Document:
Bernard DeVoto
(1915-1981)
Forays and Rebuttals (1936)

Title-page

Chapter excerpt
Solomon Spalding

Transcriber's comments



 
Forays and Rebuttals, copyright 1936
by Bernard DeVoto
Because of copyright restrictions, only limited "fair use"
excerpts are presented here.











F O R A Y S

and




REBUTTALS








BERNARD DEVOTO






Published at BOSTON in 1936 by

LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY









 

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Expanded From The American Mercury, January 1930



The Centennial of Mormonism

A STUDY IN UTOPIA AND
DICTATORSHIP


AUTHORITIES disagree about the exact date of the withdrawal from the Christian Church of the divine authority once vested in it. Corruptions of its spirit, misuses of its gifts, and perversions if its doctrine following the death of the last Apostle suggest to some that God then took back His holy priesthood. Others set other dates but all agree that by the fifth cenrury the Church was altogether heretical and the ministry of Jesus, more properly called the Dispensation of the Meridian of Time, had come to an end. From that time forth no one held the keys of the spirit, no priests had authority to perform the ordinances of God, and no church had the organization, ritual, sacraments, government, theological authority or legal succession that God had established. During that period, which is known as the Great Apostasy, the Church of God was altogether absent from this earth. The whole world labored in darkness. Everyone was a heretic.
 



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The public may be excused for misconceiving Mormonism, and it is the nature of the intellectuals to derive theie ideas about anything from contemplating the imperatives of their own souls. But there is no acceptable explanation of the long neglect of the Saints by scholarship. The only aspect of Mormonism that has been adequately treated is the doctrinal one, and even here the student has to dig his information out of many professional journals, no single inclusive treatment having yet appeared. Apart from the doctrinal aspect, everything is rudimentary, infrequent and mostly wrong. The story of the Mormons is one of the most fascinating in all American history, it touches nineteenth-century American life at innumerable points, it is as absorbing as anything in the history of the frontier, it is probably the most important chapter in the history of the trans-Mississippi frontier and certainly the most varied, and it is a treasure-house for the historian of ideas, institutions and social energies. Yet no qualified historian has ever written a comprehensive treatise on Mormonism, 4 and very few have even written monographs on minute aspects of it.

Search the indexes of historical publications and you will find stretches of many years when no title relating to Mormonism is listed. You will come out at the end with a handful of brief articles, some of them about the Reorganized Church and other heresies, most of them by antiquarians writing for local historical societies, and practically all of them devoted to specialized, unimportant inquiries. It is an absurd and even shameful condition, and it indicates a rich opportunity for young historians who want to make a splash in their profession. Economics and sociology, however, have done even worse. A complete bibliography of articles by

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4 On the main (Utah) body, that is. Milo M. Quaife's The Kingdom of St. James, a history of the Stranf heresy, is authoritative and complete.
 



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qualified scholars would not fill this page. Yet Mormonism is the only large-scale social experiment in American history that has lasted a hundred years, it deceloped institutions of its own of the utmost complexity and the greatest interest, it defied many of the social and economic trends of the nineteenth century, and it is a perfect field for social inquiry, since it is sharply differentiated and securely fenced in. That it has been so long ignored is a disgrace to sociology. 5

Clearly we cannot answer our question about the survival of Mormonism by appealing to scholarship. The immense literature about Mormonism is even less helpful. 6 Hardly more than a dozen books are worth the time of a serious student, and of these only four or five have much to tell him. W. A. Linn's Story of the Mormons remains the best history of the Church; it is invaluable, bit it was written thirty-five years ago, before the history of the frontier had been investigated, and it is the work of a man who had no historical perspective. M. R. Werner's Brigham Young has a much better grasp on American history, but Mr. Werner did not master the Mormon point of view, was not able to look at the Church from within, and so seriously misconceived his subject at vital points. A more recent book, Revelation in Mormonism, by George B. Arbaugh, is in some ways the most sagacious treatise on the Church ever written. In spite of the fact that Mr. Arbaugh is committed to the untenable thesis that The Book of Mormon is based on Solomon Spaulding's novel, his book will be indispensable to students from now on. But even he studies Mormonism in a vacuum, quite without

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5 On the main (Utah) body, that is. Milo M. Quaife's The Kingdom of St. James, a history of the Stranf heresy, is authoritative and complete.

