When award-winning documentary film writer Jane Barnes was working on the PBS Frontline/American Experience special series The Mormons, she was surprised to find herself passionately drawn to Joseph Smith. The product of an Episcopalian, “WASPy” family, she couldn’t remember ever having met a Mormon before her work on the series—much less having dallied with the idea of converting to a religion shrouded in controversy. But so it was: She was smitten with a man who claimed to have translated the word of God by peering into the dark of his hat. In this brilliantly written book, Barnes describes her experiences working on the PBS series as she moved from secular curiosity to the brink of conversion to Mormonism. It all began when she came across Joseph Smith's early writings. She was delighted to discover how funny and utterly unique he was—and how widely divergent his wild yet profound visions of God were from the Church of Latter-day Saints as we know it today. Her fascination deepened when, much to her surprise, she learned that her eighth cousin Anna Barnes converted to Mormonism in 1833. Through Anna, Barnes follows her family’s close involvement with Smith and the crises caused by his controversial practice of polygamy. Barnes’ unlikely path helps her gain a newfound respect for the innovative American spirit that lies at the heart of Mormonism—and for a religion that is, in many ways, still coming into its own. An intimate portrait of the man behind one of America’s fastest growing religions, Falling in Love with Joseph Smith offers a surprising and provocative window into the Mormon experience.
For years, I've been friends with a handful of people who believe in / practice Mormonism. Whenever we've gotten into talks of their religion, I find myself fascinated with their belief system and the unique culture that develops around this particular line of faith. I think my interest mainly came from a simple place of curiosity, since for so long I knew virtually nothing about the history of Mormonism beyond some dude a long time ago in the woods being sly with some golden tablets... something along those lines. And, of course, who can escape all the polygamy documentaries out there these days. Figuring there was a whole lot more to the story, when I came across this book in a bargain bin one day, I figured what the heck, let's see what we learn.
Quite a bit, as it turns out! Joseph Smith, Sr. (the father of the famous one), according to this book, was something of a drinker and a get-rich-quick-schemer. It seems Junior didn't fall too far from the tree, at least in the early years. He took a similar route to dad, having, by the age of 15, already picked up smoking, drinking and dabbling in the occult. At the age of 17 is when he claims to first start seeing angels in the woods who tell him of the whereabouts of sacred golden plates. These angels tell Joseph Smith (the one this book focuses on) that every September he is to visit the spot where they claim the plates are buried... but he won't FIND the plates until he is deemed worthy. It seems said seraphim gave him the stamp of approval around the age of 21.
From there, Smith brings in friend Martin Harris to transcribe the messages on the plates. Harris' wife grows increasingly upset (jealous?) over her mister's obsession with the project, insisting he show her what he's been working so hard on. And then... a scandal is born! On the day that Emma, Joseph Smith's 1st wife, is giving birth to their first son (who sadly died the same day), Smith gets news that the 116 pages of transcribed text he and Harris had compiled so far ... had gone missing! Suspicion falls on Martin's wife. The friendship between Martin and Joseph takes a hit, Emma helps with some of the continuing transcription work until the new scribe, Oliver Cowdery, is brought in to take over.
I had thrown myself into the Book of Mormon many times, and it had thrown me right back out. First off, there was the problem of its style. Impatient outsiders always complain about it. But the style was a real problem. There were a number of phrases that Smith repeated and repeated, though as Mark Twain observed, " 'It came to pass' was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet." ~~ Jane Barnes
It was funny to read of how Emma Smith sometimes had doubt over her husband's prophet gifts, as she knew him to be pretty much illiterate.
As Emma once said, "He could not pronounce the word Sariah," the name of a central Book of Mormon's patriarch's wife. Joseph was unsure of biblical history, yet wrote in detail of things and places he had never been. He once stopped the middle of translating to ask if Jerusalem had walls around it. When Emma, the better scholar, confirmed that had been the case, he breathed a sigh of relief. He'd already written the walls into the text. Could he have "been deceived"? Not according to his wife, who said, "Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon... It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible."
She also sometimes questioned the actual existence of the plates, since Smith was SUPER secretive over who he allowed to see them. Whoever was doing the transcribing work for him would listen to his words through a curtained area and just write down whatever he said. According to Barnes' research, eleven people signed testimony swearing that they HAD seen the plates for themselves, but oddly, these statement were retracted, then followed by them denying ever making the retracted statements... whaaa? Just weird behavior all around.
The part of all this that made me really feel for Emma Smith was the description of Joseph first bringing up polygamy to her. He stood before her and claimed that an angel had appeared to him multiple times between the years 1834-1842, holding a sword to Joseph, threatening death upon him if Joseph did not take up polygamy. The modern wife in me reading this immediately felt a BS induced eyeroll coming on ... but it was a different time for Emma. Perhaps it was more difficult for her to speak up. But let it be said here, Emma was not a fan. And whatever Joseph did or did not see, he definitely took advantage of the situation -- three marriages by 1841, eleven by 1842, SEVENTEEN by 1843!!
Emma's reluctance... and later, resistance... to the practice caused definite tensions between her and her husband. Emma would notice that Joseph would send men out on missions for the church... okay, business as usual... but then in certain circumstances, he would keep the men away so he could snatch up the wives and marry them to himself! Come sermon time, Joseph would preach to men to discuss the topic of polygamy with their first wives before engaging in any more, but he was never upfront with his own wife about his. The first few of his wives he already had on the books before he ever made mention of it to Emma! He'd just try to explain them off as "long term house guests" until it just got too hard to dismiss what was really going on. Still, in this book we see Emma really trying to stay true and dedicated to her husband through it all, even though her heart must have been breaking.
One scene of defiance that had me cheering though --- Barnes describes a moment where Emma and Joseph are arguing again about her resistance to obey his polygamy wishes. Joseph writes on a piece of paper that a decree has come straight from God that she IS to obey. Emma picks up the piece of paper with a pair of fireplace tongs and swiftly drops the paper into the glowing fireplace. Yes, girl! Maybe that's as close as she ever got to a middle finger response, but at some point EVERY woman has her limits!
By no means did this book strike me as an objective look at the history of Mormonism. Oh no, there is most definitely a bias to the writing, but for someone who doesn't practice this faith myself and had virtually no knowledge of the history going in, at the very least it was an interesting --- and if I'm being 100 here, sometimes laughable -- depiction of the origins of Mormonism. I'm not here to knock anyone's belief system, it's just that some of the stuff Joseph Smith seemed to get away with... I can't help be feel like REAALLY? NO ONE called this guy out, AND he's still considered a prophet?! It's just hard for me to wrap my sense of logic around.
Through researching the history of this book, author Jane Barnes comes to discover her own genetic ties to Anna Barnes, the wife of Joseph Smith's bodyguard as well as Harriet Barney, Brigham Young's 49th wife. 49TH. Y'ALL.