by Rob Ficiur
Reviewed by Sharon Lindbloom
Author Rob Ficiur (pronounced “feature”) served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in upstate New York in the early 1980s. While there, he visited many LDS Church history sites including Palmyra, New York and the Hill Cumorah. Now a school teacher, Mr. Ficiur believes the best way to teach history to young people is through historical fiction. To that end, Trouble in Palmyra, the first book in the Time Travelers in Church History series, was published by Covenant Communications in 2005.
Trouble in Palmyra is the story of two youngsters, Tom (13-years old) and Becky (12) who travel back in time with their Absent-Minded-Professor-ish Uncle Daniel. They arrive in Palmyra, New York in March of 1820, just days before Joseph Smith experiences his First Vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ.
The second book, Rescue the Prophet, was released in the spring of 2007. In this story, Tom, Becky and Daniel again travel to Palmyra, but this time they arrive in September 1830, in time to witness the persecution of the Smith family (and others) caused by the publication of the Book of Mormon.
Both books are promoted as historical fiction. In the first book the author tells his readers that, though some of the characters are fictitious, they are based on real people who lived at the time the story takes place. His depictions of the Smith family, he says, “are as real as I can make them, based on stories and facts about them and the 1820 frontier.” Most of the characters that appear in Trouble are also present in Rescue.
As one might expect, these books are intended to be faith-promoting for Latter-day Saint youth. Therefore, the Smith family is consistently portrayed as the kindest family in town. Their deep faith, industriousness, patience, and caring attitudes are front-and-center in both books. In Trouble, the reader will find a few neutral characters as well as some bad guys, but in Rescue, the neutral characters are gone. With few exceptions, there is a clear line in the second book which divides the portrayal of characters: the Mormons are good, and the non-Mormons are very, very bad.
One of the recurring characters in both books is Pastor Barnes. He is introduced early in Trouble:
“Now brothers and sisters! Today is the day to accept the Lord! Do not listen to those false preachers who tell you that you must work your way to heaven. If you ask for the Lord to come into your life today, that is all you must do!”
“Pastor Barnes!” A man stood up in the front row. “You are twisting the Bible! Clearly James said that faith without works is dead. We must do more than just proclaim Jesus’ name. We must do His works.”
“Mr. Tucker! You are being misled by the false preachers of the day. They want your money. God wants only your heart.” (33)
Throughout the rest of Trouble in Palmyra Pastor Barnes, Mr. Tucker, and Reverend Hastings superficially argue about the doctrines of works and grace, resulting in the confusion young Joseph Smith struggled with as he tried to determine which church was true.
Joseph Smith is portrayed as a deeply spiritual young man who is forever asking the ministers questions that they are unable to answer (73-74), but the reader is never told what those questions are. Finally, coming to a near-breaking point over his spiritual uncertainty, Joseph says,
“If I don’t find some answers I’ll never know. Each of these preachers teaches the scriptures the way he wants them to be believed. Asking preachers can’t be the way.” (154)
Interestingly, the official account of Joseph Smith’s story published by the LDS Church has Joseph reasoning a little differently. Rather than stating the folly of asking the preachers for answers, the official account has Joseph explaining that he believed there was no hope of finding answers in the Bible:
“…unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” (The Pearl of Great Price Joseph Smith–History 1:12)
Joseph’s subsequent encounter with God in the grove is not depicted in the book, but after the First Vision occurs the author describes Joseph’s “glow.” In the words of the character Tom,
“I had to watch Joseph as he walked past us — I just couldn’t take my eyes off him. I watched Joseph’s every step. My gaze was drawn to him like a magnet. It was like nothing I had ever seen or felt in my life. As my eyes watched Joseph, my heart filled with an indescribable peace, as if part of Joseph’s peace were radiating to me.” (162)
Later on Joseph tells Tom and Becky what happened:
“Suddenly I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head. It no sooner appeared than I found the evil force was gone. The light came down and fell upon me. In the midst of that light I saw two Personages…” (175)
The description continues as a pretty close paraphrase of the First Vision account in LDS scripture. But on one point the author of Trouble has chosen to deviate from the official story in a significant way. Joseph continues,
“I asked them which of all the churches I should join. The second Personage, Jesus, told me that none of the churches was His church. None of the churches had all His truth.” (175)
The official First Vision account found in The Pearl of Great Price says this:
“I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personages who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.'” (Joseph Smith–History 1:19)
After the First Vision occurs in Trouble the Mormon time travelers and the Smiths become cemented in their faith while the other characters become hardened and show their true colors. Pastor Barnes has a run-in with Joseph and turns on the boy when he can’t convince Joseph to abandon the story of his vision.
“Young Joe Smith is possessed of the devil! Last week, he told me he saw God, angels, and the devil! I called upon him to renounce his blasphemous claims. He would not. Such unrepentant sinners cannot remain in our church!” (212)
Thus the stage is set for book 2 in the series: Rescue the Prophet.
