I have written reviews of the first three volumes of Daymon Smith’s planned five volume set titled “A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon.” It is available on Amazon.com for those who are interested. It is not easy to navigate your way through the first volume, but it gets easier in the two which follow. I enjoyed all of them, but some will find the writing style difficult.
Daymon’s work is not without its weaknesses. But this is a valuable ground-breaking attempt to account for early Mormon history as an explanation for how the Book of Mormon has been sadly neglected or, to the extent it has been used at all, misused.
Below are the reviews I have put onto Amazon for each of the first three volumes:
Review of Volume 1(Setting, a Foundation of Stones to Stumble Over):
When someone you love is terribly ill, but unwilling to accept treatment, what is the solution? Is fiction about their condition an adequate substitute for dealing with their illness? Can you lie your way out of such difficulties? What if the necessary treatment will be unpleasant? Even painful? Does your love of her justify causing her pain? And so it is that Daymon Smith ventures into treatment of his beloved faith in Mormonism. I don’t think she’s going to appreciate it (or at least her management won’t).
Here is an effort to search into the origins of the mythical and tradition-ridden retelling of the origins of Mormonism in a substantial and candid way. The resulting exposure of events, measured against the contemporary source material (which made no effort to conceal what happened by adopting later interpretations and reinterpretations), requires a new lens to be accepted.
For some this new lens will be disorienting, even confusing. This retelling makes no allowance for the fictions created to support the traditions which encumber Mormonism. Some will reject this outright because it disagrees with their lifelong understanding of events. But in the end it is fiction, not truth, which really threatens our world.
If we are viewing Mormonism from within (as the author and this reviewer does) or from without, it deserves the respect of as honest an assessment of its origins and meaning as we can give the topic. This book is a delightful search into, and then an honest of a retelling of the events that those living it might have understood and agreed with it. Some of them would be shocked at the face of both modern corporate Mormonism and the stories it tells about Mormon origins. They might not recognize themselves in the corporate accounts, but likely would see themselves in this book.
The influence of Parley Pratt and Sidney Rigdon upon the original trajectory of Mormonism is parsed and shown to be considerable. Much like the foreign occupiers of Egypt anciently who claimed to conquer Egypt, only to find themselves conquered by it (Pharaoh Alexander, for example)so too Mormonism’s triumph in the first Mission to the Lamanites failed to convert any of the targeted audience, instead bringing aboard the Campbellite community at Kirtland, Ohio. This missionary success became an instant burden on Joseph Smith’s original path, bringing into the “church” what would be a body of beliefs which entwined themselves into Mormonism and begin immediately to dominate the faith.
In this book Smith tracks these cultural and religious influences to demonstrate how the hallmarks of the “restoration” through Joseph Smith grew to include much of the zeitgeist of the Scotts, through Thomas and then Alexander Campbell, then Rigdon to Pratt and into Mormonism. The “Old Independents” and John Glas were among those who set in motion a stone rolling downhill, and Smith searches for the many historical antecedents which Mormonism acquired as it first rolled forth.
This history tells the “context” in which the Book of Mormon appeared to emerge into the foreground. That “context” then substituted pretext for text, metatext for reading meaning INTO the Book of Mormon rather than allowing meaning to come FROM the text itself.
I found this book hard to put down. But some readers will have a difficult time with this author. He should be read for substance and not necessarily for style. His anthropological bent and graduate school vocabulary will leave some readers wondering what he’s getting at. As I read it I came away fearing this would not be wideread or well understood except for a very few. Hence the four instead of five stars. I’d encourage everyone intersted in Mormonism to make the try.
At the book’s end Smith quotes from Michel Foucault this line: “How can we reduce the great peril, the great danger with which fiction threatens our world?” Inspired by the question Smith has undertaken a work to value truth above fiction with a result I found delightful and entertaining at the same time.
Volume 2A (Voicing, Being, Power):
The second volume of Daymon Smith’s Cultural History of the Book of Mormon is better than the first. It is more accessible and less technical in writing style, but every bit as important in content. Like the first, I found the book hard to put down.
Daymon Smith’s retelling of Mormonism’s neglect, abuse and misunderstanding of the Book of Mormon is gripping and tragic. From the opening moments of the book’s appearance, it was overwhelmed by an artificial forced interpretation which rendered it merely a secondary support for the Bible. When read for its own content, the Book of Mormon roundly condemns the Bible as a corrupted text which has had important covenants removed by men.
The Book of Mormon voices Jesus Christ’s message. That message is not aligned with Biblical traditions. But the faith which claims The Book of Mormon as its foundational scripture has never actually allowed the text to inform the faith claims.
As Daymon Smith acknowledges, it is not as linear as “Campbell begot Rigdon, who begot Pratt, who begot Mormonism” however all of these operated together to make The Book of Mormon into a Bible meta-text. The effort underway in this series of books tracks the beginning of Mormonism using the archival material generated at the time, and permits the reader to see how the religion that emerged was not well informed by The Book of Mormon itself. Instead The Book of Mormon has been required to fit into another, prior tradition.
The second volume is a bit more reader friendly, but you will need to have read the first beforehand. The story continues here, but you need to be familiar with the material that precedes it to appreciate the evolution of Mormonism. Because it is more readable, I give this volume more stars than the first. But they are equally valuable.
Volume 2B (Follies, Epic and Novel):
This volume in Daymon Smith’s series continues the account of how Mormonism’s descent into a wilderness was physical, cultural and spiritual. Heedless that the possible cause could have been God’s ire with the Latter-day Saints, Mormon leadership blamed their followers for insufficient fidelity to the leaders. It was unthinkable to even consider the leaders were themselves pursuing a course unapproved by God.
The Mormon Reformation only intensified the notion that Mormonism could advance only at the cost of submission to the leaders, because God’s disapproval was evident. The cause could not have been the follies, epic and novel, of the direction leaders had taken the work begun by Joseph Smith.
In this volume the story begun in the earlier volumes continues, with chilling accounts of the depths to which the early Mormon followers fell in search of pleasing their leaders, if not God.
Particularly interesting in this volume is the account of how “keys and power” were claimed to have been continued through a replacement hierarchy, then a replacement “prophet” which descended thereafter to the leaders who followed. The foundation of sand is recast into stone by rhetoric originating in an affidavit from Orson Hyde between September 1844 and March 1845 which none of the other apostles would sign. Daymon Smith reflects on the document as reading “like an obsequious boosting of apostolic ambitions to take collectively the powers of the church, by copying the image of the Prophet onto their countenance.” (P. 50.)
Enjoyable and `tough love’ throughout, this is an unrelenting stare into the eyes of the foundation of the beast which now claims to be the Restoration through Joseph Smith. If you have an appetite for candor and a willingness to go on an adventure in humanity’s insufficient best-efforts, then you will find this a great read. This is Mormonism stripped of varnish and left naked, completely unaided by soft lighting and an unfocused lens. The truth requires something as important as the Restoration through Joseph Smith to be allowed to define itself, not to have pretensions and presumptions act as substitute.
It is the failure of Mormons to allow The Book of Mormon to ever have spoken which drives this series. Daymon Smith is hoping to allow that to at last begin. But first an honest seeker must overcome the opposition now to be found in the institution which has made its fortune by selling a different version.