For many, myself included, a large part of a faith transition is confronting the many “myths” that have permeated Mormonism. You know what I’m talking about: Brigham Young transfiguring into Joseph Smith at Nauvoo, the gulls and crickets, the purpose of polygamy to care after widows… at some point we had to acknowledge that these stories simply weren’t reflected in the historical record the way we tell them now.
Mormons didn’t invent myths, though – and myths aren’t necessarily “bad.” Joseph Campbell stated that “myths are public dreams.” They are a culture’s values expressed in a story. American children are told that a young George Washington confessed to felling a cherry tree without hesitation. This myth was not invented in some dark room somewhere by a group of conniving men; it’s a story that was first told by a biographer and then spread like wildfire. Surely, many stories of dubious certainty have been told about the father of our nation, but that’s the one that stuck. That’s myth. We told it because it resonated with us. It taught us that George Washington was a man of integrity, which was important to us, and thus was borne one of America’s enduring political myths. Need I remind you of Lincoln’s 3-mile walk to return a few cents?
Modern exmormonism is an emerging culture. It’s a peculiar culture because it wasn’t created in a geographically isolated region or in the halls of an institution, but in anonymous corners of the internet and in niche academic journals and publications. It’s a counter-culture to a religion that the rest of the world sees as too milquetoast to warrant that kind of an underground resistance. Its modern provenance gave it modern ideals: a post-enlightenment approach to truth, a construction of reality built on scientific consensus, and a secular interpretation of history. Thus, exmormon myths are born not from legends about heroes and Gods, but rather from historical sources, secular criticism and tearing down old heroes.
I start with this preface because I know I am likely to receive pushback on some of these items – some of these are stories that are very popular in exmormon spaces and reinforce exmormon values. I am sure to hear from someone that at least one of these items I have not “disproven” to their satisfaction. To these people, I would remind that Brigham Young’s transfiguration has likewise not been disproven; it’s simply the case that historical criticism renders it unlikely and unsupported by the sources. So it goes with the following items.
Without further ado, I present to you the top 6 exmormon myths!
6. Joseph Smith’s lack of progeny with his plural wives is explained by his association with an abortionist.
First, let’s establish what is true: Joseph Smith was close to an abortionist in Nauvoo. The abortionist in question is John C. Bennett. Bennett joined the church in September of 1840, and quickly curried favor with Joseph. He was instrumental in obtaining the original Nauvoo city charter, and eventually became both the first Mayor of Nauvoo and an assistant President to the Church, making him one of Joseph’s closest and most trusted confidantes.
It is also true that he was a physician, and possessed the tools and expertise necessary to perform abortions. So why do I think it’s such a stretch to assume that he did so for Joseph?
The main problem is that Bennett became estranged from Joseph Smith by May of 1842. Afterwards, he published an exposé of Mormonism and publicly accused Joseph of attempting to assassinate him. Thus, we have a specific timeframe in which Bennett could plausibly have provided this service to Joseph: from September 1840 to May 1842. The issue comes when we examine Joseph Smith’s plural marriages during this time. Using Todd Compton’s list of Joseph’s plural wives, these are the marriages Joseph entered into during this window:
- Louisa Beaman
- Zina Huntington Jacobs
- Presendia Lathrop
- Agnes Moulton Coolbrith
- Sylvia Sessions Lyon
- Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner
- Patty Bartlett Sessions
- Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde
- Elizabeth Davis
The problem with this list? Only two of these women were single. The rest were already married to another man.
Early in his practice of plural marriage, Joseph heavily favored married women. Faithful explanations usually explain this tawdry detail by imparting some kind of confusion on the prophet; the more likely and more obvious explanation is that a married woman getting pregnant would not demand intervention. If that’s the case, we are left with only two women on whom Bennett could plausibly have performed an abortion. Considering how many women Joseph married and bedded after Bennett’s departure, it’s a poor solution for Joseph’s lack of documented progeny.
The allegation that Joseph employed Bennett’s services comes from a late statement by Sarah Pratt, ex-wife of Orson Pratt:
You hear often that Joseph had no polygamous offspring. The reason of this is very simple. Abortion was practiced on a large scale in Nauvoo. Dr. John C. Bennett, the evil genius of Joseph, brought this abomination into a scientific system. He showed to my husband and me the instruments with which he used to “operate for Joseph.” There was a house in Nauvoo, “right across the flat,” about a mile and a-half from the town, a kind of hospital. They sent the women there, when they showed signs of celestial consequences. Abortion was practiced regularly in this house.Sarah Pratt quoted in Wyl, Wilhem. Mormon Portraits, or the Truth about Mormon Leaders from 1830 to 1886, Joseph Smith the Prophet, His Family and His Friends: A Study Based on Fact and Documents.