Rescue opens in modern-day Palmyra with an argument between a Christian missionary handing out tracts and a non-Mormon visitor to the town. The author portrays the gray-haired Christian man as a closed-minded, uninformed anti-Mormon; the woman the Christian argues with is incensed that anyone would engage in such unchristian behavior as handing out literature.
As Tom, Becky and Uncle Daniel leave 2007 and time travel to 1830, the first thing they encounter is Pastor Barnes –10 years later — still speaking almost exclusively in exclamation points:
“‘Joe Smith’s gold Bible is the greatest hoax of all time! His work of fraud has brought a bad name to the good people of Palmyra! …Joe Smith has corrupted the good word of God and we must stop him!…’
“Becky smirked. ‘The people in the twenty-first century are saying the same things as Pastor Barnes is in 1830. Haven’t come up with anything new, have they?'” (16)
Rescue is 239 pages of pure, over-the-top “persecution.” Except for Mormons or those who become Mormons, virtually every character in the book is unreasonable and exceedingly malicious toward the Latter-day Saints. Pastor Barnes incites the community with fiery speech and outright lies about Joseph Smith (“He is the only young person I have ever met who refused to read the Bible.” 17). Palmyra citizens physically attack Joseph (21) and those who are sympathetic toward the Smiths (47). People hired to work on the production of the Book of Mormon are bullied into quitting their jobs (67). The Sheriff refuses to intervene to help Mormon victims (70) and plots to frame LDS Church leader Oliver Cowdery for bank robbery (199). A friend turns mean and sneering when Becky declares her love for the Book of Mormon (108). Shop-keepers refuse to wait on Emma Smith (130). And the list goes on. And on.
Pastor Barnes is the main villain in Rescue the Prophet. In addition to being portrayed as a mean-spirited opponent of Mormonism, he is also depicted as a fool. Different characters in the book ask him sincere questions regarding his opposition to the Book of Mormon and Mormonism, but he never gives a satisfactory answer. For example, he proudly proclaims that he has not, and will not, read the Book of Mormon:
“I have never touched even a page of that book. Nor will I ever open it or read one word.” (83-84)
Yet Pastor Barnes insists the book is a lie. How does he know? When asked he says, “I just know.” (84)
The LDS “gospel” message is prominent in Rescue. One of the main characters, Matthew, is drawn to Mormonism because he doesn’t understand why people persecute the kind-hearted Mormon people so ruthlessly. Throughout the book he asks questions of Tom and Becky (and other Mormons) and receives in return answers like this:
“You just need to pray about the Book of Mormon, Matthew. Either it came from God and His angels as Oliver Cowdery testified, or it came from the devil as Pastor Barnes claims. Pray to Heavenly Father, and He will tell you it’s true.” (163)
Matthew chooses to join the Mormon Church and is baptized near the end of the book. It is noteworthy that Matthew’s conversion has nothing to do with Christ; it is instead centered in Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. In fact, apart from the appearance of Christ in Joseph’s telling of the First Vision story in Trouble in Palmyra, throughout these two books only Pastor Barnes and a few other non-Mormon characters talk about Jesus at all. Every person whose faith is commended, that faith is measured by what he or she thinks of Joseph Smith — not Christ.
In my opinion, Trouble in Palmyra and Rescue the Prophet are unfortunate books. Rob Ficiur has an opportunity to educate his young readers about LDS Church history while guiding them as they formulate their opinions and feelings regarding those outside the Church. Rather than giving his readers a necessarily simplistic but realistic understanding of the complicated formation of early Mormonism, he regrettably perpetuates the one-sided us-against-them persecution neurosis which afflicts many members of the LDS Church even today. The messages extended in the books are these: all critics of Mormonism are ignorant, uncharitable and unreasonable people driven by hate, who have no real reasons for their opposition of Mormonism; Mormons, on the other hand, are and have always been kind, thoughtful, helpful people of strong faith and conviction who always turn the other cheek and endure mistreatment with quiet resignation. Neither characterization is accurate or helpful.
Rob Ficiur’s rewriting of the message Joseph Smith allegedly received from God, which is actually the basis for the formation of the LDS Church, captures the essence of the author’s overall message. Gone is the historically accurate condemnation Joseph claimed God pronounced upon every Christian church and every person of Christian faith. True history records Joseph Smith coming out of the grove proclaiming every church was “wrong,” the Christian faith was an “abomination” in God’s sight, and Christian believers were all “corrupt.” But Rob Ficiur, for his young readers, portrays Joseph coming out of the Sacred Grove with a soft-sell message: none of the existing churches were complete. The historical context for the contention between Christianity and Mormonism — which has continued from the nineteenth century to present day — is stripped away from the stories as told in Trouble in Palmyra and Rescue the Prophet. As seems to be so common in LDS culture, these books elevate faith-promoting fiction above a principled and forthright recounting of history.