Review: Jane Barnes, “Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet”

barnesTitle: Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet
Author: Jane Barnes
Publisher: Tarcher/Penguin
Genre: Biography/Memoir
Year: 2013
Pages: 304
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN10: 1585429252
Price: $25.95 (or $10 on Amazon)

In this quirky autobiographical biography of Joseph Smith the Mormon prophet, writer Jane Barnes offers an overview of Smith’s life intertwined with her own life experiences of love, loss and death.

Barnes became acquainted with Mormonism largely through her work on the PBS documentary, The Mormons. Hearing stories about Joseph Smith, researching the works of Fawn Brodie and Richard Bushman, meeting with the LDS missionaries, all of these things drew out Barnes’s deeply felt religious need (261). She interweaves her interpretation of Smith with her own life experiences—leaving her family to pursue a lesbian relationship gives her a different view of Smith’s socially deviant polygamy, for example. She is struck to discover her own Mormon roots, ancestors who were present at key turning points in the Mormon story. She is touched by the fervent but pragmatic faith of modern Mormon polygamists as well as the homespun scriptural interpretations of LDS missionaries. She may be in love with Joseph Smith, but she can’t make the leap to full commitment. And she’s maddeningly aware of her indecision.

She recalls a friend telling her that her “problem” was that she “wanted the meaning of life for breakfast” (39). In fact, the book recounts not one, but multiple of her own conversions. The one she had on the way to a Church meeting in Virginia (I’m pretty sure, given her description, she was going to Terryl Givens’s ward, pp. 13-17), the one she had with the Book of Mormon when she realized her dissatisfaction with its depiction of Jesus was rooted in her feelings about her own father (115), the “ker-thunk!” that fell upon her when she discovered, through family history research, that she had several Mormon ancestors (129-130), the one where she attended sacrament meeting on the day of the Primary program (“They sang hymns about ‘sharing families through all eternity’ with such tender sweetness I had to lash myself to the mast,” 217-8). She depicts herself as being trapped between PBS producers who think the documentary isn’t critical enough and missionaries who believe she just hasn’t prayed enough (126, 223, 257-8). Speaking of the missionaries, “They radiated Mormon goodness, a warmth so thick it seemed like they’d swallowed sweaters” (232).

As lines like that indicate, Barnes’s punchy prose sparkles and twists, somewhat compensating for her errors in historical recollection or uncritical use of various materials. (I think some footnotes are missing, too, such as in the first half of chapter seven and elsewhere. The publisher went with the annoying “popular” style of endnotes keyed by italicized excerpts from quoted phrases.) She rehearses a number of canards apologists have long declared debunked (impugning Book of Mormon witness testimonies, DNA and the Book of Mormon, etc.). But despite accepting them, she remains entirely unimpressed by them. For the most part she offers sympathetic readings of aspects of Joseph’s history, such as the conversation Joseph had with his friends on the night he almost fled Nauvoo for good:

These were dramatic moments when Joseph decided whether he would or would not step up. When he spoke, it was not the ironic Joseph [like the one who met with Josiah Quincy]. It was the affectionate Joseph, the familial Joseph, the antiauthoritarian, first-among-equals Joseph, a man who did not want to die, but turned his fate over to the will of the group. He had shaped these followers, now he acquiesced to whatever shape they felt his fate should take. He turned to his brother and said, “I will go with you, but we shall be butchered.” Hyrum replied: “No, no; let us go back and put our trust in God, and we shall not be harmed. The Lord is in it. If we live or have to die, we will be reconciled to our fate” (208-9).

Above all, Barnes loves the playful and ironic elements of religious faith. Her favorite element of Joseph’s experience is his translating much of the Book of Mormon by use of a stone in a hat. Was Joseph conversant with phrases like “old hat,” “talking through one’s hat,” “at the drop of a hat” (“to signal a fight was going to start”), “throw your hat into the ring,” or “pulling a rabbit out of a hat.” She adds, “If you feel God needs to update at least part of his image–the part that is pretty humorless–as I do, you will delight in this connection, too” (7). She swerves from recounting actual witness accounts of the Book of Mormon translation into her own fictional reconstruction of Joseph’s early years. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are injected directly into the account alongside Joseph (51-58, 264-5, a massively charming feat):

The boys [Joseph, Tom, and Huck] came to a lovely dimpled slope of Hill Cumorah. They sat down in a row in the moonlight…[and] Joseph got started on his own story…”I put everything on the table when I went into the grove and prayed, asking God to tell me what church was true. I was practically murdered by some demon before I got an answer. This was no dream. I really thought I’d be dead if I didn’t fight for my life. Next thing I knew, God’s shining down on me and Christ’s with him. That’s when he told me all the churches were wrong. I was going to have to start a new one.”

“Well,” said Tom, blowing smoke rings, “he gave you a break there. If you make up your own church, you could keep the service to a minimum” (52-3).

If such excerpts aren’t enough to pique your interest, you can check out a version of the first chapter, originally published in Dialogue at the behest of Levi Peterson, giving impetus to the rest of the book, here. Or a bit of the fifth chapter here.

