Review: Davis Bitton, “Knowing Brother Joseph Again: Perceptions and Perspectives”

Title: Knowing Brother Joseph Again: Perceptions and Perspectives 
Author: Davis Bitton
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Biography
Year: 2011
Pages: 197
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-1-58958-123-4
Price: $19.95 (Kindle, $9.95)

The fluidity of personality; the fallibility of perception; ambiguous memory construction; the happenstance instances of recording; the ravages of time. Just a few minor things to consider when trying to recall important events in my own life. And if I face such challenges regarding the things I’ve personally witnessed, how much more cautious should I be when dealing with history? With a particular historical figure? Named Joseph Smith. Who was he? So many different Josephs to choose from.

This is the general lesson LDS historian Davis Bitton hoped to convey in his book, Knowing Brother Joseph Again: Perceptions and Perspectives (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011). In each of ten chapters, Bitton traces “how Joseph Smith has appeared from different points of view. It is the image of Joseph Smith rather than the man himself” Bitton seeks to uncover (ix). Beneath the “different, flickering, not always compatible views” of Smith, Bitton still maintains that “Joseph Smith was either a true, authorized prophet of God or he was not. In recounting his visions he either spoke the truth or he did not” (x). From this introductory statement I anticipated a book of pro et con arguments, but Bitton is able to present much more variety throughout the book.

Bitton begins with “Joseph Smith as Hero” and situates him “against the backdrop of nineteenth-century heroism” (1). Here Bitton draws on various “attribute” lists from other scholars and contrasts anecdotes about Smith with Andrew Jackson. In chapter two, “A Prophet—In the Book of Mormon,” Bitton locates scripture verses which seem to match instances from Smith’s biography, although he is careful to distance himself from certain scholars who “suggest that the book is only a reflection of Joseph Smith’s life.” (These include William D. Morain, Robert D. Anderson, and Dan Vogel, p. 25). Here Bitton also leaves open the possibility that the Book of Mormon’s “process of translation was sufficiently flexible that he used words and feelings of his own precisely at points where they were appropriate in describing other prophets who, human beings after all, had anticipated some of his experiences and emotions” (25-26). The next chapter carries the same approach through the rest of the LDS Standard Works, pointing out biographical similarities with various biblical figures including Abraham and Paul. Some of Bitton’s connections here are a little stretched, but he also shows how Smith himself and other Latter-day Saints up to the present have explicitly identified such parallels (27-40).

As a chapter, “In the Mormon Folk Memory” is a little weak on folklore analysis. Bitton proposes a loose “taxonomy” in which to situate various recollections of Smith, including human qualities, physical strength, miracles, doctrinal sayings, and prophecies. Here as elsewhere, Bitton briefly discusses problems historians face when analyzing such sources: “Anecdotes about Joseph Smith told in later generations are not, in and of themselves, a reliable source of Latter-day Saint doctrine…But rejecting all later testimony out of hand, perhaps on the grounds that the testifier is not available for cross-examination, is going too far” (54-55). He offers a weak rubric: “Many of the anecdotes ring true. If they can be pinned down close to the actual time and place they were supposed to have occurred, if they are consistent with the rest of what is known about the Prophet, and especially if there is confirmation from other evidence, they have credibility” (55). He also adds that such recollections are useful, if not for direct access to a reliable past, “then for [understanding] his popular image among his people” (55). The subsections on “prophecy” and “doctrinal sayings” and practice and policy” would make for fascinating study. Imagine a work which compares these with Islamic hadith, for instance.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter, and most representative of the entire collection, is “Joseph Smith and the Scholars” (115-135). It’s a narrative bibliography of scholarship on Joseph Smith, beginning with pre-academic attempts like Charles Mackay’s The Mormons, With Memoirs of the Life and Death of Joseph Smith (1852) and ending with various academic books and articles written in the 1990s. Knowing Brother Joseph Again is an updated version of Bitton’s earlier book Images of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1996). Hence my confusion when I read that Donna Hill’s 1977 Joseph Smith, the First Mormon “is perhaps the most satisfactory full biography yet to appear” (122). Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling and Dan Vogel’s Making of a Prophet are included in a footnote (133), and Bitton’s introduction identifies RSR as “the most thoughtful full biography” of Smith (1). Bitton passed away in 2007 before completing the manuscript, which was completed by Kofford Books under JoAn Bitton’s approval (publisher’s preface).1 It isn’t clear which pre-2007 references were added by Bitton or the publisher. The footnote references are usually limited to the early 2000s with a few exceptions, which include multiple Kofford Books publications and the recent collection of Eliza R. Snow poetry published by BYU Studies.

