I spent a lot of time this year learning about the religion in which I was raised. I wasn’t alone: the nomination of a certain presidential candidate guaranteed that many people would read up on Mormonism. What were they reading? Over the summer, a Mormon historian who has written a few pieces for me at Slate pointed out that the top-selling book in the Mormonism category at Amazon — after the Kindle edition of the Mormon scriptures, that is — has been, for pretty much eight years straight, Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer. This jibed with my experience: It’s typically the only book about the religion that my secular, left-leaning friends have read.
Which is unfortunate. Because however well it’s written — and I’m a fan of Krakauer’s writing, particularly Into the Wild — the book has a tendentious take on religion in general and Mormonism in particular. Imagine a book that presented itself as a history of Islam and was called Under the Banner of Jihad, with half of its chapters devoted to Mohammed and the early days of the faith and the other half devoted to Osama Bin Laden. And imagine its thesis was that religion tends to make people violent and that Islam does so more than most. Books like that exist, I’m sure — plenty, I imagine. But do you want to read them?
A couple other books I read this summer were just as gripping as Krakauer’s and yet addressed Mormonism in a more nuanced fashion than he manages. And they’re hardly apologetics: One got the author kicked out of the Mormon church and the other is a true-crime tale about the religion’s gravest scandal of the last 30 years. That one’s called Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders. It centers on Mark Hofmann, a world-class forger who, after growing up in the faith, faked several seemingly landmark Mormon documents that, if authentic, complicated the church’s history in uncomfortable ways. As his deceptions — and shady financial dealings — caught up with him, Hoffman took to making bombs, killing two people and wounding himself. Salamander tells the whole sorry story with careful research and not a shred of sensationalism.
But an even more stunning tale is told in No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, by Fawn M. Brodie. While it’s no longer the definitive biography of Mormonism’s founding prophet — that would be Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard Lyman Bushman — it’s a classic. And Brodie writes beautifully. “Carried along in the migration had come the flotsam of the godly,” she says of the nonconformists who fanned out west from New England in the early nineteenth century. “The body of the prophet lay for a time quite alone,” she writes near the end, describing the scene after Smith’s murder, “until Willard Richards ventured forth to carry it back into the jail and lay it beside the body of his brother.” Her comment in the preface that “Joseph Smith dared to found a religion in the age of printing” remains a key insight for students of the religion. Brodie — whose uncle David O. McKay would become the president of the LDS church, but who had long since ceased believing in the Mormon gospel herself — published the book in 1945. She was excommunicated the following year. If you’re interested in Mormonism — because of Mitt Romney or for any other reason — read her book.
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