For some context, back in the Nauvoo days, Sarah was at the center of a scandal involving both Joseph Smith and John Bennett. Sarah accused Joseph of attempting to seduce her into a plural marriage during her husband’s absence. Joseph responded with an accusation that she was engaged in an adulterous affair with Bennett. Orson Pratt initially believed his wife over Joseph, which angered Joseph enough to excommunicate them. However, they were readmitted to the church a few months later and somehow made peace with Joseph, although Joseph unsuccessfully urged Orson to divorce Sarah. Orson would eventually become a polygamist himself, which led to the failure of his marriage with Sarah. Sarah went on to become an outspoken critic of Mormonism and polygamy in particular. It was during these later years as a vocal and frequent critic of polygamy that she dropped this bombshell.
To be absolutely clear, Sarah is not the unhinged lunatic that apologists try to paint her as. However, like most people, both Mormon and otherwise, she was not immune to exaggeration. Her rationale for Joseph’s lack of offspring makes very little sense, and it is unlikely Joseph had the opportunity to visit Bennett for this purpose “regularly.” It is much better documented that Bennett promised abortions to the women he was attempting to seduce into “spiritual wifery.” It seems likely Sarah’s claim is built off of that earlier rumor.
Is it possible that Joseph brought a plural wife to Bennett for the purposes of abortion? Sure, it’s possible, and it’s possible that Brigham Young transfigured into Joseph Smith’s countenance without anyone noting it at the time. But there is insufficient historical evidence to conclude with any confidence that either of those things happened, and the historical evidence may even argue against it.
The myth is popular among exmormons. Why? What value does it reveal? Well, it’s no secret that exmormons think Joseph is a scoundrel and love to turn faithful narratives upside down (and let’s be honest, there’s plenty of that already in the historical record). What could be better than Joseph engaging in not just adultery, but one of the most reviled birth control methods among modern Mormons?
5. Emma caught Joseph with Fanny Alger in flagrante in a barn
This is probably one of the most persistent exmormon myths, and I anticipate some readers will not be happy this is on the list. I addressed this a bit in my Letter from a Doubter, but it’s worth going over again.
Many of the facts of this event are not in dispute: Emma discovered the relationship between Joseph and Fanny, a huge fight broke out, Oliver Cowdery was called in to intervene, and it ended with Fanny being banished from the house. This is all well-documented. What is a little more cryptic is what exactly how Emma discovered the relationship.
The idea that she saw Joseph and Fanny getting busy in the barn through a crack in the wall comes from an 1872 letter from William McLellin to Joseph Smith III. The context is that Joseph Smith III, at the time president of the RLDS church, is trying to exonerate his father of the charge of polygamy. McLellin was one of the original twelve apostles, but like many others, he became disillusioned after the Kirtland Banking Crisis. At this time, he was involved with the Hedrickites. The quote from the letter:
Now Joseph I will relate to you some history, and refer you to your own dear Mother for the truth. You will probably remember that I visited your Mother and family in 1847, and held a lengthy conversation with her, retired in the Mansion House in Nauvoo. I did not ask her to tell, but I told her some stories I had heard. And she told me whether I was properly informed. Dr. F. G. Williams practiced with me in Clay Co. Mo. during the latter part of 1838. And he told me that at your birth your father committed an act with a Miss Hill [sic]—a hired girl. Emma saw him, and spoke to him. He desisted, but Mrs. Smith refused to be satisfied. He called in Dr. Williams, O. Cowdery, and S. Rigdon to reconcile Emma. But she told them just as the circumstances took place. He found he was caught. He confessed humbly, and begged forgiveness. Emma and all forgave him. She told me this story was true!! Again I told her I heard that one night she missed Joseph and Fanny Alger. She went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!!! She told me this story too was verily true.William McLellin, Letter to Joseph Smith III, July 1872
He repeated this claim in a 1875 newspaper as well. So, what’s the problem?
The first problem is that he claims Emma confirmed this story to him in 1847. By this time, Emma was vehemently denying Joseph’s involvement in polygamy to everyone, including her own children. It’s difficult to imagine her betraying her own story for McLellin. Some apologists describe their relationship as very adversarial, based mostly on a journal entry from John Lowe Butler, claiming his wife heard from Emma that McLellin robbed them. Since the story lacks corroboration and is a hearsay account it’s difficult to know how much stock to put into it, so I take that with a grain of salt. But regardless, we have much a better first-hand account of the conflict that provides us with an alternate explanation.