Here, as elsewhere in the book, Bitton’s approach is somewhat uneven, switching between disinterested chronicler, open advocate, and devil’s advocate. His temperate assessment of Fawn Brodie’s Smith biography (“We do not agree with its conclusions and basic interpretation but think it silly to deny that it possesses positive qualities,” 120) is offset by a footnote dismissing John L. Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire (“For my negative review of Brooke’s misguided polemic, which predictably was lauded by secular professional historians and current anti-Mormons, see BYU Studies…” 134). Moreover, Bitton’s footnotes don’t always point to the most up-to-date sources even for the time period in which he wrote. The chapter concludes with a brief list of roles Smith in which scholars place Joseph including politician, magician, mystic, psychopath, genius, and prophet (130).

He concludes this chapter by noting that “Most believing Mormons are unfamiliar with these scholarly reappraisals. To the extent that they might find such analyses convincing, however, they would simply insist on combining models…Cutting through to the heart of the matter, they are usually content to view Joseph Smith as a prophet” (130-131). Turning from this thought, Bitton’s epilogue reads a bit like an Andy Rooney piece (the more serious-themed ones, not the shopping lists/minor annoyance stuff). Here a historian sits back, reflecting briefly on the presuppositions and assumptions people, including himself, bring to Joseph Smith. More specifically, he outlines an “undisclosed syllogism” which he believes people always employ when considering the question of whether Joseph Smith was a “prophet,” as opposed to having strictly academic concerns: “Major premise: a true prophet would not do X. Minor premise: Joseph Smith did X. Conclusion: Joseph Smith was not a true prophet…Such logic is indeed airtight, but the conclusion is embedded in the rigid definition of the major premise” (139-140). As a historian, Bitton notes, he can only go so far with the methodological tools available.2 But as a believer, he hopes for more:

“Back in the days…before the flattening of our reality into a stark, naturalistic, horizontal plane, there used to be a name for the leap, the signing on to something magnificently demanding and all-encompassing, the living out of something as if it were true, the growing conviction of the reality of things hoped for, things unseen. It used to be called faith” (140).

Bitton didn’t seek to be exhaustive in this book, although he included a 33-page “Select Bibliography” as of November 2005 (143). It includes references to primary sources, books, articles, theses, dissertations, church magazines, and unpublished papers specifically covering Joseph Smith. Bitton’s is a thought-provoking, if uneven, overview of various ways Joseph Smith has been known by others during his own lifetime up to the present day. I’d certainly feel comfortable recommending this book to those members of the Church who—only being familiar with the version of Joseph Smith depicted in official Church publications and films—would profit from a more complex view of the prophet. For Smith aficionados there isn’t much new in this volume, and it certainly isn’t Bitton’s magnum opus.

______________________________________________

Footnotes:

1. See James B. Allen, “Davis Bitton: His Scholarship and Faith,” FARMS Review Vol.19 No. 1 (2007): 1—8, for a tribute to Bitton.

2. For an interesting discussion about methodological considerations when dealing with religion in academic research, see “Finding the Presence in Mormon History: An Interview with Susanna Morrill, Richard Lyman Bushman, and Robert Orsi,” Dialogue, Interviews and Conversations, June 4, 2011.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Blair. I remember stumbling upon his earlier version of the book a few years ago and really enjoying the chapter on JS’s martyrdom.