6 A Mormon exegete claims that more has been written about Joseph Smith than about any other American except Lincoln and Washington. This is certainly not true but it suggests the size of the literature.
 



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relation to the frontier or to the Pentacostal years. The best way to understand Mormonism is still to read its holy books and its periodicals, and the best way to answer our question, to determine why Mormonism has survived, is to read the sermons of Brigham Young,



III

I have said that the answer to that question is complex and even a superficial outline of it invokes vital forces of history. Such an outline would mention: the frontier environment in which Mormonism arose and developed and in which it took refuge at the time of its greatest crisis; a succession of powerfu; leaders, not all of them in the Presidency; a series of historical accidents whose outcome might well have been otherwise than it was, but whose issue has attested God's providence to generations of the Saints; the inclusiveness of the Mormon doctrines, which managed to incorporate most of the beliefs agitated during the Pentacostal years and provided a rebuttal to those it did not incorporate; and the martyrdom of the prophet Joseph.

Of these, three forces are much more important than all the rest, the frontier environment, the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and the relationship of Brigham Young. There is in fact no intelligent way of looking at Mormonism except as a frontier movement. It began as a frontier religion, it developed as a frontier social organization, and the institutions which it has evolved and which are what has survived as Mormonism, could be brought to a vigorous maturity only on the frontier.

I have already suggested how the burnt-over district was ripe for the sickle. It had been evangelized to a turn, it had been sown with the seeds of religious hysteria, marvels and
 



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miracles and supernatural manifestations were its daily bread, it heaved with millennial fervor. Talk of the terrible Day of the Lord, of the Second Coming of Christ -- of literal interpretation of the Scriptures, of revelation to the primitive church, of the renewal of revelation and apostolic gifts -- was as common, as much a matter of course, as talk to-day of the next war or the imposition of the sales tax. And noe came a religion which restored the primitive Church of Christ, stood foursquare on a literal interpretation of the Bible, reopened the channel of revelation, announced the coming of Christ, provided a harbor against the imminent Day of Judgment, and practiced apostolic gifts. More than that, it resolved a speculation which was as old as Protestantism in America, 7 (having been tirelessly debated by the Puritans) and which was a living issue in the New York country of Indian antiquities and recent Indian wars; it identified the Indians as descendants of a migration from Jerusalem, and so ended an ancient mystery and harmonized it with the American heritage and the frontier experience. And even more: it was a magnificent catch-all of the dogmas and doctrines which had agitated the devout ever since the Great Awakening and which had most actively flourished on the frontier. It was at once millennial, restorationist and perfectionist. It combined in one daring blend the frontier's three favorite avenues to salvation: salvaton by the Last Judgment, salvation by return of apostolic Christianity, and salvation by perfect and present identification with the will of God. It had a determination as tough as any in Calvinism; it had an optimism

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7 And which had been vigorously renewed in the last fifteen years before The Book of Mormon, the theological arguments being reinforced by scientific thinking. The most notable item of a large literature is Elias Boudinot's A Star in the West, published in 1816. For other items, see Woodbridge Riley, The Founder of Mormonism. Note, however, that the Book of Mormon does not identify its Nephites and Lamanites as the lost tribes.
 



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used the imposture of the visions and the plates as a basis for one more elaborate still. Other hypotheses, however, suggest themselves. Joseph may have been sincere and self-deceived: his visions may have been the delusions of insanity and The Book of Mormon and the framework he gave the Church may have issued as a whole from a psychosis. Or he may have been partly sincere and partly a charlatan: he may have suffered from delusions and, at the same time, been forced to amplify and organize them in cold blood as a result of the momentum which they created.