When Fanny Alger was thrown out of the Smith house, she took up residence with the Webbs. Chauncey Webb provided his own account of how that went down:
[Joseph Smith] was sealed there secretly to Fanny Alger. Emma was furious, and drove the girl, who was unable to conceal the consequences of her celestial relation with the prophet, out of her house.Chauncey Webb to Wyl, Wilhelm. Mormon portraits: or the Truth About the Mormon Leaders, 1830-1866, Joseph Smith the Prophet, His Family and His Friends: A Study Based on Fact and Documents.
Chauncey is the best source we have of this event, and he suggests a pregnancy was the catalyst that tipped off Emma. There is no documentation on what happened to the child, though it probably miscarried or died young. As a side note, there is a rumor floating around the internet of a child named “Orrison Smith.” That is also a myth, as is the church’s claim that it’s been “proven” Joseph was not the father, but that’s a more niche myth that I won’t address today.
4. Joseph learned the names “Moroni” and “Cumorah” from reading Captain Kidd dime novels
This one was actually really frustrating for me. Alas, I think what we have here is a simple coincidence. It’s a better coincidence than “Nahom” at least, but still probably just a coincidence.
When I was a kid, I used to stare at maps and globes. I was particularly interested in the islands off the east coast of Africa. Madagascar captured my interest because of the lemurs that inhabited its jungles. Mauritius captured my interest being the home of the now extinct dodo bird (I was very interested in extinct animals). As I gazed over those maps, something else caught this young Mormon boy’s eyes: an island named Comoros, whose capital is a city named Moroni. Was this some Mormon oasis in the Indian Ocean, I wondered?
Evidently I’m not alone in my discovery, since many exmormons have circulated the idea that Joseph Smith could have lifted these names from a similar map. However, this has proven difficult to establish, since Moroni was a pretty obscure location in 1830. Comoros is actually an island group, and Moroni was not very important at the time, being considered an inferior port. In fact, the author of this Dialogue article tried to find a contemporary map that included it and failed, noting, “No extant pre-1830 chart or map shows Moroni as a place name on the larger island.”
So where does Captain Kidd come in? Searching for a connection to Joseph Smith, some have speculated that Joseph’s background in treasure digging would have given him access to lore about the famous pirate. It is true that the islands in question were pirate haunts during the golden age of piracy, and it is true that Kidd was a popular figure in treasure digging lore. The connection between Joseph, Kidd and dime novels comes from this statement by Pomeroy Tucker in an 1867 book:
Joseph, moreover, as he grew in years, had learned to read comprehensively, in which qualification he was far in advance of his elder brother, and even of his father; and this talent was assiduously devoted, as he quitted or modified his idle habits, to the perusal of works of fiction and records of criminality, such for instance as would be classed with the “dime novels” of the present day. The stories of Stephen Burroughs and Captain Kidd, and the like, presented the highest charms for his expanding mental perceptions.Tucker, Pomeroy. Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism
What an exciting find! A direct connection to Captain Kidd novels! But there’s a couple of problems. First, dime novels were invented in 1860, just 7 years before Tucker’s statement, but nearly 20 years after Joseph’s death. Joseph could not have read dime novels as a kid because there was no such thing. Also, a close reading reveals that Tucker was not accusing Joseph of reading dime novels, but rather of having an interest in works of fiction similar to dime novels. It’s worth noting that Tucker has a plausible connection to Joseph Smith. He grew up in Palmyra at about the same time, and was an apprentice for E.B. Grandin, the original publisher of the Book of Mormon.
OK, so maybe he didn’t own any dime novels, but it’s possible that Joseph read a book about Kidd, right? I have personally scoured library catalogues for any pre-1830 mention of Kidd, and there’s really not a lot of material out there. I read everything I could get my hands on (including a really stupid script for a stage play), but the main source of biographical information about Captain Kidd that Joseph could plausibly have read is The History of Pirates, Containing the Lives of Those Noted Pirate Captains, Misson, Bowen, Kidd, Tew, Halsey, White, Condent, Bellamy… and their Several Crews, the sequel to the famous A General History of the Pyrates which is the inspiration for most of pirate fiction and lore. The chapter on Kidd does mention that Kidd touched “sometimes at the island of Mohila, and sometimes at that of Johanna.” Mohila and Johanna are references to two of the three islands in the Comoros Islands. Unfortunately, neither the word “Comoros” or “Moroni” appears anywhere in the text.
So, Joseph probably didn’t see it on a map, and probably didn’t get it from a book. He definitely didn’t get it from a dime novel.