    Question: it’s pretty well known that Bitton took a fairly, well, for lack of a better term, “conservative” turn in his later years, which might be reflected in the revisions done to a book originally written previous to the completion of that shift. Does that come across at all in the book?

  2. I’m glad that you reviewed this. I hadn’t had the time to give Davis Bitton a plug though Kofford Books gave me a copy.
    I think we should all be glad for Davis Bitton and his legacy, and some of his clear thinking and broad spirit show through nicely in this book.

    Ben, this book seems like a reasonable balance. A couple of minor asides that reflect some later attitudes, but overall a balanced approach. It’s too bad he wasn’t able to finish this book himself.

  3. smb’s said it about right. The footnote about Brooke is a rare instance where his more careful tone sharpens a bit. A clear conservative/liberal analysis wouldn’t fit well for the book, I think.

    But there are ways Bitton discusses certain issues which would seem more “apologetic” from an academic standpoint. The chapter on Joseph Smith’s enemies is an example. He tries to cover all sorts of different perspectives, from outside clergy to apostate lecturers, from Sharpe to the folks who put together the Expositor. He doesn’t go into much depth exploring some of the specific reasons these various people criticized JS, contrasting them. Instead, he just quotes some of the things various critics said. He closes by pointing out that negative statements about JS are often emphasized by “anti-Mormons right down to the present” while overlooking the fact that “others, including men and women who knew him very well, saw him quite differently” (70). I can’t really tell if he’s calling it a draw here, saying something like “these negative perspectives don’t take into account the positive ones” or if he is saying that those who knew JS best didn’t have negative views of him, which is somewhat contestable.

    But on the positive side, through this chapter perhaps more members will be introduced to Eber Howe, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, John C. Bennett, Henry Caswell (the Greek psalter bit is pretty funny) and the Higbee’s, Foster’s, etc. though he doesn’t delve into many of their specific claims regarding polygamy. (He does attribute the proximate causes of the martyrdom to plural marriage, political concerns, the destruction of the press, though.)

    You mentioned the martyrdom chapters and I think they were pretty decent. Not ground-breaking or extremely thorough. One analyzes various LDS poetry as a response, and the other looks at reactions to the lynching mostly in the national press. I picked up a few things here that I wasn’t familiar with, like Sarah Griffith Richards’s appreciation for Milton’s poem “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”:

    Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
    Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold
    Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old
    When all our fathers worshiped stock and stones.”

    Like smb said, I’m pretty grateful for Bitton’s overall contributions to LDS history. We stand on the shoulders of him and other historians who helped create a sea change in approaches to our history, I think. As you can guess, there isn’t much emphasis on contextualization, the sort of thing current LDS historians are really interested in, the sort of approach you’ve mentioned and that Bushman, Mason, etc. have described. The closest thing to that is the first chapter discussing JS and the idea of a “hero” in the nineteenth century, but I’m completely unversed on that subject and most of Bitton’s references are from the 1970s or earlier, so I’m not sure if it’s out of style or what.

  4. Thanks, smb and Blair. I’ve always enjoyed Bitton. His bio of Cannon, while tedious at times, was one of the first books that got me interested in academic Mormonism. He certainly is one of the giants whose shoulders we now stand on.

    Also, his “I Don’t have a Testimony of Church History” apologetic/devotional article is a favorite of mine to share with friends who stumble upon history problems.

  5. Ben- In many ways, I think “I Don’t have a Testimony of Church History” was Bitton’s magnum opus.

  6. Davis is the guy who got me thinking about Mormon history again. I’ve always enjoyed his stuff and his general attitude about Mormon scholarship and scholars. He was very pleasant to me, went out of his way to encourage me to get back into history when I had pretty much put it aside in the race for tenure, etc. He stood on much higher ground than I did, but didn’t act like it in his personal interactions. Agree that the testimony article was a good one.

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