I have studied the available evidence and arguments, and only the last of these hypotheses has ever seemed tenable to me. I cannot believe that so elaborate a conspiracy as the first one assumes could be maintained or could succeed. And I cannot endow Joseph or Sidney Rigdon, who is sometimes credited with the villainy, which such heroic powers of imposture. They are inconceiveable as geniuses of imposture, and the success of such an imposture on such a scale is also inconceivable. It would be unique in history, a greater miracle than the descent of Jesus Christ in Fayette. Nor is a finding of complete sincerity as the result of unvarying delusion any more acceptable. There is too much evidence against it and in theory also it is absurd. The line between religious ectasy and religious insanity is sometimes impossible to determine, but it seems impossible that anything which was altogether on the wrong side of it could endure and prosper for the fourteen years of Joseph's life following the establishment of the Church. In fourteen years, if he were not in some degree a religious leader of sound mind, he must certainly have been recognized as a religious madman. We are forced to assume both insanity and lucidity of mind -- in some proportion and rhythm of alternation which can never be precisely determined.
 



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The Solomon Spaulding theory, the one usually adopted by those who accept the hypothesis of complete imposture, is ingenious and persuasive but, I think, untenable. According to this story, Sidney Rigdon, an unfrocked and contentious minister of the Disciples of Christ, who had been an ally, but had become an enemy of the Campbells, stole or otherwise came into possession of a historical novel in manuscript by the Reverend Solomon Spaulding. The novel, called The Manuscript Found, purported to be an account if the emigration to America of certain Israelites and was strikingly like the narrative thread in The Book of Mormon -- so strikingly that when the latter was published many of Spaulding's friends and neighbors recognized the source. Working on this manuscript, alone for the most part though sometimes in collaboration with Joseph Smith, Rigdon incorporated in it his contriversies with the Campbells and all his doctrinal, ecclesiastical, eschatological and economic notions. 8 For reasons which remain unintelligible in any interpretation of them ever made, instead of establishing his own church on the basis of the book thus produced, instead of making himself the prophet and governor of the ideal society which he had conceived, he somehow selected Joseph Smith as the best instrument to achieve his ends. Then, working secretly with Joseph over a period of nearly four years, he prepared the detailed imposture that followed.

This theory asks us to believe that Rigdon's notorious subservience to Smith was not only voluntary -- and he was a man of intense ambition -- but even a fundamental part of

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8 To meet various criticisms, champions of the Spaulding theory have modified it till in the modern version Rigdon is supposed to have borrowed only the proper names and the outline of the story, and to have written The Book of Mormon himself. If Rigdon, why not Smith? Besides, the weightiest evidence for the theory is the assertion of Spaulding's friends that they recognized his style and mannerisms.
 



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the scheme. That is a pretty stiff assumption, but that a conspiracy could have been kept secret which involved not only Smith and his family and a number of his neighbors, but also such unknown go-betweens and assistants as Rigdon's activity must have required, is a much stiffer one. And, even disregarding the assumptions, the evidence is unsatisfactory. The Manuscript Found has never been exhibited, our knowledge of it comes entirely from affidavits made by people years after they were supposed to have heard it read, and the discovery of another and quite different manuscript by Solomon Spaulding (though it does not overturn the hypothesis) is an awkward fact to explain away. Worse still, no description of it in any detail has ever been offered. Modern students have analyzed it at such great length and so minutely that they seem to have had the written page before them as they wrote. But what they have had, and what they have ambitiously analyzed, is only a few general statements about it -- vague to an extreme and made long after it was written. But the most awkward fact is the inability of anyone to prove that Rigdon and Smith met before The Book of Mormon was published. The affidavits which support the theory of their collaboration are too vague, ambiguous and contradictory for history to accept. And the Mormons have no trouble in controverting them with affidavits, quite as plentiful and rather more specific, which proves the opposite. At this distance there is no way of choosing among affidavits.

