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Book Review: Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record

By H. Michael Marquardt & Wesley Walters

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

With the title “Inventing Mormonism,” there will be a number of people who might get offended and consider this just another “anti-Mormon” book. As the back cover puts it, though, “The story of Mormonism has been rewritten many times, often with a censor’s hand. Inventing Mormonism restores the original drama and detail that official histories lack.” To get an understanding of just how Mormonism was founded, Inventing Mormonism is highly recommended for anyone wanting all the facts with Joseph Smith and the creation of the Mormon religion.

Originally written in the mid-1990s, the book still has much to offer despite having been around for two decades. The focus of the book is aimed at Joseph Smith’s history and the foundations of the Mormon Church; much of what has been written has since been confirmed in other books written by LDS authors, including Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman. Both Marquardt and Walters were tenacious researchers, even digging into basements that had flood damage to uncover information that had previously been untouched. Here are just some of the places where they uncovered their information: The LDS Church historical department in Salt Lake City, Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., Town Clerk’s Office in Palymra and Manchester, New York, and more than a dozen other places.  Original research like what they have done is something that is hard to do, as the LDS Church locks so much away in its archives, making it impossible to get to the bottom of these important issues.

At the beginning of the book, an outline of the Joseph Smith, Sr. family is given, with a complete chronology going from 1817 through 1831. It’s fascinating to read through these entries and learn things that are not very well known. At the end of the book are photocopies of a variety of LDS sources; that too is worth a look.

One of my favorite chapters is chapter 2. It cover the timing of the so-called “Palymra Revival.” The research that has been done proves definitively that there was no revival in 1820, despite what is claimed in Mormonism’s official “First Vision” account. On page 15, the authors summarize their findings by saying,

An examination of newspaper accounts, religious periodicals, church records, and personal narratives shows that there were no significant gains in church memberships or any other signs of revival in Palmrya in 1820. There was a stirring and momentous revival there with all the features that Joseph Smith’s history mentions during the fall and winter of 1824-25.

If true, this creates a major problem for Mormon leaders and their historians. After all, if Smith made it very clear (as he did in the first chapter of Joseph Smith-History) that there was a revival in 1820 and yet no such event took place, then the veracity of the entire story is suspect. If the revival didn’t take place until 1824-25, then the appearance of Moroni should be considered the “first vision,” as Smith would not have seen God the Father and Jesus until afterwards. What reeks even more is the fact that there were nine different accounts of this “first vision” in the first two decades following this supposed event, with the official version not even described by Smith until 1838-39. Mormon leaders have attested to the importance of this event, including Gordon B. Hinckley:

Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either oc­curred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud… upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this church. (Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Marvelous Foundation of our Faith,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2002, p. 80.).

He also said,

Every claim that we make concerning divine authority, every truth that we offer concerning the validity of this work, all finds its roots in the First Vision of the boy prophet. (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 226).

As far as the facts of the Palymra Revival goes, there is no better description and documentation I have seen that is better than this. The convincing case discussed in chapter 2 is overwhelming against the LDS prophet and his story. As Hinckley said, if this event has problems, so does the entire religion.

On page 28, the authors answer two popular Mormon objections to the lack of a revival. They write, “The first maintains that Smith was merely alluding to revivals which were common in western New York state at this period.” These apologists point to other revivals in the New York area as possibly referring to Smith’s claim. One BYU Studies article even published nine possible revival sites that Smith could have visited on foot. Criticizing such a view, the authors explain, “However, the map is flawed, with four villages placed significantly closer than they appear where there was not religious excitement at all.” And “this argument overlooks—and negates—Cowdery’s and Smith own assertion of a revival ‘in Palymra” and vicinity.’ Smith’s mother even talked about how her other children and the “whole neighborhood flocked to the meeting house.”

The second argument used is referring to a supposed revival that took place in Vienna, about eleven miles away from Palymra. Quite simply, “there is no evidence that such a revival ever occurred” and no proof that “Rev. Lane” (as mentioned in Smith’s story) preached at a camp meeting there (29) The next four pages are written to squash that line of argumentation.

Another fact brought out by the authors is that Smith was not as uneducated as some would make him out to be. They write,

Joseph Jr.’s lack of formal schooling sometimes yielded the erroneous impression that he was illiterate. In the latter part of 1825 while Smith was working in northern Pennsylvania, Isaac Hale, his future father-in-law, remarked that he was “not very well educate.” Perhaps in response to such impressions, Smith, though almost twenty years old, enrolled in school in the Bainbridge, New York, area while working for Josiah Stowell during the winter of 1825-26. While being examined before Justice Albert Neely on 20 March 1826, Smith testified that he had been “going to school.”

On page 71, Walters’ work in the basement of a New York courthouse is discussed, as he found something that proved how Smith had been arrested for “glasslooking.” They explain:

For over a hundred years three different published printings of the actual 1826 court record taken from Albert Neely’s docket book have been available as well as an account by William D. Purple. But because the pages from the original docket book had been lost, the authenticity of these published accounts was questioned. However, in 1971 two itemized bills were discovered which had been submitted by Justice Neely and Constable Philip De Zeng to cover costs incurred in the arrest and examination of Joseph Smith, and they confirm many of the details of both the Purple account and the published versions of the record.

This proves

That young Smith had for several years earned part of his livelihood by hiring out as a glass looker to locate hidden treasures by gazing into his seer stone. . . . These activities led the two widely separated communities to associate him with divination and necromancy. (75)

In chapter 4 titled “The Treasure,” the authors show the early accounts of LDS leaders who linked the discovery of the Book of Mormon with buried treasure hunting. The way that history was bent in order to accommodate the Book of Mormon story is clearly laid out.

There is plenty of information in this 250-page book that should shake the faith of an honest Latter-day Saint. Yet studying the history of the creation of the Mormon religion is probably the most important thing any person could do before making a conclusion on Joseph Smith and his claim that he restored the biblical Christianity supposedly lost 1700 years earlier.

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