Patriarch and Pariah: The life, and death by lynch mob, of Joseph Smith

Benjamin Moser in The New York Times:

SmithA religion whose followers believe that the Earth was created somewhere in the neighborhood of the planet Kolob, and that the Garden of Eden was created somewhere in the neighborhood of Kansas City, Mo., would seem to have so fortified itself against mockery that there’s no sport in scorning it. In this respect, Mormonism is an honest reflection of its founder, a man who offers such an easy target that providing even a partial list of his myriad and exotic transgressions feels too easy, like a distasteful piling on. That founder was Joseph Smith, a teenager who grew up in western New York. In the 1820s, Smith began to “translate,” from tablets he kept wrapped in a tablecloth, a series of visions that became the Book of Mormon, a turgid sci-fi novel that nonetheless managed to sway a nucleus of converts. Unfurling a vision of a restored Christianity that placed America at the center of the world, and offering the possibility of a perfected soul both here on Earth and, after death, in a multitude of heavens, Smith also managed to be so provocative that he and his followers found themselves hounded, in a series of increasingly dramatic upheavals, from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois.

Alex Beam’s “American Crucifixion” recounts the peregrination of these pariahs. Before they finally evacuated to the Great Salt Lake Valley, which was then part of Mexico, they thought they had found a safe haven in Nauvoo, Ill., the most elaborate of Smith’s foundations. Thence, from all over the United States, Canada and the British Isles, the Mormons flocked. At one point, the city’s population may have surpassed Chicago’s. But Smith’s gift for outrageousness prevailed, and in June 1844 a mob lynched him and his brother. Smith was 38 years old. It is understandable that Mormons saw the grisly murder of their prophet as a crucifixion. But in Beam’s telling, Smith emerges as a flamboyant frontier L. Ron Hubbard, which is far from being entirely Beam’s fault. This was a man who was not only considered by his followers “president pro tem of the world” but also had himself crowned “King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on the Earth”; who pranced around Nauvoo in a “cerulean officer’s tailcoat,” as Beam puts it, “dripping with weighty gold braid and epaulets, topped off with a black cockade chapeau that was adorned with a black ostrich feather”; and who added 14 chapters to the Book of Genesis.

People hated him.

More here.