Moreover, the hypothesis of Rigdon's priority cannot be harmonized with what we know of Smith and fails to explain his dominance, which is established when the Church makes its appearance and grows steadily more marked from then on. Mormon testimony and Gentile accusations agree that from the first he was the personal, despotic leader of the sect. The
 



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fact that, crazed or sane, sincere or hypocritical, he had a dynamic faculty of leadership is proved beyond dispute; it is the one fact that no one has ever challenged and the only one which can explain the early rise of the Church. Other facts must, of course, be taken into account, especially the development of a supporting oligarchy, but that the oligarchy was only a supporting one and completely accepted his dominance is clearly established. His ability to win men and to control them was responsible for the Church. Nothing suggests that this vigorous leadership rested on an oblique and secret control by Rigdon; nothing suggests that Smith was capable of accepting such control. On the contrary, he seems to have used Rigdon for his own purposes from the first, freely at all times, distainfully a good part of the time, and sometimes contemptuously.

The appearance of this essay in The American Mercury marked the first time that Joseph had ever been pronounced a paranoid. The finding has been accepted in the only general treatise on Mormonism published since that time, 9 and in more specialized articles. It has been vigorously disputed by Mr. Arbaugh in the book previously referred to. No one knows better than I the unreliability of retrospective diagnoses or could be more reluctant to explore the past by means of a psychological instrument which requires the response of a living subject in order to be verified. 10 But the nature of the evidence makes any interpretations of Joseph Smith unverifiable, and history must use an unsatisfactory instrument when all others fail., Moreover, the psychological instrument is most satisfactory when, as here, we are dealing with clearly aberrant behavior. The psychoses, which show themselves in

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9 Harry M. Beardsley, Joseph Smith and His Mormon Empire, Boston, 1931.

10 See "The Skeptical Biographer," within
 



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Bernard DeVoto (1897-1955)


Transcriber's Comments
Bernard DeVoto's "The Centennial of Mormonism"


Bernard Augustine DeVoto

This famous historian was born in in 1897 to a family of mixed religious backgrounds (his mother was a Mormon; his father a Roman Catholic), in Ogden, Utah, shortly following the cessation of Mormon polygamy and just after the granting of statehood to that Latter Day Saint colony in the west. Young Bernard seems to have initially been more influenced by his father's religion than his Mother's Mormonism; he studied at the Sisters of the Sacred Heart's Academy in Ogden and later became a pupil at Ogden High School. As a student he became interested in journalism and even saw a few of his articles published in the local newspaper before he moved to Salt Lake City in 1914. There he attended the University of Utah for a year, before transferring to Harvard, where he graduated with high honors in 1920.

Following a brief career of teaching Junior High level History back home in Ogden, Bernard obtained a position as an English instructor at Northwestern University, where he began writing articles and essays for publication in H. L. Mencken's prestigious American Mercury. In the years that followed DeVoto made a name for himself as an historical novelist, writing mostly well-researched stories about the American West. In the process he became something of an authority on ante-bellum United States History and the famous writer Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).

In 1927 he returned to Harvard to teach and edit the Harvard Graduates Magazine. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s he continued to research the life and works of Clemens, turning out several acclaimed volumes on this subject. DeVoto wrote extensively for Harper's Magazine for over twenty years, taking only a brief respite from submitting material to that publication in order to serve as the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature between 1936 and 1938.

According to his admirer, the author Wallace Stegner, when DeVoto died in 1955, "he was one of the most visible and most controversial literary figures in America, and had been for thirty years." The "controvery" Stengner speaks of arose more from the man's iconclastic reactions to many of the mean and movements of early twentieth century America than it did from his historical writings. His novels, histories, and masterful treatment of "Mark Twain" mostly won him the respect of even his harsher critics. DeVoto was fully capable of engaging in meticulous primary source research (when it suited his purposes) and the results of his scholarship shines forth from several of his historical writings. His more natural inclination, however, was to portray romantically (and accurately) the wide sweep of history, and particularly that portion of the American epic centering upon the frontier and pioneer expansion westward prior to the Civil War. Telling the impressive story of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Nauvoo and the Mormons naturally fit right in with this favorite pursuit. In writing about Mormonism and its leaders, DeVoto seems to have intuitively sought out, consulted, and utilized those secondary sources he considered authoritative and reliable -- sadly, however, he credited few histories and biographies of the early Mormons as possessing these laudable attributes and he likely overlooked numerous examples of primary source material in the oversight. In writing about Mormonism, DeVoto's approach is reminiscent of an old master painter, who sketches out the broad outlines, renders the most alluring colors and shading on the canvas, and then depends upon his apprentice understudies to fill in the background details.