By mixing imaginative reconstructions, self-psychoanalysis, and an array of historical accounts together, Barnes’s book is bound to baffle any and all comers in some way. She’s not fully satisfied with Fawn Brodie’s or Richard Bushman’s Joseph, but admires elements of each. Hers is a Joseph who could never have produced the Book of Mormon but who did in fact produce it using a stone in a hat, of all things, whose polygamy was revelatory but not actually connected to ancient patriarchs like Abraham. “Under the intense pressure we associate with budding artists, improvising recklessly and freely, Joseph parlayed a real but evolving experience of God into an original act of religious performance art” (98). God is a form of realism that has been undermined by creeping modernism, Joseph is the artist seeking to repurpose him. Joseph’s complexity gives Barnes hope for her own salvation.

The book concludes on a rather serious note, considering Barnes’s characteristic playfulness. (Perhaps this can be seen as consistent with her overall admiration for deadly serious comedy.) Her main obstacle to converting to the LDS Church was Jesus, not Joseph; she couldn’t make sense of Jesus. After so many attempts, the baffled LDS missionaries thanked her sincerely for trying. In the meantime, she’d reconnected with an old friend who’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Her fear of death looming large, she ended up seeking counsel from an Episcopal minister—a return to the church culture of her youth. With the decline of her friend’s health, she worried above all about the command to “love thy neighbor.” Being a caregiver of a dying man who refused to speak with her about death—that which she wanted to speak about above all—was too much for her. She realized the minister could have easily pointed out that she “wanted ‘love thy neighbor’ to feel good. It didn’t” (263). I suppose her religious quest continues beyond these pages, where she identifies herself as a “drifter” and a “pseudo-pilgrim,” still haunted by her encounter with the Mormon prophet:

What I took away from Joseph was love of Joseph. I’d been through the wars with him, the craziness of life, and he’d affirmed for me that God was part of it all: the upside-down and backward surrealism of our illusions, desires, losses, misfortunes, horrors, joys (259).

This is the strangest biography of Joseph Smith you’ll ever read.


  1. I’m reading it now. I loved the Dialogue essay. The book (so far) is interesting and provocative and surprising.

  2. Thanks for this great review, Blair! It gives me much more of a sense of the author and of the experience of reading the book than other reviews have.

  3. Enjoyed the book, enjoyed this review, and love the phrase “quirky autobiographical biography.” Well done, Blair.

  4. What a great review! OK I’m in. I’m going to make room for this.
    Thanks for doing this!

  5. Definitely gonna read this great review and great site keep up the good work.

  6. Mathew says:

    Loved the review. Still wont read the book but want to hear more about it.

  7. This is my favorite book about Joseph Smith. Great review, but don’t give away the ending! Also, note the starkly polarized reviews on Amazon:

  8. I have this one already on my list of “books to read”. I have so many on that list though I don’t know if I will ever get to it. Although thanks to your review I will probably move it up the list a few spaces. Thanks.

  9. Stephen says:

    I just finished reading, “Falling in love with Joseph Smith.” I appreciated her honesty about herself and her struggle to find the spiritual connection she so desperately desired. I’m LDS and this book did not read antimormon to me. It was just her honest account of her walk around the LDS faith. From reading her book, the message to me was to love and respect others regardless of their beliefs.

  10. I own the book; it is located in the Everest-like pile of the “to-be-read”. I am now much more intrigued by it. I was astonished by the negative reaction of so many of my TBM Iron-Rod family members to the PBS special. I kept arguing that it was quite even-handed and had the producers pursued it with hostile intent there was a gold mine they had left out.

  11. BHodges says:

    Thanks, everybody.

  12. You had me at pseudo-pilgrim. Also, the Joseph, Tom, and Huck thing.

  13. “She rehearses a number of canards apologists have long declared debunked (Book of Mormon witness testimonies, DNA and the Book of Mormon, etc.), but despite accepting them she remains unimpressed by them.”

    Apologists have debunked the Book of Mormon witness testimonies? I hadn’t heard that, but I would actually be really interested in reading any theories on the subject. Would you mind linking to the articles or blog posts on the topic? I’d very much appreciate it.

  14. BHodges says:

    Yes, I was unclear there. Here’s an edited version of that line:

    She rehearses a number of canards apologists have long declared debunked (impugning Book of Mormon witness testimonies, DNA and the Book of Mormon, etc.). But despite accepting them, she remains entirely unimpressed by them.

    In other words, there has been much debate over the reliability of the witness testimonies. Did they only see with their “spiritual eyes,” meaning it was all “visionary” and hence more likely hallucinatory, or was it a more physical experience, etc.? Dan Vogel and others have worked, to the contrary, to emphasize possible fraud and hallucination. Richard Lloyd Anderson has been the chief apologist on behalf of the witnesses. His book Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses discusses these things.

