An account of the Illinois Mormon settlement Nauvoo and the events that precipitated the church’s flight to Utah.
When Boston Globe and International Herald Tribune columnist Beam (A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, 2008, etc.) introduces Joseph Smith (1805–1844), founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smith is on the run again. The author examines the reasons for his desperate Mississippi River crossing and what led to previous, similar episodes. The founder of a brand of Christianity that still fascinates and polarizes the world today, Smith was no less divisive a figure in his own time. The author notes that the very idea of a new religion was disturbing enough to Smith’s contemporaries, but he also focuses on the doctrine of polygamy as the truly alienating issue that led to the downfall of the Mormons’ Illinois “Zion” and Smith’s own death. The rift in the church following Smith’s revelations about taking more than one wife legitimized the long-standing hostility of their neighbors. Beam is the consummate journalist, precise about his research and offering judgment only where there is ample proof of wrongdoing. He treats Smith with journalistic objectivity but doesn’t hesitate to point out that “Joseph received so many revelations that they inevitably conflicted.” With so much history to tackle, from the roots of Mormonism to the economic, political and moral climates in which hatred of the new religion developed, it is impressive that Beam maintains narrative tension and excitement while injecting personality. The author’s use of antiquated language—even outside historical documents—adds color to his writing but may also be a source of confusion for some readers—e.g., when he calls the governor of Illinois Thomas Ford “Pecksniffian.”
A fascinating history that, while particularly appealing to those interested in religion, is sure to inform a far wider audience.