A fellow Ogdenite, the young Fawn McKay (soon to be Mrs. Brodie), was all too willing to accept the task of filling in the blank spots in DeVoto's grand design -- the unfinished work of the man Brodie biographer Newell G. Bringhurst calls the "leader of Mormondom's 'lost generation'" of the 1930s and 1940s. However, having accepted his conclusions regarding the impossibility of the Spalding authorship claims at the very beginning of her task, Brodie was predetermined to follow DeVoto down that same path and into the same errors -- writing in the process one of the most widely read Mormon biographies ever published.


DeVoto Abandons the Spalding Authorship Claims

A cursory reading of Bernard DeVoto's "Centennial of Mormonism," as published in his 1936 book, Forays and Rebuttals, might well leave the reader believing his claim, that, to DeVoto, only the view that Joseph Smith suffered from paranoia and delusions "ever seemed tenable" to him -- that the author could never "believe that so elaborate a conspiracy" as the Spalding-Rigdon claims promote could ever "be maintained or could succeed." Hard upon these statements, DeVoto, in the 1936 publication of his essay, as says: "The Solomon Spaulding theory, the one usually adopted by those who accept the hypothesis of complete imposture, is ingenious and persuasive but, I think, untenable." All in all, the intellectual Ogdenite conveys the impression that he has ever been an opponent of the Spalding-Rigdon claims for Book of Mormon authorship. But hear him as he first spoke on thsi subject, in the 1930 version of this same seminal essay:

"The same faculty [Smith's supposed paranoid impulse to incorporate material from many sources into his obsessive writing] explains the Book of Mormon, the translation from the Golden Plates... Somehow, whether by an actual reading of it or through the reports of Sidney Rigdon, he had become acquainted with Solomon Spaulding;s "Manuscript Found," a turgid historical novel built up out of Elias Boudinot's "Star of the West," other speculations of the same kind, and a prose style as lethal as Joseph's own. It circulated widely in manuscript and could easily have come into his hands, as it certainly came into Rigdon's. The prophets mind seized on this... and the polemics that Rigdon carried over from the Disciples of Christ. It was a yeasty fermentation... a new Bible."

In 1930 DeVoto was certain that Sidney Rigdon held Spalding's "Manuscript Found in his hands -- that through Smith's secret contact with him, Rigdon's religious tenets, "carried over from the Disciples of Christ," were woven into the latter day pseudoscripture and into Mormonism itself. Six years later, DeVoto finds this same explanation of things "ingenious and persuasive" but, ultimately, "untenable." What ruminations of the mind gave rise to this remarkable change in Bernard DeVoto's assertions regarding the nature and origin of the Book of Mormon? To begin with, it is clear that in the original appearance of this essay (in the American Mercury of Jan. 1930), DeVoto was already uncertain about the alleged secret link between Smith and Rigdon. He was almost willing to believe that Smith somehow happened upon the "Manuscript Found" independently of any similar covert confiscations carried out by the Rev. Sidney Rigdon. The odds against both men laying hold of the same unpublished Spalding story, independent of one another, and then accidentally meeting and conniving to join their efforts in publishing that story are astronomical. Perhaps, upon reconsideration of this old but indefensible version of the Spalding "theory," DeVoto chose to throw the entire Spalding-Rigdon rationalization out his literary window.