Of course it’s always possible Joseph heard about it from a story, or saw a map or read a book we don’t know about. But the evidence simply isn’t there. As intriguing as the match is, we have to chalk it up to coincidence for now.
3. The signatures on the testimony of the three and eight witnesses were forged by Oliver Cowdery
I see this one brought up on exmormon reddit threads from time to time. As people puzzle over the apparent sincerity of the three witnesses, inevitably someone shares this nugget: all the signatures are in Cowdery’s handwriting! The rest never even signed the document! They link us to this document and everyone reacts in shock and horror. Did the church pull another one over on us?
Not this time, no. The document in question is a printer’s manuscript; meaning, it’s a copy that was prepared for the publisher of the Book of Mormon to read. The whole point was to write everything legibly. If there ever was an original document with the witness’s testimony, it was likely destroyed along with most of the rest of the original manuscript when it was placed in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo temple. Very sad.
Even if it were true that they never personally signed it, what would this mean exactly anyway? Whether they signed with their own hand or not, they had a lifetime to correct the error if the document didn’t represent what they felt. Although modern readers are often wary of the visionary language used by the witnesses in other statements, as best we can tell, they stood by the statement in the Book of Mormon. I explored the witnesses more in the previously-linked series of blog posts.
Now, because I know I’m going to get comments on this, it is true there is evidence that there may have been hesitation from some of the eight witnesses to sign; but as far as the signatures themselves, there is nothing surprising about the Printer’s manuscript being in Oliver’s handwriting. No forgery, folks!
2. The priesthood and temple ban against black people was reversed because the church was being threatened with a loss of their tax-exempt status.
I’m stealing some material from this /r/askhistorians thread on this one. It’s a very well-moderated forum that adheres to strict academic answers to historical questions. OK, I used wikipedia too, sue me…
By the 1970’s, the church’s policy of racial discrimination was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain for several reasons that are well-documented. Several protests put stress on the church. Some black NCAA athletes refused to compete against BYU teams, for example.
But while the protests died down a bit by the late 70’s, another issue was emerging in Brazil. As meticulously documented in this fantastic dialogue article, the nebulous and US-centric racial categories that defined the church’s discriminatory policies did not translate well to Brazil. While the term “black” probably seemed unambiguous to a bunch of white guys in Utah, and the identification of African Americans was usually rather simple in the USA, Brazil has a more complicated racial history that made these categories meaningless and confusing. Brazil’s population is a mix of Indigenous, African, European and Asian ancestry, where miscegenation had been common, acceptable and ongoing since the 16th century. This made determining “blackness” per USA standards difficult to impossible. Furthermore, since racial categories in Brazil were so different than in America, the church’s policies seemed frustrating and arbitrary to local members.
This all came to a head with the 1975 announcement of a temple to be built in Sao Paulo. There were obvious logistical concerns: how do you staff a temple with locals when many of your most capable members aren’t allowed to go into it? And though this may come as a surprise to our most cynical exmormons, President Kimball appears to have been moved by the plight of the Brazilians; many members who had donated their money and time to the construction of a temple would not be allowed to enter. The difficulty in determining eligibility would come into much sharper focus in a temple-going population.
Some of these difficulties presented in other countries with large black populations as well. How can you build the church in an area such as the Caribbean, where virtually none of the locals are allowed to run the church?
Academic scholarship also observably contributed. It’s been noted that Spencer W. Kimball had personally underlined portions of his copy of this dialogue article which showed the historical origins of the priesthood ban did not originate with Joseph Smith. It will probably come as an unwelcome surprise to some members that a Dialogue article might have inspired the most recent addition to the D&C!
It is unlikely that any one thing was responsible for the racial change. For all these reasons, the policy was quickly becoming burdensome and impossible to maintain or defend. The one factor that does not appear anywhere in the documentary record is any concrete threat to the church’s tax exempt status. The idea is purely speculation based on the IRS battle with Bob Jones University, which culminated in a decision that the University’s tax-exempt status could be revoked for banning black applicants and interracial marriage. While it’s entirely possible that church leaders were aware of it and influenced by it, it’s also entirely conjecture at this point. There’s no documentary evidence of such a threat. It’s also not clear that the Bob Jones scenario – a blanket ban on black applicants, and then a ban on interracial dating/marriage in the student body – was closely analogous to the case of the LDS Church’s ban on religious rites. The rumor has spread well, however, and it’s become a bit of “conventional wisdom” in exmormon spaces that is difficult to quash.
