We’re continuing our discussions with Dr. Newell Bringhurst.  We’ve talked about the controversial topics of blacks and the priesthood, as well as Fawn Brodie, and we’re going to continue to talk about controversial topics with Dr. Bringhurst.  What is Bringhurst’s Approach to Controversy?  We’ll ask him in this episode?

GT:  Apparently you enjoy controversy.  You’ve talked about blacks and the priesthood and then you talk about polygamy.  What are your latest polygamy books that you’ve put together?

Newell:  I’ve been involved with Craig Foster, a co-author, co-editor.  The two of us together did a series of volumes.  They are anthologies, collections of essays by various contributors as kind of a trilogy.  Volume 1 is the Persistence of Polygamy:  Joseph Smith and the Origins or Mormon Polygamy.  That was initially published in 2009 and we focus on the controversial aspects of Joseph Smith and his involvement and practice of polygamy.[1]

How does Newell deal with controversial topics?  Mentions his books have many perspectives from many different authors.  For example,

Newell:  Don Bradley did an essay on Fanny Alger, arguing that Joseph’s marriage to Fanny was actually a marriage and not an affair, not a “nasty, filthy affair” as Oliver Cowdery said.  I tend to take issue with him.  I allowed him to make his case and he gave a good argument for his position.  I felt like it should be out there for people to consider.  I’ve always considered myself to be fair-minded when I look at controversial issues.  I want to make sure that people are aware of all sides of an issue.

What does he like most about the study of Mormon history?

Newell:  I think that’s one of the healthy things about the field of Mormon studies.  You can disagree and not be disagreeable and still remain friends and enjoy camaraderie with people you disagree with.  I think that’s one of the great things about the whole field of Mormon studies.

Who has written the best biography of Joseph Smith?  The two most prominent authors are Fawn Brodie and Richard Bushman.  Dr. Newell Bringhurst weighs in on the Bushman-Brodie issue and talks strengths and weaknesses of both approaches.

Newell: Well, I tell people if they really want to know Joseph Smith, I recommend those two in tandem for this reason.  Number one is that Brodie really was a path-breaking study in trying to attribute reasons or motives to Joseph Smith and his practice of polygamy.  It was controversial because she starts it out by her major premise is Joseph Smith was a conscious fraud.  When you make that statement at the beginning of the book, that’s immediately going to send up red flags all over the place, but when you get into the book itself, she actually is quite empathetic to a lot of Joseph Smith’s behavior and actions.

She was able, I think, to create a more human figure.  In previous biographies, they have either pictured him as a scoundrel, anti-Mormon books that had been written by Smith, or in the case of books written by faithful Latter-day Saints by Joseph Smith, had been made almost as a hagiographic, almost a demigod.  I think even though she didn’t believe that he was really a prophet of God, she tried to give you a sense of the whole man.

The sources she used, the critics that had problems with Brodie, not only had she started with the premise that Joseph is a conscious fraud but she uses a lot of/a disproportionate number of anti-Mormon sources, so that does make it a little bit of a skewed as far as she doesn’t give Joseph Smith enough credit as the religious leader that he was or that he purported to be.  That was one of my major criticisms that I saw from the book when I read it.

But when you compare Bushman’s arguments with Brodie’s, his is based a lot more on contemporary documents.  He had access to a lot more materials and documents that Brodie didn’t have access to, so his is a much more thoroughly researched and documented history, but I don’t think it is as engagingly written.

Fawn Brodie was trained in English literature and received her degree in English so she brought that expertise and is able to write in a very engaging way.  To me it’s a much more readable biography, but Bushman’s is more carefully documented and gives you all sides of the argument.  He’s arguing also from the vantage point of a faithful practicing Latter-day Saint.  He believes what he said he was a prophet of God and pretty much goes along with the divine origin and various doctrines and practices.  It’s far from being a hagiography because Bushman does acknowledge his faults and his shortcomings and the mistakes that he made and so on, so it’s good in that regard.

What are your thoughts on controversial topics?  Is it best to ignore them, downplay them, or shine light on them?  What are your thoughts on Fawn Brodie and Richard Bushman?


[1] Volume 2 was published in 2013: The Persistence of Polygamy: From Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom to the First Manifesto, 1844-1890.  See http://amzn.to/2oEfFIj .  Volume 3 was published in 2015:  The Persistence of Polygamy, Vol. 3: Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy from 1890 to the Present.  See http://amzn.to/2FP20pq