A particular event that occurred between 1930 and 1936 may have helped DeVoto to firm up his reconstruction of Book of Mormon origins. In 1832 Harry M. Beardsley published a book entitled, Joseph Smith and His Mormon Empire. In his book Beardsley largely adopts DeVoto's 1930 thesis, and writes in words similar to DeVoto's own: "The Book of Mormon is a product of an adolescent mind and a mind characterized by the symptoms of the most prevalent of mental diseases of adolescence -- dementia praecox... Woodbridge Riley diagnosed Smith as an epileptic... certainly Joe's visions were accompanied by seizures... [typical of] the milder forms of epilepsy..." After more or less agreeing with DeVoto that Joseph Smith, Jr, suffered from some kind of mental disorder, Beardsley goes on to say, "acquaintanceship between Rigdon and Joe Smith is not necessary... Rigdon's ideas, however, were not unique. They were an outgrowth of the times.

DeVoto, who admits to reading Beardsley, may well have seized upon this latter piece of misinformation and made it his own. If Smith could have independently come up with the same millenarian, radical Campbellism as Rigdon was preaching, there was no reason at all to suppose that such theology and doctrine came into the Book of Mormon via Rigdon himself. As DeVoto says in the 1936 re-write of his essay, "If Rigdon, why not Smith?" Having (in his own mind at least) finally divorced Rigdon from Smith entirely, DeVoto was free to envision as pre-1830 scenario in which Joseph Smith, Jr. wrote a fake Bible, complete with the tenets of a radical offshoot of Campbellism. Having come this far, it was no great step for him to discard the Spalding-Rigdon claims in their entirety. His rationalizations and published justifications for doing just that are not the products of his personal research into historical primary source material, it seems. Rather, DeVoto makes this new discovery in his own mind, as a product of his own deduction and not from the inductive process of compiling all the available relative information and weighing the pros and cons to be found in that compilation. Working from deduction, far off from any view of the original source material of the 1830s, Bernard DeVoto abandons the Spalding-Rigdon claims, because they no longer fit into his new mental view of Joseph Smith and early Mormonism.


Some Problems in DeVoto's 1936 Viewpoint

Bernard DeVoto betrays his change of heart, as reflected in the 1936 re-write of his essay, long before he begins to talk about Book of Mormon origins in particular. On page 83 of Forays and Rebuttals he states: "Revelation in Mormonism, by George B. Arbaugh, is in some ways the most sagacious treatise on the Church ever written. In spite of the fact that Mr. Arbaugh is committed to the untenable thesis that The Book of Mormon is based on Solomon Spaulding's novel, his book will be indispensable to students from now on." In other words, the astute scholar and author, George B. Arbaugh, was correct in his reporting, in most every respect except that he supports the Spalding-Rigdon explanation for Book of Mormon origins. DeVoto gives no reason for making such a serious allegation here, and his subsequent explanations do not absolve him from alleging that Arbaugh's good scholarship is flawed only in regard to his reconstruction of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

On pages 92-95 of Forays and Rebuttals DeVoto gets into the nitty gritty work of telling his readers why the Spalding-Rigdon claims are "untenable." The first point he attempts to make is that the writer of the Book of Mormon was mentally unbalanced; he says: "We are forced to assume both insanity and lucidity of mind -- in some proportion and rhythm of alternation which can never be precisely determined." That is a fair enough statement, so far as it goes. But why need it be applied only to Joseph Smith, Jr.? To turn DeVoto's own interrogatory maxim upon its heels: "If Smith, why not Rigdon?" Onviously there is much more evidence for Rigdon having suffered from a mental imbalance than there is for Smith having done the same. All of Rigdon's biographers state that he had something wrong in his thinking -- the best explanation being that he suffered from a bi-polar personality. But it is also perfectly possible that Rigdon's mental processes were altered by a severe blow to the head as a child. Such an event did occur in his childhood and his own brother says that young Sidney was never quite the same thereafter. A sudden blow to a certain section of the skull is known to induce savantism in some people -- persons who were not previously afflicted by an autistic disorder of the brain. Is it not possible that Sidney Rigdon, the probable redactor of Solomon Spalding's Book of Mormon, suffered from a much more severe and sublime mental disorder than any "paranoia" ever attributed to Joseph Smith, Jr.?