  15. Ahh, I see. Thanks for the clarification.

  16. Thanks Blair, I was wondering when you would review the book. I have read the book and found much of the authors reflections somewhat refreshing. There certainly is something endearing about Joseph and repulsive, maybe that is the cost of anyone who truly decides to live their own life and announce before the world what they believe, and what beliefs they no longer hold or didn’t work. I have always considered the BOM an amazing theological, prophetic parable along with the fanciful but heady Pearl of Great price and the D and C as simply a selfish set of writings that uses God to justify decisions. It is easy to love the early Joseph but as I read the book I think the author not only didn’t need Jesus, but the later Joseph often seems lost and out of self control. This much I will say however Joseph’s life in the long run produced amazing good fruit as the development of not just a religion but a truly creative and good people! To that end I am sure God’s blessing was somehow upon him. So I am not LDS but I am glad you all are here and of the better part of his legacy.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    Mormons, especially if they have served as misisonarties, know people who were drawn to aspects of the Church but could not make a commitment to join it. Getting insight into how one of them experienced her encounter with the Church and its teachings and history is interesting, but I’m not sure it is worth spending my money on.

    As for the PBS documentary, it had some moments in which it let Mormons speak for themselves where it could be really effective in telling the real story of how Mormons view themselves. On the other hand, it had a lot of stuff that was just plain misrepresentation and distortion. Not a single accurate and clear depiction of Joseph Smith was seen in the whole program. The extended section about an excommunication hearing before a high council used many shots of a stark room with wooden floor and hard back chairs, no table or carpet or lighting, to depict it with a mood of a harshness, literally portraying the high council in a false light. The producers put a LOT of effort into an essentially false portrayal. That is called lying. The producers were manipulating the images in order to instruct the viewer to have the same kind of negative feelings they themselves had toward aspects of the Church.

    I see from this review that the author of the book has created her own story about Joseph smith, in much the same way the authors of “The Book of Mormon” musical have distorted the Mormon story, and the story of both missionaries and Mormons in Uganda. Treating someone as an object to be manipulated to illustrate your own view of reality, rather than respecting objective facts about them, is disrespectful toward religious minorities just as when distortions are used in depicting ethnic minorities. We now know what the people in the great and spacious building are doing between intermissions, when they come to the balcony to gloat and ridicule the people at the Tree of Life.

  18. I need to say I am one of those still seeking, and is attracted very much to LDS. I am a minister and have found so much faith and insight in the BOM and Pearl of Great price. I read her book twice and I agree her Joseph Smith is often self serving. I just need to say I really enjoy the true faith experiences I read in this site. My wife is tolerant of my wanderings and wonderings in Mormonism, but is scared to death of the church. I also have read the Community of Christ material and I need to say I find that quite authentic. I am amazed at What Joseph experienced and accomplished, and how freedom loving he seems to be. I enjoy BYU TV and I like so much the personal testimonies but the constant reference to “Living prophet” BTW I really like Bro Munson, There is a line that is crossed The need to be literal about the BOM and POGP–is a line crossed. I ma not literal with much of the Bible! When I read the posts on this site it seems there is more diversity of thought about things–even though there is a core conservativeness overall. That by the way is OK with me. I too have deep conviction or conservative side. I appreciate this site.

  19. BHodges says:

    The producers put a LOT of effort into an essentially false portrayal. That is called lying. The producers were manipulating the images in order to instruct the viewer to have the same kind of negative feelings they themselves had toward aspects of the Church.

    It’s not only a stretch to call them liars, it’s also not very charitable. The section on excommunication was based on the personal views of certain people who had undergone the experience, so the images chosen, while apparently unfair from the perspective of members of the church who have experienced such proceedings in a different light, were accurate to the experience of the people in the documentary. Contrast these scenes with the effort that went into portraying General Authorities in a positive, credible light, the happy scenes of member families, etc. Some people would accuse the filmmakers of falsely portraying Mormons as happy, spiritually healthy, credible, etc. They were criticized from multiple angles for their work. It’s not perfect, there’s no question. But to me, it’s also no question that when Mormons react too strongly, cry persecution and unfairness, they end up looking like people who take themselves too seriously, who can’t brook criticism, who have something to cover up.

    Your observation about people creating Joseph Smith in their own image is very interesting. In fact, I agree that we all do this to a certain extent, and the Church has clearly done this in fashioning an image of Joseph Smith for the purposes of proselytizing and relating church history, inspiring good works, etc. In no way do I see this as disrespectful of Joseph Smith, though. In fact, it’s a matter of a person, in this case Barnes, taking Joseph seriously enough to deeply engage with his life and thought. To take someone’s good faith approach to Joseph Smith and lump it into a zero-sum religious declaration about great and spacious buildings strikes me as self-righteous and weird. It seems to me to partake in that gloating and pointing you accuse others of doing.

    I certainly don’t think Barnes’s portrait of JS is perfect, ideal, always accurate, comprehensive, etc., but I did feel of Barnes’s serious respect for Joseph and his work. She gave me plenty to think about in terms of how someone I view as a prophet might be understood by someone who doesn’t accept all of JS’s prophetic claims. Barnes’s book is respectful, if sometimes irreverent, but for her, irreverence has a place in religious faith. I think she makes a good case that Joseph himself often felt likewise.

  20. BHodges says:

    Tom: I’m glad to see you again here at BCC!

  21. Thank you, I enjoy your blog!

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