As the founder of Mormonism, whether through a divine nature or through the inner-workings of his own mind, Joseph Smith has been the object of dozens of books, trying to analyze his life, his motivations, and his beliefs. These books examine Joseph from all sides, but with one key element: The sources in these books are second to none, and many can be considered “groundbreaking” in their views of Joseph Smith .
2012 – Inaugural Class
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman (2005)
Considered to be one of the “essential” biographies of Mormonism’s founder, “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” took the Mormon Academic world by storm in 2007. Richard Bushman is the author of many books on early American cultural and religious history, and this book became the larger and expanded version of his earlier text, “Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism,” which focused more on Smith’s early life.
Bushman does not avoid controversial aspects of Smith’s life in his book, such as polygamy, treasure digging, and alcohol, but attempts to treat them cautiously. Considered by some to be an apologetic book for Smith, Bushman concedes the fact that “A believing historian like myself cannot hope to rise above these battles or pretend nothing personal is at stake. For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible.” Yet as Bushman tends to lean to the believers side, he also shows Smith’s unsavory side, warts and all. Bushman’s references are second to none, surprisingly relying on Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History” quite frequently. Jana Shipps has referred to this book as “the crowning achievement of the new Mormon history.”
2005 Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association
2005 Evans Biography Award from the Mountain West Center for Regional Studies at Utah State University
No Man Knows My History by Fawn McKay Brodie (1945)
Written in 1945, “No Man Knows My History” was the first non-hagiographic biography written about Smith, and in the 67 years since it’s first publication, has never gone out of print. Brodie, who fell away from the church despite a father who was an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve, and a paternal uncle who went on to become Prophet and President of the church, chose to focus her biographies on Freudian psychology, and her biography on Smith was no exception.
Brodies book paved the way for Mormon scholarship by analyzing Smith as a man, and not so much as a divinely inspired religious leader. Her access to primary sources has proved to be invaluable, and her literary style enthralled readers and has had the ability to stand the test of time.
The Founder of Mormonism: A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith, Jr. by I. Woodbridge Riley (1902)
Originally written as a Ph.D Dissertation while at Yale, Riley’s biography is severely critical of Smith. However, Riley’s biography is original for the fact that it attempts to explain Smith’s revelations in a scientific tone. Richard Bushman has described this biography as one of the four most notable biographies written about Joseph Smith (BYU Studies Vol 40, no. 3, 2001)
Joseph Smith, an American Prophet by John Henry Evans (1933)
Credited by Leonard Arrington as being the book that attracted him to church history, Evans book is a straightforward presentation of the facts of Smith. Written in 1933, Evans hoped for the book to be a “scientific treatment of Joseph Smith … without smothering these facts in opinion.” Yet while Evans does tend to speak in the words of hyperbole, he aptly describes the extraordinary feelings that many of the Utah region felt for Smith. Sentences such as “In thirty nations are men and women who look upon him as a greater leader than Moses and a greater prophet than Isaiah” show the affection they felt for him, and the desires they also felt for the justification of Smith. While it is presented as a positive and enthusiastic portrayal of Smith’s life, it is also a seminal work in understanding early Mormon views of Smith.
Joseph Smith: The First Mormon by Donna Hill (1977)
Written as a noncommittal treatise of Joseph Smith, Donna Hill relied heavily on her brother Marvin Hill, prominent BYU professor and prominent historian in the New Mormon History movement of the 70′s. Hill’s biography stands out for being written during the midst of the New Mormon History movement, where hagiography and faith promoting texts were put aside, and more thorough effort in portraying Smith and the beginnings of Mormonism in a more objective light, allowing the readers to make their own conclusions.