Having brought his youthful paranoid to the forefront, DeVoto next disposes of Rigdon as a possible writer of the Book of Mormon. He says: "According to this story, Sidney Rigdon, an unfrocked and contentious minister of the Disciples of Christ, who had been an ally, but had become an enemy of the Campbells, stole or otherwise came into possession of a historical novel in manuscript by the Reverend Solomon Spaulding." Here it must be understood that Sidney Rigdon was never a "contentious minister of the Disciples of Christ." That religious denomination did not come into being until after Rigdon's mid 1830 departure from the ranks of the "Reformed Baptists" of the Ohio Mahoning Association. As a leading member of the Campbellite "reform movement" or "restoration movement," Rigdon represented the millenarian left wing of that sizable group, while Alexander and Thomas Campbell led the more rationalistic and reactionary right wing of the same "restoration of the ancient order of things." Rigdon had been much more than "an ally... of the Campbells." According to his biographer, William H. Whitsitt, Sidney Rigdon for years worked as a fifth columnist for the Campbells, secretly assisting them in progressively introducing their religious innovations into various Baptist congregations. The Rev. Sidney Rigdon appears to have been much more a creature of Alexander Campbell than his ally. And, as such a "creature," Rigdon eventually came to abhor the relationship, and particularly so because he early on outgrew Alexander's conservative theology. More than being "an enemy of the Campbells," Rigdon evolved into being their rival in the highly successful Campbellite restoration movement. It was well before he publicly exposed this rivalry that he happened upon Spalding's strange and exciting manuscript -- a manuscript story reportedly polished up and concluded right in the Campbells' home county of Washington, Pennsylvania, and in the home of an early friend and follower of those same Campbells, by the way.

DeVoto next has this to say: "For reasons which remain unintelligible... instead of establishing his own church on the basis of the book thus produced, instead of making himself the prophet and governor of the ideal society which he [Sidney Rigdon] had conceived, he somehow selected Joseph Smith as the best instrument to achieve his ends. Then, working secretly with Joseph over a period of nearly four years, he prepared the detailed imposture that followed." In fact, Bernard DeVoto has his chronology hopelessly muddled at this point. All credible reconstructions of Rigdon's involvement have him first obtaining and re-writing Spalding's manuscript, and only later coming across the infamous "seer of Palmyra" and making him the oracle of Rigdon's intended "new revelation." Such a reconstruction of the past explains well both Rigdon's secretive methods and their unhappy product -- a Joseph Smith who becomes President of the Mormon Church rather than just its human link to divine instruction. Had Sidney Rigdon published the Book of Mormon as his own "translation" from golden plates (or any other ancient sources) the Campbells would have unmercifully exposed his patent fraud and his "ideal society" would have never gotten off the ground. Besides that, Rigdon never demonstrated any administrative abilities. He was an inspiration to hundreds, not a leader of thousands. When Sidney Rigdon attempted to establish his own church, with himself as "prophet, seer, revelator, and translator," that sorry excuse for the "restoration" evaporated into nothingness in a few years. Rigdon was wise to promote his scheme in such a way that his own participation in its origin was not readily discernible. He was only too successful. In the end, history has forgotten his role altogether.

Finally, DeVoto gives his strongest reasons for abandoning the Spalding-Rigdon claims. He says: "even disregarding the assumptions, the evidence is unsatisfactory. The Manuscript Found has never been exhibited... But the most awkward fact is the inability of anyone to prove that Rigdon and Smith met before The Book of Mormon was published." It seems that in order to please the author of the 1936 essay, only the physical production of Spalding's "Manuscript Found," here and now, will satisfy. Never mind that if Sidney Rigdon ever got hold of such a document (original or copied), that he would have burned every page prior publishing it. Never mind that the ex-Mormon researcher D. P. Hurlbut reportedly exhibited a draft of this same document in Geauga Co., Ohio, to numerous persons at the end of 1833. And never mind that fact that the Spalding family, for generations, firmly believed that the same D. P. Hurlbut sold that Spalding holograph to Mormon leaders in Kirtland at the beginning of 1834. Perhaps the cumulative evidence hitherto cited would have impressed Bernard DeVoto, had he seen documentary evidence placing Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith together before 1830. There is every reason to believe that the principals in the conspiracy would have taken great pains to cover over any such evidence. And there is further reason to believe that "faithful" Mormon researchers of later years would have kept such documentation secret and in the hands of the LDS leadership, were it ever unexpectedly uncovered. DeVoto might have suspended his decision on this point, pending the collecting and inspection of additional evidence, but he did not. He did not even put out the requisition for such informative on-the-ground research by energetic investigators hopeful of making significant new discoveries. DeVoto was content to simply change his mind, crediting and ignorant and unlettered Smith with writing the book, and then move on to exploring his own fascination with an American religious movement that had lasted for over one hundred years. In the end, Bernard DeVoto was not particularly interested in how Mormonism came into being: he was more interested in why it had survived its murky origins and become a successful American institution.


