When the great biography of Joseph Smith appears, wrote Daryl Chase several years ago, its author will be “a first-rate scholar in the field of Christian church history and a specialist in the heretical religious movements which have originated in New England,” . . . “an authority in American history down to the Civil War, and know the important part the Christian churches played in that period.” He will have access to all the manuscript materials pertinent to the subject, Chase added, and will be “a good sociologist, psychologist, and student of the Bible.” Although she possesses several of these qualifications, Donna Hill is not this imaginary ideal biographer, and the “definitive” biography of Joseph Smith remains unwritten. It may of course always remain that elusive ideal that is never attained but is worth pursuing; but major strides are resulting from the analytical essays of Marvin Hill, the careful work of Dean Jessee with the Prophet’s holograph writings, and the forthcoming volume by Richard Bushman, supported by a Guggenheim Foundation grant, that will carry the life of Joseph Smith to 1830. In any case, the publisher’s blurb that Joseph Smith: The First Mormon is “definitive” may be a bit premature.
This is an important book and a “fair” book. It also contains disappointments. To first consider some of its inadequacies, one can start with such a simple matter as the evidences of the publisher’s haste, the typographical errors, the minor flaws. David Brion Davis is rechristened David Briton Davis. Mormonism Unvailed, Eber D. Howe’s 1834 blast against incipient Mormonism, is fastened as a title onto the later works by Parley P. Pratt and John D. Lee, although both them did manage to spell the second word properly. The Western Humanities Review, whose lack of receptivity to scholarly articles on Mormonism has been a disappointment to readers familiar with its flair under the editorship of William Mulder, is listed as one of the journals publishing on Joseph Smith and his followers “with almost bewildering frequency.” Martha Cragun Cox, author of one of the most vivid Mormon journals, is identified as Cragun Cox, robbing a grand old lady of her femininity, while Andrew Jenson is identified as “a former Church Historian,” a belated promotion he would have welcomed during his lifetime.