1. Joseph Smith was tarred and feathered in retaliation for seducing Marinda Johnson
This one is tricky. Here are the facts:
- Joseph and Emma were living with the Johnsons in Hiram, Ohio for seven months, when on March 24, 1832, a mob of 40-50 men broke into the house and drug Joseph out of his bed. They also drug Sidney Rigdon out of his home. They were beaten, tarred and feathered. Marinda would have been 16 at the time.
- According to Luke Johnson, Marinda’s brother, the mob stretched Smith onto a board and a doctor among them was ready to emasculate him, but didn’t go through with it.
- Marinda marries Orson Hyde in 1834.
- Joseph calls Orson on a lengthy mission to Jerusalem in 1840.
- In 1841, Joseph receives a “revelation” that Marinda ought to “hearken to the counsel of my servant Joseph in all things whatsoever he shall teach unto her…”
- In 1842, Joseph secretly marries Marinda while Orson is on the other side of the world.
- In 1868, Simonds Ryder – no fan of Joseph, and allegedly a participant in the mob – wrote the reason for the mob attack himself:
In the winter of 1831 Joseph Smith, with others, had an appointment in the south school-house, in Hiram. Such was the apparent piety, sincerity and humility of the speakers, that many of the hearers were greatly affected, and thought it impossible that such preachers should lie in wait to deceive.
During the next spring and summer several converts were made, and their success seemed to indicate an immediate triumph in Hiram. But when they went to Missouri to lay the foundation of the splendid city of Zion, and also of the temple, they left their papers behind. This gave their new converts an opportunity to become acquainted with the internal arrangement of their church, which revealed to them the horrid fact that a plot was laid to take their property from them and place it under the control of Joseph Smith the prophet. This was too much for the Hiramites, and they left the Mormonites faster than they had ever joined them, and by fall the Mormon church in Hiram was a very lean concern.
But some who had been the dupes of this deception, determined not to let it pass with impunity; and, accordingly, a company was formed of citizens from Shalersville, Garrettsville, and Hiram, in March, 1832, and proceeded to headquarters in the darkness of night, and took Smith and Rigdon from their beds, and tarred and feathered them both, and let them go. This had the desired effect, which was to get rid of them. They soon left for Kirtland.Simonds Ryder, Letter to A. S. Hayden. 1 Feb. 1868
- In 1888, S.F. Whitney (brother of Newell Whitney) described the motivations similarly:
He stated that one of the party who tarred and feathered Sydney Rigdon and Jo Smith at John Johnson’s, in Hiram, O., informed him that Rigdon said to their assailants he presumed they were gentlemen, but Jo Smith fought until overpowered. A doctor present offered to castrate Jo and said he would warrant him to live. It was not done. Several of Johnson’s sons were of the party. They were angry because their father was urged by Jo and Rigdon to let them have his property. He finally did give them some of it, and moved to Kirtland and kept tavern, and his son Luke became one of the first Mormon Twelve Apostles. He left them and said it was the fault of the Mormons that they were driven from Missouri.Statement of Rev. S.F. Whitney on Mormonism
- In 1884, Clark Braden makes the first and only allegation that the mob was defending Marinda’s honor, during a heated public debate:
In March, 1832, Smith was stopping at Mr. Johnson’s in Hiram, Ohio, and was mobbed. The mob was led by Eli Johson, who blamed Smith with being too intimate with his sister Marinda, who afterwards married Orson Hyde.Clark Braden, Public Discussions of the Issues between the Reorganized Church… and the Church of Christ, Disciples.
It’s tempting to look at the castration and the eventual marriage to Marinda and conclude that Clark’s account is true. Besides the fact that he’s the only person alleging it, though, you have to take into account he’s a late, second-hand source, and that Marinda didn’t even have a brother named Eli. The castration attempts were always described in the context of scaring Joseph and Sidney away from Hiram, because they thought they were trying to steal property. This makes more sense as well since Sidney was dragged from a different house in order to tar and feather him too. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to do that if the purpose of the mob was to punish Joseph Smith for having an affair with Marinda.
That’s not to say we know for sure it didn’t happen. After all, Joseph seducing 16 year olds he was living with isn’t exactly… unheard of. But it’s striking that none of the people involved in the actual attack cited this as a reason. You would think that they would lead with that were it an actual concern.
Once again, the sources don’t support that version of events. The best explanation is that Joseph and Sidney were tarred and feathered because they were suspected of using Sidney’s ideas about communal living (think the United Order) to steal property.
So there you have it. The top 6 exmormon myths! It’s interesting how often Joseph Smith feature in these myths. I look forward to the debate that is sure to follow.