DeVoto's Legacy

It is no coincidence that, just as she begins to discuss what she calls the "Spaulding theory" in her 1945 book, that authoress Fawn M. Brodie immediately turns to Bernard DeVoto for relevant quotes. But Brodie is not content to walk too many paces in her fellow Ogdenite's footsteps. She splits off from her mentor over the issue of whether the Book of Mormon is merely a product of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s alleged pananoia or "a useful key to Joseph's complex and frequently baffling character." Brodie clearly opts for the latter means of psychological forensics, and to utilize that tool to any effect, Joseph Smith must be the author of the book. This psychobiographic stance by Brodie reaches far beyond the work of all her mentors combined: Riley, Prince, DeVoto, as well as all the old Mormon apologists of her youthful reading days. Brodie intends to use the Book of Mormon as the "useful key" to uncovering the story that no man knows. However, if her basic assumption is wrong, she runs the very evident risk of telling a false story that only one woman knows -- knows in her own fertile imagination that is.

There are doubtless elements of Smithite autobiography in the Book of Mormon. Even the most jaded Spaldingite or Rigdonite would grant the "Prophet of Palmyra" that minimal infusion into the book's story. The important question to be asked here (and Brodie avoids it entirely) is whether those story elements presumably reflective of Smith's life are "the chicken" or "the egg;" or, in other words, did Smith inject his own thoughts and biographical data into the book, or did he pattern significant portions of his story and actions upon intriguing sections of the preexistent Spalding-Rigdon production? It is absurd to think that Solomon Spalding might have written a Book of Mormon passage saying that a young prophet of the House of Joseph would arise in the last days, who was named after his father, Joseph, Sr. It is far less absurd to picture Joseph Smith, Jr., while leading his "Zion's Camp" expeditionary force to Missouri in 1834, reading the story of General Moroni, looking for clues on how to act and appear as an inspired military commander. It is almost as absurd to picture Solomon Spalding writing that the latter day prophet would have a certain kind of Rigdonish "spokesman" to sound forth the divine message. It is far less absurd to picture and aged Lucy Mack Smith culling Lehite visions out of the book and attributing the same stories to her dreamy late husband.

Brodie might have easily cited DeVoto's 1936 essay as a major influence upon her own thinking. For it must have been just that. Instead she references the earlier version of his "Centennial of Mormonism," in order to extract a useful and juicy quotation from the master historian. In tacitly agreeing with DeVoto on several points touching Mormon origins, and disagreeing with him only long enough to state the most important sentences in her entire book, Brodie betrays both her dependence upon the previous writer and her need to supersede his "paranoid" line of thinking. DeVoto, in the 1930s, bewailed the dearth of authoritative books on the Mormons. Brodie, in the 1940s, supplied the very kind of book the elder historian had asked for. Once that book was published, DeVoto no doubt set about writing his review (published in the New York Herald-Tribune of Dec. 16, 1945) with his appetite for masterful Mormon reporting almost satiated. To his way of thinking, No Man Knows My History was "the best book about the Mormons so far published," even if its budding authoress came far too close to worshipping the roguish Smith to suit DeVoto's own tastes. At least the two noted writers of Mormon history could agree on one important point: Joseph Smith, Jr. wrote the first Mormon scriptures and the Spalding-Rigdon claims are pure bunk.

Or are they?






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