes in you try on hypotheses and shape them and form them and discard them, until you reach a point where the hypotheses work. When it’s a topic of high interest, the fundamental hypothesis spawns sub-hypotheses, much as nature forms fractal forms.

    For me, having done this iterative hypothesis investigation, spawning fractal-like sub-hypotheses through the history of Nauvoo polygamy, I see the factoids mentioned by Beam and note the individual stories like jewels on the beautiful pattern of the historical context.

    However without that basic hypothetical structure inspired by the data point of divine revelation that “its true,” there will be many who will be unable to see the beautiful pattern, but merely the troubling factoids.

  9. Meg, re your comment of 3:59pm, that’s how the Lord can hide things in plain sight. Not just about polygamy, but almost everything about the restoration. And not just this dispensation; it seems like the pattern repeats throughout the scriptures. Without those keystone pieces that come from revelation, all the other pieces and data-points just seem like foolishness to men. All those other pieces have dual interpretation; they can either support or detract from the overall picture, depending on the presence or absence of the keystones or the key pieces.

    Someone once said that the church isn’t based on the Bible, it’s based on what the Bible is based on: revelation. And not just the big revelations that come to the prophets. And not just the big “a-HA moment” conversion type of revelation that comes to individuals. But the line-upon-line, here-a-little, there-a-little, distilling as dew from heaven types too.

  10. I suppose that’s how He allows folks to remain blind and deaf to His truth, so they need not be damned for failing to choose what would otherwise be an obvious right.

  11. Allen: Thanks! I heard it from a local institute director/teacher, and didn’t know his source.

    Is Ross Baron the originator, or was he quoting someone else?

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